Thursday, August 13, 2020

russian riddles

The Anna Karenina fix

Viv Groskop

Harry N. Abrams, 2018
Penguin 2019

It may be an age thing, but I am finding myself reading memoirs a lot, and maybe even writing some. Obviously I’m not all that interested in reading how people got rich and famous or how they changed their diet, but there is a sub-genre that I find really exciting, balancing cultural issues I’m interested in (literature, languages, music, art) with the life experience. So it's about how people interacted with cultural things and it helped them find out who they really are.

An important example and possibly the reason for my new interest is Elena Lappin’s memoir about her family and her five languages (What language do I dream in?). Eric Siblin mixed 1/3 memoir with 2/3 biographies of more famous people (Bach, Casals) to paint a picture of the cultural monument known as The cello suites. Then again, I'll also accept an old house as a cultural asset, see Hancox by Charlotte Moore.

I recently noticed that Viv Groskop has a new book out about French literature, and as I am a bit careful about what Anglophones write about all things French, I opted to check her earlier book about Russian literature first. It turned out to be a fine addition to my new favourite memoir sub-genre. While discussing 11 works by 10 major Russian writers (Tolstoy gets the first and the last word), she applies the philosophical insights to be gained from these books to her own coming of age and finding her identity. In a nutshell, based on her unusual name she thought she might be of Russian origin and therefore went on to study Russian and aspired to become Russian, but in the end her migration background turned out to be something else entirely.

This is arranged as a clever little puzzle, or maybe as a set of Russian dolls. Can’t be quite sure as I read the chapters in the wrong order, first those about the books I’ve read (long ago), and then the rest, not necessarily in the right order, as I was more curious about some of the works discussed than about others. But in the end it was all exciting enough to make me read all the chapters so all good and riddle solved. (Here is a photo of the Groskop family of 1915 including info about their origins, if you want to find out without reading the book.)

At some point, I think I’ll read the French book too. Another book-related memoir is Lucy Mangan’s book about children’s literature, Bookworm. And I need to read Hadley Freeman's House of Glass.

I like the cover, too.

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