Stepfather’s Library

When our house in Kyiv was finally sold, the arrangements promised to be uncomplicated–sign some papers, make a few visits to the notary and townhall and arrange for a moving truck. Unexpectedly, the latter turned into a source of some discord, because while my mother was of the opinion that whatever the house held should either be sold or discarded, my grandmother was adamant that every last chair and plate must be salvaged. “Think of the fine dinner sets we bought for your wedding,” she pleaded with mom over the phone. “I always disliked those zaftig Madonnas–and we did get divorced.” “But what about your lovely lacquered desk?” “Soviet satellites sure made some clunky furniture in their day.” And on and on it went scrambling the telephone lines over the Atlantic. But one thing they agreed upon was to collect my stepfather’s library and store it at my grandmother’s.

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At her house, the books stayed in boxes, because for all of my grandmother’s good intentions, the lack of available space in a house already full to the brim with books made it impossible to find another solution. Every time I visited, I would flip open the lid and glance inside, and one day I couldn’t resist and before long all the boxes were unpacked with books arranged in towering piles on the floor around me.

Of the many things that make us–people, places, experiences–some leave the deepest marks. We’re a mosaic of it all, bits and shards of influences shaping our desires, yearnings and dreams. When I think of my stepfather’s library, I’m conscious of a magnetic pull that the eclectic collection of books had on me, taking me far beyond the intentions of its collector.

My stepfather’s library featured Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin compilations in thick leather covers with gilded lettering, the same editions of the Soviet designated high culture that most homes displayed behind the glass doors of their cabinets next to Czech crystal stemware and Armenian cognac–scarcity institutionalized by Communism affected books too. The bulk of his collection, however, was beyond the Soviet pale, from the Second French Empire novels to contemporary American detective stories.

Some publications were the samizdat type, photographed page by page, hand bound and passed through so many hands that the black print faded to the oyster shell grey in many spots. It was a way to circumvent both the censorship and scarcity. For my stepfather books were not only a source of knowledge or entertainment; they were a window into the world he couldn’t experience otherwise. He hated the hypocrisy and provincialism of Soviet life, and his favorite novels invited an escape.  I remember brooding over some disagreement with a friend and my stepfather approaching me with a book, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. “Take a pause from your drama and read this,” he said in his trademark laconic manner, thus opening to me the world of allegory, satire, and redemption from dogmas.

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Through my stepfather’s library I encountered Isaac Babel, Stefan Zweig, Boris Pasternak, Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann, Emile Zola, Gustav Flaubert, and Albert Camus. I read diaries of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and painter Marie Bashkirtseff. I discovered the prose of Lesya Ukrainka–“Your letters, my pallid, withered flower, always smell of wilted roses—the faint smell as light as the memory of a faded dream.” I became obsessed with Arabian fairy tales and spent hours composing my own versions, populated with jinns, houris, explorers (always female, always endowed with my looks and what I hoped my sense of adventure) and redolent of cinnamon and cloves. It was also from this library, once stored in a squat mahogany bookcase, that I found my love for Japanese poetry and met two lifelong companions, Christie’s Miss Marple and Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

My stepfather also had a vast collection of self-study guides and dictionaries: Italian, French, German, Polish, Spanish, Croatian, Czech, not to mention English and a textbook called “American Business English.” If he ever studied all those languages, I don’t recall it, but the fact that I have at one point or another in my life can be attributed to the linguistic variety his library contained.

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My grandmother wondered if my stepfather wanted to have his library shipped to him in the US, but I doubted he would. It belonged to another phase of his life, and if in more than 20 years he didn’t make attempts to retrieve it, it wasn’t likely that anything would change with the sale of the house. It had its own separate existence, and my stepfather wasn’t worried about the books not getting to their right destination in the end. “Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?”

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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132 Comments

  • Karen (A): Thank you so much Victoria for such a beautiful article. January 11, 2016 at 7:38am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re most welcome, Karen! January 11, 2016 at 11:23am Reply

  • Michaela: Impressive story, Victoria, thank you!

    I couldn’t but sigh while reading because, for years, reading was the only escape for me and books like Bulgakov’s Master and Margaret had a very special place in my youth, too.

