Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Ricarda Huch, Russia, Setting

‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

First published in 1910, this German-language novella is a delightfully different — and completely compelling — twist on a psychological thriller.

The Last Summer was written by Ricarda Huch, a German intellectual who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. It was translated into English by small press Peirene for the first time more than a century later.

Set in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of Yegor von Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg, who closes the state university to quell student unrest. Beset by threats (real and imagined), he retreats to his summer residence, taking his wife Lusinya and their three adult children — Katya, Velya and Jessika — with him.

To protect them from would-be assassins and intruders, Lusinya hires a secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu, for her husband, unaware that Lyu, a clever and handsome young man, sides with the student revolutionaries and has a devious plan of his own.

An epistolary novella

Composed entirely of letters between a handful of characters, the novella charts the impact of Lyu on the close-knit family and their existing household.

He charms them all into believing he has the family’s best interests at heart, while he scribbles letters to an unseen Konstantin updating him on the situation and outlining his proposed method of attack.

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed: indeed, the circumstances appear even more favorable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made inquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding.

Jessika, the youngest daughter, is so charmed she falls in love with him. It’s really only the eldest daughter Katya who doubts Lyu’s loyalty and eventually, in a fit of pique, leaves the family home to avoid him.

As letters fly backward and forward between various family members — Jessika to her aunt Tatyana; Velya to Peter, a childhood friend who is expected to marry Katya; Lusinya to her sister-in-law; and Lyu to Konstantin — we see how events are unfolding, how suspicions are beginning to arise and how such doubts are also being dispelled.

One-sided correspondence

The correspondence is largely one-sided so we never hear directly from all the recipients. Tatyana, for instance, remains silent throughout, and we only hear from Yegor in a single short letter to his two eldest children (who have been sent away to Paris to continue their education) right at the very end.

This gives the reader room to interpret events and misunderstandings, to see how conversations are deliberately skewed or taken the wrong way, and allows one to put together the clues and to see the bigger picture that eludes all the main players in the story.

Admittedly, it takes some time to warm to the epistolary style, which feels disjointed and confusing to begin with, but once you understand who is who and work out their role in the narrative, it all comes together beautifully — and the final letter punches a particularly devastating blow.

I loved this wonderful multi-layered novella which explores family loyalty, betrayal, trust and ideology but does so in a completely understated way. It’s an unexpected treat that demands more than one reading.


I read this for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth. The book is also short enough to qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is called killing two birds with one stone, or reading one book for two reading challenges!

 

18 thoughts on “‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)”

  1. I’m really intrigued, Kim. I have a close friend who is a literary translator and also a novelist. Her name is Alison Anderson and she wrote a novel called A Summer Guest, based on the idea of a lost novel by Chekhov possibly at a summer dacha in Ukraine where the Chekhov family stayed. It is out of print, but I’m recommending it anyway, and putting this novel on Alison’s radar – she’s such a gem. Cheers for another great review.

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    1. Thanks Jennifer. This is a wonderful five-star novella worth hunting out. But, to be honest, anything that Peirene Press publishers is usually worth reading. It’s a small UK based press that specialises in translated fiction and only publishes novellas.

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        1. Ah, good to know. I subscribed as soon as they were launched back in the day. My subscription lapsed when I repatriated but I have plenty of unread Peirene novellas on my TBR to keep me occupied for years to come!

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  2. This sounds wonderful!
    Did you know that Boris Pasternak also wrote a novella called (in English) The Last Summer. It seems no coincidence that nostalgia for pre-Soviet times is bathed in summer sunlight. Summer in Russia is very brief and every moment is cherished, stored up in memory for the bleak months of the other seasons.

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    1. I think you would like this, Lisa. It feels more Russian than German and I’m sure it must be based on some historical incident / events that I am too lazy to look up. I think summer houses are very common in the Northern Hemisphere … particularly Russia and Scandinavia … as places to make the most of the light and the sunshine.

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    1. Agreed. I like epistolary novels too but think is the first I have read where there are multiple correspondents. It took me awhile to figure out who was who and how they were related to each other.

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