Coming back to the classics

I was tempted into doing this again by two imprints, both new to me, though no doubt they shouldn’t have been. One is Alma Classics, the other Hesperus Classics. In my case the classics I mean are Russian. When I was young, I read War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, but apart from that knew little of Russian literature. In the lean years since I have read quite a few classics, but none of them Russian. This was not a policy, just a thoughtless accident. The only exceptions I can think of are a two works by Gogol: Dead Souls, and The Government Inspector.

This changed a few weeks ago when I walked into my local bookshop and found myself looking at a large display of two imprints, Alma Classics and Hesperus Classics.

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I snapped up six titles:

The Story of a Nobody, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Hugh Aplin  (Alma Classics)

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Hugh Aplin (Alma Classics)

The Tales of Belkin, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Hugh Aplin (Hesperus Classics)

Two Princesses, by Vladimir Odoevsky, translated by Neil Cornwell (Hesperus Classics)

Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Stephen Pearl (Alma Classics)

Notes From The Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Translated by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes)

All of these books come with what might be called a ‘scholarly apparatus’. But far from making them dry as dust, I have found these additional sections  very helpful. Typically, there is an introduction, notes, life and select bibliography. Some have photographs as well.

To take one book as an example, The Story of a Nobody is beautifully produced. At the front there is a generous selection of photographs and at the end, after the notes, a brief life of Chekhov with a guide to content in the margin. Before reading this book, I didn’t realise how brutally his father, a devout Christian, used to beat up his children. This is the same father who, hearing that the local Greek school had high academic standards, sent his children to it. Not a smart move since they couldn’t speak Greek. I was sad to see that a photograph of this man has survived. And here is Anton himself.

English: Chekhov

English: Chekhov (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only thing I can’t comment on is the quality of translation. I have spent many an evening listening in dismay as three Russian teachers descended into heated argument over arcane aspects of Russian grammar. One of them, Harry Milne, had been awarded the Pushkin Medal, but even that didn’t save him when he ventured an opinion. The one thing they did agree on was that Russian is a difficult language. So I feel like awarding the Hart Medal (Oak Leaf and Bar) to Stephen Pearl. Translating Oblomov must have been an arduous task. (Pearl contributes a translator’s note to this edition.)

I came across both these classic series (Alma and Hesperus) in my local bookshop, Blackwells .Blackwells have branches in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, and many other places in the UK, usually where there are universities. The Edinburgh shop is on the South Bridge, very central, and its labyrinthine layout adds to the charm, though maybe not for the staff. They have taken the wise precaution of incorporating a Caffe Noir into the building, entered from the bookstore itself or directly from Infirmary Street.

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Smart move. I like this shop a lot, and not just because it stocks my books.

My Titles Blackwells

Here are links to Alma, Hesperus and Blackwells, Edinburgh. In addition to their stores, Blackwells have an excellent website, and if you sign up tempting offers will appear in your inbox. Good reading!

Blackwells 5 webBlackwells 3 webBlackwells 4 web

14 thoughts on “Coming back to the classics

  1. I love stumbling on great books like that! I haven’t read the others, but I remember reading Notes From the Underground when I took existentialism. That class was amazing and, from what I remember, so was the book. 🙂

    • You were one up on me then, because until recently I hadn’t heard of it.
      How many holes are there in my education? I could create a lovely jersey from them if I knitted them all together.

  2. I read many Russian writers in Dutch first and later, after migration, in English. I always thought they were the best writers, absolutely loved the Russians, never thought that I was reading tarnslations.
    I recently tried reading War and Peace again but gave up. Too many galloping horses entering St Peterburg and their owners wearing powdered wigs.

    Anton Chekhov will never date.

    It must feel so good, Rod, seeing your own novels on the shelves of Blackwells.

  3. Yes, there is quite a strength in depth to Russian literature, something I am still discovering.
    I preferred Anna Karenina to War and Peace, not having much time for war in the first place.

    I suppose it does feel good seeing them there. It is also good getting the occasional email from my contact in the store (whom I could name but doubt if she’d like that) asking for more copies.

  4. Love Russian classics, though I think I have you beat. I read Cancer Ward in the original Russian. I know, amazing. Truly, you have to read quite a few of them to develop an appreciation. They’re usually dark, not terribly happy, but suddenly you see their purpose–as a whole. I can see why Russians love their homeland.

    • I could read it in college. Now, not so much. I spent a summer there and got almost fluent, which is why I read Solzhenitsyn in his native language. What a difference!

  5. I am impressed, my reading of the Russian classics is very thin, though Chekhov is on it. You might well enjoy Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov, which I much enjoyed. I didn’t know about his father.

  6. I hadn’t heard of this book, so thanks. One thing which has struck me so far is how much of what I am reading flies in the face of the show don’t tell line. I wouldn’t say the emperor has no clothes, but he’s not so well attired as he likes to think.

  7. Excuse the brief reply, I was away from a real keyboard. When I started reading blogs I signed up to email notifications, but soon found my email account swamped – so now I follow blogs I’ve signed up to only on by way of the reader.

    I also bookmarked blogs I follow, though I’m not sure how good an idea that is.

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