[READ] Mud and Stars ´ Sara Wheeler – shelving–for–books.co.uk

Beach awash in sentiment sprayed and spit over by time and salt with his writings condemned to be read as long as humans wage war in the name of peace and make love to the wrong person Tolstoy in many ways was the midpoint and arguably the high point of the extraordinary Russian efflorescence Perched between Pushkin twenty nine years older than Tolstoy and Chekhov thirty two years younger Tolstoy had it all He was rich famous married to a strong minded woman had children owned vast estates and titles his admirers were a legion even an unknown barrister from South Africa woman had children owned vast estates and titles his admirers were a legion even an unknown barrister from South Africa Mohandas Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy and most importantly for a writer he had the courage to write and was blessed with the stamina to persist into old age But he too was periodically given to debilitating unhappiness with periodic rants against modernity the train and contraception were embodiments of all that was wrong in this world Sex especially sexual desires of women drove Tolstoy to sublime literary apoplexy which is best captured in his novella Kreutzer Sonata about a husband who murders his adulterous wife who had also enjoyed playing Beethoven with her lover Understandably Tolstoy s wife was not pleased She wrote in her diary It has done me a great wrong humiliated me in the eyes of the world and destroyed the last vestiges of love between us By the end of his life Tolstoy was profoundly estranged from his wife five of their thirteen children had died and his creative spells had run aground Ironically after his death both Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin saw him as rare sort of inconvenience a cultural aristocrat loved by the people who undermined their vainglorious claims If asked what do these writers tell us about today s Russia the answer is no clear at the end of the book than in the beginning But we intuit an answer that Wheeler offers us it is a land where individualism personal excesses religious anguish adulteries and loves private generosities and public crimes are still omnipresent Wheeler writes about all this without worrying about what scholars intellectuals or Russia experts might think of her From this abandonment of mental shackles she finds the freedom to meander Her prose is therefore marked by an absence of self consciousness that could very well have made this book a ponderous clunker But she soars freely among the giants suirms disapprovingly but empathetically at their failings and suirrels away facts for a wintry paragraph to nourish the reader all the while telling us about the Russia she has seen She may have been like us stuck in the mud of everyday life but thanks to her we glimpse briefly at the stars above in the literary firmament who as we learn were also all too human Fascinating snapshots of Russian writers in Russia s Golden Age of Literature broadly the 19th century Pushkin until the death of Tolstoy in 1910 Biographies with their personality traits I never knew Tolstoy was such a horrible person for one interspersed with many photographs The author travelled to places important in the writers lives it was interesting to compare then through the writers lives and now through the author s travels I enjoyed reading about lesser known figures such as Fet a poet think of an Emily Dickinson comparison Goncharov known for Oblomov which variations on the extremely slothful character s name have entered the Russian language and Leskov an uneven writer known principally for his masterwork the novella Lady Macbeth of Mt I hate to say it but I found this to be a strange and disappointing book Ms Wheeler mentions in her introduction that during the book s gestation her life went awry badly I think and she put it away for a while before returning to it The book for me only had life in the chapters about Chekhov and Goncharov most of the *rest was a slog Whilst there is some good writing and some interesting *was a slog Whilst there is some good writing and some interesting of her own travels through Russia the book for me was neither fish nor fowl I gleaned plenty about Ms Wheeler s political viewpoints but not so much about the ostensible reason for her first writing the book the greats of Russian literature Ok for a first go at Russian literature Nothing especially insightful if you ve read the works andor other commentary If you do read it and want on Pushkin ie a wry modern take on Pushkin worship in the Soviet era look for Pushkin Hills by Dovlato. Local guides boards with families in modest homestays eats roe and pelmeni and cabbage soup invokes recipes from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking learns the language and observes the pattern of outcry and silence that characterizes life under Vladimir Putin Illustrated with both historical images and contemporary snapshots of the peo­ple and places that shaped her ourney Mud and Stars gives us timely witty and deeply personal insights into Russia then and

