Review: The Queen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin Press are known for beautifully designed volumes of translated fiction, usually in a smaller format than most paperbacks.  The Queen of Spades and Selected Works by Alexander Pushkin is a gem of a book with its Naples Yellow cover, its fold-over cover and its archival quality paper.  I gave up my precious e-reader for a couple of days in order to read it.

Having gloated over the production values of this little book, let me get down to the content.  This is a new translation by Anthony Briggs who also provides a short but useful introduction to the works included in the book.  It consists of two main stories, The Queen of Spades and The Stationmaster and then a number of poems including The Bronze Horseman which the translator says is “one of the brightest gems of Russian literature”.


The highlightof the book is the title story in which Hermann, a young gambler, hears of a friend’s grandmother, an ancient Countess, who became wealthy by learning a gambling secret from a Count St Germain who claimed to be “the Wandering Jew, the discoverer of the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone”.  When the grand-mother was a young woman and in considerable financial difficulty she joined a gaming table for one night, deployed the mysterious secret and won a vast sum of money. Continue reading

Review: Uncle’s Dream – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Uncle's DreamIts been quite a few years since I last read anything by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read Crime and Punishment when I was in my early 20s – a perfect age to read the book because it focuses on a young man of similar age, Raskolinkov who decides that murdering his landlady can only be a good thing to do (if perhaps not an example to be followed).

I struggled through The Brothers Karamazov soon after and then felt I’d had enough of Russian authors for the time being and haven’t returned since.

Hesperus Press have provided me with the perfect way to reacquaint myself with Dostoevsky by publishing Uncle’s Dream, a shorter (150 page) novel which he wrote in 1859, seven years before he wrote Crime and Punishment.   All the qualities of the great author are there – insights into Russian lives with all the insights into hidden motives and the psychological manouverings which underpin so much human behaviour.  And also, in the case of this book at least, a great sense of humour, which at times lead Dostoevsky to set up almost farcical scenes as family members vie for an inheritance.

In Uncle’s Dream, an amibitious mother (Maria Alexandrovna Moskalyova – and I won’t write that again) seeks to marry off her twenty-three year old daughter Zina to the senile Prince K, a distant relative who is passing through the town in which the family live.  After all, a 23 year old daughter, however beautiful and talented is starting to become a bit of a liability particularly when she had a proud nature prone to setting herself above the common society.

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Review: Apricot Jam and Other Stories – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

apricot jamA new book by by Russian giant of literature Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) seems like a throwback to the 1960s and 70s when the Soviet Empire was threatening the world with nuclear holocaust and American politicians spent their days worrying about the spread of communism.   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward, the majestic Gulag Archipelago – all these titles were huge publishing events when they first came out, providing as they did a revelatory insight into daily life into the labour camps of the Soviet Union.  Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 leading to his deportation from Russia in 1974.

In 1976, Solzhenitsyn moved to the USA where after an initial period of adulation, the opinion of many turned against him as they became aware of his contempt for American society and his support for Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church – “..the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits … by TV stupor and by intolerable music”.  While offending many, Solzhenitsyn’s “reactionary” views increased Solzhenitsyn’s popularity with more conservative commentators such as Malcolm Muggeridge who wrote in 1978,

The pack is after him because what he says is unbearable: that the answer to dictatorship is not liberalism, but Christianity. I mean, that is an unbearable proposition from their point of view, and it is where he stands . . . It has been something wonderful to watch and, to more people than you might think, enormously heartening: that that is what this man should have to say instead of a lot of claptrap . . . They started off by never mentioning that he was a Christian. I mean, for a long time, he was made a hero of the cause for freedom, but it was never mentioned that an integral and essential part of it was his Christian belief.

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Review: The Concert Ticket – Olga Grushin

Olga Grushin has created a novel with all the characteristics of a Russian classic.  The Concert Ticket could have been written by a modern Chekov or Gogol and yet has none of the clunkiness of a translation for it was written in English.  Although Grushin’s story has a basis in real-life events, the author brings a surreal touch to her story which makes it go way beyond the prosaic, everyday lives of citizens of the old Soviet Union.

The book is loosely based on a real-life event. In 1962 the composer Igor Stravinsky returned to Russia to play one concert.  The queue for tickets began one year before the event took place and only 5000 tickets were available.  Olga Grushin has formed her story by describing one family’s participation in a similar queue and the impact it has on their lives.

In the novel, Anna is on her way home from work as a teacher, when she sees a small queue forming at a lone kiosk.  Ths kiosk is nondescript with no sign above it.  Its window was boarded up, and a handwritten notice tacked onto it, “Gone to the parade”.  Anna proceeds on her way home but mentions the new kiosk to her husband, a tuba player in a state-run orchestra, and her mother and son.

A few weeks later she notices that about fifty people are standing in the queue.  Nobody seems to know what the kiosk is selling.  Leather boots, children’s coats, layetrd cakes?  The suggestions from the queue are many and Anna discovers in herself a desire to be suprised,  saying, “It sure must be something good otherwise all these people wouldn’t be here”.

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