I have a friend who is studying Russian history in his spare time, in competition with his father (an eminent judge) – that’s one way to focus your mind on a hobby in between crazy working hours (grrr over-achievers)! I’ve come at it sideways, starting with Masha Gessen’s excellent The Man Without a Face , then tackling the rollicking The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and now it seems 2016 is the year of reading Russian novels.
Strangely, I’ve never been to Russia and have no plans to go, but I’m bizarrely fascinated its literature.
My current read is A Woman Loved by Andrei Makine. This was recommended to me by Sarah at South Seas Books, a gorgeous store in Port Elliot, South Australia. It’s graced my bookshelf for 7 months, so long overdue to read (but not the longest that books have languished in my shelves before reading – does anyone else have this problem?) … It centres on Oleg, who is making a film about Catherine the Great – a wonderful character – but will she reveal herself or will he perpetuate the myths that surround her reign?
So far I’m enjoying it but finding much of the discussion about Russian politics, while illuminating and beautifully put, a little remote.
Here you can see the inadvertant Russian theme developing in my stack of books bought and (some) read in 2016:
“War and Peace”: Do you see that big boy at the bottom of the stack? Yes, finished! (cue applause and champagne / vodka). I read this recently so I could watch the BBC series. Found it heavy in every sense but enjoyed the full immersion into Russia and the Napoleonic wars, and admire it as an incredible achievement (including by Tolstoy’s wife, who transcribed it numerous times). It makes other novels seem rushed and superficial.
“A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire”: unexpectedly fun and readable; also perfect size to take out and about in a small handbag.
“The Double”: tackling Dostoyevsky again after an earlier failed attempt. I’m interested in doubles and doppelgangers.
“Young Stalin”: to see what makes a tyrant. Still topical unfortunately.
“Murder on the Leviathan”: I love escaping into Boris Akunin’s detective stories: a mix of Victorian era Russia, farce and mystery. I first heard him speaking on the BBC World Book Club and was intrigued.
Teffi: I was enchanted by her short stories, elegant and deceptively light. Witty and pithy translation by Robert Chandler; also her memoirs (not pictured) speak of 1917 Russia with a light touch, bittersweet.
Do you ever find unexpected themes in your reading?