Russian Reading: Week 3 Round-Up

Everyone seems to be making good progress so far! Rachel recently finished Gogol’s short story, The Nose, which she adored. I think I’d also be interested in reading this after I’m done with Dead Souls, because Nabokov actually goes into some detail about Gogol’s obsession with noses in his critical biography. Claire has also been captivated by Gogol’s writing in Dead Souls. Alex in Leeds is reading two works of Russian literature which she hasn’t specified yet – I think one may be The Russian Gentleman by Sergei Askakov. Meanwhile, she looks on back on her experience of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which she finished in July of this year. Alex has also written a fantastic review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman… (Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby), stories which she describes as being ‘dystopian fairytales’.

These stories are delicate but brutal, intriguingly dream-like and frequently have a twist or unexpected change in tone that makes them truly ‘fantastic’. There is a cruel streak running through them. They are potently bleak. They are, to some readers I imagine, beautiful.

Set frequently in a place the author calls ‘orchards of unusual possibilities’ (which is a wonderfully Soviet euphemism), the subjects range from the eponymous woman who tries to kill her neighbour’s baby to ghostly meetings in the woods, from deadly epidemics to post-apocalyptic homesteaders. The collection is broken into four sections – Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems and Fairy Tales – and they were written over a thirty year period, deeply rooting them both in the ancient mythology and modern history of Russia.

A character experiencing the start of starvation in one story serves as a great example of this – starving in a fictional post-apocalyptic future, living like many of the peasants who died in the all-too-real brutality of the Stalinist era and yet very firmly reminding the reader of darker, older fairy tales. A matryoshka doll of myth, history and imagination calmly included as a bit-part character in a much bigger story.

Sounds absolutely amazing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!

November’s been a surprisingly busy month for me. But I guess that’s life, it’s never what you expect! Still, I’ve managed to trudge through The Master and Margarita (more thoughts on that later…) and am now halfway through Dead Souls, which is fantastic stuff. Also halfway through Nikolai Gogol, by Vladimir Nabokov, which is extremely well-written but probably only readable because I’m going through Dead Souls at the same time. On its own, it’s a tad dry.

In other reading endeavours, I haven’t been doing too well. I’ve been quite unwell lately, and so I find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, and can’t seem to commit myself to a single book either. I’ve just been flitting half-heartedly through different things without really finding anything I like.

And so (sorry Claire), I’ve decided I just can’t finish Wolf Hall. It’s just a chore at the moment, because I couldn’t care less about it. Knowing my habit of eventually coming back to books I can’t finish, I’ll probably read it at some later stage. Okay, actually, the real reason is because it’s a library loan and I’ve been so negligent with returning the books that my library card has been cancelled. Haha! So I need to go and sort that out, and unless there’s a lot of goodwill on their side, there’s not much chance of them renewing those books for me…

After re-reading Norwegian Wood (yes, that’s my own copy) for Bellezza’s readalong, I’ll probably stick my nose into something on my shelf that I haven’t read yet – Moby Dick, or some of the Chinese classics maybe.


Booker Booker

Belatedly narrowing down my reading choices from the Booker longlist (I never like to restrict myself to just the shortlist):

  • Skios, Michael Frayn – seems like a good read for summer. I’m partial to things set on the Greek islands, and I don’t even mind if they’re twee or or a bit cheesy (like Mamma Mia). The cover does make it look like supermarket chick-lit, but I’m trying to get over my atrocious habit of literally judging books by their covers.
  • The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng – fo sho, the type of book I enjoy and adore and will possibly be disappointed by, but I really doubt it at this stage, because it looks wonderful! (I’m already raving)
  • Swimming Home, Deborah Levy. Heard some fantastic things about this one. Sounds a bit like a modern Tender is the Night, though perhaps it won’t be as glamorous as the jazz age world Fitzgerald paints.
  • Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil – some readers I know have snidely dismissed this as the ‘token’ Indian novel, but come on people! If it’s a good book, it’s a good book so just give it a chance. Perhaps this also applies to this year’s winner, which I’m really just dubious about.

This brings me to my next point. Yes, you may have noticed that a certain prominent book by a certain prominent author is missing; namely, the winner, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. But I’ve decided not to read it, because dear Booker judges, I didn’t like your 2009 choice Wolf Hall that much! And (somewhat childishly, I know) I’ve decided not to even give the second book a chance.

