Tag: Larissa Volokhonsky

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Posted March 19, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana AlexievichTitle: The Unwomanly Face of War (Goodreads)
Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Translator: Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky
Published: Penguin, 1985
Pages: 331
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich has a unique take on exploring literature. Her books are all oral histories of an event, where she interviews different people and gets their side of the story. Her background in journalism lends a hand, but what stands out is her willingness to share the different experiences of the people. In Secondhand Time, the people had a range of different opinions about the Soviet era and its collapse. While in The Unwomanly Face of War we get to explore the different roles Russian woman had in World War II and the reactions men had toward them.

The Russian title У войны не женское лицо translates to War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face. This should give you a sense of the attitudes women faced. Wanting to serve their country or help in any way possible, these women were often met with opposition from men. Ranging from ‘War is man business’, to a willingness to fight alongside the women but refusing to marry them, and the list goes on and on.  The attitudes of these men constantly made me angry, even though these women were constantly proving they are capable and in many cases better at the tasks than the men objecting.

I expected to find a lot more physical sexual harassment in the book but it turns out that men are fragile creatures and once emasculated they just resort to verbal abuse more than anything else. The women in The Unwomanly Face of War have amazing stories and it does make me wonder why more stories like this are not written down. Oh, that’s right, the publishing world was dominated by men for far too long and history is just that, his story.

“I am writing a book about war… I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading for everyone. Of all my peers. And that is not surprising – we were the children of Victory.”

Svetlana Alexievich starts this new translation of her book The Unwomanly Face of War with a reflection on her motivations. I am unsure if this was included in the original 1985 books as there are references on how she would have done things differently. But then again an introduction is probably the last part of a book you would write. I do not have a copy of the 1988 English (translator unknown) so I am unable to compare. The reason I bring up the introduction is because this feels like the first time I have read anything about Alexievich’s thoughts on the book and what she would have done differently if she could do it again. Not vital to the book itself but I appreciated that personal touch.

The 2017 edition of The Unwomanly Face of War has a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. While not my favourite Russian translators I could not turn down the opportunity to read another Svetlana Alexievich having previously loved Voices from Chernobyl and Secondhand Time. There is one final book translated into English, Zinky Boys, which is subtitled Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, which I hope to be able to read soon. Leaving two more yet to be translated into English, The Last Witnesses: A Hundred of Unchildlike Lullabys and Enchanted with Death.

Svetlana Alexievich is only the second non-fiction writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first being Winston Churchhill) “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. After reading her books, it is not hard to see why she was chosen. She has a unique ability to craft and piece together a narrative from a collection of interviews. She is able to get these people to open up and tell their story (whether she coaches them or not is a different story). I find myself drawn to her books not just because I am interested in Soviet history and the experience of the people but simply for the way she stitches her narratives together.

I am so glad I picked up The Unwomanly Face of War, while there was never any doubts about me reading more Alexievich, I was hesitant because of the translation. This is a book that has stuck with me and I am constantly thinking about it. I think about the treatment of women and their stories, but never about who translated this book. If you have never read Svetlana Alexievich before than I would recommend starting with The Unwomanly Face of War.


Distracted by Other Books

Posted March 1, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 6 Comments

My Thoughts and Reading in February 2018

My reading in February started off with the amazing The Unwomanly Face of War. It is a book I have not been able to get out of my mind. My wife often gets an intense hatred toward men and I think this is the first time I have come close to understanding how she fully feels. I understand how she would be angry, you just need to look at the news to see all the stupid or terrible actions been taken by men. However while reading The Unwomanly Face of War I got very angry toward men. Especially when one man told Svetlana Alexievich that war was ‘man business’ and she should write about men in war (because we do not have enough of those books). This was a fascinating collection of interviews of the woman and their involvement in war. It highlights the bravery of these women but what really shone through was just the way men reacted and their contradictory nature. The male ego is so fragile.

