Monday, August 12, 2019

Robert Alexander and Richard Lourie

Fictional treatments of historical actors and events can supplement our overall understanding of the past. Robert Alexander's book, Rasputin's Daughter, and Richard Lourie's book, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, are two cases in point.  If Douglas Smith's new biography of Rasputin leaves little to be desired, Alexander's short work of historical fiction concisely describes the way in which someone could view the "mad monk" both sympathetically and unsympathetically for some of the same personality traits.  For Alexander's daughter admires her father's charisma, generosity, and devoutness, but also detests his hypocrisy, sensuality, and crassness.  The fictional approach to the man allows us to see how the man could become invaluable to the empress even as he was despised by so many ordinary (and aristocratic) Russians.  

An even better work of fiction, Lourie's The Autobiography of Stalin helps readers to cut through the mountains of research on the man to understand the man's defining character traits.  Of course, on some level everyone familiar with twentieth century Russian history must know that Stalin was cynical, cold-hearted, and malicious.  But a book like this helps one to imagine how this villain might have (even must have) understood his world. A book like this helps us to resolve some paradoxes about this man who seems to have combined real elements of insanity with an uncanny ability to view the world realistically, even dispassionately.  One of Lourie's most interesting insights into Stalin is that he probably took Trotsky extremely seriously. While it's easy to believe Stalin used the myth of Trotsky as a tool to destroy his enemies, if we actually believe that Stalin was worried about Trotsky we might better understand the bizarre way in which he attacked his enemies.  Why did he blame so much on one man, namely Trotsky?  The novel suggests that Stalin's psychopathic side could work in tandem with his realistic side.  He could enjoy hounding a hated man and his followers to their deaths even as he used this sadistic enterprise to reinforce his position.  Lourie's Stalin is fascinating most of all for his ability to blend realism with monomaniacal adventurism.   


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Novel, Ours

I'm a bit schizophrenic about Sergei Dovlatov.  I was thrilled with his memoir about his time as a prison guard, The Zone, which I found to be both insightful and painfully observant, but disliked his short novel, Pushkin Hills, which I seemed somewhat affected to me.  To resolve my uncertainty about the Dovlatov's literary quality, I'm resolved to work my way through his other works.  Today, I'll discuss his short book of biographical sketches about the members of his family.  Like The Zone, the memoir of family remembrances, Ours, seems to be both trenchant and acutely attentive to the traits and characteristics that make each of his family members unique.  It also gives the reader an overall portrait of the experience of a twentieth-century Russian family.  Dovlatov's family is not perhaps an ordinary one.  The family are firmly entrenched in the Russian intelligentsia and much generally very literary and/or artistic. Some were editors, others were actors or directors.  Most interestingly, Dovlatov shows us that members of the same Soviet family were capable of both embracing and rejecting Stalinism (and Soviet norms in general) at various times.  Indeed, often the same family member wavered in his support of the regime.  Witness the story of Dovlatov's uncle, who worshiped a long series of Soviet leaders, only to privately admit to his nephew (but only when he thought he was on his deathbed) that Soviet communism was a scam. Overall, Ours reinforces my impression that Dovlatov had a particular talent for non-fiction writing.  The individual tales are short, but profound, and often hilarious. And the form of his memoir is incredibly inventive. Somehow, reading a series of character sketches about the author's family members simultaneously gives one a sense of each individual family member, the collective family, the author's unique psyche, and, in some ways, the U.S.S.R. as a whole.

Favorite quotations from Ours 

Grandpa did not like disorder.  For that reason, he held a negative view of the Revolution.

"Begler Formich is a good man.  It's just a pity he waters his wine."

Perhaps the universe, such as it was, did not suit him.  I wonder, did it not suit him in its entirety, or just in certain details?

Tall and straight, he headed toward the market.  If anyone greeted him, he did not respond.

I was insulted very rarely, by the way, maybe three times in my entire life.  All three times were by my  uncle. 

"They say that marriages on the brink of divorce are the ones that last the longest."

"What an awful country!  I've been to America, to Israel.  I've been everywhere in Europe, but I would never got to Russia.  It's good for chess and ballet, but that's it. That and police action."

"Show me one good idea that exists outside of communism!"

A small portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung near the head of his bed.  He took it down whenever guests came. 

"I'm sick of living.  I don't believe communism can  be built in one country.  I've slid into the swamp of Trotskyism."

My father, on the one hand, felt great esteem for the Leader, though he was the one who had good reason to hate Stalin, especially since his father had been shot.

My mother and I lived in a revolting communal apartment.  The long, gloomy corridor led, metaphysically, to the toilet.  The wallpaper by the telephone was covered with doodles, leaving a depressing chronicle of the communal unconscious. 

