I think this book deserves its own unique place among the classics of Russian literature. As the titles suggests, these are nothing but sketches of hu...moreI think this book deserves its own unique place among the classics of Russian literature. As the titles suggests, these are nothing but sketches of hunting expeditions that Turgenev undertook on his and neighbouring estates (after returning from Europe, if I am not wrong). In these episodes, we get a realistic glimpse into the common life of the Russian serfs and hunters who accompany him. They are sometimes poignant, sometimes a bit morose and tedious (like life is) but Turgenev never exaggerates or dramatizes. Chekov mastered the art of depicting the boring and the non-incidental life of common folks, and Turgenev here does something similar but his work is more atmospheric and naturalistic. Moscow and St Petersburg can keep all their weary human stories, for with Turgenev we can tour the countryside and the woods.
As I read the stories I became increasingly convinced that Bunin had been influenced by Buddhism. Most of the stories had very little plot, no great d...moreAs I read the stories I became increasingly convinced that Bunin had been influenced by Buddhism. Most of the stories had very little plot, no great dialogues, they were rather sketches of a fleeting encounter, or an affair or a nostalgic recollection that echoed the fragility of our joys and existence. The title story itself sets the tone from the beginning - an American gentleman, holidaying in Italy with his family, meets with an unexpected end. The whole episode is narrated with almost ironic glee by the author. The dead man goes back by the same ship, 'hidden from the living: in a tarred coffin' and on board goes on the same chandelier-lit, festive ball.
The standout piece is 'Mitya's Love', the longest story in the book. Only in this story, there is a well developed character in Mitya whose jealousy and unchecked passion bring about his end. There is also a touch of modernity in these stories reflected by its treatment of sexuality. An adulterous affair, the sea, the night, a journey - these are recurring motifs in the book.
And I was not surprised to find a mention of an episode from the Buddha's life in one of the stories. It is, no doubt, personally agreeable to find a Buddhist connection. I remember being delighted to find a mention of the Dalai Lama in Turgenev's 'Sketches from a Hunter's Album'. All the same I have to say most of these stories lack the 'story-ness' itself, without which any piece appears dead and hollow. Although a realist in the steps of Chekov, Bunin is too philosophical for his own good and lacks that eye for compassion and humour that made Chekov so great. (less)
A difficult book, like a painting with thick, impenetrable brushstrokes that you can make sense of as a whole but with parts that seem to hold their o...moreA difficult book, like a painting with thick, impenetrable brushstrokes that you can make sense of as a whole but with parts that seem to hold their own secret meanings . Mizuguchi, a young Buddhist monk with a stutter that isolates and alienates him from those around him, grows up hearing about the beauty of the Golden Temple and develops a pathological obsession and envy that in the end drives him to set fire to it.
Set near the end of the Second World War with the threat of air-raids in the background and the appearance of an American soldier in one dramatic and brutal scene, the story essentially takes place in the traditional setting of a Zen Buddhist temple. And there are enigmatic and poetic imageries of nature that go with it. Yet as often is the case in things Japanese, brutality and violence are lurking nearby. (You can hear Mishima talk about it here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPAZQ6...)
The story is open to many interpretations. It is a meditation on the nature of beauty and on the evil in human nature but in essence, it is about alienation. I think Mishima was a pessimistic writer in that his characters are forever trapped in their own warped worlds and no communication is ever possible. (less)
I didn't know that Gogol was of Cossack ancestry. Didn't know that the author of biting satire and grotesque stories had written such a book as 'Taras...moreI didn't know that Gogol was of Cossack ancestry. Didn't know that the author of biting satire and grotesque stories had written such a book as 'Taras Bulba'. Well, he had and Hemingway had called it 'one of the ten greatest books of all time'. Since I am pretty sure that Hemingway didn't read Russian, that is some statement. But then, Hemingway was some man.
The Cossacks, a handsome, warlike people (by the accounts I have read of them so far), located in southern borders of Russia, seem to have held much fascination for the Russian writers of old. Tolstoy wrote about them in his immensely readable 'The Cossacks' and Sholokhov's monumental two-part novel was based on the Don Cossacks. But the hero of Tolstoy's work is a young Muscovite (loosely based on Tolstoy himself), who is attracted by the Cossack's way of life and tries unsuccessfully to be a part of it and Sholokhov's epic is also a story of Russian revolution and civil war. So there is an outsider's perspective to their works. 'Taras Bulba', on the other hand, is a full-blooded Cossack's tale that is folklorish and realistic in equal measures.
I was struck by how the storyline, the character and their preoccupations with war, violence and the ideals of bravery and brotherhood are similar to those in the epic of Gesar. Of course, the Gesar epic has a Buddhist theme, which could be a later development but I believe in their origin, these stories and others such as those of Homer have a similar origin. Taras Bulba is a Zoporozian Cossack, an aging warrior who fears his two sons will grow up without seeing a battlefield. So he takes them to fight the Catholic Poles who are committing crimes against their Eastern Orthodoxy faith. And soon the Tatars Muslims also join in and you get in the novella, written over a century ago, a picture of all the ethnic violence and war that is to come and filter down to our own age. Of course this is no Romantic tale of bravery and heroism. The Cossacks plunder and burn down villages without remorse and carouse wildly in peacetime. Bulba's younger son, Andriy, falls in love and switches side and Bulba shoots him dead and that is all there is about the young Cossack. The elder son is captured and tortured and executed in public. Bulba only prays that his son takes it like a man. There is also an unmistakable strain of anti-Semitism in the story, reflected clearly by the character of Yankel, a Jew, who is shown as a wily, scheming businessman, looking to make gold in the time of war. Still, there is much to like about in the book. As a story, it is well paced, the characters and the background landscape of the Russian steppe blend splendidly. Despite all its brutality, there is still something about the Cossack's way of life that attracts us, even through a tale such as this.
It seems to me that war and violence came quite easily to men in olden days, particularly when they were part of a tribe or a group. And 'Taras Bulba' is about that ''grim era in which man, living in a blood-drenched life of military campaigns, tempered his souls by stifling his humanity.'' I guess it is only in our time that we, sobered by the two world wars, condemn violence and war when we can afford it and yet, bring on a sea of rationalization when we, too often, can't.(less)
This book should ideally be read before Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. For in the latter, the black humour and satire evident in th...moreThis book should ideally be read before Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. For in the latter, the black humour and satire evident in this book is played out on a much grander stage. Here, they almost appear subtle in comparison. But of course I am talking trash. For here you have a distinguished Moscow surgeon, well known of his 'rejuvenating' operations, taking in a stray dog named Sharik and planting it with pituitary glands and testicles from a dead criminal. The result is, a troublesome, cat-chasing man-dog, Polygraph Polygraphovich (!!!), who reads Engels, drinks vodka and gets in charge of purging the city of cats.
"The whole horror of the situation is that he now has a human heart, not a dog's heart. And about the rottenest heart in all creation!" That's the good doctor's refrain, a bourgeois who keeps seven rooms for himself and sings 'Towards the sacred banks of the Nile..'. There is the housing committee who are after his privileges. In short, Bulgakov takes this setting in Communist Russia (where 'a man is strictly forbidden to exist without documents') and lets loose in it our 'new man'.
In a way, it is also bit like Kafka's Metamorphosis in that most of the action takes place within some apartment. Our Sharik is lucky that he does get to go out a few times and come back drunk with friends. But for someone like him to run amok in the city, and wreak a greater havoc, we would have to wait for the Devil himself to show up in Moscow, as he does in The Master and Margarita.(less)