[Reading these books is a part of my plan to read around the world.]
Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia by Colin Thubron (re-issued as Among the Russians) will likely be more interesting in about twenty years. A travel memoir written in 1983 before the dissolution of the Soviet Union seems dated now, but its historic value will endure.
My goal in my reading plan was to read and release, to clear off my bookshelves. I didn’t account for Thubron’s elegant prose and cogent commentary. Alas, I must keep this book, if only to pick it up and feed on the phrases later.
Three things I liked: 1) I saw the essential religious nature of life. In the former Soviet Union the Soviet State presides in the place of God. Thubron’s continual framing of the secular culture in religious terms fascinated me.
2) The snapshots of quotidian life and the average Russian/Armenian/Estonian/Georgian citizen. Thubron, a solitary traveler, has a talent for engaging folk in extended conversation. He drank volumes of vodka–it seems to be a prerequisite to talk–but one gets an idea of how the common man perceived his life.
3) I have a latent love of Russian literature. I’ve read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn…but they are a fading memory. Thubron goes on a pilgrimage to homes, graves, and villages, visits with Pasternak’s daughter, takes in Tolstoy’s home, Turgenev’s estate. After reading those chapters, I wanted to clear my schedule and immerse myself in those thick books full of patronymic confusion and clear thinking.
My favorite quote is about the tension between the laws of hospitality and the laws of conscience:
Jeffrey Taylor’s adventure is 90% existential self-actualization, a proving to himself of his own worth. Though he faces extreme physical hardship, especially suffocating heat, his greatest peril comes from traveling in Zaire, an unstable country made violent by the policies of the dictator, Mobutu.
Taylor’s prose is graceful, but his perceptions often fall flat. His descriptions of poverty are persuasive, his sketches of the Africans he meets fill your mind. There were sections of the river–cannibal territory–so dramatic, I had to read while I blew-dry my hair. The tension dissolves into an empty ending with precious few lessons to take home.