Category Archives: Dostoevsky

A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press

“In California they drink gin instead of tea.” 

a-very-russian-christmas

I saved A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press for the right time of year, and while I can’t say that the stories made me full of good cheer, they all definitely contained elements of Christmas in one way of another. There’s a universality to these stories which show Christmas as a troubling time, a time for reflection and, as cheesy as it may sound, being grateful for what we have. Here’s the line-up:

The New Year’s Tree: Mikhail Zoshchenko

The Boys: Anton Chekhov

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding: Fyodor Dostoevsky

At Christmastide: Anton Chekhov

Dream of the Young Tsar: Lev Tolstoy

Makar’s Dream: Vladimir Korolenko (translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh)

A Woman’s Kingdom: Anton Chekhov

A Distant Christmas Eve: Klaudia Lukashevich

The Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Christmas Phantoms: Maxim Gorky

A Lifeless Animal: Teffi

My Last Christmas: Mikhail Zoshchenko

Chekhov’s The Boys is the tale of a planned escape to America; In Mikhail Zoshchenko’s, The New Year’s Tree, the forty-year-old narrator recalls the lessons learned 35 years earlier. In another story from Chekhov, At Christmastide, an older couple pay someone to write a letter to their daughter who has married and moved away. Dream of the Young Tsar from Tolstoy was a bit of a disappointment; it’s sort of a Russian version of A Christmas Carol, heavy handed and moralistic.I’m not going to review all the stories, and instead I’m going to concentrate on my favourites in the collection.

Maxim Gorky’s story, Christmas Phantoms, is the story of a writer who, on one very cold night, is finishing a story about two peasants–a blind husband and his elderly wife, who, after an unsuccessful day begging on Christmas Eve, freeze together to death in the snow. What a dreadful story, I thought to myself, and I felt disappointed (too soon) by Gorky, but he pulled a few tricks and before the story was done, I had a few chuckles. All I’ll say is ‘writers beware what you do to your characters.’

Another favorite was Chekhov’s A Woman’s Kingdom. The story opens on Christmas Eve and focuses on unmarried Anna Akimovna, a young woman who owns substantial property, including a factory which employs 1800 workers. Every year at Christmas, she distributes a certain amount of money to the poor, but this year, an extra 1500 roubles lands in her lap, and she decides to give it away. But who to give it to? She’s faced with a stack of begging letters (and hateful letters), and letting fate award the 1500 roubles, she picks a begging letter at random.

A Woman’s Kingdom is a fairly long story, and one that could have been worked into a novel. We see Anna’s Christmas when she is visited by the local poor who shivering with cold, pay respects, Anna notes “in reality there is something cruel in these Christmas customs,” but she’s powerless to stop the century old traditions.

For Christmas dinner she’s joined by a civil councillor and a slimey barrister, Lysevitch. These men can be seen, ostensibly, as suitors, but neither of them court Anna-although sleek Lysevitch, “like a spoiled horse fresh from the stable,”  is full of stupid advice about Anna taking multiple lovers.He’d “long ceased to believe in anything he had to say in the law courts, or perhaps he did believe in it, but attached no kind of significance to it–it had all so long been familiar, stale, ordinary ..”

Anna, an extremely sympathetic character, was raised from peasantry to wealth by inheritance. She’s not entirely comfortable with her position. She longs for love and marriage, but it seems that she’s destined to remain unmarried. We see a life of privilege but a life that’s sterile. She has wealth but she’s being ripped off in various ways; she’d like to help those in need and give charity, but her actions are either thwarted or futile.

My favourite story in the collection was Dostoevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding. The narrator is an unnamed man who sees a wedding, and then casts his mind back to a children’s party which took place five years earlier on New Year’s Eve. The family who threw the party were wealthy, and the narrator, an outsider, observes the other guests, the children and their accompanying governesses.

Particularly charming was a blackeyed, curly-headed boy, who kept trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, pensive, pale with big, prominent, pensive eyes, exquisite as a little cupid. 

Idle gossip between the guests whispers that the little girl will inherit 300,o00 roubles, and the supposedly disingenuous narrator notices that gifts, which seem to be randomly distributed, are awarded to the children with “presents diminishing in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy children.” The son of the governess, “the child of the lowest degree” gets a cheap book while the little heiress receives the most expensive doll. To say what happens next would be to spoil the story for other readers, but once again Dostoevsky chronicles the lowest points of human behaviour.

Review copy

Makar’s Dream translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh

My last Christmas and The New Year’s Tree copyright estate of Mikhail Zoshchenko

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Filed under Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gorky Maxim, Korolenko Vladimir, Lukashevich Klaudia, Teffi, Tolstoy, Leo, Zoshchenko Mikhail

Best of 2015

December again, and it’s time to compile my best of 2015 reading list.

Best Classic Russian:

Notes From a Dead House: Dostoevsky

Want to know what life was like in a Siberian prison camp? … read this. Human nature at its best and its worst. Sentencing to a Siberian prison camp must have come as a terrible blow to Dostoevsky, but this book–a gift to the world–is the result.

Best Non Fiction:

This House of Grief: Helen Garner. This emotionally wrenching non-fiction book gives the reader an insider look at the Farquharson case in which a divorced man was accused of murdering his three sons. While this is the story of the trial, Helen Garner gives us so much more than this–an eyewitness account but also the torturous cost of the trial on those involved. Again–the best and worst of human nature. I want to read Joe Cinque’s Consolation, but after reading This House of Grief, I think it’s best to put some distance between the two books.

