Friday, September 21, 2018

Blaise Cendrars' Moravagine

It may be a stretch to include Blaise Cendrars in a Russian history and literature blog, but the French-language novelist and poet lived in Russia for quite some time, and used Moscow as one of several locations in his modernist novel, Moravagine.  The book is a shockingly dark novel about a murderously misogynous aristocratic who grows up in a Austrian castle, displays every symptom of madness, murders his beloved, gets confined in a small cell, escapes, and somehow finds himself in pre-World War I Russian revolutionary and anarchist activities, before moving on to other adventures.  Cendrars' picaresque book is a small masterpiece, sinister, inventively descriptive, and outrageously funny.  It's also extremely philosophical, and offers up numerous theories about the fragile essence of our humanity.  Cendrars' hero (or antihero) is a criminal, pure and simple, and also a psychopath.  However, in some ways this antihero (as well as the narrator, who is the villain's conspirator and enabler) is a quintessentially modernist hero, engaged in the business of exploring his subconscious urges. 

Had Moravagine not actually murdered so many of the people who surrounded him, he might merely be said to have been exploring the boundaries of his own identity.  Like a small child, Moravagine had to find out where his body or will ended and other people and the world began.   "I  felt myself strong, all-powerful.  I was jealous of all nature.  Everything should give in to my desires, obey my whims, bend before the wind of my breath.  I commanded trees to fly, flowers to rise in the air, I ordered the meadows and the house foundation to turn, to about-face."  Viewed in this light, Moravagine's violence, as crude and primitive as it is, appears to be a form of experimentalism, an attempt to determine where his own personhood ends and and the personhood of another entity begins.  In another passage, he imagines himself to be the very objects that surround a woman he admires.  "I was the comb that magnetized her long hair.  I was the bodice that moved over her legs.  I was the little stocking of silk.  The heel that bore her.  I was the exquisite ruffle at her neck, her ingenuous  puff of rice-powder...Then I became a hand to unbuckle her belt.  I was her chair, her mirror, her bath.  I possessed her wholly and from every side, like a wave.  I was her bed."

But how does Russia and the Russian revolution figure into the adventures of Moravagine and the narrator?  By page 59, they have arrived in Russia.  The year is 1904, September 4th, the eve of the failed Revolution of 1905, historically speaking.  For the pair, revolution seems to be the social equivalent of their personal journeys of violence, primordial energy and self-discovery.  The two are naturally, inevitably, drawn to the blood and chaos of social upheaval.  "Sitting in Phillipov's we saw, Moravagine and I, the first stains of blood pierce the snow.  They spread like clusters of dandelion leaves all about the Governor's Palace..."  The pair are filled ecstatic.  "We took an extremely active part it in."  Moravagine and the narrator immediately get involved with newspapers, pamphlets, tracts.  They live on assassination plots, expropriations, foreign contacts, terror, sabotage, pillage, "depots of armaments" and "frenzied propaganda." 

Cendrars notes that revolutionaries display an "overweening presumptiousness."  However, Cendrars' point isn't necessarily that only revolutionaries engage in such primitive savagery.  After all, his protagonists encounter governmental violence in the form of "machine gunnings, mass hangings, deportations, arrests, sequestrations."  Cendrars' points to be that the revolutions do in fact represent some very deep longing on the part of both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries to use violence to explore their identifies or understand their deepest longings and aspirations.  The event created a "ponderous army of crime" and a "collective madness" but these traditionally negative phenomena have some religious overtones.  As the revolution spreads, it awakes a sense of sacred frenzy among the Russian people.  According to the narrator, during this time "On the Volga, Jews committed ritual crimes," "strange Asiatic superstitions spread," and "every couple practiced Platonic love."  The narrator also hints at Rasputin's power and the Empresses' interest in the Occult.   In a sense, Cendrars take on revolution is that it offers its participants a strangely satisfying but paradoxical mixture of religious and nihilistic activity.  

