Friday, April 12, 2019

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's The Girl From the Metropol Hotel

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is famous for her unique brand of dark comedy.  It's dry and understated, but bitingly sarcastic. Her short stories provide readers with a macabre but outrageously humorous depiction of everyday Russian life.  This being so, it's not surprising that her short memoir of her early years is both devastatingly sad and funny.  Born into a formerly family of communists, Petrushevskya quickly found herself on the wrong side of Stalin's campaign to terrorize Old Bolsheviks and most other segments of Soviet society.  This mean Petrushevskaya grew up in hunger, social ostracism, and general deprivation.  Like her short fiction, Petrushevskya's memoir reads like a dark fairy tale.  It's heroine is simple, the conflict between good and evil exaggerated, and the story-line seemingly disconnected from any specific time and place.  The heroine lacks shoes for much of the year, gets constantly teased by hostile children, picks food out of the garbage in order to survive, watches her family battle for survival (sometimes physically) with communal neighbors, and meets any number of intimidating characters (mostly teachers) at school. 

The Girl From the Metropol Hotel is a fairy-tale, but there's no real prince.  Born to the manor (or in this case, one of Russia's most famous hotels), Petrushevskaya falls from grace but never really finds redemption in the opposite sex.  In fact, misogyny and the threat of rape or forced prostitution hangs over the protagonist's head throughout her adventures.

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the memoir:

My great-grandmother Asya died from sepsis at thirty-seven, leaving six children.  Her husband, Ilya, walked down to the river to drown himself--he was a doctor and held himself responsible.  The five children ran after him, carrying the baby;  they stopped him on the riverbank.

I was born on May 26, 1938, nine months after my mother's twenty-first birthday.  I was lucky.  I wasn't left behind in a sealed apartment, as often happened to the infants of the arrested.

I remember living inside Dedya's coyote coat, watching the fire in the furnace through the crack. Dedya spent the journey like a kangaroo, letting me out only occasionally.

At that time it was common--people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharm's famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again.  Later, the poet himself vanished.

I waited for my mother day and night. She returned four years later.

She used to tell me again and again that it was for me, for my sake, that she left, that she couldn't have supported us without a college degree.  For the rest of her life my poor mother justified herself.

Playground rules are worse than sharia. 

Next to the wood stood an ax.  We weren't allowed to use the bathroom, so we bathed with cold water in our room.  One night we heard screams in the hallway.  My poor old grandmother lay in a pool of blood outside the bathroom door.  Fury's husband, on finding my grandmother in the bathroom, struck her on the head with the ax to teach her a lesson.

I had a doll, but it was small, made of celluloid, and missing a leg.

I tolerated hunger reasonably well;  we'd been starving for a long time.

At a certain age every girl had to take her place in the courtyard's hierarchy.   This usually involved being passed around behind the sheds. 

A mother brought her girl to a board school for sickly children and then left.  That girl was me. 

In a commune no one is entitled to private meals;  it's considered hoarding. 

It wasn't real poetry, of course, the kind that spills out of a dying person like blood and becomes the stuff of ruthless jokes. 

In my new co-ed class, fifty percent of the students brayed, spat at a distance, looked insolently with unfocused eyes, wore army crew cuts, chewed their nails, and had great difficulty speaking without swearing.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Shostakovitch's Memoirs

Dimitri Shostakovich's memoirs, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, are one of the most intimate and insightful depictions of Stalinism ever recorded.  In the interviews Shostakovitch apparently conducted with Solomon Volkov, the brilliant musicologist and cultural historian, the great composer reveals himself to be one of the most caustic satirists the Soviet Union ever produced.  With dark humor, and tremendous antipathy for every aspect of authoritarian rule, Shostakovitch carefully explains how a dictator in a totalitarian setting can degrade himself, his immediate circle, and almost everyone else in his realm.

The composer's verbal style, as Volkov points out in his introduction, owes a lot to that genius of everyday Soviet reality, Mikhail Zoshchenko (and, in my opinion, to the indirect influence of longstanding Jewish comedic traditions).  The composer's subject matter, of course, is primarily music, and Russian music in particular.  To be sure, Shostakovitch spends a great deal of time on his mentors and musical influences.  However, the subtext in almost any of these discussion is the corrupting influence of despotic power.  The state determined which composers were funded, and which were not.  More significantly, Stalin saw himself as the arbiter of good taste in music, just as he saw himself as the ultimate arbiter of theater, literature, military strategy, and every other field of human endeavor.

