Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Vsevolod Ivanov's Fertility and Other Stories


Lately, I've been struck by a style of Russian (or perhaps Soviet) writing I had never encountered before.  The style is haunting, lonely, and depressing;  it's intimately familiar with devastated landscapes and forlorn animals.  It seems at home in extremes of climate, whether desert, mountains, or Siberian tundra, and draws inspiration from human tragedies related to war, pestilence, and famine.  It's usually, though not always, associated with the Eastern outposts of Russian influence, including the Central Asian Republics and Mongolia.  The style is elliptical, rarely explaining any of its characters' motivations in full.  It breaks down the boundaries between the natural world and the world of culture.  In this writing, animals have human qualities, and humans have animal qualities.  The clouds and other natural objects have the ability to suggest human sadness. 

Plotonov's Soul is no doubt the genre's masterpiece.  Here, the novelist suggests a level of human grief and tragic destiny that borders on the transcendent.  Plotonov's sad characters seem almost to be experiencing sadness or loneliness as a form of spiritual practice, as if their grief might somehow become pure enough to lift them on to some higher plane of existence.  David Bergelson's book, Judgement, seems to be another example of this style of writing.  Although the book takes place in the West, it also describes a bleak landscape of human and animal suffering, with  nature (and even the houses set against that nature) seem to be exhibiting malevolent intentions toward men and women.

In some cases, the scale of suffering seems linked to the legacy of World War I or the Russian Civil War.  Certainly Vsevelod's Fertility and Other Stories inspired by the violence, disorder, and hunger associated with these chaotic years.  Here, it seems that the author could only have used a new style to suggest that no traditional sense of realism (and no 19th century vocabulary) could explain what had happened to Russia.  This level of tragedy was simply inexpressible, at least directly.  Humans couldn't possibly bear the weight of abandonment, terror, and grief by themselves.  The landscape had to should its share of the trauma as well.

But of course the Soviet Union didn't stop suffering in the 1920s.  Things grew worse in the late 1930s, and then World War II set a new standard in human misery.  And that misery reverberated for decades afterward.  For this reason, this new style of fiction made sense to writers even as late as the 1990s, when Hamid Ismailov wrote his Central Asian masterpiece, The Railway, in which decaying communism and Islam collide. 


Below are a few of my favorite quotations from some of the stories in Vsevelod Ivanov's Fertility and Other Stories. 

Empty Arapia

The trees grew out of rats.  The sun began out of rats, and the win blowing above the rats was a thin-ribbed hungry dog.
Then birds with hungry scarlet beaks flew out from behind the sky.

The sun, fat from overeating, settled on the trees.  The clouds stuck out their fat, protruding stomachs.

Nadka;s speech was somewhat hoarse, with gasps for air from hunger. She didn't have enough saliva for words.

Whole earth is sand.  Blue sands.  And the sky is blue sand.

Rabbits have run off to the lands of Arapia, leaving the bark for people to gnaw on.  It's a sly animal.


The Child

Mongolia is a wild and joyless beast!  The rock is a beast, the water is a beast;  even a butterfly, even it schemes to sting.

And the Kirghiz women, sighting the Russians, would like down submissively on their backs.

Their narrow eyes shone crimson, like a wound from a fishhook. 

Afanasy Spat.
"You're a monster and a bourgeois... You have no feelings, you bastard."

Selivanov called a meeting and declared, "A Christian lad shouldn't die like an animal.  Let's say the father's a bourgeois, but what about the child?  It's innocent."

And beyond the canvas tent, no one knew where, ran the gullies, the cliffs, the steppe, alien Mongolia.
No one knew where Mongolia ran--the wild and joyless beast.

The Return of the Buddha

"...interest in history always intensifies in revolutionary times."

"During a revolution the goal of self-preservation makes it essential to stay home."

"Citizen professor...when there's a revolution going on, it's not an opportune time to drag your feet."

"As a result of the Revolution foreigners are going to despise Russia just as much as they were afraid of it before."

Only he doesn't understand where they get the tea; there's no tea at all in Russia right now.

The station bells jingle frostily.  The station bells are are ringing the funeral bells for Russia.

