Sunday, December 27, 2015

(RNL #77) "The Clown" by Heinrich Boll (Germany)

Rating: 2 out of 3

The next stop on our classic literature odyssey is Germany. Interestingly enough, "The Clown" is the first ever book that I have read by a German author. My impressions? I'll provide them soon enough, but first, a few words about the author of "The Clown".

Heinrich Boll (1917-1985) is noted as being one of Germany's foremost post-World War II writers. He also happens to have been the 1972 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Boll was born in Cologne to a Catholic family that later opposed Nazism. (Boll himself refused to join the Hitler Youth in the 1930s.) He eventually married, worked as a translator of English language works into German, but, in in the 40's was conscripted and served in several countries before being captured by the Americans in 1945. After the war, Boll returned to Cologne and eventually, became a full-time writer at the age of 30.

A few more interesting facts about Boll. Boll was deeply catholic (though critical of some aspects of the religion), and later publicly left the church in 1976 "without falling away from the faith." Boll also took in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when he was first expelled from the USSR, and later even nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Now coming back to "The Clown", this was one of the books that made Boll famous, and is about a young 28 year old clown (yes, an actual clown) who spirals into deep depression and financial woe after his partner leaves him for another man. The book basically chronicles the life of this man over the course of a few hours as he contacts all of his friends and family, one after another, in (ultimately) unsuccessful attempts to hit them up for money.

Now, there are two sides to this tale. The clown's side; basically, that when someone is in trouble, no one really helps including those who profess to be religious, the wealthy, etc. The other side is...well, that the clown is immature and needs to grow up and out of his sense of self-entitlement.

This book certainly stands out from others. At times it is an annoying anti-Catholic rant; at times I grew so tired of it and just wanted to put it away; but there was something strangely interesting and appealing about the novel. Boll really succeeded in fleshing out his characters; particularly those of the Clown and his former lover, Marie. I really felt as if I was in the Clown's world and that he could well have been a real person. Even the (at times) irritating ramblings of the clown made him more believable and human.

This was not the novel that I expected, but a fairly interesting novel nonetheless. Two stars for me.

NEXT UP: a book about collectivism in Soviet Russia and 'we're off to see the Wizard!'

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

(RNL #84) "The Amphibian" by Aleksandr Belyaev (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Today's review is a refreshing change from the sober realist works I have been reading as of late. Today, the book to be highlighted is a famous Soviet science fiction novel entitled "The Amphibian".

The author of "The Amphibian", Aleksandr Romanovich Belyaev, was born on March 4, 1884. He was born to an Orthodox priest family in the Russian city of Smolensk. Belyaev also had two other siblings, both of whom died in separate tragic events.

Belyaev's Father wanted his son to take up the family profession as well, and so, young Belyaev was sent to a spiritual seminary. Although Belyaev finished the schooling, he ultimately didn't become a priest, but instead, ended up a determined atheist. He also later went against his Father's wishes and enrolled in law school.

Eventually, Belyaev became a successful lawyer and had the means to live well and travel abroad. However, at the age of 35, Belyaev fell ill with tuberculosis. His illness caused him to be bedridden for six years and his young wife left him, advising that she didn't marry in order to become a nursemaid.

Not wanting to lie idle, Belyaev started writing poetry during his illness. Instead of falling into a depression, he also started improving himself by studying foreign languages, medicine, history and other subjects. In 1922, he recovered from his illness and returned to work.

Belyaev also began to take his writing more seriously. He started to write sci-fi stories and novels and was called "the Soviet Jules Verne".

Tragically, however, Belyaev died of hunger during the Second World War. He was ill and living in Leningrad at the time, and as such, was unable to evacuate the city.

There are two Belyaev novels on the RNL list. The first of the two novels that I have read is The Amphibian". This novel is set in Argentina and is basically about an Argentinian 'Doctor Moreau'; a brilliant and reclusive surgeon who conducts strange and awesome experiments on humans and animals. His greatest creation is an Amphibian man- a young boy capable of living both under water and on land. At the beginning of the novel, the boy's occasional appearances on the sea surface incite fear in the locals and he is feared by all as being a "Sea Devil". We learn more about the boy as the novel progresses and read on as he falls in love with a beautiful human girl...

