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The Czar's Madman by Jaan Kross

The Czar's Madman (1978)

by Jaan Kross

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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A historical novel translated from Estonian, set in 19th century Livonia which belonged to the Russian Empire at the time. It is written as a diary and tells the story of Timotheus von Bock through the eyes of his brother-in-law. Bock was imprisoned under Alexander I and released under Nicholas I, but had to remain on his own estate under supervision. The story is fascinating and the fact that most of the protagonists are real persons makes it even more fascinating. Timo was adjutant to the Czar, fought in the campaigns against Napoleon and was smitten with the ideas of the French revolution. He was a member of the German-speaking aristocracy descended from the Teutonic Knights who ruled the country in the Middle Ages, he chose his wife from the ranks of the Estonian peasants and had to buy her and her family from serfdom first. He provided a first-rate education for her and her brother Jakob, the diarist. They had to convert to Russian Orthodoxy before they could be married, and Eeva had to change her name. And barely a year after the marriage Timo is arrested and vanishes into one of the Czar's dungeons. Eeva/Katharina never stops trying to find him and finally, the new Czar Nicholas agrees to release him.
The book is full of little details that bring the country and its history to life: the snobbishness of the other aristocrats, the intellectual life (Heinrich Heine's poems arrive in Livonia a year after publication), the harsh winters, the first attempts at manufacturing. People are defined by their language, Estonian is "peasant speak", the native language of the aristocracy is German, but at court and among themselves they speak French, and of course the language of the state and of power is Russian.
The translation is excellent, as far as I can tell. It provides translations for the many French and Russian phrases scattered throughout the book, and also gives brief descriptions of the many historical persons mentioned. ( )
1 vote MissWatson | Mar 11, 2016 |
Jakob's sister Eeva marries Timo van Bock, the "madman." Jakob's life becomes intertwined with that of Timo and Eeva, now going by the name Katarina. The setting spans about 20 years, beginning in the 1810s. Timo wrote a letter to the czar which sent him to prison for awhile. He's eventually released because of his "madness." The narrative is written in the form of Jakob's diary. There are a couple of places in which there is untranslated Russian text, making it awkward for English readers who don't know the Russian language. While the narrative may be more engaging the in the language in which it was originally written, it failed to capture my attention. Knowing more about life and government in the Baltic Republics during the period in which this novel was set, particularly Estonia where this is mostly set, would have been advantageous. The book is a fictionalized account based upon real persons who lived at that time. The book may work better for those with a background in Eastern European studies. ( )
  thornton37814 | Mar 4, 2012 |
A strange departure for me knowing next to nothing about Estonian history in any kind of detail, but Kross gives a fascinating insight into an Estonian spirit of gentle struggle, displacement, irony and compromise. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jul/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview4 has given me more information, and I can't pad out what was going on in his writing better than this article can. The narrator is an unreliable one, which is always fun, and as a character, he grew on me towards the end, as he matured. ( )
  emmakendon | Feb 8, 2009 |
don't worry: no spoilers here
First, let me say that I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy historical fiction, and not what often passes for historical fiction; i.e., romantic novels set in an historical period. The Czar's Madman is not an easy read and demands patience and thorough reading, so if you're looking for light historical fiction this isn't the book for you. Otherwise, if, like myself, you enjoy fiction set during the Czarist period in Russia (which lasted, actually, through 1917), then don't miss this one.

The author assumes that the reader is going to have some basic knowledge of Russian history, and I did find that a basic understanding was helpful. I had to go to the Internet a few times to set myself straight on a few things, but then again, I'm weird -- I can't read something like this unless I have a vague knowledge of the setting of the story.

The book is done as a journal kept by Jakob Mattik over the span of some 30 or so years. Jakob is the brother-in-law of Timotheus von Bock, the main character of the story, the so-called Czar's Madman. It is set in post-Napoleonic Russia, during the reigns of Alexander I and Nicholas I. Von Bock was a trusted general and confidant to Alexander I; after the Napoleonic Wars, he returned to his native Livonia (modern-day Estonia) and decided that he would take a wife. Rather than going the normal route of marrying within his class or station, he decided to take a peasant woman as a wife, as part of his plan to "prove the equality of all human beings before God, nature and his ideals." (9) So after three weeks of knowing Eeva (Jakob's sister, later to be known as Katharina/Kitty), who was 13 or 14 at the time they became engaged, he proposed to her and had Eeva and Jakob sent off to a private school -- Eeva to learn the skills needed to become one of the nobility; Jakob to keep Eeva company during her time there. By age 19, Eeva's education was complete and she and Von Bock married and returned to Livonia to settle. But VonBock, a man with a conscience, is soon arrested and taken away to be held prisoner at a high-security prison, because he sent Czar Alexander a letter describing everything that was wrong with his rule and with Russia under the Czar's tyranny. As the novel opens, VonBock is being released because he has been found to be "insane," and is sent home to Livonia to live out his years under surveillance. But the question absorbing Jakob's time focuses on the truth of VonBock's insanity -- was he really crazy, or as Jakob notes: did VonBock's "madness lie in his sense of honor?" (141)

That's just the beginning...the rest of Jakob's diary is a look at life in Livonia at the time, and the reach that the Czar had in the Balkans. It is also a look at Russia under the reign of the Czars, society and the hopes held for the future.

A really outstanding read, one I have no problems recommending. ( )
4 vote bcquinnsmom | May 12, 2006 |
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» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kross, JaanAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hollo, AnselmTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jonkers, RonaldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jordá, JoaquínTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moreau, Jean-LucTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Talvet, JüriTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tedre, ÜloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Even in the remote Baltic province of Estonia, ruled with an iron hand by Russia's Czar Alexander I, the new notions of liberty and freedom wafting across Europe had not been silenced by Napoleon's defeat. It was the fall of 1813, and Colonel Timotheus von Bock, a Baltic nobleman and a favorite of the czar, had returned from the battlefields of Europe a hero, convinced that new and better ways were coming, and determined to play his part in bringing them about. He first.scandalized his fellow aristocrats by spurning a far more appropriate marriage in order to wed a peasant's daughter. Then he committed an even more grievous infraction. Having sworn an oath to his sovereign always to tell him the truth, von Bock sent the czar a memorandum condemning his tyrannical rule. The reaction was prompt. Von Bock was banished from his estate and imprisoned for nine years in the Schlusselburg fortress. When Czar Alexander was succeeded by his.brother Nicholas I, von Bock was released at last, and he returned under close surveillance to his impoverished estate and his destitute wife. His physical health had been shattered by his imprisonment no less than his mental stability. Was he indeed the madman the czar certified him to be whose unstable mind had led him to his subversive ideas? Or was he really a utopian revolutionary, a man of the highest moral principles? Timo von Bock's story is the main thread in a.richly worked tapestry evoking the world of nineteenth-century Russia and its Baltic provinces after the fall of Napoleon - a time of great turmoil that saw the birth of a new national awareness among the many peoples unwillingly held under the rule of the Russian crown. Recounting this compelling tale from the pages of history, Jaan Kross takes the reader deep into the passions of a time and a country that foreshadow the tragedies of our own century, creating at the.same time a powerful vision of human emotion: honor and knavery, greed and sacrifice, love and desire. The Czar's Madman combines the elements of a gripping historical novel with the profound sensibilities of a great writer wrestling with the deepest moral issues of our day. The Czar's Madman was awarded the Literature Prize of Amnesty International's French affiliate in 1990.… (more)

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