Saturday, June 12, 2010

Russian Books

Foreign language books can always be a bit of a challenge to the bookseller and with absolutely no knowledge of the Russian language, absolutely no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet and with precious little knowledge of Russian literature and history, why would I plump for this little number. Well, partly for the fun of finding out. With a little care and the use of some rather cool web based translators that have javascripted virtual Cyrillic keyboards to enable one to type everything, it is possible, word by word, to work out what one has bought.

There were a couple of things that already appealed to me about this book and which made me buy it. First off, of course, it is very well illustrated with reproductions of photos of the Russian Imperial family, the Romanovs, also with facsimiles of documents in a section at the back. Also, it had a little age to it, the only thing on the title page in Arabic characters was the date, 1921. Also, it had the air of something printed in the USSR and this, in itself makes it a little interesting to me as I have a customer for that kind of material. So, a a little time typing words into an online translator and surfing for other clues finally reveals that this is, in fact, not published from the USSR, rather it was published in Belgrade. Which makes sense when we realise that the author was in fact, Tatiana Botkina-Melnick (1898-1986), daughter of the Romanov court physician, and immediately we are taken back to those incredible events of 1918 because Tatiana's father was killed along with the Tsar and his family. And, when finally I managed to get a decent translation of the title these, it turns out, are Tatiana's Memoir of the Imperial Family. The book has been translated and republished many times, including as an in-print paperback I believe but this is its first appearance. Not being a specialist in Russian books I may be unaware of, and unable to use, any suitable Russian-language book portals on the web but I can only find one copy of this edition for sale for a somewhat ambitious 177 GBP. That does seem a little punchy but I'm happy with the notion that this is a scarce thing and a desirable one and that, to the right person, I would certainly want to be asking half that.

And so, on to my second find, a paper covered book who caught my attention for a number of reasons. The patterned paper inside the front cover was not least among them I have to say, but also the illustrations are thoroughly enjoyable. This one I could tell immediately was published in Moscow - the Cyrillic characters are close enough to what we are used to, and in 1943, an interesting time. More tapping away at online translators and we discover that the title means something like Poems for Children 1935-1943 but the author was a little more problematic as the fonts in which it is printed and the difficult business of anglicising names took some working out but eventually I had it, Sergei Michalkov (1913-2009), another fascinating character. He wrote the lyrics for the Russian national anthem at Stalin's request in 1942 and then rewrote it twice more before his death to suit the changing political winds. He was best known, however, as a children's poet, as this book evinces. His life was a full and fascinating one and, because he died so recently, we have rather well written obituaries in The Telegraph and The Guardian, to fill us in on the details. The book has the feel of a thing full of history. It's fascinating to speculate how this rather fragile and poorly produced Russian publication has survived and how it came to be lying in a box in a bookshop on the south coast of England from where I hooked it out but that will have to remain speculation.

Financially, these books are not worth a fortune, but there is great satisfaction to be had deciphering them and learning just a little about two rather interesting authors who, in most respects couldn't be more different.

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