Tag Archives: tolstoy

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi by Teffi

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, And Me - The Best of Teffi Title: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi
Author: Teffi
Edited by: Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590179963
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literature, Essays
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Some books are just so good that you want them to last longer than they did – to savour them, every single word then become precious. Teffi is one such author whose works you just want to soak in and want the words to linger long after. I got to know of her through the NYRB website and knew I just had to read this one – because of the author’s associations with literary giants such as Tolstoy and how she got to meet the very famously infamous Rasputin, not once but twice.

Teffi’s experiences are what this book is about – short autobiographical pieces that are sometimes funny, mostly catty and unforgettable for sure. These pieces were written in the 20s and 30s when she was in exile in Paris. There is a touch of poetic quality to her prose (no wonder because she wanted to be a poet anyway).

A lot of wit, human understanding of the world and empathy shine in every essay and that is what I love about the collection. Sure there are parts that I couldn’t relate to (because of the cultural barrier), however what I read was enough to tide me over to be able to understand the beauty of her language and the points she was trying to make.

From speaking of her childhood most vividly to the Russian cultural phenomenon, nothing is left out. The essays show us the Russia that was quite forward in its approach when it came to the arts to the Russia that was turbulent and oppressive at the same time.

The book is divided into four parts – first being about how she lived and worked, second about personal aspects of her life – from how she was raised to her time in France, the third one is about her bizarre encounters with people and the fourth is about famous authors and writers. She truly did have a sense of understanding people and reading them quite accurately.

Teffi’s writing is crystal clear and she says what she has to without mincing any words. You might have to keep track of the people she mentions on and off in the book, but there is a guide for that at the end of the book as well. I am completely taken in by her writing after reading this collection of essays and plan to read some more of her for sure. You must read this collection of essays for sure, if history is of any interest to you.

Book Review: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read them by Elif Batuman

The Possessed by Elif Batuman Title: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Author: Elif Batuman
Publisher: Granta Books, Penguin
ISBN: 9781847083142
Genre: Non-Fiction, Books
Pages: 304
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

There is something about Russian classics which has always been quite of a challenge for me to read. It is a different thing that I have grown to love them over time, however getting acquainted with them was a bit of a challenge. The dreariness of plots, the numerous characters in almost every big Russian novel and I guess that is why I did not learn to appreciate it at the beginning. At the same time, there are other Russian books which are not as well-known or authors who have not got their due, however that I will pick up sometime later and devour them, page by page. For now, I must talk about “The Possessed” by Elif Batuman.

“The Possessed” is unlike any other book I have read. Going by the cover, I honestly thought that it would be a serious book on Russian classics and the people who have read them, however I was in for a surprise. “The Possessed” is a funny book. It is not direct humour; however there are moments of extreme laughter, and joy that come across quite unexpectedly. It is sort of a love affair of Batuman with Russian classics and how along the way she interacted with people who loved those classics as well. At the same time, there are undertones of politics (but of course) and personal opinions to people and how sometimes art imitates life and vice-versa.

There are times I felt the book to be more of a personal memoir and less of a book on Russian literature, however that opinion changed as I went further into the book and turned the pages. The references that are most close to me in the book were the ones made to Tolstoy (well there is a whole chapter on him and with good reason) and Pushkin (I guess almost every Indian child born in the 80’s grew up on his fairy tales). The writing tends to get a little academic to begin with, more so with the chapter on Babel; however it eases into the book and converts to being simple as the chapters run along.

The book alternates between Batuman’s perception and the incidents that took place with her during the course of meeting people and knowing more about the Russian masters. “The Possessed” is a good start to familiarize yourself with the Russian classics in bits and pieces if you do not know anything about them. The other part which I loved the most in the book was the summer the author spent in Samarkand – it is a pretty intriguing read. There is a lot to learn about cultures in the book and the context in which they can be sensed or used. The book was an eye-opener for me to learn more about my favourite Russian authors and in context to human nature more so. I would only recommend this read if the long gone and not-read Russian Classics interest you. The book is then almost written for you.

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The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

I have always wondered while reading a novel, as to what goes on behind the scenes – the writer’s mind and his thoughts that provide the shape and form to the novel. How does he/she manage to produce such brilliant works time and time again, without any break or reluctance? How is the novel crafted? Is it art imitating life or vice-versa? And my answers were partially (I think) answered by Pamuk’s new non-fiction collection of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, titled, “The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist”.

The title draws from the famous essay by Friedrich Schiller, “Uber naive and sentimentalische Dichtung”, conventionally translated as “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” – even though the principal connotation of “sentimentalisch” in German is different than “sentimental” in English. Schiller posited two types of poets and, following his example, Pamuk refers to two models of novelist and reader.


What the book really consists of are Pamuk’s meditations on the art of the novel, comprising “all the most important things I know and have learned about the novel.” Pamuk sets as his main goal “to explore the effects that novels have on their readers, how novelists work, and how novels are written.” Pamuk certainly is well qualified to speak on that subject (in addition to having won the Nobel, he teaches comparative literature and writing at Columbia). Further, his perspective is rather unusual, being a self-taught novelist from a Turkish culture with a fairly weak tradition of writing and reading books.

There is no coherent theory of the novel in the book. What it does have is the authors’ perspective on writing and reading and that is what makes the book so different and unique. It does not come with a reading list either. The chapter that stayed with me after I had finished reading the book was about The Center of the Novel and how as readers we read novels to search for that center. How as readers we feel that the novel is here to present us with “that something larger meaning” which may be the other art forms don’t live up to and I agree to a large extent with that. No one can take that away from readers or the novelist.

To sum up the book, I loved reading it. Pamuk presents his case engagingly and tautly, in a pleasant mix of autobiographical titbits, reading and writing experiences, and theory. It does not convince as presenting a ‘theory of the novel’, nor does it claim or attempt to. What it does instead is make the reader see things differently and apply them while reading a novel. It talks about how a reader and writer’s thoughts can and may be one day wil merge and the true center will then emerge.

Last Thought: I could not wait to read a novel after I was done with this book. Thank you, Mr. Pamuk.

Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, The; Pamuk, Orhan; Hamish Hamilton; Penguin India; Rs.450