Friday, October 12, 2018

Alex Beam's The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship

After having read the correspondence of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson (Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, 1940-1971:  The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971), one might hesitate to read Alex Beam's The Feud:  Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship.  Reading a second book on the same topic seemed unnecessary.  However, The Feud complements the correspondence, and provides the reader with valuable biographical information for both men. Of course, Nabokov's life is well-known, and many other works, including Andrea Pitzer's The Secret Life of Vladimir Nabokov, could provide readers with biographical information about his life during the period of the two men's friendship.  But the book reminds readers that Nabokov depended upon Wilson to get established in American letters, and probably became more fiercely contrarian after he published Lolita and became an international sensation.  More importantly perhaps, the book provides a valuable reminder of Wilson's dominance of American letters for several decades after the Second World War.  And demonstrates the complicated relationship of the American liberal intelligentsia with Russia, Russian exiles, and Russian Communism.  As is well-known, the two men, formerly so close, fell out over both arcane matters of literary translation, and fundamental perspectives on Lenin and the Russian Revolution.  Nabokov remained passionately opposed to every aspect of the Soviet regime throughout his life, and always opposed any collaboration with Soviet scholars.  By contrast, Wilson demonstrated great sympathy for Lenin, and, to a great extent, with the Russian revolutionary project in general.  In the end, the short book is worth reading. It  sheds light both on the lesser-known man, Wilson, and the New York City literary milieu of a bygone era, and on the better-known man, Nabokov, and his integration (only temporary, at least in some ways) into American literary society. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Alexander Pushkin's Dubrovsky

Alexander Pushkin's novella, Dubrovsky, is a small masterpiece.  As translated by Robert Chandler, Dubrovsky is one more testament to Pushkin's literary versatility, tastefulness, prose artistry, and historical sensibility.  Dubrovsky is the story of the eponymous hero's attempt to rescue his father from losing his estate to the mechanization of a wealthier local landlord, Troekurov. Unsuccessful in saving either his father or his father's estate, Dubrovsky turns to a life of banditry, and eventually tries, and fails, to secretly marry Troekurov's daughter.  Like The Captain's Daughter--also translated by Robert Chandler--the novella is set against the backdrop of coercion and sustained violence.

In this case, the novella seems to draw upon both romantic conventions and folklore. It's originality and narrative power are rooted in the extent to which Pushkin seems willing to describe the dark underpinnings of Russian society.  For the Dubrovsky's family lose their estate almost casually.  The process begins with Troekurov calling in an assessor.  "I have a neighbor," said Troukurov, "a boor of a small landowner.  I want to take his estate from him.  What do you think?" It's clear that Pushkin's narrator believes that it's not unusual for wealthy landowners to manipulate courts to their advantage to their advantage.  According to the novella, Russian property disputes are almost inevitably decided without reference to legal precedence or any other form of justice.  The strong bully the weak. 

But more than this, Pushkin's novella reveals that Russian society is almost inherently violent.  Dubrovsky's peasants, having no stake in either the law or politics, are even worse off than Dubrovsky and his father. Disenfranchised, they turn to blind violence to express their desire to remain subject to their previous owners.  They set fire to their manor house, and one even throws a cat into the fire. 

And of course, when Dubrovsky turns toward banditry, both he and the armed forces ranged against him by his nemesis, Troekurov, resort to murder and mayhem to resolve their differences.  As in The Captain's Daughter, a tale of frontier warfare, gender is also a site of brutality. In Dubrovsky, Troekurov is able to keep his daughter confined, and to insist on a marriage partner for her.  In a sense, there is only one truly independent character in Dubrovsky, and that is the area's most despotic and wealthy resident, Troekurov. Troekurov has the authority to influence the court, enforce a marriage, select dogs who will live and die in any new estate brood, demean (or even kill) tutors, thrash cooks, tongue-lash guests, and disposes both small landowners and serfs of their homes.
In Dubrovsky, only Trokurov enjoyed true liberty of action.  Pushkin's introduces his local hegemon thus:  "Spoiled by everything around him, he was accustomed to giving free reign to every impulse of his hot-blooded nature and every whim of his somewhat limited mind.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Viktor Shklovsky's Life of a Bishop's Assistant

