Review 1357: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

In the early 20th century, Teffi was Russia’s most famous writer, a journalist, short story writer, and playwright. In 1918, after the October Revolution, an impresario persuaded her to travel to Odessa along with a troupe of actors and other performers to give some readings. She ended up four years later in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life. This book relates the beginning of her journey.

The dangers of revolutionary Moscow convinced her to leave, but she never meant the move to be more than temporary. People had been disappearing from the city, and it wasn’t clear whether they left voluntarily, were killed, or were deported to Siberia.

The journey to Odessa was harrowing. Conditions were chaotic. At one stop in Ukraine, only their status as performers saved them from the authorities, who were murdering train passengers to take their valuables.

In Odessa, Teffi found almost a holiday atmosphere, meeting some of the people who had disappeared from Moscow. Soon, though, everyone was panicking at the approach of the Bolshevik army.

This book is written in a lively, quirky style with a great deal of humor. Although Teffi herself is sometimes naive, she observes events with a satirical eye. Yet, at times, she is lyrical in her longing for her homeland.

I put this book on my Classics Club list because I was unfamiliar with it and it sounded interesting. Then it came up for my Classics Club Spin. I am glad to have read it. I am interested in Russia, and it gives a much more accurate idea of the effects of the Russian revolution than books like A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Review 1339: In Pieces

Cover for In PiecesI don’t normally read celebrity biographies or memoirs or, for that matter, very many autobiographies at all, because I don’t expect them to be truthful. Or let’s just say, I expect them to leave a lot out. Also, I’m not interested in celebrities so much as literary or historical figures. That being said, I was struck by how forthcoming Sally Field seemed in an interview, so when I saw In Pieces at the library, I decided to read it.

Field talks of a lifelong battle between what she needed to do for herself and what she needed to do for other people. The roots of her problems and her lack of confidence in herself seem to lie in the sexual abuse she underwent throughout her childhood at the hands of her stepfather and her mother’s reaction when she told her. Because of that, she learned to separate herself from her emotional life and only connected with it when she was acting.

Also interesting is her struggle to get herself taken seriously after her role in The Flying Nun. This problem haunted her career, even after she took on some difficult parts.

I found this an affecting and interesting book. It is well written and involving.

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Day 1294: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

Cover for Birds, Beasts, and RelativesWhen I began reading this sequel to Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, I assumed it would begin sometime after the first book, which ended with the Durrells leaving Corfu and heading back to England. Instead, it seemed to be about to cover the same ground, starting with an abbreviated account of their arrival.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyAlthough this novel is slightly repetitious of the previous one, briefly reintroducing some characters and summarizing important events, for the most part it covers different events and introduces new characters. We meet Larry’s friends Max and Donald when they arrive at the house, drunk, at 2 AM. We also meet the disreputable Captain Creech, and Sven, the accordian-playing sculptor. There are also old friends like Theodore and Spiro.

The book relates memorable events, such as what happens when Margo agrees to take care of Gerry’s baby hedgehogs and how the family receive a performing bear that follows Gerry home one day. Although I began the book worried that this memoir would cover too much of the same material, I ended up charmed again by the stories of this eccentric family and their stay in Corfu.

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Day 1281: My Family and Other Animals

Cover for My Family and Other AnimalsI first was charmed by My Family and Other Animals many years ago, but it is only recently that I learned it was part of a trilogy. So, I am reading it again to kick off the trilogy.

Gerald Durrell was a boy in 1935 when an impulsive decision on a dreary summer day lead to his family deciding to move to Corfu. This book is an account of the indefinite period of their life there before Mrs. Durrell decides they must move back to England for Gerry’s continued education.

The Durrell family members are all the types of people who know their own interests from an early age. Larry, who becomes the well-known literary novelist Lawrence Durrell, fills the house with his literary and artistic friends. In fact, the family is forced to move to a larger villa to accommodate them. Leslie is interested in hunting and is constantly shooting things. Margo likes sunbathing and clothes and has an atrocious taste in young men. With Gerry, it’s animals, and he proceeds to fill the house with them.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThis memoir is very funny, with a humor that derives from the family just being themselves and the eccentric friends they make. It also has lush, gorgeous, and sometimes stunning descriptions of the setting and flora. Durrell says that he intended to write a book about Corfu’s flora and fauna, but his family kept intruding.

