Wednesday, July 30, 2014

(RNL #49) "The Horse with a Pink Mane" - Viktor Astafyev (Russia)



Rating: 1.5 out of 3

As promised in my previous post, I will spend the month of August reading works by famed Soviet/Russian author, Viktor Astafyev. Astafyev (1924-2001) was born in the village of Ovsyanka. Now, If you want to read more about Astafyev's life, I recommend reading his cycle of autobiographical sketches, "The Last Bow". However, just very briefly here: Astafyev's Father was imprisoned for being a harmful element. His Mother drowned in an tragic boat accident in 1931. Astafyev was then raised by his grandparents until his Father's release from prison. Tragedy struck Astafyev again when his Father was hospitalized, leaving Astafyev homeless. After several months on the streets, Astafyev eventually ended up in an orphanage. As was the case with almost all Soviet youth of his age, Astafyev served during World War II. Astafyev started publishing his literary works in the 50's and met with notable success. 

The first work by Astafyev that I'm going to discuss is "The Horse with a Pink Mane". This short story comes from the aforementioned "Last Bow" short story cycle. Its about one of the most memorable episodes in Astafyev's childhood; the events surrounding Astafyev's receipt of a much-beloved treat; a gingerbread horse with a pink mane. Now, if you like lyrical works say, for example, "Autumn in Taman" by Viktor Likhonosov, or even Aksakov's "The Childhood of Bagrov's Grandson", you'll love this tale. The story is predominantly a lyrical description of nature and country life in the village of Ovsyanka. I'm not that much of a fan of lyricism, so I found the bits of narrative about the 'wild' Levontyevsky family to be the most interesting parts of the tale.

I'm not going to say that I adored this short story, as it wasn't my cup of tea, but it could be interesting to readers who enjoy lyrical works about 20th century country life in Russia.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

(RNL #47) "The Royal Rabbits"- Peter Asbjornsen (Norway)



Rating: 1.5 out 3

We leave the former Soviet Union for a brief detour into Norway...
"The Royal Rabbits" is a short story by famous Norwegian writer and scholar, Peter Christen Asbjornsen (1812-1885). Okay, you may never, ever have heard of him, but you've read "The Three Billy Goats Gruff", right? That was by Asbjornsen!

And now, a few biographical details: Asbjornsen was born in Oslo. A zoologist by profession, he began to collect and write down fairytales from all around Norway at the age of 20. 

Although I've probably read hundreds of fairytales, this was my first time reading "The Royal Rabbits". Its the story of three lazy brothers, out to make an easy living by herding 'royal' rabbits. They are, however, thwarted in this enterprise by a rather sadistic King and his family. At the end of the day, however,- as can be expected- one of the lazy brothers prevails thanks to the help of good fortune and magic.

Admittedly, this was not my favourite fairytale (I prefer the Russian Ivan-Durachok stories, which are much more fun and imaginative); however this was a light and easy read all the same. 1.5 out of 3.

Coming soon (in August): A month of Viktor Astafeyev and, on the contemporary Russian literature front, a look at Maksim Kantor's (in?)famous "Red Light". 

(RNL #45) "My Poor Marat" - Aleksey Arbuzov (Russia)



Rating: 2 out of 3

"Marat: Why do you call me poor Marat?
Lika: Because you believe in the impossible.
Marat: Maybe they just didn't come back from the war - those who thought the same way I do?"


"My Poor Marat" is the second of the two plays I've just read by famed Russian playwright, Aleksey Arbuzov. This is the story of three young people (Marat, Lika and Leonidik) who are joined in some strange, and seemingly eternal bond, after their paths cross during World War 2. The youth meet as teenagers in wartime Leningrad; each with idealistic hopes and dreams for the future. The heroic and dashing Marat longs to build bridges that will connect people; the past and the present; Lika dreams of becoming a medical researcher, who will rid the world of illnesses; and Leonidik hopes to become a great poet. The teens are also involved in a strange love triangle that plays out in a very strange and unexpected manner...

