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Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?

 

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The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

April 23, 2018 Leave a comment

For the last few years I’ve been reading twentieth century Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Bulgakov, so it was only natural that I’d make it to Vasily Grossman and his epic Life and Fate eventually. Grossman published stories and a few novels under the Soviet regime, but became increasingly upset by the atrocities he saw during WWII. Present at the Battle of Stalingrad, Grossman was one of the first outsiders to see the hell the Nazis had created in their extermination camps, doubly or triply confronting for him as he was Jewish himself and his mother had been murdered by the Nazis. He wrote about this in “The Hell of Treblinka”, which was used in the Nuremberg Trials to prosecute the perpetrators of those foul acts.

The first of Grossman’s books I read also happened to be his last, written shortly before he died of cancer in 1964. This is a wry, meditative piece suffused with acute observations of ordinary people and ruminations on life and death. It’s a great introduction to Grossman, a taster before you tackle the main courses in the same way that A Country Doctor’s Notebook is an excellent place to start with Bulgakov before you attempt The Master and Margarita. One chapter is an amazing piece on Grossman’s sense that he was about to die that night – he was only out by a few months.

The Road is a collection of short stories and essays, including “The Hell of Treblinka”. Perhaps not as endearing as An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s nevertheless a good introduction to Grossman and his thoughts.

Life and Fate is Grossman’s opus, supposedly the Soviet War and Peace. At 850+ pages, it’s a daunting but rewarding read. Disjointed and unruly in places owing to the fact that Grossman was never permitted to publish it during his lifetime (his book having been “arrested”), Life and Fate follows a large cast of characters, many of whom are related to each other by birth or marriage, in and around Stalingrad at the time of the German invasion and subsequent eviction. What stands out here is Grossman’s simple, decent humanism, profoundly in opposition to the heartless barbarities of the Soviet state. It’s a document on the history of a time and place, and also a reluctant critique and denunciation of Socialism. Grossman was a Soviet man in a way that Bulgakov never was, but his faith in the regime couldn’t survive the many atrocities he witnessed. The purges of 1937, the callous disregard for human life in defence of the homeland and the increasing Antisemitism of the Soviet state put paid to that. The chapters on the Nazi extermination camps are the best I’ve read aside from Elie Wiesel’s Night.

A book I haven’t got to yet is Everything Flows, written after Life and Fate but also denied publication. Other than An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s Grossman’s last book.

Another book I’m yet to read but eager to get my teeth into is A Writer at War, a collection of Grossman’s writings during the war. I’m curious as to what degree of overlap there is between this and The Road. I’ve also heard that a number of the events in Life and Fate are based on real events described here.

And finally there’s The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, a biography by John and Carol Garrand. Ordinarily, when approaching a writer of this stature, I like to read a biography early on, but it looks like in Grossman’s case I may come to the biography last.

So, in summary, Vasily Grossman is simply one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and crucial to any understanding of the Soviet State. Go read him.

2014 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2014 2 comments

2014 has been a watershed year for me in terms of the quantity of books I’ve read: for the first time since I started recording these things in 2008, I’ve hit 100 books completed for the year. Most people are fairly astounded when I tell them I read this many books in a year, but I do favour shorter novels and it probably only averages out to about one hour of reading per day across the whole year. That’s an hour that many other people would spend watching television, say. It’s not that I don’t waste time on trivial pursuits — I certainly do — but my commitment to hunting, buying and reading books is such that I always have an immediate to-read list of 10-15 titles.

I tend to be an ‘author reader’, by which I mean that once I decide that I particularly like the work of a certain author, I will hunt down every book by this author and hopefully read every word. It doesn’t always work out this way; at times I decide that I’m not so interested in a certain writer after all, and end up with a pile of their books that I no longer want to read. In 2014, I read three or more books by the likes of Pat Barker, Larry Brown, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Chabon, M John Harrison, Haruki Murakami, Peter Temple and Alan Warner. Most of these writers would normally be classified as authors of literary fiction or crime, and that’s a fair representation of where my reading interests now lie. I read a number of young adult novels as part of my job as an English teacher, some of them multiple times, which rather pads out my overall figures. My author of the year would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov. Until this year, I hadn’t read a word of him and now I’ve read his entire published prose output.

2014 may have been a watershed year in terms of quantity, but what about the quality? According to my Goodreads star ratings (which I have completed very assiduously this year), 21 books gained a five star rating. Of these, I have chosen my top ten reads for the year, limiting myself to just one book per author. Here are the ten in no particular order. All come highly recommended from me. Clicking on the covers will take you to the listing for the book on Goodreads.

Union Street by Pat Barker

I’ve now read almost all of Barker, with the exception of her novel Double Vision which I can’t seem to get into. This novel, her first, is the very best of her non-WWI output. Grim, dark and extraordinary powerful.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

In truth I possibly enjoyed A Country Doctor’s Notebook even more than this, but this is the magnum opus and the place where pretty much everyone starts with Bulgakov. I don’t regret giving this devilish satire of Stalin’s Russia my attention.

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

A friend recommended this and I’m glad she did. I thought this was far superior to Cross’ second novel, The Secrets She Keeps. I loved the writing in this one and the plot had a couple of real kickers to it, too.

An Iron Rose by Peter Temple

Peter Temple is the Australian master of crime fiction and this is one of his very best, maybe the best of them all.

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer and I’ve been waiting patiently for some years for a follow-up to Beijing Coma. Well, it was worth the wait. Not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those inclined to depression. It’s that dark.