I have previously reviewed several of the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's books, including his novels, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, The Third Factory, his works of literary criticism, including Knight's Move, Energy of Delusion, BowstringThe Hunt for Optimism, and The Hamburg Score, and a memoir, A Sentimental Journey.  In the context of so many brilliant books, the short historical work, Life of a Bishop's Assistant, falls a little flat. The publisher has noted that the book is a "re-written" biography of a little-known clerical figure from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  The publisher also notes that it's an example of innovative narrative approach.  To my mind, the Shklovsky's approach to biography is certainly original, and his staccato style engaging and humorous.  Shklovsky can't help but be clever.  And certainly Shklovsky displays his erudition and knowledge of the era on every page. One of the best things about Life of a Bishop's Assistant is that it manages to objectively convey the values of the time even as these values are contrasted with the values of the modern era. The result of the contrast is often comedic. After all, privileged classes, monarchical prerogatives, and purchased benedictions can seem ridiculous to the modern ear.  However, aside from reveling in what E.P. Thompson would have called the "enormous condescension of posterity," Shklovsky has toned down his trademark humor, and provided the reader with very little historical context for his story line.  So that the book doesn't really succeed either as a work of fiction or as a work of history.  In any case, The Life of a Bishop's Assistant does provide readers with insights into clerical life in this period.  According to Shklovsky, the leadership at this time was cynical, venal, prone to the use of violence in pursuit of power, and far-removed from the everyday concerns of the Russian people.

Below are a few quotations from the book:

His instruction was brutal.  People said that the child needed angelic patience to learn how to spell the word "angel."

Your honor is aware that, in Russia, a man without a rank is almost like a man without a soul.

You must bow before anyone of higher rank and crawl before eminent landowners...

I wish to obtain a rank and position on the basis of mercy rather than merit.

Passek was only interested in horses, his lover, and his illegitimate son.

Potemkin and the Empress herself were both mortal. 

"Hence," Mr. Polyansky said, "you with your, without exaggeration, sensitive and boundless soul, cannot portray a heroine or a lover because you have those feelings in your soul.  A naturally occurring diamond cannot depict paste."

At that time, Mr. Polyasnky was thirty-eight.  He was of unconventional character.  And always fell in love with other people's wives.

Consequently, the lover and the husband were separated by a single sheet called Wayward Street.

Bychkov was slightly embarrassed and the police, given their rank's intrinsically coarse nature, were sniggering.

Then, the General took a short rifle off the wall and said:
"Messieurs, I will now butcher you with this rifle butt."
Seeing this, the doctor and police retreated. 
It was as if the proceeding came to an end.

"So you never did marry?"
"There are no brides here, the Polish ones don't have dowries."

Dobrynin needed a village for export.  He wished to expel the peasants to the Kherson Governorate.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Quotations from Victor Serge's Midnight in the Century

Below are some favorite quotations from Victor Serge's Midnight in the Century

"I don't completely understand your distinction between good and bad Thermidoreans."

"He liked her.  He didn't know if he loved her, exactly.  We live that way, without knowing."

Two days later they arrested him.  Just like that, in the street, near the trolley stop.

Two Trostkyists, one genuine, the other doubtful, were quietly discussing Radek's objections to the theory of permanent revolution.

"I'm charged with espionage.  And I'm only a poor slob, citizens and comrades, I swear to you, only a poor slob!"

"It's over.  What a bitch of a life.  When will it end?"
The elder replied sententiously:
"The Permanent Session of Chaos No. 16. continues.  Next point on the agenda."

Men existed here in sharp relief, the accumulated hours crushed them, but time per se did not exist."

"We have nothing, nothing in common with Menshevism."

"You're not a bad guy, but you're a born rat.  I'm not worried about the solidity of your skull-bone:  you're destined to have an honorable career in the concentration camps."

"Anyone want to write to the Proletarian authorities?"

"If our houses of detention are overcrowded, it's not the fault of the proletarian dictatorship but that of the counter-revolution which assails us on every side."

It all began with a dull pain in the area of the heart.  But was it in the area of the heart?  We don't know precisely where the heart is nor what it is.

Control yourself--it's just a heart attack--and if it were something worse?

He lost his calendar, the addition of weeks and months, and decided to live outside time.

"Do you know the difference between a great misfortune and a national disaster, Zina Valentinova?  Imagine a very great leader falling to the sidewalk from the eighth floor balcony of the Central Committee.  That would be a great misfortune.  Now imagine him surviving.  That would be a national disaster."

The glaciers are starts smashed across the earth.

The revolution will be stranded on the beach for the next twenty years.