Now, initially, I found the novel to be okay, but not terribly interesting. However, the novel did pick up towards the end and began to pose some interesting philosophical questions. (I have a partiality towards novels that pose interesting philosophical questions). At the end of the novel, we literally all are invited to pass judgement on the mysterious Doctor. Could he be considered a genius? A visionary? Or a conceited monster acting against the design of God?

Now, the Doctor's argument for his Frankensteinian line of work is the fact that in doing so he was saving lives and helping along the 'improvement' of the human race. So what if there were a few hybrid freaks and deaths along the way? The Doctor was forging a path towards supermen, men capable of thriving in and conquering, the seas. However, was it not cruel for the Doctor to create the Amphibian boy against his will? A boy who will never have children or human companions, who can never be like anyone else? It is up to each reader to choose a side.

There is also much reference to the inherent greed of men; the sad fact that men would never really benefit from the true potential of the Doctor's research due to their obsession with money.

I must say that this was a light, easy read. The end proved interesting, but overall, I would say that this book is something of a poor cousin to its brilliant predecessor, "The Island of Dr. Moreau".

2 out of 3.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

(RNL #78) "Business as Usual and other Stories" by Vasily Belov (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Vasily Ivanovich Belov (Oct 1932-Dec 2012) was a Russian writer, poet and dramatist, most famous for his prose about life in the Russian country. Belov was born in Timonikha, Vologda region into a peasant family. He was the eldest of 5 children, and at a young age, had to work in the local collective farm in order to help his mother to raise his family (his Father, Ivan, had been killed in the Second World War.)

In 1949, Belov studied carpentry and joining. After his military service he worked in a Molotov factory, then moved back to Vologda, where he started writing for a local paper. As his interest in the written word grew, Belov enrolled in the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow in 1959.

"Business as Usual", a story that I will review shortly, was the work that first established Belov's fame. Belov did, however, write many other works including children's books and plays. Belov was also a fervent anti-collectivist and was renowned for his trilogy of works recounting the tragic decline of three peasant families due to collectivization.

Belov devoted his final years to the restoration of the Nikolskaya church in Timonikha where he had been baptized. He financed and worked on the restoration personally, however, sadly- the church was robbed and desecrated in 2011. The very next day, Belov suffered from a stoke that he never fully recovered from. The celebrated writer passed away on December 4, 2012.

Now returning to the work at hand, "Business as Usual and other Stories" is a collection of short stories with a few common themes: 1) every story is about life in rural Russia; 2) every story has a pessimistic/unhappy ending; and 3) the compilation could well have been alternatively titled "Paradise Lost", as the main characters in every single story mourn for the loss of something.

Business as Usual: was the longest of the stories. It follows the life of a lackadaisical collective farm worker nick-named Ivan Afrikanovich and his friends. The lackadaisical Ivan takes almost nothing seriously; drinking, procreating and ignoring the serious health concerns of his wife - until it is too late. The story ends with a 'Paradise Lost' scene - with the formerly lackadaisical Ivan mourning the loss of something that has robbed him of the meaning of life.

Beyond Three Crossings: A major visits his ancestral home - (which happens to be a Paradise Lost).

On Farewell Hill: Its been many years, however, a peasant woman is unable to accept the loss of her missing-at-war husband.

The Starlings: The Father of a very sick boy builds him a bird house, as a means of diverting him. However, things take a turn for the worse when a horrible event befalls the residents of the new bird house.

Horses: A horse herder is unable to come to grips with the end of the age of horses in rural Russia.

Nikola the Merciful: An (almost) modern day story of the lengths people will go to make money in post-Soviet Russia.

Bobrishniy Hill: Another 'paradise-lost' type story. A man regretfully spends time on Bobrishniy Hill for the last time.

Information: The first half of the story is about the head of a household's experiences at work. The second half- about the son and family that were left behind and how they come to grips with some tragic news related to their Father.

Of the entire collection, I would say that "Nikola the Merciful" was the most interesting and thus my favorite. In truth, I found Belov's prose to be far from the best 'rural Russian prose' I have read and it was a struggle to get through the book. Over this collection, I would more sincerely recommend "King Fish" by Astafiyev or Abramov's "Pryaslin Tetrology" which were both vastly superior works.

I give this a 1.5 out of 3.

NEXT UP: There will be one more work by Belov to follow, however, first, we move on to some Soviet sci-fi and the first German-language work of this reading adventure.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

(RNL #64) "Gobseck" by Honore de Balzac (France)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Another mini-review of a book read many months ago. But this time, the book was well-enjoyed! I'm talking about one of the great works of European literature - "Gobseck" by Honore de Balzac.

