Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kitchenette Comedy

I've been reading Mikhail Zoshchenko's short satires, which raise interesting questions about the nature of comedy. As someone who is not particularly funny, I'm intrigued by the whole mystery of laughter. Up to a point I buy Freud's distinction between wit and humor, where wit is the superego temporarily allowing an otherwise forbidden thought, and humor the unexpected rise, so to speak, of libidinal instincts at inappropriate moments. But laughter is not comedy. Sometimes people laugh for no reason. Sometimes I'll be at a restaurant and hear uproarious guffawing coming like cannonballs at regular intervals, and I wonder what could possibly be so funny.

Not reading Russian I can't say whether Zoshchenko's stories are not funny or just ineptly translated. I like their fleeting-glimpse-of-modern/communist-life quality. They're absurd, but not in the profound, wrenching, utterly komisch way of Kafka's parables. In Zoshchenko, a fight breaks out in an overcrowded tenement building. Or a man gets married and tries to find a proper home, and is offered a bathroom. He gets so tired of standing in the hall when other people use the toilet that he abandons his forbearing bride and escapes to the countryside. It's Mad magazine's quality of humor. Zoshchenko's theme is the misfortune of living in buildings. Sometimes on winter mornings I look out from the train platform at all the furnace exhaust spiraling out of countless roofs and wonder what the hell people are doing in those houses. It looks so capricious, like they plunked down in these arbitrary constructions out of nothing more than a lack of creativity. Like we should be huddling on a savanna or decorating a cave or something, living a in a little closer harmony with nature.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Politics of Leaving

My office is nearly empty now. I've put away books and dismantled all elements of bourgeois display. I've packed up all of the family photographs, files, and antiques that adorned this space over the past three years. I've put away a fencing trophy my maternal grandfather (the Left-Wing inspiration for this blog perhaps) won at Harvard in 1912. I've packed up a set of clay cats my paternal grandfather made in the impoverished, smoke-filled twilight of his life. I have cleaned up a war ration card my mother received at five years old. There's a stripped down table that sat in my paternal grandmother kept in her cluttered basement for many decades. Family photos, antique (but not valuable) clocks--everything must go.

There are only a few Russian books left here. I've uncovered a stash of excellent political works. There is William Taubman's biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, which demonstrated that this Cold War leader was as complex and contradictory as any modern leader. Khrushchev was all things, impossible to sum up. He was guilty of monstrous crimes as one of Stalin's henchmen, and yet helped to put the Soviet Union onto a much more humane path after Stalin's death. He was incredibly clever and funny, but somehow also capable of extremely foolish, impetuous, and boorish behavior. The ultimate sycophant under Stalin, Khrushchev somehow demonstrated real bravery, not only on his path to power, but also in his efforts to publish his memoirs while in the political wilderness.

On the Khrushchev theme, I've got Guiseppe Boffa's laudatory account of the Khrushchev era as a whole called, somewhat dramtically, Inside the Khrushchev Era. Boffa was an Italian journalist and fellow travellor who praised the Soviet Union for its technological and industrial achievements, and heralded Khrushchev as a practical and humaine leader--just right for the age of detente.

On Stalin himself, I see Simon Montefiore's two equally good books, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, and Young Stalin. Montefiore has quickly established himself as one of the deans of Russian history, and rightly so. These two works somehow reveal sides of Stalin that hadn't yet emerged, especially Young Stalin. Montefiore managed to uncover dozens if not hundreds of previously undiscovered sources about Stalin, some by former lovers and others with almost as much personal knowledge about the legendary autocrat. The whole course of history seems to have reversed itself with this book. One somehow comes to see a Stalin who wasn't destined to become the master of Russian's destiny but who, nevertheless, possessed a real and multi-faceted genius, for politics, but also for organization, criminal activity, revolutionary propaganda, and even, perhaps, poetry.

