Okay, so I’m an anorak, but I love the Russian classics. They’re so moody, dark, and brooding. They have bleak, harsh settings. And (most importantly) they have miserable, self-absorbed characters, all of whom wear their torments beautifully.
I think it’s high time I shared my favourites, so here we go…
1. War & Peace – Leo Tolstoy
There’s no list about this branch of literature which can fail to include Tolstoy’s most famous work. War and Peace lives up to its reputation as one of the longest books out there, but it’s an epic everyone who is serious about reading should try to get through. Really it’s got everything, be it love, death, religion, revenge, pride, evil, righteousness, faith or whatever else you’re looking for. It’s just hands down one of the best books ever written.
2. A Hero of our Time – Mikhail Lermontov
My favourite ever book. Yes, you read that correctly. This is the one book I’ve ever read which nothing has beaten. It’s a short one, containing five novellas about the anti-hero Pechorin, a man who has essentially spent his life ruining his own existence through vice, apathy, and his inability to connect with his emotions. The concept is quite simple, but the depth of feeling this book manages to convey is just perfection.
3. Oblomov – Ivan Goncharov
In some ways similar to the above, Oblomov is the story of a eponymous man who has inflicted his own moral self-ruin through apathy. His circles are much more domestic than Pechorin’s, and the plot is considerably less dramatic, but its still one of the best books I’ve encountered.
4. We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
It’s hard to believe this book was written in 1921, because it reads like a much more modern text. This book is, I think, far less famous than it should be, since it is the forefather of 1984 (and, I think, the considerably better novel of the two). It is, as many dystopian novels only try to be, truly disturbing, gritty, and chillingly believable.
5. The Zero Train – Yuri Buida
A far more recently published work, this short novel makes the list for being one of the most beautiful texts I have ever found. Even in translation this book has a poetic rawness that brings every sensation it contains to vivid life. Somewhat surreal, but piercing, this is a harrowing portrait of life under Stalinism. Short, but sharp.
And that’s the list. I’m always on the hunt for reading suggestions in this genre, so please feel free to leave some in the comments!
Oh, I know. Sinner, sinner, sinner. How could I commit such a monstrous wrong as to not read the book first? The answer is even worse.
For a long time, I didn’t even know there was a book.
But find out I did, and I have since made amends by reading the thing.
It’s a strange old novel, which I liked more than I disliked, and which I think perhaps I didn’t entirely understand.
‘Oh, tonight I gave you my soul and I am dead!’ Christine replied.
‘Your soul is a beautiful thing, child,’ replied the man’s grave voice, ‘and I thank you. No emperor ever received so fair a gift. THE ANGELS WEPT TONIGHT.’
The Phantom of the Opera is not the romance it is made out to be, but a Gothic novel about an outcast genius and his obsession with a naïve young singer, whose virginal personality is more like that of a child than an adult woman.
As far as the classics go it is, in my opinion, easy to read, and the writing is in places very beautiful, making this a highly quotable text.
The plot is also by turns exciting, inventive, and unusual. Unfortunately, it falls down on realism, with over-dramatic dialogue and a cast of (mostly superfluous) two-dimensional characters.
And, despite the care which she took to look behind her at every moment, she failed to see a shadow which followed her like her own shadow, which stopped when she stopped, which started again when she did and which made no more noise than a well-conducted shadow should. As for Raoul, he saw nothing either; for, when he had Christine in front of him, nothing interested him that happened behind.
This is a good book, but in my opinion it’s not one of the best when it comes to Gothic literature. As sort-of-fascinating a character as the Phantom is, I think this novel lacks the depth and nuance of its contemporaries.
Also, for all its romantic themes (love between father and daughter, young love, selfish love, obsessive love, etc.), I found this book quite cold. In my opinion it lacks tenderness, and as such there was no one I really ended up rooting for.
And then there’s The Persian, who is the definition of a plot device in character form, endlessly appearing to deliver his lines, and then disappearing, without need for motive, convincing backstory, or indeed, an actual place in the narrative.
‘I have invented a mask that makes me look like anybody. People will not even turn round in the streets. You will be the happiest of women. And we will sing, all by ourselves, till we swoon away with delight. You are crying! You are afraid of me! And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself. If you loved me I should be as gentle as a lamb; and you could do anything with me that you pleased.’
However, The Phantom of the Opera does feature some delightful description, particularly in regard to the setting, which is an exaggeration of the Paris Opera. I have actually visited the Palais Garnier in real life, and I can tell you, this book really does it justice as an otherworldly, magical palace in which all sorts of strange, glamorous things might happen.
And I did enjoy the plot, which is a good deal quicker-paced than most classics.
So, all in all, an inch shy of disappointing. Not the best, but not the worst. I’m glad I read it, anyway.
I’m now living on the other side of Paris, in a house, which is every bit the antiquated (somewhat dilapidated) writer’s retreat I was hoping to find. Complete with a creaky stairs, dark wood furnishings and a spider or two, it vaguely reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle.
And that’s to say nothing of the rambling garden that sprawls out the back. There are grapes and plums, plenty of trees, and a handful of cats who sit by the little pond.
At night I can hear the rumbling sound of the trains heading into the city, and the view from my second floor window is wonderful – white buildings poking up through the greenery on the hill.
I’ve lost a housemate, but gained three more. My landlady is French, green-fingered, and a genuine hippie, and I share the upstairs with an Indian PhD student. There is also an Italian who lives in the basement, and they are all lovely.
In other news, I’m going back to work in a few days, which is just as well, since my financial state is a sorry one. I am not (yet) truly poor, but I have been reduced to frugality, and the bad exchange rate is not helping me when it comes to the monstrous sum of my tuition fees.
But that being said, there are far worse places to be without means than the city in which to be a penniless artist is something of a lifestyle.
I have also visited my university for the first time, and it is tiny, but also rather pretty. The thought of going back and studying gives me mixed feelings. I’m half dreading it, especially from a social angle (I was never much good at choosing the right friends last time round), but also I’m hoping it will reinvigorate me into some kind of disciplined writing schedule.
At the moment I’m being a bit of a flake with my own novel, forever promising that I’ll finish this scene and edit another, and really not achieving much. It will be good to go back to having the structure of a curriculum, but it will be a shame to give up the freedom of life without deadlines.
Last night I went out in the city, and walked home from the station in the early morning light. There was a thunderstorm just as I arrived back at the house, so I sat on my windowsill and watched the white cracks split across the sky. Wearing a disheveled pair of smart trousers and nursing my aching feet, I felt lucky to be awake at just the right time.
I went to a party empty-handed,
with my shoes hooked over my bag,
and it was…
something like before.
Only I kept looking in the mirror,
and thinking she is so old, that woman staring back,
like a mother escaped from exile
into some teenager’s birthday bash.
There was a time when it was acceptable
to use bottle caps as stepping stones
into the garden, at night.
I was so young, a minted coin
that bounced down the stairs.
We were garish, like floodlights
where only a candle was needed,
and so loud! A plague on all those houses
who suffered us like taxes.
I was such a bad person, and cruel
enough to know that everything
which mattered was unimportant.
These days we talk about white dresses,
mortgages, and so many colour schemes
(apple green, or cerise? Surely not blue?)
The only book I know is Dulex,
my big decision: high-shine or matte?