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Our libraries had become an untidy mess: books double-stacked in and on top of our various bookcases. There was only one solution: over the past 4 days I have added another 15 metres of so of book shelving in three rooms. I’ll leave it to MmeKordoukova to praise my carpentry if she deigns….

I say ‘our’ in the plural: hers is basically the Russian library + art, mine is essentially European literature (what in Russia they call belletristik), some history and lots of theology. 

About half of my library is literature, mainly English, French and German, with a sprinkling of Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Latin, and (in translation) Greek and Russian. Yet, to be honest, , I read fairly little, and often not to the end. Probably, I expect, because deep down I am a moralist: I get a bad ‘smell’ of an author and it’s finished. Thomas Mann is the example par excellence: Joseph und seine Brüder, Doktor Faustus and Der Zauberberg all lie unfinished: however brilliant TM’s descriptions of situations and people and however marvellously creative his use of the German language, I sense through his writing that Mann is not someone I would want to spend a holiday with. Idem for Gide, Balzac, Zola, Baudelaire, Goncourt Brothers, Proust – in fact most of the modern French literature course for the Cambridge Modern Languages Tripos, which is why as a student I abandoned literature for medieval languages (another reason being my total failure to comprehend the norms of the academic literary criticism of the day). The same goes for English poets: Auden, Spender, Larkin and Hughes seem fairly unpleasant characters, R.S. Thomas I have a lot of time for, as I do Yeats and the much earlier John Donne.

With the Russian classics (in translation – which excludes almost the whole of Russian poetry) it’s a mixed bag: FMD I read still more from a sense of duty than pleasure (except for his prison diaries The House of the Dead, and his early The Village of Stepanchikova). He is heavy going for my English taste. Someone quipped once that Russians don’t have moral theologians, but FMD instead. Tolstoy can paint some marvellous word portraits, and his portrayal of the inner momentum of the French retreat from Moscow is masterly, but his characters are fairly typé, and there is this nasty moralist streak, most blatently and unpleasantly in Resurrection. I have also done my duty and read Lermontov and Turgenev, but my two Russian favourites are probably Gogol’s Dead Souls and Leskov (especially his Lady Macbeth), of whom too little is available in English. My wife and I quarrel over Nabokov (she can forgive the moral turpitude in Lolita for the sake of the good writing, I can’t). She doesn’t care for Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, which I value for its picture of immediately post-revolutionary Russa. On Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita we both find Woland (and the cat) are superb, but we could really do without Pontius Pilate.


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October 2015

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