Best New American Crime Fiction:

Canary: Duane Swierczynski

I enjoyed Swierczynski’s fantastic Charlie Hardie trilogy, so I was eager to see what he’d achieved with Canary the story of how a college student gets in over her head when she’s roped in by the police as a ‘confidential informer.’ This is a topical subject and with his usual wizardry Swierczynski creates a formidable, unforgettable heroine in a tale which has many surprises.

Best Classic American Crime Fiction:

The Big Heat: by William McGivern

This moody, hard-hitting tale of corruption involves a lone cop who goes rogue while following a violent path for revenge. Read the book. See the film. Gloria Grahame…. enough said.

The big heat

Best New American Fiction:

Eileen : Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen was one of the most interesting fiction books I read this year. Not sure what I expected with this one, but someone did a great job with the cover design which drew me to the book in the first place. This is the story of a strange, disconnected young woman who works at a local prison as an office worker. With a horrible home life and no social life whatsoever, something has to give for Eileen, and just what sets her free is the substance of this marvelous, dark tale.

eileen

Best Australian Fiction:

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop: Amy Witting. A sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop is set in a TB sanitorium, and Isobel, ill, stuck in bed, is forced to interact with people she likes as well as those she dislikes. This is a heroine we cheer for as she finds a place for herself in an institution, and receives more kindness from strangers than she ever received from her family. People who’ve never been given love, aren’t sure how to receive it, and Witting knows just how to create this on paper. Read both novels.

Best New British Fiction:

A Pleasure and a Calling: Phil Hogan. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for unreliable narrators. Phil Hogan’s novel is told by a middle-aged, successful estate agent– trustworthy, respectable, reliable…  but is he?… cross this man and your life will suddenly take a turn for the worse. Wickedly funny and dark, this book is nothing less than creepily delightful.

a pleasure and a callling

Best Reprinted British Fiction:

A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

I read two Elizabeth Taylor novels this year, both from NYRBs–A Game of Hide and Seek and A View of the Harbour. A View of the Harbour, IMO, was the better novel. Perhaps the seaside setting helped, but overall, I found the characters in A View of the Harbour much more interesting.

Best new Crime Series: Glasgow Underworld Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

How a Gunman Says Goodbye

The Sudden Arrival of Violence

A punchy trilogy… but wait… Now there’s Every Night I dream of Hell which includes some of the same characters. Will we see this series extended?

Best Irish Crime Fiction:

Gun Street Girl: Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy struggles with an open-and-shut case which reeks of a staged crime.

Best Scottish Fiction:

For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens

I’m a long-term fan of the criminally under-appreciated Scottish author Agnes Owens; she hasn’t written a great deal but if you pick a book by Owen, you can’t go wrong.   For the Love of Willie is narrated by a woman who lives in a mental hospital, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for this type of setting. Draw your own conclusions.

for the love of willie

Bext French Crime Fiction:

Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narejac. This two writers, working as a collaborative team, wrote crime with the idea that the ‘nightmare would never end’ for the protagonist. Most of us have seen the Hitchcok film made from the book, but there are many differences, so crime fans shouldn’t miss this. This is one of the titles in the very impressive, new Pushkin Press Vertigo line.

Funniest Book:

Crane Mansions: Gert Loveday

I don’t normally go for books featuring children, but I’ll read anything Gert Loveday writes. This mischievous tale involves a child who ends up at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent. If you think this sounds like a horrible place, you’d be right, but this very funny tale subverts all reader expectations.

crane mansions

Best reread:

Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis. I never tire of this book. A wonderful story of grief, secrets and family relationships.

A novel I meant to read for a long time:

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel. The story of a successful bureaucrat who is forced to revisit the sins of his past.

Pale Blue Ink

Best Short Story Collection:

Marseille Noir . Crime stories which give the flavor of this city. I moved from watching the French-Belgian film The Connection to reading about crime in Marseille. Review to follow.

marseille noir

 

 

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Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction, Garner Helen, Hogan Phil, Loveday Gert, Mackay Malcolm, McGivern William P, McKinty Adrian, Moshfegh Eileen, Owens Agnes, Swierczynski Duane, Taylor, Elizabeth, Werfel Franz, Witting Amy

Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House  is a philosophical work. While it’s an intense, incredible read, it’s also, due to its basic thematic format, a surprisingly accessible–and by that I mean it’s not as extensive or as heavy as Dostoevsky’s multi plot later works: Demons or Crime and Punishment. One of the book’s themes is the impact of punishment on human nature, and since Dostoevsky spends some time detailing the crimes and circumstances which have sent men to the camp, this is also a document of social criticism.

So here’s one of my favourite scenes which talks about Orlov “the famous brigand,” a “runaway soldier.” There are many former soldiers mentioned by Dostoevsky as inmates of the prison and they’re there for various things ranging from hitting an officer to killing one. Anyway Orlov, a man whose fearsome reputation precedes him, sticks in Dostoevsky’s mind as seen through the thinly veiled disguise of his narrator Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman sentenced to the Siberian prison for 10 years for the murder of his wife. Orlov is about to be punished.

