Happy Birthday Fyodor Mikhailovich

11 November 2012 § Leave a comment

To mark Dostoevsky’s birthday, my book “Dostoevsky’s Russians” is officially released today. I’ve had a wonderful time writing it, and if people enjoy reading it too, then that will make me really happy. It’s available in paperback or Kindle formats on Amazon.com co.uk, fr and de (sadly Createspace don’t seem to have a .ca option).


Also, the local paper did rather a nice little feature about the book, which you can read here.


This blog may now go quiet for a bit; I set it up in part to have a place for all sorts of odd musings that couldn’t fit in the book, or to help me work things out. Also, I have a big new project to work on (nothing to do with Dostoevsky) which may take up quite a lot of time. But thank you for reading, and I’ll be back whenever I have anything to say.



Amazon Adventure

8 November 2012 § Leave a comment

There are only a few days to go until I launch my book, “Dostoevsky’s Russians”, and lots of people have been asking me about how I published it, so I thought I’d write a bit about why I did it, and how it all worked. Some of you will know that I started off sending proposals off to publishers, and I had an exciting false start when I got quite a positive response to the very first one I sent. I dutifully scrubbed up the first three chapters, and sent them off, and then they decided that although they liked my writing, they only really publish literary criticism by “career academics”. They obviously didn’t read my first proposal very thoroughly, but hey ho, it was a start. Then after that, nothing, or almost instantaneous rejections, and after filling in a few proposal forms, in which I was asked to explain to publishers how the book should be marketed, and what I would do to promote it, it suddenly occurred to me that I could do all this myself and stay in control of things.

I couldn’t afford to do anything that involved parting with hard cash, but there are two self-publish print on demand services, which do what they say on the tin – Createspace, and Lulu. Although Lulu are UK based, I opted for Createspace because they’re part of Amazon, which has to be my main distribution channel. (Lulu list on Amazon, but it didn’t seem as straightforward or quick as Createspace). In terms of copyright, I own all the rights, but I opted for a Createspace ISBN (because it was free) so I can’t publish this edition of the book anywhere else. I don’t see that as a problem: if a publisher suddenly comes along and loves it, they’d want to make changes and put it out as a new edition anyway, so it would need a new ISBN.

To publish, all you have to do is upload your book and the cover, order a proof and then set the price. Easy. Well, ok it all involved quite a bit of work, but the whole process was quite easy to follow, and the online previewing tools showed me quickly and easily whenever something went wrong. There were times when I read things on the Createspace authors’ forum and thought it seemed overwhelmingly complex, but actually, if you keep your head, follow the instructions, think logically and have a reasonably good grasp of Word, it’s quite straightforward. Of course without the wisdom of an editor, I may have made some layout mistakes, and I’m still convinced that some of my commas get up and dance when I’m not looking. I spent a lot of time examining the books on my shelves, looking at running headers, spacing, and general layout, and quite a bit of time swearing at Word when it kept mangling things (headers and footers were particularly awkward). I was determined to make it look as professional as possible – to the extent that I downloaded an open-source version of Garamond with a full set of ligatures (i.e. when letters like f join up to the next letter), and spent ages messing about with hyphens and spacing. It was fun: I get a bit geeky about things like this sometimes.

The other fun thing was having complete power over the cover design. I’ve already written here about the perfect photo that I found, and after some playing around in Scribus, which is an opensource desktop publishing programme, and more swearing whilst I figured out about bleeds, trim sizes and spine thickness, I uploaded it all to Createspace and gazed in awe at the spinning 3D picture of how my book would look, and flicked through virtual pages. Of course, I also had to do things like an author photo, and I had lots of nice comments from friends on facebook about a picture I’d uploaded, so I cropped it and used that. It was taken by my seven-year old son, while we were on a grungy camping weekend at a punk festival.

Second time round, the proof was fine and then it was just a case of making a Kindle version. I thought it would happen automatically from my original files, but actually I had to reformat it all, with HTML code. I could have left it with Word’s code, but again, I’m a geek and I hate messy files. I found  a nice online tool that stripped out all the junk code, and then I started from scratch and put things back in. I learnt how to use CSS at the same time, which was useful.

