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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Riven Heart of Moscow

Mikhail Osorgin

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To purchase The Riven Heart of Moscow

Title: The Riven Heart of Moscow
Author: Mikhail Osorgin
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 480 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Riven Heart of Moscow - US
The Riven Heart of Moscow - UK
The Riven Heart of Moscow - Canada
Une rue à Moscou - France
Eine Straße in Moskau - Deutschland
Un vicolo di Mosca - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Glagoslav
  • Sivtsev Vrazhek
  • Russian title: Сивцев Вражек
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Svetlana Payne
  • Previously translated by Nadia Helstein, as Quiet Street (1930; re-issued as A Corner House in Moscow)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : grand panorama of the Moscow and Russia of its times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 9/2/2016 Jan Koneffke
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 19/10/1930 Alexander Nazaroff
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 21/12/2015 Thomas Urban
Time* . 20/10/1930 .
The Times* A 3/6/1930 .
VQR* . (7:2) 4/1931 Edwin Björkman
Die Welt A 15/8/2015 Klaus Ungerer

(* review of an earlier translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "In expressionistischer Sprache und mit an den Stummfilm erinnernden Bildern wird die Vernichtung als Naturereignis beschrieben (.....) Ein grosses, reiches, zu seiner Zeit innovatives und kompositorisch überzeugendes Buch" - Jan Koneffke, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Quiet Street possesses a quality which is not only very rare, but literally exceptional in works dealing with this subject. (...) Quiet Street is an essentially pleasant, one is tempted to say caressing, book. (...) There are horrors in this book -- executions, deaths, famine. Yet they in no way destroy the life-asserting, lyrical, almost joyous effect of the novel. (...) Mr. Ossorgin's narrative has a pastel quality to it -- he works in very light, soft and tender strokes, in shades and fluctuating half-shades." - Alexander Nazaroff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mit der Schilderung von Verstümmelungen und Verbrennungen der russischen Gesellschaft in seinem Revolutionsroman liefert er auch Antworten auf die Frage, wo es begann, dass diese so wurde, wie sie heute ist." - Thomas Urban, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "None of these people is the black-&-white type that propaganda likes: all are individual, characteristic, human. Some of them are Dostoievskian, unforgettable" - Time

  • "(A)n eloquent novel of the life of the educated and cultured classes in Moscow from the outbreak of the War to the first phase of Soviet rule. It is extremely illuminating as a commentary on Russian history during that period, but it has also exceptional merit purely as a work of art." - The Times

  • "Like the curate's egg, it is excellent in parts. One bows to the character drawing. There are dramatic incidents and situations that compel and hold. The general impression, however, is one of futility." - Edwin Björkman, Virginia Quarterly Review

  • "Ein Klassiker, was immer das heißen mag, ist uns zugewachsen, ist aus dem Nichts aufgetaucht und hat sich ganz selbstverständlich eingereiht in unser Bücherregal, dort wo die große, tolle Gesellschaftsliteratur steht, auf deren Übertrumpfung oder auch nur Einholung wir seit den 30er-Jahren warten: Bulgakow, Fallada, Aksel Sandemose, Arnold Zweig. Gut, wir haben Ossorgin nicht ins allerheiligste Regalbrett geschoben, sondern in dessen näheres Umfeld, aber es fühlt sich so an, als ob sein Plätzchen dort immer schon gewesen wäre. Michail Ossorgin hat heimgefunden. Er hat die eigene Lücke gefüllt, und die anderen im Regal haben gerne Platz gemacht für ihn." - Klaus Ungerer, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The new translation of Mikhail Osorgin's novel is subtitled Sivtsev Vrazhek -- a transliteration of the Russian title, and the name of the street (well, lane) in central Moscow where the corner house that is the main locale in the story is located. The nearly century-old first translation made of that the more approachable Quiet Street; in her introduction to this new translation, translator Payne explains how Osorgin used the original street-name: "as a symbol of everything quintessentially and traditionally Russian" -- and that that Russian title: "also suggests the idea of being 'split' or 'divided'", leading her to this title, The Riven Heart of Moscow. As evocative and appropriate as it might be, it does sound a bit awkward -- but hopefully won't hold book-browsers back from taking a closer look.
       Osorgin zooms right in on the house in question, the novel opening:

