For this month we review Russia's very own Sherlock Holmes, and
take a look at Russian architecture
The Winter Queen
by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew
In the month when there will be
two films playing in Russian cinemas which are based upon bestselling
novels written by Boris Akunin - Turkish Gambit and The
State Counsellor - we thought that we should review The
Winter Queen, the book which first introduced Erast Petrovich
Fandorin, private detective and prig.
Prig is not the word used by Russian critics to describe Russia's
newest, most popular, matinee idol, but it is hard we think to like
a hero who is so saintly. He is described as a "most comely youth,"
with "girlish eyelashes." He is vain (he wears a corset). He is
always the gentleman. He is too good to be true (or believable).
Perhaps it is the style of Akunin's writing which gets in the way
of our appreciation of Fandorin's more human characteristics. Here
is how it all started:
in which an account is
rendered of a certain cynical escapade:
On Monday the thirteenth of May in the year 1876, between the
hours of two and three in the afternoon on a day that combined the
freshness of spring with the warmth of summer, numerous individuals
in Moscow's Alexander Gardens unexpectedly found themselves
eyewitnesses to the perpetration of an outrage that flagrantly
transgressed the bounds of common decency."
The high-flown, affected, nineteenth-century literary style is
Akunin's trademark, and the translation by Andrew Bromfield is
faithful to the purple prose of the original Russian. The Winter
Queen is set in late-nineteenth-century St Petersburg, Moscow
and London, and Akunin describes each city with as much detail as an
old Baedeker guide. If you want to know what Chistoprudny Boulevard
was like in 1876, or what restaurants were in fashion in St
Petersburg, you will love The Winter Queen.
As for the plot of the novel, there is a worldwide conspiracy, a
mad professor, a beautiful, rich virgin - all the elements of Conan
Doyle. Akunin is writing pastiche, creating a world that is as
impossible as James Bond, and that perhaps is the key to the book's
success. Erast Fandorin is about escapism.
242 pages, ISBN 081297221X, Random House
A History of Russian Architecture
by William Craft Brumfield
One of the few studies of Russian
culture that stand alone as a gold standard in scholarship is William
Craft Brumfield's A History of Russian Architecture, published
in an expanded version in 2004 by University of Washington Press.
It is the only comprehensive study in English of Russian architecture
within the context of history and culture, and, luckily for readers,
it is meticulously researched, lucidly written (even for those who
know nothing of architecture), and illustrated by the author's own
beautiful and evocative photographs (now collected by the National
Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., see http://frontiers.loc.gov/intldl/mtfhtml/mfdigcol/mfdcphot.html).
Brumfield examines churches, public and private buildings, from
the most lavish palaces to the simplest peasant izba from the Kievan
period through the Soviet era, tugging at the thread of the Russian
architectural imagination to define it as it changed and adapted
Western styles and construction techniques, yet still remained undeniably
Russian. His photographs and text place a structure - be it a parish
church, a tsar's palace or a theatre - in the landscape, the time
period and the culture. If you are ready to graduate from three-hour
tours of "architectural ensembles" and picture albums to a deeper
understanding of the magnificent architecture that surrounds you,
A History of Russian Architecture is the only companion
and teacher you need.
752 pages, ISBN: 0295983949, University of Washington