Despite my love of literary fiction, I actually came to the genre fairly late(ish), and the spark for this passion was the collection of £1 Penguin Classics released in the early nineties. I was in my second year at university at the time, and after picking up a copy of Wuthering Heights on a whim, I ended up amassing quite a collection of classics, both English and translated. I was intrigued, then, to see that Penguin have come up with a similar venture for the new millennium, with fifty modern (i.e. twentieth-century) ‘classics’ available for a pound each. This series is a little different, though, and today I’ll look at two of the offerings (courtesy of the publisher) to provide a taste of what’s in store 🙂
Four Russian Short Stories (translated by Bryan Karetnyk) does exactly what it says on the cover, providing four tales from four different writers. The connection between the authors is that they were all émigré(e)s, writing from outside the country’s borders, and two of the pieces are actually located abroad. There is one other link between the selected tales, though, and a gruesome one it is too, with each of the stories involving a death of some sort. Oh, those Russians…
First up is Galina Kuznetsova’s ‘Kunak’, a powerful short piece following a flood of refugees as they attempt to make it to the safety of a military ship on the coast. The inevitable chaos is momentarily quieted when an unexpected latecomer appears, a horse swimming towards the ship. From here, we move to France, where Yury Felsen’s ‘A Miracle’ introduces us to an invalid addicted to morphine – and shows us that when it comes to those suffering an addiction, it’s best not to take everything at face value. This is also true of the lovesick heroine of Nina Berberova’s ‘The Murder of Valkovsky’, a woman whose way of avoiding temptation is to consider eliminating it permanently.
Perhaps the pick of the bunch is the final piece, Gaito Gazdanov’s ‘Requiem’. A laconic narrator describes the Russian ex-pat community in war-time Paris, a selection of idle émigrés for whom the war finally provides an environment suitable for their temperaments. One man, however, the morose Grigory Timofeyevich, wonders if his new-found riches have really made him happy:
“There’s only one thing I regret: that I’ve lived for so many years without knowing where human happiness is to be found. Yes, it’s all well and good that I’ve warmed myself, had a bite to eat and drunk my fill. But now what?”
‘Requiem’, p.50 (Penguin Modern, 2018)
Sadly, he dies not long after, but in a moving finale, reminiscent in tone of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, the narrator discovers that even in a foreign land, his countrymen know how to bid farewell to the departed.
All four of the selections here are excellent, enjoyable pieces, and Karetnyk’s contribution is top-notch. There’s a definite sense of decadent, over-blown language in all of the stories, and this suits the nostalgic air very well, with a sense of fragility running underneath. Yes, there’s a lot of life being lived to the fullest here, but the darkness always seems to be just around the corner…
From the realities of life on Earth, let’s head into outer space, and the mini-collection of Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s stories, The Three Electroknights, makes for quite a contrast with the Russian tales. Lem delights in stories set in fantastic worlds far beyond our galaxy, featuring lifeforms made of ice and steel, and when set against the Borgesian style and the slightly archaic language used by translator Michael Kandel, these mini space operas make for excellent reading (if Matt Bellamy, the songwriter and vocalist of the English band Muse, hasn’t read Lem, I’d be very surprised…).
‘The White Death’, for example, features a planet-spanning ruler who attempts to keep his people safe by surrounding the planet with asteroids and space debris and banning them from living on the surface. However, you can’t eliminate danger completely, and it’s perhaps inevitable that death will visit his world eventually. Another larger-than-life ruler appears in ‘The Tale of King Gnuff’, in which the monarch is so startled by a sinister prediction that he decides to expand in size until he covers the entire capital city. An interesting idea, but when you get that big, there’s a danger that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. This theme of rulers is continued in ‘King Globares and the Sages’, with a nasty-tempered king threatening to lop off the heads of those who fail to amuse him – until, that is, a wise man cows him with a tale of how the universe really began.
All of these tales are incredibly inventive and thought-provoking, but my pick would be the title piece, ‘The Three Electroknights’. Lem first introduces the Cryonids, a race of beings fashioned from water who can only survive on their incredibly cold planet ‘far removed from any sun’:
And they all lived happily, and, loving not only light but precious stones, they grew famous for their gems. The gems, cut and ground from frozen gases, added color to their eternal night, in which burned – like imprisoned spirits – the thin polar lights, resembling enchanted nebulae in blocks of crystal.
‘The Three Electroknights’, p.2
Alas, rumours of the beauty of these icy jewels spread throughout the galaxy, and it’s not long before we witness the arrival of three electroknights, cosmic conquerors set on rampaging through the kingdom of ice (‘Knights of Cydonia’, anyone?). Little do the invaders know that their fate is already sealed by the make-up of their bodies…
Overall, then, two excellent little books that are well worth a read, and when you see which other writers make the initial list of fifty titles (including Borges, Marías and Levi), I’m sure many of you will be tempted to splash out. However, it would be remiss of me not to play devil’s advocate a little. You see, both of today’s choices run to about fifty (fairly small) pages, which means I knocked each one off in about half an hour. In addition, the two works are actually selections from longer collections (Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky and Mortal Engines respectively), meaning a cynic might see them as loss leaders attracting readers to go on to buy the full collection.
Still, those are minor quibbles (and many readers may linger on these a while longer than I did). You can’t complain for a pound, and I’d certainly be happy to have a few more on my shelves. These mini-books are perfect for when you have a little time between reads, and I’m sure many of you will enjoy a brief taste of the classics 🙂