In times past, if he had wanted to eat...he would have bought some food.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Selected Quotations from Grossman's A Writer at War

Below are a Few Selected Quotations from Grossman's A Writer at War



We leafed through a series of the Front newspaper.  I came across the following phrase in a leading article:  "The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance."

A photographer remarks:  "I saw some very good refugees yesterday."

"I've got a simple soul, as simple as a balalaika.  It isn't afraid of death.  It's those with precious souls who fear death."

Green and white rockets.  Their light is mean, dishonest, not like daylight.  A ripple of shots.  People are neither seen nor heard.  It is like a riot of machines.

The shifting sense of danger.  A place seems frightening at first, but afterwards you will remember it being as safe as your Moscow apartment.

Wounded men kept arriving, they were all wet with blood and rain.

Green tomatoes are ripening on the roof, flowers amuse themselves in the garden.

An old woman says:  "Who knows whether God exists or not.  I pray to Him.  It's not a difficult job. You give Him two or three nods, and who knows, perhaps He'll accept you."

In empty izbas. Everything has been taken away, except for icons. It's so unlike Nekrasov's peasants, who would first of all save icons when there is a fire, leaving other pieces of property to burn.

He responds to the request of a divisional commander to postpone the attack because of the loss of men:  "Tell him I'll postpone it when he's the only one left."

The sky has become German.  We've seen none of our aircraft for weeks.

The landlady, a real mastodon with a husky voice, rattles, swears, hisses at children and objects...At night, in the darkness I hear someone sobbing.  "Who's that?"  The landlady replies in a husky replies in a husky whisper:  "It's me.  I've got seven children, I'm lamenting them."

Tolstoy's grave.  Roar of fighters over it, humming of explosions and the majestic calm autumn.

"Why didn't you write anything about the heroic defense of the Orel?"
"Because there was no defense."

Boginava told her that she should marry him, and threatened to shoot her.

"Ramming--that's Russian character.  It's the Soviet upbringing."

At war, a Russian man puts on a white shirt.  He may live in sin, but he dies like a saint.

One does not say now of somebody that they have been "killed," but "he has covered himself." "My friend has covered himself, he was such a great chap."

Pilots say:  "Our life is like a child's shirt--it's short and covered with shit all over."

Purely by chance, Khasin saw photographs of the dead people in a ditch and recognized his wife and children.


Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War

Lately, I've been overwhelmed by the Russian literary tradition of finding literary beauty in everyday speech.  More than anyone, Svetlana Alexievich embodies this tradition.  And her introduction to Secondhand Time is perhaps the best explanation of this art form.  According to Alexievich, her goal is to find literary power within everyday jargon.  And certainly Alexievich does just this, although the everyday speech she analyzes usually contains literary gems from one only one of two literary genres:  tragedy and horror.  Linor Goralick's Found Life is less profound, but demonstrates that one doesn't need to conduct formal history interviews to find all kinds of beautiful expressions in common speech.  Without any pretensions to anthropology, one can hear the most wonderful creativity on the Moscow subway, or at a private party.

Of course, I may not have uncovered a particularly Russian form of expression.  Perhaps every literary tradition makes use of everyday speech.  But it seems that Russians must have a better ear than most other Europeans.  Or perhaps it's the tragedy of twentieth century Russian life that transcends quotidian dialogues and makes sense on the printer page.  This at any rate seems to be what makes Vasily Grossman's writings from the front line of World War II so quotable and so memorable.  Grossman was a brilliant journalist, and the conflict he witnessed was so incredibly tragic (even measured by the horrific standards of other modern wars), that perhaps anything he wrote down would demand our attention.  But somehow Grossman seems to have an uncanny sense of how to capture the full horror of the Soviet experience in war in the seemingly ephemeral observations, quips, jokes, and comments he overhears when mingling with ordinary Soviet soldiers.

Grossman's articles and journal notes deserve attention on their own merit.  The wonderful contextual commentary of Anthony Beevor help readers to put these causal writings into historical context. But one also suspects that these musings were the building blocks of Grossman's more traditional literary masterpiece,  Life and Fate.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

Quotations from Lev Ozerov

Below are a few favorite lines from Lev Ozerov's Portraits without Frames


Khrushchev's sevenfold retinue
were falling over themelves,

No.  Like a forest or a garden
before a storm,
he was prepared to take the hit,

He felt the breath of the eleventh century

I wasn't walking behind him--
I was being drawn inexorably in his wake.