For Cendrars, revolution acknowledges the meaningless of life by permitting or even encouraging people kill for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  As the narrator remarks as he contemplates his revolutionary practices, "For a long time now we had believed in nothing, not even nothingness."  The movement was predicated on "death" and "universal destruction." They saw the world as a hateful place, in which "[a] mud-stained sunlight began to splatter the sodden fields, and the hateful, nasal world of birds began to come to life," and  "[i]t seemed to me that I was coming out of a suffocating nightmare and that the low clouds flying before the wind were the shreds of an evil dream." On the other hand, the permitted killing has a ritualistic quality.  In this Bacchanalian sense, revolution is a religious celebration of nothingness.  Thus Moravagine begins his journey by using violence to celebrate his own growing self-awareness (a self-awareness rooted in an understanding of being and non-being) and moves on to Russia to explore a collective version of this same basic process.  

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from the book

What convention calls health is, after all, no more than this or that passing aspect of a morbid conditio...

Diseases are. We do not make or unmake them at will.  We are not their masters.  They make us, they form us.  They may even have created us.  They belong to this state of activity which we call life.  They may be its main activity.

Diseases are a transitory, intermediary, future state of health.  It may be that they are health itself.

Epidemics, and even more diseases of the will or collective neuroses, mark off the different epochs of human evolution, just as tellurian cataclysms mark the history of our planet.

Strongly drawn to women, his unctuous manners concealed a brutal sexuality which was betrayed by his flat feet, his spatulate finger-nails, his fixed stare and his frozen smile.

Our origins being aqueous, our life is the perpetual rhythm of tepid waters.  

"Well, as I told you, I have no idea who cared for me in my earliest childhood.  Mercenaries.  I was always handed over to mercenaries."

That evening, when it was time for her to go, I kissed her on the mouth, lingeringly, in the general's presence.  Her lips had a taste of ferns.  It was the following day...that I took scissors and cut out the eyes of all my ancestors hanging in the portrait gallery.  

Now, if you wish, call me a murderer, a demiurge or a savage, whichever you please, I don't give a damn, for life is really an  idiotic business.

One day I could stand no more.  I called the hateful dog and put out his eyes, slowly deliberately and expertly.  Then, taken by a sudden madness, I grasped a chair and broke it over his back.  This was how I rid myself of my only friend.

She gave off a perfume--crushed walnuts and watercress--in which I luxuriated in silence.

I no longer washed.  I no longer undressed.  I even reveled in the doubtful odors of my own person.  I enjoyed urinating down my legs.

I feel in love with ugly objects almost without workmanship, and very often with raw matter, primarily matter itself.  I surrounded myself with the most heteroclite articles. A bisquit-tin, an ostrich-egg, a sewing machine, a piece of quartz, a lead ingot, a stovepipe... These objects taught me much.

The simplest figures, circles, squares, and their projections in space, the cube, the sphere, spoke to my senses like the scurrilous symbolds--red and blue lingams--of obscure, barbaric, and ritual orgies.

I was just beginning to grow impatient when I heard a lout scream and saw my animal come running, a bloody knife in his hand.  I pulled him hurriedly aboard and we were off.  He leant over to me:  "I got her!"

"In Pressburg my cell was very small.  It was six meters long and two wide.  That scarcely bothered me, accustomed as I was to lead an indoor, sedentary and almost motionless life.

"I began wanting to hear nothing at all.  But an act of will I made myself dead."

Science is history arranged according to the superstition and taste of the moment.

"Freedom is the only treasure of a Russian man."

Intelligence consists of eating stars and turning them into dung.  And the universe, at the most optimistic estimate, is nothing but God's digestive system.

They were sitting elbow to elbow about the tables, square and round, and speaking in whispers of thhe events, as everyone does in Russia when certain things are mentioned in public;  backbones give and bend, for one sense the menace of a nightmare hand, and terror hangs over all alike.

