Alexievich, Svetlana "Second Hand Time. The Last of the Sovjets"

(Russian title: Время секонд хэнд = Vremja sekond khend) - 2013

Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

"Born in the USSR - that's a diagnosis." This is what one of the people interviewed by the author said and it would have been a great title for this book, as well.

I discovered Svetlana Alexievich in 2013 when she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) and then decided to read "Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster". After she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, I found many more of her books and "Second Hand Time" sounded like a great read. The author wrote down her interviews with former citizens of the Soviet Union, people who liked the new system, people who disliked it, people who loved it, people who hated it. She wrote down their life stories and you can understand every single one of them. This is what makes politics so hard, trying to please everyone is not possible, there is always someone who disagrees with a certain decision.

I love how understanding she is with everyone, how she manages to report their feelings, their stories as if we are there with the storytellers. I also could relate to many of the stories. Having grown up during a different time, we probably went through a lot that the former Soviets had to go through after their state broke apart. Not exactly the same but our lives were still closer to that than to our children's nowadays. Maybe that is one of the reasons why I always loved Russian literature.

And then there are the stories she tells that get you closer to her interviewees. I liked how they said "For us, the kitchen is not just where we cook, it's a dining room, a guest room, an office, a soapbox." and  "We like to have a chat in the kitchen, read a book. 'Reader' is our primary occupation." Or the way they joke about politics, the best jokes always are from oppressed people. "How do you tell a communist? It's someone who reads Marx. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands him." But one of my favourites is: "In five years, everything can change in Russia, but in two hundred - nothing."

With her work, the author has put together a vivid history of the USSR, of its failures and its positive sides. Yes, there were a lot of people who saw something positive in their oppression and partly, I even understand them. The above joke aside, communism is a good idea, if only it was invented for other species than men. Because men are greedy, they will never want to share and Karl Marx had a dream that this might be possible. He shared that dream with so many people, same as many people still believe in the American Dream and that they might be millionaires one day.

Svetlana Alexievich gets us to think like a Russian, to follow their tragic lives and imagine it might have been us. I read somewhere that her subject is the "history of the Russian-Soviet soul". Not a bad description. I have never read such a good and concise description of other people's lives. She asked her fellow citizens what they thought "freedom" meant and got different answers from those who remembered the USSR and those who didn't. They did grow up in different countries. I can relate to that in that way that our country was divided into East and West probably the same way the USSR/Russians are divided into Before and After. We speak the same language but have many different memories.

The author does what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did one and a half centuries ago, she puts Russia on the literature map again.

This book makes quite an impression. The tragedies these people went through and are still going through should be known to the whole world. Reading this book is the first step.

And if I hadn't known it already, the Russians are a people of readers. The amount of authors and books mentioned is enormous. Here are just some of them:

Belov, Vasily Ivanovich (Васи́лий Ива́нович Бело́в)
Berdyaev, Nikolai Alexandrovich (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich (Никола́й Гаври́лович Черныше́вский)
Dobrolyubov, Nikolay Alexandrovich (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Добролю́бов)
Dovlatov-Mechik, Sergei Donatovich (Серге́й Дона́тович Довла́тов)
Fyodorov, Nikolai Fyodorovich (икола́й Фёдорович Фёдоров)
Galaktionovich, Vladimir (Влади́мир Галактио́нович Короле́нк)
Grinevsky, Aleksandr Stepanovich (better known by his pen name, Aleksandr Grin, Александр Грин)
Grossman, Vasily Semyonovich (Васи́лий Семёнович Гро́ссман)
Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (Алекса́ндр Ива́нович Ге́рцен)
Iskander, Fazil Abdulovich (Фази́ль Абду́лович Исканде́р)
Kollontai, Alexandra Mikhailovna (Алекса́ндра Миха́йловна Коллонта́й - née Korolenko, Domontovich, Домонто́вич)
Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich (Михаи́л Ю́рьевич Ле́рмонтов)
Nekrassow, Nikolai Alexejewitsch (Николай Алексеевич Некрасов)
Ogarev, Nikolay Platonovich (Никола́й Плато́нович Огарёв)
Okudzhava, Bulat Shalvovich (Була́т Ша́лвович Окуджа́ва)
Platonov, Andrei (Андре́й Плато́нов)
Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)
Rasputin, Grigori Jefimowitsch (Григорий Ефимович Распутин)
Saltykov-Shchedrin, Mikhail Yevgrafovich (Михаи́л Евгра́фович Салтыко́в-Щедри́н)
Shalamov, Varlam Tikhonovich (Варла́м Ти́хонович Шала́мов)
Uspensky, Gleb Ivanovich (Глеб Ива́нович Успе́нский)