Day 1: Russian Reading Month

Today is the first day of Russian Reading Month! I hope you’re all ready to crack open your copies of Dostoevsky or Nabokov or Gogol. Right now, my copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol is sitting on my desk next to a glass of frothy, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (it’s nearing summer here, for all you Northern Hemispherers), and I plan on digging in as soon as I’m done writing this post.

I’m not sure if I would classify this particular work as ‘Russian Literature’, seeing as it’s written in English. Some would even go so far as to call Nabokov a quintessentially American writer, and not a Russian one (Nabokov considered himself a ‘cosmopolite’, and noted once in an interview that he was a “perfectly normal trilingual child”). But since this work is a critical study and biography of the great Russian poet-novelist Gogol, I’m reading it as a sort of prelude to Dead Souls. I really know so little about Gogol, and I’ve only ever read one story by him (‘The Overcoat’)so I’m hoping this book will help me along.

Over the next month, I’ll also be tackling Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and of course, Dead Souls itself. For all of you who are joining in, I won’t really impose any schedules on you, just write reviews or thoughts at a pace comfortable to you, and link them to me so I can create round-up posts.

As for short stories, I’ve got two links for you today: Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Gogol’s The Overcoatwhich I think serve as a good introduction to Russian shorts.

And finally – a weekly meme, just for fun! Open to everyone, not just those participating in Russian Reading Month :)

What has your relationship with Russian literature been like thus far? What are your expectations for the following month – and perhaps your expectations towards the novel/writer you’ve chosen to read?


The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic is a smallish book, and so I slipped it into my bag one day, expecting to read it on the train in one sitting, and be done with it. No sort of anticipation whatsoever. I thought it would be be similar – in both tone and theme – to every other migrant experience story out there.

To me, it seems to be the case that these sorts of books never stray far from the same generic themes: cultural divide within migrant families, usually between the first-generation children, and the second generation parents; identity crises, the hardships of their new homes (see previous thoughts on this here).

It’s not that I’m insensitive to these sorts of struggles, being a second-generation Korean Australian myself. It just seems as though writers never strive to depict the migrant experience in a fresh, engaging way.

I therefore found myself being first pleasantly surprised, then rather blown away, by Otsuka’s unusual but powerful narrative technique. What’s unusual about The Buddha in the Attic is that the entire novella (I hesitate to call it a novel, because it is so slim) is narrated in a collective – i.e. plural – first person voice, which represents the voice of Japanese war brides sometime prior to the second World War.

Initially, I found the approach gimmicky, and I wondered whether it would be a prologue to stories told by each of the women. Young, fresh-faced, naive Japanese girls, I should say, rather – sailing across the oceans with nothing but photos of their betrothed and heads full of dreams and hopes. In any case, the entire novel turned out to be narrated in the same fashion.

The obvious strength of this sort of storytelling was that there was no single narrator, and I found myself imagining not just a single woman, but  the lives and fates of all early Japanese migrant women in America, which I suppose was been the intended effect. A downside was that the story felt extremely fragmented. Describing this novella as having a concrete plot would be a bit of a far stretch, seeing as it’s comprised mostly of small anecdotes and fleeting glimpses of their lives.

Upon arrival, the women are crestfallen to discover that their husbands-to-be are jaded, weather-worn old bachelor farmers. The photos date back to two decades ago, when they were still fresh-faced young boys hopeful of a new future in America – and the romantic love letters are nothing but lies woven together by conniving matchmakers.

Otsuka takes us through the usual stuff of migrant misery memoirs – lost lovers, unhappy marriages, pregnancies and births and abortions and miscarriages, cultural misunderstandings, early setters’ lives, embarrassing parents and rebellious children. But towards the second half of the novella, there are glimpses of darker, more sinister things to come:

I’m referring, of course, to the lead-up to the second World War and the Japanese internment camps. She tells a story of collective blind-eye, where an entire nation of non-Japanese Americans quietly resume their lives despite the sudden, mass disappearance of neighbours and schoolchildren and corner shop owners and launders. Of entire families and communities, in fact.

A powerful piece of writing, at times gimmicky and contrived, as I mentioned previously – but it doesn’t detract from the story itself, which is a poignant and moving one of both one woman, and an entire generation of Japanese migrant wives, mothers and daughters.