The Sopranos by Alan Warner

I’ve read a lot of Warner this year, probably two-thirds of his opus, but this one had me laughing the hardest and it’s not often that happens when I read. The sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is a pale imitation.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

I have mixed feelings about Brown but I have nothing but praise for this, his first novel. The book consists of two profoundly injured Vietnam War veterans chewing the fat, but it’s fat well worth chewing. Here’s a book with heart.


I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay

I love country noir fiction: Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Larry Brown, Larry Watson and Cormac McCarthy all write it and write it well, but in my opinion none of them does it better than Gay does in this exquisite volume of short fiction. I’d go so far as to say this is my number one book for the year.

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

I like Coetzee: he’s an enormously skillful writer but at times I find him overly dry and that put me off him for a couple of years. The Master of Petersburg isn’t dry and I think it’s even better than his most famous novel, Disgrace. The Russian setting helps, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Coetzee is the greatest living writer in the English language.

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

In general I’ve liked but not loved the Factory novels, but this one, the first, is very good indeed. I happened to read this after books 2, 3 and 4 and in a way I’m glad that I did, because it was all downhill (admittedly at a gentle slope) from here.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Now this was a surprise. I loved Harrison in my younger years, especially his sumptuous Climbers, but he’s started writing SF again and in general I haven’t warmed to it. I despised Light when it first came out and thus this has sat unloved on my bookshelf for close to ten years, which is a pity as I enjoyed it immensely when I finally got around to it. The same couldn’t be said for the final volume in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space, which I found close to unreadable.

Mikhail Bulgakov, for whom “manuscripts don’t burn”

June 21, 2014 1 comment

I read a lot of books and I’m always searching for ‘new’ authors to become obsessed by. Once or twice a year I find an author especially to my liking. Preferably they’ve written a fair few books (at least 5) but not as many as 20-30 or it’ll take me forever to read everything they’ve written (see Elmore Leonard). They can be living but it’s all the same to me if they’re dead. At least that way you’re likely to get a biography or two. ‘New’ authors have to follow my ‘1918 Rule’ which simply states that they must have published their books since the end of the First World War (the birth of the modern era). I am especially partial to American authors, but I’ve read writers from all over the (mostly Western) world. In recent years I’ve been especially enamoured with the works of Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott, to name but three. 2014’s best ‘new’ author for me is Mikhail Bulgakov, who died in Stalin’s Russia in 1940.

I’ve read a bit of Russian literature over the years but it has tended to be single books by famous authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. I haven’t really bonded with a Russian author before. At one point I thought I was going to like Andrey Kurkov (okay, so he’s Ukranian) but 3-4 books later my ardour for his work has cooled. I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov until I read an essay on him in Overland magazine, and that inspired me to buy a copy of his best known work, The Master and Margarita.

This novel is like nothing else I’ve read in Russian literature, which normally seems to exclusively consist of bleak realism, not that I have anything against that. Fresh from that novel, I ordered a copy of a volume of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries, which also serves as a quasi-biography. I highly recommend it.

By now I was hooked and determined to read the rest of Bulgakov’s work. Luckily for me, Vintage has six volumes of his novels and stories (but not his plays), meaning that I could get uniform editions which look nice on the shelf with their red spines. A Heart of a Dog (also known, in a different translation, as A Dog’s Heart) was an amusing read, too.

Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (confusingly, also known as A Dead Man’s Memoir) is an interesting, albeit unfinished and not altogether satisfying satire about the Moscow theatre of the 20s. It was worth a read.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook (or A Young Doctor’s Notebook) is my favourite Bulgakov behind The Master and Margarita. I thought this was some kind of diary from the author’s time as a rural doctor duing WWI, but it turns out that the stories were written in the 20s and are highly polished. This is very good and very accessible, probably a great place to start with Bulgakov. Apparently it’s been made into a TV series, too.

Bulgakov’s only volume of short stories, Diaboliad, was suppressed during the author’s lifetime along with most of the rest of his work. Confusingly, some editions (thankfully not the Vintage) DON’T contain the novella length ‘The Fatal Eggs’ which is also available as a standalone title. Seeing as ‘The Fatal Eggs’ represents about 2/3 of the pages in the Vintage edition, that would really suck. I didn’t much like the three later stories in Diaboliad, but I liked ‘The Fatal Eggs’ (a SF story reminiscent of H. G. Wells) and especially the title story, which is something of a prototype for The Master and Margarita.

The sixth and final book in Vintage (all translated by Michael Glenny) is Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, which is based on the author’s wartime experiences. Bulgakov’s most famous and successful play during his lifetime, “The Day of the Turbins”, is based on this. I haven’t got around to purchasing this sixth Vintage volume yet, but I will.

In addition to these six Vintage volumes, there are a handful of other obscure titles not available in Vintage. There’s something called Notes from the Cuff which I believe to be more short stories, there are collections of Bulgakov’s surviving plays and even a biography of Moliere which seems to be out of print. Hopefully I’ll get to these one day. Let me know if you’ve read any of these more obscure titles (or indeed any Bulgakov). I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about Bulgakov so much. He certainly seems atypical for a Russian writer, more Continental in character. His work is very dark and very funny, and the story of his life is one of perseverance in the face of the harshest of adversity. There are only a few photos of Bulgakov floating around on the internet. This one of he and his third wife, taken shortly before his premature death in 1940, I find especially haunting.