I have been a fan of Alexievich and but I will admit I am never impressed with these translators. I was reluctant to get The Unwomanly Face of War; luckily I did not let the translators stop me. Translating is such an art form and there are so many different thoughts on the topic; for me I prefer a translator to aim to retain the beauty of the text over complete accuracy. Other people have different opinions and I think it is important to find what works for you; especially if there are other options. One day I might have the opportunity to re-read The Unwomanly Face of War with a new translator, but until then, I take what I can get. With Svetlana Alexievich, I do not want to wait for a new translator. Speaking of which, I still need to get myself a copy of The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. The Odyssey has been translated heaps of times, but I believe this is the first time it was translated by a woman. I am curious to see how this epic reads without the male gaze and I hear nothing but great things about this translation.

I finally read my first Émile Zola novel; A Love Story which is the eighth book in the Les Rougon-Macquart series. This might not have been the best place to start but what can I say, I love Oxford World Classics, and could not pass up the opportunity to work with them and read some Zola. This was a joy to read and there will be so much more Zola in my future; Thérèse Raquin sits on my shelves waiting. While I do love to receive books in the mail, I do not often review ARCs, simply because I have enough to read. My instinct is to reject any offers to review a book, unless it is a book I know I want to read. In the past I found it difficult to get the balance right, so now it is a rare occurrence. I hope to work with Oxford University Press more in the future but do not expect to see many reviews for upcoming releases. If you look at the books I talk about, it is rare to see a new release.

There are some exceptions, for example, if an author like Julian Barnes releases a new novel, or it is a book club book. This is why The Only Story and Mythos by Stephen Fry was on my reading list for this month. I love what I have read from Barnes and still more to go. As for Mythos, it felt more like Greek mythology for dummies. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it just made me want to read those classics; especially Metamorphoses by Ovid (yes, I know he is a Roman and not Greek), or maybe I should read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. I really need to read both books at some point but reading Mythos only served to remind me how much I need to read from the Greeks and Romans.

This month was the first book club meeting of 2018. It was me and fifteen woman. Sadly I am the only male that turns up to book club; there have been others in the past but they never last long. It did feel very crowded for a book club meeting and I feel like it was too many. Luckily, I suspect that a lot of the new people came as part of their New Year’s resolution, so it is unlikely they will return in March. I am at book club to step out of my comfort zone and I think the books picked do just that. I would not have picked up Mythos on my own; I have enough books on my shelves to read without picking up a retelling of Greek mythology.

There are so many books I need to read, I always feel like I am playing catch up. Luckily I do not need to go through my shelves and do a major cull…yet. While I was starting to get use to the idea of a major move, at this point, it does not look like it is going to happen. I have startied culling my shelves but nothing major yet. There must be twenty or thirty books leaving my shelves this month, but only a few were unread books.

One of the biggest advantages of quitting BookTube, is the fact that I do not have to try and pronounce a name like László Krasznahorkai. It still annoys me that I mispronounced Michel Houellebecq in a video. For an Australian that only speaks English, there are so many authors I read that I am yet to learn how to pronounce. I normally look up how to pronounce the name before filming a video, but still have gotten it wrong. I got to read two novellas by László Krasznahorkai which was in the one collection. Sjón claimed this is the perfect starting place for Krasznahorkai in the blurb on the front but that was only part of the reason I started with The Last Wolf & Herman. In fact I do not know why I picked up this book first, I did have Satantango on my wishlist first. It must have been as a result of some of the bloggers I admire, either Tony at Messenger’s Booker or Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It is hard to remember why I put a book on my wishlist, this is one of the main reasons I am writing these reading updates. The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White was added to my wishlist because of the high praises from Andy Miller on Backlisted (my favourite podcast). I still do not recall why I wanted to read A Girl in Exile, maybe because Ismail Kadare is Albanian. The novel reminded me of The Trial to begin with but it lost momentum quickly. The book left me with the feeling that male authors should not write about breasts. I will not go into my reasoning but let’s just say it feels too creepy.

On the other side, when Natsuo Kirino writes about rape in Out, it feels so brutal. At least when Kirio talks about breasts, it does not feel like she is breathing heavily in ecstasy. Out was such a compelling thriller, and she did not shy away from the brutal nature of the topic. I do enjoy a dark crime novel and the Japanese are able to deliver. I might need to seek out some recommendations but I think I will be reading more Natsuo Kirino in the future.

