Over time, I hope to make my way through most of Nabokov's books. However, thus far I've only read Lolita, Mary, the Gift, Speak, Memory, and now, Laughter in the Dark. Laughter in the Dark is a short, delightful book, originally written in Russian. The book is seems more concerned about a suspenseful plot than Nabokovian wordplay or complexity. It's a short book, but filled with urgency. It's hard to put down. As its title suggests, Laughter in the Dark somehow both tragic and comical. One stands in awe at Nabokov's ability to describe the state of blindness standing at the center of the novel's denouement. Nabokov's book is lots of fun, but the protagonist's physical blindness to say something profound about the metaphorical blindness of its bourgeois hero, about the metaphorical blindness of all of us. Metaphor or not, the book mainly succeeds in describing the inevitable costs of infidelity.
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Thursday, March 11, 2021
I am sure someone has already written a wonderful dissertation or book (or several) about the many famous Western writers who visited the Soviet Union and wrote up their travel journals. Benjamin, Feuchtwanger, Hughes, Gide, ee cummings, and others come to mind. Reading a massive Steinbeck biography by Jackson Benson (perhaps I should have gone with Parsini's shorter one), I figured it was time to read Steinbeck's contribution to the genre, A Russian Journal. Not a particular fan of Steinbeck's fiction (with the exception of East of Eden), I was skeptical that he would be able to escape his official minders or see beyond the ideological constraints of the early Cold War. However, Steinbeck's book is really pretty good. His strengths as a fiction writer are revealed in his approach to travel writing. That is to say, he goes out of his way to avoid taking sides, or sermonizing.
Steinbeck's biographer claims that both communists and capitalists often criticized his fictional depictions of worker exploitation and unrest. One can see why. In this book, Steinbeck tries to stick to what he can see or hear for himself. He calmly notes what his American friends say about Russia before he goes, but doesn't give any of these anti-Russian comments a great deal of weight. In Russia, he is careful to tell his readers what he is and is not allowed to see, and how his stay is mediated by Intourist and various prohibitions against photography, industrial reportage, etc. He also notices many hallmarks of totalitarianism, including Stalin's pictorial omnipresence, the general culture of secrecy, and Trotsky's elimination from Soviet history, but tries to be as open-minded about the Russian people as possible.
The best part of Steinbeck's book is that he really doesn't try to be make too many overarching claims about his Russia as a result of his relatively short stay there. Steinbeck's relative humility is even evident in his treatment of Russian questions about America. When they ask him about Truman, he truthfully admits his relative ignorance about the man. And he's careful to say that he isn't really all that qualified to speak about America as whole, knowing only certain portions of the country, or certain segments of it. Another interesting aspect of the trip is that it occurs in 1948, when Russia was just barely recovering from the German invasion and war years. He visits Moscow, Ukraine, and Georgia, but his trip to Stalingrad is perhaps the most revealing portion of the book. The city remains physically devastated. In the end, Steinbeck offers readers few theoretical insights about the Soviet Union or communism. However, he does make readers feel as if they themselves were on the tour, visiting a country recovering from war, and still in the throes of dictatorship, but still resilient. Of course, neither Steinbeck or the reader ever visit the places in the Soviet Union, including the gulags, which might have forced him to do more sermonizing than he did.
Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Soviet Roulette has taken a bit of a hiatus. I required a break and dove into all manner of literature since the pandemic broke out, starting with George Eliot's oeuvre. Yet I'll keep my oar in the water by mentioning a few Russian books now and again. Today, I'll mentioned that I've read Ivan Turgenev's Diary of a Superfluous Man and found that the novella seems to foreshadow many of the later classics of modern fiction, including Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground or Goncharov's Oblomov. In truth, I wasn't a huge fan of Turgenev, and was particularly underwhelmed by his most famous work, Fathers and Sons, which seemed a little crude, a novel of ideas rather than a novel of living characters. However, as I've read more of Turgenev, I've become more and more impressed with his versatility. They say Turgenev is a great stylist, and perhaps that is difficult to capture in translation. But what strikes me most about the man is that he was willing to continuously test out new ideas and new literary forms. While I have many more books to read, I am struck by how different each of his books can be. Smoke seemed like a light, gossipy novel; Fathers and Sons seemed obsessed with philosophical posturing; Diary of a Superfluous Man seems like an investigation into morbid psychology; First Love seems like a tender romance. I now have the feeling that I will get a wonderful overview of Russia's literary tradition if only I allow myself the time to read all of his diverse novels. That's a wonderful thing. I am not sure if I will ever encounter a Turgenev book I like as well as Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, or any of Chekhov's major plays. Even so, I think I will come to think of him as deserving to be considered in their company. I will have to tackle Saunders' new book to see how it looks when he considers a Turgenev story along side stories of these other greats.