As everyone knows, the only truth in our newspapers is in the misprints. 

He was an alcoholic journalist and, like many lushes, a man of blinding nobility of character.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's The Tragic Menagerie

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's had an enormous impact on the pre-war Russian cultural elite.  However, it's relatively difficult to find anything she wrote in the English language.  We have her diary, but not all that much more.  Fortunately, her novel, The Tragic Menagerie, translated by Jane Costlow, is enough to demonstrate her genius. Published in 1907, the exquisite novel describes the coming of age of a young girl who, like most young people perhaps, is both saint and sinner.  Zinovieva-Annibal's book deserves acclaim for many different reasons.  First, the novel is broken down into chapters that independently read like perfectly conceived and executed short stories.  That is to say, although all the chapters are logically related to one another, and the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, each individual chapter can be appreciated on their own merits as a perfectly executed explanation of some particular aspect of the protagonist's moral or aesthetic development.  Second, the novel makes use of the girl's brilliantly empathetic encounters with animals to illuminate her evaluation of consciousness.  While sometimes cruel, the girl is always deeply engaged with the animal world, and this engagement helps readers to enumerate the milestones on her journey toward adolescence.  Third, the author allows her protagonist all of the complexity of an adult, or more.  The book's protagonist is as complicated and conflicted as any Hamlet or King Lear;  indeed, she's wrestling with God and the Devil, good and evil, sexuality, nature, beauty, and mortality.  And somehow, the author presents us with a protagonist who both confronts these issues as a young, privileged girl, and as a more general manifestation of human consciousness, in a way that prefigures Beckett, Faulkner, Gardner, and so many other modernists.

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows

"I'd have gone far if only I'd had known arithmetic."

"Eh, you women are a watery lot, however heroic you are."

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows is a tale of a group of Russian widows living in a communal apartment with a share kitchen.  In some ways it reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri's book, The Namesake, since both books beautifully express the speed with which lives are lived.  We are born, we live, we suffer, we die.  The book is unusual in that its subjects are almost all relatively ordinary women who have suffered the vicissitudes of twentieth century Russia.  One of the widows is a religious woman who supports the Soviet government but wonders why its leaders suppressed religion and converted so many churches into warehouses.  Another of the widows is a former opera singer, forever having affairs, trading gossip, and searching for romantic love.  Another widow thinks in nothing other than cliches.  The book's chief protagonist is a music teacher.  Her particular story captures much of the tragedy of her times.  Her mother and child were killed by German bombs in World War II.  She was wounded, and remained disabled throughout her life.  The final heroine of the story is a hard-working champion of an unappreciative son she bore out of wedlock.  None of the widows are classical heroines.  They are too flawed to be considered traditional heroes.  They fight, gossip, sin, commit acts of petty selfishness, judge others, and complain.  They have few talents.  Most are self-effacing, demure.  Even the pianist says that she lacks inspiration. Even so, they are survivors, and, by and large, they look out for one another.  And perhaps the point:  individually, the women aren't heroes, but representatives of a gender and generation, and members of a collective, their ability to survive deserves commendation. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Pushkin Hills

Having just read and loved Sergei Dovlatov's prison guard memoir, The Zone, I thought I would certainly also love his famous first-person novel, Pushkin Hills.  Alas, I found Pushkin Hills to be somewhat underwhelming--a pale, late-Soviet version of richer, more insightful American novels about alienation by Kerouac, Salinger, or Bukowski.  While Pushkin Hill's narrator is clever, he's not unusually clever.  (However, the narrator is certainly a member of the intelligentsia, and consistently invokes Russia's literary tradition in order to make sense of his life).  Nor does the narrator have a particularly strong ethical or aesthetic point of view.  It's clear that he loves Pushkin, and despises socialist realist classics, but readers don't read much more about the protagonist's artistic sensibilities than that.

In fact, if the Pushkin Hills narrator has anything to recommend him, it's his modesty.  He makes almost no claim to having a unique point of view, or unique insights into the characters who surround him.  The book as a whole is an interesting artifact of its time.  The protagonist is, after all, generally at odds with the political and cultural establishment.  However, the tension between the protagonist and society doesn't seem particularly sharp.  American Beats would seem more alienated by the government than  Dovlatov is by his government.  Perhaps that's the lesson to be learned by the novel.  Intellectuals and artists could be alienated enough by the Communist regime to think about emigrating, but they didn't necessarily find themselves in open revolt against the system.  Indeed, most people just kept living, and of course drinking.

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the book

Mitrofanov grew into a fantastic sloth, if one can call lazy a man who had read ten thousand books.

Friends tried to get him a job at the Lenfilm Studios.  What's more, a special position was created just for him:  Consultant on All Matters.

He was diagnosed with a rare clinical condition--aboulia, or total atrophy of will. 

He decided to become a writer of best-sellers.

His tours were twice longer than the average.  At times, tourists fainted from the strain. 

A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.

"Potosky, your appearance disturbs the harmony of these parts."

His speech was not unlike classical music, abstract art or the song of a goldfinch.  Emotions clearly prevailed over meaning. 

"I'll say it one more time, colour is ideological in aspect!"

She scoffed at me.  "Your mug alone demands punitive action..."

There are dozens of books written about the harmful effects of alcohol.  And not even a single brochure on the benefits.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Isaac Babel's Odessa Stories

I enjoyed reading Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, although it was somewhat difficult to reconcile this relatively modest collection of war stories with his enormously positive reputation as one of the Russia's greatest stylists of the twentieth century.  I suppose his closest American analogue might be Truman Capote, who had a reputation for literary brilliance despite his relatively modest output.  Or perhaps Lorraine Hansberry would offer a better comparison.  She's made her way into the American literary canon largely on the strength of a single play, although she wrote other important works before her untimely death at the age of 34.  In any case, the Red Cavalry stories about Russia's war against Poland demonstrate the author's searing honesty, careful attention to detail, sense of irony, excellent selection of fragments of dialogue to illustrate important human truths, and straightforward, unadorned prose. Isaac Babel's Diary of 1920 also made me appreciate the author's intelligence and sensitivity.  However, Boris Dralyuk's translation of Odessa Stories finally brought the author to life for me.

In Dralyuk's translation, the stories about the multicultural, international city of Odessa read like a fusion of David Sedaris' gentle, self-effacing comedy and Ernest Hemingway's staccato encounters with twentieth century brutality.  The author is especially fond of inventive similes, understatement, comic or ironic dialogue, deliberate repetition, and ellipses.  His stories are enriched by the narrator's willingness to insert philosophical truths into the descriptions of everyday life. They are also enriched by what can only be described as a Jewish or Yiddish sensibility, as evinced by the narrator's paradoxical ability to somehow use protest as the means by which he is able to resign himself to the cruel vagaries of Odessan life.  They are clever, and their cleverness is enriched by the author's ability to make the reader aware of the magic of the storytelling process.  Most of his characters come alive on the page not only because they do and say interesting things, but also because they reflect on the nature of language, the narrative arts, heroism, and other elements of a good story.  If the characters are interested in telling good stories (and indeed they all seem to believe that the best part of life is that we get to explain it to others in the way we would like to explain it), the narrator is also interesting in helping readers see that he or she is a talented storyteller.  Thus the narrator colorfully asserts his or her interpretation of an event or action, or ostentatiously assigns human motives to elements of the natural world.

The Odessa Stories are often comedic, but they almost reference the tragic dimensions of the era.  The city itself emerges as a leading character in almost all of the Odessa Stories.   Babel's Odessa is both largely Jewish and anti-Semitic and subject to pogroms.  It was also on the make, doing business with almost every port in the world and filled with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  Twentieth Century Odessa was necessarily a vertiginous place, since it was assailed by the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, a strong criminal underworld, the Russian Civil War, foreign interventions, and the political whims of the Communists. Babel captures this sense of perpetual uncertainty with preserving a sense of ambiguity in most of his stories.  Although they are almost always poignant, the author tells his stories sparingly, allowing the reader to wonder about true important of each vignette.  Read together, one also wonders how each story helps to make up a compensate picture of a complex time and place. 

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Odessa Stories


Three shadows block the path of my imagination.


What would you do in Benya Krik's shoes?  Ah, you wouldn't do a thing.  But he did.  And that's why he's the King, and you--you just thumb your nose behind people's backs.

"Now, tell me, a young gentleman like yourself, who clips the coupons off other people's bonds, what would you have done in Benya Krik's shoes?  Ah, you don't know.  But he know.  And that's why he's the King, while you and me, we just sit here on the wall of the Second Jewish Cementary and shield our eyes from the sun."

"My respects, Madame Schneyveys, and a good afternoon.  I see you decided to go off on business for three years and dump a hungry child in my lap..."

And the fifth day passed.  And the sixth day passed.  Saturday strolled the streets of Modavanka.

Now try and wrap your minds around the inveterate barbarism of Madame Gorobchik.


"Ladies and gentlemen," said Benya Krik,  "and the sun rose over his head like a sentry with a rifle.

"You want to snap everything up, greedy Lyubka;  you drag the whole world towards you, like children drag a tablecloth to get a breadcrumbs..."