So, with great excitement, I can say that “Dostoevsky’s Russians” will be available to buy on Amazon on our joint birthday, Sunday 11 November. It will also be exactly two years since I first put fingers to keyboard. I’ve had an amazing time writing it, and if people enjoy reading it too, that’s great, but what will be even better will be if everyone who reads my book is then inspired to pick up a Dostoevsky novel.


Brahms and Schumann

25 September 2012 § Leave a comment

Last Saturday, I went to a Brahms and Schumann study day at The Sage Gateshead in preparation for Northern Sinfonia’s new season, in which they’re doing all the symphonies, paired together, and a good chunk of chamber music by both composers. I went along expecting some sort of lecture, either a long talk about lives and influences, or a lot of in-depth musical analysis, or both. What we actually got was quite different, and far more fun. Yes, a day spent examining German Romanticism is definitely my idea of fun.

We were a small group – about fifteen of us, and all, I think regular concert-goers, and the day was led by Sean McMenamin, a music PhD student from Newcastle University. Although Sean’s programme was structured around the composers’ lives and some of their symphonic work, he acted more as a guide than a teacher, using Schumann and Brahms to prompt us towards broader discussions about how we listen to music, and fortunately we had the sort of group where everyone was willing to pitch in and contribute.  To start us off, we pondered whether it’s important to know about a composer’s life in order to appreciate his music, although we agreed that the very fact we had turned up to the study day implied that this was important to us.

In the case of Schumann, I concluded, the life really is important, because he puts so much of himself into his music. In fact, his selves-plural, because he saw in himself two figures, who he named Florestan (a passionate extrovert) and Eusebius (subdued, and introspective). He wrote music about both characters, and even articles under both names. The idea of the Double will, of course, be familiar to everyone who reads Dostoevsky (Hurrah! A tenuous gossamer-thread of connection to my favourite topic), and I’d forgotten that this was a wider feature of German Romanticism.

In the case of the Schumann’s First Symphony, the “Spring”, it also struck me that what we think about a piece can be coloured so much by which bits of information happen to reach us. Unless we’re scholars, with access to every biographical source, the way we look at a piece of music is affected by what gets filtered through. In 1839, Schumann wrote: ‘Oh, Clara! I have been in paradise today! They played at the rehearsal a symphony by Franz Schubert. How I wish you had been there … It is a whole four-volume novel … I was supremely happy, and had nothing left to wish for, except that you were my wife, and that I could write such symphonies myself!’
A year later, Schumann had married Clara and in an outpouring of joy was composing his first symphony, so having been given that quote, I couldn’t help but hear in the music an outpouring of delight, and a sense of dreams coming true, and that’s probably how I’ll always hear it now.

We had a broad overview about what Romanticism means – the love of nature, the sense of individualism and self-expression, and a fusion of different artistic forms, and we talked too about the relationship between literature and music. Can literature be musical? I nearly got caught out here by throwing Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony in Dostoevsky into the discussion, because from his response, I suspect Sean has read more Bakhtin than I have… There were also some interesting points made about how this fitted in with the changing role of the composer in society; no longer supported by rich but demanding patrons, composers had the freedom to write more individualistic music, but they also had to write music that would appeal to the educated middle classes who came to their concerts and bought their sheet music. One element of Romanticism was an emphasis on the importance of education and of doing battle against the philistines, so it all seems to have slotted together quite neatly – the ideals of Romanticism drove composers to create music that also happened to be what the public wanted to hear.

Schumann and Brahms between them cover pretty much the entire Romantic period (Schumann was born in 1810, Brahms died in 1897), which gave us the opportunity to discuss the transition between early and late Romanticism, and the differences between the two. Unfortunately all the interesting discussion meant we had to skim over Brahms’ symphonies, but since the hole in my knowledge was more Schumann-shaped, this wasn’t too much of a problem for me. I hadn’t realised though that the great big problem of how to follow Beethoven that famously loomed over Brahms and put him off writing a symphony had come about because of a new general trend to search for heroes in the past. Schumann, writing symphonies before Brahms had no such problem, but by Brahms’s time, this fashion for putting figures from the past on impossibly high pedestals meant that Beethoven’s symphonies were now held up as an ideal to which all other symphonies would be compared.

