How the Victorians acquainted us with our bodies, landmark studies of Stalin and the holocaust, and traitors laid bare
History books should give us insight and information, surprise and entertainment, and allow us to see the world, an incident or a character differently. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Minutes in May (Harvill Secker £20) delivers in abundance. It revolves around the prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement to parliament, on 7 May 1940, of the British military defeat by German forces in Norway: 4,396 men had died. Few people expected Chamberlain to lose his post; fewer still thought that Churchill, architect of the Norway fiasco, could replace him. The machinations that led Churchill to power make for a great story; the wider context and its effect on the war give the story significance. Shakespeare shapes all with an historian’s thoroughness and a novelist’s flair.
The gory world of Victorian surgery is the subject ...
One hunded years after the Bolshevik revolt, books by Masha Gessen, Serhii Plokhy, Yuri Slezkine and Stephen Kotkin shed light on Soviet socialism’s birth and death
There was a time, not long after the cold war ended, when it looked as though the vast investments the west had made in Kremlinology were about to be liquidated. Having failed to foresee communism’s collapse, the west’s Soviet experts faced grim prospects in a world that had apparently left them behind. How fast things change: today, Russia is back in the news, reprising for the internet era its familiar role as antihero to the freedom-loving west. Putin’s muscle-flexing has produced an old-fashioned territorial struggle in Ukraine and Crimea; the Kremlin’s newfangled cyberwar has generated a firestorm in the US and the results of the 2016 presidential election, far from calming relations between the two old superpowers, have made them tenser than they have ...
From the siege of Leningrad to the frontline, Soviet women recall their wartime lives in these epic first-person accounts, translated into English for the first timeFirst published in 1985, Svetlana Alexievich
’s account of the second world war as seen through the eyes of hundreds of women is an extraordinary thing. It has been constantly growing and updated over the years and has sold more than 2m copies worldwide. Now, for the first time, it is published in English, bringing to life the world of soldiers, nurses, munitions workers and the women left behind, all of whom have been absent from the official Soviet narratives.
This is a tough read, both emotionally and intellectually. But it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original. There’s a visceral anger in Alexievich’s introduction that’s rare in any history book. Her message is: these stories deserve to ...
Translated by the late Richard McKane, this strikingly love-deprived love poem is a fine example of the author’s intense focus on personal experience
In the Evening
There was such inexpressible sorrow
in the music in the garden.
The dish of oysters on ice
smelt fresh and sharp of the sea.
The Reading group hasn’t paid much attention to them thus far, since they are relatively marginal figures. But their presence in the title changes the whole book
This is the third Reading group article about Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and so far there are two characters who have barely been barely mentioned: the Master, and Margarita.
I’ve failed to mention the titular pair in either of my previous pieces – and while they have popped up in discussion, most of it has been about Woland and his diabolical crew. The first time I noticed the Master and Margarita themselves getting prominent mention was in the following complaint from MissBurgundy
: “I felt there was no characterisation at all – Margarita never came to life for me, and I’ve even forgotten who the Master was.”
Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet fantasia novel was chosen by several readers as our fiction in translation for this month – and the hat agreed. Let’s read!
The Master and Margarita is this month’s Reading group choice. It was nominated by commenter Saorsa
and seconded by several others, one of whom called it “one of the best novels ever written”.
Certainly, it’s a book that has stood the test of time. In fact, as luck has it, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first attempt to bring it to publication, following a tortuous gestation.
Digitised for the first time by the British Library, Eliot’s rejection is now available to read alongside others including Virginia Woolf’s to James Joyce
The letter in which TS Eliot rejects George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm because “we have no conviction … that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation” has been published online for the first time by the British Library
, alongside a wealth of other material from 20th-century writers.
Addressing the author as “Dear Orwell”, Eliot, then a director at publishing firm Faber & Faber, writes on 13 July 1944
that the publisher will not be acquiring Animal Farm for publication. Eliot described its strengths: “We agree that it is a distinguished piece of writing; that the fable is very skilfully handled, and that the narrative keeps one’s interest on its own plane – and that is something very few ...