Now there are plenty more books by Balzac on the Russian National Library list, so I will reserve Balzac's biography for later and only write a few quick words about this amazing story. Its a wonderful piece about a moneylender to formerly rich (now destitute) aristocrats. This is a man who lives and hoards off the misfortunes of others. Even though I read this book months ago, it was a wonderful character study with the most memorable descriptive text that I still recall today. For example, I recall in particular a section when Gobseck recalls with a certain degree of relish his pleasure in leaving tracks of mud in his client's fine houses.

Highly recommended. 2.5 out of 3. I particularly recommend reading it in French, if you can.

(RNL #63) "Forever 19" by Georgiy Baklanov (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

What follows is a brief review of yet another book from the Russian National Library list. This time, its another book written about the 2nd World War. The author, Georgiy Baklanov (born Grigory Yakovlevich Friedman) was born in the Russian city of Voronezh in 1923. When he was 17, he volunteered to fight in WW2 (and was the youngest soldier in his regiment). In 1943, he was badly injured and left partially disabled.

Baklanov wrote a number of literary works throughout his life (novels, short stories, screenplays, etc). He is most famous however, for the book at hand, "Forever Nineteen".

"Forever Nineteen" is all about World War II as experienced by a very young officer. Probably somewhat biographical, it follows the experiences of a young Russian lieutenant named Viktor Tretyakov. Now, the book started out very very promisingly, with a wonderfully touching scene where the body of an officer was found on an old World War II battlefield. So I did have rather high expectations for the book. However, I didn't find the book all that interesting; just some standard material about the hardships and horrors of war; both on and around he battlefield. I have read other books about the War (for example by Adamovich and Bondarev) that I found much more interesting.

I'm giving this book a 1.5 out of 3. (This book is available in English for those who are interested)

(RNL #71) "Peter Pan and Wendy" by James Matthew Barrie (UK)

Rating: 2 out of 3

After a long break (and a broken chitalka that has finally been replaced), myChitalka is back in business. This first new post is dedicated to yet another children's book on the "Russian National Library List" - "Peter Pan and Wendy".

Now this famous work of children's literature was written by the British author James Matthew Barrie. Barrie was born in Scotland in 1860; the child of a family of small-town weavers. He later moved to London where he became a novelist and playwright. He had about 9 siblings, two of whom died before he was born, and- he was notoriously short (growing only to 161 cm).

But enough irrelevant fact-recounting...what was truly of importance was a significant and traumatic event that took place when Barrie was only 6 years old. His older brother David (who was apparently his Mother's favourite) died in an ice-skating accident two days before his 14th birthday. Young James Barrie apparently tried to replace David in his Mother's heart, going so far as to wear his clothes and mimic his whistling. However, the devastated Mrs. Barrie only found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, and would never grow up and leave her...(hmmm...does this remind us of a certain fictional character that made Barrie world-famous?)

And so, lets now turn to the literary work at hand "Peter Pan and Wendy". Most of us have watched the Disney movie based on the book, however, I dare to propose that few of us have actually read the original work. I actually thought the book to be quite worth reading, although perhaps not to your children. Although it is a 'children's book', there are many elements to the book that make it more 'adult reading', at least nowadays. First of all, the lexicon, which (sadly) would be difficult for a modern-day child to understand (Barrie uses good English and didn't plain-language his text for children). Secondly, the children in the authentic Barrie version actually kill people (with great enthusiasm and glee, I might add!). Then there are those unfortunate racist references to the aboriginal tribe living on Neverland (I wonder if these were removed from the Russian translation). And finally, the bordering-on-disturbing infatuation that Tinkerbell (a miniature woman in all sense of the word) harbors towards the decidedly juvenile Pan.

Nothing in the description of Neverland was that exciting, particularly for us modern audiences, however, the real star of this story is the character of Pan. He is the only character that stands out and makes the book worth reading....this enchanting character who never wishes to grow up; who lives an eternally child-like happy existence. He has no memory beyond the present. He is eternally gay and full of energy. He is what all of us adults long wistfully to be, and yet, he is something that we can not be, as some unknown force pushes us to grow up, as was the case with Wendy and all of the lost boys.