Belyaev, Alexander Romanovich (Беляев, Александр Романович) "Человек-амфибия=Chelovek-Amfibiya" (Amphibian Man) - 1927
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Малая земля=Malaja semlja" (Little Land) - 1978
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Возрождение=Vozrozhdenie" (Rebirth) - 1978
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Целина=Celina" (The Virgin Lands) - 1979
Bulgakov, Mikhail (Булгаков, Михаил Афанасьевич) "Ма́стер и Маргари́та=Master i Margarita"  (The Master and Margarita) - 1967
Bunin, Ivan Alekseyevich (Бунин, Иван Алексеевич) "Okajannyje dni=Окаянные дни" (Cursed Days) - 1926 Nobel Prize
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich (Чехов, Антон Павлович) "Сапожник и нечистая сила= Sapozhnik i nechistaja sila" (The Cobbler and the Devil aka The Shoemaker and the Devil) - 1888
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich (Чернышевский, Николай Гаврилович) "Что делать?=Chto delat?" (What is to be done?) - 1863
Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский) "Братья Карамазовы/Brat'ya Karamazovy" (The Brothers Karamazov) - 1879-80
Fadejew, Alexander Alexandrowitsch (Александр Александрович Фадеев) "Molodaia gvardia=Молодая гвардия" (The Young Guard) - 1946
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich  (Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь) "Шинель=Shinel" (The Overcoat) - 1842
Marx, Karl "Das Kapital" (Capital: Critique of Political Economy) - 1867
Ostrovsky, Nikolai Alexeevich (Николай Алексеевич Островский) "Как закалялась сталь=Kak zakalyalas' sta" (How the Steel Was Temperered) - 1832-34
Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich (Пастернак, Борис Леонидович) "Доктор Живаго=Doktor Živago" (Doctor Zhivago) - 1958
Polevoy, Boris Nikolaewich (Борис Николаевич Полевой) "Повесть о настоящем человеке= Povest' o nastojashhem cheloveke" (The Story of a Real Man) - 1947
Rybakov, Anatoly Naumovich (Рыбаков, Анатолий Наумович) "Дети Арбата=Deti Arbata" (Children of the Arbat) - 1987
Sholokhov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (Шолохов, Михаил Александрович) "Они сражались за Родину=Oni srazhalis' za Rodinu" (They Fought for Their Country) - 1959 Nobel Prize
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Aleksandr Isayevich (Солженицын, Александр Исаевич) "Архипелаг ГУЛАГ=Archipelag GULAG" (The Gulag Archipelago) - 1973
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich (Солженицын, Александр Исаевич) дин день Ивана Денисовича=Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha" (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) - 1962
Tolstoy, Lew Nikolajewitsch (Толстой, Лев Николаевич) "Война и мир=Woina I Mir" (War and Peace) - 1868/69
Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich (Тургенев, Иван Сергеевич) "Zapiski Okhotnika=Записки охотника" (A Sportsman's Sketches aka The Hunting Sketches) - 1852

From the back cover:

"From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.

Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.

As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.

Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine in 1948 and grew up in Belarus. As a newspaper journalist, she spent her early career in Minsk compiling first-hand accounts of World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Chernobyl meltdown. Her unflinching work - 'the whole of our history…is a huge common grave and a bloodbath' - earned her persecution from the Lukashenko regime and she was forced to emigrate. She lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin before returning to Minsk in 2011. She has won a number of prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Prix Médicis, and the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Russians/USSR/former USSR states had quite a few winners for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Svetlana Alexievich is the latest.

Nobel Prize Winners for Literature:
Ivan Bunin - 1933
Boris Pasternak - 1958
Michail Sholokhov - 1965
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - 1970
Joseph Brodsky - 1987
Alexievich, Svetlana - 2015 (Belarus but born in the USSR)

Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time" and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 2013.