When you've behind the hell that is Russia, life seems a good and pleasant thing.  

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042

It saddens me that just as the author Vladimir Voinovich came to my attention, he died.  But in his memory, I'm committed to reading most if not all of his translated work.  Previously, I posted on the first third his famous, three-part satire, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.  That work was at the onset of Russia's entry into World War II, certainly one of the most sensitive subjects imaginable for the millions of Russian and Soviet citizens who participated in the war, or lost loved ones in it. Voinovich's Moscow 2042, set during the Brezhnev era as well as the future, mercilessly mocks a more decadent version of Soviet soviet.  In Moscow 2042, Voinovich's alcoholic narrator, a writer in exile, satirizes both 1980s Soviet society, and the now almost universally discredited dreams of that society.  With his usual comedy, Voinovich points to a future that resembles the present.  In 2042, the Soviet Union is an intensified version of Brezhnev-era communism.  It's a land of propaganda, xenophobia, censorship, poverty, and authoritarianism.  In many ways, Russia in 2042 resembles modern North Korea.  In both instances, citizens have been trained, or disciplined, to avoid all forms of free expression, independence, or democratic activity.  Moscow 2042 isn't a thriller.  It's science fiction in the model of Yevgeny Zamyatin "We" or Orwell's 1984, if either book had a biting sense of humor.  In general, it condemns communism and seems, by implication, to celebrate the West.  By contrast with Moscow, Voinovich clearly believes Western Europe has experience real innovation, economic and technical expansion, and personal and artistic freedom.  Ironically, the only exception to the author's implicit celebration of the West, is his focused derision of the Solzhenitsyn character who seems to be the only Russian-born alternative to the dystopic future.  This character somehow seems to accurately represent the fact that decades of totalitarianism produce a peculiarly totalitarian form of resistance.  Thus, Voinovich's prophet lives a rigidly disciplined life, rejects all foreign words, surrounds himself with sycophants, manically produces quasi-religious literature, and prepares to return to Russian on a horse.  Voinovich seems to have accurately predicated that the collapse of communism would not produce an era of freedom, pluralism, diversity, and democratic discourse.

Quotations from Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042

Below are some of my favorite quotations from Vladimir Voinovich's Moscow 2042

What I describe here is only what I saw with my own eyes.  Or hear with my own ears.  Or what was told to me by someone I trust greatly.  Or not that greatly.  In any case, what I write is always based on something.

"Science fiction," he said confidently, "is the literature of the future."

"Why didn't you tell me right away that drinks are free?  If drinks are free, there's nothing left to discuss."

Then she reminded me of the story of a neighbor of ours who had died recently.  He had come to Germany from Russia long ago with his family and had not wanted to unpack his bags.  "They'll drive the Bolsheviks out soon," he used to say, "and we'll all be going back.  Why do the double work, unpack and then pack all over again?"

...we Russians are always reflecting instead of relaxing, and that's bad for your health.  I sometimes put my feet up on the table, but it doesn't help me to relax.  We're just not used to it.

"..you're well aware that prudence is imprudent.  Today you're afraid of catching cold, and tomorrow a brick falls on your head, and then what difference does a cold make?"

"But to be honest, I'd rather see you dead then prudent."

Their hope was that at some point in the future, the great Soviet Union, great friend of the Arab nations, would stop keeping certain secrets secret.  And they, my companions, would be grateful to me if I could manage to obtain and bring back a detailed plan for an ordinary nuclear bomb, which they wanted solely for peaceful purposes.

I had heard that Soviet-made chewing gum had already appeared in the Soviet Union. Of course, it had to take second place to Western chewing gum, but I didn't have the slightest doubt that in the span of sixty years, as a result of the technological revolution, historic party and government decrees, and the masses; enthusiasm for work, the production of chewing articles and their distribution to most segments of the populations would probably have undergone radical change for the better.
    As for jeans, I thought some progress was inevitable there, too, in sixty years;  in any event, at least Polish, say, or Hungarian jeans would be available in Moscow.