Next, I've got two of Isaac Deutcher's three books on Trotsky here, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921- 1929, and the Prophet Outcast,Trotsky 1929- 1940. Although undoubtedly biased by sympathy for the man's political perspectives, these are tremendous books, thoroughly researched but vivid tales of political courage and indeed heroic opposition to Stalin's ascendancy. Of course, Deutcher doesn't criticize Trotsky's crimes nor even his personality flaws that ensured his defeat by opponents. Deutcher also wrote the unfinished Lenin's Childhood, a short potrait of Lenin, his father and mother, and, most importantly, his terrorist brother who was executed for his involvement in a plan to assassinate the tsar.

Other political books on hand are Milovan Djilas' Conversations with Stalin, which illuminates the ties that originally bound Eastern European strains of communism to Moscow, but also shows how Yugoslavian leaders became alienated by Stalin and Russian primacy in general. And, to follow up the story of dissillusionment with Djilas' ant-communist treatise, written from a Yugoslavian prison, there's The New Class. Somewhat more globally, I also have Walter Laqueur's book of political essays here, Out of the Ruins of Europe. One of these is even titled Russian Roulette. So glad I went with Soviet Roulette instead of Russian Roulette, the title which first came to me when I presented the idea for this blog to my wife and one of her best friends (who said, quite correctly, that I needed a hook for the blog a la Julia and Julia: ideas anyone?).

Down to my last few books, I see that the majority of these are in some fashion political works as well. As I've said before, I grew up believing that politics was everything. I don't practice that belief anymore, but my obsession with the Russian Revolution is a form of nostalgia for a time when everybody shared my early belief in the primacy of the political over the cultural. (A time when most people didn't think that Real Housewives of New York, Orange County, Atlanta, and New Jersey would trumps everything remotely political in terms of its watercooler or Facebook appeal). I've got the book, The Lost Politburo Transcripts, which shows Stalin's mastery of a unique form of political discourse, the politburo debate and group decision-making process. And another, The Death of Uncle Joe, which describes the progressive disillusionment of some (but definitely not all) of the British communist intellectuals, especially in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. It's a book that inspired me to think about why my Left-of-Center friends and family didn't come down harder on the Soviet Union for its massive human rights violations. On the same theme of disenchantment with communist ideals, I have Robert Conquest's book of short, anti-communist essays and editorials, Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques from the Struggle for Truth. It's filled with dozens of short Conquest essays on subects such as Koestler, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko, Grossman, Sakharov, and Djilas.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lincoln and Figes

I'm very sorry to bore readers with more random posts that are occasioned by my need to pack up my office before taking a new job. Even so, these posts help me to negotiate the sadness of departure that I have magically transferred into a sadness at putting books into deep storage. At the moment, I'm putting away books by Bruce Lincoln, one of the great narrative historians of modern Russia. Lincoln wrote most of these books while a professor at a neighboring college, Northern Illinois University. I regret that I never got the chance to visit him while he was in the area.

Lincoln's books, mentioned previously, are all great, and include The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians... Have I mentioned that by taking a position as dean of arts and sciences at another college I was forced to surrender my participation in a Russia travel abroad program that might have put me in Yekaterinburg? Well, actually, it turns out the program was postponed due to the financial instability of the partnering Russian institution of higher learning. The cancellation, in turn, put me in touch with a professional historian of Russia, who I hope to persuade to become a second author of this blog. So everything does happen for a reason..

The other Lincoln books I've completed and am thus packing up are In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War, which was wonderful aside from the aesthetic history that Lincoln may have gotten right in a more recent book. And there's also Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. It was suprisingly late in my academic and teaching career to have finally figured out the basic outlines of that civil war. And I needed Lincoln's clear account of a confusing military situation to straighten things out for me. But survey courses of Western Civilization or modern European History cover World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution proper, Stalinism, and World War II at the expensive of the Russian Civil War.

And by the way, have I ever discussed how interesting it is to see the ancient "ex libris" stickers from a previous generation of Russian history bibliophiles? Even better to find a Moscow metro station ticket tucked away as a book mark. The ex libris stickers point to the beautiful futility of collecting anything at all. It ends up in a basement crate, of course, and then re-sold at an estate auction years later. And rare is the book that appears to have been read more than a single time, if the lack of wear and tear on most of my used books is any guide.