One summer day rumor spread through the prisoners’ wards that in the evening the famous brigand Orlov, a runaway soldier, was to be punished, and after the punishment he would be brought to the ward. Waiting for Orlov, the sick prisoners affirmed that he was to be cruelly punished. They were all in some agitation, and, I confess, I also awaited the famous brigand’s appearance with great curiosity. I had long been hearing wonders about him. He was an evildoer such as few are, who put his knife cold-bloodedly into old people and children–a man with a formidable strength of will and a proud consciousness of his strength. He pleaded guilty to many murders and was sentenced to run the gauntlet. It was already evening when he was brought. The ward was dark, and candles had been lit. Orlov was nearly unconscious, terribly pale, with thick- disheveled, pitch-black hair. His back was swollen and of a bloody blue color. The prisoners tended to him all night, changed the water for him, turned him from side to side, gave him medicine, as if they were caring for some near and dear one, or some benefactor. The very next day he came fully to his senses and paced up and down the ward a couple of times! That amazed me: he had been so weak and exhausted when he arrived in the hospital. He had made it at one go through half the total number of rods he was sentenced to. The doctor had stopped the punishment only when he saw that to continue it threatened the inevitable death of the criminal. Besides, Orlov was a small man and of weak constitution, and what’s more he had been worn out by being kept on trial for a long time.

The narrator is extremely curious about Orlov and contrasts him with another brigand:

I can say positively that I have never in my life met a man of stronger, more iron character than he. Once, in Tobolsk, I saw a celebrity of this kind, the former chief of a band of brigands. He was a wild beast in the fullest sense, and standing next to him and not yet knowing his name, you sensed instinctively that you had a frightful creature beside you. But for me the horrible thing in him was his spiritual torpor. The flesh had won out over all his inner qualities so much that from the first glance you could see by his face that the only thing left in him was one savage craving for physical gratification, sensuality, fleshy indulgence. I am sure that Korenev–the name of this brigand–would even have lost heart and trembled with fear in the face of punishment, though he was capable of killing without even batting an eye. Orlov was the complete opposite of him. This was manifestly a total victory over the flesh. You could see that the man had limitless control over himself, despised all tortures and punishments, and had no fear of anything in the world. You saw in him only an infinite energy, a thirst for activity, a thirst for revenge, a thirst for attaining a set goal.

Drive is of course one of the human characteristics under observation. Some men will kill without compunction for very little gain while others are provoked or stretched beyond endurance before a crime is committed.  Dostoevsky’s narrator (clearly a very thinly veiled Dostoevsky) makes his observations about these two brigands: both very frightening, violent individuals–but one is an example of the triumph of the spirit over the flesh. We see Dostoevsky marveling at Orlov, and finding much to admire in spite of the fact that Orlov is a murderer.

notes from a dead houseDostoevsky is clearly fascinated by the subject of murder & what drives a person to commit this extreme act, yet at the same time, he realizes that one murder cannot necessarily be compared to another, and this is illustrated by the story of Baklushin, one of the many unforgettable characters in the book. Baklushin’s crime was a crime of passion; he murders an annoying German who’s about to marry the woman Baklushin loves.  Another murderer, Gazin, “a terrible creature,” would torment and then knife children “with enjoyment.

That evening, already in the dark, before they locked the barracks, I wandered near the fence, and a heavy sadness fell on my soul, and never again did I experience such sadness in all my prison life. It was hard to endure the first day of imprisonment, wherever it might be: in a prison, in a fortress, at hard labor. But I remember being occupied most of all by one thought, which afterwards constantly pursued me during all my life in prison– a partly insoluble thought, insoluble for me even now: about the inequality of punishment for the same crime. True, crimes cannot be compared with each other, even approximately. For instance, two criminals each killed a man; the circumstance of both cases are weighed, and both end up with the same punishment. Yet look at the difference between the crimes. One, for instance, put a knife into a man just like that, for nothing, for an onion; he came out on the high road, put a knife into a muzhik, and all the man had was an onion. “Look, man! You sent me out to rob: so I put a knife in a muzhik and all I found on him was an onion.” “Fool! An onion’s a kopeck! A hundred men–a hundred kopecks. There’s a rouble for you!” (A prison legend.) But another killed defending the honor of his bride, his sister, his daughter from the lust of a tyrant. One killed as a vagrant beset by a whole regiment of pursuers, defending his freedom, his life, often dying of hunger; another cuts little children’s throats for the pleasure of it, to feel their warm blood on his hands, to enjoy their fear, their last dove-like trembling under his knife. And what then? They both go to the same hard labor. True, there are variations in the length of the sentences. But these variations are relatively few; while the variations in one and the same crime are a numberless multitude. For each character there is a variation. But suppose it’s impossible to reconcile, to smooth over this difference, that it’s an insoluble problem–sort of like squaring the circle–let’s suppose so!

But murder isn’t the only crime under scrutiny here. The narrator notes how one man steals from him–even though he likes him–just because he can. There are others, according to Dostoevsky’s narrator who “are simply destitute by nature.” The narrator explains these “certain strange persons, placid and not at all lazy, who are destined by fate to remain eternally destitute.” In prison, these types pop up to offer their cheap services, and as they exist on the bottom rung of humanity, they are misused and underpaid. Another type noted by the narrator are those who “are born with one idea, which unconsciously moves them here and there all their lives; so they rush about all their lives until they find something they really want to do; then they are ready to risk their necks.” Illustrating that some crimes are committed under a unique set of circumstances, he notes that one man who killed his “superior for striking him,” will “lie down so unprotestingly under the rods … as if he acknowledged that he deserved it.”

