Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Sana Krasikov's The Patriots

I probably lack the kind of formal literary education to properly define the genre of historical fiction. However, my untutored opinion is that historical fiction different from the ordinary variety of fiction only in its overweening obsession with historical verisimilitude.  However we define historical fiction, in recent months I've been making an effort to delve into non-Russian novels that dwell upon Russian historical themes.  To be sure, the term "non-Russian" can be almost as problematic as the term historical fiction. After all, many American, Western European, and Eastern European authors, emigrated from Russia or its border states, or have relatives who have done so.  And these authors have written some of the best historical fiction around.  Witness Sana Krasikov's wonderful novel, The Patriots, a well-told, emotionally gut-retching tale which helps readers to understand important aspects of the twentieth century of both Russia and America. 

In her wonderfully suspenseful book, Krasikov (a Jewish New Yorker with roots in both the Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia) manages to tell the story of three generations of American interaction with Russia.  As the author acknowledges in her end-notes, the book draws upon the experience of American emigres documented by the author of The Foresaken:  An American Tragedy in Stalinist Russia (See my earlier post on the excellent book).  For Florence Fein, a left-leaning socialist Jew, is lured to the Soviet Union by love, a sense of adventure, and the promise of a bright socialist future.  However, over time her dream of a life on the vanguard of history sours.  The Soviet Union is, after all, was experiencing a painful transformation to modernity, even without the added stresses of totalitarianism government. Eventually, and almost inevitably, Florence's American ties prove to be a vulnerability, and she ends up stripped of her passport and without any means of escaping the world's first socialist state.  Not long afterward, she is arbitrarily convicted of subversion and thrown into the Gulag, like so many other denizens of Stalin's Soviet Union. 

Many other books have been written about the Soviet experience under Stalin.  Some have been covered in this blog.  What makes The Patriots unique is that it continuously ties the Russian experience to the American.  For Florence's American experience in the Depression makes her eager to go to Russia, and her grandson's search for adventure makes him willing to try to cash in on his Russian heritage by moving to Russia during the post-communist era of Russian corruption, cronyism, mobster rule, and capitalist exuberance.  The overall lessons of this book are simple enough.  First, Russian and American histories are inextricably linked to one another (and both involve the Jewish experience).  Second, citizens of the twentieth century have highly fluid identities.  Mother, child, and grandchild, at times feel both comfortable and alienated by both Russia and America.  Third, Russia continues to be a land of tragedy.  Under Stalin, people lived in fear of expressing any open opinion.  They dreaded their neighbors, and expected to be removed from their homes at any hour of the night.  But under Putin, life remained chaotic, with criminals continuing to exercise arbitrary authority over individuals who got in their way.  The Patriots is a sophisticated book. If a comparison must be made, it is to Anthony Marra's novel, The Tsar of Love and Techno, since that emotionally searing books also tracks twentieth century history across several generations, and anchors its plot-line in Russian tragedy, i.e., Stalinist repression and the conflict in Chechnya.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Marina Tsvetaeva

Someone in the movie, The Big Short, says that "[t]he truth is like poetry--and most people fucking hate poetry."  Like many others, I concur.  In theory, I like poetry a lot.  It seems important, and most literary people I respect say that are devoted to the stuff.  But upon reflection, I'm forced to admit that poetry isn't something I actually understand all that well.  When I teach literature To steal a phrase from the popular website, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, I like "the idea" of poetry more than I like the poetry itself.  Marina Tsvetaeva's book of prose, Earthly Signs, 1917-1922, may have finally changed all that.  The book gives readers a rare, and infinitely intimate look, at the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution.  But it's glimpse into the mind of one of Russia's greatest twentieth century poets is perhaps even more valuable.  Perhaps no two poets are alike, but Marina Tsvetaeva's diaries entries and essays suggest some qualities that are no doubt commonplace among poetic geniuses.  Finishing the book, I thought that I was probably feeling something akin to what an inspired reader of Tsvetaeva's poetry must feel.  In awe, I just wrote down a long list of words that came to mind when I tried to clarify to myself why her way of thinking seemed so different from that of most novelists I encounter.  This list included the following words or phrases:  intelligence, creativity, honesty, objectivity, erudition, ambition, awareness, playfulness, openness, ruthlessness, arrogance, wisdom, other-worldliness, joyfulness, cleverness, relentlessness.  

For me, Tsvetaeva was relentlessly experimental, and couldn't help but play with words, sounds, juxtapositions, metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, and allegories.  Tsvetaeva had an ear for words, sentences, grammar, and sound.  But she also had a kind of mathematical intelligence.  She analyzed concepts and people playfully, but she also needed her ideas to make sense according to the rigid rules of formal logic.  This poet's equations and equivalencies were always very precisely balanced.  Tsvetaeva was also incredibly well-educated and seemed to have read everything there was to read in three different languages: Russian, French, and German. Thus, her prose (like her poetry?) is both strikingly original and the product of a long dialogue with all prior writers (and poets?).  

Tsvetaeva's biographies sometimes portray her as a fragile woman, incapable of managing daily life.  Her suicide somehow seems like the inevitable result of this weakness.  But Moscow Diaries depicts a woman who was brave enough to resist Bolshevism, at least on an intellectual or private level.  Again and again, she speaks her mind about the tragedy of the October Revolution and communism in general.  To be sure, it would be difficult to verify if her diary entries are entirely accurate in terms of her dangerous anti-revolutionary comments to others.  But even if she was only honest in her own journal, her freedom of thought would be worth celebrating.  in any case, apart from their critical tone, Tsvetaeva's diary entries shed light on the difficult life everyone faced in these years.  Like others, Tsvetaeva (and her children) suffered endlessly uncertainty, the threat of violence, worry about distant loved ones (her husband, mainly), bureaucracy, and, above all, unremitting hunger.  

The book ends with an essay by Tsvetaeva about a fellow poet she reviled, Briusov.  The polemic is pure genius, and somehow does honor to its victim by its very virtuosity and sustained intensity.  In terms of Briusov's reputation, one can't help but think it has ultimately benefited from Tsvetaeva's attention.  After all, why would a woman like Tsvetaeva waste her time pillorying a man who lacked all virtues save diligence?  But anyhow, the essay isn't really about Briusov at all.  It's about Tsvetaeva, and her understanding of poetry.  Tsvetaeva knew that Briusov worked hard at his craft but thought Briusov lacked the true poet's sense of fun.  Without wordplay, joy, and fun, effort wouldn't (and couldn't) ever move us a little closer to the divine. 

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.