Late Romanticism seems more grown-up than the youthful fancies of Schumann, and the rather adolescent dream of the alienated, tortured artist. For me, there’s more of a sense of engagement with the rest of the world, and a response to what’s going on around the composer or artist. The rush to the past happened in the face rapid modernisation and industrialisation, whether it be pre-Raphaelite painting,  Gothic revival architecture, folk elements in music or Brahms’s use of old forms like chaconnes and fugues, and it’s not the same as early Romantic escapism, especially as many late Romantic artists also had more concern for social questions than their predecessors (although Brahms isn’t in that category).

After some comparisons between the two schools of German Romantic music (Brahms, Schumann on the one hand, Wagner and Liszt on the other), we then talked about what came after. What was really interesting here was to learn about Arnold Schoenberg’s respect for Brahms, and his sense that in Brahms’s adherence to relatively strict music forms there might be an answer to the bloated excesses of composers like Wagner, who had pushed to the limits of tonal harmony and musical structure. I think one or two of the participants were a bit alarmed when Sean started talking about Schoenberg, and I thought I detected a sense of surprise and discovery among some when he played a bit of Verklaerte Nacht.

Getting from the lonely Romantic soul to the Second Viennese School in one day was quite a journey – hence the unusual length of this post. I was there on a press ticket, but not required to write about it for Bachtrack, but I had such a good day, and was so inspired by it that I wanted to write something. Thanks again to Sean for such a well-presented and stimulating day, and you’ll see my first reviews of the Northern Sinfonia concerts next week on Bachtrack.

Cats and Dogs – musings on Tolstoy

22 September 2012 § Leave a comment

In Russia I’ve head people categorised as being a “Tolstoy” person or a “Dostoevsky” person, rather as we in England label people as being cat or dog people. There are obvious reasons for linking the two – they were working at about the same time (Tolstoy was a few years younger, but lived much longer), and both produced the archetypal “Big Fat Russian Novels”, but they are also, I think, radically different, and complementary. We can prefer one or the other, but there’s no real need to set them up in a literary clash of the titans.

A while ago, I came across this article: http://www.themillions.com/2012/04/tolstoy-or-dostoevsky-8-experts-on-whos-greater.html.  It’s worth reading  just for Carol Apollonio’s vivacious triumphing of Dostoevsky, for she says everything that I want to say about him in just a few brilliant paragraphs. I was going to write a post about it immediately, but I realised that as far as Tolstoy goes, I’m really rather rusty. I also read Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, which is about Tolstoy’s philosophy of history (and not, as the author of the article claims, about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), so all in all,  I decided it was time for a crash revision course, and that I should re-read one of the big novels over the summer. If I’d remembered that an Anna Karenina film was in the pipeline, I’d have re-read her, but instead I plumped for War and Peace, so I’ve ended up with tw0-for-the-price -of-one.

Dostoevsky admired in Tolstoy (and Turgenev) his artistry, his ability to paint pictures, and it’s his realism that has struck me on rereading War and Peace; an almost pernickety attention to detail and the sense of all his characters being fully-fleshed, rounded regular human beings, instead of Dostoevsky’s intense, hyper-real monstrosities. Of course in War and Peace I could do with a little less attention to detail; the battle scenes go from tedious military precision, laying out all the movements of the armies to gruesome accounts of death and injury and the futility of war and he does have a certain gory relish for difficult childbirths too. Where his artistry really shows is in his loving accounts of the Russian countryside – such as the Rostov hunting scene where every tree and blade of grass is placed in our minds.

One crucial difference that I’ve noticed between them is the way that they treat family life. Dostoevsky hardly ever delves into the mysteries of marriage; it’s a subject he leaves more or less untouched in the major novels (there are a few short stories about married couples), and he is more interested in parents, children and siblings, unlike Tolstoy who can’t stay off the subject. Good marriages, bad marriages, disastrous marriages, engagements, elopements, affairs, he has it all.

I personally think there is less ambiguity in Tolstoy than in Dostoevsky – at least in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy shouts his opinions on every page, in every action, and sometimes even feels the need to regale us with a critical essay. Dostoevsky is more slippery, he tricks us by putting what he doesn’t believe into the mouths of his most eloquent and compelling characters, and hiding his feelings in the words of fools and idiots. As readers, we have to work, because Dostoevsky doesn’t give us straight answers; he’s that fantastic teacher who answers his students’ questions with “but what do you think”.