People like him are loved, but not
by envious courtiers,
slanderers, executioners,
smooth-tongued informers,
and members of the nomenclature.


but their ways are artful,
their craft invisible

He melted like a candle,
more swiftly than a candle. The era
of suspicion had set in..

He was in Komsomolsk,
on the river Amur.
Even in this hell
he knew moments of triumph.

Like it or not, he mastered
a few different crafts.
All came in handy: 
patience, silence, competence,
competence, deftness, silence.

If you want to speak,
keep silent.
There are ears everywhere,
ears and more ears.

Terribly cold--
and nothing to eat.
Only black,
soot-covered icicles--
prisoners' popsicle,
cattle-track toffee.

The dacha smells
of pine shavings and sun.

His politeness rings
and tinkles
like a teaspoon in a glass.

You cannot stay angry with Korney Ivanovich.
He has rewarded you with a smile,
a flick of the wrist, the  manners of Oxford,

A Tacitus of prosody,
knocked off course by his enemies!

the rainstorm is having a ball--
it slams raindrops into the pavement
and hammers them flat as they fall.

with the bows of suffering
on violins of time

The tips of his forehead and chin
reach for each other;
between them nests the clever smile

On legs of jelly
I went off to the Lybyanka

as he searched for the right,
astonishing word,
what you saw was a centaur,
a battle-bowed, armor-clad
warrior of the word--

At a time like this
honest people are not asleep.

The Tretykaov Gallery is turning
quietly crimson, as it often does
at dawn, enjoying a rest from visitors
and their all-knowing guides.

The doctor gently touched his back
and said, "I understand.
I'm not asking whether
or not you drink. I don't
need to.  I'm asking if
you have a bite to eat
when you drink."

His doctor's coat is laundered blue-white
and is so starched that it rustles.
A kingpin medic,
with a pack of assistants

Angina, high blood pressure,
a heart corroded by tyranny,

Verdure and stone,
cheek by jowl--
so begins
the story of our lives.

Looking after his friends was his vocation,
his "small area of expertise,"
as he sometimes put it.

There are a lot of cars.
Which are Black Marias,
we don't know.

a truly Soviet
caricature of a capitalist,
a man, I could see,
with an unerring
eye for commercial opportunity.




Chekhov Revised

The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, edited by Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, is a treasure drove of information about one of Russia's most important writers. It's got wonderful essays on each of Chekhov's major plays, as well as an essay that discusses his lesser known, but still well-made, short plays.  It's also got informative essays on Chekhov's influence on acting, stagecraft, and film, and other essays on his short stories.   Below are some short descriptions of just a few of the essays that I found particularly intriguing.  Overall, one gets a sense of Chekhov's aesthetic genius, but also a sense that this genius may be a little less historically transcendent than we might have once believed.  In other words, the essays convince us that Chekhov had something extremely important to say about the human condition in the early part of the twentieth century, but that his insight may have been particularly shocking at a particular moment in European literary history.  Perhaps this is as it should be.  Plays, in particular, often seem to be rooted in a particular aesthetic moment, although Greek Plays, Shakespeare, and maybe Oscar Wilde, seem to weather the passing of time rather well.

Alexander Chudakov

Chudakov's biographical essay on Chekhov emphasizes the fact that the author was always grounded in the specific, material problems of existence.  This approach may have originated from the author's experience with medicine and science.  At any rate, Chekhov's aesthetics always involve everyday difficulties and detailed landscapes, and the absence of authorial comment.  Chedukov's approach to storytelling reminds me that I once read a critical analysis of Woody Allen's movie, Annie Hall, in which the critic pointed out that Allen had introduced the love affair in media res, with the couple spilling onto the screen in the midst of a relatively banal fight about the movie they are about to see. By the time the audience meets the two lovers, they sense the two protagonists are already deeply familiar with one another, almost to the point of boredom or annoyance. The realism of Annie Hall stems from the fact that the romanticism of their origins has been eliminated from the script.  Chudakov says Chekhov always placed his characters into precise settings, and drew inspiration from the men and women he had observed in such settings.

