Wednesday, March 18, 2015


★★★★★ This is TRAVELS OF THE DILETTANTES by Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Antonina W. Bouis and published 1978. (I can only assume that the US publisher, Harper & Row, came up with the insipid title NOCTURNE.) The novel itself is one of my favourite reading experiences of all time. It was recommended to me ages ago by a Russian (during the decline of the Soviet Union) and it took me a few years to track it down, partly because I had only the Russian title. Finally found it, and then it sat on my shelves until this year, 2015, when I finally picked it up. I devoured it hungrily and read many passages over again for the sheer pleasure of it. This is a novel beloved by many Russians, and I can understand why. For this American who is keen on Russian history and Russian literature, reading TRAVELS OF THE DILETTANTES was a revelation. Although it is a modern novel in its knowingness and sensibilities, it plays with the conventions of the 19th century Russian novel in clever ways. It reflects our memories of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. At its heart, it is a Romantic story of a man's search for meaning and for a lasting love. Yes, it's a love story. But it's far more than that. Love in a time of terror, love in an age when neighbours spy on one another and no one can be trusted. By presenting us a portrait of the repressive years under Tsar Nicholas I, Okudzhava actually holds up a scary mirror reflecting back the most repressive Soviet regimes, not to mention any repressive and paranoid tradition-bound society. This is, to my mind, an absolute classic novel that is a must-read for anyone with any interest in Russia. An unforgettable reading experience.