Who’d Have Thunk It?

There I was, strolling down the road to visit my daughter, when I spotted something yellow in the distance which hadn’t been there before. What was it, I hear you ask?Anticipating this question, I altered course just a little and went to examine it.

It was a box, standing on its own sturdy legs, which looked as though it contained books. Could this really be? I opened it to find out and, sure enough, there were the books.

So what was going on here, what was the idea? The answer was to be found on the side.

Authors might not like this idea so much. If books are provided free without even having to go to a conventional library, they’re not going to make much money. Although, when you think about it, most of us don’t anyway.

So let’s hope the locals make good use of the Little Library. We shall see.

Wildflowers

Like many people, I have always loved wildflowers, but they have their enemies. Some years ago, a man with a backpack containing weedkiller killed a beautiful outcrop of Ivy-Leaved Toadflax growing in a street we often visited.

For them there was no escape, but one way wildflowers avoid destruction is by growing close enough to obstacles which get in the way of motor mowers. There are several outcrops of Veronica in our local churchyard which survive by growing close to headstones – though these lovely little flowers should be welcome anywhere.

Until recently, the grounds of our local hospital was improved by the striking wildflower, Orange Hawkweed.

Today, I find them gone, thanks to someone with a motor mower. You can’t win them all but it would be nice to win some. I am reminded of a poem by Robert Frost.

The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Filming Books

Books have been adapted for film and television for decades with varying degrees of success. Genres such as fantasy and crime have been popular: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and recently His Dark Materials. On the crime front, we have had multiple versions of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, the Wallander novels of Henning Mankel, (two in Swedish and one in English), and one of the Montalbano books of Andrea Camilleri (in Italian).

Classics have been popular for the treatment too, from Jane Austen, through George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens, to EM Forster, John Irving and many others. Adaptations of solid books like these provide welcome opportunities for acting talent (Helena Bonham Carter, for example) who usually do very well by them. And it may be that film and TV versions provide the only exposure to these books for some.

But the question will often arise, How faithful is the adaptation to the original?  Because there are purists out there who will contest any departure from the books they hold dear even if the change might result in a possible improvement or be necessary to render it in visual terms at all.

Here in the UK, we have recently had yet another version of The War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. Those who study such things report that the script has taken significant liberties with the text. Why would anyone do this? Suggestions include making the original appear more relevant to the present day, and to spice things up with ‘love interest’ where there was none before.

Changes like these are probably not be unusual. Think of the fun a post-graduate student could have watching all those films and TV series then comparing them to the books on which they’re based. If I were younger than I am today . . . I still wouldn’t consider it. The task would take years and life is too short.

But what if, instead of taking liberties, the film or TV version is completely faithful to the text, surely that will be enough to guarantee success? I think this will depend on several things. Is the text worth being faithful to in the first place? The recent TV version of His Dark Materials is a genuine attempt to put across the original and much labour has clearly been expended on it. Yet I failed to find it involving – exactly the same reaction I had to the book. (I expect to be in a minority here and shot down in flames by a talking bear or a squadron of witch-archers flying overhead with bows and arrows.)

At the other end of the scale (for me) is Italian TV’s version of my Brilliant Friend. This, too, is exceptionally faithful to the book, required an astonishing amount of hard graft but works very well in conveying not just the characters, of which there are many, but the place where it all happens. Naples.

To end with a tricky one. Where much of the effect a book has on the reader is due to its prose style we will have a serious problem adapting it for the screen. If the narration is first person then much of the flowing prose may still be supplied –  by members of the cast, sometimes in person so to speak, more frequently through voice-over. But if the original is written in the third person there is no obvious solution.

Fortunately, there is no obvious problem either, because it is not compulsory to adapt a novel for the screen. Leaving well alone is always an option.

 

 

Reviews

I have written many reviews over the years and always found it demanding. To begin with, if I read a book and really don’t like it then I won’t review it. No point putting an author off after publication. Some might argue that comments concerning a certain category of book (let’s call it Book Number 1 in the Inspector Torcuil McSporran series) might have a beneficial knock-on effect in Book Number 2. But who is to say there will be a follow-up?

Reviewing has also caused me to change my reading habits. In the past (when I was younger than I am today, in every way, oh yeah, oh no) I would read physical copies. I still do, but if I intend to review a book now I will buy a eBook edition. The reason for this is an ingrained belief that it is not enough to make an assertion of the sort This book is absolute drivel OR This book is a work of genius. Assertions should be supported a) by reasoning and b) by evidence.

In the case of a book, evidence can only take the form of quotations from the text. To which end I used to sit in front of a screen typing with one hand while holding the book open at the relevant page with the other. This was a slow and inefficient process leading to strain of the left thumb. Then I discovered, late in the day, that by using an eBook I could highlight noteworthy sections then – sheer bliss! – copy them at will into a review.