Emma Polotskaya

Polotskaya thinks the secret of Chekhov is the metaphors he uses to describe Russia.   He thinks of Russia as a desert, a plain, an abyss, or even a prison. These metaphors all seem to describe some measure of isolation as well as suffering or even oppression. Chekhov wasn't of course only inspired by his art or personal philosophy of existence to think of Russia as a place of suffering.  He had worked among impoverished Russians and encountered misery in his travels to Sakhalin Island. Chekhov's attitude toward Russian misery, or human misery in general,  suggests that he was a pessimist.  However, Chekhov's power as an artist is related to the fact that he was ambivalent about the future.  Clearly, many of his short stories and plays include characters who maintain some level of faith in the ability of individuals to work for the social improvement of Russia.

Anatoly Smeliansky

This author focuses on Chekhov's influence on theater via the Moscow Art Theater.  According to Smeliansky, Chekhov wanted a drama of life rather than a drama in life.  Avoiding any authorial voice, Chekhov obscured his plots and provided audiences with little consolation and no explanation for the tragic dimensions of his plays. His plays were always ensemble productions. He also placed emphasis on the psychological aspects of existence.  As Chekhov once stated, his characters now shot themselves due to ennui rather than due embezzlement, as they had before.

Vera Gottlieb

Gottlieb discovers Chekhov's contributions to a modernist theater in a letter to his brother in 1886.  According to the letter, a playwright should avoid political or social commentary, work toward "total objectivity," truthfully describe persons and objects, avoid prolixity and stereotypes, and cultivate compassion.  Gottlieb also depicts the change in Chekhov's approach to modern tragedy thus:  In conventional theater, characters aren't able to affect change in their environment for one reason or another, but in Chekhov's plays, the characters could take control of their situation, but for "complex reasons" do not elect to do so.

Patrice Pavis

For Pavis, Ivanov bears witness to the invention of a new dramaturgy.  In older plays, audiences encounter well-defined conflicts, well-made plots, clearly externalized actions, dramatic structures that overshadow characters' dramatic words, and characters who acts as the author's mouthpieces.  In Ivanov, we now see ambiguity, ellipsis, unspoken or implicit character motivations, and indeterminacy.  The flow of plot is logical, dramatic, planned, and expected.  The new dramaturgy leaves audiences unguided. New new plot, such as it is, is decentralized.  With Ivanov, Chekhov is in the process of creating a theater of silences, suspension, and subtexts.

Thomas Kilroy

In the Seagull, Chekhov demonstrated a kind of Olympian detachment from his characters' lives. This detachment allowed him to be generous in his views of their everyday tragedies. From this perspective, Chekhov notes that his characters are suffering from the passage of time. And with time flowing irreversibly, no true heroism is really possible.  If anything, a Chekhovian character can only hope to be persistent, to move "through and beyond" failure.  In the Seagull, every character is caught up in the awkward, untidy, confusing present.  While trying to see the future more clearly, Chekhov's characters often appear to be absurd.  However, their absurdity is inevitable--part of the human condition.

Leonid Heifetz

Chekhov's Uncle Vanya portrays a typical Russian intellectual, incapable of achieving greatness through action.  Indeed, Heifetz declares that every character in the play is a born loser.  Heifetz thinks that Chekhov has somehow captured the essence of the twentieth century by depicting a man who isn't even capable of killing himself.




Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Romanoffs--Episode Three (Spoiler Alert)

The first and second episodes of The Romanoffs address the place of the Romanovs within Russian history somewhat obliquely.  The third episode take us to the heart of the Romanov story.  In this episode, an American actress arrives in Vienna to participate in a six-part miniseries about the Romanovs.  As in the first episode, this plot line is utterly cosmopolitan.  The actress playing Empress Alexandra is American, the series is shot in Austria, and the director (a former actress) is French.

Unlike the previous episodes, the mood of the episode is dark, mysterious, and often surreal.  As in a typical horror movie, the American actress is driven to the set by a creepy chauffeur, occupies a room in an old hotel that seems to possess its own secrets, gets startled by people coming to her door (with script notes, it turn out) late at night, and finds hotel staff behaving strangely.  Apparently, the nightmarish quality of the episode is meant to set the stage for the nightmarish conclusion of the Romanov miniseries.