    I find it rather sad, though. Books are invaluable friends and, sometimes, a whole collection is left behind as another phase of one’s life. January 11, 2016 at 8:08am Reply

    • Michaela: …not to forget Flaubert, Camus, Strefan Zweig, Thomas Mann, Dostoesvsky, Tolstoy or Arabian tales, or Agatha Christie… old good friends. Yes, probably, manuscripts don’t burn… January 11, 2016 at 8:18am Reply

      • Victoria: Michaela, which Zweig’s novel is your favorite? January 11, 2016 at 11:36am Reply

        • Michaela: Amok and Magellan left a very strong impression. January 12, 2016 at 4:01am Reply

          • Victoria: Those two I haven’t read. January 12, 2016 at 8:56am Reply

    • Michaela: The conversation between your mother and grandmother is so moving. I can’t say how much it touched me. Humor and sadness mixed up. January 11, 2016 at 8:29am Reply

      • Victoria: Honestly, it was pure farce, but I wisely stayed out of it. 🙂 January 11, 2016 at 11:42am Reply

    • Victoria: My parents took whatever they could afford to move, but since the rest of the family still lived in the house, the books were left to them. Whenever I visited, I would always find my step-grandfather reading his son’s books; books over which they might have argued in the past, since their political views differed sharply. In this way, the books lived on and transcended their original collection. So, the story is not that sad.

      Now, the library will be for my cousin and his girlfriend (and once my grandmother gives her ok, some books will form a village library and will be read by generations of children). So, the Woland’s phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” made me think that books have several lives. January 11, 2016 at 11:32am Reply

      • Alyssa: What a lovely piece, V. And it’s so great to think about these forming the basis for a village library! January 12, 2016 at 10:13am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you, Alyssa. It will be the second life for these books. January 12, 2016 at 1:12pm Reply

      • Marsha: Oh that’s wonderful! January 17, 2016 at 8:19am Reply

  • Eric: Great article! If I think of books that made me, then Dickens Great Expectations, Gerald Durrell My Family and Other Animals, Orwell 1984 are at the top. And Brothers Grimm. 😀 January 11, 2016 at 8:10am Reply

    • Michaela: I feel the same about Brothers Grimm and 1984. January 11, 2016 at 8:19am Reply

      • Annie: Me three on Brothers Grimm! January 11, 2016 at 8:21am Reply

        • Victoria: I used to listen to Grimm’s tales on a recording as a kid, and I still remember some passages word for word. So, yes, I will add myself to your group. 🙂 January 11, 2016 at 11:36am Reply

        • Alicia: Four on brothers Grimm January 11, 2016 at 1:07pm Reply

          • Victoria: Now, the question is which tale in particular? Mine would be The Bremen Town Musicians. January 11, 2016 at 2:30pm Reply

            • bregje: the six swans.
              or the wolf and the seven little goats. January 12, 2016 at 9:05pm Reply

              • Victoria: You make me want to read The Six Swans again. 🙂 January 13, 2016 at 12:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Books that made me sounds like such a great topic to ponder. The Master and Margarita is one of my most formative. January 11, 2016 at 11:33am Reply

      • behemot: Ha! No wonder! “Master and Margarita” is the best – said Behemoth and had another sip of his favorite gasoline 🙂
        By the way, this is a wonderful article, Victoria -he added.
        Then he started thinking about Stefan Zweig. “Chess Story and “The Letter from an Unknown Woman” were his favorite, when he read them very long ago.. January 11, 2016 at 6:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂
          “Is that vodka?” Margarita asked weakly.
          The cat jumped up in his seat with indignation.
          “I beg pardon, my queen,” he rasped, “Would I ever allow myself to offer vodka to a lady? This is pure alcohol!” January 12, 2016 at 8:35am Reply

          • behemot: :):):):) January 12, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

            • Victoria: Impeccable manners! 🙂 January 12, 2016 at 1:17pm Reply

  • Annie: Happy New Year, Victoria! My resolution this year is to read more and to re-read favourite books. You reminded me how much I loved Master and Margarita and how long it has been since I read it. January 11, 2016 at 8:20am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a great resolution. I don’t re-read as often as I should, since there are so many other books I want to discover, but I know how much richer the experience becomes when you revisit a great book. January 11, 2016 at 11:40am Reply

      • Theresa: I think it was Nabokov who used to re-read Don Quixote every single year. I read it for the first time about ten years ago and was blown away by its daring modernity. I have re-read it several times since, but have not been able to achieve Nabokov’s level of re-reading! But there is a core selection of classic books that I read and reread many times (Jane Austen, the Diary of Francis Kilvert, for instance) January 11, 2016 at 3:35pm Reply