Having just read two reviews of my recent title, I have been struck by how inadequate some reviews can be.

Review 1

Here are a couple of plums. Firstly, about the cover:

It is nice designed in the color and in the design itself.

And

The author succeeds in writing very detailing about the scenery

To judge by the syntax errors, English was not the reviewer’s first language. Is this is a concern? Yes, though only if the reviewer’s command of the language in which the book is written is an obstacle to him/her in properly getting to grips with it.

In this case, the reviewer liked the book but in terms so general anyone reading the review would learn nothing at all about it. For example, wouldn’t we want to know what the book was about?

To quote from the site the review was posted on (here I am quoting again, I just can’t help myself), the site “helps readers of influence discover and recommend new books to their audiences”.

Review 2

This was an interesting one but in a different way.

Hart’s characters are complex and without any definite shade of black or white except for Klein Pearson , who as the sole antagonist comes out as a vile, hateful character.

This would be a telling point against the said Klein Pearson if there was any such character in the book. Unfortunately, there is not. The reviewer has conflated two very different characters, Dieter Klein and Adalbert Pearson. Worrying, right?

 

 

 

Bookshops changing with the times

They don’t have it easy these days and are obliged to follow certain trends to stay in business.

The bookshop I know best has a lower ground floor which used to be full of books – not surprising in a bookshop. Now, though, it hosts a large selection of games ranging from Monopoly through Harry Potter to Star Wars. And there are models of X-Wing fighters for those into Star Wars to assemble. Hours of joy all round.

So shelves which used to be full of books are now full of games. I can’t say a single intelligent thing on this subject because I have never played any of them.  What I notice, though, is the astonishing amount of packaging these games come in, a level of waste that books can’t compete with.

When all the packaging is ripped off where does it end up? I’m reminded of a store specializing in children’s toys (no longer trading) which was even worse. The ratio of packaging to toys did not favour the toys, most of which – to make matters worse – were made of plastic.

So if we aren’t following the trend, not playing the game, we can always stick with something safe. A book hot off the press.

 

Hunting

Some people hunt for survival, in which case they are part of a larger group of animals, fish and insects which do the same. If they didn’t hunt they would die. They may also be part of a larger picture, protecting the balance of a given ecosystem through the regulation of animal numbers. Then there are those who don’t need to hunt but do it anyway.

The fact that they dont have to do it is not in itself an argument against it: if we only did what we had to do we might not do very much.  We don’t have to sing, dance or drink alcohol. Come to that, we don’t have to breed. But we might question the motivation of those who kill living things for pleasure. One such person was Ivan Turgenev who, though he takes the joys of hunting for granted, occasionally tries to explain it for the benefit Hindus who feared reincarnation as a duck within range of his gun, not to mention pacific individuals like me.

Turgenev Hunting by Nikolai Dmitrjewitsch Dmitrjeff-Orenburgsky, dated 1879.

In the concluding sketch from a Hunter’s Notebook, Forest and Steppe, Turgenev writes:

Hunting with a gun and a dog is a delight in itself, für sich, as they used to say in the past. But let us suppose that you are not a born hunter, though you still love nature; in that case, you can hardly fail to envy the lot of your brother hunters . . . Pray listen a while.’

The ‘while’ turns out to be an evocation, several pages long, of getting out and about before dawn and spending the day amid nature. The following is a brief extract.

In the meantime dawn has burst into flame; stripes of gold have risen across the sky and wreaths of mist form in the ravines; to the loud singing of skylarks and the soughing of the wind before dawn the sun rises, silent and purple, above the horizon. Light floods over the world and your heart trembles within you like a bird. Everything is so fresh, gay and lovely! You can see for miles. Here a village glimmers beyond the woodland; there, farther away, is another village with a white church and then a hill with a birchwood; beyond it is the marsh to which you are driving… Step lively there, horses! Forward at a brisk trot!…’

Unfortunately for the logic of his case, he weakens it with a question to which he believes the answer is obvious or he wouldn’t be asking it in the first place.

‘Has anyone save a hunter ever experienced the delight of wandering through bushes at dawn?’

So according to Ivan Sergeyevich the only reason to wander through  bushes at dawn is to massacre wildlife, though it is perfectly obvious that no one needs a fowling piece to do this: a biologist might, or a bird-watcher or even, to lower the tone, someone in search of a discreet place to relieve himself.

Ivan reveals his hand most openly in the sketch Yermolay and the Miller’s Wife. In the following extract, note what ‘delights’ him as he bumps off his birds.