But nevermind the wierd and rather creepy(?) love triangle; nevermind Leonidik's utterly annoying habit of referring to himself in the 3rd person; and let's even ignore that irrestible urge to hit Lika over the head for burning all of Marat's possessions and not being able to come to a simple, independent conclusion as to who she prefers...

This a play about the gap between childhood dreams and reality; the fact that so often, our lofty, adolescent ideals make way for mediocrity. But here, Arbuzov poses to us a question: at that crucial turning point, our 30's, when we fully realise that we have strayed so far from our ideals and ambitions. Is it now too late? Are we too late to connect the ambitions and ideals of the past with our future? Is it too late to start afresh and pursue our dreams?

"Marat: Well, let's think- when is a person finished? When he suddenly understands that everything in his life has already been decided and he will never become anything more elevated than what he already is. I'm not talking about work, I'm talking about something bigger..."

"Marat:...I had a strange dream tonight... I'm standing on an enormous bridge; it hasn't been finished yet - do you understand? - and I should finish the job. But all around, there's this reckless wind...I look around and I see two shores; on one shore is my childhood- 1st of May parades, the battleship "Marat" and my Father and his friends...and on the other- the world after the war, my new life...And I'm standing on this unfinished bridge, the waves are getting stronger and stronger, and higher- and I can't, I can't connect the two shores...." 

2 out of 3


Sunday, July 20, 2014

(RNL #46) "Tanya" - Aleksey Arbuzov (Russia)



Rating: 2 out of 3

"Tanya" is the first of two plays I'll be discussing by famed Russian playwright, Aleksey Nikolayevich Arbuzov (1908-1986). But first, a few biographical notes: Arbuzov was born in Moscow, but moved with his family to Petrograd in 1914. In 1917, following the death of his parents due to illness, famine and civil war, Arbuzov became an orphan and was forced to wander the streets. He eventually ended up in a colony for problem children. Arbuzov's salvation was theatre. From 14 years of age, Arbuzov started working in theatre (e.g. acting, starting his own troupes and writing plays). "Tanya" was his most successful play; running more-or-less continuously during the Soviet era.

"Tanya" (1947) is the story of a young woman who loves her first husband too much; so much, that she abandons her own aspirations to fully devote herself to his. In brief, I think this play is about how abandoning your own life in order to live the life of another is an unnecessary sacrifice; injuring both yourself and the one you love. It is also about how we never know what the future may hold. In the beginning of the novel, the two main characters, Tanya and Grisha, picture their lives in upcoming years, however, can one's perception of what the future will be ever match up to what the future actually holds?

2 out of 3 for this quick, fairly interesting read.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

(RNL #43) "The Golden Ass" - Apuleius (Rome)



Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Next up on the "The National Russian Library List" is "The Golden Ass", which Wikipedia informs us is the only Ancient Roman novel in Latin to have survived to modern times in its entirety.

"The Golden Ass" was written by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis (125-180 CE). Apuleius was born in what is now Algeria. He studied Latin rhetoric and was apparently a renowned public speechmaker. Interestingly enough, Apuleius was an initiate into several cults or mysteries and apparently was once accused of using marriage to attract a wealthy widow. 

The novel "The Golden Ass" is not at all what I expected from a 'classic' work. It recounts the lighthearted and mystical misadventures of the main character, a man named ('what-a-coincidence') Lucius, in Greece. Lucius is a very comical and endearing character; a young, gluttonous, hedonistic and gossipy young man who, in his curiosity to learn more about magic, ends up getting accidentally turned into an ass. Lucius spends most of the novel trying to turn back into a human being, however, being in ass-form does not prevent Lucius from continuing to gorge, eavesdrop and make trouble for himself and everyone around him.

Throughout the novel, Lucius-turned-ass eagerly provides the reader with the 'latest gossip' wherever he is stationed. Through Lucius we learn some interesting mythology (the story of Psyche and Cupid); as well as the lurid details of the most scandalous local goings-on. 

