In planning my Christmas reading I had written in a tentative trip to Russia. I always find when I yearn for snow on the ground and that yearn remains unrequited I must go and read snow instead.
Often Canada does very well as snow-reading territory but I felt in need of an even bigger challenge and I have been to Canada a great deal in recent reading so it was Russia for me.
Many's the time I've made the Dostoevksy blunder; set out across the extreme wastes with huge enthusiasm wearing the literary equivalent of a pair of flip-flops and found myself stranded half way and completely out of reading stamina, so this time I settled for a book with pictures to set me on my way and then I'd see where that led.
I do find this approach never lets me down and so the arrival of Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia's Silver Age by John E. Bowlt published by Thames & Hudson was clearly fortuitous.
I had bought another in this series a few years ago at the suggestion of someone here I'm sure, Berlin in the 20s by Rainer Metzger. This was to pave the way for all that mittel-European reading melancholy that lures me in from time to time ( I feel it calling again)
'In the brief period between the twentieth century's two cataclysmic world wars the modern city was invented in Berlin. It was a vibrant metropolis of night-people, visionaries, thinkers and bohemians - a place filled with intrigue and decadence, where vice and virtue abounded in equal measure. Like one huge salon, it became the comparable centre of European intellectual life where the arts and sciences met and flourished.'
I couldn't get enough of it all. Beautiful illustrations alongside an accessible, highly readable and informative commentary and I read it cover to cover emerging energised and informed for more Joseph Roth et al . Not a book to read once and never open again, I pick it up and dip in frequently so I was intrigued to see if this new arrival would have the same effect.
'This book focuses on the visual and material culture of St Petersburg and Moscow at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.The twilight of Imperial Russia witnessed a sudden renaissance that left a profound imprint on the visual, literary and performing arts : here was a Silver Age as luminous perhaps as the Golden Age of Russian literature many decades before.'
This sounded like a good knowledge gap to fill, always easy to get stuck on the whole Romanov bandwagon and ignore the rest and it was several years since I'd read Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes (one of those must-have books on Russia).
These are weighty, sumptuously illustrated books, 400 glossy pages and it only took about twenty before I could feel that old reading trail unfurling ahead of me because this truly is a
'dazzling array of artists, writers, composers, actors, singers, dancers and designers...presented in context'
Some were familiar names Tolstoy, Pasternak, Rachmaninov, Akhmatova, others I knew of but not much about, Nijinsky, Scriabin, Diaghilev and others I'd never heard of, but blessed as this book is with such a rich array of illustrations it all mattered not once I got my teeth around the Russian names. I was rapidly gripped and glorying in the visual references to the whole Russian World of Art movement which in some ways mirrored our own Arts and Crafts movement alongside French Art Nouveau, and quite fascinating to see the essence of those filtered through the lens of Russian artistic interpretation.
It all had me galloping round the shelves gathering in some inspired Russian reading.
Then that strange thing happened, completely unplanned and in that way books have of arcing across to each other quite unexpectedly, because no sooner had I made a flying start on White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov when Father Christmas gave me The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky.
Now I'd also had in mind a serious return to Irene with a second attempt at Suite Francaise given that all the fuss has died down, and I'd got over my tantrum about the cover, but I had somehow pigeon-holed her up in occupied France quite forgetting Irene's Russian origins. So it was all a bit of a pleasant eureka-like surprise to find myself reading Mikhail's account of the fall of Kiev in 1918 alongside Kiev-born Irene's account of the planned assassination of a government minister by Russian revolutionaries during the last years of the Tsar.
More on all that reading as soon as it's all settled in my mind (especially my dramatic and long-awaited, born-again Suite Francaise conversion) and the dovegreyreader-like flotsam has drifted into view. But all that reading about Russia's Silver Age was enough to light the blue touch paper and has also reminded me that I have a book on my shelves by one of the classiest of Silver Age writers, Andrei Belyi , The Silver Dove...so suitably clad as I am now in my literary furs and snowshoes, well I have to tackle that don't I?