Day 1130: The Idiot

Cover for The IdiotI think I read The Idiot when I was about 13, and all I remembered of it was that at a tea party, someone stood on the table and shouted. That memory turned out to be false, but they might as well have, and I can’t imagine what my very young self must have made of this novel. My very old self is having trouble enough with it.

The thing about Dostoevesky—and I have read most of his novels, although none for a long time—is that his characters always behave as if they’re in a frenzy. The Idiot is no exception.

Prince Myshkin returns to Russia from years in Switzerland, where he was being treated for epilepsy, to inquire about a legacy he may receive. On the train he meets Rogozhin, who has just inherited a fortune and is on his way to pay court to Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova. Nastasya Filippovna was orphaned as a young girl then brought up by the lecherous merchant Totsky to be his concubine. Now Totsky wants to marry someone else, but Nastasya Filippovna has threatened terrible scenes if he does. Totsky is scheming to marry her off to Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin for the sum of 75,000 rubles.

When the prince meets Nastasya Filippovna, he is so overcome with pity for her that he becomes irrevocably bound with her fate. Later, when he falls in love and wants to marry Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin, his entanglement with Nastasy Filippovna ruins him.

Prince Myshkin is completely naive, yet at the same time very perceptive. Dostoevsky wanted to portray in him a simply good man and show how this goodness is overcome by the cynicism and self-interest of society. At times, he is compared to Christ or to a knight.

Although Myshkin is a sympathetic character, he constantly has bad things done to him—is betrayed, libeled, slandered, and cheated—by the people he knows, many of whom are just plain annoying. There is Lebedev, for example, who constantly tells people how vile he is, then behaves badly. And Ippolit, a student dying of tuberculosis, who sneers at the prince, even while accepting his hospitality. Are people really like Dostoevsky’s characters? you may well ask. Of course, Myshkin forgives everyone.

Did I like this novel? I hardly know. I do know that it is one of the last books on my first Classics Club list.

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Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

Cover for A Gentleman in MoscowFor some time after I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was bothered by the idea that I was reading Aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lite. Still, I enjoyed the novel and finally decided that the historical background was not really the point.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is living in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when he is summoned to a tribunal. Although he has committed no crime except perhaps one of attitude, the people have no use for aristocrats anymore. He might have been imprisoned or executed except that he is considered one of the heroes of the revolution because of a poem he wrote. So, the Count is sentenced to live in the Metropol. He is not allowed to leave, or he will be shot. Further, when he returns to his luxurious rooms, he finds he is to be relegated to a small room in the belfry.

The Count makes himself as comfortable as he can and continues to live a more restricted version of the life he led before, socializing in the lobby, reading, and meeting with friends. But he begins to be bored. We follow the Count as he slowly changes the purpose of his life, beginning with his friendship with a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova.

This tale of more than 30 years of life in the Metropol, I finally decided, is not meant to be realistic but is a gentle story about the effects of the Count’s gentility on other people and of the Count’s own personal development. There is a villain in the form of a character the Count calls the Bishop, a bad waiter who uses his contacts to become manager of the hotel. Life in the hotel is thus not always roses, but its employees and residents are subject more to inconvenience than to misfortune.

This is not to say that nothing bad happens. Friends are exiled to Siberia or disappear, and a famous poet commits suicide. Still, we are detached by the novel’s playful writing style from anything happening outside the Metropol and even from most of the things happening inside the hotel.

Overall, I was captured by the charm of the novel, but I don’t think it consitutes a very accurate reflection of its time and place. Horrible things were happening in Russia through these years, but to this novel, events are just footnotes and parentheses. And, by the way, the Russians executed lots of heroes of the revolution.

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Day 829: The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a controversial novella by Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy. It was banned in several countries because of its provocative message and because of what was considered at the time prurient content. If your nature contains an ounce of feminism, it will enrage you. Yet its origins are in eccentric ideas that Tolstoy almost certainly considered to be for the benefit of women.

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations brings together this work with others by the family on the same subject. Tolstoy’s wife Sofiya Andreevna (I’m using the spelling from the book) disliked the novella intensely and wrote two stories in answer to it, “Whose Fault?” and “Song Without Words.” These stories were suppressed by the family. Tolstoy’s son, Lev Lvovich, also wrote a story, “Chopin’s Prelude.” These stories are followed by a section including review comments by several contemporaries, excerpts from diaries, and other writings of all three Tolstoys.

So, what was “The Kreutzer Sonata” about and why did it evoke all this controversy? It is a virtually plotless story about a man who meets another man on a train journey and tells him the story of why he murdered his own wife. Throughout the story, the main character, Pozdnyshev, expresses abhorrent opinions about women, sex, and marriage, and shows no understanding of women at all. Although this character is not completely describing Tolstoy’s own marriage, he is giving voice to Tolstoy’s ideas about marriage. This story is harsh, disturbing, and reflects ideas that show no understanding of human nature, or for that matter, many other things. Tolstoy posits that marriage is simply legal prostitution, that sex is disgusting, and that people should just strive to be celibate (something he notoriously had a problem with). Because Tolstoy saw his role in later years as one to instruct and had too high an opinion of his own ideas, this information is presented didactically, in a polemic.

Sofiya Andreevna disliked the novella intensely and was embarrassed by it, because she believed that others thought it reflected her own marriage. She insisted it did not but mostly, I think, because she didn’t want people to think she became attached to another man while married to Tolstoy (and who would blame her?). She also felt that the story showed no understanding of the wife, and so she wrote her own story. In both, the story is basically the same, a madly jealous husband comes to believe his wife is unfaithful when she is not and kills her in a fit of anger. It was Sofiya herself who convinced Tolstoy that his story would be more effective if the wife was innocent.

It is in the context of the responding stories and other writings that “The Kreutzer Sonata” is most involving. The story itself is ridiculous to modern sensibilities. Two pages of quotations by contemporaries provide some interest, particularly the two (not surprisingly) that I most agree with.

No wonder the Countess was often near the end of her patience.—George Bernard Shaw

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a nightmare, born of a diseased imagination. Since reading it I have not the slightest doubt that its author is cracked.—Émile Zola

For an enlightening look at the Tolstoy’s marriage, I recommend the novel The Last Station by Jay Parini.

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Day 775: Mind of Winter

Cover for Mind of WinterSeveral times I thought I knew what was going on in Mind of Winter, but I have to give the novel credit for having completely fooled me. This chiller is set on Christmas Day during a blizzard.

Holly awakens late on Christmas morning. She vaguely remembers having awakened earlier and looked in on her daughter Tatiana, but then she fell back asleep and the family overslept. Her husband Eric rushes off to pick up his parents at the airport. Holly gets up to begin Christmas dinner for a full house, and then it begins to snow.

But Holly has awakened with a thought—something followed them home from Russia. Russia was where she and Eric adopted Tatiana (called Tatty) 13 years earlier as a baby. Throughout the day, Holly is obsessed with memories of the adoption and of incidents with her daughter as her interactions with Tatty become more bizarre.

The two of them are left alone because Eric’s parents have to be driven to the hospital and friends and family decide to stay home because of the blizzard. Oddly, some of them omit calling Holly to tell her these things directly, so she spends quite a bit of time unnecessarily preparing the dinner and has to call Eric to find out what is going on. But the oddest behavior is going on inside the house. As Holly obsesses about everything Tatty does, Tatty alternates between loving girl and rebellious teenager. This doesn’t sound that odd, but you have to read the novel to understand.

This tale is a carefully constructed psychological drama. The book blurb focuses on Tatty’s behavior, but it is really Holly’s that seems inexplicable at times. At first, she seems to be the most over-protective mother ever. Then, something else seems to be going on. The novel builds quite a bit of suspense as you try to figure out why these characters are behaving so oddly, and I didn’t see the ending coming at all.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 701: The Ringed Castle

Cover for The Ringed CastleBest Book of the Week!
In this fifth book of the Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford of Lymond goes on a journey to an uncivilized land. He has already traveled and battled his way over Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor, but this time he takes his small band of mercenaries to Russia. In an attempt to avoid the consequences he fears from a prophecy by the Dame of Doubtance, he feels he must stay away from his home in Scotland. So, he decides to go to Russia and offer to fight for Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) against the Ottoman Turks.

With Lymond and his mercenaries goes the mysterious Guzel, a beautiful, cultured former mistress of the Ottoman admiral Dragut Rais. She wants to make Lymond a powerful ruler. Lymond sees Russia as an undeveloped country full of opportunity for an intelligent leader, a place that will allow him the scope to create something great. Since Russia has no modern army in the sense of those of 16th century France and England, he offers to build one for the tsar.

Lymond’s struggles to work with the erratic tsar are complicated by his relationship with Dmitri Vishnevetsky, or Baida, the volatile Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks and a man of legend who has pledged his help to the tsar. Baida sees Lymond as a possible companion but also as a threat to his own power, and he desires Guzel for himself.

Back in England, Philippa Somerville has made a debut at the court of Mary Tudor that is surprising to even her mother, because her sojourn in the sultan’s harem has changed her from a scruffy teenager to a beautiful, polished, and sophisticated young woman. The treacherous Margaret Lennox and the queen’s sister Lady Elizabeth seem to be interested in involving her in their various schemes, but Philippa is tactful and cautious.