        • Victoria: It would be an interesting exercise, but I don’t think I’m consistent enough to re-read any one book every year. I hear you on Don Quixote. It’s an example of great literature in that the themes are as relevant as ever. January 12, 2016 at 8:25am Reply

        • Nora Szekely: I reread the 6 completed novels of Jane Austen every year. I never get tired of it (doing it for almost 2 decades now lol). January 12, 2016 at 9:51am Reply

  • Sandra: Always enjoy reading about your family’s roots. January 11, 2016 at 8:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Sandra. January 11, 2016 at 11:41am Reply

    • Katherine: Me too. Victoria, your article was insightful from a number of perspectives. I like the reminder that “manuscripts never burn”…It should help me let go of my own excess of books – mine, my grandmother’s and one day some of my father’s collection. There are just too many!!! Which harkens back to your article on keeping only the things that make your heart sing and getting rid of what doesn’t make you happy so you can enjoy what does. January 11, 2016 at 12:07pm Reply

      • Victoria: That’s my mom’s perspective, and the more I reflect on it, the more it makes sense. Take these books, for instance. Their subsequent life in my cousin’s library and the village school library will be far richer and more influential than if they were just packed and shipped to the US. January 11, 2016 at 12:37pm Reply

        • Katherine: That’s what I was trying to say. Thanks. January 11, 2016 at 10:59pm Reply

    • Marsha: Me too! January 17, 2016 at 8:22am Reply

  • Esme: I read Master and Margarita many years ago and I loved it. I wish I could have read it, and Tolstoy’s, Dostoyevsky’s and Pushkin’s works, in the original Russian. January 11, 2016 at 8:33am Reply

    • Victoria: At very least, you have some excellent translators working on these authors. January 11, 2016 at 11:44am Reply

  • Tijana: What a great article! You bring so many memories of when mom and I sold our apartment in Serbia and were moving to Canada. We sold or gave away everything, except photos, albums, mementos and books. We packaged those up in boxes and shipped them across the ocean and they became a part of my ever-growing library in Toronto, still on my shelves, 20 years later… It gives me great comfort to see them and every now and then pick up the book and read the inscription (most of them have some sort of inscription as they were gifts or awards – because I always asked for books when presented with a choice) remembering the occasion they marked. I read most of them, but there are still a few I did not get to, which will eventually be read! January 11, 2016 at 9:22am Reply

    • Victoria: When we moved, I used up my 20kg weight limit with photos, diaries and favorite books. I literally came to the US with only two changes of clothes. 🙂 January 11, 2016 at 11:46am Reply

      • Tijana: So did I. The remaining books (about 5 small boxes) stayed initially with my grandma then followed about 1 year later and only because we were lucky to get a good shipping rate. I suspect had the shipping rate been higher, they would’ve never made it across the ocean! January 11, 2016 at 12:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: How lucky! Moving books is notoriously expensive. In our case, my mom would just take a few books whenever she went back home. January 11, 2016 at 12:51pm Reply

          • Tijana: There was actually an element of that too, LOL! That is how my collection of Francoise Sagan made it to Canada ;-))))) January 11, 2016 at 2:28pm Reply

            • Victoria: And I was going to ask which were some of the books that made it to Canada. 🙂 January 11, 2016 at 2:41pm Reply

              • Tijana: That set was in a suitcase, but the rest that came via boat were all kinds: Dostoevsky, Marques, Yesenin, lots of Serbian and Croatian writers and poets, Remarque, Borges, Vonnengut, Plato and many more… My tastes are pretty eclectic when it comes to reading, so there was literally a variety in the boat batch. But Francoise Sagan is special to me, so I made sure she traveled with me 🙂 A few other books that were in the suitcase instead of on the boat are Serbian romantic poets Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj and Laza Kostic… Both very dear to me. January 11, 2016 at 3:08pm Reply

                • Victoria: It’s such a fun, eclectic list, Tijana. By the way, could you please recommend some Serbian and Croatian writers to me? I’m determined to read more widely this year. January 11, 2016 at 3:15pm Reply

                  • Tijana: Sure. I kind of lost touch with the newest writers, but my favourites from Ex-YU area are Miroslav Krleza, Borislav Pekic, Milorad Pavic, Mesa Selimovic and for more “fun” reads Isidora Bjelica and Mirjana Bobic Mojsilovic. Of course, one cannot not mention Ivo Andric who is the recipient of Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. His most famous book is The Bridge on the Drina, but my favourite is his “Signs Near the Travel-road” (I don’t know if this was in fact translated to English and if this is the exact title in English, I just googled the translation, but in Serbian it is called “Znakovi pored puta”).
                    I hope you find something to your liking from this list! January 11, 2016 at 3:27pm Reply

