Reviewed by Karen Langley
In the anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution a number of books have been issued which look at that tumultuous event and its effect on Russia, as well as the aftermath in that country. However, Penguin Classics have recently published a fascinating anthology which approaches the conflict from a somewhat different angle; this considers the works, specifically short stories, produced by those Russian writers who were forced into exile, forming European émigré communities in the post WW1/Russian Revolution/Russian Civil War period. The contents certainly do run from Bunin to Yanovsky, and it’s a powerful and compelling collection of stories.
The list of creative artists who escaped from the Russian Revolution and Civil War is a long one, and some names are well-known to the general reader. Nabokov, of course, is the shining star, but Ivan Bunin and Mark Aldanov, in particular, also had successful writing careers whilst in exile. Other authors featured, like Teffi and Gaito Gazdanov, have been recently rediscovered and championed (and the latter’s novels have been translated by Karetnyk). However, there are many names here new to me, which made the collection particularly exciting to read.
It shouldn’t be assumed, when approaching Russian émigré literature, that there will be similarities in the works or a certain amount of repetition in the subject matter; that’s far from the case in this book, and the range and breadth of the stories is breathtaking. Some, of course, do reflect the émigré experience, and Bunin’s “In Paris”, which opens the collection, is a particularly poignant example. In a few short pages it charts the course of an affair between two lonely Russians far away from home and it’s absolutely heart-breaking.
However, in complete contrast, Aldanov’s “The Astrologist” is an effective and strange story set in Berlin at the end of the Second World War which takes in fortune-telling and the death of Hitler. Yury Felsen’s “The Recurrence of Things Past” draws on Proust for inspiration, not only in its title but also in its labyrinthine, sinuous sentences. Teffi is her usual down-to-earth, pragmatic self, bringing an air of sarcasm to the realities of life in exile. “The Atom Explodes” by Georgy Ivanov is a dark, existentialist nightmare which draws on classic Russian literature. Also notable is Irina Odoevtseva’s “The Life of Madame Duclos”, a moving tale of young Russian girl married to a much older Frenchman; as a widow, she makes an emotional connection with a young man who she is initially unaware is from her homeland, and the story is quite emotionally draining.
In fact, it was particularly pleasing to see such a large number of women authors featured, most of whom I hadn’t read, and their contributions were remarkably striking. Irina Guadanini’s “The Tunnel”, which features at the end of the book, is apparently based on its author’s affair with Nabokov, and again there was the sense of an exile making contact with a fellow countryman and having that connection which would be missing in a relationship with a non-Russian. There is a recurring sense of sadness and ennui running through the stories, adding an extra level of melancholy.
There’s a danger with any themed short story collection of the tales merging together into a blur, but that’s certainly not the case here. Each story stands out distinctly, a collection of different but excellent gems. Is there one author to be considered the best, or is it possible to pick favourites? You could argue, I suppose, that Nabokov stands a little apart and his two examples here are stunning; in particular, “The Visit to the Museum”, with its surreal and nightmarish return to a changed home country. Nevertheless, each one of these stories is a powerful and excellent piece of work and deserves its place in the collection.
Despite the wide range of subject matter, there is of course a thread that runs through so many of these works and that is the absence of the Russian homeland. The Welsh word ‘hiraeth’, which apparently has no direct translation but has a general feel of “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”, seems apt here and does rather sum up the sense of loss that the émigré writers have. That loss is even harder to bear because even if the exiles physically return to their country, it will have changed beyond all recognition and the world they knew has gone forever. The tragedy of a people torn apart is often present in the narrative, with the sense that there is little really dividing them apart from bitter ideology:
A White soldier’s dead hand is still clutching a medallion with his mother’s face. A Red soldier nearby has on his shattered breast a letter from home with the same old woman blinking through the dissolving lines. (Nabokov: The Assistant Producer)
This really is a remarkable collection of stories, all the more impressive by bringing so many writers and works to English-language readers; and the majority of translations appear to be new ones especially for the book, which is even more impressive. Karetnyk renders most of the stories himself, provides an excellent introduction plus notes and annotations, and has chosen some really gripping and varied fictions to anthologise here. All the translators should be praised for their skills, of course, but Karetnyk deserves special acclaim for his work in bringing this volume together in all its richness and variety.
The Russian Revolution was a momentous upheaval, not only for Russia but also for the rest of the world. Many of the displaced authors continued to write in exile, although much of their work has been sidelined over the years. This important, landmark collection brings them back to life and into the public eye; and whether you have an interest in Russian 20th century writers, or just like wonderful stories, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and as an exile from her country of birth rather identifies with a lot of the sentiments in these works…
Ed. Bryan Karetnyk, Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (Penguin Classics, 2017). 978-0241310906, 428pp, paperback.
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