This novel, like the others, involves plenty of political maneuvering, adventure, danger, and battles, but also features winter sledge races and the burning of Moscow. Lymond, as usual, is arrogant, frightfully intelligent, and always ready with a blistering comment. Still, we find him irresistible. I cannot tell more for fear of spoilers, but if you decide to read this series, you will not regret it.

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Day 555: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Cover for Mastering the Art of Soviet CookingAlthough Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is billed as a memoir, it is written with the help of the author’s mother and begins long before Von Bremzen was born, with the start of the Soviet Union. It is an unusual memoir, tracing as it does the history of the Soviet Union, decade by decade, through the meals cooked by one family.

In an entertainingly wry writing style, Von Bremzen relates the changes in Soviet approaches to government over time and the way these changes affected the populace. She begins by explaining how Lenin’s asceticism nearly eliminated Russian cuisine because of the idea that food was decadent (and hardly any food was available).

Von Bremzen ironically and knowingly traces the history of Soviet Russia through famine and glut, for each decade featuring a dish that seems to represent it (although one decade features ration cards). The recipes are at the end.

Von Bremzen relates her own mother’s history as the rebellious daughter of a prominent Soviet military officer, her mother totally rejecting the party line. Larisa was terrified throughout the Stalinist era and longed to leave the country. Anya, herself with a difficult start as a child not allowed to join the Young Pioneers or visit Lenin’s tomb (things she secretly yearned for), had finally found a comfortable place when her mother dragged her off to Philadelphia.

This amusing book is fascinating for people who are interested in Russia, which I have always been. Darkly funny are the countless contrasts between the official views of the country and Von Bremzen’s descriptions of the actual plight of the population. It is difficult to describe the divided viewpoint of the author, who obviously loves Russia and the 60’s vision of what it was, while at the same time being deeply skeptical of everything about it.

This book is unusual, intelligent, and well-written, about a woman’s attempts to reconcile her feelings about her country and upbringing.

Day 486: Empress of the Night

Cover of Empress of the NightIn early November 1796, Catherine the Great of Russia suffered a stroke and lay on her deathbed for 36 hours before she finally succumbed. Eva Stachniak’s second novel about Catherine imagines her spontaneous flashbacks of her life, interrupted by moments of fleeting awareness, as she lies there helplessly.

Empress of the Night covers some of the same ground as Stachniak’s The Winter Palace, only the previous novel is told from the point of view of Varvara Nikoleyeva, Catherine’s spy turned confidante, and concentrates mostly on the time before Catherine was Russia’s ruler. Varvara is only a fleeting presence in Empress of the Night, and I wonder if readers who had not read The Winter Palace would be confused by references to her.

Stachniak’s deathbed approach for this novel by definition causes it to be disjointed in narrative style and sometimes difficult to follow chronologically. The novel portrays Catherine as a figure more sympathetic than otherwise, but other characters are left relatively undeveloped.

Catherine’s memories go all the way back to her arrival in Russia as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a prospective bride for the Empress Elizabeth’s spoiled and childish heir Peter. We follow her struggles to be accepted as a future wife, to conceive, and to maintain some kind of standing in Elizabeth’s court, although that subject is covered more thoroughly in the first novel. The narrative carries us through the coup against her husband after Elizabeth’s death and the most important events of Catherine’s reign, ending with her attempts to marry her granddaughter Alexandrine to the king of Sweden and to leave her office to her grandson Alexander instead of her foolish and tyrannical son Paul.

Although this novel is interesting, I was not as drawn in as I was by the first book. The parts of the novel dealing with Catherine’s stroke and its aftermath interrupt the flow of the narrative too often. I was also taken aback by the preponderance of attention given in the novel to Catherine’s favorites, especially to the annoying Zubov, versus the actual events of her rule. The emphasis seems to lie with her personal attachments, which I frankly think is unlikely for a world ruler. I also find it hard to believe that Catherine had so much patience with some of her relatives and lovers, most of whom are characterized as being annoyingly selfish.

Since I have read a fair amount about Catherine’s life, I was able to follow the references to important events with little difficulty, but I am left wondering how easy it would be for someone who is unfamiliar to form a good understanding of what is going on. Still, I think this novel draws an appealing portrait of a complex and difficult person.

http://www.netgalley.comMy original understanding of The Winter Palace was that it was the first in a trilogy about Catherine the Great. I am left wondering if I was mistaken, because this novel does not seem to leave anywhere for the writer to go in a third novel. Empress of the Night is ultimately much less satisfying than The Winter Palace in the depth it applies to its subject, which makes me wonder if Stachniak simply lost interest.