     In the infinity of the universe, in the solar system, on planet Earth, in the country of Russia, in its capital city, Moscow, in the corner house in Sivtsev Vrazhek Lane, in the armchair in his study, sat a professor of ornithology, Ivan Alexanderovich.
       This technique of panning cinematically, often from unusual different perspectives, is one of the novel's appealing features, the first chapter then also switching to the level and perspective of a mouse in introducing more of the house and household, following it on a nightly tour before it rushes back to safety with first light.
       The contrast of grand and small is also something Osorgin repeatedly points out, beginning here:
No one knew that a whole family of mice was busy helping the worms eat away the wooden gussets of the floor and the sturdy, but not indestructible, walls. The Earth is cooling off, the mountains are being worn down, the rivers are getting shallow and sluggish; all things are seeking a point of balance, the energy of the universe is draining away -- but not completely, not at all.
       The household includes the old professor, his wife Aglaya Dmitriyevna, and their granddaughter, Tanyusha, sixteen when the novel opens, in 1914. A supporting cast is introduced via their connections and visits to the household -- leading then also beyond the Sivtsev Vrazhek-locale, as:
     The little villa at Sivtsev Vrazhek was, of course, the centre of the universe, but life was going on beyond its confines, too, and radiating outwards. People were clasping on to life, each believing themselves to be -- and being -- its centre.
       These other characters range from Andrei Kolchagin, the brother of household servant Dunyasha, who after some time as a lowly soldier and then deserter finds his way to quickly rising in the Bolshevik ranks, to Eduard Lvovich, Tanyusha's piano teacher, who lives only for music, and Vasya Boltanovsky, "an assistant at the university laboratory, the loyal knight of the house at Sivtsev Vrazhek" -- and desperately in love with Tanyusha.
       The novel begins in spring, the first swallows returning from their winter migration to Africa. Here already Osorgin contrasts the bright and hopeful everyday with the geopolitical shadows looming in the background. Soon he gets to the outbreak of the First World War -- though it first appears only distant and surely to be soon done with, its effects barely rippling to Moscow:
According to Vasya, in whose company Tanyusha always felt uninhibited and free, the world had gone mad, but it was not something to worry about; on the contrary, it was all extremely interesting.
     'We shall witness such phenomena, such events, things we cannot even conceive of at the present. Life is so fascinating, Tanyusha !'
       (Yes, Vasya gets more than he bargained for .....)
       Regulars at the Sivtsev Vrazhek-soirées soon find themselves at the front; some don't survive; one is blinded, and one returns as a mere stump of a man, having lost both arms and legs, "the stump par excellence, a miracle of surgery".
       Soon it is the Russian Revolution that upends life -- with Tanyusha already saying early on: "You know, Vasya, this revolution of yours, I don't like it". But she, and all, make do and adapt. Some, like Andrei Kolchagin, thrive; others finds themselves completely at sea:
By now, Eduard Lvovich was on the wrong side of fifty, he had never had a family or any other attachments, and even if something of the kind had happened in his youth there, it had all long since been transformed into sounds and comfortably fitted into the five lines on the manuscript paper. And sure enough, Eduard Lvovich had not noticed how instead of somebody as regular as the chromatic scale -- albeit with a perfect-pitch ear -- he had now become a 'citizen'.
       Times of great hardship follow, with food and heating material hard to come by. Osorgin presents much of this well, only occasionally going a bit too far, as in his summing up of 1919 (and also then what he makes of the experience):
     That year life was unbearable, and man had no kind feeling for man. Women stopped giving birth. Five-year-old children were considered adults, as they had become so in reality.
     That year, beauty departed, and what arrived instead was wisdom. Since then, no one is wiser than a Russian.
       Tanyusha plays piano in clubs to earn some money -- with philosophy professor Astafyev also becoming an entertainer, philosophically turning to (literally) playing the part of clown -- and finding: "As you can see, I'm making a good go of it". Astafyev later finds himself jailed -- not for his act or words, but because he harbored a much-wanted fugitive -- but takes that philosophically too, especially after recognizing the investigator in charge of his case as the opportunist that he is, a one-time émigré he met in Berlin -- where the man was a Menshevik, and: "speaking against Lenin".