I also have Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914- 1918, in front of me. How does one man churn out so many 600 plus page books of near-perfect prose?

Bruce Lincoln may belong to an older generation of historian whose work is seen as solid but slightly old-fashioned or unfashionable. If this is so, Orlando Figes may be his natural heir. Figes seems to be cited by everyone, and deservedly so. He's capable of writing strong narrative history but with a sensitivity to culture and at least some appreciation for theory. His People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891- 1924, is a sweeping account of a terrible epoch in Russian history. No doubt Figes previous work on the Ukraine made it impossible to emphasize anything other than pain and suffering in his account of the revolutionary era. Certainly his The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia continues a morbid account of the revolutionary tradition. (The horrible cover photo of a father's face scratched out in a family's personal family photo does justice to the sadness of the book itself).

But, like anybody writing in opposition to Red Propaganda, Figes may be overly sympathetic to the era of the tsars. Even so, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia is a convincing argument of in favor of falling in love with the Russian people and their complex cultural tradition, notwithstanding the sadism of Russia's autocrats.

Mundo Trasho

As I pack up my books, I realize that I've got to purge my files. My blog file is filled with random articles, web pages, handwritten notes, and book advertisements. Its contents are in fact even more random and disorganized than what appears in this blog. It's time to start over with a new blog file but I'll just briefly review what I actually discovered in this Pandora's box.

In the category of book advertisement, almost exclusively from the New York Review of Books, are books under that same imprint, including Chekhov's Peasants and Other Stories, Shchredin's The Golovlyov Family, Vladimir Sorokoni's Ice (noted since I've never heard of it, and described as a "work of fantasy, prophecy, and paradoy), Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev (the blog definitely needs to include something by Serge in the near future, right?), and a poetry collection about eight poets called The Stray Dog Cabaret (don't know if eight poets will be enough to help me understand the true significance of that celebrated place, or that generation of poets in general).

There's also an Economist book review about Wojciech Jagielski's book, Towers of Stone; The Battle of Wills in Chechyna. The reviewer calls Chechnya's "Russia's miserable corner" and attributes the misery to kidnapping, two wars, guerilla warfare, and bad decisions but Russian as well as Chechyan leaders. There were two wars, the first, a tie, occurred between 1994 and 1996, the second, which began in 1999, resulted in Russian victory, although at a terrific cost to the local population and the Russian economy as well. Jagielski's book tries to explain the origins of these wars as a mixture of three different but overlapping forces: a gangster culture of tight-nit clans, resurgent Islamic fundamentalism, and an old-fashioned struggle for independence against a colonial power.

Then I've cut out a few audio course advertisements from the Teaching Company. There is Jerry Muller's course, Thinking about Capitalism, that seemed helpful at the time. It would be nice to see how other, non-Marxist thinkers made sense of capitalism, especially Burke, Moser, De Tocqueville, Arnold, Tonnies, Simmel, Weber, Schumpeter (above all Schumpeter), Hayek, etc. There are even lectures about fascist thinkers such as Freyer and Schmidt, New Left thinkers like Marcuse, and the list goes on. Maybe I do need the course. The audio is $70 dollars however, with the DVD set at $99 dollars. There are others on the Russian composers, Tschaikovsky and Stravinsky for example, but I've since discovered these expensive lectures at libraries, and didn't particularly care for the ones on Shostakovitch in any case. (Next to Stravinsky, there's a list of some of his friends, and they range from Nijinsky, T.S. Eliot, Jean Cocteau, and, best of all, Zsa Zsa Gabor).

Under the category of randomly scribbled notes, I've got notes about Brezhnev, with words like sycophant, status quo, ideologue, corruption, flattery, vain, favorites, and simplistic written underneath. And then there are a few short phrases there as well, including the following: "diary simplistic," "didn't read or write much," "conflict adverse, etc." I can only feel sorry for the man and hope that somebody doesn't purge a file with my name, Fur Coat, and a few similar epithets written down.