‘The ducks rose noisily, literally ‘exploding’ from the pond in fright at our sudden appearance in their domain and gunfire resounded in unison after them and it was a delight to see how the stumpy birds somersaulted in the air and splashed down heavily in the water. We didn’t of course retrieve all the shot duck. Some of the slightly injured ones dived, some of the dead ones fell in such thick ‘mayer’ that even the lynx-eyed Yermolay couldn’t spot them, but nevertheless by dinnertime our boat had become filled to the brim with our bag.’

Now it so happens that on one of his many excursions he was challenged by a man called Kasyan who knew exactly what his motivation was and confronted him with an opposing philosophy. The following extracts are from the wonderful story, Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands.

‘You shoot the birds of the air, eh?… And the wild animals of the forest?… Isn’t it sinful you are to be killing God’s own wee birds and spilling innocent blood? Why is it now that you should be killing that wee bird?’ he began, looking me directly in the face.

‘How do you mean: why? A landrail is a game bird. You can eat it.’

‘No, it wasn’t for that you were killing it, master. You won’t be eating it! You were killing it for your own pleasure.’

‘But surely you yourself are used to eating a goose or a chicken, for example, aren’t you?’

‘Such birds are ordained by God for man to eat, but a landrail – that’s a bird of the free air, a forest bird. And he’s not the only one; aren’t there many of them, every kind of beast of the forest and of the field, and river creature, and creature of the marsh and meadow and the heights and the depths – and a sin it is to be killing such a one, it should be let to live on the earth until its natural end… But for man there is another food laid down; another food and another drink; bread is God’s gift to man, and the waters from the heavens, and the tame creatures handed down from our fathers of old.’

Turgenev’s hunting companion, Yermolay, complained to him more than once about his habit of engaging ‘the lower orders’ in meaningful conversation. But Turgenev learned a great deal from these converstions and much of it found its way into the Hunter’s Notebook. In this case he gives an excellent account of the time he spends with Kasyan, in the course of which we discover that he has no adequate answer to the points Kasyan puts to him. This doesn’t concern him much, partly because he is secure in his own viewpoint, and partly because Kasyan is clearly an eccentric person whose thoughts, however well argued, may too easily be discounted for that reason. But I’m with Kasyan on this one.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Hunter’s Notebook is all about hunting. It’s true subject matter is the natural world and the many different creatures (including people) who inhabit it – which he describes with a naturalist’s eye and attention to detail. (I could write a post in praise of his pen portraits, and might if I live long enough.)

For those dog lovers among you, I should point out that, in his opinion, and if you were thinking of getting one, Borzois are uncommonly stupid.

However all this may be Turgenev, a thoughtful man, concludes his final sketch, Forest and Steppe, with these kind words:

‘Farewell, my reader; I wish you lasting happiness and well-being.’

(All quotations are from the translation by Richard Freeborn.)

Ivan Turgenev and his Birds

Turgenev knew nature very well and certainly knew his birds. Part of the reason for this was that he liked to rise early of a morning and blast them to pieces with guns – and so we kill the things we know so well and love.

The following examples are all from Fathers and Sons (Oxford edition, translated by Richard Freeborn), but the list could be extended considerably by including references from his Sportsman’s Notebook (also published in English under the title Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook.) And I have to admit that the list is not complete – I have omitted the reference to an ornamental bird of paradise found on a lady’s hat.

I particularly like the intervention of a chaffinch deflating the balloon of a declaration of love. Such declarations should be deflated wherever possible.

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If it is open to dedicate a post, I dedicate this one to elizabethm. Here is a link to her latest post which takes Turgenev as its subject.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

And if you are a native speaker (Hi there, Gerard!)  then this post is also available in Dutch.

1 Chicken

A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.

2 Dove

A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.

5 Snipe

‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’

6 Long-tailed Siskin

From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.

7 Quail

Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.

 8 Swallows

Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;

9 Nightingale

And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’

10 Telling a bird from its flight

‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.

11 Fledgling Hawk

Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.

12 Falcon

‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.

13 Sparrows

He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.

 14 Chaffinch 

‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’

15 Jackdaw

‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’

16 A wee grouse hen

Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.

17 A Crowing Cock

Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.

 

 

 

Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

deathrailwayT

Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

hilary-custance-green

 

 

Blurbs

After a woman is brutally murdered in a Nebraska cornfield, Detective Mackenzie White obsesses over the twisted mind of a potential psychopath. But as bodies start piling up, can she stop the killer before it’s too late?

Though I’m just a simple country boy, the blurb I have quoted above strikes me as unsatisfactory. If bodies are piling up, I would say it is too late already for some. In any case, haven’t we read the second sentence many times before?

Just asking.