                    • Victoria: Thank you very much for this great list. I will start with The Bridge on the Drina, since I can’t find Znakovi pored puta in English. It might have been translated in French; French translate far more literature than the English language publishers. January 12, 2016 at 8:12am

  • Adrienne: What an interesting article. Your stepfather was astonishingly influential in your life. Look at all the richness his books exposed you to, and where those experiences have taken you. Even your description of the smells, ‘cinnamon and cloves’, and using the quote about ‘faded roses’….always turning to olfactory aspects… marvellous indeed. It has been said that certain people leave fingerprints on our lives. In your case, it seems to hold some truth. January 11, 2016 at 9:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your kind comment, Adrienne. He still is. Our family has many larger-than-life characters, and my stepfather is one of them. January 11, 2016 at 11:47am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: You are such a good writer. I enjoy all your posts. Thank you! January 11, 2016 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Phyllis. January 11, 2016 at 11:47am Reply

  • Kandice: Ah books. I love to read. Reading kept me from being lonely as an only child who spent way too much time alone. They have provided not only solace as an adult but entry to worlds I would not have experienced otherwise. Thank you for sharing your adventures with reading and for sharing a little of his wonderful library. January 11, 2016 at 9:50am Reply

    • Victoria: It was such a treat to unpack it and sift through it. You really get a picture of someone’s life through their books. I confess that I did end up taking some of the books home to Brussels, but I was happy enough to leave the rest to my cousin. They continue their life. January 11, 2016 at 11:49am Reply

  • Susan McCallister: Lovely thoughts and remembrances. Books are such good friends, and bring a richness to our lives. Thanks for the reminder today. January 11, 2016 at 10:06am Reply

  • Karen 5.0: What a moving, wistful post, Victoria. Libraries – like record collections (or any collections for that matter) – are like fingerprints, a sui generis stamp of a human life. Thank you for sharing this. January 11, 2016 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re so right. I recently saw an interesting exhibit called “Living in my Collections” about an artist and her peculiar collections of various esoterica, from vintage soaps to matchboxes. There was no biographical information about her, but the collections spoke volumes. January 11, 2016 at 11:52am Reply

  • spe: Life always feels better with a good book! This is a lovely post. The philosophical differences between your Mom and grandmother are hilarious. I incline toward your Mom, but suspect I’m in the minority position. January 11, 2016 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m entirely with my mom on this one. Some people would describe her as unsentimental, but I disagree. She’s practical and she hates clutter. If an item doesn’t serve any purpose to her, she won’t keep it around just because it might be useful later. For my grandmother, however, hoarding is part of her survival arsenal, since she’s from a generation that remembers the war and famine. She finds the most inventive uses for stuff, but her house is very cluttered. Every summer we have a battle of titans, mom and grandma, over this. 🙂 January 11, 2016 at 12:05pm Reply

      • Austenfan: I was thinking of Titans and battles reading the first part of your lovely post.
        It must have been wonderful growing up with those classics around you. January 11, 2016 at 3:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: If you remember my pink office–I posted photos of it, well, that’s my mom’s war spoils. She managed to convince my grandmother to declutter it and now we have an extra room in the summer, always a boon when the whole family is together. January 12, 2016 at 8:26am Reply

          • Austenfan: I do, it looked rather idyllic. Where was the other picture taken by the way? It’s a lovely image. January 12, 2016 at 12:08pm Reply

            • Victoria: I spotted it a couple of years ago in Florence. If one were to disfigure the wall above the Arno River with anything, it might as well be this. January 12, 2016 at 1:17pm Reply

              • Austenfan: Yes! Especially in Florence. I just realised it’s been nearly 20 years since I visited Florence.

