Three Books, Three Ladies on my Nightstand

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For some mysterious reason, three dramatically different books ended up on my nightstand –– three books written by three authors, all of them women. Over the past few weeks, these books and these ladies kept me happy and intrigued night after night.

The first book is The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques. There have been a number of books devoted to Catherine, the German princess who was married to the heir to the Russian throne. To put it mildly, he was cuckoo. After years of unhappy marriage, Catherine, with the help of her admirers, managed to get rid of him –– more to the point, he was killed. As a result, she was proclaimed Empress of Russia, which she ruled from 1762 to 1796. This new biography has a very particular focus on Catherine’s passion for art, which she collected throughout her reign. With the help and advice of such luminaries as Diderot and Voltaire, she often acquired the entire collections of European nobility in desperate need of money.

The hundreds of paintings acquired by Catherine the Great became the foundation of the world famous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. “There are few women in history more fascinating than Catherine the Great, and for the first time, Susan Jaques brings her to life through the prism of art.”

The second book on my nightstand is Mistress of the Elgin Marbles by Susan Nagel ¬¬–– a biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. Every history buff will recognize the name of Lord Elgin, an English ambassador to Turkey who managed to acquire the famous sculptures from the Parthenon. These 5th century B.C. marble sculptures have been the pride of the British Museum for the last two centuries.

Until reading this book, I was not aware about the key role that his beautiful, vivacious, and extremely wealthy wife, Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, played in befriending the court of the Turkish Sultan. At the beginning of the 19th century, Greece was ruled by Turkey, and that’s when the Turkish authorities obliged the request of Lord Elgin to buy, remove, and ship the Parthenon marbles to England. This monumental undertaking, as this book reveals, was paid for entirely from a bank account belonging to his wealthy wife, Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin.

And here is the last and most amazing of the three books –– the one by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarussian writer, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her oral history of post-Soviet Russia, Secondhand Time: the Last of the Soviets, was first published in Russia in 2013, and is now available in English translation. In giving this prize, the Nobel committee emphasized the eloquence with which Alexievich created a portrait of a country experiencing the dissolution of Communism in the 1990s, which plunged Russia into existential crisis.

Sventlana Alexievich, Nobel laureate in Literature 2015. (Elke Wetzig)

Travelling through the country and speaking to hundreds of people, Alexievich composed a unique book consisting of a series of monologues by all of these people. And she’s not doing this as a journalist or as a historian, but as a writer, in the spirit of Leo Tolstoy. You read these monologues and you do hear the voices in all their diversity. Alexievich doesn’t describe these individuals, but somehow, while reading these monologues, you not only hear these people, you start to see them. To my astonishment, when I managed to get my hands on the original Russian edition of this book, I discovered that the English translation by Bela Shayevich is as eloquent as the original Russian version. So my friends, yours truly –– Russian Edward –– leaves it up to you to choose which language of this book to put on your nightstand.