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Fandango and Other Stories

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Although I was delighted to discover another Russian author, these stories are just not for me. Alexander Grin (1880-1932) wrote 6 novels and many short stories, and is perhaps most famous for his iconic novel Scarlet Sails, a fairy tale that has been adapted into a film, an opera and a ballet. But he is little known in the west and now thanks to Columbia University Press this collection, expertly translated, is now available to an English-speaking readership. There are 8 stories here, mainly fantasies and all rather strange, it has to be admitted. Grin has sometimes been compared to Edgar Allan Poe, but for my money Poe’s stories are much more comprehensible. The stories collected here are from various stages of Grin’s career, but all have similar themes and atmosphere, even though the subject of each is very different. But they are just the sort of stories I don’t enjoy, too weird and hallucinatory, although as an avid reader of Russian literature I’m very happy to have tackled them.
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This combined work of short stories is truly some of the most descriptive literature I have ever read. I haven't read very many translated works, but I'm very glad that I picked this one up. The writing read almost like poetry and the translator did a marvelous job translating Grin's work. 

By far, I recommend reading Fandango and Other Stories when you do not have anything pulling your attention away. It was hard for me to figure out where each short story was taking place as the setting was not always described in full detail. Even being pulled away for a quick second shook my focus and I could no longer place the setting of the stories. 

I recommend this collection of short stories to anyone looking for a collection of Russian literature, which is by far a translated work that I see people reading these days. Especially when Alexander Grin's work was not admired until after his death.
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I was initially put off by Grin's writing style―full of nature descriptions and the listlessness of characters stuck in some odd predicament. The strange scenarios that Grin likes to put his protagonists can also be hard to absorb at times. 'Lanphier Colony' was one especially memorable story, where a young man chooses to live alone in a cabin amidst a group of country-dwelling people. It was clear that Grin was trying to obliquely tackle issues of class difference and how the character Horn seeks refuge in nature. Yet Horn's actions can appear inexplicable at times and thus hard for a reader to parse in the context of the story's setting.

The themes of miscommunication and aimlessness permeate Grin's stories, but there is rarely a sense of resolve by the end of them. I would recommend this collection for a patient reader who can stand a slowly building plot with lots of descriptive layers and puzzling interactions. This is a nontrivial feat of translation―one that the reader should take care to savor.

Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.
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I appreciate the work that Grin put into his writing; this is not trivial stuff - every sentence from Grin's hand could read like a poem.  Wonderful stuff; I'm just not a fan of the plotting (or as I refer to it, plodding) - sometimes glacial, but never agonizingly so.  I suppose his work is like being served a magnificent-looking eight course meal, with every plate looking more sumptuous than the rest, but the ordering, the wait, and the presentation take longer than the taste inevitably reveals itself to be.  I cannot fault the author - it is his style, and it simply isn't for me.  

Why four stars?  I have read good and bad translations of every Russian author, Grin included.  Translation and literary translation are not the same animal, and when you come across a noteworthy literary translator, it is always worth bring his or her name to the fore.  Bryan Karetnyk did a superb job handling Grin's sometimes challenging writing as the translator of this collection.  Easily worth an additional star to top the three-star performance of the Grin short stories.
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I was already familiar with Grin's writing style and themes, and I enjoy reading his stories, yet this particular collection missed the mark for me.
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A disappointing collection of Russian/Soviet short stories, ranging from a few years before the Revolution to the same afterwards.  The first piece didn't do a heck of a lot – a lad finds a new source of life when he lives with a rural family that includes a young daughter.  It's more or less obvious what the plot will entail when you quickly work out why he's there.  Next long piece I gave up on for going nowhere fast.  The one in between restored some kind of faith, with its exploration of (generally) unrequited love, and I found an unusual look at the call of the wild with the other short short work.  Unusual is the word for a sort of 'Conrad gone wrong', as an idyllic island in the middle of nowhere is found to have borne a nasty event.  I then went to even more remote places with the title story, but in going everywhere in a fantasia it went nowhere quite incoherently, and didn't satisfy – and neither did a trek with the devil.  Finally I had a bizarre fever dream, that again showed the merits of this author do have a strong chance of escaping the average reader I would claim to be.  For all the talk of snappy, genre influences (Poe, Verne et al) he can appear quite laboured in his efforts, and what he is saying in his literature can be lost to the layman through the mists of time.  The book is as usual wonderfully introduced and presented; a given with these publishers.
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This is excellent literature. I was bit hesitant to tackle what I thought would be stories with complicated names and plots, but I was pleasantly surprised. Grin was an excellent writer. His prose flows very well and his talent shine through on every page. Really enjoyed this collection. 4.5 stars.

I really appreciate the advanced copy for review!!
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Russian author Aleksandr Stepanovich Grinevsky (1880 – 1932) better known by his pen-name Alexander Grin, was born in Vyatka of an exiled Polish family.  In his youth he was a sailor, gold-miner, construction worker, soldier and even, during a short stint as member of the Socialist-Revolutionary party, a would-be terrorist.  These formative experiences provided plenty of raw material when he eventually gravitated towards literature. Grin churned out stories at an incredible – if not downright alarming rate – in 1915 alone, he wrote more than 100 short stories and poems.   By the mid-1920’s, he had built a fairly solid reputation.  However, he eventually lost favour with the Soviet regime and, whilst he did not suffer any direct persecution, the authorities’ dismissal of his work as “not needed” led to a marked decline in his fortunes and health.  Following the Second World War, Grin’s writings underwent a reassessment and 1965 saw the publication of a six-volume collection of Grin’s works.  In Russia, Grin is now considered a key author of the early 20th Century – his fairy-tale novella Scarlet Sails, in particular, is much-loved and has inspired film, opera and ballet, as well as lending its name to an all-night festival in St. Petersburg celebrating the end of the scholastic year.  