                On another note; I serendipitously ordered the only novel translated into Dutch by Svetlana Aleksijevitsj for Christmas (Secondhand Time). I’m very glad to see so many mentions of her on this page. January 12, 2016 at 4:06pm Reply

                • Victoria: I haven’t read this one yet. I started Voices from Chernobyl, and I couldn’t put it down, despite the harrowing subject matter. Then I went on vacation and decided that perhaps I will read it after I return. Now, I’m mastering enough strength to pick it up again. January 13, 2016 at 12:10pm Reply

                  • Austenfan: I want to read that one too. I remember so well when it happened. Even though we were far enough removed not to suffer, it still affected Western Europe. January 14, 2016 at 10:41am Reply

                    • Victoria: What makes her work so effective is that she allows people to speak for themselves. And of course, it’s all the most harrowing. I won’t give you examples, but I think you will find it a powerful and essential book. January 15, 2016 at 4:40am

                    • Austenfan: Giving those who have no voice, a voice? January 15, 2016 at 5:11am

                    • Victoria: Yes and also searching for the authentic history. January 15, 2016 at 5:14am

                    • Austenfan: Yep! January 15, 2016 at 6:20am

  • Lady Dedlock: Shudder… The fate of books in the digital age – sold by the pound to be recycled.
    I have wondered what would happen to mine… Only first editions and signed copies many have some resale value… By first edition I mean at least from more than a hundred years ago. Sigh.
    Am reminded of Britannica 1885, yellowed and faded sold by weight after the barrister’s death, and then his wife’s death in the family. January 11, 2016 at 10:20am Reply

    • Lady Dedlock: And oh archives do burn. always burn.
      Library at Alexandria anyone? January 11, 2016 at 10:23am Reply

    • Victoria: We don’t sell our books by weight. We don’t sell them period. My grandmother wouldn’t approve. January 11, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

  • Lady Dedlock: Also I am reminded of all the books and art that the Nazis destroyed. So much is lost to us. Those books did burn. Repressive regimes burn them and then deny their burning.
    I am thinking of censorship in Stasi state… All those burnings will take years to restore every piece of history destroyed.
    So please no platitudes. No slogans. No fancies. This is harrowing life for millions in the world today. January 11, 2016 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Throwing words like platitudes, slogans, and fancies against Bulgakov’s immortal phrase is rather ironic. January 11, 2016 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Lady Dedlock: These are just my opinions…
    By the way the samizdat types remind me of the East German memorabilia in the film “goodbye, Lenin!” Daniel Bruhl!!! January 11, 2016 at 11:08am Reply

  • irem: Thank you for a wonderful article Victoria!

    I love how well you put it into words: “Of the many things that make us–people, places, experiences–some leave the deepest marks. We’re a mosaic of it all, bits and shards of influences shaping our desires, yearnings and dreams. ” Looking back at my four decades that is exactly how I feel lately: A mosaic of bits and shards. So many of those bits and shards are out of books and I constantly feel the desire to re-read those books. Your last photo adds The Painted Veil to my re-read queue. January 11, 2016 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Irem!
      The funny thing is that not long ago I was asking here which Maugham’s novel I should read, and The Painted Veil kept coming up again and again. Imagine my surprise finding the English version in my stepfather’s library! January 11, 2016 at 12:23pm Reply

  • Susan Minnicks: What a lovely reflection, thank you. After my husband died (cancer, four months) I decided to sell his man-cave in Baja, Mexico. What to do with all his books, two walls of them? Since I don’t drive, I sold his cars, and am using the proceeds to transform the garage into a library.
    A retired teacher is building gorgeous maple bookcases, and soon all our books will be together, including the 35 boxes I’ve yet to move up here to San Diego. It’s already the best room in the house. January 11, 2016 at 11:32am Reply

    • Victoria: My condolences, Susan. Your husband’s books will surely remind you of him, and what a marvelous symbolic gesture to combine your books into a library. I wish you many happy moments, reading and dreaming. January 11, 2016 at 12:26pm Reply

  • Tamara: Beautiful! What a moving story! January 11, 2016 at 1:01pm Reply

  • Theresa: thank you for a lovely article, Victoria! and thank you for reminding me of The Master and Margarita. This was the first book that my new lover (and eventual) husband recommended to me to read, 30 years ago. We have been trading book recommendations since then! Entering the mind of a new friend through shared books is very intimate. January 11, 2016 at 1:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: It is. For this reason I also love seeing what people have on their bookshelves.