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Audiobook versionSara Wheeler set out to explore the locations of the writers of the Russian Golden Age Pushkin Tolstoy Golgo Dostoevsky and others She mostly bypassed the major cities and visited off the beaten path places of Russia like the Arctic Siberia and the Caucasus This is both a literary exploration and a travelogueI am a big fan of the Russian Golden age and of travelogues set in Eastern Europe so this book really appealed to me I haven t read all of the classic works far from it but I am familiar with many of them I learned many new things about both the writers and the places in Russia she featured If you are interested in either then this book is worth your timeWheeler reads the book herself and I believe it adds to its value She brings it to life Not all authors can pull this off 355 A curious book Basic outlines of the life and works of great 19th century writers along with travelogues reports of progress in learning the Russian language and cookery It fails to come together although there are interesting snippets along the way and I ve added some Russian novels to my TBR I d *Recommend Natasha S Dance I *Natasha s Dance I so many of the authors that Wheeler followed and I enjoyed seeing where they lived hearing their lives and the way she connected them That was beautiful Some of the travelogue parts were less interesting thought it was fascinating to see the run up to the Sochi Olympics through her eyes Mud and Stars Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age Wheeler follows in the footsteps of Dostoyevsky Gogol Chekov and other 19th century authors connecting them to Putin s Russia of today You needn t have read or well remember the writers detailed to enjoy this wryly told traveler s tale Wheeler reminds me a lot of Susan Orlean another writer who never seems to put her foot wrong I really liked the idea of this book in which the author follows in the footsteps of great Russian authors and while this did happen Sara Wheeler s own battles with the Russian language and attempts at cooking the food distract from this She does go into great descriptions of the authors their lives and impact they had and she visits places where they lived or travelled I really enjoyed this aspect of the book The other experiences were amusing and interesting but didn t add to the book for me Human All Too HumanBy 1942 when hunger defeat and deprivation had begun to stalk the Germans who had attacked USSR realization dawned among the upper echelons of the Nazis commander that the Russian landscape was the real enemy In a letter to his wife in Germany Generalfeldmarschall Karl von Runstedt sums this reality despairingly The vastness of Russia devours us For much of modern history when talking about Russia outsiders have parceled out that very same immensity one sixth of earth s surface in simple minded ways to make their narratives manageable For cultural historians it is the of earth s surface in simple minded ways to make their narratives manageable For cultural historians it is the versus the Asiatic Russia for political theorists it is the narratives manageable For cultural historians it is the versus the Asiatic Russia for political theorists it is the imperatives versus resistance movements for historians of 19th century it the French speaking elite versus the Russian masses below Tsarists versus Communists in 1917 and so on Such dichotomies of convenience often hope to describe a true Russia Sara Wheeler s Mud and Stars biographies wrapped in a travelogue inside a personal diary attempts to do something similar She does this despite cautiously acknowledging that there is no such thing as the Russian soul or perhaps even Russian culture it is too big a country For her however real Russia is outside Moscow and St Petersburg where inkpot vendettas among intellectuals and Kremlin s authoritarianism has disfigured anything that matters Like many before her she heads out into those vast spaces where a peaceful population lived its age old life of toil and repose oy and suffering She travels cheaply lives in homestays learns some Russian and travels that sprawling sovereign land in search of 19th century Russian authors who Wheeler claims represents the country even today The book s conceit therefore is that 19th century authors Pushkin Tolstoy Dostoyevsky Gogol Turgenev et al have something to tell us about today s Russia In practice what this translates to is the author traveling from town to village where relevant authorial houses and estates have survived in molested or refurb. With the writers of the Golden Age as her guides Pushkin Tolstoy Gogol and Turgenev among others Sara Wheeler searches for a Russia not in the news traveling from rinsed northwestern beet fields and the Far Eastern Arctic tundra to the cauldron of nation­alities religions and languages in the Caucasus Bypassing major cities as much as possible she goes instead to the places associated with the