He became a political commentator on television, traveled abroad where carried out important assignments, and even, I heard, was in the circle that wrote Brezhnev's books for him.

They had a two-room apartment to themselves.  This luxury, unheard of at the time, was theirs because Leo's grandfather, Pavel Ilich Zilberovich (Party underground-name--Serebrov) was a hero of the Civil War.

...a soggy piece of soap of a sort, so black and foul-smelling that you'd have to look hard to find anything similar, even in a Soviet store.

Of course, power had sometimes been seized in one country or another, and territory has been subdued by people with just mustaches and sometimes even without.  But no beardless man has ever yet been known as a prophet.

It should also be pointed out that there are beards and there are beards.  To stand out from the general run, the wearer of a beard must avoid any hint of imitation.  He should never grow a beard that could be called Marx-like, Lenin-like, Ho-Chi-Minh-like or Tolstoy-like.  Otherwise, he would be numbered among the prophets but among the followers.

At first, he went too far and grew a bear of such length that he would step on himself, particularly when he was in a hurry.  This was both inconvenient and pointless, because the beard was too long to fit into any photograph.

I have done massive research on beards which anyone who so desires can do in practically any library in the world.  But, for those too lazy to go to the library, I will say briefly that I am deeply convinced that beards play a very important role in the dissemination of advanced ideas and doctrines, and in winning minds...A prophet's thoughts and ideas are secondary.  It is not our brains which a prophet primarily affects, but our hormones, and it is for this that a beard is needed, along with all the gestures, grimaces, and expressions that go with it.  Sexually aroused, the crowd mistakenly assumed that is has mastered ideas for whose sake it is worthwhile to destroy churches, build canals, and kill their fellow men.

"What, don't you cross yourself?" said Janet, looking askance at me.  "Are you a militant atheist?"
"Not at all," I said.  I'm not a militant atheist, just a frivolous one."

I remember when were at university together, I borrowed a copy of one of Lenin's pamphlets from her (I think it was The State and Revolution."  The word genius appeared in the margins like punctuation after every sentence.

Still, you shouldn't mix Gorbachev with Jack Daniels.

"You know he refused to use words with foreign origins..."
"And he reads newspapers again?"
"No, the looker."
"The what?"
"The looker."
"I understand," I said, you mean the television. He relaxes.

He wished us all a pleasant flight and expressed the hope that when we researched our destination this wonderful space plane and its passengers would not be devoured by dinosaurs or mutants spawned after a world nuclear disaster.

"Under communism," he said, "everyone will be young, handsome, healthy, and in love with one another.  People will stroll under the palm trees, carry on philosophical conversations, and listen to soft music."

...words in every language have both a dictionary and an ideological meaning (that I didn't know), and the interpreter was needed to translate our conversation from one ideological system into the other.

"Well, as everyone knows, among his other virtues, our leader is also distinguished by his exceptional modesty.

"Yes," said Propaganda Paramonovna with a smile, "your remark smacks of metaphysics, Hegelianism, and Kantianism."

I looked around dubiously and at once saw for myself that during my absence radical changes for the better had in fact taken place.  There was toilet paper!


"

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lesley Blanch's Journey Into The Mind's Eye: Fragments of an Autiobiography