The episode portrays several different scenes of Romanov history.  In one scene in the miniseries, Tsar Nicholas is braiding his wife for her conduct with Rasputin.  In another, Rasputin throws himself at Alexandra.  But there's no doubt that the central point of this miniseries is horror.  A wounded Rasputin is thrown into a river while still alive.  The Czar, his wife, and his children, are all massacred in a basement, their bodies set on fire.

The emotional core of this episode is the American actress' personal response to tragedy.  Having lost her mother, she's vulnerable further emotional distress.  Although a self-confident actress, she's increasingly unsettled by an eccentric director, an on-set love affair with the actor who plays Rasputin, and by the character she is portraying. She begins to imagine things, including a young child, dressed in Romanov clothes, who runs through her room at night.  Was this girl real or imagined? She no longer knows.

The episode concludes with the American actress being forcibly abducted in the middle of the night and tossed into the basement where she and her family will be murdered.  As it turns out, the murder is a farce.  Horrible as the scene is, the dead are all actors.  However, when everyone else gets off the ground, the American actress remains where she is.  While she had earlier expressed skepticism that anyone could ever die of fright, she has, apparently, done just that.

The episode requires viewers to ponder the nature of art.  What would it take for this mediocre American actress to become a great one?  According to her director, she would need to really occupy the position of the Empress.  She would need to be simultaneously powerful and weak;  powerful insofar as she rules a husband, who in turn rules an Empire, and weak insofar as she fears for the health and safety of her hemophiliac son.

But the episode also invites viewers to think of about the meaning of the Romanov murders.  Why are we still creating miniseries about the Romanovs/Romanoffs?  The episode suggests that the enduring legacy of this crime is related to the fact that the Romanovs were utterly unprepared for their fate.  Led into the basement, the czar, expecting to be photographed, but probably fearing the worst, only had time to make a feeble protest before the slaughter began.  

The episode also suggests that the murders possess lasting symbolic, aesthetic, and mythological significance.  After all, by the time of the massacre, Nicholas has been on the thrown for a very long long time. But neither the Austrian miniseries, nor the Romanoff episode that tells the story of this miniseries, spend much time on political narrative, or narrative of any sort.  Rather, the miniseries and Romanoff episode dwell upon one relatively brief, if spectacularly gruesome, moment in time.

Why privilege a moment in time over a long storyline?  The French director provides some clues.
At one point, the director claims to be a Romanov;  later, she admits she is not.  In a sense, she seems to be saying that insofar as the Romanovs have become a part of world mythology, we can all claim to be Romanovs.  That is to say, the Romanoffs aren't really a particular clan who made important choices 100 years ago.  Rather, they are archetypical victims, or perhaps archetypical victimizers/victims if one has participated in the myth more deeply.

At another point in the episode, the director tells her assistant that she can change the specific facts of the Bolshevik coverup for cinematic purposes.  Who, after all, is around to point out her errors?  Here, she seems to be saying that the Romanov murders must now be treated as aesthetic, rather than historical, events. They are horrible, but not for any particular political or moral reason.  Instead, they are horrible because the villainy is so unmitigated, and the victimhood so self-evident.  Like the Clutters in In Cold Blood, Nicholas and his family died for no reason at all, and a basement was involved.  The murders of Nicholas and his family remain horrible, after all, even as they migrated from Siberia to Vienna to Hollywood.




Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Arthur Randsome's The Truth About Russia (1918), and Six Weeks in Russia (1919)