The politicization of music affected every stage of Shostakovitch's Soviet career in music.  His music became the symbol of Russian resistance to Nazi aggression in World War II.  He was both lauded by the Soviets as a symbol of Soviet artistic excellence, and pilloried for his so-called "formalism" and allegiance to "bourgeois" forms of creativity.

To be sure, there is no historical record of Shostakovitch "speaking truth to power" against Stalin.  Shostakovitch sometimes asserts that he often did more than his contemporaries to avoid the kind of flattery than many of his colleagues embraced.  However. Shostakovitch's critique of dictatorial power is predicated on the fact that heroes did not, and could not, have existed in Stalin's reign.  His belief is that any public display of integrity would have been  met by unshakable and bloody force.

In many ways, Shostakovitch's Testimony can be profitably paired with Brian Boeck's new biography of Mikhail Sholokhov, entitled Stalin's Scribe:  Literature, Ambition, and Survival:  The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov.  For both the famous composer and the Nobel Prize winner seemed to have existed at the intersection between loyalty and disloyalty. And both men criticized aspects of Soviet power even as they became its very incarnation to internal and external audiences.  Sholokhov often spoke out much more vigorously on behalf of Soviet leaders thank Shostakovitch.  On the other hand, he also took greater risks, pointing out collectivization problems or advocating for political allies (who he genuinely believed were helping people).  Combined, the memoirs and the literary biography point out just how important culture was to Stalin and his successors. They also remind that of the moral complexity of continuing to make art in the midst of terror.

One should also note that there is some controversy about the accuracy of these memoirs.  A quick look on the Internet reveals that some have accused the editor, Volkov, of making up material that suited him.  Even if this is so, which is perhaps unlikely, the "Memoirs" would remain a valuable artifact on Stalinism.  For someone--whether Shostakovitch or Volkov hardly matters--produced a beautifully expressed exposition of the relationship between high culture and Soviet power.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future

I've decided to delve into Russian art history to learn a little bit more aesthetic modernism.  Aleksandr Rodchenko's experimental career is probably the best to start.  Alexander Lavrentiev's compilation of Rodchenko's writings illustrates both the originality of Rodchenko and the richness of the art scene that predated the Revolution but came into its own after the triumph of the Bolsheviks. Rodchenko reminds me of Miro, Picasso, or Warhol in the stylistic or conceptual creativity.  Leafing through this richly illustrated book demonstrates the extent to which Rodchenko (and his contemporaries) continued to innovate through his career.  Fortunately, Rodchenko was a gifted writer as well as artist, so he did a reasonably good job of explaining his work, or at least the general direction of his work. 

Without a detailed understanding of the various competing movements at work in the early Soviet era, I can only say that Rodchenko's writings reveal several basic concerns.  First, he wanted to be a relentless innovators and was prepared to overthrow most artistic conventions in search of a forward-facing aesthetic.  He was, in other words, un-apologetically modern. He was also willing to jettison anything that wasn't immediately useful. Second, he wanted to create help the proletarian class to participate in an aesthetic revolution. "The proletariat sat in cellars," he said, "took shelter like animals in ditches," and "had no time for beauty, for elegance."  Realizing that the proletariat had not previously had all that much time for art, he now urged artists to help the proletariat forge its own definition of beauty.  Third, Rodchenko wanted Russia to be a leader in world art.  As he stated:  "We, the Russian Columbuses of painting, are discoverers of new roads in art."  Here, one senses a slight paradox.  On the one hand, he was an enthusiast for a politics of international revolution, and asserted that "We glorify the revolution aloud as the only engine of life." On the other hand, he was proud of Russia's decorative arts tradition and sensed that its local art scene could do more than any other nation's art scene to create definitions of art that were relevant to the future. He put the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe this way:  "The West, a market of art, was amazed by the decorative arts of Russia, and we of course forget about this and are still admiring Napoleon's hairdo and the house of Wilhelm." Fourth, Rodchenko wanted art to be an essential ingredient to almost every human endeavor.  He wanted art to be transform buildings, city plans, clothes, and every other aspect of human experience.  Every object deserved to be beautiful.  Every object deserved his artistic attention.  As he stated:  "I prefer to paint ordinary things in an extraordinary way rather than paint extraordinary things in an ordinary way."