Lesley Blanch wrote the book I wanted to write:  Journey into the Mind's Eye:  Fragments of an Autobiography.  It's a description of her lifelong obsession with Russia and Russians.  It's an incredibly witty apologia for a lifetime spent in the pursuit of Russian language, culture, literature, religion, and history.  Blanch lived an extraordinarily adventurous life, and possessed a boundless talent for writing.  For this reason, the memoir is often insightful, and never dull.  On the other hand, Blanch's prose is a precarious balance between originality and cliche, creative insight and brash orientalism.  Blanch's book is definitely worth reading.  Its unapologetic  Romanticism is infectious, and any Russophile will be happy to see such detailed documentation this particular mania.  (Elif Batuman's more recent book, The Possessed:  Russian Books and the People Who Love Them, though excellent, doesn't offered the sustained intensity of Journey Into the Mind's Eye).  Indeed, this is a memoir with a thesis statement.  The author sees her life as something tethered to a single, overriding passion.  For Blanch, Russia can be found everywhere.  She reads Russian books, falls in love with a Russian man, practices Russian religious traditions, experiments with Russian cultural practices, fantasizes about Russian adventures, and so on.  In fact, when Branch visits Paris, she is primarily interested in the Russian refugees who live there, although she is willing to have her Russian lover show her places in Paris where Russian statesmen, czars, and writers once visited.

In Journey into the Mind's Eye, Blanch has produced a wonderful exploration of her own infatuation with the East, and with Russia in particular.  This exploration reveals the extent to which infatuation and passion and enthusiasm are co-mingled with exoticism, post-colonialism, and even racism.  After all, Branch's Russia is, inevitably, a place of soulfulness, mystery, cold, built-in nomadism, and "limitless horizons." Time and again, Blanch makes startling generalizations.  "Perhaps," she writes, " being Russians, or Asiatics, and sharing fundamental characteristics of nomadism, roots were of no account."  She goes on to say that this nomadic life also meant that Russians were insensitive to time itself.  In other place, she writes that "his voice had a curious, ardent note I had never heard before, as if he were in love with an abstraction--a Russian characteristic."

As we engage with new cultures, we inevitably encounter our own preconceptions as well as the mythologies that surround us.  If we're lucky, representatives of other cultures, great books, and our innate curiosity to learn more, help us to channel our infatuation into honest journeys of true discovery and self-discovery.  And somehow all honest journeys reveal that the "Other" is both profoundly different than we are, and strikingly familiar. In her defense, Branch is not unaware of her Russian mythologies, and becomes more aware of them as she grows up.  Early in her novel she writes, "At this time, my view of Russia was simple." It appeared to her as little more than snow, ice, and men wearing shubas.  Later, on her first visit to Russia,  she admits that she "moved in an imagined limbo-land, chasing souvenirs--memento-mori."  Over time, Branch uses many tropes about Russian to launch her into encounters with more complex facets of Russian history and culture.  She reads Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Leskov, Herzen.  She meets more Russians.  She travels more.   Branch's romanticism remains in tact, but is tempered by a sense of humor about her own preconceptions about Russia.  It's also tempered by her interest in many of the subject peoples of the Russian and later Soviet Empire. 


Some Favorite Quotes from the Book

I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands.  That grip has never lessened.

Pursuing my passion, all things were better Russified.

The Houses of Plantagent and Stuart were meaningless to me beside those of Rurik and Romanov.

"I suppose you'd rather be in a Mongolian yurt?  Or on the Trans-Siberian?"
Much rather.

"I didn't know you could dance."  I was enthralled by these violent leapings.
"All Russians can dance," he said curtly, and stopped as abruptly as he had begun.   I never saw him dance again.  He was entirely unpredictable.

I asked her once, why she had not gone to Russia--long ago, when she first knew the Traveler, and was grown up and free to go anywhere she liked.
"One is never really free," was her enigmatic reply.

So, steeped in Russia's past, I ignored its stupendous present, concerning myself little with history then in the making, with Raspin, the Ipatiev house at Ekaterinburg, the Cruiser Aurora, Admiral Kolchak's betrayal by the Czech and French commanders, famine, Five-Year Plans, Lenin's rule, or any other landmark of Russia's fall and rise.

"In Holy Russia we took Easter seriously.  Why, no one even made love to their own wives, let alone anyone else's, in Holy Week."

"One thing is absolutely certain.  I absolutely refuse to ruin you on a workman's train."