       The novel's darkest figure is Zavalishin, first seen as one of Astafyev's neighbors, coming by looking for something to read, moaning about his life to Astafyev. Astafyev accuses him of being: "a timid person and, nowadays, people like you are finished", but Zavalishin finds his niche and calling, soon becoming: "an unapologetic executioner, willing to do away with his own mother on the strength of an order from above and for the price of a bottle of pre-war cognac". He turns to alcohol to do his dirty job, but he's: "a dependable operator, a martinet on piecemeal pay and a luxury ration, his eyes blood-shot and seeing blood". Meanwhile, one of the novel's most famous episodes shows him unable to kill a pig .....
       Osorgin devotes a chapter to Russia's history of turning to torture, leading up to its ultimate manifestation at Lubyanka -- 'the fifth station of truth' --, where Zavalishin also goes about his business, Osorgin coldly summing up:
     Russian life is rich, as is reflected in the language: beautiful and sonorous and capable of cataloguing various names for torture; and it will get richer still.
       Osorgin does still find beauty behind all the misery, above all in the place and what it symbolizes:
     Moscow on a summer morning -- an impoverished, dirty, injured Moscow -- was gorgeous despite everything, still a chaotically beautiful, beloved Russian city.
       Life goes on, everyone somehow muddling along as best they can (and some more cruelly than others) -- even if, for example, the ornithologist has to empty his library, slowly selling off his books (which, surprisingly, he can apparently get good money for). Tanyusha, too, tries to manage as best she can -- not least in dealing with the various men in love with her; eventually she finds one that hits the mark. As to the general situation, it's also reflected in the house at Sivtsev Vrazhek itself:
     Over the last dreadful year, the professor's villa had grown greyish, and become older and faded. It was still putting on a brave façade during the daytime, but by nightfall it would sag heavily, stoop down, and utter brief sorrowful moans which emanated from the clamps on the beams and the whitewash on the walls.
       The final two chapters bring the novel something of full circle, recounting a gathering at the house like in the days of old, celebrating the professor's birthday -- though many who used to come to such get-togethers have been lost in the meantime. If hardly optimistic, there's some resilience in the air, and the slightest bit of hope that the future might hold something more again; after all, as Tanyusha observes: "It will soon be spring, Grandpa, and our swallows will return". One way or another: life goes on.
       In over eighty short chapters, Osorgin presents vignettes, scenes, and episodes from the lives of this large cast of different characters in these years of dramatic transition and great hardship in Russia. Focusing very much on the personal, day-to-day level, it offers a rich panorama of the place, time, and events, giving a good sense of what it might have been like and all the turmoil. Osorgin offers a great deal of variety -- one chapter, 'The Monkey's Village', is set at the zoological gardens, and describes what happens when a happy population of grey monkeys is suddenly faced with a red-haired tribe that's introduced there and start throwing their weight around -- a not very subtle allegory (down to the red coloring ...), typical of Osorgin's tale.
       The large cast of characters, and the different directions the novel ventures in, leave a bit too little room and space to really present the characters fully: only a few truly come to life -- the invalid Stolnikov; the philosophical Astafyev (as Osorgin lets him talk); to some extent the composer, Eduard Lvovich. Disappointingly, though she is presented well early on, Tanyusha recedes too far and often in the busy tale; she is the central character, and the story does always return to her, but does not allow her a prominent enough place much of the time: Osorgin won't let any single character dominate, and, for better and worse, The Riven Heart of Moscow is the broadest of panoramas.
       Trying too much, and including too much, The Riven Heart of Moscow is nevertheless an impressive and engaging novel -- short of greatness, which it too obviously aspires to in its high-flying ambitions, but still very good.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 December 2023

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The Riven Heart of Moscow: Reviews (* review of an earlier translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Mikhail Osorgin (Михаил Андреевич Осоргин; Michel Ossorguine; Michail Ossorgin) lived 1878 to 1942.

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© 2023 the complete review

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