Rules for Writers

Over the last few years I have come across several posts on this subject. Very often, the emphasis has been on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. My most recent discovery was that question marks should be also avoided – from which I inferred that questions should too. This post concerns one of these only, adjectives.

So adjectives should be used sparingly and, if at all, in a striking manmer. If a given adjective is only to be expected then replace it with something more arresting. This advice will certainly be beneficial to some. These papers first came into my hands a few weeks ago and this is how they began.

‘When the comets with their milky tails race in the inky dome of the sky and Aurora laces her silky skeins over the Ladder Hills, where the stags are roaring and the red grouse call ‘Go back’ warning of danger, just as they had in Jacobite times; when the Cambus Burn runs sweet and cold into ‘The Cardinal’s Pool’, it is hard to think that this peaceful, unpretentious old house sited in its own leafy water meadow, now guarded only by swallows, curlews and peewits, is the same as . . .’

And so it continues. Even allowing for the writer’s old-fashioned cast of mind, it won’t do. When I pointed this out the author admitted to a weakness for ‘purple prose’. At which point, just to keep the pot on the boil and with no serious intent, we take issue with the adjective ‘purple’.

But adjectives are necessary and desirable, Imagine writing a pen portrait of a person or a place with none at your disposal. And who has written pen portaits of this type? (Excuse the question mark.) Many writers have but, the one who stands out for me is Ivan Turgenev.

Clearly (I had to sneak in an adverb) there are many pen portraits in Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook. Two of the most memorable are his description of lying on his back looking up at the sky through the trees, and his description of making his way through the countryside at night when he has lost his way. But both of these are long. The following combines description with the author’s satircal streak, something which got him into trouble with the authorities. (Yes, I know, I could have said ‘deep trouble’ but held back).

‘TikhonIvanovich willed his estate, as could have been expected, to his most honoured benefactor and magnanimous patron ‘Pantaley Yeremeich Chertopkhanov’. But it brought no great benefit to the most honoured benefactor because it was quickly sold by public auction – partly in order to cover the costs of a monument over the grave, a statue which Chertopkhanov (evidently his father’s blood still ran in his veins!) wanted to erect over the ashes of his friend. He ordered the statue, which should have been that of an angel in prayer, from Moscow, but the man recommended to him to commission it, aware that in the provinces there are few sculpture experts, sent instead of an angel a goddess Flora which had for many years decorated one of the overgrown suburban parks of Catherine the Great’s time. This statue, exceedingly elegant, certainly, in rococo style, with chubby little hands, fluffy curls, a garland of roses on her naked bosom and a noticeably curved waist, was obtained by the commissioner for nothing. So it is that to this very day there stands above TikhonIvanovich’s grave a mythological goddess with one foot graciously raised who looks with truly aristocratic disdain at the calves and sheep strolling round about her, those devoted visitors to our countrygraveyards.’

Turgenev’s most famous book is the novel Fathers and Sons. The translator of my edition has studied the orginal manuscripts and discovered how much trouble Turgenev took with adjectives.

‘Most of all, of course, the working autograph manuscript reveals the struggle of the author to establish and refine the detail. The ‘realism’ of the work can literally be sensed in the minute changes, the finessing process of introducing the right descriptive adjectives into depictions of landscape or clothing or facial appearance, whereas for the greater part the dialogue (except in some of the polemical passages) received far less revision and can therefore be supposed to have formed the voiced or dramatized structure of the fiction, its inner core, the characters themselves being often signalled by no more than initials.’  Richard Freeborn

There are many descriptions in this book.

‘Arkady looked round and saw a tall woman in a black dress who had stopped in the doorway of the ballroom. She stunned him by the dignity of her bearing. Her bare arms lay beautifully against her elegant waist and fine sprays of fuchsia drooped beautifully from her brilliant hair on to her sloping shoulders. Her bright eyes shone calmly and intelligently—calmly, it has to be said, and not pensively—from beneath her slightly pronounced white temples and her lips smiled a scarcely discernible smile. Her face shone with a kind of soft and alluring strength.’

So now we can visualise Anna Sergeevna Odintsova very well, but I hear the objection – you can’t get away with this sort of thing these days. And you probably can’t, which tells us something not only about the use of adjectives but also about ‘these days’.

To conclude, an instance of Turgenev pinning someone down in a few words.

‘His mother, from the Kolyazin family, known as Agathe before marriage but as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanov in her capacity as a general’s wife, belonged to the tribe of ‘matriarchal battleaxes’ and wore sumptuous bonnets and noisy silk dresses, was always the first in church to go up to kiss the cross, talked loudly and a great deal, permitted her children to kiss her hand each morning and gave them her blessing each night—in short, lived her life to her heart’s content.’