      I remember recommending The Master and Margarita to my husband when we first met. He found the book right away and read it in time for our next date. So, I thought, “this one might be a keeper.” 🙂 January 11, 2016 at 2:47pm Reply

      • Michaela: Very nice story 🙂 January 13, 2016 at 4:33am Reply

  • Neva: What an emotional post! I don’t know why to many people books are so important but that is a fact. I moved only twice in my grown up life and every time I took with me all my books including children’s books, school books and notebooks. Once I moved it from my parents’ house to the house where I lived with my husband and then I took it away with me when we separated. I never found enough space to unpack them completely and still a part of them is stowed away in boxes. Sometimes I read books over again or I look through old notebooks and I could not imagine leaving them behind. They are like a part of my identity and I love the certainty that they are “within reach” when I need them, just like old friends who you don’t meet so often but you know that they are always here for you. January 11, 2016 at 2:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: I loved reading your story too. You put it so well when you say that these books are like old friends. I think we’re attached to some of our book because of a strong emotional connection we form with them. On the one hand, a book is just a collection of words on a page, an object, but in another, it’s a key to something else.

      But without doubt the books to which I’m attached the most are the ones from my grandmother’s library, the ones that smell like that library–of musty iris and vanilla. Sometimes I open them and just sniff them, and it’s utter bliss. January 11, 2016 at 3:08pm Reply

      • Neva: I know what you mean. When I was studying, a lot of books I had to read were printed in the 19th century and you could only read them in the National library. I sat there in the huge old reading room for hours and for days and I felt sooo good. And yes, sometimes I was just going though the pages, touching and sniffing them before I started reading 😀 it connected me with ancient times they were dealing with. January 11, 2016 at 3:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: Ah, yes. Such moments–and the amazing libraries–are the reason I miss my university days. January 12, 2016 at 8:28am Reply

    • Michaela: You are perfectly right, Neva. Friends always here for you… January 13, 2016 at 4:35am Reply

  • Liz: How evocatively you write Victoria of this amazing library that made such an indelible mark on your life. I think that in our digital, ephemeral and temporary life these days, there is much to cherish in print from the past.
    How timely your post too; I read it while visiting my elderly parents in the UK for a week, and have a sizeable stack of books to somehow cram, weight limits allowing, into my suitcase to return home to Malta.
    New ones just bought and an entire set of old, mildewed tomes of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles which my disabled and bedridden mother is pressing me to take and read as a memento of quirky English life of yore! I daren’t disappoint her! And having read your post here, I am actually determined to read them too, and not lie to her about having done so! Thanks for your wisdoms. I think I can see a post coming up from you on scents that capture the smell of antiquarian bookshops! January 11, 2016 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a coincidence, Liz, because I started Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I visited a friend who gave me several books she read and enjoyed and thought I might like to read too. Beautiful writing and yes, plenty of English quirkiness. I’d love to hear your thoughts once you start on yours, and what a treat to have an old set. There is nothing like the scent of old books, and yes, that topic I can talk about again and again. The most recent version was this:
      https://boisdejasmin.com/2012/03/perfume-library-the-smell-of-books.html January 11, 2016 at 3:01pm Reply

      • Theresa: Liz, please persevere with Trollope! The first book in the BT series (The Warden) appears rather sappy to the modern reader and can be hard to like, but the second book should be absolutely delightful to any reader, especially if you already appreciate the delicious irony of Jane Austen (although the humor is very different). Mrs. Proudie is laugh-aloud funny! Trollope is one of my favorite authors and I have read all his major novels many times, and his minor novels at least once. and, lest you think you understand his comfortable, conservative point of view, then read “The Way We Live Now” which is a searing indictment of his contemporary society. January 11, 2016 at 3:30pm Reply

        • Victoria: This is very useful and encouraging to me too. January 12, 2016 at 8:13am Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: Wonderful post Victoria – thank you. Your writing is so evocative.
    Right now I am looking at a great pile of cartons of books arrayed against a a wall – I packed them up in 2001 when we moved from our big house. Back then I used to consider that books were almost sacred Now I look at all these cartons – the contents of which I have not missed- and I wonder how much my attitude has changed? And how much Kindle has influenced me? January 11, 2016 at 3:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Alexandra.
      But if you open those cartons, I guarantee that you’ll discover many friends. That being said, I love my Kindle too. January 12, 2016 at 8:10am Reply

      • Alexandra Fraser: Most books are kindle but special books are for shelves. I have bought copies of Tan Twan Eng’s the Garden of Evening Mists a number of times for presents because it is so lyrical and fascinating – tea plantations Japanese gardens war in Malaya memory. Wonderful book January 13, 2016 at 3:55pm Reply

