Tag Archives: Russia

Two Good Reads (in Lockdown)

As I write this (early May) no one has any idea how long the lockdown will continue. But one thing is sure: people will still want good books to read. And book groups will also still want recommendations. These two books, reviewed here, are both fairly long, and have been on my tbr pule for some months. And on my radar for longer, recommended by bloggers and others. So I bought one last year and found the second one in a second-hand book shop in February. 

  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Both are recommended as longish and relaxing reads for book groups and for lockdowns.

The Fortnight in September

Set between the wars, the novel is about a suburban family as they go on their annual holiday to Bognor. As the title suggests it is THE fortnight in September, and they have been many times before. Not much out of the ordinary happens. 

Much of their pleasure in the holiday comes from everything being the same as all the previous years: their preparations, their timetable, the boarding house, the other customers in the pub, the way they spend their days. Each of these are experienced in loving detail by the family who believe in getting pleasure from each moment.

One of his best ideas was to have a set programme for every other day – leaving the days in between absolutely free for everyone to do what they liked. It was a wise plan from several points of view. The little squabbles you so often saw happening on the sands in the afternoon were not always due to the heat: more often they came from people being too much together, and getting on each other’s nerves. (166)

However, Mr Stevens is getting older and his hair is thinning. Mrs Stevens discovers that their landlady has had no other visitors that year, and frankly the digs are a bit below par. The oldest child Mary has a holiday romance and is a little burned by the experience. Her brother Dick has been depressed all year since leaving school and taking on a job his father found for him. He decides to take matters into his own hands and get a new job. It is clear that it will be their last fortnight.

It is a hymn to nostalgia. But it is also an account of change, its inevitability and the opportunities it brings. This novel was a great success when it was first published. It was one of the first books published by Persephone (no 67) and they have issued it in the Persephone classics series with a lovely beach on the cover: Algernon Talmage: Silver Morning, Alderburgh Beach (1931)

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff, first published in 1931; I used the Persephone edition of 2006. 326pp

A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1920 the young Russian Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He has been deemed a former person, because he had private wealth, an aristocratic title and does not fit the Bolshevik ideas of a good comrade. He is a cultured man, and had written a poem that caught the mood of revolt in pre-Revolutionary Russia, so he was not executed.

For 34 years, until 1954, he lives in an attic room, befriends the hotel staff, becomes a waiter, adopts a child who becomes a great pianist, befriends a senior member of the Russian communist party and takes a lover. During this time he maintains his courtesy, generosity, culture, good manners and attention to detail.

But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world? (459)

He manages to create a decent life, despite being confined. The history of the USSR is seen from the interior the Metropol. The story is told with considerable panache and extravagance.

It is charming, witty, funny and a good, well-told story. I was bothered by not knowing how he became a waiter, although I could see that it suited him, with his cultured attentive manner, courtesy and attention to detail. And I was uneasy that he slept in a tiny room with his adopted daughter until she was 25. 

This book was recommended for book groups by fellow travellers last year when I was in Nice. You can find their other recommendations here.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) published by Windmill (Penguin Books). 462pp

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Women in Translation