What else? There are a series of Economist articles which was my attempt to keep current, at least on some level, with current Russian and Near Abroad realities. There's something on the Kirghistan's recent uprising, apparently an embittered and disillusioned response to corruption, nepotism, bad economic policy, and authoritarian police brutality. There's a short editorial on the terrorist bombings in Moscow that killed at least 39 people, which the author links to Islamic Fundamentalism in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, as well as Russia's brutality in dealing with local populations. More uniquely, the author also attacks Russia's culture of general corruption which, he says, allows terrorists easy access to most parts of Russia and its large economy. And there's an article dealing with Medvedev's proposals to modernize Russia without making any fundamental political reforms to support technological innovation. (The author is skeptical, of course, and links a plan to create an isolated Russian zone of innovation near Moscow to previous efforts to impose modernity from on high, and at great cost, by leaders such as Peter the Great and Stalin.)

But there's still more in my file of random clippings that's headed for the trash. There's Northwestern University's Web site for its business faculty bloggers, located at One more reminder that I need to spend some time learning what the best bloggers do to improve their products.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Odds and Ends

Here are a few more snippets from random Russian books that I'm putting away. I didn't have a blog when I read them, so I doubt whether I posted anything at all about the majority of them. The reader will have to forgive me if I am sometimes forced to rely on the book covers to stimulate my memory about the contents of the books.

First, there's Richard Pipes' The Degaev Affair. This, sadly, is my only foray into Pipes' work, despite his massive contribution to the scholarship of the Russian Revolution. According to the book jacket, Pipes wrote or edited no fewer than 23 books, including Communism: A History, Russian Under the Old Regime, The Russian Revolution, and The Unknown Lenin. Pipes, a Harvard historian and consistent critic of Bolshevism, is cited by everybody in the field. This short book describes an act of terror in Tsarist Russia called the Degaev Affair, wherein Degaev killed a leading government anti-terrorist and then escaped to America. Pipes main concern is describe the complexity of Russia's war against terror, avante la lettre. Degaev (who later escaped to America and led a quiet life at a Midwestern university) had complicated and conflicting loyalties to both the People's Will and their governmental opponents. Indeed, the two sides of the war on terror seemed, almost, to be actors in the same play. In the end, Degaev stands guilty of betraying both the People's Will and the Tsarist policy, and also of supporting each of these secretive forces.

Second, I've got Litvinov's putative memoir, Notes for a Journal. This book is allegedly the journal of Stalin's master diplomat, pro-western alliance, Maxim Litvinov, but apparently modern historians, on balance, rejected the book's claims to be authentic. I have no dog in this fight, nor any information beyond what I discovered by a causal Google search. However, it's always interesting to read something that may be one of two things: either an essential historical document of the 1930s, or a fake and a forgery. How does one evaluate the information in such a source? Is it possible to split the difference and call something useful to historians in the way that a historical novel may be useful as a creative illustration of otherwise dry and lifeless facts? I remember reading the journal, which is often critical of Stalin's decisions in China, and wondering how this book could be authentic: who could have braved the NKVD in the midst of the purges by putting pen to paper? And yet, it seems that many writers did criticize Stalin, if this often took the form of allegory. Mandelstam even wrote a poem about Stalin's savagery, and then recited on multiple occasions to friends.

Third, there's Alan Moorehead's The Russian Revolution. I think this was one of my first primer's on The Russian Revolution, at least in the current phase of my obsession, now four years old. Morehead was an old-fashioned historian, more of a storyteller than professional academic. His books--Galipoli, the White Nile, etc-- are adventures. Thus his The Russian Revolution is straightforward, chronological, and simple.

