It’s time for this month’s chain of reading, inspired by Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation, a challenge that invites us to build a chain of 6 books that bear some form of connection to each other – be it author, theme, style, location, title, era, language, ….. – all starting from a book suggested each month by Kate.
This month’s starter book is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – a book with somewhat mixed reviews but written by an author I admire.
So I’m diving straight in with another work by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow, one of my favourite reads from 2021. It tells the tale of Count Rostov during his confinement to the Metropol Hotel, from 1922 until 1954.
The book opens with poem written by Rostov in 1913. The poem and his sympathetic attitude to revolution saves his life in his trial in 1922, resulting in house arrest rather than execution. We learn more about this poem later and its link with fate, such a common factor in Russian literature.
Towles turns these potentially monotonous thirty two years into a humorous and informative tale of everyday life. He uses beautiful language, mixes in snippets of history and talks much about literature, food and wine. We are made aware of revolution, war and Stalin, of communist rules and restrictions, and we get to look out from the hotel onto Theatre Square and the Maly and Bolshoi Theatres. We learn through his acquaintances outside of the difficulties of life at this time, emphasised when and one of his friends remarks to Rostov, “Who would have imagined when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia”.
As I say, I loved this book.
It took me back to Russian classics I have loved, it reminded me of evenings enjoying live jazz, brought back the pleasure of eating bouillabaisse in Marseille, and the impact of communism on the appearance of Moscow, with glorious buildings such as Kazan Cathedral in Red Square being removed upon instruction by Stalin.
I may have enjoyed it all the more because of my existing interest in Russia, but there is plenty here for everyone. It is hard not to laugh at the geese released from the kitchen and running riot around the hotel, or the secret escapades of a young child in possession of a master key. And, yes, there is some love and romance too. Plus an element of escape.
If nothing else, it teaches us the importance of friendship and that we should not forget to take joy in small things.
St Basil’s Moscow, April 2012
From a gentleman in Moscow we’ll move to a lady in Moscow, and enjoy the more lighthearted tale of Mrs Harris goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico.
Set in the 1970s, we take a trip to Moscow with this charming cleaner from London, who has already delighted us on her previous trip to Paris.
Before her holiday, Mrs Harris discovers one of the people she cleans for was recently expelled from Russia for interviewing a dissident and was unable to communicate with his secret Russian girlfriend to explain his sudden departure. She plans to use her trip to arrange a happy romantic ending for the couple.
The story brought back memories of my own trip to Moscow in the 70s, with “dragon women” guarding every floor in a hotel to watch all comings and goings. I have to say that having Mrs Harris as my companion might have lightened that visit. I certainly enjoyed my return trip courtesy of this book.
This book is hard to get at the moment – largely out of stock or available secondhand at a price. You may prefer to go to your library or get a Kindle / ebook version.
Now we’re off to meet a lady and her four-legged companion, in Chekhov’s short story, The Lady with the Dog.
Here we meet a quieter lady than Mrs Harris, but have another story of romance. Set in the late nineteenth century, two unhappily married people, Dmitry Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, meet on a trip to Yalta and start an affair. Upon his return home to Moscow, Gurov realises that he has fallen in love and reunites with Anna.
This charming short love story, is regarded as one of Chekhov’s top works. Many people will know him more for his plays, but it was the short story genre for which the Count Rostov, our earlier Gentleman, praised Chekhov: “Precise and uncluttered, they invite us into some corner of a household at some discrete hour in which the entire human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so.”
It is really worth reading some of his stories even if his plays do not appeal. Why not try listening to some of them being read by Stephen Fry, or pick up a bi- or tri- lingual version. The story is short enough to play with and I enjoyed a Russian/Spanish/English version (available paperback or kindle, and free on Kindle Unlimited). The notes provided in this book give a great insight into the language used by Chekhov – and show why producing a truly accurate and suitably flavoured translation of literature is so difficult.
And from a tiny Pomeranian dog, we’ll move to a book featuring a cat, and a giant cat at that. And he talks too! Welcome to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
A Russian classic, recognised as one of the top 20th century novels in the world – crazy, intricate, fun, deep, but most definitely a classic.
Bulgakov suffered immensely under the Stalin regime – many of his works were banned and he struggled to make a living. This wonderful novel was not even published in his lifetime. It is highly likely he knew that would be the case; in fact he may have written it entirely for himself. He talked of how hard it is for a writer to give up writing and creating this wonderful story may have been his way to sate his addiction and keep his spirits high.
I strongly recommend this book. It is a deep criticism of Stalin (disguised as Satan) and his regime but you can enjoy the book without thinking of that at all. Even though I know that lies beneath the story, I don’t think of it as a book from that era as it has a young, lively and modern feel to it.
Now we’re moving to a much more recent look at Moscow, Private Moscow, a James Paterson thriller published 2020.
Really not my kind of book, and apart from a few Russian street names it didn’t make me feel I was in Moscow. Not something I would normally read, and in fact I gave up about half way in. But if you enjoy a concentrated thriller, this will take you between New York and Moscow, with plenty of gunshots, explosions and high speed chases.
There were so many other Russian classics I could have included in this chain, and other more modern works, but I decided to finish with just one book that looks back at a number of the great Russian classics: The Anna Karenina Fix by Viv Groskop. The authors included here are Tolstoy, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov and Gogol.
This book is a more serious literary review than I expected, but it is written in a lovely light tone and mixed with the author’s own experiences on her visits to Russia in the 1990s. It is both informative and easy to read.
Groskop aims to encourage more of us to engage with the Russian classics, whose size alone often daunts us. She helps us peek into the lives and thoughts of the authors, gives her views on what the stories can tell us and helps us understand elements of Russian language, literature and culture. She puts as at ease despite the regular appearances of soul, fate and destiny in the classics, and makes all those long and weird Russian names seem easy to handle.
You don’t need to read this book from cover to cover, you can pick out the chapters that talk about books you like or want to know more about. I am sure you’ll want to read at least one of the books featured once you have read Groskop’s book.
I hope my choice of six books in Moscow, or thereabouts, give you a good read or two.
Next month we’ll be setting off from No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, a book that could take us off in a number of directions – I’m just planning my route!
Note: Most of my links this week are to Hive, an online bookseller that gives part of the income to local booksellers, and you get to choose the bookshop you’d like to receive the benefit. I’m delighted that my local bookshop, Books on the Hill, is on the list, and have been happily supporting them in this way.
Copyright Debbie Smyth, 4 January 2022
Posted as part of Six Degrees