The Classics: October Reading Notes

Dracula by Bram Stoker arrived in the mail yesterday. I’ve been hooked since. Move aside, Angela Carter and Hilary Mantel!

Elizabeth Miller, a ‘Dracula expert’  describes it as being ‘one of those rare novels that just about everyone has heard of but few have actually read’ – so, so true. But how far removed our caricatured ideas of these sorts of novels are from the original masterpieces! After they’ve been distilled through the horrors of popular culture and children’s films (Disney is the usual culprit), they emerge quite unrecognisable.

Does anyone remember Infinite Summer, the Infinite Jest readalong that took the literary blogosphere by storm back in 2009? (The index of posts, complete with reading schedule and an accompaniment of notes and discussions, is still available online) Well, after the first readalong, there was actually a Dracula project by the same people, that I’m now having fun reading over. Beware of plot spoilers though!

Also, not strictly classics related, but currently wondering which books of the following authors I should read next: Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m thinking Snow, My Name is Red, Midnight’s Children or East West for Rushdie and Pamuk, but not sure about where to go in terms of Marquez.  I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera, Hundred Years and Chronicles of a Death Foretold so far. Maybe just the Penguin edition of his collected stories? Maybe I should broaden my horizons and read some completely new writers like Chinua Achebe, who I’ve been meaning to read for a while now…

Any recommendations?

Ready for Russia?

It’s already October 15, and Russian Reading Month begins in just over two weeks’ time! Completely unrelated, but in November I’ll also be reading Wolf Hall with Claire, if anyone wants to join.

We have a cosy group so far, for next month:

  • Jackie from jackiemania – The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
  • Claire from kiss a cloud – Dead Souls, Gogol; Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak
  • ‘vernzap’ – Brothers Karamazov, possibly Master and Margarita or Anna Karenina
  • Bellezza from Dolce Bellezza – Master and Margarita, Bulgakov
  • Rachel from Resistance is Futile – Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Alex from Alex in Leeds – A Russian Gentleman, Sergei Aksakov
  • Myself – Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (biography by Nabokov), Master and Margarita
  • Andrew Blackman, who will be following the event (not sure if he’ll be reading along)

Currently in the process of hunting down stories for Short Story Week, for those interested in participating, but wanting to stick to something light/short.

I may also try to squeeze in The Brothers Karamazov if I have time. Over stretching myself? Hardly. I finish my final semester of uni – well, until I begin postgrad studies anyway – this very week, so I’ll have hour after hour to devote to summer reading in November. Just have to get my final batch of essays and exams over and done with. Cannot wait.

Sign-ups are open until the end of this month, so just comment below if you’re interested!

Kristin Lavransdatter

Over three years late, but here it is: my final post on Kristin Lavransdatter. The readalong has long since finished, and indeed, it’s been a long, long time since I closed the book and put it back on my shelf (probably forever). Still, closure is needed!

The final verdict: Kristin Lavransdatter is not a book that impressed me. I know because I can hardly remember a thing about it; the two things I do recall firmly being that (1) the heroine’s name is Kristin Lavransdatter (hardly an achievement, given that this name is, in fact, the title) and (2) it is set in medieval Norway.

Were there unsatisfactory marriages and knights in shining armor and illicit romances and lots of blonde Scandinavian children? Were there? Do I even care? I waxed lyrical about this novel in my earlier reflections and midway impressions, so why have I come to be so indifferent about it? I’m not sure. Strange phenomenon, indeed, because I reached the opposite end of the rainbow with 1Q84 recently, when I found myself liking it more and more as I inched closer to the ending.

I may decide to re-read this someday. I do have a perverse tendency to re-read things I dislike. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, for instance – I thought it overworked and too stylized in my first reading, but came to like it in the second. Maybe Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence (which I mistakenly referred to as the ‘Empress of Florence’ in my indifference towards it) will also charm me second time round?

I’ve long since realised that the reason I finish things I dislike is because I have this innate curiosity which desires to know why such and such a character said something or behaved a certain way, or why the writer chose to write this book, or even why it is I dislike it so vehemently. And I usually feel as though I won’t get answers unless I’ve finished the damn things. But as to why I choose to re-read them? Who knows. It may be the burning questions.

The burning question in regards to Kristin Lavransdatter is most definitely: how on earth did this thing win Sigrid Undset the Nobel Prize for Literature? Anyone care to toss up some answers?

Kristin Lavransdatter readalong: