An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Tsarina is the story of Catherine I of Russia – not to be confused with Catherine the Great! Born Marta Skowronska in 1684, we first meet her as an illiterate peasant growing up in Livonia. When a rich merchant passes through her village, Marta’s family sell her to him as a maidservant and she is forced to leave her home behind and embark on a new and very different life. From these humble origins, we follow Marta’s rise to become the most powerful woman in Russia, first through her marriage to Peter the Great, who renames her Catherine Alexeyevna, and then as Empress in her own right.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I had initially been put off by the cover, which hinted that it would be more of a bodice ripper than the serious sort of historical fiction I prefer, but as I had seen some very positive reviews I decided to give it a try anyway. Although I’ve read quite a lot of novels set during other periods of Russian history, I’ve never read any that cover the life of Catherine I, so I thought if nothing else this would be a good introduction to a woman of whom I previously knew very little. And in that respect, it was a success because I finished it feeling that I’d learned a lot and had come away with a good knowledge of Catherine’s life and significance, while remembering that the book is a work of fiction and not everything in it can be assumed to be completely true – particularly in the early chapters, as so little is known for certain about Catherine’s early years.

Tsarina is a long novel and I could tell the author had put a lot of effort into researching it and trying to create a complete and believable 18th century Russian world. The book begins with a map of Russia under Peter the Great and a full list of characters, including all the members of the Tsar’s large family, the many courtiers at the Russian Imperial Court and the serfs and peasants with whom Marta/Catherine grew up in her village in the Baltics. Despite all of this I didn’t find the book quite as immersive as I would have liked, and although some parts of the story are certainly very gripping, I found myself struggling to get through other sections. As I’d suspected, there’s a lot of focus on Catherine’s sex life and many pregnancies, as well as a lot of long and graphic descriptions of the general violence, drunkenness and debauchery of Peter’s court – and while I’m sure it was all quite accurate, it did become repetitive after a while.

Still, it would be hard not to have some admiration for a woman like Catherine who overcame so much hardship in life (I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who know nothing about Catherine, but the novel shows how she was repeatedly exploited as a young woman and treated with brutality and unkindness) and even after she began to rise to power, she knew that her position was precarious and that she couldn’t afford to be caught off guard even for a moment. As for Peter, the author captures the many different facets of his personality, from his monstrous cruelty and ruthlessness to his intelligence and his vision of Russia as a modern western empire.

Although this wasn’t really the right book for me (or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it) it was good to have the opportunity to get to know Catherine I. If any of you have read any other books about her, I would love to hear about them.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

I love reading about Russia, so the title of this novel alone was enough to attract my attention. When I discovered that it was set in the final years of the Romanov dynasty I was even more interested in reading it – it’s such an eventful period of history, yet most of my Russian reading has been set either earlier than that or later.

The novel opens in 1889 with the arrival in St Petersburg of two Montenegrin princesses. Militza and her younger sister Stana (Anastasia) are the daughters of the King of Montenegro and are being married off to members of Russia’s Imperial Court. Despite the high positions they now hold as a result of their marriages, the sisters are not fully accepted by the Russian courtiers who look down on them because of the smallness and perceived insignificance of their home country. They do make some friends, however, including the Tsarina Alexandra who, having given birth to four daughters, is now desperate to provide the Tsar with a son and heir.

Militza and Stana believe they may be able to help. With their knowledge of magic, their ability with spells and charms, and their skill at channelling spirits, they are what many people would call witches, but despite all of their efforts they are still unable to produce a son for the Tsarina and turn at last to a monk from Siberia by the name of Rasputin. Rasputin proves to be a sensation and the princesses are proud to have been responsible for his introduction to court – but when his influence with the Tsar and Tsarina begins to surpass their own, they start to wonder what they have done.

There were things that I liked about The Witches of St Petersburg and things that I didn’t like. I loved the setting as I’d hoped I would, and as I had never read about Militza and Stana before, I enjoyed getting to know them. Stana’s role in the novel is mainly confined to her marital problems – her husband Prince George Maximilianovich spends most of his time in Biarritz with his mistress and Stana longs for a divorce – but Militza is an interesting character and the one who drives the story forward, working to raise the sisters’ profile at court and to get close to the Tsarina. As a ‘witch’, she is also the more powerful of the two, conducting séances and speaking to the dead. The magical aspects of the book confused me, though; I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to believe that Militza really did have magical powers and really was a witch or whether it was all just a pretence.

The first half of the novel felt too long and repetitive – there were only so many times I wanted to read about the sisters being snubbed at parties and taunted for their provincial background and ‘smelling of goat’ – and I wondered when Rasputin was going to arrive on the scene and liven things up. His first appearance doesn’t come until halfway through the book and the story does become more compelling after that, as Militza and Stana begin to regret their role in bringing him to St Petersburg and wonder how they can get rid of him. However, this is a particularly repulsive portrayal of Rasputin! Some of it may be realistic, but I wished there wasn’t so much graphic detail on how dirty and revolting he was. This is not really a book for the squeamish.

I had a mixture of feelings about The Witches of St Petersburg, then, but overall my interest in the Russian history and in two women I had previously known nothing about was enough to make me keep reading.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it almost exactly a year ago and I remember my excitement on discovering that it was actually the first in a planned trilogy. We haven’t had to wait too long for the second book, The Girl in the Tower, and I’m pleased to say that I loved it even more than the first.