To be married in a Russian church, with all the splendors of Byzantine symbolism, had long represented the sum total of my romantic aspirations.

"Perhaps you'd better go back to finishing school after all.  You're not ready for the world.  You ought to have been at Smolny."

"If they miss the train I will disinherit them, bastards though they are."

"But I remember, it was only after we passed our final exams that the Mathematics Professor took us to a brothel to celebrate.  Things were really very well arranged then."

"The sort of furs most western women wear would not be used as bath-mats by Asiatics."

"I remember he wrote that that Khan had seven hundred wives--not all of them with him, of course.  I don't know why, but it made an impression on me, at the time," she said.

"...I believe he went and joined a scientific expedition to the Gobi, and got himself involved with some Kirghiz tribe...Kamran's mother was one of them--or was she a Bashkir?  Something savage, I remember.

"Grandmama was right.  It was the beginning of the end when the serfs were emancipated," sighed the Traveller, and the Countess agreed.

"What a troublesome lot they were.  They simply refused to be subdued!"

But beneath the facade of conventional interests I was groping eastward, flinging myself towards all things Russian.



Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Favorite Quotes from Erofeev Venedikt's Walpurgis Night

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night, or the Steps of the Commander

Gurevich:  All territory is ours.  Or rather, it will be.  They just don't let us go there--something to do with peace-making, apparently.  So we've made do with one-sixth of the inhabitable dry land.



Gurevich:  Right now I've got a job at a hardware store.  I'm their Tatar.
Zinaida Nikolaevna:  How much to do they pee you?
Gurevich:  They pay me exactly what my Homeland thinks right and proper.



Gurevich:  The sharks won't back down, and eventually they lose their empty heads.  Well, they did lick my girlfriend's calves in parting, but being jealous would have been ridiculous in that situation.


Doctor:  What is today's date?  The year?  The month?
Gurevich:  What's the difference?  Days, millennia---that's all so trivial for Russia.



Doctor:  Drinking is bad for your health, Lev Isakovich.
Gurevich:  As if I didn't know.  Telling me that now is like telling the Moor of Venice, say, who has just been shaken by his deed--like telling that crushing a windpipe and trachea can lead to paralysis of the expiatory center as a result of asphyxiation.


Gurevich:  I'm opposed to all wars in general.  War decimates soldiers, destroys ranks, and stains uniforms.

Gurevich:  We are speaking about our Native Land and disaster.  And so, I love Russia.  It occupies one-sixth of my soul.  Probably a little more now.

Every ordinary citizen should be a brave warrior, just as all regular urine should be a bright amber color.



Gurevich:  Naturally, I'm ready to throw myself under any tank, with or without a strong of grenades.


Gurevich:  ...Such a strong feeling..like being in your stepmother's womb.



Doctor:  Well, well, well.  That will do, patient.  A madhouse is no place to show off how smart you are.


Doctor:  Yes, yes, to be quite precise, that day an event occurred that etched itself in the  memory of millions for five whole years. The same empty wine bottle that had cost 12 or 17 kopecks, depending on volume, that day, well, they all cost 20.



Gurevich:  More than anything else, I felt the hostility of my bald uncle, an admirer of Lazar Kagonovich, bawdy jokes, and chicken soup.  My towhead friend Edik brought me the poison, and he said the poison was foolproof and fast-acting.  I poured it all into my uncle's chicken soup, and --wouldn't you know it?--exactly twenty-six years later he expired in terrible agony.


Gurevich:  Not only that, this bosum was going to bargain away to the CIA a map of the Soviet Union's points of beverage purchase.



Borya:  Prepare the sulfo for the patient.  I'll give him the shot myself.
Prokhorov:  What are you going to do.  Boris?  He's new here.  It's the delirium of justice seeking, the sense of falsely understood honor, and other atavisms.



Prohkorov:  Do you know that every Russian village has its idiot.  What kind of a Russian village has is it without its village idiot?   People would look at that village as they would at a Britain that still didn't have a single Constitution.


Prohkorov:  No, the Russian nation does not want for zealots, and it never will!



Gurevich:  Oh, my dear, why don't you understand?  My hand shakes--so be it.  How does vodka enter into it?  Hands shake when the soul is homeless.


Gurevich:  You've noticed how moral principles are deteriorating in the Russian nation.  Even in the Baltics.


Seryozha:  A pipeline to supply tear gas to Russia on mutually advantageous terms.


Kolya:  Who in fact is the author of the gastro-intestinal tract?



Gurevich:  It's all right.  No surprise.  We should put all our trust in fate and firmly believe that the worst is yet to come.



Gurevich:  ..they're isolated:  each has his own worry, his own rumbling in his belly.  Whereas we share our worry and our rumbling!



Gurevich:  Well, there's no point in pandering to Britain.  Even Herodotus didn't believe in its existence.  Why should we be any better or worse than Herodotus?



Prokhorov:  And I personally saw a fine painting of Kutuzov, and he was riding a horse, I don't remember where, but he had two eyes.

Gurevich:  That's the whole point.  A Russian shouldn't be one-eyed.  These here--they can allow themselves this luxury, all these Admiral Nelson-Rockefellers.  But not us;  we can't.  The Universe's alarming situation obliges us to keep both eyes open. Yes,


Monday, September 17, 2018

Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night

For the most part, I only collect Russian books, and English-language Russian books at that.  But sometimes I veer of my chosen path and begin minor collections.  For instance, I have a small Bertolt Brech collection and another of and about Hannah Arendt.  The brilliance of these two authors somehow demanded this small token of appreciation from me.  I also have a small classics collection, and have begun a shelf of what I like to think of as world classics, though I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory description of what makes something a "world classic."  At the moment, this shelf consists of mainly religious texts--including the Bible, the Koran, the Ramayana, the Book of Mormon--and a few classical texts, like the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Metamorphoses.  For some reason, Montaigne also made this shelf, but he'll likely be displaced when I get a copy of Dante's Inferno.  The one largely non-Russian collection I have to date is my collection of plays.  Although rearranging shelves according to my current whims is one of my favorite pastimes, the play collection is broken down into Shakespeare, non-Shakespearean British, French, non-British and French European, African-American plays, American (i.e., non-African-American), and of course Russian plays.  The Russian shelf isn't very large, and is largely restricted to Nabokov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Gorky, and Ostrovsky, as well as some collections (Symbolist, etc.)

Yesterday I took out Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night, the thing by Erofeev I've read since Moscow to the End of the Line.  Picking it up, I was immediately struck by the author's erudition, sense of humor, and poetic sensibility.  My astonishment sent me immediately to the Web to see what else he has written that has been translated into English, but at first glance it appears that there's not a whole lot out there.  Of course, the excellence of the play also made me take a look at the famous translator, Marian Schwartz.  In the past, I've paid very little attention to translators.  It wasn't until I read a few different things by Robert Chandler that came to understand how important translators were to me.  In the first place, translators like Chandler and Schwartz obviously make it possible for non-Russian speakers like myself to remain enthralled with the genius of Russian literature.  In the second place, the brilliance of these translators allows me to get at least a glimpse of the magic that a country's greatest authors must necessarily perform.  In the third place, these Russian translators, by their very selections of texts, helps to guide me to new novels and plays.  Without Marian Schwartz, my Russian library would be significantly diminished.  When I looked at her website, I was utterly astonished at how many works of fiction in my library were the product of her labor and art.

