The Inside and Out Book Tag

I saw the inside and out book tag this morning on Karen Langley’s blog (who got it in turn from another blog and so on) and thought it was great fun. It’s always interesting to read about other people’s bookish habits, so I thought I’d share mine as well. Although my blog focuses only on 19th century Russian literature, my reading and book collecting is certainly not restricted to that area. I’m a real bibliophile with a soft spot for pretty vintage and beautiful new editions. Let’s get started!

1. Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?

Ideally they should provide a bit of tantalising information about the book and the writer, so that when browsing in a bookstore (always a pleasure), you’ll know if it’s something for you and be tempted to buy and read it. 

Some publishers, however, think that it helps to put as many positive reviews of the book as they can find on the cover, back and flap. The fact that the literary critic from The Guardian liked it does not guarantee that I will too. And who even cares that the local weekly newspaper of Tollerton thought it to be ‘atmospheric and mesmerising’? I’d much sooner take the advice of bloggers and twitterers that I know to have a similar taste in books.

2. New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?

I much prefer paper books and have a preference for hardcover, especially if it is a book that I know I will keep forever and so is worthy of the investment. 

For the purpose of my blog I do have eBook versions of books like War and Peace, because it’s much easier to search for certain passages or characters. I also listen to audiobooks sometimes when I’m out walking or doing chores. They make a nice alternative to podcasts and if the narrator is good, they can be great fun to listen to.

3. Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?

Not in fiction, I use post-its or an eBook. But in the non-fiction books that I use for my blog research I’ll happily scribble away with my pencil. On the other hand I do not fold pages, nor the whole book, and I avoid putting it down upside down to keep it open on the page where I was. I also remove the paper covers from hardcopies before reading, so that they stay nice (although part 6 of Tolstoy’s collected works has travelled a lot with me, paper cover and all, but I suppose an obviously well read book also has its’ charms 😉)

4. Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?

Not at all. All I want is a good, interesting and entertaining story, and men are as good or bad as women at providing that.  

5. Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?

Only when I was little!

6. Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?

Very organised. My shelves are categorised by country and genre, and placed in alphabetical order (by author, of course!). I do, however, put biographies next to the author. So Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy is next to Tolstoy’s fiction. But general books about Russia(n literature) have their own shelf space. 

We are in need of a few extra meters of shelf space though, there are piles of books everywhere in our house, both of the read and to-be-read variety. That said, I have no problems with selling or donating books that I know I will not read again.

7. Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?

Plenty of times! This cannot be avoided, I love books and if I find a pretty copy of a book that I already own, I’m often tempted enough to buy it. It runs in the family…

8. Take it outside to read, or stay in?

I can read anywhere. I love to relax by the lake or the sea with a book. Airplanes are never boarded without a book. But I mostly read in bed while my man is snoring next to me with his sleeping mask on because the light is still on 😄😴

That’s it! Of course I’d love to hear more about your bookish habits too. Take care and happy reading 📚

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

 

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 1

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In which Eugene is bored with his life in the city and escapes to the country

Chapter 1 is all about Eugene Onegin and Pushkin himself. It starts rather vaguely in medias res: we are introduced to our hero as he is rushing towards his dying uncle*. Clearly he is not looking forward to the prospect of having to look after a sick man, but Pushkin keeps us in suspense for the next 50 of the in total 60 stanzas in this chapter, and tells us about the particularities of his life so far instead.

A Typical Day

Apparently he’s a good friend of Pushkin’s. He has had the usual upbringing and education and when he entered society he was an instant success with the ladies. In stanza’s 15 to 36 we can see what a typical winter day in the life of Eugene Onegin in 1819 looked like:  He wakes up in the afternoon, goes walking on the Nevsky Prospekt, has dinner in a fancy restaurant, goes to the ballet, goes back home to change and freshen up and goes to a ball. When he finally returns home again, the city is already waking up.

