Why I can’t write a Book Review for “The Last and the First” by Nina Berberova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
Summary: “On a crisp September morning, trouble comes to the Gorbatovs’ farm. Having fled the ruins of the Russian Revolution, they have endured crushing labour to set up a small farm in Provence. For young Ilya Stepanovich, this is to be the future of Russian life in France; for some of his Paris-dwelling countrymen, it is a betrayal of roots, culture and the path back to the motherland. Now, with the arrival of a letter from the capital and a figure from the family’s past, their fragile stability is threatened by a plot to lure Ilya’s step-brother Vasya back to Russia. In prose of masterful poise and restraint, Nina Berberova dramatises the passionate internal struggles of a generation of Russian emigres.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, France – Provence; Other Categories: Novel, Translation, Vintage.
I was really excited to read this book, since I read so little Russian literature, and I wanted to read more after having enjoyed a few novels previously. I also don’t know much about the Russian Revolution, and certainly even less about those who fled the country as its result. That’s why I wanted to read this book, which was originally published in 1930, and talks about just that subject. Finally, I was hoping to include this book in the yearly “Women in Translation” challenge that takes place every August.
Sadly, however, all that was not to be. First, I should mention that the prose here was amazingly beautiful, with luscious descriptions and melodic use of language, so kudos to the author and her translator. However, this just wasn’t enough to keep me reading. My main reason for this was that I was confused from the very beginning.
You see, things such as not being able to distinguish who was speaking/thinking (no punctuation), or having any clarity as to exactly where the action was taking place, really bother me. These are also the types of things that don’t allow me to picture the action. In addition, variances regarding how characters were named/called (with nicknames, only surnames, and only given names, and full names, changing from line to line), also confused me. Finally, if I couldn’t understand what was going on, I also couldn’t figure out the motivations of these characters, so they were all mysterious to me, and none of them gained any sympathy from me. Without any emotional connection (even a negative one), the whole thing falls apart.
So, if I can’t figure out who is doing what or where or why, and I end up not caring about any of them, I’m afraid that despite the lovely writing (or translation) style, I just couldn’t keep reading this book to the end. That’s why I can’t write a full review for this novel.
My apologies to Steerforth Press – Pushkin Press, for my inability to finish reading this novel, but thanks anyway for the ARC via Edelweiss. If I haven’t convinced you not to read this book, you can purchase it through the publisher’s link, above.