I’ve been enjoying my mini Tolstoy-fest though, and the new Tom Stoppard/Joe Wright Anna Karenina film was bonkers and brilliant. Interestingly critics have commented on the fact that Wright set it in the very artificial surroundings of a dilapidated theatre, and contrasted that with Tolstoy’s realism, but his attention to little details such as Anna’s red bag and Karenin’s knuckle-cracking, and Stoppard’s fidelity to the story, combined  to make it all work (except for Vronsky, who was disappointingly unattractive).

Dostoevsky/Tolstoy. Cats/Dogs. Cat people read Dostoevsky.

A little biography of Dostoevsky

29 August 2012 § Leave a comment

I thought my book probably needed a brief chronology of Dostoevsky’s life, and I was going to do a straightforward timeline, but all modern editions of the novels have those anyway, so I thought it would be more fun to write a short biography which, I hope, introduces all the events that I mention in the book. 

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, on 30 October 1821[1], the second son of a military doctor. His father was strict, but loving, and Dostoevsky spent an uneventful childhood in Moscow, and at the family’s small country estate at Darovoe in Tula Province. At his father’s wishes, Dostoevsky studied at The Academy of Military Engineers in St Petersburg, but by the time he graduated, his father had died and he left the army in 1844 to pursue his literary interests.

The 1840s were years of potentially exciting political developments, in Russia and Europe, characterised by the growth of liberal ideas, and early socialism. In this climate, Dostoevsky’s debut novel, Poor People (1846) was ecstatically received but his more experimental follow-ups were less successful, and largely forgotten, with the exception of The Double (1846)– a fascinating psychological study that is perhaps more comprehensible to later readers than it was in the 1840s.

The failed European revolutions of 1848 terrified the Russian authorities, and the political atmosphere became increasingly repressive. Dostoevsky had become a member of a clandestine political group, and although their activities were mostly confined to discussion only, they were all arrested in 1849. After several months imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress in St Petersburg , he and his companions were led out onto Semenovsky Square, whereupon the death sentence was pronounced, and the accused were prepared for the firing squad. This was, however, a sadistic joke on the part of the authorities, for a pardon was immediately announced, and the men were sentenced to hard labour in Siberia instead.

Dostoevsky spent four years in prison, in Omsk, an experience he later fictionalised in Notes from the House of the Dead (published 1861). He was released from prison in 1854, but had to remain in exile in Siberia for another five years, until, in 1859 he was finally granted permission to return to European Russia. Dostoevsky had written several novellas and articles during his exile, including The Village of Stepanchikovo, and on returning to St Petersburg, he plunged himself back into literary activity and political debate, and made his first visits to Europe. He and his older brother, Mikhail, published two journals, first Time and then Epoch, and his first major novels were serialised in these journals: Humiliated and Insulted (1861) and Notes from Underground(1864) prepared the way and then, in 1866, came Crime and Punishment, the first of his four great novels.

Whilst exiled in Siberia, Dostoevsky fell in love with Maria Isaeva, the wife of a poor schoolmaster, and they married shortly after her husband’s death. The marriage did not get off to a good start when Dostoevsky suffered the horrors of his first major epileptic fit on their wedding night – he had already had a few minor attacks, but this fateful night confirmed Dostoevsky’s suspicion about his condition. The marriage was not particularly happy and Maria died in 1864. A few years later, Dostoevsky married his second wife, Anna Snitkina who had been employed as his stenographer.

His second honeymoon was, in some ways, as unlucky as his first, but his new wife was made of much tougher material than Maria and the marriage was long and happy. The newly-weds intended to travel to Europe for a few months, but Dostoevsky had accrued such terrible debts in Russia that they had to remain abroad so that he could avoid debtors’ prison. The couple lived an itinerant life, Dostoevsky was possessed by a gambling addiction that continued to destroy their fragile finances, and their adored first child died at the age of just three months, but somehow he managed to write his second masterpiece, The Idiot(1868)which, unsurprisingly, is one of his darkest works.