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

Original Post on "Let's Read". 

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro


Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

Years ago, I read "When We Were Orphans" with my book club. I didn't like it much and thought I might not read another book by this author. But since he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, I decided I should give him another chance.

"The Remains of the Day" was better, granted. However, not as great as some people told me it would be. I found the writing very lengthy and drawn-out, the sentences dwindling toward an end that has nothing to do with the beginning anymore. The story itself could he been told within five to ten pages at the most, the rest is a musing and meandering of a man who realizes that he is growing older and what could have been.

I might have been able to follow those thoughts and even sympathized with the butler but I found I couldn't. The protagonist doesn't appear to be an unlikeable character but the way he is described doesn't provoke any interest, the whole story just flows along like a small brook with no windings or curves. The book reads more like the minutes of a meeting than a novel.

Sorry, Mr. Ishiguro, I love reading the books by Nobel Prize winners (see below) but you don't belong to my favourites there.

Lessons learned. If I don't like the first book I read by an author, I am more than likely not going to like the other one, no matter how much my friends tell me that that is his or her worst novel or whether the author is highly regarded or not.

From the back cover:

"A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro's beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House.

In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the countryside and into his past."

Kazuo Ishiguro "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

Original Post on "Let's Read"

La Place de l'Étoile by Patrick Modiano

(French Title: La Place de l'Étoile) - 1968

Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

An interesting book, certainly a challenging book. The author was quite young, only 23 years old, when he wrote this, his first book that led eventually to him receiving the Nobel Price for Literature.

Patrick Modiano starts with a little story which could be called a joke if it wasn't so sad:

"In June 1942, a German officer approaches a young man and says: 'Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Etoile?' The young man points to the left side of his chest. - A Jewish History". The young man is, of course, alluding to the star of David that was required to be worn by all Jews rather than the famous place in Paris.

Then he carries on talking about his protagonist, Raphaël Schlemilovitch and his way of surviving or not surviving the holocaust. It took me a while to realize what he was doing. He is living the lives of many and has an almost magic realistic but certainly an immensely sarcastic style in describing this. We meet many famous Jews and non-Jews who have made history both past and present in his stories.

I don't know whether this is the main book why the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and whether this is a typical novel by him but I certainly would not classify it as an "easy read". Still, if you are interested in this history, you might enjoy it.

From the back cover:

"The first novel by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2014, which with The Night Watch and Ring Roads forms a trilogy of the Occupation.

This astonishing first novel by one of France's greatest living writers was among the earliest to seriously question both wartime collaboration in France and the myths of the Gaullist era. The epigraph reads:

In June 1942 a German officer goes up to a young man and says: 'Excuse me, monsieur, where is La Place de l'Étoile?' The young man points to the star on his chest.

The narrator of this wild and whirling satire is a hero on the edge, who imagines himself in Paris under the German Occupation. Through his mind stream a thousand different possible existences, where sometimes the Jew is king, sometimes a martyr, and where tragedy disguises itself as farce. Real and fictional characters from Maurice Sachs and Drieu La Rochelle, Marcel Proust and the French Gestapo, Captain Dreyfus and the Petainist admirals, to Freud, Hitler and Eva Braun spin past our eyes. But at the centre of this whirligig is
La Place de l'Étoile, the geographical and moral centre of Paris, the capital of grief.

With La Place de l'Étoile Patrick Modiano burst onto the Parisian literary scene in 1968, winning two literary prizes, and preparing the way for the next two books -
The Night Watch and Ring Roads - in what is regarded as his trilogy of the Occupation."

Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014 "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation".

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.  

Original Post on "Let's Read".

Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
Exclusion happens every day and even in the family as the most intimate social group. Often it results from misunderstandings that nobody cared to clear up out of pride, shame or simply lack of concern and that were thus allowed to grow without measure. As time passes, the excluded may try to compensate the estrangement from the group or/and develop bitter feelings towards the others. It’s how the protagonist of Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac, who was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature, became a rancorous miser expecting the worst from his surrounding. Feeling death approach, he decides to put into writing all the exasperation at his family’s indifference and selfishness that he bottled up for decades. He sets out to write a pungent letter to his wife, but as he advances he gradually understands that he added his own to getting estranged from his family and everybody else.

