Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Svetlana Alexievich's Last Witness

Svetlana Alexievich's latest book to be translated into English, Last Witness:  An Oral History of the Children of World War II, is perhaps her most powerful one.  The subject of the book, memories of the Great Patriotic War, is perfectly suited to oral history.  By asking aging adults what they remember of the war, we get at the very heart of this immense twentieth century tragedy.  We are introduced to countless children who were robbed of their innocence. We note how these children's bitter memories of starvation, bombings, hangings, deportations, and other atrocities, remained with them for their entire lives.  As in her other books, Alexievich seems to find ways to get her subjects to describe horrors poetically.  As she says in the introduction to Secondhand Time, she is knows that there is something literary even in the midst of everyday speech. 

What do we learn about Russia's experience in the Second World War?  We learn that many Russians were completely unprepared for the invasion despite the fact that they had been repeatedly exposed to militarism in their youth culture.  So although almost all young Soviets had sang war songs, celebrated the lives of pilots, and participated in formal or informal war games, none had any idea how horrible true war was going to be.  We learn also that World War II was a war of civilians.  Indeed, children were exposed to both the relatively impersonal terror of  nightly aircraft bombings and to the incredibly personal violence of German allegedly anti-partisan reprisals against civilian centers.

Of course, many or even most of Alexievich's "last witnesses" don't claim to remember events objectively, or in detail.  Even so, their testimony often seems more valid than that of any soldiers or other adults.  For children seem to remember only the essence of war:  its brutality, abruptness, and cruelty.  Most children grew up to remember the war in the context of an abrupt change in their relationship to their parents.  Often, the war robbed a child of one or more of their parents, if not their whole family, or the whole village.  At the very least, most children lost a father for the length of time that father served at the front.  More often, their fathers (and sometimes mothers) died at the front or in partisan warfare, disappearing altogether from their lives. 

Alexievich's book is a good attempt to tell the story of World War II from a new perspective.  And why shouldn't we ask whether children didn't see something the rest of the adults missed at the time? The book reminds us of many child-specific acts of violence.  For instance, the book tells countless stories of Germans literally taking children's blood for their own purposes even as their victims starved to death. The book is also a story about memory:  World War II was a series of events, but it was also a lasting memory.  History and memory are certainly related, but they are not identical.  Alexievich's book is also a work of poetry.  More often than not, almost all of her subjects have managed to say something highly creative about one of the worst experiences of their lives.  And strangely, even the most gruesome of these childhood memories includes some element of beautiful about humankind.  Sometimes the child merely remembers an act of sacrifice he or she witnessed. Sometimes a child remembers his or her love for a parent.  But almost always, the child's oral testimony says something about the ability of humans to find something meaningful even in the worst event of their lives. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Leonid Dobychin's Encounters with Lise and Other Stories

Leonid Dobychin's brilliant short stories offer richly illustrative descriptions of life in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.  They point out that Soviet citizens suffered from food shortages, food rationing, and food queues, as well as a lack of electricity and other basic services. They point to a culture of violence, social tensions, and disorder.  They show a society plagued by prostitutes, internal refugees, and disgruntled former soldiers`.  Indeed, Dobychin's prose exposes so many social ills it's a minor miracle that Soviet authorities allowed any of them to be published.

As in his other works, Dobychin style is elliptical. As Richard Bordan's introduction makes clear, Dobychin provides readers with cinematographic treatment of his characters and settings rather than sustained reflection or analysis.  Nevertheless, the characters' actions and dialogue provide strong evidence that post-revolutionary Russian society was deeply unstable, insecure, and vertiginous. Although the stories demonstrate the extent to which the Soviet regime had already overturned traditional Russian mores, they also show that Russians--and especially Russian peasants--remembered the Old Regime and even missed aspects of that regime.  In other words, while the Soviet government had won the Civil War, Soviet citizens missed concrete reminders of the Old Regime, including Tsarist buildings, as well as Old World values, including Christian ones.  Revolution therefore complicates the way many people view the relationship of the past to the present. So although Dobychin documents varied ways in which Soviet authorities tried to articulate the value of revolutionary reforms, the ostentatious of this propaganda testifies to the new bureaucracy's deep insecurity about the permanence of revolution. In other words, why was the government constantly spreading propaganda, renaming pre-revolutionary places, espousing rigid slogans, and inventing new Soviet words, if it wasn't so worried about the possibility of a successful counterrevolution? 

Dobychin also hints at the superficiality of revolutionary change by his mode of describing revolutionary change externally rather than internally.  By avoiding any discussion of complex internal changes among his characters, readers are left to believe that revolutionary change may really only be a matter of renamed things and places (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Garden, Victims Square, the October Club), new fashions (red neckties), new political terms (purges, collective farms, unions, district congresses, delegates), neologisms (Phys-Culture), etc.

Some quotations are below

Uncertainty

"Haven't heard of any impending change of regime, have you?" asked Zolotukhina languidly, holding out her hand.

Nostalgia

"Ah," he sighed, "the old days won't be back again."

Slogans

"Under the guidance of the Communist Party, we'll aid the workers of Red Leningrad!"

"life without labor," had been written over the stage in the filling works' theater, "is theft, and without art is barbarism." 

"Damnation to you," he was painting a sign, "Mister Trotsky." 

"Away with Pessimism and Unbelief," said a little placard she was carrying;  'Poincare, take that in the kisser,' a flag flutter over her.

Atheism

"Not a miracle, but science," he elucidated.  "There are no miracles."

Propaganda

"There's an article by Fishkina:  'Don't abuse portraits of the leaders.'"

They removed from offices the banners and garlands of colored paper:  "Imperialist predators tormenting China!  Get your filthy-bloody hands off a great oppressed nation!"

Favorite quotations

"After all, I'm not against the lowest classes.  I'm prepared to sympathize."

The court sentences the conspirators to capital punishment and petitions for its commutations to strict isolation:  Soviet power does not take vengeance. 

"Comrade Gusev brought to a near-resolution the tasks confronting the Party." 

They turned this way and that.  Behind was a cemetery, to the right--reformatory, in front--barracks.

"I made her an insulting proposition," heard Petrov, "she didn't consent." 

He was undergoing treatment for love, and a doctor examined him.

"You're an alien element," Prokhorova said, "but I like you." 

In the theater, as always, there was shooting. 

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.