September 2021 Wrap-Up: From White Nights to Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

White Nights [1848] by Fyodor Dostoyevsky★★★★★

…he is an artist of his own life and creates it himself every hour to suit his latest whim“. I loved Jayshree (Literary Gitane)’s review of this short novella by Dostoyevsky and have also decided to read it (but in the original Russian language). The story takes place over a period of four nights, and our narrator is one dreamy young man who wanders the streets of St Petersburg feeling lonely, alienated from everyone and experiencing a strange sense of dread, anxiety and abandonment. His chance encounter with a kind seventeen year old girl named Nastenka suddenly gives his life a new meaning and purpose, a new direction into which he can pour all his buried tender feelings. Just a night after their first meeting, the narrator and Nastenka open up their very souls to each other, sharing with each other their deepest and most secret thoughts and feelings, but to a what (disastrous) end?

White Nights has very strong parallels with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s novella The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was published some seventy years before Dostoyevsky’s work – in 1774. Like The Sorrows of Young Werther, the themes of White Nights are unrequited love, the narrator suddenly finding himself a third party to a mysterious love affair, and, generally, a cry of one wounded soul both at odds with, and misunderstood by, the society around. Dostoyevsky aims deep in his short work, though, trying to show how unfathomable human heart really is, how fleeting happiness can be, and how a person’s mind is so complex and versatile that it can furnish an inner life with such richness and intense happiness that the outside world and all things in it would always pale in comparison. Happiness is very individual and what may seem trivial, ridiculous, drab or fleeting to the outside world, may also mean some otherworldly transformation and a state of immense ecstasy to another. Dostoyevsky goes even further in White Nights and imbues his central character with a full knowledge of his predicament. Our narrator knows himself and his mind traps all too well and that self-knowledge makes his situation even more tragic. There is sincerity in every sentence in this story, mixed with melancholy and a strange, light-hearted irony.

The Tartar Steppe [1940] by Dino Buzzati ★★★★1/2

Taking a cue from Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, Dino Buzzati invented an unforgettable tale set in one obscure mountainous place, at Fort Bastiani. When newly appointed Officer Giovanni Drogo takes his place among others at the Fort, he does not even start to imagine how insidiously time and place will work on his impressionable mind.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case [1929/2016] by Anthony Berkeley★★★★1/2

This story is probably one of the most bewildering ones in the history of crime fiction. Agatha Christie was a fan of it, and all those who love theorising about crime motives, and opportunities and means of committing a crime, will find it an absolute delight. The crime in question concerns the poisoning of wealthy married woman Joan Bendix by a box of ordinary liqueur sweets. However, seemingly, she was not the intended victim because the box of poisoned chocolates was actually sent to one Sir Eustace Pennefather. A team of amateur detectives that form an informal detective club in London then take an informal charge of the case when the police feel that they have reached a dead end. Each of the six amateurs then set out their own six different theories as to who could have possibly murdered Mrs Bendix. Each theory in sequence becomes more convincing than the last and the final theorisation leaves the detective club in a state of shock. For my part, the investigative journey in this story was more exciting than the slightly underwhelming finale. Still, the story is clever, suspenseful, enjoyable, full of red herrings, and is rightly considered to be one of the very best in the genre.

Year of the Rabbit [2020] by Tian Veasna ★★★★1/2

This graphic book tells the true story of the Khmer Rouge regime and its atrocities that took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 through the eyes of a couple of families who strive to flee the war-torn country and their persecutors to survive. The author of the work was born just three days after the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime came into power and this is an account of his family’s struggles in 1975 as the new communist regime began to suppress all knowledge and culture in the country, later torturing, mass killing and starving some 1.5 to 2 million people. The book starts on 17 April 1975, and we see the events unfold through the eyes of doctor Khim, who, with his wife Lina and their small son, finds himself in an unreal situation with the victory of the revolutionary forces in the country. Khim and his family first flee their already occupied city Phnom Penh, but then find themselves sent to another town to get “re-educated”, facing inhumane working conditions and famine. The book finishes with the Vietnamese army’s move to free the country as Khim and his wife are forced to pose as smugglers to get to Thailand. They are later accepted as refugees and finally emigrate to France in 1985. Apart from the vivid narrative which is accompanied by detailed, colourful illustrations, some book pages also usefully show the insight into a life at that time, for example, the market value of products under the regime, Khim’s tips and tricks on how to survive when food is scarce, and the distinctive attributes of the Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The only weakness of the book is that, although the author does provide a page containing a family tree, it is possible to get confused in this story as to what family finds themselves where in the country and at what point in the story’s timeline. Overall, though, Veasna’s account is still one incredibly moving book about survival against all odds that brings powerfully to life one horrific point in the human history, paying tribute to all the innocent people caught up in the Cambodian genocide and bravely fighting for their families and justice.

The Erasers [1953] by Alain Robbe-Grillet – ★★★★

This book by one of the main advocates of the French Nouveau Roman literary style is about Special Agent Wallas who arrives to one small Flemish town to investigate a series of strange murders. The story “constantly puts its readers’ perceptions [and expectations] to the test“, mixing reality and fantasy to unpredictable results.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts [2016] by Christopher de Hamel ★★★1/2

In this illustrated non-fiction book, the author, an academic librarian, presents twelve ancient manuscripts, their histories and speculations about their origin. One of the highlights for me was the talk about The Book of Kells, a beautiful Gospel book written in Latin and dating to the late eighth century. It has an “incomparable and distinctive artistry“, and is still considered to be “the most precious object of the Western world” and “a national monument of Ireland at the very highest level” [Christopher de Hamel, Allen Lane, 2016: 134]. Another highlight was the description of the mysterious Leiden Aratea, an illuminated copy of an astronomical treatise by Germanicus, dating to the year 816. Christopher de Hamel comes across as very knowledgeable in his field and also talks engagingly about Carmina Burana, a manuscript of some two hundred and fifty poems, and dramatic and satirical texts written for students and clergy, dating to the eleventh and twelve centuries, and written in Medieval Latin.

The major downside for me was that the author presented interesting and insightful information alongside a myriad of his own random and largely irrelevant thoughts which range from everything under the sun, from what kind of a weather it was when he finally arrived to view any particular manuscript in person and what kind of people he met on his journey to view the manuscript, to how one should approach libraries that possess valuable manuscripts, what flags fly above their buildings and even notes on the culture: “In Italy…the word “no” is not necessarily a negative[Christopher de Hamel, Allen Lane, 2016: 65]. The upshot is that, although the book contains much interesting information, much can also be skimmed in this book.

This month I also talked about my “purely Japanese” outing in London and discussed Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Moreover, this month was my blog’s 3rd anniversary and I would like to thank all those who follow and/or comment and thus support my blog. I do think I have the best followers in the world and without you I wouldn’t have got this far.


14 thoughts on “September 2021 Wrap-Up: From White Nights to Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

  1. Diana, Thank you for your review of White Nights. As I explore the connection between Goethe’s Young Werther and Dostoyevsky, this is a good place to start! How amazing that you have over 800 followers after three years! You set a good example of effective blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

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