Thursday, May 14, 2015

Russia, where everything's terrible

Alice and I were at our favorite used book store recently and I pulled a book confidently off the shelf. "What's that?" she asked. "I don't know, but it's Melville House," I answered. Some publishers are just kind of cool and niche, or they seem that way to me, and I naturally pay attention to their books. It helps that Melville House has super cool cover designs. I am shallow.

The Duel, by Alexander (or Aleksandr, as the website puts it) Kuprin is one of several novellas with that title published by Melville House. Interestingly, while I sort of expected the whole book to revolve around a duel, the duel crops up right at the end. It's not out of nowhere, but at the same time the main character has so many other problems and relationships and worries going on that the duel is both a culmination and the triumph of a minor thing over major things. Essentially it's a book about a young man on the edge -- he's on track to totally waste his life, and he knows it, but he's not sure if he should or can escape. The parallels to the author's life are fairly obvious from the very short blurb in the back flap, and that probably explains the vividness of the main character's dilemma. It was obvious how brutal and pointless his current path was, but at the same time I could understand why it might suck him in.

This is quite possibly the most Russian novel ever: toward the end our main character receives nihilistic enlightenment from a man dying of alcoholism, among other things. The description promises "an absorbing account of the final days of Czarist Russia" and I was not disappointed in that regard. Probably going along with this is the fact that the women in this story are evil, manipulative harpies. There is really no other explanation for the things they do and say. Of course, the men in the book are all pretty seriously debased, so they're not alone in that.

What I wanted from this book was an interesting story and a little historical detail, and what I got was lots of very interesting historical insight and a solid story, so I'd recommend this book to others. Plus you get to feel cool carrying around that very cool cover, so win-win-win.

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