        • Victoria: Even though my book list right now is so long that I can’t see how I can read it all, I couldn’t resist downloading a sample of Tan Twan Eng’s the Garden of Evening Mists. For one thing, I don’t think I read many Malaysian writers, so the novel sounds like a perfect introduction. January 14, 2016 at 9:41am Reply

  • mj: Lovely post Victoria! it has remind me first time I moved countries. My husband got a post-doc position in the USA, so we were to be there for three years. I packed all my books, left them at an storage place my parents owned, and filled my suitcase with clothes, my italian coffeemaker (I was told I couldn’t find decent coffee in the States) and two books: a cooking book (“1080 Recetas de Cocina” an Spanish classic) and Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, a book a bought to read during the plane trip.
    Three years later, I moved back to Spain, with me some 20 boxes filled of books… January 11, 2016 at 5:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Great story! My Italian language professor also moved to the US with her own coffeemaker and to this day Italian irregular verbs and the smell of fine espresso go hand and in hand in my mind. 🙂 January 12, 2016 at 8:30am Reply

  • AndreaR: Your lovely thoughts on books bring this to mind: My mother read the classics to my brother and me from the time we were very young: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Kipling… stories we still love to this day. I read my mother Mathew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum in her final hours, a most precious memory and a gift to me. January 11, 2016 at 10:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Those must be such precious memories.
      Most of my reading was done once I started school. I need to ask my mom what she read to me, if anything, because I mostly remember her playing recordings of various stories, like Grimm or Andersen. January 12, 2016 at 8:40am Reply

      • AndreaR: Recordings are such a wonderful way to hear a story. The readers certainly have a way of capturing the essence of the characters. My brother and I had a recording of Peter Pan with Boris Karloff reading the part of Captain Hook. Our daughter loved to listen to an audio version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves before she went to bed. Interesting how frightening details in folk tales and story tales don’t seem to bother children. January 12, 2016 at 11:43am Reply

        • Victoria: I was speaking with my friend who has two toddles about it, and we agreed that children are fascinated by the gory details. As a kid, one of my favorite story was a Russian fairy tale about a girl who is sent by the wicked stepmother and stepsisters to a witch to get fire, and the witch gives her a glowing human head on a stick. Which then glares on the wicked folk and burns them down. Go figure. January 12, 2016 at 1:15pm Reply

          • AndreaR: Yikes, and yet to a child, justice is served 🙂 January 13, 2016 at 12:16am Reply

            • Victoria: That’s a crucial point. 🙂 January 13, 2016 at 12:23pm Reply

  • Qwendy: Such a moving and interesting story …. My husband said “it makes me glad I am a reader!” He is reading a book that may i terest you by Svetlana Alexievitch about Russian Woman during the war (it’s in French so I am not aure if the original title). Also that we need to read more! Off to do it now! Happy new year, thanks for everything! Xxx January 12, 2016 at 1:07am Reply

    • Victoria: In Russian it’s “War Has Not a Woman’s Face,” and this is the title under which it was published in English. But I understand that it’s not about Russian women specifically, but more about the general Soviet experience of WWII. At any rate, I agree, it’s an excellent book. January 12, 2016 at 8:56am Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,

    What a great post again. I realized that I love among all personal stories related to fragrances and to books as well.
    My grandfather was just like your stepfather. It is rumored in the family that in his youth he bought the volumes of a small library. His bedroom was full of books, with little pathways among them to be able to enter and leave the place. As a child I enjoyed it immensely when staying with my grandparents even though in my parents’ flat everything was organized.
    My grandfather collected books about history while my granny introduced me to Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and P. G. Woodhouse, the latter being an English author very popular in Hungary till today whose hilarious descriptions of aristocratic life in England is a treat to read.
    My parents are bookish people too, my mum taught Russian language at the university and she loves Russian literature passionately. I preferred the Russian version of Beauty and The Beast over all, written by Sergey Aksakov.
    I was really lucky to have great books available to me since childhood it surely shaped my taste in books. January 12, 2016 at 9:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Your grandfather’s room sounds like it must have been fun a treasure cove for you as a kid. Such creative chaos was why I enjoyed the library in my grandmother’s apartment. My mom was also much more organized.

