Sunday, June 13, 2021

Books by the Calendar: Charskaya’s School Year and Baranskaya’s Week

I think I’ve been an impatient reader during the last few months. I’m not sure if that’s because of some sort of strange psychological aspect of finally, finally, finally nearing the end of Proust – only half a volume to go, oh, will I be glad to finish! – or because I haven’t been interested in much of the contemporary Russian fiction in my new acquisitions cart. I’m suspecting the latter: I’ve long been moody about my reading choices and I’ve been feeling like nothing fits. Though when something fits (like Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon), I devour it.

Fortunately, I amassed a good selection of twentieth-century books in recent months, leading to a reread of Natalya Baranskaya’s Неделя как неделя (A Week Like Any Other) and then a first reading of Lidia Charskaya’s Записки институтки (hm, maybe Notes of a Boarding School Girl?). They’re very, very different – not surprising given that A Week is dated 1969 and Notes is dated 1901 – and I enjoyed them both, perhaps largely because they’re short, tidy, straightforward works of prose that read easily yet won’t leave me alone. (Unlike Proust: ISOLT simply slithers from my memory!) Both works are also set within very delineated timeframes: Baransksya describes a week in the life of a harried working mother and Charskaya tells the story of a tween girl from Ukraine who’s sent to a boarding school in St. Petersburg.

I first read A Week Like Any Other (brief sample of Pieta Monks’s translation, here) about thirty years ago. I don’t remember if I read in English or Russian but do remember that A Week was generally mentioned along with the phrase “double burden” during discussions of feminism and the numerous work-and-home responsibilities Soviet women were supposed to handle. Olga, A Week’s first-person narrator, works with polymers for sewer pipes and roofs, and she breaks her story into daily installments. The week coincides with the time allotted for answering a questionnaire about family life, to learn why women aren’t having more children. Olga makes a glossary of key words for the topic, covering the Russian alphabet from “a” (аборт/abortion) to “я” (я/I), with words like illness, children, nerves, motherhood, and money in between.

Baranskaya’s writing isn’t beautiful and lovely but given the topic as well as the novella’s effect and pace, I feel like calling it something like “utilitarian” is far higher praise: she covers a week in fifty pages, outlining work problems (falling behind schedule, missing days because her children are sick, relationships with her co-workers, a dreaded political session), family duties (shopping during lunch breaks, housework, taking care of sick children), marital relations (honeymoon flashback, arguments when hubby doesn’t want to help), concerns about her hair, and much, much more. On Friday the thirteenth, she loses something at the office and admits she, too, feels lost. Olga’s candidness about flaws – her own, the system’s, her husband’s – and her unsentimental optimism (I think that’s what I’d call it), plus Baranskaya’s ability to describe the breakneck pace of Olga’s life, make A Week very affecting. That’s how I felt back in the eighties and that’s how I feel now, too, particularly because I read it during a very stressful week, though at least my problem (a severe case of feline non-recognition aggression) could be resolved within a quick couple of weeks, unlike, say, the timesuck of Soviet-era food shopping. Read now, A Week feels like a period piece in some senses (again: Soviet-era shopping procedures) but that’s a plus because the novella feels so true to life, whether you remember those years (I do, albeit a bit later) or are learning about them from literature and history books. What gives A Week its emotional power is Olga’s straightforward (that word again!) account of her feelings, personal situation, and all that rushing, things I think most of us can relate to even now in 2021, if only on some lesser level. Languagehat also wrote about A Week; he researched a literary reference in the text.

Charskaya’s Notes generates empathy differently: this novel(la?) about a girl who leaves home for boarding school and makes friends with Nina, a Georgian princess (!) is sweet and might verge on saccharine if its portrayal of affection and friendship, beloved schoolmates and teachers, and family ties didn’t feel so heartfelt. I came to love the characters, too. Notes is something of a tear-jerker, so, yes, dear reader, I finished the book with damp eyes and a lump in my throat. Lyuda, the first-person narrator, is the daughter of a famous, heroic, and fallen Cossack officer – this is why Lyuda’s given a spot at a school so fancy that (mild spoiler alert!) royals come to visit the school, including Lyuda’s classroom. (And of course Sa Majesté Impériale knows her father’s name.) Among the quirky details of the time: he hands out cigarettes as souvenirs.

Charskaya, who apparently wrote the book from her own notes and experiences, focuses on a defined temporal setting: most of a school year, working in celebrations of Christmas and Easter that bring to mind Pasternak’s Zhivago, where the church calendar has significance. (Charskaya’s Wikipedia page does mention Pasternak, hm...) Descriptions of Christmas are lovely, with trees and tasty care packages, but Lent and Easter were more interesting, for confessions and forgiveness – Lyuda wants to forgive everyone and even confesses to throwing balls of bread at her friends – as well as a harbinger of death. I think my favorite aspect of Notes, though, is the day-to-day: nervousness when answering in class, descriptions of the dortoir, mentions of sweets and dining hall offerings, and rivalries among the girls. Nothing goes to waste here: an episode where Nina brings a crow into the classroom and is punished for it reveals many girls’ generosity. It also made me laugh.

My book with Notes also includes a prequel that tells Nina’s story. It’s apparently much beloved, though I’m not sure I want to read it. Nina’s a good character – smart, sharp, loyal to those she loves – and she’s proud of her heritage but I think I’d rather leave her story and Lyuda’s stories as they are for now. Judging from comments on Russian book sites, Notes is popular among young readers. I’m sure I would have loved it at Lyuda’s age (elevenish), and I enjoyed it very much now, both as a sentimental tale (no spoilers!) and as a very vivid, detailed, exuberant, and often humorous account of a certain angle on a (fictionalized) life at the turn of the last century.

Up Next: Big Book finalists. Vodolazkin’s History of Island, yes, I’m still reading; I’m also translating a brief excerpt. Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating, meaning I keep discovering and connecting more and more details. Belyaev’s The Air Seller.


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