Where all the old books go

Wondering around Tula I come across something completely unexpected, a secondhand bookshop (bukinist in Russian, from the word bouquiniste which the French use particularly for those bookstalls along the Seine in Paris).

I don’t know why but I had imagined that this sort of shop disappeared at the revolution.

Inside there are all sorts of delights. There are the complete works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov in old Soviet editions at ridiculously cheap prices. For example a complete Leskov for £3.20. Here too are the complete works of Marx and Lenin, Stalin’s complete speeches in over 100 hundred volumes, a full Soviet Encyclopedia. Who on earth would be buying these now?

I’m looking for anything pre-Revolution. A first edition of any of my favourite Russian writers would be nice. Perhaps a signed copy of Chekhov short stories…a book from Tolstoy’s own library, perhaps…a batered and much annotated copy of Pushkin that Nabokov had owned when he lived at Vyra, his family’s estate near St Petersburg. I look in vain. There may be gems here but today I miss them. Most of the stock is Soviet era, mass-produced and on poor quality paper.

In the modern bookshops though I am heartened to see a lot of Nabokov is now available, both his Russian novels and translations of the novels he wrote in English. I don’t come across many people who read him in Russia, though many have heard of him. I am reminded of the comment of the Russian reader on Nabokov’s translation of Lolita into Russian ‘On zabyl‘ (‘He has forgotten’). In other words he had forgotten how to write in his own native tongue in his effort to become one of the finest writers in English.


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