Seven books read in February, while three did come from the library. I also purchased three new books, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Stalin by Oleg V. Khlevniuk and The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt. I have already started Frankenstein in Baghdad but not sure what else will be read in March, except The Seven Madmen and maybe that biography on Stalin. I hope everyone else had a great reading month.

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Posted March 10, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Magical Realism / 2 Comments

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail BulgakovTitle: The Master and Margarita (Goodreads)
, 1967
Pages: 403
Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When I first read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov back in 2012 I had no idea how to review it. Now that I have re-read the book, I am still at a loss. The Master and Margarita is often considered as one of the best novels of the 20th century by critics and cited as the top example of Soviet satire. Like most of Mikhail Bulgakov’s bibliography, this author never saw the effect that this novel had on the world; it was written between 1928 and 1940 but was first published in 1967, long after his death.

One of the things I love about Russian literature is the social commentary and satirical nature found in a lot of their books. During the Soviet era there was a lot written about the political state of the country but these were often heavily censored before publication. There was a distribution practise happening at the time call called samizdat, which is when individuals reproduced censored publications and passed them out to readers. The term samizdat comes from the Russian words, sam which roughly means “self” and izdat “publishing house”, so possibly the first use of self-publishing. If it wasn’t for this underground practice we may never have the uncensored editions of Russian classics like Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, the majority of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn books and of course The Master and Margarita.

The novel starts out with Berlioz and Bezdomny talking at the Patriarch ponds when a mysterious professor appears and strikes up a conversation. This professor is actually Satan and he was talking to them about the existence of God, the idea being if God doesn’t exist, can Satan?. Russia at the time was an atheist state, in fact communism and religion often do not go hand in hand. During the Stalinist era the Soviet government tried to suppress all forms of religious expression. Bulgakov’s commentary on religion and the government is an interesting one and while there are other interpretations of the novel this was what I took away from the novel this time round.

The ideas of censorship of religion continues with the Master’s book about Pontius Pilate, which was rejected and he was accused of pilatism. Though pilatism is found throughout the book The Master and Margarita as well, Pilate is not only in the Master’s novel but appears in Satan’s stories as well as dreams. The Master has poured his heart and soul into it his novel and having rejected sent him into a tailspin. This satirisation of censorship and religion plays though out the entire novel.

The idea of pilatism is an interesting one since in Christianity Pontius Pilate is the seen as the one that sentenced Jesus (referred to by his Hebrew name Yeshua Ha-Nozri in this novel) to die on the cross. Pilate becomes a symbol of humanity’s evil within religion and The Master and Margarita but you can argue that it is possible that he was a victim of society. Pilate’s ruling on Yeshua Ha-Nozri was due to pressure from the people and the high priests, he literally (and symbolically) washed his hands of the situation. I got the impression that Mikhail Bulgakov was comparing this idea of pilatism with the soviet government at the time. Human nature is apparently evil but it is also very influential of society, and what does that say about the atheist state?

There is so much going on within this novel and I would love to talk about the influences of Goethe’s tragic play Faust on the book. However I think I would need to re-read Faust to be able to compare it with The Master and Margarita. I would have also liked to explore the constant changes on narration, from an omniscient observer to the characters within the book but not sure what else to say about that. I re-read this book as part of a buddy read, my first buddy read in fact and I had a lot of fun doing this but I think I wasn’t a good reading partner. This time I read the Hugh Aplin translation of The Master and Margarita and I think I enjoyed it more than the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation I read last time. This may have been because I got more out of the book or maybe there is something about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translations I didn’t like, I tend to avoid their translations.

I hope I have made a coherent review, I focused mainly on censorship and religion because this book is weird and all over the place so I needed to stick to one topic to make sense of what I have read. I do plan to re-read The Master and Margarita sometime in my life, I might even try a different translation again (any suggestions?). I got so much out of this book this time around and has really made me appreciate the value of re-reading. I ended my last review of this book telling people to ‘just read it’ and I think that sentiment still stands.