His tender yellow eyes hung over the table like paper lanterns over a street in China...

The moon went leaping through black clouds, like a stray calf.

"I don't want you, Rook, like no one wants to die;  I don't want you like a bride doesn't want pimples on her head."

He straddles the city, this Utochkin, like a bronze monument, with his red hair and grey eyes.  And all of us have to scurry between his legs.

The King's words fell like a mound of boulders onto the path where nine-headed hunger roved.

Madame Gorobchik sat next to her husband, glancing over her shoulder like a murderer.

He shuffled his father's face like a new deck of cards.

...Madame Gorobchik perched at her husband's bedside like a slop-soaked crow on an autumn branch.


Benya finally ruined my health to the degree that he felt like it should be ruined.


Images of The Sun 

An orange star had rolled down to the very edge of the horizon and stared at them, wide-eyed.

Kaplun's paunch sprawled on the table beneath the sun, and the sun could do nothing about it.

The purple eye of sunset swept the ground in the evening...

By the time dawn began blinking its bleary eyes...

A sunset boiled in the sky, a sunset as viscous as jam, bells moaned at the Church of St. Alexius, the sun descended behind Near Mills, and Lyovka, the master's son, trotted after the dray like a dog trotting after its master.

At that hour the sund hadn't yet reached New Mills.  It poured down into the clouds like the blood of a stuck hog....


"Now, what can you say?  There was a man, and the man is no more.  An innocent bachelor, he lived like a bird on a branch--and a fool thing like that robs him of his life."

"Where do the police start," he howled, "and where does Benya stop?"

Lyova the Russkie smashed a bottle of vodka over his beloved's head.

"And remember, Eichbaum, you weren't no rabbi in your youth either.  Just between us, that will didn't forge itself, did it?"

The Pin went back into the shopw with his crew.  They lined up against the wall and pulled out their revolvers.  Ten eyes and five revolvers were fixed on the door, to say nothing of the sawn-off telegraph pole.

Philosophical truths

And Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world.

A man eager for answers must arm himself with patience.

"There are people in this world who know how to drink vodka, and there are people who don't know how to drink vodka but still drink it."

There's no one else in the world like Benya the King.  He cuts through lies and looks for  justice, be it in justice in quotes or without them.  While everyone else, they're as calm as clams.  They can't be bothered with justice, won't go looking for it--and that's worse.

And she threw ten roubles in his face.  At no point in history have two five-rouble bills ever added up to more than ten.  

"Don't go around saying 'no,' Russian man, when life's clamoring 'yes.'"


"I've got no help from anyone.  Here I am, all alone, like God up in heaven."

"No, I didn't blow my nose on justice.  Justice blew its nose on me."


"But wasn't it a mistake on God's part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they're in hell?  I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as they eye can see?  Everyone makes mistakes, even God."

Monday, May 13, 2019

Quotes from Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone

Below are some of my favorite quotations from Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone

...any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious.  And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.

"I was a slender string in the thunderous concert of the war," Lieutenant Colonel Mar began.

By then I was a fully formed person, endowed with all sorts of oppressive complexes.

Having a living father might have given the impression of bourgeois excess.

My father was a sort of hidden treasure.  He paid alimony, but not very regularly.  This is natural.

All signs pointed to a typical Soviet biography. 

Love stories often end in prison.

In that world, I saw men with a gruesome past, a repulsive present and a tragic future.

I was friends with a man who had once upon a time pickled his wife and children in a barrel.

What had once seemed important receded into the background.  Trivialities blocked the horizon.

The heels of bread were comparable to diamond desposits.

"I got married," Marconi said in a tragic tone, and hung his head.
"Do I know her?"
"No.  I hardly know her myself.  You're not missing much."

In order to land in the penal isolator of a maximum-security camp, you had to commit some incredibly evil deed.  Strange as it may seem, many managed to do so.

A smile both absent-minded and anxious played constantly over his face.  An intellectual can always be recognized by that smile, even in the taiga.

Your thesis should be:  drink, but within limits.  Not drinking at all--that would be overkill.  That would be an anti-Marxist utopia, as they say. 

"Dzavashvili has a condom," Matstysn said.  "I saw."
"One?" Fidel asked.
"Oh look, a scholar!"  Volikov said, getting angry.  "This one needs his own private condom!  You'll wait your turn."

My only diversion is cigarettes.  I've learnt how to smoke in the shower.'s very important not to confuse harmony with indifference.

I begin with the cemetery because I am telling a love story. 

We were very similar to each other, and even interchangeable.  Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard.  Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

These were people whose feuds and friendships didn't look much different.

"And I come from a long line of Russian thieves.  I have stolen and will again."