Thursday, May 25, 2023

Book Review: To The Stars And Other Stories by Fyodor Sologub

I have read many Russian writers and generally love Russian literature. The first Russian novel that I read was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Later, I got to read the works of esteemed writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Chekhov, etc. I am also looking forward to reading the novels of some familiar names like Nabokov and Bulgakov. Till I received the upcoming short story collection To The Stars and Other Stories from Netgalley for an honest review, I had never heard of Fyodor Sologub, who is a celebrated poet and story writer.

Sologub was born into a poor family, and after his father's death, it was his mother who toiled as a houseworker and ensured he got educated. Sologub became a teacher and worked in places far away from popular literary circles. With time, his work started to get noticed, and he collaborated with his wife, Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, who was also a translator. After the Bolshevik revolution, which he didn't favour, he was not able to publish anything in Russia. But he received recognition outside Russia as his works were translated into other languages. The couple applied for emigration, but the application was put on hold. Poverty and uncertainty caused his wife to take her life. Sologub was deeply affected, and he decided not to leave Russia. He spent his remaining days near the place of his wife's death.

To The Stars and Other Stories is a collection of thirteen short stories and a sampling of fairy tales written by Sologub that are translated by Susanne Fusso. Sologub is not a writer who is read widely today, though he was so popular in his time that a collection of his complete works was published twice in his lifetime. Fusso, being a Sologub enthusiast, wants him to reach his deserved audience, and that is the motivation behind this collection.

While reading these stories, I became aware of one thing: Sologub is, first and foremost, an excellent poet. All his short stories have an economy that portrays the most profound and vivid images with the minimum use of words. His stories are realistic in their setting and fantastic in their telling. We get a glimpse of a decaying society that suppresses the creative urges displayed by its members. Though all his stories have common themes and a similar structure, he uses elements from a highly varied cross-section of society, which makes each story a unique experience. It is also important to note that the issues highlighted in them are of universal nature and will find resonance until we depend on a societal structure for our sustenance.

The book opens with the story To The Stars, which is about a kid called Seryozha who cannot bear the behaviour of adults. He associates this with the daytime and craves the presence of nights and stars. He creates a world of stars in his imagination and believes it beckons him. This is a common motif that is present in most of the stories in this collection: a kid or kid-like person who cannot handle reality and aspires for fantasy. This alternate, imaginative life ends in ultimate tragedy. Most of the stories have a pessimistic viewpoint, but Sologub approaches death in a reverential manner. It is as if death is the eventual comfort for a human being suffering to align with a society that doesn't care.

But it's not just doom and gloom that is prevalent in these stories. Most of the stories have a humorous undercurrent, which again adds to their poetic nature. In some stories, like In Captivity, where two boys' search for magic words ends in expletives, and The Two Gotiks, where a boy sees his doppelganger running out of the house at midnight, the humour is overt. There are stories like The Youth Linus and In The Crowd in which humour is used to accentuate the horror and leaves the reader feeling a bit queasy after reading. The White Dog, a story in which an old seamstress decides to transform into a howling dog, embraces the supernatural, which is a rarity in the collection. Another one called Death by Advertising is also a supernatural plot about a man calling his death upon him by answering an advertisement.

The Road To Damascus, a story that he co-wrote with his wife, is a unique story in which the ending is very uplifting. The Kiss of The Unborn Child is also a story that ends with optimism, though it starts with the death of a boy who shot himself. There is another story of a young man who shoots himself. It is about a club of young girls who take turns masquerading as the fiancee of any dead single man. Nina is in anticipation when her turn comes and she has to attend the funeral of a man who shot himself as his fiancee. This is my favourite of the whole collection. Stories titled Beauty and The Sixty-Seventh Day are unabashed celebrations of the human body. The former ends in despair, while the latter, against which a pornography charge was applied and the publisher prosecuted, has a very hopeful ending.

The Lady In Shackles is a story about a widow who invites men to torture her every year at the exact time that her abusive husband died. It has an interesting psychological angle that is unearthed in its final sentence. Finally, we find a collection of fairy tales and parables that stands on the fine line that separates poetry from prose. Each of them is a very minimalist exercise that conveys a lot more to the thinking mind than it appears.

To The Stars And Other Stories by Fyodor Sologub is a collection of unique stories that blend reality and fantasy, poetry and prose, despair and hope. These stories share the pain experienced by a silent demography that struggles to keep up with the dictates of an unsympathetic society, fails to assimilate, and attempts to build a new reality for themselves.

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