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Book Corner:The Russians Are Coming
Ann Gardner | Via Latina


Theme reading has become one of our book group’s most rewarding ways of selecting, reading and discussing books. We have just finished a quintet of Russian reading - if it counts that we included Nabokov’s writing after he came to our country in 1941. A side benefit – aside from the literature - was getting submerged in Russian life and revisiting history along the way. For instance, Nabokov’s description of his family’s flight from St. Petersburg and then the Crimea to Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution is breath taking (Speak Memory).

We started with Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook, notes taken by the privileged but sympathetic son (1819-1883) of a landowner who was brutal to the help. We get glimpses of the countryside, its characters and a whiff of what would eventually lead to the Russian Revolution. That whiff takes on a stronger scent when we read Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Sophia Tolstoy, discovering that Sophia’s (1844-1919) and Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) families were neighbors of the Turgenev estate.

Don't tell my mother! 
Click to enlarge.

Then we read Pnin, Speak Memory and Lolita (when this was assigned one of our members grinned and said “O.K. but don’t tell my mother!”) by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) whose family (White Russians) was assisted by Tolstoy’s youngest daughter in their escape in 1917 from Russia and the Bolsheviks. Sometimes the literature is temporarily overshadowed by the authors’ lives. In Speak Memory we follow Nabokov to London, Berlin and Paris and finally, escaping this time from the Nazis, to America. What is it like to flee two political upheavals, to leave behind one’s homeland and family twice? The fate of the Nabokov siblings who stayed behind during WWII ranged from death in a concentration camp to becoming a librarian at a European college.

In the process of theme reading and researching we got behind the writing itself and discovered a life, a country that is now beyond our reach: the old Russia of Tsars, aristocrats, huge estates and impoverished peasants, gone by the time we were born to be replaced by Stalin, the Cold War, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. Before he died in Switzerland Nabokov was asked would he ever go back to Russia. He responded ‘who in their right mind would want to go back to a Soviet Russia?’ But WE got to go back to that Russia reading these five books connected to that time and place, relishing the writing at the same time.


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