Whether the family decides to give a small party and just invite ten people—at which point each of them invites ten—journey off on an outing in a perfectly round boat, or give another party when the dog is in heat and snakes are in the bathtub, I assure you, you’ll be laughing.

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Day 1222: West with the Night

Cover for West with the NightBest of Five!
When it was republished in the 1980’s, West with the Night was controversial because of Markham’s third ex-husband’s claim to have written most of the book and allegations by people who knew Markham that she was practically illiterate. In her biography of Markham, Mary S. Lovell effectively refutes these allegations, noting particularly that nothing like this was said the first time it was published and that part of the manuscript was submitted to a publisher before she met her third husband.

Actually, I don’t think anyone but Beryl Markham could have written West with the Night. It is beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of Africa and insights into her own thinking. It is not an autobiography. Most of the intimate details of her life are left out. We do not hear, for example, that when her father first left British East Africa for Peru, she was married to her first husband.

Instead, West with the Night is a series of recollections about Markham’s childhood and life in Africa, ending just after she flew across the Atlantic by herself. The book is deeply interesting and thought-provoking. Here and there she interjects a few stories told to her by natives. She was a remarkable woman, both Kenya’s first woman horse trainer and one of the world’s first woman pilots, the first person to fly east to west over the Atlantic (the more difficult direction).

West with the Night is sometimes compared to Out of Africa, written by her friend Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), but I find Markham’s book to be much better. It is both simply written and full of understated emotion.

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Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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Day 1162: Classics Club Spin! Letters from Egypt

Cover for Letters from EgyptLetters from Egypt is the book I drew for the latest Classics Club spin! A book like this one is hard for me to evaluate. Lucie Duff Gordon was an English gentlewoman suffering from consumption who spent the last seven years of her life in Egypt, hoping the climate would help her. The book of her letters is heralded as a first to deal with the Egyptian people rather than the scenery and monuments. She was by all accounts beloved by the people she lived among in Luxor from 1862 to 1869.

I try to judge books as best I can by the standards of their own time, but sometimes with this book that was a struggle for me. Duff Gordon is known for being kind to the people she met, particularly the Arab fellaheen, who by all accounts were the despised of Egypt. Certainly, she was loved by them and is careful to follow their customs, but she does patronize them in just about every word of her letters. She also takes pleasure in telling stories about how much they love her and what courtesies they exchanged. She adopts their customs and learns to speak Arabic, all very laudable. However, it seems to me that she takes their part to the point of perversity, for example, sprinkling Arabic words into her letters to friends and so participating in their customs that she speaks casually of such things as buying slaves (for herself), always for their own good, thirty years after England outlawed slavery. Further, she favors the Arabs by putting down other groups, like the Copts, the Jews (even though she meets hardly any), and some of the Turks but not all, even though the Turks would seem to be to blame for the dire state of the country.

If you are feeling politically correct, you may not appreciate her frequent use of the N word, and her constant mention of the color of the various people she meets, although that is clearly a difference in the standards of the time.

The book does have descriptions of various ceremonies and customs, which are interesting. And Duff Gordon’s behavior toward the people was clearly better than that of most “Franks.” Another slight issue is that she tends to use Arabic and Egyptian words without always explaining what they mean, which can be confusing.

I want to compare this book to West with the Night, which was written 90 years later. Beryl Markham was raised with Masai playmates in what was British East Africa. Never does she treat her native friends condescendingly. Not only that, but her book provides a better sense of the landscape and society of Africa, although admittedly more oriented toward the European. Another contrast is Tales from the Queen of the Desert, in which Gertrude Bell ventures into even more remote corners of the Arab world while not once patronizing anyone.

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