It is fair to say, however, that, in comparison, Grin remains a little-known figure in the English-speaking world.  Hopefully, he will get a wider readership, thanks to this selection of short stories, newly-translated by Bryan Karetnyk and published by Columbia University Press as part of their “Russian Library” series.

As far as the style and content of his stories are concerned, Grin has been said to be reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas and Franz Kafka. In his introduction to the collection, Barry P. Scherr explains that the influences on Grin, whether as declared by himself or as stated by others, include not only these mentioned authors, but also Rudyard Kipling, James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne and Mayne Reid.  This roll-call of potential influences is significant. It shows, first of all, that Grin was at odds with the Russian tradition, and closer to foreign authors, especially those writing in English.  During his lifetime, this gave rise to a strange rumour about Grin – namely that during his sailing years he had killed an English sea captain and stolen a suitcase full of manuscripts, eventually translating them into Russian and passing them off as his own.  Grin’s “foreignness” also contributed to his ostracization by the Soviet regime.   In this regard, Barry P. Scherr further observes that Grin often employs convoluted syntax, as well as phrasing and similes which, in the original Russian, sound unusual and odd.  Karetnyk’s translation brings out Grin’s style, yet remains readable throughout – even as plots get denser and more fantastic. 

The difficulty to compare Grin to one or more specific authors, however, also reveals how protean a writer he could be, a fact which is borne out by the selection of eight stories in his volume, chosen from various stages in the author’s career.  The chief common element in the featured pieces is the (very Romantic) presence of a male narrator or protagonist, who is generally facing some sort of physical or psychological struggle against which he must prove himself.   Apart from this basic similarity, the stories are very different from each other. Quarantine, the earliest piece, has an autobiographical element, in that it presents us with a revolutionary who is having second thoughts about an assignment he has been given.  “She” features another troubled male protagonist obsessed by the image of a woman – it is one of Grin’s first stories to reveal the influence of Poe.     

Many of Grin’s later works are based in an exotic setting, which his fans fondly refer to as “Grinlandia”.  Recalling the tropical backdrop of 19th century adventure stories, Grin’s made-up world seems strangely unrelated to any real geographical place.  His made-up territory is generally populated by European emigrés and adventurers, usually with English, French, Spanish or strange-sounding names.  

The first Grin work set in “Grinlandia” is “Reno Island”, from 1909.  Karetnyk, however, opts instead for Lanphier Colony, published only a few months afterwards, and possibly a more typical example of Grin’s adventure stories.  The hero here is one “Horn” who, hurt in love like the protagonist of “She”, tries to set up an ideal settlement on a remote island – with tragic consequences.  There is a similar concept in The Heart of the Wilderness, although the mood of this latter story is lighter and its outlook more optimistic.  

The Devil of the Orange Waters is another “Grinlandia” work – a psychological study of a Russian political exile whose experiences fill him with despair and antipathy to life.  

Grin seems to purposely avoid reference to topical political events.  The Poisoned Island is a notable exception, despite its exotic setting.  It takes the form of an inquiry into what appears to be a mysterious mass suicide on a tropical island.  There is a suggestion that this was a case of collective hysteria provoked by news of world conflagrations.  

The final two stories in the collection abandon Grinlandia, being set in Petrograd and inspired specifically by the author’s experiences living at the House of Arts, an institution for artists established by Maxim Gorky.  Ironically, despite their ‘realistic’ setting, these are also amongst the more fantastical of Grin’s tales, and could easily be considered as examples of “weird fiction”.  The main character in The Rat-Catcher, who is recovering from typhus and has no fixed abode, is offered accommodation in a huge abandoned building in Petrograd.  As night approaches, the protagonist realizes that the building is haunted by mysterious figures who seem to be plotting the murder of the eponymous Rat-Catcher. There follows a nightmarish adventure in the labyrinthine building, which can be either taken at face-value as a supernatural experience, or simply a hallucination provoked by the narrator’s fever and hunger.    If I dare add another potential “parallel”, I would say that Grin’s brand of the unheimlich recalls some of the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann.   

Fandango – the title piece – also combines an actual setting (post-Revolution Petrograd) with extraordinary happenings, giving it a tinge of magical realism.  Yet, its mood is markedly different from that of The Rat-Catcher. A contingent of Spanish-speaking visitors to the House of Arts, led by the mysterious Bam-Gran, appoints the narrator as an interpreter.  A strange series of events transports the narrator to the Grinlandian city of Zurbagan which, in contrast with the bleakness of Petrograd, glows with Mediterranean passion, as represented by melody and dance-rhythms and melodies of the Iberian “fandango”.    Perhaps herein lies the key to Grin’s work – it is “escapist fiction” in the best sense of the word, a transformative experience which, at least temporarily, carries us away from the everyday to a more colourful world.
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