The Bookshelf: White Magic.

Back in 2013 I reviewed Muireann Maguire’s anthology Red Spectres; I am happy to announce that after what has apparently been a long process of gestation (“This collection has been almost a decade in the making”), the companion volume White Magic: Russian Emigre Tales of Mystery and Terror has been published, and Russian Life Books was kind enough to send me a copy. It is just as good as its precursor.

After Maguire’s introduction, a set of author bios, and a list of sources with the original Russian titles (which I very much appreciated), the anthology opens with two stories by Alexander Amfiteatrov, whose novels were briefly popular before WWI but who has since been forgotten (the only one of my histories of Russian literature that mentions him does so only by surname, in a list of authors published in Belgrade by an emigré press). His stories “He” and “The Cimmerian Disease” make an effective point of departure; the first is narrated by a teenage girl who has been seduced by a vampire (“He always comes to me as soon as the last ray fades from the belltower of that tall church”), and the second is in the form of a letter by a young man who had the misfortune to rent a Moscow apartment formerly occupied by his friend Petrov and now haunted by a woman Petrov had driven to suicide — he is writing from Corfu, where he fled to escape her. (At one point the narrator thinks the woman might be a psychopath, and Maguire has a footnote explaining that the term had been known in Russian since at least 1885; I remembered I had done a post on the word, did some more research, and turned up an antedate from 1856!) They are followed by a Civil War shocker by Pyotr Krasnov called “The Eightieth” and two Petersburg stories by Ivan Lukash, “Hermann’s Card” (a gambler runs into Pushkin’s protagonist from “The Queen of Spades”) and “The Bells” (a cry of outrage at the Bolshevik’s destruction of the antiquities of the city).

Then comes one of the highlights of the collection, two stories by the great Pavel Muratov, almost as little remembered as Amfiteatrov, but very unfairly so. One of the books I was happiest to get in my recent buying spree was a fat Azbuka paperback of his «Образы Италии» [Images of Italy], of which Clive James wrote “As a book on the Italian Grand Tour it not only stands directly in the tradition of Goethe, Gregorovius, Burckhardt and Arthur Symons, but it is better than any of them.” I had been vaguely aware that he wrote fiction as well as art history, but I was blown away by his work here. “The Venetian Mirror” (which, oddly, has the same title as a story by Chayanov in Red Spectres) starts, enticingly, “I broke my promise — I never did send you a Venetian mirror…” and goes on to explain that the protagonist found the perfect mirror only to learn its terrifying secret; it ends: “May the marvelous gilded frame never hang on that wall, spangled with the glints of summer, in the peace of your room in the countryside, to encircle the fragments of its magical world.” The second, “The Companion,” is about “the oddities of Lord Elmore,” who was “wealthy beyond belief, and uncommonly handsome,” and who depended on his endlessly competent and loyal French servant Auguste. His life illustrates the saying that power corrupts; he ruins his gentle and lovely bride, Lady Helen, and after many other destructive interactions with the world he turns away from it and barricades himself (along with Auguste) in his ancestral Woburn Abbey. He takes to reading and collecting, but neither activity soothes his savage soul; I will quote a wonderful paragraph that illustrates both Muratov’s style and Maguire’s fine work as a translator (after her version comes the Russian for those who can appreciate it):

Neither books nor pictures taught Lord Elmore peace of mind. Can the wisdom of others calm the heart of one who has never found peace through his own experiences? The hermit of Woburn was a stranger to humility. When he should have meditated, he fulminated. He demanded immediate and precise answers to everything, as if the philosopher or scholar who wrote the book had been the skipper of Elmore’s ship or one of his dark-skinned ministers. Knowledge irritated Elmore because it was incomplete, and faith annoyed him by its doubts. He learned to despise both; it was then he decided to remake everything designed by mankind from beginning to end. He developed his own systems of astronomy and mathematics. He wrote anew a complete history of nations and kingdoms, convinced that real history was entirely mistaken. Finally, Elmore conceived of God in his own image and likeness, and then, bursting with diabolical pride, he ceased to read.