      Aksakov’s tales and his other writings have such a beautiful style, and if you read Russian, I can’t recommend his recollections of Gogol highly enough. They fell out at one point, once Gogol got into his strange brand of religious mysticism, but it didn’t change Aksakov’s admiration of Gogol’s genius and his stories about their time together are a testament. January 12, 2016 at 1:11pm Reply

  • bregje: beautiful story! January 12, 2016 at 9:12pm Reply

  • girasole: What a beautiful post, Victoria! I always love your writing but this one is special, perhaps because the topic is so dear to my heart, as I can see it is to yours. There’s so much to be learned from a person’s library and I really do believe books have the power to make us, if we let them (and sometimes even if we don’t). Like your stepfather, I also see books as a window into the world. I’ve been fortunate to have lots of rich and wonderful experiences in the world (so far), but the world I’ve encountered through reading is even richer, wider and more incredible.

    Your post is also quite timely: I’d never heard of The Master and Margarita before four months ago (which is astounding to me, since it was the hope of reading Russian texts in their original language that induced me to study the subject at university) and now I’ve heard it praised or recommended exactly six times since! That certainly means it’s high time to add it to my ‘to-read’ list!

    (Sadly, my Russian isn’t very functional currently, so I’ll be seeking it out in translation – could you recommend one?) January 12, 2016 at 11:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! One can’t substitute real life experience with books, of course, but reading does make the world richer.

      I haven’t read enough translations to judge them, but I understand that some, like Ginzburg’s translation, were done from a censored version of the text. The translation by Burgin and O’Connor seems to receive good comments, and they’ve worked from the complete version of The Master and Margarita. January 13, 2016 at 12:23pm Reply

      • girasole: Thank you for the insights on the translations – I’ll keep my eye out for the Burgin and O’Connor version. January 15, 2016 at 10:58pm Reply

  • AndreaR: “Take a pause from your drama and read this.”
    Wonderful comment from your step-father that will go into my journal:-) January 13, 2016 at 12:23am Reply

    • Victoria: He has many other such expressions. A very dry sense of humor too. January 13, 2016 at 12:24pm Reply

  • Mia: How touching can a post be? Thank you so much. I have been in influenza and high fever for several days. And what did I do? Read Master and Margarita! The tragedy combined with satire and humour is irresistable. I have read it I don’t know how many times, but it is one of the rare ones I keep coming back – often in tough situations. In 1990s I also saw an excellent dramatization of it in theater which made me love it, if possible, even more.

    Last year I also had to give up almost all my work-related books when our office was moved to a new place. Of course I did hoard most of them home but for the rest I have to believe they will and cannot ever be burnt. Thanks for the reminder! January 13, 2016 at 12:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Please feel better, Mia. I also came down with something similar and have been slowly on the mend.

      Yes, that combination is one of the reasons why I find the novel so intriguing. And of course, the characters are marvelous. January 13, 2016 at 12:26pm Reply

      • Mia: Thank you Victoria! I am slowly getting on my feet again – both from the influenza and the removal. I’m sure the laughs while reading M&M did part of the trick. January 13, 2016 at 12:39pm Reply

        • Victoria: There is no curative power like that of great books. Glad to hear that you’re recovering. January 13, 2016 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Marsha: Wow Victoria, this might be one of your best yet! Me and my late husband could dive right in the middle of it with you and have the best time even though neither he nor I could understand a word. January 14, 2016 at 5:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marsha! It would be fun to go through this collection with someone else. And he had plenty of books in English too. January 15, 2016 at 4:47am Reply

  • Aisha: What an absolutely lovely post! It’s so poetic. Did you keep any of his books for yourself? January 16, 2016 at 8:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Aisha! I kept about two boxes, mostly dictionaries, art albums and some compilations that I didn’t yet have. For instance, there was a great edition of recollections of various poets and writers that included essays by contemporaries on Lermontov, Esenin, Pushkin. January 17, 2016 at 5:19am Reply

  • Alison: Thank you for this lovely post. What a wonderful discussion it inspired. I’ve just recently been working in a bookstore and finding more time to read, beginning with Tolstoy. Anna Karenina– just wonderful. What an observer and social critic he was. Next were two Russian themed books by Americans and it feels like I am on a roll– will seek out some of the books you and other commenters have mentioned. Treasure trove! January 16, 2016 at 7:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Now that must be a fun job. 🙂 What Russian themed books by American writers that you liked? January 17, 2016 at 4:58am Reply

      • Alison: I just finished City of Thieves by David Beniov. And am reading AK as well as an interwar mystery novel by Allen Furst. January 17, 2016 at 5:15pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you. These are new to me, apart from AK. January 18, 2016 at 11:56am Reply

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