Boredom

Onegin is living a life of luxury. Everything is of the highest quality: his clothes, his perfume, the food he eats, the wine he drinks**, the ballet he visits. Nonetheless you get the impression that he is terribly bored with this life. The whole chapter reeks of boredom. Everything is repeating itself endlessly. Tomorrow will be the same as today. Eugene attempts to alleviate the boredom. He wants to go traveling with Pushkin, but just then his father dies unexpectedly, leaving behind mostly debts (51). He gives up the inheritance, and almost simultaneously receives a message that his uncle is dying and expecting his sole heir to look after him. And so he is on his way to his uncle’s estate where no doubt even more boredom awaits him.

Landowner   

Eugene arrives in the country and to his relief finds his uncle already dead. He is just in time for the funeral (53). Now he can start a new life as a landowner. “For two full days he was enchanted”, but alas, on the third day he is already bored again… There seems to be no cure for his boredom.

Digressions

Pushkin (or rather the fictional Pushkin) likes to digress***. In between telling us about Onegin, he also tells us about his own life and frequently reminisces about Saint Petersburg, although he admits that he “found it noxious in the north” (2) a reference to his banishment from the capital. Pushkin (the real one) keeps the lines between fiction and reality deliberately vague. The novel is full of people who really existed and real life facts.

The Omitted Stanzas

Perhaps you noticed that Pushkin left out several stanzas (9, 13, 14). It is not entirely clear why he did that. Of some drafts were found, and of others nothing. Because Pushkin did number the omitted stanzas, they remain a part of the novel, and he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks.

Onegin’s Character 

Stanza 45 plays a key part in chapter 1 according to Nabokov: it summarises Onegin’s character and gives the reader a glimpse of what he may expect from Onegin in the future. And things promise to get interesting, because he is described as being dreamy, strange, clever and depressed. Nabokov also remarks that certain words are only used in the novel to refer to Onegin’s character: ‘sullen’, ‘gloomy’, ‘somber’, ‘clouded’ en ‘bemisted’. Apparently this was considered attractive in a man 200 years ago…

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*a reference to the at that time popular epistolary novel ‘Clarissa’ (1748) by Richardson, in which the villain Lovelace has to care for his rich and dying uncle. 

**1:16:8 The comet wine; the year of the great comet 1811 was a particularly good year for wine production. Wine from 1811 had a comet stamped on the cork. This is the same comet that Pierre observes when he is driving home in War and Peace. 

***1:30:10 And yet, how long it took me to forget two special feet… there has been much speculation about who’s feet these were. Most likely they were Maria Nikolayevna Volkonskaya’s (see photo below).

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So what did you think of the first chapter? What was you favourite line?

The next chapter post will go online in two weeks on the 15th of March.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/the-eugene-onegin-challenge/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/the-eugene-onegin-challenge-an-introduction-to-the-novel/

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Special thanks to Markus@POINT BLANK for gifting me the beautiful Russian edition that you see in the photo above!

The Eugene Onegin Challenge

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I’m challenging you! Not to a duel, no, although it does involve one… I’m challenging you to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with me. Whether you’re a curious first time reader, a longtime lover, or something in between; anyone who is interested is welcome to join.

Now I know that you all have TBR’s that reach the ceiling, not to mention to-do lists as long as the neck of a giraffe, but don’t worry; we’ll do this at a very doable pace. Pushkin deserves more than to be read at a record speed anyway. 

Why?

Eugene Onegin is a ‘novel in verse’, something between a poem and a novel. That, among other things, makes it notoriously difficult to translate. If you translate a poem literally, it probably won’t rhyme. If you make it rhyme, you’ll probably have to adjust the text. I had very high expectations when I first read Eugene Onegin. But although I enjoyed it, I felt that I didn’t quite get it. Looking back that probably had a lot to do with the translation that didn’t do the work justice. Luckily I did not give up on Eugene Onegin. I made attempts at reading it in Russian and tried other translations. And with each read I loved it more.

