THE BOOKSHELF: RED SPECTRES.

A couple of months ago I reviewed Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature, which I liked a great deal. Now Overlook Press has sent me her companion volume, the anthology Red Spectres, which is even more fun (and much more affordable!). The introduction has a quick overview of the historical background gone into in much more detail in Stalin’s Ghosts, but the focus is on the early twentieth century, which is when all the stories included were written (and all but two in the 1920s).
Valery Bryusov’s “In the Mirror” (1903) is essentially a nineteenth-century story (Poe would have loved it) about a woman obsessed since childhood with mirrors who winds up in a terrible struggle with her own reflection; it’s a good choice for an opener, since Bryusov was an excellent writer and it establishes a compelling mood (not to mention serving as a source for Chayanov’s “The Venetian Mirror,” virtually a parody). The Bryusov is followed by three stories by Aleksandr Chayanov, who’s much better known as an agricultural economist but who wrote five Gothic stories which he published at his own expense; I’m not as impressed by him as Maguire is—as a writer, he’s essentially an antiquarian, doing pastiches of early-nineteenth-century Gothic rather than rethinking the genre for his own grim era—but the stories are enjoyable, especially the first, “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin,” which jumps from Moscow to Kolomna to Korcheva (which was flooded for a reservoir in the 1930s—how I love drowned cities!) to various European locales and has a cheerful brio. I didn’t care for the doleful and clotted “Venediktov,” but apparently it influenced Master and Margarita (the hero is named Bulgakov, which must have struck the imagination of the greater writer), and that by itself justifies its inclusion.
Then come two stories by Bulgakov himself, and what a leap in quality: here’s a writer who can’t help but infuse whatever he writes with the terror of his time. “The Red Crown” is about a White officer going mad because he couldn’t obey his mother’s plea to save his brother’s life during the Civil War; it starts “More than anything else I hate sunlight, loud conversations and, of course, the endless thudding.” The second story, “A Seance,” is largely funny rather than grim (it starts “Ksyushka, the idiot maid, announced ‘That feller has turned up to see yer…’”), but it does involve the secret police. Both are fine examples of Bulgakov’s brilliance even in miniature forms, and they justify the existence of the book all by themselves. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Phantom” (which I described in the earlier post) is both funny and terrifying, and makes me want to read more by him. Aleksandr Grin’s “The Grey Motor Car” is a splendid example of his peculiar genius and hopefully will introduce a lot of English-speaking readers to a wonderful writer who should be as well loved as he is by Russians. The two stories by “Georgy Peskov” (actually the émigré Yelena Deisha) are effective genre pieces; only the last item in the book, “Professor Knop’s Experiment” by the completely unknown Pavel Perov, is a disappointment, the kind of mad-scientist riff that would have served as filler in Weird Tales (already in existence for a year by 1924, when the story was published in Berlin). I’m delighted to say that Maguire’s translations are uniformly excellent and that so far as I could tell there’s not a single typo, both highly impressive feats. I recommend the book warmly to anyone with the slightest interest in stories of the uncanny, in early-twentieth-century Russia, or simply in good writing.
Addendum. Maguire’s thoughts about translating the book are well worth reading.

Comments

  1. Roger Depledge says:

    Is the torrent of spam affecting your paragraphing?

  2. I hadn’t thought there were any clear paragraph breaks, but now that you mention it, it was quite a lump, so I broke it up just for you. Never say we don’t cater to our patrons here at the Hattery!

  3. Heads-up: I added a comment at McGuire’s posting linked above, which is now visible.

  4. “But I don’t mean to imply that my views son droit and yours son tort“: Is the bad French deliberate and part of your rhetoric/argument? Or is it not French at all?

  5. Hat: It’s a mish-mosh, alas. I should have said ont droit, and ont tort, referring to the line from The Song of Roland, “Païens ont tort et Chrétiens ont droit”, at least in normalized spelling, though the Oxford MS actually says “Paien unt tort e chrestiens unt dreit”.
    Post in haste, repent at leisure.

  6. Ah, Old French then—I understand your repentance, but I can’t answer for my own Old French capabilities, so I’m going to let you off the hook this time.

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