"We're between two counter-revolutions.  How clear can anything be!"

His brains were spread over the dandelions, but his pince-nez glasses, their frame mended with black thread, were still perched on the bridge of his nose.

"Comrade Ryzhik's report on the joys of boreal springtime is adopted without debate, unanimously with one abstention:  mine.  I have ideological reservations."

",,,I request a three-second recess for Karl's latest revelation (may his revolutionary's soul rest in peace:  His body is rotting slowly in the toilet of the General Secretary's office).

"Listen, brother, I'm uneasy.  There are five of us--and not one informer!  Do you think that's possible?"

"And what does homo sovieticus need beyond a thousand roubles a month?"

Pessimism, in our age of disciplined energy, is perhaps in involuntary form of sabotage.

"We're right, comrades.  Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass i right to grow, for the Revolution doesn't want to die out."

"And for the moment the dialectic of history has placed us under its wheel."

Miorzly, every limb alert in that embrace, watched that hand reaching for murder with prodigious shrewdness, seized it on the wing as it clenched its face.

You don't hit a man when he's down, but you can hit a man when he's falling, before he hits the ground.

"Citizen Chief, I'm a Civil War Communist, wounded at the age of eighteen on the Orenburg front.  I hope that's enough for you."
"I very much regret that it isn't."

On the scale of history, of what importance are these little sufferings, this senseless resistance of micro-organisms in a drop of water?

She always had that absent air at work.  Is she married?  The Interim Director considers her for a short moment with the bizarre attention of a solitary man who suffers from liver-trouble, smokes too much, and whom a sad woman has walked out on...

"Subjectively, perhaps they are still revolutionaries.  Objectively, they are hardened counter-revolutionaries."

"How do you say son-of-a-bitch in Marxist terms?"

"Got shot, that brother, a little while back.  Was really too fat to hide himself nowadays now that everyone else got thin."

He demanded an extremely conspicuous zeal from his subordinates, in order that it should be noticed.  What, indeed, is the use of unnoticed zeal?

"Your establishment is hardly on par with socialism, citizen chief.  Beginning with the bedbugs."

Monday, October 1, 2018

Victor Serge's Midnight in the Century

Victor Serge produced many first class political books, historical works, and novels.  Thus far, I've been most impressed with Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which gave me a deep appreciation for the cosmopolitan Serge's political, aesthetic, literary, philosophical, and moral talents.  Although Serge's Midnight in the Century covers same themes as that non-fiction masterpiece, it isn't his best novel.  While too overtly polemical to be a great novel, Serge's novel is filled with witty dialogue, deep philosophical observations about the nature of human beings and nature, exquisite sentences, and insightful character descriptions. A work of striking moral and political sophistication, Serge's Midnight in the Century is nevertheless a relatively thinly disguised indictment of Stalinism.  His protagonists all share the author's political views, and therefore find themselves persecuted by the revolution they once served. Midnight in the Century does offer profoundly illuminating glimpses of the human cost of totalitarianism.

In a sense, the Midnight in the Century's take on Stalinism resembles Koestler's Darkness at Noon or even Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which it precedes.  But Serge is an unwavering follower of Trotsky, and so his critique of Stalinism is directly concerned with the way in which Stalin and his cronies have betrayed socialism.  From Serge's point of view, Stalininism was the Russian Revolution's Thermidor, a form of counterrevolution. Serge's characters do debate the extent to which they owe some modicum of allegiance to the government they helped to bring about. They also debate the historical meaning of Stalinism. Yet ultimately they classify Stalinism as a form of State Capitalism, and avow that true revolutionaries need to "start again" to build a true proletarian government. 

In the end, the book tells readers a lot about Soviet terror.  We understand that people are put into cells for little reason, or no reason whatsoever.  We understand the Old Bolsheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and religious zealots suffer equally at the ends of a brutal state apparatus.  We understand that arrests are motivated by jealousy, by chaotic government processes, or crude economic mandates and absurd planning mechanisms which require culprits.  We know that Soviet justice is not justice at all, and that even innocent people can be shot with scarcely a pretense of a judicial process.  But reading the book now, one is most struck by the viewpoint of a Trotskyite.  While we know that Stalin was paranoid about Trotsky and his followers, this book makes one wonder if Stalin wasn't right to fear this form of sustained, informed, courageous, and socialist critique.  Communists were steeled in the art of anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist rhetoric.  But they were probably much less comfortable debating their erstwhile allies who were actually arguing that the Soviet government had betrayed the true principles of the revolution.  Serge's characters charge Stalin and his government with every sort of villainy, from famine, to Chinese massacres, to the rise of fascism, to economic ruin. But their worst charge is that Stalin has ended any pretense of worker democracy and socialist fraternity.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Viktor Shklovsky's Hamburg Score

