I love bookish serendipity. I don't often get to bookstores these days, so I do a lot of online browsing. Many of the books I read are recommendations from other readers/bloggers, but I do spend a fair amount of time perusing publisher's online catalogs, which is how I came across From Newbury With Love: Letters of Friendship Across the Iron Curtain, edited by Anna Horsbrugh-Porter and Marina Aidova. So it's thanks to Melville House that I found this excellent book. Actually I've found a number of promising reads through them, so I think I'll count them as one of my dependable good book sources.
If you have any interest in reading books of correspondence or in the former Soviet Union or in books about books/literature, or just interesting memoirs (for me, tick all those boxes), then this is a book you'll want to look for. From Newbury With Love has all the right elements, but it's the letters themselves between two families sharing common interests but separated by an invisible wall created by disparate political ideologies that makes this a very moving reading experience. None of my local libraries have it in their collections so I requested it from interlibrary loan, but I am tempted to buy a copy for my own bookshelves as this is one I might well want to read again.
In 1971 Harold Edwards a retired antiquarian bookseller sent a postcard to seven-year-old Marina Aidova when he spotted her name on an Amnesty International list of children of political prisoners. He chose Marina to write to as her birthday was one day was one day before his, and he had always had a great love of Russian literature and had traveled to Russia twice before. The postcard he received back from Marina said: "I am a first class schoolgirl. I learn ballet and study English. And what are you?". And so began not just a correspondence but a close friendship between the Aidovas and the Edwardses that would last for the next fifteen years, a friendship which impacted the lives of both families.
Marina's father, Slava, was arrested in 1966 for setting up a clandestine group whose aims were to print and distribute leaflets questioning Soviet propaganda and the total lack of freedom by which everyone lived their daily lives. With the death of Stalin and Khrushchev's more open policy of leading, there was much more discussion and a taste of possible freedoms. When Brezhnev came along, however, those freedoms were once again clamped down. Slava was caught before he had even obtained a printing press and was sent to one of the harshest Soviet prison camps where he was incarcerated for six years. The Aidova's were not the first family Harold corresponded with. A prodigious letter writer, he had always had been "passionately interested in political freedom". Both he and his wife Olive were gentle people with a love for helping others and whose generosity made life for the Aidovas much easier.
The letters between the two families are fascinating for a variety of reasons. Although Marina was too small initially to be a serious letter writer, her mother Lera wrote the letters with the help of a dictionary. Despite this handicap, her letters are amazingly articulate and over time when Marina grows older and becomes more fluent in the language she writes as well. The letters back and forth are filled with literary references and it's quickly apparent that Harold is extremely well read in Russian literature--not just the obvious authors like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but contemporary Russian writers as well. Although politics weren't discussed, many other topics were like philosophy and religion, and through writing about the minutiae of their daily lives you get a glimpse of what the world was like for the families and how it changed over time. Of course they were living in interesting times and places, but they were also just really interesting people, too (and good letter writers).
Harold and Olive often sent clothing, books, magazines and sewing patterns to the Aidovas, and in return the Aidovas sent back books translated into English, art books and sweets. The letters are interspersed with photographs of both families, and while the letters speak for themselves the editors do occasionally 'interrupt' the correspondence with explanatory notes to give a fuller picture. It's a fascinating read and you get a sense of what life was like for the Aidovas, a peek into a then-closed world. Even later with Perestroika there was still a sense of fear and covert surveillance of the personal lives of the Aidova's and any whiff of something going on with Westerners.
Of course the parts about books are especially interesting. Both Lera and Harold preferred 19th century writers over more modern books. Harold writes:
"I have just ordered a book by Bulgakov on the last year of Tolstoy. This is not the Bulgakov who wrote The White Guard, but someone who was Tolstoy's secretary during that time. I regard Tolstoy as the world's greatest novelist, although as a man he left much to be desired."
Lera and Harold both lament the lack of quiet and solitude there was at times even back in the 1970s. Lera writes:
"You say: 'people are in a hurry use the telephone all the time'. At our flat we also have a telephone which I detest and considered to be my bitter enemy. Man comes home tired very much and does not know what it is to be done first and what after, and telephone rings hourly and involuntarily he begins to envy the ancients--they did not hurry and had time enough to do everything. Sometimes I think that people of the 20th century have no time to realize the problems they meet with deeply. They always have to do something. The best heart dream of mine is to crop all business activities and only read and read. But, alas, it is far from being fulfilled."
The letters are really very remarkable and many friendly and caring sentiments shine through. I'm afraid there were a couple of times I was brought near to tears and I feel sort of honored to have met these people (and doesn't that sound sort of soppy) through their letters.
"It is difficult to explain how greatly our life changed after that first post card. I never felt lonely any more . . . Harold and Olive's letters changed my life--they gave me hope." (Lera).
From Newbury With Love was published in conjunction with Amnesty International.