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Aleksandr Rodchenko's Experiments for the Future:  Diaries, Essays, Letters and Other Writings.

Down with art as a bright patch on the mediocre life of a propertied man... Down with art as a means to escape a life that isn't worth living.

...Our Russian nature is so boring, monotonous and gray...It's so sad and silent...What does Nature long for?
What is she forever thinking of?...

Nature has her own thoughts, her own sorrow...

A real Russian is also sad, he longs for something, and you'll never figure him out....

I will force people to die for objects, and objects to live.  I'll put people's souls into things, and objects will become souls....

Mama is seriously ill...I'm afraid for her.  She gives me money, after all. If she collapses, what will I do...

Russian critics, always snorting at Russian art, accusing it of imitating the West!
Look, Russia has given  birth to its own art, and its name--is non-objectivity!

The collapse of all "isms" in painting was the beginning of my ascent.

Objects died yesterday.  We live in an abstract spiritual creativity.

Work--is a pleasure.  Life--is torment.

It is usually said that my works in painting are not really works but experiments for some sort of future works or for future artists..

At the INKUK meeting, Professor Shmit said that in Russia there is not and never has been any visual art, only decoration.

He also said that the inventor is never a great scientist nor the great scientist an inventor, that to be an inventor you have to imagine images, i.e., you have to be a bit of an artist, but not a dreamer whose images are blurry and indistinct.

In the West everything is stuck as it was before the war, the same old Picasso and Matisse.  They all say they're looking to Russia with enormous hope, they'd trade places with us without a second thought...

In life, as well, we, humanity, are experiments for the future...

There is nothing eternal, everything is temporary.

The concepts of inviolable DOGMAS and classical CANONS are exploded by this issue, and the existence of ETERNAL BEAUTY in art is killed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbread Race

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbreak Race: A Life in the Closing World Once Called Free

If Moscow is the Hollywood of power, Vnukovo was Beverly Hills.

...there you could crawl through to his thicket of raspberry bushes, peacefully going wild in the totalitarian gloom.

Further down at No. 7, on the assumption of relative equality among the muses, lived the founder of the puppet theater, a Diaghilev of the inanimate. 

She was a distant relation of the original owner, a scientist who discovered the secret of immortality.  This secret was of great interest to the ruler of a vast and powerful country like ours, and he showered her with honors until his death from cerebral hemorrhage.

For the animals she cooked a kind of nightmare stew, although at times it resembled plain gruel, perhaps simply oatmeal porridge with lots of innocent water, which was sticky and therefore frightening to a child who had never been exposed to life in the raw. 

To compensate, he had a reproduction of the Picasso etching of Don Quixote tacked, upside down, to the wall above the television set, presumably in order order to say "Is this art?", or even "Is this Don Quixote?"....

He was, of course, a mass murderer...

Father would often stop to chat with him in Mayakovsky Street.  "I told Iosif Vissarionovich to grab hold of Yugoslavia," I remember once overhearing.

Father though photography vulgar and discouraged the practice...

I was struggling with Xenophon's Anabasis.  "Can the child read Greek?" asked the inspector.  "Only with a dictionary," the child interjected with crushing modesty....

...and other tribal rites that punctuate the sanctimonious ordeal of human existence.

In the land where their parents might have disappeared without a trace and their own children might still be forced to swallow shards of glass in a cellar, they feared thieves.

The principle of the family as a voluntary assembly of peers was upheld.

But on closer inspection, these freedoms were little more than latitudes...

The infinitely wise Zamyatin--who said that Russian literature had only one future--its past--returned and mocked England in The Islanders.

In the Russian idea of nobility, disdain and sadness are fused so that it is impossible to tell where one ends and other begins.

I do not mean that the Vnukovo ravine was my Galilee.  I merely note the essential clumsiness of all that is genuine, and what an evanescent thing is truth.

My nanny, who had firm instructions not to interfere with my personal life, did not object when I went on to tell the girls that performances began promptly at eight.

It was the only time in my life when I felt like a child.

It is equally obvious that if Flaubert had known all along what would become of Emma Bovary, she would not have outlived him.

In somewhat more modest terms, film is to the theater arts what sport is to the arts of war.

A writer explained why books were dear:  "Because books ought to be dear.  A book is not vodka, not a woman walking the street."