The plan

The plan is to make ten more posts about Eugene Onegin. In the next one I’ll explain the rhyming scheme, introduce the characters and talk about how and when Pushkin wrote his masterpiece. The following eight posts will be dedicated to the eight chapters of the novel. After each of the eight chapter posts I would love to read your thoughts, insights, questions and feelings in the comment section. In the final blog post I’ll summarise the journey that we took together, exploring this wonderful novel. 

Taking it one chapter at the time allows us to pay attention to details such as the structure, references and characterization that make Eugene Onegin the masterpiece that it is. Your comments will be a valuable addition to the posts.

The details 

I’ll mainly use the James E. Falen translation. I think that it captures the cheerful and witty spirit of Pushkin really well. There is an audiobook version of this translation read by the marvellous Stephen Fry, which can be found on YouTube. I recommend that you use a translation that has plenty of notes. Sunday next week I’ll publish the introduction to Eugene Onegin, and Sunday in two weeks the first chapter post. After that I aim to publish a chapter post every two weeks. At the end of the series you’ll be able to not just say that you’ve read Eugene Onegin (again), but hopefully also that you love it (even more)!

Finally I’d like to emphasise that everyone is welcome to join at any time, and read at his or her own pace. The journey is more important than the destination, so enjoy it!

*****

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Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin, translated by James E. Falen, ISBN 978-0199538645

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

The Portrait (and the devil) by Gogol

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Fame can give no pleasure to him who has stolen it, not won it.

The Portrait (1835) is said to be the least Gogolian of all of Gogol’s works. It follows a more traditional pattern. It’s almost a classic ghost story, in the tradition of Hoffman and Poe. It’s also more autobiographical than you would think.

A mysterious portrait

It’s the story of a young artist, Chartkov, who buys a mysterious portrait in a shop in Saint Petersburg. Curiously, the eyes of the portrait seem to be alive, they have an evil stare. That same night the portrait comes to life and the stranger steps out of the frame. He starts counting money on the terrified Chartkov’s bed. Lots of money. The next day the frame breaks accidentally and it turns out that there was a large amount of golden coins hidden in the frame.

Money and fame

In my previous post I wrote that Gogol’s characters are not subject to personal development. In this story they are. When we first meet Chartkov he is a penniless artist who only cares about his art en developing his artistic skills. But as soon as Chartkov has money, everything changes: before he dressed like someone so preoccupied with his work that he pays no attention to his dress and now he dresses in fine clothes. He rents the first fancy apartment on the Nevski Prospect that he sees, and his shabby assistent Nikita is never heard of again. He buys newspaper reviews to get clients. And he turns into an artist who only paints what his clients want him to paint so that he can make easy money.

Possessed by the devil

This change, Gogol suggests, is the effect of the mysterious portrait, that seems to be inhabited by the devil himself. Gogol was very religious, for him the devil was as real as his neighbour. The devil plays a (main) part in the majority of his work. In his work he tried to make the devil less important by making fun of him. Not in this story. He lived at times in a real fear that his work might be(come) possessed by the devil, and this is what The Portrait is about. By keeping the portrait and by taking the money, Chartkov makes a pact with the devil. Chartkov’s name even sounds like the word for ‘devil’ in Russian, ‘chort’.

Insight

Although it takes Chartkov many, many years, he does eventually come to an insight. This happens when he sees a painting by a fellow artist; the work has a device quality to it. Its beauty moves Chartkov to tears. He realises that he has been driven by financial gain instead of aiming for artistic development. He tries to paint again like before, but it’s already too late. Out of jealousy he starts to destroy the most beautiful paintings he can buy at auctions. Luckily for the art world he dies soon. Here is another parallel with Gogol’s own life; he used to burn his own work regularly, for fear of it not being good enough, or, indeed, possessed by the devil.

The painter of the portrait and the portrayed

In the second part of the story it is revealed that the portrait depicted an evil loanshark, the personification of the devil. Every person who loaned money from him changed dramatically for the worse. The portrait was so lifelike, that the evil spirit of the loanshark transferred into the portrait. Because the loanshark dies, the painter is stuck with the portrait and soon starts to feel its’ evil influence. He tries to destroy it, but a friend buys it from him instead. The painter then flees to a monastery to cleanse his soul. There he lives a reclusive life and finally manages to regain himself. He asks his son to find the painting and to destroy it. He has heard that the painting still exists and that people still get under its’ evil influence. The son does find it at an auction. But when he is about to buy it, it suddenly disappears and that’s the end of the story.

