Tuesday, May 11, 2021

George Saunders' A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

George Saunders' new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, analyzes several Russian short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol.  As a Russophile, I was happy to read or reread the stories he selected, which included The Nose, The Master and the Man, The Cart, and at least one story from A Sportsman's Sketches, and other nineteenth century classics.  On the other hand, I was just slightly disappointed that Saunders didn't have any special expertise in either Russian literature or history.  Picking up the book felt like a case of false advertising.  Yes, Saunders had taught a course in the Russian short story for several decades and knew these stories intimately.  However, he was primarily concerned with the craftsmanship of the stories, rather than their Russian themes or the Russian literary contexts from which they emerged. Indeed, Saunders analyzed these short stories primarily from the point of view of a writer, or would-be writer.  In some ways, Saunders could have written the same sort of book about any group of short stories.  He really did not need to limit himself to Russian stories, so the book seemed a bit gimmicky.  In any case, Sanders did something new by asking readers to read these stories, and then carefully deconstruct them in terms of their plot and other literary devices.  And certainly it was nice to approach these classics from the point of view of a writer learning a craft.  It was somewhat exciting to be asked by Saunders to think about the many choices each of these Russian authors made when creating their masterpieces.  It was also interesting to see that Saunders thinks that a writer like Turgenev may have actually created something unique as result of his own creative limitations.  That is to say, Saunders argues that Turgenev was not an expert at plot, but therefore turned characterization and setting and detail into something extraordinarily beautiful.  

Monday, May 3, 2021

Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism

Vivian Gornick, where have you been all my life?  As famous and prolific as she is, I don't remember ever reading anything by Vivian Gornick before.  I actually just stumbled upon her this week when I encountered a short book of her insightful literary essays entitled, The Men in My Life.  Loving this small book, I moved on to a larger book, The Romance of American Communism.  This book is phenomenal.  A work of oral history, The Romance of American Communism traces the rise and fall of American Communism by relying on many of its surviving members.  Gornick was perfectly positioned to write this book.  A product of of the New York Jewish Left, Gornick grew up around every shade of American socialist, cooperative enthusiast,  trade unionist, Wobbly-descendent, and communist.  She also writes beautifully, and seems just how to conduct interviews that honor their subjects without a critical spirit of inquiry.  The variety of communist experience was of course vast, and Gornick captures that variety.  Still, Gornick's respondents elucidate some big and unifying themes in the movement.  Many people were practically born into communism, especially those whose families emigrated from Tsarist Russia or other lands of poverty and persecution.  Others were appalled by the Depression and specific injustices, often in the California agriculture districts.  Many communists were attracted to the idea that they were participating in something larger themselves.  Interestingly, a great many men and women said communism helped them to "discover" politics for the first time.  In other words, prior to recruitment, these men and women had no way to explain their lives, and how those lives connected to communities, and how those communities connected to the world at large.  After recruitment, these men and women had a diagnosis for what was wrong in the world, and felt that they could make a difference.  Over time, communism was confronted with state-sanctioned harassment.  Also, Stalin's Show Trials and later Soviet conduct in the Cold War did much to dampen the enthusiasm of American communists.  But even after the diminution and end of the American communist movement, former communists remembered how much the movement had meant to them.  Participation in the Party had given their lives meaning.  They had made friends and lovers by way of their political activity.  Some were disillusioned, but even many of these were convinced that nothing else in their lives had been so important, so meaningful.  

Julian Barnes' Noise of Time

 Since the pandemic arrived, I've taken a bit of a hiatus from Russian subjects, reading widely.  However, I try to make sure a few Russian books, or Russia-themed books, stay in the mix.  I happened about Julian Barnes' novel on Shostakovich in a roundabout way. I had just finished several books by Flaubert, and was in particular greatly impressed by A Sentimental Education.  This, in turn, led me to pick up Barnes' magnificently clever paean to the master stylist, Flaubert's Parrot.  After that, I needed to find another Barnes book immediately, so selected Noise of Time.  Well, Noise of Time can't compete with either A Sentimental Education or Flaubert's Parrot, but Barnes does do a wonderful job of depicting the moral dilemma of many ordinary (and extraordinary) Soviet citizens.  For Shostakovich was neither pure saint nor pure sinner.  Like many, he lived through the Great Terror and entered into the Thaw in a somewhat traumatized state.  While I didn't find Barnes had all that much to say about Shostakovich as a musician or artist, he did help demonstrated the complexity of making one's way in a totalitarian society.  Of course, Shostakovich's own memoir, Testimony, is an even more eloquent account of survival in Soviet society.  That great work is filled with Shostakovich's rage and bitterness at all kinds of people who made dark compromises with power.  Some have argued that Volkov actually authored (or too actively curated) this memoir, but even if he did, the work expresses deep truths about moral corruption.  Rubenstein's  biography of Ehrenberg, Tangled Loyalties, is another exceptionally insightful take on artists who managed to maintain some moral integrity despite being frequently called upon to serve as apologists for Stalinism and post-Stalinism.   

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark

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 DarkLaughter 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. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Steinbeck on Russia

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

Turgenev's Diary of a Superfluous Man

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

Timothy Synder's On Tyranny

Although I thought I'd dislike this little book, thinking Synder might have put together a short list of democratic clich├ęs, I came to realize that Americans need a practical book like this to teach us that freedom isn't a purely abstract concept. Rather, it depends on everyday decisions made by plebeians like me.  In a sense, Synder's book is the counterpoint of Fitzpatrick's book, Everyday Stalinism.  His book might have just as easily been called Everyday Democracy. 

In fact, in the age of Trump and Putin, Synder's little book is long overdue.  While Synder doesn't have the space to incorporate too many historical analogies into this small book, his call to resist creeping authoritarianism in clearly grounded in the Soviet and Nazi pasts he explored so brilliants in Bloodlands and other books.  What, specifically, does Synder call us to do to defend our fragile liberties?  First, he asks us to think carefully before we surrender any freedoms.  Indeed, he actually believes citizens tend to give up freedoms in anticipation of upcoming threats from would-be dictators.  Second, he asks us to defend institutions, whether they be national, state, or local ones.  An ordinary citizen may not be able to support all institutions simultaneously, but if each of us would invest in a newspaper, a union, or a legal entity, the system itself will remain more resilient.  Third, Synder reminds us to resist any one-party solutions be proposed by participating in local, regional, and national elections.  Fourth, he asserts that we can defend the public sphere best by supporting vulnerable minorities and social groups.  Fifth, Synder insists that professional groups, and the ethical rules these groups uphold, are a vital bulwark against state power.  Sixth, Synder leverages historical experience to point out the dangers of paramilitaries and other forms of lawlessness.  The list continues, but generally calls upon citizens to support factual and investigative journalism, verifiable reality, honest political language, social connectivity, the sanctity of private life, skepticism of overblown state claims about the dangers of terrorism, panic-based politics, patriotism (as opposed to blind, xenophobic nationalism), etc. Most importantly, Synder asks us to beware of the "politics of inevitability" or the "politics of eternity."  Freedom can be defended, but it takes ordinary citizens (and not just heroes) to do so.