The narrator also describes daily life in the prison along with its complicated economic system (from the moneylenders to the invalids) and the significance of alcohol. Prison life–a life that teaches patience–has its highs and its lows. Christmas is a particularly poignant time for the prisoners, and at one point, the prisoners put on a play. The importance of work is also scrutinized:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total useless and meaningless … if he were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first, to grind sand, to carry a pile of dirt from one place to another and back again–I think the prisoner would hand himself after a few days, or commit a thousand crimes, to die rather than endure such humiliation, shame, and torment.

The narrator observes the often irrational lengths men will go to “to put off the moment of punishment,” the kindness of the doctors, how the prisoners’ verbal altercations rarely escalate into violence, how some prisoners live for the next alcohol binge, and how “blood and power intoxicate.”  While Dostoevsky’s observations about human nature are incredibly detailed, he is never clinical; he never forgets that the prisoners–in spite of the many degradations of their living conditions–are beings whose humanity must be recognized.

Even the much hated major loves his poodle.

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part I

The narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House is Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman now serving a ten year sentence for the murder of his wife. This is a very thinly sketched fictional narrative for Dostoevsky, and the entire spousal murder never really convinces. It exists, as translator Richard Pevear explains, as “a mask for the censors: the notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal.”

In Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus author Laurence Kelly argues that 19th century Russia literature was one of the only avenues for social protest for the times, but that criticisms had to be obscured or layered with double-meaning–even then it was still dodgy. Dostoevsky had to tread very carefully with Notes From a Dead House. This was a book that couldn’t be seen to be social protest, and yet when describing the conditions and punishments, there’s a clear strand of questioning the underlying institutional and loose judicial philosophy at work. Yet even more than the underlying expose of daily life in a prison camp in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s target here is the examination of human nature: how human nature suffers from imprisonment, how we endure punishment, the nature of guilt & sin, and significantly how imprisonment causes some to revert to their basest selves while others overcome their venal passions. Notes from a Dead House is Dostoevsky’s seminal work and one which contains all the themes of his later novels. Interestingly Dostoevsky never finished Netocha Nezvanova, the novel he was working on when he was arrested, and this implies a ‘before and after’ mindset.

notes from a dead houseIn April 1849, Dostoevsky was just 27 years old when he was arrested for ‘revolutionary activities’ and his involvement in the Petrashevksy Circle. He was charged with reading and circulating a letter written by literary critic Belinsky and also of “attempting to set up a clandestine printing press.” Tsar Nicholas I, considered the most reactionary ruler of Russia, did not tolerate anything he considered radical intellectualism, and his rule was marked by extreme censorship and a network or spies and informers. But back to Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevksy Circle members who were arrested, imprisoned and then suffered a staged mock execution before being shipped off for their various destinations. Dostoevsky was stripped of his status as a nobleman, given a sentence of eight years of exile and hard labor in a prison in Omsk, Siberia to be immediately followed by compulsory military service. The sentence was later commuted to four years and in 1854, Dostoevsky served as a private in Kazakhstan.

As translator Richard Pevear states, Notes from a Dead House was the first published account of life in the Siberian hard-labor camps. It initiated the genre of the prison memoir.”  But in addition to the book’s significance for that particular genre, the book also marked a shift in Dostoevsky as a writer. Dostoevsky formed Notes from a Dead House from notes gathered during his four years of imprisonment and rather than a novel, the book takes a more thematic approach with sections which cover the celebration of Christmas in the camp, a play performed by the prisoners and the elaborate distribution of alcohol amongst the inmates. Throughout the book, Dostoevsky, struggling with health issues, and recovering from the initial shock of being flung into the company of murderers, brigands and thieves, clearly shows an overriding fascination with human behaviour. There is no other way that Dostoevsky could possibly have written this book without the first hand exposure to a Siberian prison, for it’s here, amongst the prisoners, in this human crucible, that Dostoevsky is exposed to the psychology behind crime, punishment, sin and guilt.

more to follow…

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

Given my interest in Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. The introduction written by Otto Penzler includes some interesting observations about the existence of detective fiction in a society in which individualism does not flourish, and notes that Russian crime and suspense fiction contains a “pervasive darkness” that “rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir.”

Most of us will be familiar with some of the Great Names of 19th Century Russian literature, but what is interesting is that we get lesser titles by some of those big names. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

Boris Akunin Table Talk

A chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Vil Lipatov Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri

Nikolai Gogol The Portrait

Anton Chekhov The Swedish Match

Anton Chekhov Sleepy

Anton Chekhov The Head Gardener’s Story

Anton Chekhov The Bet

Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades

Lev Sheinin The Hunting Knife

Ivan Bunin The Gentleman from San Francisco

P. Nitikin The Strangler

Vladimir Nabokov Revenge

Nikolai Lyeskov The Sentry

Maxim Gorky A Strange Murderer

Boris Sokoloff The Crime of Doctor Garine

Nikolai Gogol The Overcoat

Leo Tolstoy God Sees the Truth, but Waits

Leo Tolstoy Too Dear

Bunin’s story The Gentleman from San Francisco is considered to be one of the best pieces he wrote, and of course, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades appears in many collections. Gogol’s story The Portrait, a story of an artist who trades in his integrity for fame morphs into the tale of a portrait with special powers. This story contained unexpected shades of German Romanticism, and so it was entirely different from Dead Souls. Some of the stories were humourous: The Swedish Match (very funny) or had a witty ironic edge. While some of the names are familiar, included in the collection are some names that were new to me:Vil Lipatov, Lev Sheinin, Boris Sokoloff, & P. Nitikin.

With the authors and choices in this collection, it wasn’t easy to narrow down some favourites, but since I’d read a couple  of the stories before, I’m selecting stories that are new-to-me. This brings me to Chekhov’s The Bet (1889), a story I didn’t really expect from Chekhov (although I know he’d written masses of short stories) and a story which reminds me of no small degree of Dostoevsky.

During a dinner party, a group of men talk about capital punishment:

The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

The host, an extremely wealthy banker argues for the death penalty:

 I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?

A lively, passionate debate ensues with a 25-year-old lawyer stating that if he had to choose, he’d choose imprisonment for life over execution. The banker challenges the lawyer to a wager, and he bets the lawyer that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. In a few seconds, five years becomes 15, and the banker bets two million against the lawyer being able to stay locked up for 15 years.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

Of course, in this speech, tinged with a condescending manner, the banker is really egging the young man on, and he takes the bait. The banker realises that this meaningless bet will not “prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life,” and that the bet is “the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money….” 

But does the banker underestimate the lawyer? They are, after all, locked in a contest of will.

The lawyer agrees to confinement in one of the lodges owned by the banker. There “under the strictest supervision” he is to remain for 15 years.

It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted–books, music, wine, and so on–in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

Will the lawyer sweat out his 15 years of solitary? Will he go insane or will he break free one day when he can stand it no longer?

A number of the stories in the collection are concerned with punishment (The Head Gardener’s Story), and that’s no doubt a reflection of the society in which they were written. Tolstoy’s story–a parable of sorts– Too Dear, explores the nature of punishment solely through its cost to the king who demands punishment.

Boris Sokoloff’s The Crime of Doctor Garine (1927) is a strange story and one I enjoyed a great deal-even though the ending didn’t answer all the questions the story raised. Doctor Garine admits murdering his wife in the most brutal manner but refuses to explain himself. There seems little doubt that he committed the crime, and since he freely admits it, motivation is the key element, and the motivation is gradually spun out through the details of the trial. During the trial and the appearance of various witnesses, Garine is calm, controlled and mostly unemotional. As the testimony builds, we see how the importance of why the crime is committed is paramount, and how this sensational trial is fundamentally society’s way of trying to understand what happened. The Crime of Doctor Garine is especially interesting for its emphasis on psychological motives; indeed a psychologist is even called to talk to Garine who mocks his profession.

Otto Penzler notes that the Russian approach to detective fiction is different to the western approach while discussing the shifts in the genre through the 20th century and modern writers of Russian detective fiction such as Victor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina.

Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former Soviet U.S.S. R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named “detektivy” as their favorite type of book.

Russian Radio Kultura regularly plays readings of British detective novels–including some obscure titles from Georgette Heyer & Agatha Christie.

One criticism of the collection that I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the 19th century, but that, surely, just begs for volume two. My complaint is reserved for the comment about Sophia (Sofya) Tolstoy. The intro to God Sees the Truth, but Waits says that Tolstoy, “tired of his life as a libertine, [he] married in 1862 and in, an effort at candor, showed his wife his diaries, leading to lifelong distrust and jealousy.”  Tolstoy’s diaries contained details of his sexual relationships with women–hardly the romantic, tactful or sensitive reading one would give to a virgin bride on a wedding night. Tolstoy was a genius as a writer, but left a lot of room for improvement in the husband department, and while he may have told himself that giving Sophia his diaries which included his sexual conquests of prostitutes and peasant women was an act of “candor,” that’s open to idle speculation & debate. Who knows what motivates people, but in my book, Sophia had the patience of a saint.

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Humiliated and Insulted by Dostoevsky

“There’s a peculiar gratification to be derived from the sudden tearing-down of a mask, from the cynicism of not deigning to betray any sense of shame in suddenly exposing oneself to another indecently.”

I wanted to read Dostoevsky’s novel Humiliated and Insulted after watching a Russian biopic television series about this incredible writer. Apparently this novel, first published in 1861 in the magazine Vermya, isn’t read much these days, and after finishing it, I can see why. The novel lacks the lively humour and craziness of Notes from Underground, and it also lacks the magnificent sense of impending doom found in Demons. In fact, I’d have to say that more than anything else, Humilated and Insulted reminded me of Dickens –a St Petersburg version, of course, but the Dickens influence seems present nonetheless. Dostoevsky was an admirer of Dickens and read David Copperfield and The Old Curiosity Shop during his time at a penal colony in Siberia.  Dostoevsky travelled to London in 1862 and there’s some speculation whether he met Dickens during his eight day stay in England.

But what of Humiliated and Insulted? This is a new translation by Ignat Avsey and this edition from Oneworld Classics comes with a number of pictures of the important people in the author’s life along with a couple of the book’s original illustrations.   

The novel is narrated by a writer, Vanya (Ivan Petrovich), and the story begins with Vanya looking for lodgings in the cheaper areas of St Petersburg. Needless to say the writer is very poor, but he’s also feeling ill when he spots a skinny old man followed by an equally skinny old dog. The writer is intrigued by the sight of such abject misery and follows the decrepit pair, dog and owner, into a coffee house. Later he follows the man into the street and witnesses his death. It seems fated that Vanya will rent the room now left unoccupied by the old man. There’s a great deal of mystery about the circumstances the old man lived in, but his death seems to be the end of the thread. It isn’t, of course.

The book starts off very strongly indeed with Vanya and the last mysterious words of the old man, and then we discover that Vanya is in love with Natasha (Natalya Nikolayevna) the only daughter of a minor landowner named Ikhmenev. Vanya, who was orphaned, was unofficially adopted by Ikhmenev, and so naturally Vanya and Natasha grew up with a close bond but they were separated when Vanya went off to boarding school. Since we’re told that Ikhmenev took in Vanya, we know that he’s a good man, but he’s also had a troubled past:

Nikolai Sergeich Ikhmenev came of a good family which had long since been reduced to poverty. However, after his parents’ death he came into possession of a sizeable piece of property with some hundred and fifty souls. At about the age of twenty he decided to enlist in the Hussars. Everything went well until one disastrous evening in the sixth year of his commission when he gambled away his whole fortune at cards. He didn’t sleep that night. The next evening he again turned up at the gaming table and staked his horse–his last possession–on one card. He won, then a second time, then a third, and half an hour later he had recouped one of his hamlets, Ikhmenevka, an estate which at the last census had numbered some fifty souls.

Apparently Ikhmenev knew to stop while he was ahead, so he resigned from the Hussars and retired to his small country estate. He never gambled again. Ikhmenev married a “dowryless” woman and carefully tended his estate. His reputation as an excellent manager grew to the extent that the visiting owner of the adjoining estate, Vasilevskoye “which numbered nine hundred souls,” a certain prince Pyotr Alexandrovich Valkovsky begins to cultivate a friendship with Ikhmenev and his wife. Although the Prince has a nasty reputation, Ikhmenev and his wife, Anna find him charming, and this is partly due to the fact that Valkovsky appears to single them out for attention. Then Valkovsky fires his German steward and offers the job to Ikhmenev, and he unfortunately accepts….

One of the book’s themes is the inability of good, honest people (the humiliated and insulted) to cope with truly evil characters, and this is apparent through several relationships in the book. Valkovsky is an evil man, and just how evil becomes apparent as the plot plays out.

Most of the plot gravitates around two situations: Vanya takes Nelly, a filthy epileptic orphan girl under his wing and saves her from being pimped to a pedophile, and part of the plot concerns the mystery of her background. Another huge chunk of the plot concerns Natasha, the daughter of Ikhmenev and her love affair with an emotionally immature nobleman, Alyosha. 

Dostoevsky’s narrator has a problematic role. He’s a bystander for a huge chunk of the plot, and so he sees and relates the events that take place. There are many scenes of Vanya running over to see Natasha who’s in tears (again) thanks to the latest neglect from her lover. Then the lover appears and dashes off again only to disappear for another 4 days or so.  This cycle is repeated several times. A large chunk of the book appears to have very little forward motion as it hovers on Natasha’s stagnant love affair. Another fault can be found in the fact that Vanya is a bit slow to catch on to the true story behind the orphan’s mysterious past, and as a narrator, he isn’t particularly savvy.

But this is still Dostoevsky, and in my book, he’s untouchable. It’s not his best of course, but still well worth reading. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its look at sexual depravity:

There used to be a mentally sick clerk in Paris–he was confined to an asylum after he was finally pronounced unbalanced. Well then, during his bouts of madness this is how he used to amuse himself: he’d undress at home, stark-naked as the day he was born, down to his shoes, throw a large, ankle-length cloak over his shoulders, wrap himself up in it and, affecting a grand and self-important air, step out into the  street. To look at he was just like anyone else. A man in a large cloak strolling for his pleasure. But no sooner would he see some lone passer-by ahead with no one else about than he’d walk straight towards him, with the most serious and profound expression on his face, stop in front of him suddenly, fling his cloak open and expose himself in all his… glory. He’d stand for about a minute in silence, then cover himself up again and, keeping a straight face and with perfect composure, glide past the thunderstruck observer regally, like the ghost in Hamlet. He’d do that to everybody–men, women, children–and that’s all he needed to keep him happy.

While there are some shady and flawed characters, the Prince, who is unleashed in the final section, is the nastiest and also the most interesting character in the book. He’s a supreme pervie, and Dostoevsky’s frank approach to these sexual matters was refreshing for the 19th century:

Ideals I have none and have no wish to have any, never having missed them anyway. One can survive in this world so comfortably, so nicely without them…

The poverty and vice connection combined with the condemnation of a flawed social system that allows evils to thrive reminded me strongly of Dickens, and Dostoevsky’s novel also contains the sort of sentimentality found in Dickens through its two female victims, the orphan and Natasha. Here’s a speech made to Nelly  from a woman who sells children to wealthy pedophiles:

“Oh you damned bloodsucker, you louse, you!” The woman screamed, letting out an unpuncuated stream of abuse, gasping but not pausing for breath, “so this is how you repay me for all my care, you shaggy wretch! I send her off for some gherkins and off she sneaks! I knew it in my heart when I sent her she’d slope off. I felt it in me bones, I did! Last night I practically scalped her for it and today she’s up to the same old trick! Where’ve you been, you strumpet, where? Who could you go running to, you damned freak, you poisonous wretch, who? Tell me, you bog-trotting vermin, or I’ll strangle you on the spot!” 

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2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky Part I

“She was faithful to her lover–though only until he bored her.”

The Eternal Husband, written by Dostoevsky in 1869,  explores the relationship between two men–Velchaninov, a middle-aged bachelor who suffers from hypochondria, and Trusotsky, a widower from the provinces. The two men are connected by relationships with a woman who’s now dead. The woman, who died from consumption, was Natalya Vasilyevna, Trusotsky’s wife and Velchaninov’s lover. The affair took place nine years earlier when Velchaninov stayed in a provincial town named T. ostensibly to oversee his interests in a lawsuit but, in truth he lingered to conduct the “liaison” with Natalya. The affair lasted for a year, and during this time Velchaninov was in “thrall” to his mistress. This was a new experience for Velchaninov as he was used to being the one in control in amorous relationships–“neither before, nor after had anything like ever happened to him.” Velchaninov, at Natalya’s insistence and argument that she thought she was pregnant, agreed to return to St Petersburg for a short period of time to allay her husband’s suspicions. But once there, Natalya writes to Velchaninov and tells him the affair is finished.

Due to the affair’s abrupt conclusion, Velchaninov has deeply buried unresolved feelings, and there’s “the question which was to remain forever unsettled for him: had he really loved that woman, or had it been just ‘pleasure’ alone?”

Don’t imagine that Velchaninov suffers from a broken heart. Velchaninov is a classic Ludic lover, a man who enjoys the game and the strategies of love and who avoids commitment at all costs. With Natalya, he was simply outmanoeuvred. Dostoevsky paints Velchaninov as a spoiled, vain, self-focused man who’s thoughtlessly ruined more than one woman. Here’s one of Velchaninov’s more shameful amorous adventures, including an instinctive justification which concerns:

 a young girl, a simple townswoman, whom he had not even found attractive and of whom, without knowing why himself, he had had a child, and how he had simply abandoned her, together with the child, without even saying goodbye (true, there had been no time), when he had left St Petersburg. He had spent a whole year hunting for the girl later on, but was already quite unable to find her. Moreover, there proved to be all but hundreds of such memories–and it was even as if each memory dragged dozens of others along after it. Little by little his vanity began to suffer too.

Fast forward nine years when the novel begins. It’s St. Petersburg, and Velchaninov at age 38 or 39, in some aspects already seems to be elderly. Perhaps it’s his ill-temper, or even his hypochondria. He is peevishly waiting for the resolution of  yet another lawsuit:

This case–a lawsuit concerning an estate–was taking an extremely bad turn. Only three months before it had looked not at all complicated, almost indisputable; but everything had somehow suddenly changed. ‘Every thing in general has started changing for the worst!’ Velchaninov had started repeating this phrase to himself often and with malicious exultation. He was employing a lawyer who was cunning, expensive and well-known, and he was unsparing with his money; but in impatience and out of mistrust he had taken to dealing with the case himself too; he read and wrote documents which the lawyer entirely rejected, he ran from one office to another, made enquiries, and probably hindered everything greatly; at least, the lawyer complained and urged him to go away to a dacha. Dust, stifling heat, the white St Petersburg nights irritating his nerves–that is what he enjoyed in St Petersburg. His apartment was somewhere near the Grand Theatre, was newly rented by him, and was not a success either; ‘nothing was a success!’ His hypochondria increased with every day; but he had already long been inclined to hypochondria.

Since Velchaninov has successfully buried many unpleasant memories in his past, perhaps it makes sense that when he starts seeing a man everywhere he goes, at first he doesn’t recognise him. The man is, as it turns out, none other than Trusotsky, the husband of his former lover. The two men form an uneasy relationship, and from Trusotsky, Velchaninov learns of the death of Natalya and that she left behind a little girl. Velchaninov does the arithmetic, wonders if the child is his, and sees a chance for redemption….

Dostoevsky’s tale explores the relationship between the two men–Trusotsky, the cuckold, and Velchaninov, the lover. Since Trusotsky appears to be a complete idiot, the perfect cuckold, Velchaninov isn’t quite sure what Trusotsky knows about his relationship with Natalya. His conversations with Trusotsky are fraught with danger and nervous tension. Things heat up when Trusotsky announces his engagement and then, rather strangely insists that Velchaninov accompanies him to meet the girl he intends to marry.

At one point, Velchaninov muses on the relationship between Trusotsky and Natalya. “She was one of those women,” he thought, “who just seem to be born to be unfaithful wives.” And then he reasons that conversely there exists “a type of husbands corresponding to those women, whose sole purpose lay only in corresponding to that female type. In his opinion, the essence of such husbands consisted in their being, so to speak. ‘eternal husbands’, or to put it better, being only husbands in life and absolutely nothing more.” Velchaninov gets to test his theory of Trusotsky as Eternal Husband or perpetual cuckold.

The Eternal Husband contains Dostoevsky’s characteristic humour, and as usual, he gives his characters nowhere to hide when it comes to the illumination of the baser self, the petty spitefulness of human nature and the sly ulterior motive. There’s a sadistic element afoot emanating from the sanctimonious Trusotsky who very possibly knows more than Velchaninov thinks, and yet both men are pathetic creatures for their exploitation of the women in their lives. The scene that takes place of the Zakhlebinins (the home of no less than 12 marriageble daughters) shows the plight of women who are at the mercy of whatever replusive eligible men come to visit. The Zakhlebinin family is on the brink of financial disaster, so it is imperative that the girls are married off. Dostoevsky shows the plight of sweet-natured Katerina, the eldest girl, who now has few prospects of marriage, and contrasts her to Nadezhda, the youngest girl. Nadezhda, very much a modern girl in the Nihilist camp, is brunette whereas her sisters are blonde. Is Nadezhada, hardly a pliable girl, the result of yet another Eternal Husband? And it’s over Nadezhada that the two men, Trusotsky and Velchaninov form a strange truce when they find themselves trumped by youth.

My copy from Hesperus Press includes a foreword by Andrew Miller and is translated by Hugh Aplin

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Dostoevsky Translations Part II

Here are two more passages comparing translations of Dostoevsky’s The Demons

The Constance Garnett translation free on the kindle:

Part I, Chapter 5–The Subtle Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an easy chair by the window.

“Sit here, my dear,” She motioned Marya Timofyevna to a set in the middle of the room, by a large round table. “Stepan Trofimovitch, what is the meaning of this? See, see, look at this woman, what is the meaning of it?”

“I …I …” faltered Stepan Trimovitch.

But a footman came in.

“A cup of coffee at once, we must have it as quickly as possible! Keep the horses!”

“Mais, chere et excellente amie, dans quelle inquietude…” Stepan Trofimovitch exclaimed in a dying voice.

 “Ach! French! French! I can see at once that it’s the highest society,” cried Marya Timofyevna, clapping her hands, ecstatically preparing herself to listen to a conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in dismay.

We all sat in silence, waiting to see how it would end. Shatov did not lift up his head, and Stepan Trofimovitch was overwhelmed with confusion as though it were all his fault; the perspiration stood out on his temples. I glanced at Liza (she was sitting in the corner almost beside Shatov). Her eyes darted keenly from Varvara Petronova to the cripple and back again; her lips were drawn into a smile, but not a pleasant one. Varvara Petronova saw that smile. Meanwhile Marya Timofyevna was absolutely transported. With evident enjoyment and without a trace of embarrassment she stared at Varvara Petronova’s beautiful drawing-room–the furniture, the carpets, the pictures on the walls, the old-fashioned painted ceiling, the great bronze crucifix in the corner, the china lamp, the albums, the objects on the table.

 

Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Part One Chapter 5: The Wise Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an armchair by the window.

“Sit down here, my dear,” she motioned Marya Timofeevna to a seat in the middle of the room, by the big round table. “Stepan Trofimovich, what is this? Here, here look at this woman, what is this?”

“I … I…” Stepan Trofimovich began to stammer …

But the footman came.

“A cup of coffee, now, specially, and as quickly as possible! Don’t unhitch the carriage.”

“Mais, chère et excellente amie, dans quelle inquiétude …” Stepan Trofimovich exclaimed in a sinking voice.

“Ah! French! French! You can see right off it’s high society!” Marya Timofeevna clapped her hands, preparing rapturously to listen to conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in fright.

We were all silent, awaiting some denouement. Shatov would not raise his head, and Stepan Trofimovich was in disarray, as if it were all his fault; sweat stood out on his temples. I looked at Liza (she was sitting in the corner, almost next to Shatov). Her eyes kept darting keenly from Varvara Petrovna to the lame woman and back; a smile twisted on her lips, but not a nice one. Varvara Petrovna saw this smile. And meanwhile Marya Timofeevna was completely enthralled; with delight and not the least embarrassment she was studying Varvara’s beautiful drawing room–the furniture, the carpets, the paintings on the walls, the old-style decorated ceiling, the big bronze crucifix in the corner, the porcelain lamp, the albums and knickknacks on the table.

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Dostoevsky Translations Part I

The issue of Dostoevsky translations arose recently, so here are some comparative samples for anyone interested:

The Possessed or The Devils translated by Constance Garnett. This is available free on the kindle:

 Chapter 1:

In undertaking to describe the recent and strange events in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning the talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.

I will say at once that Stepan Trofimovich had always filled a particular role among us, that of progressive patriot, so to say, and he was passionately fond of playing the part–so much so that I really believe he could not have existed without it. Not that I would put him on a level with an actor at a theatre, God forbid, for I really have a respect for him. This may all have been the effect of habit, or rather, more exactly of a generous propensity he had from his earliest years for indulging in an agreeable day-dream in which he figured as a picturesque public character. He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity.

Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (which I think is worth the price plus you get a foreword & translator’s notes):

The Demons

Chapter One-Instead of an Introduction:

In setting out to describe the recent and very strange events that took place in our town, hitherto not remarkable for anything, I am forced, for want of skill, to begin somewhat far back–namely, with some biographical details concerning the talented and much esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Let these details serve merely as an introduction to the chronicle presented here, while the story itself, which I am intending to relate, still lies ahead.

I will say straight off Stepan Trofimovich constantly plays a certain special and, so to speak, civic role among us, and loved this role to the point of passion–so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it. Not that I equate him with a stage actor: God forbid, particularly as I happen to respect him. It could all have been a matter of habit, or, better, of a ceaseless and noble disposition, from childhood on, towards a pleasant dream of his civic stance. He was, for example, greatly enamoured of his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of classical luster to these two little words that seduced him once and for all, and, later raising him gradually in his own estimation over the course of so many years, brought him finally to some sort of pedestal, rather lofty and gratifying to his vanity.

To be continued….

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