The devil in Saint Petersburg

In Gogol’s earlier Ukrainian works the devil is a tangible figure; in Saint Petersburg he is disincarnate, and all the more scarier for it! He now operates in a much less conspicuous manner. 

The Portrait is unmistakably from Gogol, and even if it’s not his most Gogolian work, it’s still a devilish good one!

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By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia – Adam Weiner

Het Portret – Gogol (the by Gogol revised version from 1842), translated by Karel van het Reve

Text and photo collage © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61my/contents.html

  

Gogol’s Plays

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Russian Literature is well known for its lifelike characters who usually go through some ordeal and achieve personal growth through that. The base of many a novel, but Russian literature particularly excels in it. The reader is swept along and en passant gains some experience himself. Who has read War and Peace knows that whatever happens, normal life will always take its course again, and happiness will return. Not with Gogol. In his work the end situation is the same as the beginning, the characters are not particularly sympathetic and no-one has learned anything. Yet he is considered one of the founders of the great 19th century Russian literature, together with Pushkin.

Details

Gogol had a particular talent for characterising his protagonists, big and small. We all know the people who walk around in Gogol’s fictional world: frauds, vain creatures, people with big plans that never materialise, scroungers and misers. Surely somewhere a miserable civil servant is dreaming of having a bigger car than his boss. But however recognisable they may be, that are the product of Gogol’s rich fantasy. He took a character trait and built a character around it.

Gogol wrote three plays, all three are still being performed: The Government Inspector, The Gamblers and Marriage.

The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector (1836) is the best known of the three. In a small provincial town a high ranking inspector is expected. The officials in the town are terrified that their deplorable state of affairs will be discovered and they mistake a young man staying in the local inn for the inspector. As soon as he realises that he can profit from the situation, the young man plays along, not hindered by any lack of fantasy, accepting bribes from everyone. After he disappears it soon becomes clear that he was not the real inspector, and everyone tries to shift the blame for the mistaken identity to each other.

The Gamblers

In The Gamblers (1840) a card sharp becomes the victim of a cunning scam himself. He has just won a lot of money and arrives in a new town hoping to make some more. Unfortunately he meets a couple of clever conmen and he loses all his money even quicker than he had made it.

Marriage

In Marriage (1832) the protagonist is planning to get married. He has hired a matchmaker to help him find a suitable bride. She finds him several candidates, but Podkolyosin is terribly indecisive. In order to speed things up his friend forces him to to visit the latest candidate with him. There they find several suitors, but the friend manages to close the deal. They are supposed to get married that same evening, the friend will arrange everything. While the bride gets dressed, Podkolyosin climbs out of the window and goes home as fast as he can.

Moral intentions

Gogol had intended to not just entertain the audience with his plays, he also wanted to confront them with what was wrong in society. The audience, however, saw only the satire and humor of the plays and even the tsar himself had a good laugh when he saw The Government Inspector. Gogol was disillusioned. But the society that he depicted was the product of his imagination. He had never visited a Russian provincial town, he wasn’t a civil servant. Hardly a reliable witness exposing all kinds of wrongs.

Memorabilty

If we forget about Gogol’s moral intentions, we are left with highly enjoyable pieces of literature. Gogol has a unique sense of humor and his characters are as alive today as when he created them many years ago. He has shown his descendants the importance of details when it comes to characterisation. It’s the details that make the character universal, alive, and memorable. A young man passing through a provincial town is unremarkable, but a young man who has squandered away all his money and is sitting in his room in the inn with an empty stomach and an obstinate servant promises entertainment.

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Turgenev’s Smoke

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In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.

Pauline

Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.

Olga

In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.

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Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer