Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Ivan Turgenev's Smoke

 Although Smoke is a short and somewhat awkward blend of romanticism and cynicism, it's often very witty, and in places reminds me of Truman Capote's hilarious roman-a-clef, Answered Prayers, or even Ernest Hemingway's viciously entertaining A Movable Feast.  Set in the fashionable spa town of Baden-Baden, Smoke describes a twice-failed love affair, but sets that bitter romance against the backdrop of a debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles.  One of the best parts about the book is the specificity of its historical context.  Set in the 1860s, Turganev mentions every fashionable idea of the era, including Mesmerism,  spiritualism, liberalism, Polish nationalism, Italian nationalism, LaSalle's socialism, the American anti-slavery movement, serf emancipation, German unification, women's emancipation, worker protection laws, the Russian nationalities' quest for autonomy or independence. Whether or not one becomes invested in the protagonist's love affairs, one cannot help feel the excitement of the decade.  Having just emerged from the humiliation of the Crimean War, Russia was now experimenting with local government (Zemstvos), serf emancipation, land redemption plans, technological innovation, farming improvement schemes, and German philosophy.  And Russians were excited by foreign ideas and occurrences, as well as the British Crystal Palace, Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and news of submarine cables.  Of course, Russia was also entering into a bitter controversy over whether Russia would do better to adapt to European fashions, or double down on those things that made it unique.  Turgenev was clearly on the side of the Westernizers, but Smoke seems less concerned with the Westernizers' point of view than with the fact all Russians were caught up in a frenzy of clashing, and sometimes disorienting, ideas. But again, the book is somewhat awkward, because Turgenev's story of betrayed love doesn't really depend upon its setting.  In fact, the story would likely have worked in any era.


Favorite quotations

Everlastingly short of cash, and everlastingly in raptures over something, Rostislav Bambaev wandered, aimless but exclamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother-earth.

"What is his work about?" inquired Litvinov.
"About everything, my dear boy, after the style of Buckle, you know...but more profound..more profound...Everything will be made clear."

"I never read novels now," was Madame Suhantchikov's dry and sharp reply.
"Why?"
"Because I have not the time now;  I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing-machines."

Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams


I did not finish Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams so I won't write very much about the book.  I only write to try to record a few fleeting impressions of his tone or style. The tone or style are particularly important insofar as the book contains descriptions and dialogue but little action, and few plot points.  Sologub was a turn-of-the-century writer, a product (or producer) of the Silver Age, and a Symbolist par excellence.  Today, at least in the English language, he seems primarily remembered as the author of The Petty Demon.  At any rate, the tone of Bad Dreams might be described as gloomy, melancholy, or depressive, if not also alienated and estranged.  The characters speak to one another, but don't seem overly hopeful that they will be understood by one another.  Individuals are isolated.  Login, the protagonist, "was enveloped in longstanding melancholy, the coldness of a life that was self-centered and dominated by chance.." The author's style is mysterious, or elliptical.  Indeed, Solugub reminds me of Platonov, although Platonov was not a part of the same literary school.  Solugub seems peculiarly modern insofar as he makes little effort to explain his meaning, or the meaning of his characters' conversations.  If the prose can be described as symbolist, it is because the author probably believes a conversation has a symbolic rather than purely logical or rational meaning.  The entire atmosphere might be characterized as dreamlike, or magical, and filled with "prophetic dreams, bells, candles, house-sprites, the evil eye..." The goal of life, if there is any goal, is to appreciate this magic.  In Login's dream a woman tell him this:  "Dear one," answered another voice," from the horrors of life there is one salvation--our love.  Do you hear?  The stars are laughing.  Do you see?  The blue waves are breaking on the silver starts. The waves are my heart, the stars are your eyes." The mystical nature of wisdom in Bad Dreams is beautiful, but also morbid.  As one character says:  "It would be sweet to die.  I have no no need of happiness.  Love, death--it's all one and the same.  To melt away quietly blissfully, to forget the phantoms of life--that is the heartfelt rapture of dying!"



Quotations From Fydor Sologub's Bad Dreams


Life seemed menacing;  premonitions oppressed him;  misfortunes lay in wait for him.

The housekeeper's sullen face, cratered with pock-marks, increased his melancholy. 

"Tell me," Login spoke up again after a brief silence, "what color does life seem to you, and how does it taste?"

"But why is life frightening?"
"It's too dead!  We don't live as  much as we play at living." 

The ancient elms bent down their branches as though they wanted to eavesdrop on this strange conversation.  But they were not listening and did not hear.  They had their own affairs.

"People, as they always were, are ready to gobble up each other.  But all of them are personally as flexible as willow switches.  Their man at least dares to be openly cruel."

"I looked intently into myself, and within I found the same ardent but impotent audacity of all human beings, and that same dreary question about the fate of our country..."

"Speaking frankly, old friend, our society still, thank God, is not ready for such things.  We have no use for communism and anarchy."

Andozersky waxed candid:  "You know, old friend, I'm getting married soon."
Login felt curious:  "To whom?"
"Right now, you see, it's still hard to say to whom exactly."

"In this nervous age no one has the strength to accomplish anything.  With the temperament of a disillusioned frog, how can we go in for adventures?"

"After all, I don't live between the covers of a book:  I've got a real flesh-and-blood body;  I'm young, high-spirited, nimble."

"..disipline is the first thing in life.  Our people couldn't get along without it."



P.A. Markov's The Soviet Theater

Like Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in Theater, P.A. Markov's book, The Soviet Theater, was published in the middle of the 1930s, long after Stalin had consolidated his control of the country.  Unlike My Life in Theater, Markov's book is an unapologetic advertisement for the salutary impact of the Revolution on the Russian theater.  According to Markov, the Russian Revolution overhauled a deeply flawed Russian aesthetic tradition and paved the way for a marvelously improved theatrical experience.  Following a fairly strict line of Marxist analysis, Markov argues that pre-revolutionary theater was inappropriately consumed with the narrow concerns of small and privileged economic classes, namely, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.  According to Markov, the old theater was obsessed with irrelevant, purely personal, or distracting topics.  The old theater favored light comedy and sentimental drama, and focused on petty, personal, light, and sentimental issues.  After the Revolution, the Soviet theater gained gravitas but grounding itself in the broader and deeper political and economic concerns of the Russian masses. The Revolution widened the Soviet audience, both theoretically and practically, since the Soviet Union's institutional leadership now regularly sent Soviet trade union or Party delegations to attend ideologically mature performances. 

Although the Markov asserts that the new theater could assimilate the best of nineteenth century traditions, he believed that the new theater was endowed more serious, even didactic, purposes. The day of the private entrepreneur was over. The Revolution was creating new plays, with new and better heroes (i.e., shocker workers, Young Communists, scientists, collective farmers), and a more active audience.  Now, Revolutionary playwrights wrote about the following:  "The life of the Soviet intelligentsia, the revolutionized village, scientific institutions and factories, collective farms and administrative offices," etc.  Indeed, the Revolution even interpreted class plays in new ways, highlighting economic or political "contradictions" whenever necessary.  In fact, the new theater was organically linked to the proletariat and peasantry, since factory workers and collective farmers now regularly attended the theater, and actors now regularly toured factories and collective farms in the remotest corners of the Soviet Union.  The close connection between theatrical workers and the proletariat and collective farmer economy meant that the playwrights adopted better theatrical forms too, including vaudeville, propaganda poster plays, and musical comedies.

The Revolution ensured that theater now had a higher calling than it ever had before.  It was, Markov maintained, a link a "chain of production" that was creating a stronger, more modern country.  Echoing Stalin, the new playwrights were engineers of the soul, and were no longer permitted to serve the whims of rich individuals or indeed wealthy classes.  Of course, Markov also approved of state censorship or aesthetic direction. As he explained, the Commissariat of Enlightenment "does not permit the performance of plays, which are socially insignificant or harmful, and it insists the theaters in the correct interpretation of a play."

To conclude, Markov's book defends a highly politicized theatrical movement in the Soviet Union.  On the other hand, even Markov's commitment to the Revolution, and to Stalinism, doesn't prevent him from attempting to argue that the new theater could still accommodate diversity, including Meyerhold, the Moscow Art Theater, and Tolstoy. 

Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko's My Life in the Theatre

Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko was a revolutionary force in the Russian theater for several decades.  Although he wrote excellent plays, his role as a co-founder of the famous Moscow Art Theater, and producer of some of the best Russian and European playwrights of the first part of the twentieth century, brought him enduring fame in the history of the modern theater.  His book, My Life in the Russian Theater, first published in 1936,  outlines his artistic creed, but, owing to its dignified prose and gentlemanly anecdotes, seems a bit dated now.  The fact that Nemirovitch-Dantchenko wrote the book on the eve of Stalin's Great Terror could not have encouraged free artistic expression or personal honesty.  At any rate, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko explains the mechanics of his partnership with Constantin Stanislavsky, and also describes the origins of the Moscow Art Theater in great detail.  On aesthetics, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko describes his dissatisfaction with the nineteenth century intelligentsia's narrow interest in liberalism and social problems. He also explains his resentment for playwrights who created characters for the sake of their favorite actors and subscribed to a whole set of unrealistic theatrical conventions. He insisted that great plays arose from "
familiar life" rather than the "familiar stage." Nemirovich-Dantechenko also supported literary genius and the dignity of the stage.  He and Stanislavsky also opposed the idea that the audience rather than the producer were the proper masters of the aesthetic experience. For instance, the director and producer no longer permitted theatergoers to enter the play after it had begun.  He also describes his enthusiasm for Chekhov, who recognized the importance of the quotidian context of his characters, avoided the deus ex machina and external effects in general, and created truthful depictions of human struggles with mortality and meaning. 


Some quotes: 

Grigorovitch:  "He is not worthy of kissing the trail of the flea which has bitten Chekhov!"

Another Coryphaeaus of Russian literature, Boborikin, said that he gave himself the pleasure of reading every day, without fail, a tale of Chekhov's.

A certain writer said:  "Talent is necessary for the writing of a play, but genius for its production."

Friday, March 13, 2020

Tolstoy Refresher

This past week I plunged into several Tolstoy books.  I re-read Tolstoy's infamous Kreutzer Sonata, and read his What is Art? and The Cossacks for the first time.  The Kreutzer Sonata starts slowly, with the characters making relatively lazy--and sometimes philosophical--observations about women, but Tolstoy's talent emerges as he describes his protagonist's murderous jealousy.  Reading the book, one almost wishes Tolstoy had written his own Crime and Punishment to set along side Dostoevsky's version. Tolstoy's What is Art? demonstrates Tolstoy's ability to produce great work in multiple genres.  For this nonfiction investigation into aesthetics is very well researched and reasoned, and demonstrates the author's versatility as a thinker. In the book, Tolstoy draws upon his knowledge of German and French, to produce a survey of the field of aesthetics.  He also proves that he has a firm grasp on the history of the Church and European history in general.  In The Cossacks, Tolstoy seems to foreshadow some of the magic of War and Peace, since his ostensible adventure tale is filled with powerful insights into every day life, and wonderful "small" and "slow" moments and conversations between ordinary people. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Loren Graham and Richard Stites' on Bogdanov Science Fiction

According to Loren Graham and Richard Stites, Alexander Bogdanov's science fiction wrote widely read science fiction novels at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  Red Star, in particular, had a wide readership.  While stylistically unimpressive, Bogdanov's Red Star provided rank and file socialists with a compelling vision of a socialist utopia in outer space.  Bogdanov's alternative to capitalist reality included a rotating leadership, collective child rearing, short work days, unisex clothing, unlimited consumption, 3D movies, planned settlements, and a single language.  In general, the Red Star was a model of modernity, technology, and efficiency.  Red Star society required no state, and somehow blended the best elements of rural and urban living.  It also reduced the differences between men and women, and offered people the opportunity to change jobs frequently to avoid tedium and unnecessary routine. Medically, Martians participated in mutual blood transfusions and had the option of opting out of life at any hospital, all of which houses medical "suicide rooms."  Foreshadowing later cybernetic theory, Bogdanov also outlined a society that made use of statistics and data retrieval systems to implement or organize progress in highly sophisticated ways. 

Kathleen E. Smith's Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring

Kathleen E. Smith has written a brilliant historical account of the fateful year of 1956.  Impeccably research and beautifully written, Smith's Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring analyzes the pivotal year of the post-Stalin era by breaking down the year into its component months. Smith begins her narrative by carefully exploring the origins, meaning, and impact of Khrushchev's Secret Speech. She demonstrates the complexity of Khrushchev's undertaking:  after all, elements of the Soviet leadership intended to overthrow Stalinism without damaging their own reputations or that of the country's revolutionary traditions.  Somehow, Khrushchev needed to overthrow a so-called "cult of personality" without undermining the country's self-confidence.  Outwardly, the Soviet Union remained in a relatively strong position vis-a-vis its capitalist competitors.  After all, Great Britain, France, and America were beset by colonial rebellions and post-colonial anger, while Russia now now embraced Eastern European allies as well as a newly communist China.  Inwardly, however, the Soviet Union was uncertain about how to curtail its experiment with mass incarceration and forced labor.  It was also uncertain about what to do with the legacy of the man who had apparently consolidated the gains of the Revolution and overseen the country's triumph against fascism.  Should the country release all political prisoners, or just some of them?  Should released prisoners be permitted to return to their old jobs, or should they be marginalized to prevent undue awkwardness?  What license should be given to authors to criticize Stalinism?   How far should foreign communist governments be permitted to go in their own criticism of Stalinist traditions?  Should the Party's official history be re-written?  Should the reputation of people like Trotsky or Bukarin be rehabilitated in any way?  (The answer was no, especially in the first case). 

Moscow 1956 begins with a comprehensive overview of these unfolding questions.  The richness of her sources, and the strength of her critical analysis of those sources, demonstrates the extent to which the Soviet Union struggled to create a clear path forward, somewhere between totalitarian extremism and moderate reform.  Of course, Khrushchev himself provides the best example of a country in flux.  Where once Khrushchev had participated in Stalinist terror, now Khrushchev avoided using murder to silence political opponents.  And where once Khrushchev avoided almost all contact with the non-Communist world, now Khrushchev advocated peaceful competition with capitalist countries and struck out on numerous visits to Western, socialist, and non-aligned countries.  But Smith isn't content with examining the Soviet leadership.  She also examines Soviet travel and tourism trends among ordinary people.  She looks at the way Soviet historians began to re-write textbooks.  She looks at the aesthetic and political decisions of novelists, poets, and filmmakers.  She looks at the way scientists began to reexamine Stalin's anti-genetics positions. 

The overall theme of the book seems to echo Fitzpatrick's theoretical construct and book title, Everyday Stalinism.  Smith suggests that 1956 was much more than a series of political decisions by top Party bosses.  Rather, it was a whirlwind of political, creative, and personal confusion.  And while the Party maintained its political authority, even the official Party line could be met by confusion by ordinary Party members and non Party members.  For instance, when a top historian met with ordinary teachers to explain the Party's new approach to Stalinism, many of them asked damaging or embarrassing questions.  Complicating things further, ordinary Russians were split about what made them most uncomfortable about the new Party line.  Should Stalinism be completely overthrown now that the man's crimes had been uncovered, or should the Party acknowledge how much he had done for the country?