Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Review: 'Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the Archives' by Natalia Gromova, trans. Christopher Culver

Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the ArchivesI absolutely love reading translated works. Although preferably I'd like to read everything in its original language, that is simply not an option so the work of translators is invaluable. As I've been trying to expand my literary horizon I have become aware of a very large, Russia-shaped hole in said horizon. However, in recent years Glagoslav Publications has been working on translating previously untranslated Russian, Ukranian and Belarussian authors. My first dip into their works is Gromova's "novel from the archives". Thanks to Glagoslav for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/05/2016
Publisher: Glagoslav
Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the Archives reveals Moscow as it was in a bygone age, a city now found only on old maps, but an era that continues to haunt us today. The novel features a wide cast of characters, who are all tied together by the author herself. 
The reader plunges into the remarkable Moscow literary scene of those days, and literature aficionados will encounter within a number of important locations for the history of Russian letters: the Dobrov house, Peredelkino, Lavrushinsky Lane, Borisoglebsky Lane – and also the names of legendary figures such as Olga Bessarabova, Maria Belkina, and Lydia Libedinskaya. 
History is brought to life: the author introduces the reader to Leonid Andreyev, leads us on a tour of the side-streets and alleyways of the Arbat district, and shows us the tattered notebooks of Olga Bessarabova. All this has long since fallen away into history, but now it proves so easily accessible to us. 
The Russian literary scene is one of giants. Authors such as Tolstoy, Pushkin and Bulgakov have left their traces on literature throughout Europe, and even the world. In combination with its authors' brilliance, Russia also experienced a number of cultural changes in the 20th century which only to some extent found an echo elsewhere in the world. The Russian revolution and the following Communist Era had a profound influence upon Russian authors and poets, both male and female, and Moscow in the 1930s introduces the reader to a whole range of these authors and poets. Natalia Gromova, in many ways, stands at the centre of this novel, uniting in her own life experience all the people she describes. History is fascinating, especially in how it influences the lives of people, changes their course irrevocably or unites them again after years and years. As such, Moscow int he 1930s' charm, then, lies in how intimately it opens up the lives of some of Russia's most remarkable people. As someone who is still quite a novice when it comes to Russian literature, this novel feels like a great introduction to the works that sprang from this short yet tumultuous part of Russian history.

Part of this novel's appeal lies in its archival nature. I myself am very interested in archives, what people collect and why, how they keep records of their lives and who finds them. Connecting the various threads of other peoples' lives, finding out something about the past and being able to track its course through history is enormous fun. There is a voyeuristic pleasure in reading someone's love letters, especially if they're written by such lyricists as Gromova reveals. What I greatly appreciated about Moscow in the 1930s was Gromova's express interest in those we haven't heard of, the names that weren't noted down by history, the women  who played a role but never got the credit. As Gromova herself says:
'It always seemed to me that background figures, people who are much more difficult to glimpse or learn anything about, offer the possibility of imagining the world of the past in a much fuller way.'
Her novel subsequently, paints a fuller picture of the 1930s in Russia, and mainly of its literary elite, than I have ever read before. What also makes Gromova's archival research interesting is her awareness of how much of Russian (and Eastern German as well, for example) history was spent with people reporting on each other, telling stories, keeping receipts etc. It adds an extra layer to her writing which strikes a chord.

Gromova writes beautifully. What would have been a dull book in anyone else's hands becomes lyrical in hers. Although she happily moves around between subjects, even between time periods and places, there is a continuous sense of experiencing history which makes Moscow in the 1930s fun and interesting. She begins the novel with the analogy of a key she found as a child and how she never found the door that it fits, but that throughout her life she has repeatedly found both keys and doors in the archives which have led her to a fuller understanding of history. These types of analogies run throughout the book as she moves between different houses and different people. In a novel such as this, which so intensely engages with people who had an awareness of the beauty and power of writing, Gromova had the responsibility to echo some of this language and she does so admirably. That it comes across in translation is a brilliant bonus for people like me, Christopher Culver does an excellent job at translating Natalia Gromova's prose, letting it flow easily as well as beautifully.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed Moscow in the 1930s, although I didn't read it all in one go. It's a great novel to read sections of at a time, to dip into as if dipping into history, for an hour here or there. There is always a difficulty when it comes to foreign books because something is always lost in translation, but Moscow in the 1930s is a complete and engaging read for those interested. I'd recommend it to those interested in Russian literature as well as archival work, because it makes the latter sound incredible exciting and fun.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting read! Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

    I reckon that here in the West we all have a bit of a "Russia-shaped hole" in our literary horizons thanks to decades of ideological skirmishes or even wars. Just in August I read (and reviewed) The Train by Vera Panova, a Soviet novel from the Stalin era set during World War II. Amazingly, despite its clearly ideological undertones (Vera Panova was a Party writer), it was translated into English early on - never to be reprinted.

    LaGraziana @ Edith's Miscellany

    1. It really was and I completely agree, the West has a very Anglophone view of what "literature" is! I'll drop by your review of The Train, it sounds really interesting, especially with that kind of translation past :D Also, if you're interested in more Eastern European translated fiction I'd definitely recommend checking out Glagoslav Publications!

      Thanks for commenting :)