François Mauriac was born in Bordeaux, France, in October 1881. After literature studies at university, he brought out the poetry collection Les mains jointes (Clasped Hands) in 1909. His first novels Young Man in Chains (L'Enfant chargé de chaînes) and The Robe of Youth (La Robe prétexte) appeared in 1913 and 1914. During World War I he served as medical aid in the French army until he was discharged for health reasons and resumed writing novels, poetry, plays, memoirs and biographies along with journalistic work. After the novels Flesh and Blood (La Chair et le Sang: 1920) and Questions of Precedence (Préséances: 1921), A Kiss for the Leper (Le Baiser au lépreux: 1922) earned him fame. His best remembered novels are The Desert of Love (Le Désert de l'amour: 1925), Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927), Vipers’ Tangle (Le nœud de vipères: 1932; also translated as The Knot of Vipers), The Frontenacs (Le Mystère Frontenac: 1933; also translated as The Frontenac Mystery), Mask of Innocence (Les Anges noirs: 1936; also translated as The Dark Angels), and The Woman of the Pharisees (La Pharisienne: 1941). In 1952, the author received the Nobel Prize in Literature. François Mauriac died in Paris, France, in September 1970.
It’s the early 1930s on a vineyard in the area of Bordeaux in Southern France that Louis inherited from his mother. After having passed most of his sixty-eighth birthday in his room undisturbed by the Vipers’ Tangle of his family, he begins to write a bitter letter to his wife to be read after his death. The successful lawyer is a sick man whom angina pectoris forced into retirement early and who expects to draw his final breath rather sooner than later. In his letter he shows himself convinced that everybody around, including his wife, will be happy to see him gone and his earthly belongings, notably the money amassed over decades, finally free to be distributed and used. Moreover, he reveals that except for the short period of his engagement and early marriage, he felt unloved by his surroundings all his life, even worse, he considered himself unlovable for lack of natural charms. According to him, it was his desperate craving for being seen and respected if not loved that made him focus his energy on work and money instead of the family. He acknowledges, however, that his efforts were in vain because his wife continued to ignore him and his achievements concentrating completely on her children and grandchildren and estranging them from him even further. Being treated like an unfeeling miser hurts him so much that he can’t bear the idea of leaving to wife and children the riches that he refuses them now and he is determined to give everything away to his illegitimate son in Paris whom he doesn’t even know. Despite his poor health, he travels to Paris and finds his son and son-in-law trying everything to thwart his plan. Then the unthinkable happens: a telegram informs Louis of the sudden death of his wife…

The epistolary novel Vipers’ Tangle shows a man who in the face of death unburdens his heart putting the blame for his life-long rancour and unhappiness on his unloving and hypocritical family. The author, however, makes the protagonist undergo transformation as he expresses and explains himself over months, especially after his wife’s death. Analysing the past and seeing it from a new angle, gradually enables him to let go of the bitterness behind his greed for money, if not to find peace of mind and some kind of natural spirituality that juxtaposes the only nominal Catholicism of his proud bourgeois family. He is a remarkably realistic protagonist who is true to himself and to his own (high) values, but his utterly negative world view makes him an unreliable first-person narrator with regard to people surrounding him. Consequently, the latter appear rather one-dimensional beings by comparison and lack vigour as well as authenticity although the final two letter written by son and granddaughter after his death show that his judgement hasn’t been entirely unfounded after all. Together with the protagonist’s attitude towards his family the tone of the novel changes from rude to soft. The language is unpretentious, and yet, poetic.

By and large, Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac has been a marvellously deep and thought-provoking read about how we all tend to misunderstand and judge others, including the people closest to us, with the result that either we or they feel excluded and turn bitter if we don’t take care. In this light it seems wrong to call it an enjoyable novel, but reading the letters of a man who realises that he could have seen things differently and who manages to shake off much of his emotional burden was engaging to be sure. As a time piece the book allows a very private look into the world of the French bourgeoisie, notably its Catholic circles, from the fin-de-siècle through the early years of the Great Depression that didn’t spare France. All things considered, it’s a novel that deserves being read more widely for which reason I gladly recommend it.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

© Read the NobelsMaira Gall