What's charming about the story is that almost everything is recounted in a very light-hearted and self-deprecating manner. I must say, that I enjoyed this book well beyond my own expectations, and recommend it as a light, enjoyable read.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Return to Pandzhrud - Andrey Volos (Russia) 2013 Russian Booker Prize Laureat




Rating: 3 out of 3

Its difficult to know where to start with this novel. Shall I start by saying a few words about the novel's author? 



Andrey Volos (1955-) was born in Stalinabad (Dushanbe) Tajikistan. He studied geophysics in Moscow, but then returned to Dushanbe, where he engaged in the translation of Tajikistani poetry into Russian, and then, the writing of his own prose. (Volos moved to Moscow in the 1990s.) 

Volos has been quoted as saying that he really loves Tajiks and Tajikistan. Therefore, its not surprising that many of his books are set in Tajikistan. In fact, Volos said this very beautiful thing about his relationship to Tajikistan: "Its in vain that I left Tajikistan, because Tajikistan came for me."

I noted (with some trepedition!) that the synopsis for Volos' latest, and most acclaimed work, "Return to Pandzhurd", reads like a promotional blurb for a Coehlo novel:

"It is a long road from Bukhara to Pandzhrud, especially if a blind old man is to traverse it. He is fortunate that he will be led by a boy who will be his guide. Where could you find a better escort? Step by step they will overcome the journey appointed to them. And with each step it will become clear, that it is not the boy who is seeing, but the old man, and it is not the guide who is leading the blind man..." Yes, yes...but the blind man is leading the boy!

In fact, however, if "The Return to Pandzhrud" is anything like Coelho's "The Alchemist", its what "The Alchemist" shouldhave been, rather that what it is. "The Return to Pandzhrud" is the story of the famous 8th-9th century Tajiko-Persian poet Rudaki; a man who apparently is greatly revered to this day in Tajikistan as the founding Father of Tajik poetry. Rudaki was universally known and venerated in his time as "The Tsar of Poets", however, we are first acquainted with the man in a dank, prison hole. The entire book is the story of the 'circle' of Rudaki's life; from the rural village of Pandzhrud, to fame in the court of the Emir, to shame and disgrace and well... his eventual "Return to Panzdhrud".

The story of 'how Rudaki ended up in the prison hole' is riveting enough, but there is a lot more in this book of real interest. Volos is a specialist in Tajik poetry; and his knowledge was put to fine application in this novel. The passages in the novel about the art of poetry (the creation of harmonious sound, image and word combinations were very interesting and gave me new insight into the appreciation of poetry). Volos' innate love for Tajikistan and its people also shone through; there were a myriad of details in the novel about the daily lives of the Tajik people, their customs, their religious observances, etc. It really immersed you in a world that is very 'exotic' and inaccessible to foreigners.

There was also plenty of food for thought in the novel and I bookmarked many passages, e.g.

"You know, the greed of a simple person can be explained by at least the fact that, understanding how weak and powerless he is in the world, he covets a pittance, hoping that money will give him some foothold."

"Wise men say: "If you want to find out who loves you and who hates you, who is your enemy and who you can consider a friend, look into your heart, as within it, as in a mirror, is reflected enmity and love."

"But you know, having money can't be more important that having the ability to forget about it?"

"If you are capable of thinking, feeling, being generous and not falling pray to anger, then you are already in heaven, and the future shouldn't frighten you. But if not, then you won't be fearful of hell because, notwithstanding, you're already in it."


"The past was at some point the future. And the future will at some point become the past."


The chapter which recounted a conversation between the Vizir and Rudaki was especially interesting in terms of philosophic dialogue(!)

And...most importantly the end - the end of this book- was so beautiful and touching. It recounted the end of a circle...the past becomes the future, the future becomes the past... 

"That pearly, enticing fog that he pictured his own life as being has already completely dispersed. He had already managed to pass it by, to go through it entirely, and what's left? Only little beads of moisture on his shoulders."

The King of Poets, robbed of his crown, with no money and no titles, is still revered more than any King with money and titles. Rudaki made a full circle in life; gained and lost, but still remained... (and for this he is destined to the fame and reverence that a fly-by-night King could only dream of!)... the only man who is able to understand the language of the nightingales...

Regardless of his enemies' attempts to destroy him, the book demonstrates again and again, how this great man could never be dishonored by the people, could never be impoverished for he is a man of reason, with a soul and a voice that touches at the very souls of his people...

Im not sure if my ramblings are making any sense here, but I hope what does come across is that this is a fantastic book, one that SHOULD be read and one that...for the life of me I can't understand why...wasn't nominated for "The Clear Glade Prize". And how could anyone think that "Thief, Murderer and Spy" was better than this exceptional novel??? Volos apparently wrote this novel over the span of 25 years, at the urging of his Mother. The craftmanship shows. I'm excited to read more novels by this author. This one is highly recommended; one of the best I've read all year and my best of 2013 thus far.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

(RNL #42) "Rabbit, Run" - John Updike (USA)



Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Today I finished "Rabbit, Run"- a 1960's classic by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning American author, John Updike (1932-2009). Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and later graduated from Harvard with a degree in English. He began his writing career as a contributor to the New Yorker. In the 50s, Updike underwent a profound spiritual crisis and subsequently, remained a believing Christian for the rest of his life.

"Rabbit Run" (1960) is the first in a tetrology of books following the life of a small town, middle class American named Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom. The series of Rabbit books was perhaps Updike's most famous contribution to literature. 

In "Rabbit Run", we meet 'Rabbit', a former highschool basketball star who can't quite adapt himself to day-to-day life in his small town. He feels stifled by his wife and his adult responsibilities. Throughout the novel, whenever he feels closed in; rather than face his problems with mature resolve, Rabbit just breaks out into a run, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces.

Updike has been praised for his style; for the descriptiveness of his writing; however, it took me a while to get accustomed to the frequent use of extremely long, run-on sentences. I understand that this is supposed to make us feel as if we are in Rabbit's mind and/or 'running-along' with Rabbit, but my eyes quickly scanned alot of those long-long sentences and I was much happier reading the scenes with shorter sentences and dialogue.

Did I hate this book? No. Did I enjoy it? Not really. It wasn't because I found Rabbit to be a really off-putting, repugnant character (strangely enough, despite the fact that he does act reprehensibly throughout the novel, I perhaps saw him in the same way as many of the other characters; as a sincere, but very immature sort of 'child' in an adult body). Perhaps the plot just wasn't 'my cup of tea'. 

1.5 out of 3

Saturday, July 5, 2014

(RNL #41) "L'Alouette"- Jean Anouilh (France)



Rating: 2 out of 3

I remember reading excerpts from this play in highschool... "L'Alouette" is essentially a re-telling of the trial of Jean D'Arc (with liberties of course!). Its an interesting enough read: In particular, I read the early scenes from Jean's life with interest; how she was able to use her faith and intelligence to win the men of power to her cause despite all odds. 

Now it seems to me, as was the case with Anouilh's other play, "Antigone", that "Alouette" also continues the theme of sacrificing one's life for a higher ideal even if one's rebellion against the forces of injustice results in a death that could have been avoided. 

I preferred "Antigone", but I liked this one as well. 2 out of 3.

Friday, July 4, 2014

2013 Clear Glade Prize Wrap-up

And now we get to the fun part...

Having just read all six of the 2013 Clear Grade Prize shortlisted books, I can now post my own verdict on the books selected.

So just to recap, the "Clear Glade Literary Prize" ( currently run by Lev Tolstoy's great grandson) celebrates works that contain the ideals of love for humanity, compassion and morality. 41 works made the longlist, but only the following six were shortlisted:



So before I let you know, which was my favourite, I'll provide a recap of each book:

1) Laurus
Brief Synopsis: 15th century Russian healer strives towards redemption before God for the sins he and his lover committed. Lots of intellectual ruminations about the nature of time.

Plus Points:

-For me, this was the book that most celebrated the 'ideals of love for humanity, compassion and morality'. It was spiritually uplifting. Many of my friends whom I gave this book to read it in tears.
-Interesting descriptions of medieval Russia (particularly the city of Pskov)

Minus Points:

-When it started to channel Coelo's "The Alchemist" around the 'Israel' section, I almost wanted to toss the book and run
-There are few characters in fiction that I have hated more than Ambrozhio.

2) Holiday Mountain
Brief Synopsis: Ethnic and religious conflicts and confusion in post-Soviet Dagestan eventually lead to the radical Islamitization of the republic and tragic consequences for our novel's heroes. Deep down, however, all of these generations of war-weary people just wanted to get to their 'holiday mountain' of myth, where they could feast and be merry, as one, without the dangers of war.

Plus Points:
-Interesting topic set in an exotic location.
-Interesting interweaving of the holiday mountain myth as well as snippets from other literary works within the novel

Negative Points:
-Forgettable characters with whom I was unable to really connect

3) Idiot of Our Time
Brief Synopsis: The devilish influence of money in 1990's Russia

Plus Points:
-Many extremely ambitious, unique and interesting ideas contained in the novel: the idea of the main character becoming a modern day Raskolnikov- brilliant! The section on humanity's common roots - remarkable!

-Some very well-written scenes (e.g. the murder scene, the lunch between Zemsky and his father-in-law)

Negative Points
-In my opinion, the author set too ambitious a task for himself (i.e. deciding to write a modern-day "Crime and Punishment", "Idiot" and "Brothers Karamazov" all in one. As such, I was left slightly disappointed at the end of the book, with the feeling that, had characters/plots been better written/fleshed out this could truly have been something incredible

4) Auntie Motya
Synopsis: The search for love and happiness in modern-day family life

Plus points:
-Nice literary style
-There were many moments that any modern-day woman could well relate to (e.g. the comportment of Lanin)

Negative Points:
-lacking in depth for a serious book prize
-ending was frustrating, unrealistic and unsatisfying

5) Four Odd Years: A War Journal
Synopsis: Part One: a compilation of touching, WW2 Letters from Ryabov Senior to his family. Part Two: The travel journal of Ryabov Junior.

Plus points:
-Ryabov senior's letters were heartwarming, and of historical interest

Negative Points:
-Part two, by Ryabov junior, was uninteresting and I still don't quite understand its relation to Part One.

6) Information
Synopsis: A slightly muddled, first-person account of a thirty-something undergoing life crises.

Plus points:
-addictive, gritty reality-show style narration
-a true-to-life novel about the 30's generation

Negative Points:
-I thought the ending (or-lack-of-ending?) was a bit weak.

And so, summaries aside, which book was my favourite? I can quickly eliminate "Four Odd Years: A War Journal" and "Auntie Motya", which I felt were the weaker candidates in the group.

Next, I'd eliminate "Holiday Mountain", which leaves the books I thought were the strongest from the list:

"Idiot of our Time"
"Information" and
"Laurus"

I'm going to be very predictable and cast my vote for "Laurus", which really was the big book among these six, despite my (irrational?) Ambrozio hatred. :) For me, "Idiot of our Time" would come in second.

So now, with the 2013 "Clear Glade Prize" behind me, I look forward to September and the 2014 "Clear Glade" prize shortlist. I know that none of the above books are available yet in English, however, I'm fairly sure that "Laurus" is being translated as we speak. If you'd like to try some Roman Senchin, you can read "Minus". And I believe one of Maya Kucherskaya's earlier books (English title: Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy) was translated into English as well.

Up next, short listed books from the other major awards; Russian Booker, Nose, Big Book and the Bunin Prize.

Happy reading!

"Information" - Roman Senchin (Russia) 2013 "Clear Glade" Prize Shortlister



This book is not yet available in English, but if you want to try some Senchin, you can always pick up a copy of his earlier book, "Minus"

Rating: 2 out of 3

It seems as if it was just yesterday that I started reading the 6 books shortlisted for the 2013 "Clear Glade Prize"; however, I've just actually finished reading the last book from the shortlist, Roman Senchin's "Information"...

Now, before I get into a description of the book, let's talk about Mr. Senchin. Well, actually- let's start by looking at Mr. Senchin:



Smouldering eyes, yes? :) Mysterious gaze? What else is known about this handsome, brown haired author?

He was born in 1971 in the republic of Tuva, of all places. (This is exciting for me as my best friend from university was Tuvinian). Senchin left Tuva to escape the interethnic flareups that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He then moved to...Minusinsk (where the temperature drops to almost -50 in the winter!) and laboured for a time at various blue collar odd-jobs. From 1995 onwards, his prose started to get published and then...well, his career took off from there... 

Senchin is best known for his novel "The Yeltyshevs", which I don't think won any major awards but made the short list of many... But anyway, Senchin is still rather famous and has even been compared, in some reviews, to Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. 

And so, what did I think of "Information"?

This was the first book that I've read by Senchin and I have to say that I liked it. The book was written in first-person, in a stream of consciousness style; basically the author is giving us non-chronological, slightly muddled, account of his life over the past four years. His life over the past four years was, as we learn, a non-stop rollercoaster from one disaster on to another. But to me, what actually happened wasn't that important. What really drew me to the novel was:

-the very interesting first scenes involving the unfortunate 'accident' the hero endures after a domestic argument. It will surely make you think twice about hard-drinking!

-the 'novel' way in which the book was written. Senchin has stated in an interview that he watches a lot of reality shows, and the book- well,it felt as if I was 'reading a reality show'; that I was some disinterested late-night viewer, watching our hero mess up his life from the comfort of my armchair. And really, at times you even watched (read) the hero going through everyday, almost unworthy of attention, tasks in his life, just as if you were watching him on camera; i.e., withdrawing money from a bank machine; shaving; buying food at the grocery story.... And just like a reality show, this novel was addictive. I could probably have read it in two days had I allowed myself to read it alone.

-I read a review of a girl who 'hated' this novel. But then, she was in her mid-twenties. I think you have to be over thirty to 'get' the book (preferably within the 30-50 age range). To me, "Information" is a novel about the 30+ generation; the slump and depression that we fall into after our twenties have been spent; when we first receive, at full force, life's crushing blows and lose the 20's naivety that our whole lives are ahead of us and that its in our power to make things better with some patience and hard work. 

-The male characters of the novel (the author and his 'best friends) were, as well, very interesting to read about and well illustrated the utter self-absorption and degeneration of many representatives of the 30's generation. As an example, no matter what tragedy afflicted any one of the friends (e.g. divorce, jail-time, potential loss of life), none of the 'friends' seemed interested beyond how the concrete situation would affect his own interests. 

-What really adds to the realism of Senchin's books is the fact that he's known to put a little (or a lot) of himself into each book. In this particular book, the character Oleg Svenchin (love that name!) has a suspiciously similar biography to Roman Senchin, and I'm sure that the novel's hero is also somewhat based on Senchin or on his life experiences. 

In brief, this was a book that I enjoyed, again- not so much for the actual sequence of events, but for the atmosphere, the characters, and the look at the world of the 30's generation. So yes, I would recommend this book to those who enjoy so-called 'new realism', and myself, look forward to reading more of Mr. Senchin ;)

2 out of 3.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

"The Ravines" - Sergey Antonov (Russia)



Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Not too long ago, I read Antonov's "The Tsarist Twenty Kopeck Piece" and "Vaska". I've just now finished "The Ravines", the third book in Antonov's trilogy set in the Soviet Union of the 1920-30's. "The Ravines" is actually part two of the trilogy (it should ideally be read before "Vaska"), as it narrates the collectivization experience in rural Russia through the eyes of (a younger) Mitya Platonov and his Father.

"The Ravines" is essentially the tale of the largely unsuccessful attempts of zealous, honest, kind but utterly naive and non-introspective Roman Gavrilovich Platonov to root out 'foreign' elements (e.g. richer peasants with livestock and land) from the village of Syademka and establish therein a prosperous collective farm. Intertwined within the narrative is a rather interesting murder mystery and buried treasure. :)

I enjoyed the book, as I enjoyed all of the other books I have read by Antonov. Antonov is an excellent writer; skilled at weaving an interesting and captivating narrative. His characters are also alive, believable and endearing (I wasn't the only one worried about what happened to Mitya Platonov at the end of "Vaska" Its something that has apparently, even pre-occupied critics!).

What I also like about Antonov's writing is that its balanced. He provides a full picture of the historical event his story provides; both the good and the bad. He also educates the reader and provides food for thought:

"There's the law of Euclid, that is, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But when you return home, for example, to Syademka, despite this, you don't walk into puddles, you walk around ravines and bushes; in brief, you break Euclid's law and, as a result, reach the given point not by the shortest, but by the most rational distance in the given conditions. In order for a law to work well, it is the duty of each conscious citizen to enhance the letter of the law with his own reason, and, most importantly, with his conscience. If your conscience is languishing and is in opposition to the law; if you're ashamed- then stop and think. Otherwise, any law, if its applied thoughtlessly and without conscience, stops being a law, but becomes a crime."

"The collective farm could have solved this problem", Stefan Ivanovich gently corrected him, "if they had followed Lenin's direction to close ranks, retreating, with the peasant masses and along with them, one hundred times slower, but at the same time firmly and steadfastly going forward, so that it, the peasant mass always saw that we are, nevertheless, moving forward. Our goal is to create a union, to show the peasant in our actions that we are starting from what he understands, knows and is accessible to him now, in all of his poverty, and not with something far off and fantastical, from the point of view of a peasant. Lenin called for us not to hide our mistakes, but to publicly expose and correct them. But instead of returning to the abandoned troops, in order to rush ahead...you're committing a new crime. You're attempting to pull the peasantry by force to the frontiers reached by an industrial city."

2.5 out of 3

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

(RNL #40) "Antigone" - Jean Anouilh (France)


Rating: 2 out of 3

Today's post is about the first of two plays on the Russian National Library reading list by famed French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-1987). According to Wikipedia, Anouilh was one of France's most prolific writers; composing everything from high drama to absurdist farce.

Antigone (Anouilh's most famous work) is a modern-day retelling of the Greek tragedy of the same name; another one of those 'everyone-must-die' type stories that we're familiar with from highschool Classics. Of note, however, is the fact that when this play was first staged during the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s, French theatre patrons of the time read the play as a parable to their current political situation. Therefore, read this if you will, as a veiled allusion to the political supporters of the Nazi Regime in France and the French resistance.

For me, the main theme in the play was the conflict between King Creon (who felt that his duty as a King bound him to act, at times, in ways that were repulsive to his own nature and conscience) and Antigone -and pretty much everyone else in the play- who rebelled against this reasoning, even if their rebellion amounted to little more than their own, near-pointless deaths.

Now most of us might immediately take the side of Antigone here, however, could it perhaps not be that Creon was the noble one? Isn't the life of a modern day ruler an ugly business in general? Has there even been one ruler over the past 300 years who has had clean hands, who hasn't been responsible for the death and suffering of others in the name of the 'greater good'? As Creon attempted to argue, it is easy for a young idealist to give up and surrender their lives, but much more difficult to put your one's thoughts and passions aside and do what is best for the country.

"Antigone" is a recommended read for FSL students (like myself). The vocabulary wasn't too difficult and the entire book can be read in a few hours. 2 out of 3.