This was a quick read that I easily managed in an hour. 2 out of 3 for me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

(RNL #59) "The Malachite Box" by Pavel Bazhov (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Pavel Petrovich Bazhov (1879-1950) was the son of a Ural mountain craftsman. He spent his childhood in Siserty, was one of the best students at his school, and eventually ended up going to a religious school in Ekaterinburg from 10 to 14 years of age. In 1899, he graduated from a seminary in Perm.

Bazhov later worked as a Russian teacher in religious schools in Ekaterinburg and Kamyshlov. During his holidays, he travelled around alot; familiarizing himself with pretty much all of the nooks and crannies of his native region. Whereever he stopped, Bazhov made sure to collect the folk stories of the interesting (mountain) people that he met. In total, Bazhov wrote 56 stories. (His compilation of stories, "The Malachite Box", received the Stalin Prize in 1943.)

In subsequent years, Bazhov supported the up and coming Communist revolutionaries in their rise to power. He later worked for the party, but due to poor health, returned to his native Ural region from 1921 onwards. In the Urals, Bazhov continued writing and collecting folk stories and also worked for the local paper. His first Ural story was published in 1936. "The Malachite Box" was first published in 1939, and was supplemented with new stories in later editions.

The version of the "Malachite Box" that I was able to get my hands on contained 32 of Bazhov's stories. Many of the stories in this collection are 'secret stories'- old tales of Ural mountain workers passed down orally from generation to generation. Many of the stories Bazhov heard as a little boy from V.A. Khmelinin of the Polevskiy Factory.

And so...the stories themselves are mostly set in the pre-20th century, primarily during serfdom. I did not know this prior to reading this book, but a lot of the mining work in Tsarist Russia was in fact done by serfs!! The stories go into some detail about how these serfs were frequently mistreated and exploited by their aristocratic owners, Germans brought in to assist in the running of factories, and of course all manner of 'whip-happy' foremen and stewards.

The stories cover a pretty large cross-section of mountain occupations and peoples. There are stories about miners, gold prospectors, various craftsmen, foremen, the aristocracy, etc. There are some stories that, a la Leskov's "Lefty" go into how Russian craftsmen were mistreated and not acknowledged for their significant skill and innovation. There are also many stories about the "Mistress of the Malachite Mountain" (a beautiful, legendary mountain Queen who showered the Russian mining communities with either blessings or great misfortune). Other stories cover the Snake King (the master of gold), and various other mythical mountainous beings.

To me, this book itself was a 'real find'. I had never previously heard of Bazhov or "The Malachite Box", and it was a real delight to read these stories about a very different place and time that is rarely documented in literature. The language that the book is written in, is as well, cute and chatty. It is written in old-fashioned, everyday language with lots of intentional and very cute mis-spellings (my favourite is "Sam-Peterburkh) as well as colloquial words/word endings. All in all, I found this book a very charming and enjoyable read.

2 out of 3

(RNL #57) "Odessa Tales" by Isaak Babel (Ukraine)

Benya Krik, the Gangster and Other Stories

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Next on the RNL list is perhaps Ukrainian writer Isaak Babel's most famous work, "Odessa Tales". The short stories that comprise this book were originally published in 1923-1924, then later compiled into a book in 1931. 

(NOTE: I was willing to give this one another try given the glowing reviews for this book in the West, despite my intense lack of desire to re-read the infamous 'pigeon smashing' short story that I studied in university!!!!)

Now this compilation of short stories (all set in Odessa!) started out in a very promising manner. The first few short stories were about a Ukrainian Jewish gangster named Benya Krik and his many 'feats'. These are recounted by people who knew the gangster in over-the-top dramatic terms, in a sort of American 'Wild West' style that's really fun and really drew me into the tale telling (ie an old man starts ranting: 'hey, you wanna know why Benya Krik's the king? I'll tell ya why he's the king!) There were also several allusions to the subsequent downfall of Benya Krik which I was really interested in getting to learn more about. Now, had the book simply just focused on Benya Krik and on those around him, I would have probably enjoyed the book a lot more. However, Babel seems to like to jump from one character to another (as was the case in "Red Cavalry"), and takes the reader on what I thought was an unfortunate detour into the lives of other, less interesting Odessites (such as the little boy/aspiring pigeon collector of the said pigeon smashing story). As such, I never really got back to Benya in the way that I felt the book should have!!!

1.5 out of 3 for me.