Some favorite quotes
How is that that fourteen days are less than fourteen years or fourteen centuries?
..she was always busy, forever bustling about like an ant--and completely without purpose, which cannot be said of an ant.
That is what children are for, to keep their parents from getting bored.
While a man is truly living, he has no sensation of his own life; like a sound, it becomes clear to him only a short time later.
I have nothing against happiness; in fact, I have tried to approach it from every angle...
Thursday, September 24, 2020
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
As translated by Nina Kossman, Marina Tsvetaeva poems hold up relatively well in English. Below are a few favorite lines from them.
From on a Red Steed
No Muse, no Muse
Sang over my shabby
Cradle, or took me by the hand.
I snarl, I shoot sparks.
An alliance of winds
Sweeps the big roads.
Poem of the End
In the sky, rustier than tin,
Is a lamppost like a finger.
In every eyelash, a challenge.
Sky of bad omens.
Rust and tin.
This soundless kiss:
The stupor of the lips.
Thus--empresses' hands are kissed,
Thus--dead men's hands...
(The exaggeration of life,
In the final hour.)
What yesterday was waist-high,
Suddenly reaches the stars.
(Exaggerated, that is:
To its full height.)
This is where it led!
Like thunder on the head,
Or a naked blade,
My brother in sin,
My fever and fervor.
They dream of running away
The way you dream of home.
The water--a steely strip of it,
I stay with it like a singer
Sticks to the score; like a blend-man
Sticks to the edge of a wall.
The dead are faithful.
Yes, but not all in the same basket...
On my left side, death; on my right--
You. My right side seems dead.
Too much breaking, too much smoking,
But mainly too much conversation!
What's that smell? The smell of haste,
Of connivance and petty sins,
Of business secrets
And ballroom powder.
Too much laughing,
But mainly--too much calculation!
..The smell of business deals
And ballroom powder.
Too much stroking, too much groping
But mainly--too much squeezing.
But who minds the smell?)
The chain's too short?
At least it's platinum, not steel!
Their triple chins shaking,
Like calves they eat their
Love is flesh and blood, a flower
Steeped in its own blood.
Or did you think love was
A chat across the cafe table?
A quick hour, and then away?
Like all these gentlemen and ladies?
--Is it a temple?
Hardly, child; it's a scar upon
A scar. In full view of servants
And drunks. (Soundlessly, I say,
"Love is a stretched
Bowstring: a partying shot.")
"And love is, above all, a shared
"Or did you want to say:
Death--and no conditions!
--Life!--Like a Roman commander,
Surveying what's left of his
"Let's call it quit."
Wanting is what bodies do,
Now we are only souls.)
You hand your love
The bloodstained honor of parting
Like a bouquet.) Say it clearly: Syllable
By syllable. "Let's call it quits,"
You said? (Like a handkerchief
Dropped in a moment of sweet
Mischief...) In this battle you are
Caesar. (What an insolent thrust:
To hand back to the opponent
The sword he surrendered
As a trophy).
The shadow of money
In a shadow land. Soundless,
It burns... As if my soul were torn
Away with the skin. Like steam through a hole,
It vanished, that notorious silly heresy
Called the soul.
That Christian anemia!
Separation--it's not Russian talk.
Not women's, nor men's.
Nor God's. What are we, sheep,
Gaping at our dinner?
Separation--in what language?
There's no sense in it,
Not a sound.
Losing everything at once--
There's nothing neater.
Love is a seam.
A seam, not a sling; a stitch, not a shield.
Oh, don't ask to be shielded!
The stitch by which the dead are sewn to the earth,
By which I'm switched to you.
Better to rip than unravel.
It's there, but not for us!
A stepmother, not a mother!
Ahhh, the game's lost,
Ladies and gentlemen!
Where are the real cities?
Life is a place where no one can live:
The Jewish quarter...
Wouldn't it be a hundred times better
To become the Wandering Jew?
For anyone not scum
Life is a pogrom.