At any rate, to jump out of the rabbit hole of translation and return to Walpurgis Night, it's a magnificent play. It's clearly a work of rebellion against authoritarianism, and Soviet rule in the 1980s.  But it's so much more than that.  It's a treatise on the Russian intellectual tradition, on the Cold War, and on anti-semitism in Russian culture.  It's a brilliant play, both profoundly funny and profoundly tragic, and I hope to have access to more of his works.  If that's not possible, I will certainly have to-read Moscow to the End of the Line.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vladimir Voinovich's Private Ivan Chonkin

Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
resembles Ilya Ehrenburg's novel, The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, and seems to draw inspiration from Gogol, whose novel Dead Souls and play, the Inspector General, satirized Russian more than a century earlier.  It's a work of high comedy that nevertheless gnaws at the very foundations of Soviet life.  The lead character, Ivan Chonkin, is a Soviet everyman who encounters every shade of absurdity in his ordinary life.

The book, the first part of a trilogy, seems to demonstrate that Stalinism should not only be approached by writers who have embraced the trope of tragedy.  Although the Soviet bureaucracy terrified and terrorized countless Soviet citizens, it was produced a bizarre and darkly comic set of circumstances ordinary men and women.  Chonkin's adventures force readers to understand that Soviet officials are expected to lie to one another about production norms and outputs.  Chonkin's adventures further reveal that Soviet ideology is often utterly at odds with the lived experience of Soviet citizens.

Chonkin's depiction of Stalin and the cult of personality around Stalin reveals that the rot of Soviet life starts at the head of top.  An accused Jewish citizen's encounter with the Soviet secret police stands as a perfect example of the ridiculous nature of Stalinism.  Voinovich fantasizes that an accused person fearlessly confronts his brutal interrogators by pointing out that insofar as he, too, possesses the name Stalin, he is immune from prosecution.  After all, the humble Jewish Stalin points out, if anyone happened to hear that a lowly official had put Stalin in jail, or hurt him in any way, heads would surely roll.  Promptly released, the anecdote about a Jewish Stalin undermines the myth of the Great Dictator and indicates that in Soviet society even the sadists fear for their own safety.

Overall, Chonkin's simple, uneducated approach to life is always overshadowed by the even more stupid men and women who represent Soviet society.  Chonkin's neighbor, for instance, relentlessly pursues the agenda laid down by Lysenko.  His home literally filled with shit (fertilizer), Chonkin's neighbor is convinced he can create a plant that is half tomato and half potato and thereby circumvent the laws of heredity.  The starkest contrast the petty ignorance of Chonkin is the titanic ignorance of the Soviet leaders who bragged about their friendship with the Germans right up until they were invaded and nearly defeated by them. 




Favorite quotes:

Some people thought he drank because he was a drunkard, while others found the cause in family problems.

All that wouldn't have been so terrible except that, as bad luck would have it, things at the kolkhoz were going poorly.  Not what you would call very poorly, you could even say things were going well, except that they were getting worse and worse every year.

Having heard and carefully considered all the hogwash which each of you, according to his ability, had proposed....

"And just why isn't it going to work? asked Opalikov impatiently.  He did not like any objections, ever.

"There won't be anybody to bring firewood to the kitchen."
"No one is indispensable," said the regimental commander.

His mother's health was frail, she neglected the house, yet somehow they kept going, living from hand to mouth until, one day, she drowned in the river.

Then, at a time known to all, a search for kulaks began in the village.  Although not a single one could be found it was mandatory to find some if only to set an example.

The Chonkins were exiled and Ivan ended up in a Children's Home where, for more than two years, they tormented him with arithmetic. In the beginning he endured it all obediently, but when it came to dividing whole numbers and fractions, he could stand it no longer and hightailed it out of his native village.

From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life's laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.

"He's a decent guy at least?" asked Ninka, efficiently gathering her information.

"First you're a Communist, then you're a chairman.  And diagrams have great political significance.  It's strange to hear a Communist underestimate them.  And I still don't know whether what you're saying is just an error or a firm conviction.  But if you're going to stick to that position, we'll have to take a good hard look at you again, we'll look right into your very heart, goddammit."