country’s literary masters With her we see the fabled Trigorskoye Ished conditions All of this is of course uite romantic and yet curious It strains belief that Henry James or Ralph Emerson have much to tell us about Trump s America or that O Chandu Menon or Mirza Ghalib can tell us much about Modi s India But to uibble on this point is foolish The aim of the book is not social realism or even diagnosis but an author s efforts to glean truths from the lives of great Russian novelists that speaks to her experience of Russia Once we the reader grant Wheeler this allowance she is a terrific companion Witty scholarly without being pedantic a sharp observer of changing moods and in love with that behemoth land If there is one common thread running through her narratives about the diverse group of 19th century writers she writes about as one part devotee one part tourist it is that we are all idiots or sinners in one way or Her love and admiration for them is not despite their emotional warts and moral disfigurations but precisely because of it It is in their frailties failings and idiosyncrasies she seeks to locate their humanity which may or not be Russian in some elusive sense The result is we learn about the colourful and the perverse Pushkin we learn was an inveterate bedhopper who wrote and how transcendentally beautifully at Pushkin we learn was an inveterate bedhopper who wrote and how transcendentally beautifully at only when he was laid low by sexually transmitted diseases Even Stalin and his Communist thugs who murdered hundreds of writers in the 1930s decided to consecrate Pushkin as a semi divine being Dostoyevsky meanwhile was a Christian traditionalist an anti semite in private an anti modernist in public who repeatedly pawned his belongings for the nihilistic highs of gambling Amidst these private torments he wrote novels about murderers whose conscience was sharper than the very axe they wielded on their victims and in his personal life he wrote love letters occasionally twice a day to his long suffering wife promising to change himself Thankfully for us the readers he never did In contrast Turgenev was six feet three spoke fifteen languages or so we learn from Wheeler and stood in opposition to everything Dostoyevsky s peasant conservatism claimed to represent If Dostoyevsky was a bone deep reactionary for whom life was a curse and a penance Turgenev was a constitutional liberal who had little use for all the mystical talk of the Russian Orthodox Church The great Flaubert wrote to him from Paris there s only one man left in the world now with whom I can talk and that s you Turgenev never married and was in love with a mother of four children none of them were his for nearly forty years As Wheeler writes wisely he learnt to love without possessing Elsewhere in other corners of the Russian literary forest of the 19th century many magnificent monosyllabic giants strolled and raised hell Gogol Herzen Goncharov Fet Leskov and Lermontov Each of them is fascinating even if breezily described by Wheeler in their private miseries and public efforts to write meaningfully It is perhaps revealing that out of the 255 pages it is the
CHAPTER ON CHEKHOV ABOUT WHOM I 
on Chekhov about whom I the great Indian writer M T Vasudevan Nair describe as ente gurunathan my teacher and master that one remembers well after the book is done Overwhelmingly this is because of Chekhov s humanity that arouses pathos in us As a doctor Chekhov spent countless hours with the diseased and dying He famously uipped medicine was his wife but writing was his mistress Like Chekhov Wheeler treks to Siberia only to discover that awe inspiring land of brutal cold and Stalinist gulags was still peopled by stories of everyday despair and hope The melancholy in Chekhov s stories often precipitated by his recognition about the irrelevance of human endeavors in face of time presaged the fact that Chekhov physician of body and mind died at the young age of forty four in Germany His body was returned to Moscow as Gorky noted in a refrigerated railway carriage reserved to transport fresh oysters The last chapter is understandably reserved for the greatest of these giants from the Golden Age of Russian literature Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy who Wheeler correctly describes as the most famous man in Russia after the tsar But by Now Tsars Have Come And Vanished Into The Earths Communist tsars have come and vanished into the earths Communist have met their deserved ends and present day tyrants too will perish but Tolstoy survives Like an ancient fort by ??three hills” estate that Pushkin freuented during his exile now preserved in his honor We look for Dostoevsky along the waters of Lake Ilmen site of the only house the restless writer ever owned We pay tribute to the single stone that remains of Tol­stoy’s birthplace Wheeler weaves these writers’ lives and works around their historical homes giving us rich portraits of the many diverse Russias from which these writers spoke As she travels Wheeler follows. Mud and Stars