Ни книги, ни картины не научили лорда Эльмора спокойствию. Может ли мудрость других утишить сердце того, кто не нашел успокоения в собственном опыте? Отшельник Воберна был далек от какой-либо покорности. Там, где надо было размышлять, он кипел. Он требовал на все немедленных и точных ответов, как если бы писавший книгу философ или ученый был шкипером его корабля или одним из его чернокожих министров. Знание раздражало Эльмора своею неоконченностью и вера своими сомнениями. Он научился презирать и то и другое, и тогда решил переделать все, что было сделано человечеством с начала и до конца. Он открыл свою астрономию и изобрел свою математику. Он переписал заново всю историю народов и царств, убежденный, что действительная история была сплошной ошибкой. Эльмор выдумал, наконец, по своему образу и подобию своего Бога и тогда, преисполненный дьявольской гордостью, перестал читать.

Irina Odoyevtseva‘s “By The Sea” is a pleasing tale of romantic folly in Biarritz, Georgy Peskov’s “Kum” is a rural horror story about a young bride whose husband goes off to WWI and vanishes (Peskov, whose real name was Yelena Deisha, is represented both here and in Red Spectres, which seems odd), and Nadezhda Teffi’s “The Mother” is an over-the-top tearjerker about a devoted mother who loves her worthless son and will do absolutely anything for him — it’s the one entry that disappointed me (especially since Teffi is usually a dependable pleasure). After that comes the other highlight, Gaito Gazdanov’s “An Adventurer.” It’s another Petersburg story, featuring the bored and lonely Anna Sergeyevna, coming home alone from a ball and encountering a strange man whom she surprises herself by inviting to her mansion. He says he is an American poet and will shortly be leaving Russia to continue his endless wanderings; he tells her strange things, and he sees strange visions. It’s unique and impressive, like everything else I’ve read by Gazdanov, and I’m glad he’s getting more attention these days (see Maguire’s 2013 post about translations).

The book ends with two by Zamyatin, “The Watch” and “The Encounter”; they’re both enjoyable, the first a funny anecdote about a pompous official (“Zaitser was a mighty individual; he was in charge of procuring firewood for the whole of freezing Petersburg”) who tries to impress his secretary, with disastrous results, and the second is a more somber piece about a movie shoot where a former police colonel plays a police colonel and a former revolutionary plays a revolutionary (needless to say, it turns out they had met before, in the harsh times before the Revolution). The book is well produced, with nice illustrations and few typos (in “The Cimmerian Disease” I’m pretty sure “Arefyov” should be Arefyev [Арефьев]); I will correct a passing misstatement in the very informative introduction, even though it is irrelevant to the book, because it represents a common misconception: the White Army (actually a number of separate armies, not very well coordinated) was not “tsarist,” it was simply anti-Bolshevik. As Wikipedia puts it, “the White movement functioned as a big-tent political movement representing an array of political opinions in Russia united in their opposition to the communist Bolsheviks—from the republican-minded liberals and Kerenskyite social-democrats on the left through monarchists and supporters of a united multinational Russia to the ultra-nationalist Black Hundreds on the right.” Many of those who fought and died to oppose Lenin’s thugs would have been appalled to see themselves described as tsarist. But never mind that, go read the book; it’s a treasure that any lover of Russian literature should cherish, not least because of Maguire’s uniformly excellent translations. Usually when I read in translation, I wish I was reading the original instead; here I just relaxed and enjoyed her renditions, which are smooth, accurate, and appropriate to the authors’ styles. It must have taken a lot of work, and she deserves a round of applause. (For another, equally appreciative, review, see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.)


  1. It is a real shame this compilation does not exist in Russian. I avoid translations whenever possible, which I realize is unfair, but is just a neurotic tick I have. At least Maguire has provided a nice source list, as you point out. I will definitely track down the Gazdanov story.

  2. Some enterprising Russian publisher should put together an equivalent anthology; I’ll bet it would sell.

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