DOWN MEMORY LANE TO THE 1930s and the RUSSIAN BALLET


 

THE STROGANOFF OMNIBUS – Brahms &  Simon

During the painful and sleepless hours around 3 a.m. (after my hip replacement op), I took refuge with Brahms & Simon’s incomparable impresario, that Russian visionary, Vladimir Stroganoff and his ballet company. After all these years they are still gloriously entertaining.  I bought the book in 1979, the year after I emigrated to South Africa, but I first read the book years ago – perhaps in the early 1950’s, from my Mother’s bookcase.  I see there was once a little rectangular sticker inside my book – it would have shown the bookseller’s name – van Schaik, in Pretoria, I think.  I’d rubbed out the pencilled price long ago, but on the jacket is the price £4.95 so it can’t have been very much, even when converted to South African Rands. In those days I didn’t earn very much, but I do remember spotting it in the book store window display and buying it without hesitation – such a treasure, what a find! The first publication would have been in the 1930s.

Thirty years on the pages have turned a deep brown and towards the back the print has faded – I didn’t realise it could, or did.

The jacket says Caryl Brahms was a well-known British ballet critic and that SJ Simon died young – it almost sounds as if he suicided, as Stroganoff would have said.

What I love about Brahms & Simon, apart from their splendid characters, is their brief and trenchant writing style, the catchphrases, (You schange me a scheque? is the constant optimistic enquiry from their erratic choreographer, Nicholas Nevajno,who is permanently broke); the dislocated English that so beautifully conveys a Russian accent with economy and effect.

The characters are wonderful. There’s Arenskaya, Ballet Mistress, once  prima ballerina at the Marinsky, now the tyrant of the rehearsal room, locked in mortal combat with the rehearsal pianist on a daily basis, resulting in screaming matches of epic proportions. There are the Mothers, cosseting and coaxing and bullying their ballerina daughters towards fame. Naturally this involves tears, dramatic exits, tantrums, back-stabbing, scheming, declarations, hysterics –  and all this before lunch, never mind after the performance.  There are the White Russian generals, bewhiskered and be-medalled, balletomanes to the last frayed cuf , gallantly bearing bouquets and promises of champagne.  And I should mention Ernest Smithsky, possibly the worst male lead ever, who does very dodgy lifts. But he does try. Even Diaghalev gets a mention in this frothy fictional world of the ballet.

Along with P.G. Wodehouse they rank as my No 1 Comic novelists; Prachett comes in a poor second, and as for Jasper fforde and Robert Rankin, them I dismiss, as Stroganoff would have declared.

B & S were writing in the 1930s, so was Wodehouse.  What is it about this writing that so amuses me?  Or what is it about my taste that finds the 30s writing so entertaining? It’s not as if I’m wedded to 30s novelists or the crime writing – Christie, Wallace, Cheyney etc, all whom I’ve read. It’s just some of the 30s humourists who tickle my funny-bone.

More  about the duo:  I Googled B & S and they turned out to be a couple of Jewish Brits with  Mittel European names.  I think the J S  stood for Joel Sidelsky and Caryl B turned out to be Doris Abramavitch!   Very canny to semi-change their names, given the class system in Britain and also the times – the run up to WWII.

Their books on Alibri, listed in the Out of Print section, are priced from $20 to the low $40’s – wow! The only in-print book seems to be No Bed for Bacon @ R134.  It’s a Shakespearean skit, which I’ve read, and loved.  Must say I’m tempted to buy it.

I continue to sort through, weed out and re-read my books.  I’ve enjoyed doing it.  It’s been interesting to see how I’ve reacted to long kept books.  Suddenly you realize your taste has changed and you will never re-read a book – not worth the time, or actually never worth it in the first place. So into the Charity Sale Donations box it goes. But never my Stroganoff omnibus; I’ll be clutching it on my death-bed to keep it from my heirs – be warned!

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