Viktor Shklovsky is one the best literary critics I have ever encountered.  And even in translation, he's also one of the best of twentieth century stylists in Russia.   It's a gross understatement to say that Shklovsky was outrageously creative, uncannily observant, and spectacularly funny.  Indeed, Shklovsky doesn't seem to have written a boring book, or to have been capable of doing so.  Everything he wrote is riven with insights, anecdotes, and analogies. Shklovsky was a genius, pure and simple.  In his day, he was one of the most knowledgeable men of letters alive.  This knowledge extended to both Russian literature, but also to German, Spanish, French, Italian and English poetry and prose.  In fact, Shklovsky often drew parallels between contemporary Russian literature and Chinese, Arabian, Persian, and other non-Western literary traditions.  But Shklovsky's appeal is that he never let his erudition interfere with his desire to promote something new in literature:  poetry and prose better suited to the modern era.

Shklovsky is in fact rare in his ability to balance his respect for the past with his hope for the future.  Unlike many revolutionaries, he deeply respected the masters of nineteenth century Russian prose.  Unlike many counterrevolutionaries, he completely rejected the idea that nineteenth century prose was appropriate to an age of scientific discovery, mechanical innovation, and social upheaval.  Reading his book, The Hamburg Score, reminds of Shklovsky's virtuosity.  It's filled with trenchant insights into dozens of literary and social phenomena, including nineteenth century realism, Soviet literary experimentalism, film, and the Russian Revolution.

To read The Hamburg Score, is to get a glimpse of a profound intellect capable of overriding the artificial divide between creative prose and good literary criticism.  The Hamburg Score demonstrates the fact that literary criticism is itself a creative genre.  All of Shklovsky's books are illuminating.  This one helps readers to see the relationship between authors, genres, literary movements, and evolving media. Without addressing the tenants of Russian formalism, which are not in any event articulated in this book, Shklovsky's particular talent was to use literary history and genre analysis to illuminate the unique qualities of any particular text.  This book also seems to striving to help readers understand the past (i.e., social realism, etc.) in order to discern the outlines of the future (montage, etc.).  It's not necessarily that Shklovsky gets everything right, it's just he's bold, smart, and clairvoyant enough to make you feel that authors can't be understood if they are taken on their own terms, without reference to literary traditions and emerging genres.

Shklovsky is also interesting merely as a witness to his age.  As The Hamburg Score makes clear, Shklovsky knew almost everyone in Soviet literature.  Almost universally respected, Shklovsky was a participant or even combatant in the post-revolutionary Russian literary scene.  His barbs help us to understand the vitality of Soviet literary culture, even after so many Russian writers and thinkers had fled to Central and Western Europe.  The book also demonstrates the excitement of the general scene, and Soviet men and women debated the future with one another.  As Shklovsky says, the Russian Revolution put an end to fate. 

Viktor Shklovsky Quotations from The Hamburg Score

Below are some of my favorite quotations from the Hamburg Score.  

On Writing

In Hamburg, Bulgakov is down on the mat.
Babel is a lightweight.
Gorky is questionable (often out of form).
Khlebnikov was the champion.

It is not appropriate to start a critical article with:  "I opened the book," "I was interested in," "I leafed through," or "I glanced through." You can't start a review of a play by saying:  "I walked into the theater and sat down on an armchair."All of this is extremely weak, because you cannot start reading a book without opening it.

They are the writings of an administrator, and not a journalist.  And a writing administrator often resembles a theater fireman who sings.

One ought to get rid of the old general's habit of calling people "unknown."  If Rodchenko is unknown to Polonsky, that's not a fact of Rodchenko's life, but Polonsky's.

The censor told an acquaintance of mine:  "You have a style that's perfectly suitable for cutting."

The editor, having read the works of a poet, said to him:  "Your poems are splendid, but I won't publish them--I don't like them..."  Then added pensively:  "But you know, you somehow remind me of Bakunin."

It is very difficult for a writer to overcome his own manner of writing and to remember.

Here the genre dies from an enlarged heart.