By 1871, the Dostoevskys’ financial position had stabilised enough that they were able to return to St Petersburg, and in 1872 Dostoevsky completed his political novel The Devils, the first part of which had been published while he was still abroad. Anna took a firm hand on the family finances, managing negotiations with creditors and publishers, and eventually running the business of publishing Dostoevsky’s books herself. In the 1870s, Dostoevsky was at last able to enjoy a comfortable family life, dividing his time between literary life in St Petersburg and a summer cottage in the small town of Staraya Russa, and taking great delight in bringing up his two children, Lyubov and Fyodor (although a second son, Alexey, tragically died of epilepsy, in 1878, aged just three). His wildly popular one-man journal, Diary of a Writer, which was published by the Dostoevskys in 1876-77 established his reputation as one of the country’s foremost writers and commentators, but he had to stop publication so that he could concentrate on his last, and greatest novel, The Karamazov Brothers.

The first installation of The Karamazov Brothers appeared in February 1879, and held Russia transfixed until its completion in November 1880, just a couple of months before Dostoevsky’s death. In 1880 Dostoevsky was invited to give a speech during the festivities marking the unveiling of a statue to Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, and if there was any doubt about the esteem in which he was held, it was confirmed by the rapturous reception his speech received. When he died of emphysema in January 1881, the crowds of mourners at his funeral stretched back for almost a mile behind his coffin, bringing St Petersburg to a halt, and for a brief moment, the growing political turmoil in Russia came to a standstill, as the country united in grief at the loss of one their greatest writers.

No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition

20 August 2012 § 1 Comment

He descends into the scorching streets of a southern city…

My family may have thought they were safe from “Doffywevvy” (as my son used to call him) while we were on holiday in Southern Spain, but they were wrong, because we had a day out in Seville, home of the Grand Inquisitor. I couldn’t help but see the trip as a mini-pilgrimage, although I was a little disappointed to discover that Dostoevsky (or Ivan Karamazov) had obviously not really done any research. Ivan’s poem describes Christ appearing on the steps of the cathedral, raising a girl from the dead, and then being arrested by the Grand Inquisitor who sees the hubhub from across the square and comes to see what’s going on, but there are no steps to speak of, and the main west door of the cathedral gives onto a narrow alleyway. The great courtyard in the picture below (taken from the Giralda tower) is to the north side, and there’s quite a big plaza to the south too, but otherwise, the cathedral is hemmed in by a maze of narrow streets, and is surprisingly hard to find. We queued at the southern door for an hour in blazing heat, and I chastised a Russian family who were brazenly attempting to queue-jump, much to their surprise. No-one expects a cross, Russian-speaking Brit.
Seville Cathedral Now, of course, I know that the discrepancies between Ivan’s description and reality hardly matter, but it was an interesting game to play. I was also surprised at how much that passage had coloured my expectations of Seville. The incredible heat and the narrow streets were there, but because most of the action takes place during a hot, airless Seville night, my brain hadn’t expected such glittering whiteness, from the buildings and from the searing sunlight. At least such differences meant that my over-active imagination didn’t expect an Inquisitor to pop out from behind a corner.

(PS I did take some photos of the doors, but my camera has gone to China with my husband, so I had to use one of the Small Boy’s pictures – and he was more interested in architecture than literature).

The book has a cover

21 July 2012 § 1 Comment

Sennaya PloshchadI’m really excited: I have found a photo that works perfectly for the cover of my book. It’s a picture of Sennaya Ploshchad in St Petersburg – the Haymarket as it is often known in English editions of Dostoevsky – the centre of the action in Crime and Punishment. The title of my book is Dostoevsky’s Russians so I wanted a picture with people in it, and preferably a contemporary picture. I talk a lot about the universal human ideas in Dostoevsky’s novels, so I wanted a photo that could remind us of the way we are all linked to his characters. And as an added bonus, not only is this photo taken in the heart of Dostoevsky’s part of Petersburg, the people are emerging out from the Underground, into the light. Perfect.

I’m really grateful to the photographer Oleg Mirabo for letting me use his picture. He told me that he had a project for a series of photos retracing Raskolnikov’s wanderings around St Petersburg – I hope it happens, and if it does, there’ll be a link here!