Expect no mercy
In this most Christian of worlds
All poets are yids.
Weep! With others you'll recover
The dignity you lost with me.
We are fish of one
Sea. An upward sweep!
..like a dead seashell,
Lips upon lips.
Attempts at a Room
I remember three walls,
I can't vouch for the fourth.
From everywhere and every when.
A portable chair of emptiness.)
The door--the threshold is sensitive to shoe soles!
The sheer wall of the Cheka,
A wall of dawns, of sunlit firing.
Squads of gestures more clear-cut than
In the shade--shot from behind, in the back.
What I can't understand: executions.
But leaving aide the torture-chamber theme,
The ceiling was definitely
All of us, in that other world,
Will learn to walk upon
A floor is for feet...
How embedded man is, how rooted!
So it won't leak: a ceiling.
Remember the ancient torture, one drop
Per hour? A floor: so that grass won't
Grow into the house, so earth won't enter---
Not a plasterer, nor a roofer
But a dream, a guard on wireless
Pathways: A He meeting a She
In chasms underneath eyelids.
Flood. A room? Mere surfaces.
After all, the desk is fed by
An elbow. Elbow out along its inclines--
That will be your desk's deskless.
Don't fret beforehand.
The chair will arise with the guest.
Gestures serve me
In psyche's hall.
In a child's stringed, inmost memory
Distance is hand luggage and a governance.
(Distance is stylish).
He who built (dug) the corridors
Knew where to curve them--
To give the blood time
To turn the corner
To give the brain time
To assign seats,
For a rendezvous is--a location,
A signature--a calculation--a draft--
Into time's farthest point:
Maybe the walls were go ne,
The ceiling definitely gave
a lurch. In our moths only the vocative
Blossomed. The floor was definitely a gap.
And seen through that gap--green as the Nile..
The ceiling was definitely adrift.
By a single dash is the poet held
New Year's Greetings
We have blood ties
With the beyond. Whoever had been to Russia
Has beheld that world in this.
Doubtless, I see poorly from my pit.
Doubtless, you see better from up there.
I have a shelf of Leon Trotsky biographies so I was not in a hurry to read Irving Howe's small, yellowing, and seemingly dated biography. However, Howe's book is a brilliant overview of Trotsky's life and theoretical contributions to Bolshevism and Marxist theory and practice. In fact, this short book goes a long way toward explaining many of the fundamental mistakes of the Soviet experiment. Perhaps Howe's greatest strength as an historian of the Soviet Union is his balanced approach to his subject matter. He is deeply sympathetic to socialist project, and yet willing to critique almost every mistake Trotsky and other Bolshevik (and Menshevik) leader made.
According to Howe, Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was a genuinely important contribution to socialist thinking. It essentially predicated the course of events in post-revolutionary Russia by pointing out that a fragile working class would necessarily depend on ongoing, global revolution to avoid counterrevolution or degeneration. On the other hand, Trotsky flipped sides on this question after the February Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks had every reason to overthrow the Provisional Government and even socialist democracy in the service of the working class. Thus, Trotsky (who was of course not alone in this) ironically came to be responsible for working against the very theory he had once proposed, and would propose again once he had left power.
Howe's Trotsky was a deeply ambivalent figure. He was in a sense a deeply divided thinker. On the one hand, he produced relatively sensitive works that advocated for some level of social and intellectual plurality. Literature and Revolution is a case in point. Trotsky admitted here that Proletarian culture was not yet rich enough to afford Russia or the world with a rich literary culture. In fact, Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution would eventually mean that the Proletariat, qua class, should wither away. When workers created enough wealth, they would have ample opportunity to stop behaving as workers. They would have enough leisure time to produce worthy literary and artistic creations. Until then, Russian workers should appreciate the great bourgeois works of the previous century. On the other hand, Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism celebrates authoritarianism, and defends the Bolshevik's rather outrageous claim that the Party could fully represent Russia's workers.
In the end, Howe agrees with the Menshevik position that Russia was not yet ready for a socialist revolution. Like the Mensheviks who seemingly abandoned the field of combat, Howe thinks Stalinism was the almost inevitable result of the Bolsheviks' decision to prematurely eliminate both the bourgeois parties and competing socialist parties from political life. Indeed, Howe believes that once Lenin and Trotsky convinced their reluctant comrades to take power, the Party was doomed to rely on ever increasing levels of compulsion and terror to maintain their fragile grip on power.