Arthur Ransome's short pamphlet, The Truth About Russia, is an extremely sympathetic firsthand account of the author's short sojourn in Russia in the wake of revolutionary upheaval.  In the immediate aftermath of the revolutionary moment, Ransome, a journalist (and later fantastically successful children's author) who was fluent in the Russian language, analyzes events, interviews revolutionary protagonists, and observes heroic (if sometimes antidemocratic or even authoritarian) attempts to stabilize the new revolutionary government in Russia.  At first glance, the book strikes one as one of the more biased descriptions of the fledgling government. For Ransome seems to be willing to forgive Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders, for everything.  The Bolshevik's willingness to employ terror to pursue political goals is almost entirely ignored, or even defended.  The ruthlessness of revolutionary leaders is downplayed.  The socialist experiment is applauded.  However, the overt bias only temporarily deflects the readers' attention from the author's ability to depict the contingent, vertiginous, and makeshift aspects of the post-revolutionary moment.  Thus, although readers know that government by Soviet turned out to be profoundly authoritarian, Ransome allows us to see that nobody at that time could have been certain that the new government (i.e., Stalinism, which eventually succeeded Lenininsm) would have been so much worse than the old one.  So while Ransome unfairly downplays the importance of the Constituent Assembly, his belief that the Russian Revolution was making things up as it went along is substantively correct.  In 1919, the future still seemed open-ended.  What should each basic government function look like in a revolutionary era?  No one knew for certain.  Marx and Engels' written guidance only took one so far.  Indeed, Ransome's journal reminds us that the revolutionary readers were still waiting for the rest of Europe to follow their example.  To quote Ransome:  "The first aim of the Bolsheviks was, as it always will be, a universal revolution."

Arthur Ransome's more extended essay on revolutionary events, Six Weeks in Russia, follows the Russian Revolution into Civil War.  At this point, Ransome seems more willing to admit that the Revolution has its downside.  From the start, he tells readers that he will defend neither the White Terror nor the Red Terror.  Of course, Ransome remains firmly on the side of the revolutionary project as a whole.  That is to say, he prefers the "dictatorship of the proletariat" to the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie."  But he's now more interested in examining how the Bolsheviks are implementing communism than in why they implemented it.  He follows the government's approach to housing and food distribution (e.g., public feeding houses).  He tracks the government's approach to futurist art (i.e., large paintings depicting the Revolution and sculptures celebrating its anniversary).  He notices the government's attempts to come to terms with transport shortages and industrial disorder. As he notes, "The political excitement of the revolution has passed and today there were no more spectators than are usually to be found in the gallery of the House of Commons."

In general, Six Weeks in Russia demonstrates that the Bolsheviks were actually debating many policies at this early stage of consolidation.  What is more, they were starting to think about concrete problems of food distribution in addition to finding new ways to underwrite global revolution.  Some former enthusiasts were noticing cracks in the facade of communism, and Ransome doesn't ignore this disillusionment altogether. Nevertheless, Ransom retained his sense of enthusiasm about the early stages of a grand experiment.  Indeed, Ransome was almost starstruck by Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Chicherin, Kollontai, and other socialist luminaries. Generally, Ransome was optimistic about the future of Russian communism.  However, his short memoir does betray a continual anxiety among Soviet leaders about conspiracies, social enemies, and external foes.  While it's difficult to see how early Soviet government converted to full-scale Terror, the signs of paranoia are not altogether absent from Ransome's portrayal of early Soviet thinking.  The peasants, for instance, are not yet tamed.  As Bukarin admits,



Quotations from The Truth About Russia

Those whom the gods love take the youth of their hearts and throw themselves gladly on that side, even if, clear-sighted, they perceive that the fires of revolution will burn up perhaps the very things that, for themselves they hold most dear.

I think it possible that the revolution will fail.  If so, then its failure will not mean that it loses its importance.

Revolutions are not definite political acts carried out by the majority in a nation who are unanimous in desiring a single definite object.

...revolution is a kind of speeding up of the political flux...

...revolution is not an act of political life but a state of political life.

...there was not a single class in the nation that was not dissatisfied with the Tsar.  The tsar, accordingly, left the stage as politely as he could, as painlessly as a person in a play.

....they having forgotten that they were fighting for a democracy, and that the enfranchisment of 180 million souls was in itself a greater victory than they had set out to gain...

The point that I wish to make is this that from the first moment of the revolution to the present day, the real authority of the Soviets has been unshaken.

Every workman, every peasant in Russia has the right to vote in the election of deputies to his local Soviet...

No one contends that the Bolsheviks are angels.

Quotations from Six Weeks in Russia

"the greatest convulsion in the history of our civilization"

"appeal of the revolution"

"the creative effort of the revolution"

I asked her how she liked the revolution.  She said there was not a lot to eat, but she felt freer.