A poet, after all, cannot be expected to be understood by more than a few hundred contemporaries.

To occupy ourselves with the future of our earthly possessions would have been as incongruous as loading a funeral barge with an alarm clock and spare she horns.

Here in Vnukovo, apparently, bourgeois relaity was only a generation away from totalitarian artifice.

In the West, Prokofiev and Shostakovich would have let go, lost their moorings, put on the faceless modernism which is one of the masks of timeless banality.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man

Like Irene Nemirovsky before him, Andrei Makine is a talented, prolific, and Russian-raised French author.  Unlike Nemirovsky, Makine's novels almost always deal very directly with Russia or Russian nostalgia. Makine's The Life of an Unknown Soldier tells the story of a a minor expat Russian writer who gets dumped by a younger lover and makes the desperate decision to journey back to St. Petersburg in search of an old love.  The protagonist returns to St. Petersburg in the middle of its 300th anniversary. The writer is of course immediately confronted by the fact that the city has changed just as irrevocably as his former lover, who welcomes him, but seems little-inclined to think about the past.  This first part of the novel feels someone less interesting than Makine's other novels, including his prize-winning My Russian Summers.  While well-written, it lacks both the beauty and subtlety of Makine's best work.  It also feels somewhat cliche to see a returning exile to feel estranged in his home town.  Certainly George Orwell's Coming Up for Air does this brand of nostalgia much better. 

However, Makine being Makine, the novel becomes much more powerful after the protagonist begins to listen to the life story of an old man who is about to be evicted from his real estate agent and host's rapidly expanding millionaire's pad.  For the old man's biography includes much of Russia's twentieth century history. As it turns out, the old man survived the siege of Leningrad, the battles of Stalingrad and Kurst, the Gulag, Purges, and everyday communism. After completing the second half of The Life of an Unknown Soldier, one is tempted to credit Makine for making the first half of the novel banal on purpose.  Perhaps the contrast is meant to demonstrate the extent to which the power of nostalgia and the excitement of history overwhelm the reality of our present lives. In any event, Makine is a writer's writer, and exhibits an ability to describe hunger, war, and fear with incredible precision.  And so the book, as a whole, represents another of Makine's sophisticated tours of the space between Russia's past and present.

Below are a few quotes from the book:

"An exile's only country is his country's literature."  Who said that?

He would also quote Chekhov:  "In a short story cut the beginning and the end.  That's where most of the lies are told."

"Playboys take women out for drives in convertibles," Shutov thought with a smile.  "Destitute writers treat them to the Russian classics." 

On a boat just about to leave a Crimea put to the torch by the Revolution, the young Nabokov was playing chess. 

The aesthete, Nabokov, care more about an elegant metaphor than the land of his fathers.

"I'm not Russian, Lea. I'm Soviet. So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious. Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about."

 "Listen, Shutov, I know she went back to Leningrad, well, Saint Petersburg.  She'd married a fellow who was in oil.  Yes, you get the picture.  And it didn't work out...No, not the oil.  The marriage."

"We've reached the stage of irony."  At first Russia copied these Western fashions, now they delight in pastiching them."

Michael Idov's Dressed Up for a Riot

Michael Idov's frenzied memoir of his life in Russia offers a suitably chaotic depiction of Putin era Russia.  As editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, and sometime novelist and film entrepreneur, Idov, who grew up in Russia but emigrated to America prior to college, is well-placed to tell us about Russia's vertiginous contemporary life. According to Idov, Russia has descended into full-fledged dictatorship.  The evidence Idov cites is not original.  It is common knowledge that Russia has taken over the Crimea, supported separatist forced in the Ukraine, passed homophobic legislation, granted the president control over leadership positions in the provinces, jailed political opponents, harassed protesters, centralized media coverage and put that media under government control, committed election fraud, encouraged the assassinations of political and journalistic opponents, sponsored systematic public misinformation campaigns, and so on.  But it's interesting to follow Idov's narrative to see how democratic practices can be eroded over time, one police or legal action at a time.  It's also interesting to read Idov's argument that Russia's problems are an increasingly global phenomenon.  For although Idov seems to think Russia's problems are not inherently Russian.  In other words, he seems to imply that almost any society could become a victim of insecurity, self-loathing, and superficiality. And indeed, America in the age of Trump does seem to mirror the worst aspects of Russia's elite political and popular culture in the Putin era.