18 November 2012

Imperialism under the bed

After wandering around 19th Century London and various parts of the English countryside, I took a trip to Imperial Russia. I jumped in feet first, Dead Souls by Gogol. Two things about this: one, I bought the book as I have a vague collection of books with Joy Division titles, Dead Souls was to take its place alongside Atrocity Exhibition, a hardback rescued from my library’s reject bin in the early eighties; two, I’d misunderstood the blurb on the back and thought it was some sort of macabre recruitment for an undead army. The story was more bizarre if anything, serfs were owned body and soul by the landowners and their souls stayed on the books, even after death, until the end of the tax year. 
This was written at the same era as Dickens, while Dickens was writing of the appalling conditions in Yorkshire Schools, Gogol was documenting the circumstances of the Russian people. The satire of Chichikov becoming feted by society because of the number of souls he owns cannot be lost on modern culture that values celebrity with no discernable talent except good teeth and overworked PR. After Gogol I cheered myself up with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy

Reading these authors it seems unbelievable that it took until 1917 for a revolution to successfully overthrow the aristocracy. They seemed to waft from Moscow to St Petersburg and back again whenever they get bored or if the weather is unsuitable. The Idiot is a great example of this and is particularly confusing, each character has three names, The Prince, Nikolayevich, Myshkin, forcing me to flick back and forth with fingers stuck in various pages as I try to find the thread of the narrative again, find out who’s talking to whom, oh! the joy of paperbacks, Kindle can’t compete with the tactile necessity of checking and rechecking Dostoyevsky’s storyline. As royalty, Myshkin is treated with reverence to his face, but with derision and suspicion behind his back, his very ‘niceness’ and illness, epilepsy, being held against him, invited to the social events but then treated as an outsider. 

I made my way along the bookshelf, inevitably, to Anna Karenina, incidentally, when a bus went past me recently with an advert for the new movie starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law, I thought I’d missed the flash in the corner proclaiming “Comic Strip Presents…”. 

With my travels I’ve concluded that I prefer Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy. I prefer the oblique storylines, the beauty of the prose and the richness of the narrative. Crime and Punishment on the tube seemed apt, travelling on the District Line I’m being punished for something. 

Dead Souls gave me an entry point to the Russian novels, they were 19th Century, therefore fulfilling my criteria at the time, although they couldn’t be classified as Victorian they offered a counterpoint to Dickens. With Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Anna Karinina, I was getting further and further away from 19th Century London and starting to drift into the 20th Century, picking up Conrad, G K Chesterton and F Scott Fitzgerald on the way. 

My 19th Century self-imposed exile was over; I was beginning to make my way forward in time with just the occasional look over my shoulder to Imperialist Russia or Dickensian London.


  1. You have a lot of discipline This is the way literature is studies in university. Time periods lumped together and read together. I wander from book to book as the mood takes me. What I like to read is history as background to the books I enjoy; so I have read a great deal of Regency history, books on whaling, magic, hauntings, anthropology, economics, philosophy, art, etc... It fills in the blanks sometimes. I also like biographies but not celebrity bios. Virginia Woolf's bio by her nephew Quentin Bell is the best of the many there are out there. I seem to be meandering. It's just that as you enter the 20th century it occurred to me you may have to read Bloomsbury.

  2. Some say discipline, others OCD. I like making connections. Recently read "The Mysterious Island" which sparked memories of "Robinson Crusoe" so read that then "The Story of Alexander Selkirk" then back to "20,000 Leagues under the Sea". Bloomsbury I don't know much about, but that's the best way.

  3. I agree.

    I just reread my comment post. How embarrassing, I hope I was tired that day, because it reads awful. Oh well, you seem to have understood.

  4. I read it when I was tired and didn't comment for a couple of days, I got the gist!

  5. I see. We were in exhausted sync. I like reading your blog. They are closer to a conversation than many others. I feel comfortable enough to venture a public opinion. Keep it up.

  6. Thanks. I thought of starting a blog a couple of years ago, about going to every Chelsea home game for a season, started a twitter account, never got going, not much to say. Had an Euraka moment on holiday this year - books - made some notes, got back and started. Wanted it to be informal, not a review or opinionated, do little or no research and just spend an hour or two each week writing 500 words in a almost stream of consciousness. Glad someone is reading it, not many people are, although that isn't the point. One day I'll dry up, but until then...

    Cat story is nearly ready, quite hard to write a real event!

  7. I put my blog address beneath my signature on my emails; that way I don't think about it too much. I find it awkward to say "did you know I have a book blog?" Occasionally if my husband or son like one of my blogs they post them on their facebook pages. And of course, like you, I have it connected to Twitter, though you have a lot more Twitter followers. Maybe you are being hard on yourself. I am steadily increasing my number of visitors. Who knows?

    Looking forward to the disgusting cat story.

  8. Dining table and chairs. Furniture & Home Decor » Tables & Dining Karachi, go to my blog