Katherine Arden’s books are a wonderful mixture of history, folklore and fairytales with an atmospheric and wintry Russian setting. If you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale yet, I would highly recommend starting with that one – and I should warn you that there may be spoilers for the first book in the rest of this post.

At the beginning of The Girl in the Tower, our heroine Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya) is fleeing her childhood village of Lesnaya Zemlya. Despite her efforts to rescue the villagers from a great evil, the way in which her father and stepmother died has caused Vasya to be branded a witch, regarded with suspicion and distrust. Accompanied by her magnificent stallion Solovey, Vasya sets off on a journey across northern Rus’ to Moscow, home of her sister Olga – a journey which will be filled with danger as Vasya encounters a group of bandits sweeping across the countryside burning villages and kidnapping children. First, though, she must pay a visit to Morozko, the frost-demon, in his fir-grove deep in the forest…

This novel has a much wider geographical scope than the previous one, in which the action takes place almost entirely in and around Lesnaya Zemlya. I liked this aspect of the book; medieval Moscow is an interesting setting and, with Olga’s family close to the Grand Prince, Dmitrii Ivanovich, we are given some insights into the political situation during this period of Russian history. At the time of the story, the Rus’, as it was known then, is still part of the domain of the Great Khan and the Golden Horde, but with their influence weakening as the Grand Prince grows in power, it seems that things could be about to change.

I was also pleased to see Vasya reunited with her siblings, not just Olga but also their brother Sasha, who is now a priest. Sadly, her relationships with both Olga and Sasha are very strained, partly because of what happened in Lesnaya Zemlya, for which Vasya is unable to give an adequate explanation, and also because of her behaviour on arriving in Moscow, which they consider unladylike and inappropriate. To the modern reader, Vasya is a wonderful character – brave, independent and rebellious – but her refusal to conform to the 14th century ideal of what a woman should be leads her into a great deal of trouble. In contrast, Olga has accepted her place in society and expects her young daughter, Marya, to follow the same course in life. Marya, though, appears to have other ideas!

I’ve said very little so far about the fantasy elements of the novel. We don’t see very much of the household spirits who played such an important part in The Bear and the Nightingale, but there are some appearances by intriguing new figures from Russian myth including the Firebird – and another, more sinister, character whose name I won’t give here so as not to spoil anything! I also enjoyed Vasya’s interactions with her magical horse, Solovey, who has begun to form a personality of his own. Last, but certainly not least, there’s Morozko, frost-demon and god of the dead.

There were hints in the previous book of a possible romance between Vasya and Morozko, and in this book their relationship is developed further. It’s definitely not a conventional love story and because of who Morozko is and the role he has to play in Russian folklore, he has a tendency to come and go throughout the novel. It’s frustrating but it worked for me and I found myself looking forward to the scenes they shared. I loved The Girl in the Tower – and the good news is that the third book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, is expected this August!

Thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing the word ‘the’ used twice.

Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is the third in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow trilogy. I have read the second one, One Night in Winter, but not the first, Sashenka; the books are only loosely connected and it’s not essential to read all three in order. Montefiore is better known as a historian and writer of non-fiction, but these three books are fictional – although based on real events from Russian history.

Red Sky at Noon tells the story of Benya Golden, a Jewish writer and former teacher who, in 1940, is given the death sentence for “terrorism, conspiracy to murder Comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Satinov, and membership of a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite group”. At the last minute Benya is given a reprieve and instead of being executed he is exiled to the Gulag of Kolyma and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in the gold mines. Life in the camp is harsh and miserable, so when a chance comes two years later to join a penal battalion (a shtrafbat) formed to fight the Germans, Benya is quick to volunteer. The reward will be the opportunity to win redemption by the shedding of blood – either his own or the enemy’s.

The rest of the novel follows the adventures of Benya, his beloved horse Silver Socks and the assorted group of murderers, Cossack gangsters and fellow political prisoners who fight alongside him in the Soviet cavalry. Together they undertake dangerous missions behind enemy lines, facing death, capture or betrayal – or all three – and for Benya, there is also a romance when he meets a widowed Italian nurse, Fabiana. Of course, with Russia and Italy on opposite sides of the war, it’s clear from the beginning that their love affair is unlikely to run smoothly.

With so much happening and with such an action-packed plot and interesting historical setting, this could have been a wonderful novel, filled with drama, romance and excitement. However, I think Montefiore is probably a better historian than he is a novelist; although I have no doubts that he knows his Russian history, he never quite managed to bring the characters and events in this novel to life. The dialogue didn’t feel entirely convincing and there were only a few moments in the whole book when I felt any real emotional connection to Benya or the other characters, despite the horrors of war that were being described. I remember having similar thoughts about One Night in Winter, which was a more enjoyable novel in my opinion, but another one which made little emotional impact.

I haven’t mentioned yet that there is another thread to the novel, involving Svetlana Stalina. As Stalin’s daughter, sixteen-year-old Svetlana is a lonely and isolated figure, who has experienced little in the way of love and friendship as people are afraid to get too close because of who her father is. Svetlana’s story doesn’t really have anything to do with Benya’s, but it offers insights into life in the Stalin household and does add another layer to the novel.

I’m not sure if I would want to read more of Montefiore’s fiction – although Sashenka does still sound tempting – but I’m curious to know what his non-fiction is like. Has anyone read any of it?

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?