Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Russian Summer: A Reading in Retirement Blogpost

Summer 2018: I got myself into a Russian Roulette.

Earlier this year, I had read an outstanding review of Yuri Slezkine's  The House of Government.  It is a book about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, until about World War II.  But it is a history of how the Russian Revolution was experienced: how it "felt" to live in and through it.  The book is based, in  large part, on memoirs, interviews, literature.  It sounded fascinating, and I decided to read it.

Part of why I decided was that it reminded me of a book I had read before Tony and I went to St. Petersburg several years ago, Natasha's Dance, a cultural history of Russia from the  late 19th century to the mid twentieth, written by the historian Orlando Figes.  It was a wonderful book, one discovery after another--immediately readable and genuinely compelling.  The House of Government looked to be similar.

Before I tackled the Slezkine, though, I decided I would read Figes's more conventional history of the period, The People's Tragedy, a book that had been on my shelf for several years.  So I began my summer reading with it.

The People's Tragedy seemed to me to be a very good and very detailed history of the Russian Revolution.  I certainly learned A LOT by reading it.   Being so detailed, it is, not surprisingly, very long--almost 1000 pages.   It was not as immediately compelling as Natasha's Dance, so I read it alongside other books, mainly novels.  There were times when I asked myself, "why are you doing this?" but me,  being me, I continued.

After I finished The People's Tragedy, I started The House of Government.  It is also detailed (very) and long (very).  Right now, I am about half way through, so it will go home  to Louisville with me.  It definitely provides another way to think about the history of the  Revolution, as it also aims to describes experiences of individuals.  But it doesn't (and I'm sure didn't aim to) have the  narrative drive of Natasha's Dance.  Nevertheless, I persisted.

While reading these two mammoth histories, I managed to read two Russia-related novels.  One, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, is pretty well known, and has been a best seller for a while.  I found it quite enjoyable (particularly as relief from above) and was happy to find  its locale, the Hotel Metropole, described in The House of Government .  (It was,  in  fact, one of the first Houses of Government--that is buildings where party elites lived.)  The other was Mrs. Engels, a book I had bought a  year or so ago.  I found it on the long-list for the Booker Prize. (Looking at prize long lists is a good way to discover good new novels.) It is a fictional account of a woman named Lizzie Burns who lived with Frederick Engels, first in Manchester then London while he and Karl Marx were working together.  Burns was a worker in the Manchester cotton mills, functionally illiterate, but very intelligent.  Little is known of her or her sister Mary Burns, who was until her death Engel's lover.  They apparently helped him navigate Manchester slums, an experience that led to The Condition of the Working Class in England.   It was interesting (and about something of which I knew almost nothing) and the character of Lizzie was well imagined.

Of course, over the summer I read other things as well.  I read six novels for the Copper  Harbor Book Club, some of which I liked better than others.  I read Lisa Hallday's  Asymmetry, about which I blogged; Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language, about the "murder" of Roland Barthes and too cute by half; and Emily Friedlund's History of Wolves (short-listed for the Booker) very good, about a young girl in Minnesota who struggles with her past (actually too complicated to boil down to a phrase)

The preceding paragraph describes reading I might have done any summer,  but the rest of the blog gives a picture of a kind of reading I don't think I ever really did (unless I was preparing for a big trip) before I retired.  Finding a subject, going in for a deep focus, trying to learn something.  Retirement doesn't  just facilitate such reading for me--it really encourages it.  I have come to think of it as one of the ways I have replaced scholarship in my life.  (The other ways are the book I'm writing and when Tony and I or Susan and I tackle a book together (this summer The  Odyssey with Tony and Garden of the Finzi-Continis with Susan). Of course, it's  not scholarship of the kind I performed when I was employed.  But it parallels it in ways that work for me: discovering something I didn't know, testing that knowledge by reading around in it, going serendipitously from one discovery to another.


1 comment :

  1. Nice!! I like the look of **Mrs. Engels**—I’ll pick it up and jump in!!