Writers appear in literature variously:  With our without introduction.
Writers appearing in literature with introductions, as a general rule, do not have a long life.

On Authors

(I think) I saw a photography of Konstantin Fedin.  He was sitting at his desk between Tolstoy's and Gogol's busts.
He was sitting there--getting used to it.

Bunin's entire work is italicized.  The descriptions are derived not from objects but from other descriptions.

Being mentored by the Acmeists and Symbolists, Larisa Reisner knew how to see things.

[Babel] was the only one who preserved his stylistic composure during the revolution.

He was not alienated from life.  But it did seem to me that Babel, before going to bed, would sign each and every lived day--as if it was a story.  The instruments of the man's trade had left their trace on him.

Babel wrote little, but he wrote persistently.  It was always the same story--about two Chinese men in a brothel.

A foreigner from Paris, from Paris alone, sans London, Babel saw Russia the way that a French writer attached to Napoleon's army might have seen it.

The significance of Babel's device is in his manner of speaking about stars and gonorrhea in one voice.

Lev Lunts was like grass there had grown in a cleared forest.  Fate had freed him from compromises.

Kazin is writing about all of his relatives, one by one.

And even Mayakovsky is imprisoned by his theme: revolution and love that keeps apologizing for coming during revolution.

But I knew Yesenin from before.  He was young, handsome, with golden locks, blue eyes, spoke marvelously.  Yesenin's trouble was that he wore those felt boots in the city for too long.

People were chided in subordinate clauses, as if in passing.

[Vsevold Ivanov] wasn't afraid of making mistakes because he didn't know most of the rules.

Bon Mots

During their first crusades, they mistook each city for Jerusalem.  When, upon entering the city, they would find out that it was not Jerusalem, they would destroy it.

How obscenely long is Grevs's comment!
What a confusing sentence!
And it's ungrammatical.  This is how professors write.

 Vladimir Durov was telling:  "I ordered walruses from abroad to teach them how to cut through mined fences."
"And were you able to?"
"No.  I've only been able to teach them how to play on the guitar."

Occasionally they elect a fourteen-year-old male virgin as their priest.
But on the whole, virginity is not respected there.

They beat the writer Svetozarov in one village, as we was travelling on a boat alone from Moscow to Astrakhan , but the children in that same village knew the poems of Vasili Kazin by heart.

One shouldn't be so eloquent in a newspaper.

Chaliapin would say:  "Such and such actor keeps coming to my performances.  Do you think he's coming to learn something?  He's been waiting for a decade now for me to lose my voice."

The man had learned a lot.  I don't know if he had lost his former venomousness during that period.

A delegation came to meet Yesenin's father, a peasant.  He invited them into his hut.  "Tell us about your son!" The old man crossed the room in his felt boots, sat down and began:  "It was a dark night.  It was raining, pouring like from a bucket..."

There is nothing more deplorable than fate.
If you ask, especially women, in the village what the neighboring village is called, they often don't know.  Fate has bound them to the hut with the mooing of the cow.

She packed her life so eagerly, as if she was packing for good and going to another planet.

Mongolia is a wild and joyless beats, even the butterflies sting there.


Cinema with bourgeois themes int he East is a perlustration of the masters' mail.


The revolution is a difficult thing for an intellectual.  He is jealous of the revolution, as a husband would be jealous of his wife.  Doesn't recognize her.  Fear her.
It is easier to recognize a revolution aesthetically when she is weak.

Few of us can boast that we have seen the revolution not through a vent window.

"Can you tell me how much I can own and not be considered a kulak?" the short host asked me.

The years had produced cliched recollections.  The cliches melded with memory and became heroicized.

We loved before the revolution bound to fate as unhappy Greek sponges bound to the bottom of the sea.  You get born, gain strength.  Then you accidentally come across a profession and you live like that.  And there were many remarkable poets who lived alongside syndonic officials and insurance agents.

Such an interesting thing as human fate is arranged awfully in a capitalist society.  And so during the revolution there was no such thing as fate.

We owe our inventions to that time--there was enough wind for all the sails.

Dostoevsky, Jerome K. Jerome (who died recently), and the still restless Merezhkovsky all unanimously declared that socialism is boredom.
I refute that as a witness.
We ignored the bitterness of life and the necessity to fix it and it seems that we were happy.  We just didn't have enough carbohydrates and protestins to fortify this kingdom of intellectual freedom under the guns of the "Aurora."

We were moving into the world then as one might move into a new apartment.