Tour de Horizon de Troyat

I've been packing up Russian history and literature books for three days. It's time to put my small Henri Troyat collection away. Troyat was part of the Russian diaspora that was displaced by the Russian Revolution. I think he was a teenager when his family settled in France, one of the centers of counter-revolutionary and general White Russia intellectual activity. Troyat was a prolific writer to say the least, and penned many successful novels (including one work of historical fiction, Red and White, which I have yet to review in this blog) as well as dozens of biographies of Russian historical and literary figures. It's no exaggeration to say that one of the best ways to fall in love with Russian cultural history is to read a Troyat biography, which are like potato chips insofar as you can't stop at just one. Troyat's biographies, as I've said before, are all almost uniformally good. They all read well and possess a literary quality in their own right. They all move quickly to decisive, adult junctures in the subject's right.

Troyat seems to have had divided loyalties, as I also do. (In graduate school in Montreal, I somehow divided my time almost equally between very traditional political biographies of the Stale Male and Pale men of British history such as Castlereagh, Palmerston, Gladstone, Churchill, and Lloyd George; and more recent works about queer, Beatnik authors such as Burroughs and Kerouac--never quite finding any connection between my subjects despite one failed doctoral dissertation that vainly attempted to find a link between literary and political modernism).

In this spirit, Troyat loved politics as well literature. He wrote biographies of the tsars, including Ivan, Peter, Catherine, Alexander I, and many of the minor female tsarinas. But he also wrote brilliant and sensitive portraits of Russia's greatest authors, including Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky--all good, although the Tolstoy book overshadows the others. Orlando Figes, for example, said it remained a sentimental favorite of his.

As I pack up my Troyat books, including many of the books mentioned above, I'm thankful that I still have a few left to read. I've got his portrait of daily life in Moscow at the turn of the century, one of his many French biographies (Flaubert, friend of Turgenev--apparently Troyat's attention couldn't even remained fixed on Russia), and his novel, Red and White. But there are other Troyat books out there, many others. Some are rare, out-of-print, and expensive: just try to find his biographies of Gogol and Dostoevsky for instance. Others are apparently untranslated. It's enough to make you learn French.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Remains of the Day

As my last day approaches, the pace of packing picks up. The eclectic nature of my Russian history and literature collection seems somewhat oppressive. Part of my obsession with Russia was spontaneous (Who can shake Gogol and Dostoyevsky even if they wanted to?) but part of it is intentional: Wanting to achieve some sort of depth in addition to breadth in my readings, I decided to stick tightly to Russia, and the Revolution in particular, rather than continuing to read everything in sight.

Alas, my readings are limited to Russia now, but people seem to publish hundred times faster than I can read, and I ought to limit the scope of my readings more each day. Instead, I read everything about Russian politics, history, literature, and culture, and seem to be headed toward more books on theatre, film, ethnography, philsophy, and science, etc. As I pack up Osip Mandelstam's Stone, I can't say that I know enough about Mandelstam or Russian poetry to have gotten very much from the work. Did Nina Berberova's novellas make any more of an impact? Into the plastic crate with them all.

I suppose my knowledge of Russian literature and poetry is particularly superficial. I'm on more solid ground when it comes to politics. But it seems strange to encounter so many references to key Russian authors without giving them a stab. Into the crate goes a book of Chekhov plays (Is there anything yet in theatre to compare with Uncle Vanya or the Cherry Orchard?), a poetry collection by Marina Tsvetaeva (Love the poem titles--From Insomnia, Sahara, Some Ancestor of Mine, We Shall Not Escape Hell, Bent with Worry, An Attempt at Jealousy, Strong Doesn't Mate with Strong, etc.), a biography entitled, The Death of A Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva (pure tragedy: who decides to return to Russia with a husband who fought for the White Army?), Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (which sparked the early obsession with both Russian history and crime literature in general), and Gork's University Days, which at least, gave me some insight into the Soviet Union's favorite author.

Shall I continue? This post might become a children's book called "Into the Crate..." So into the crate goes Doctor Zhivago (as crazy, chaotic, and romantic as the Russian Revolution and Civil War--but not necessarily better than the movie) and dozens of other equally brilliant books. And into the crate goes Nobel Prize winner Bunin's angry diatribe against the communists Cursed Days. Then goes Leo Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, wherein the famous author reveals a certain humility and sense of humor, notwithstanding all of the aristocratic privilege. And his The Death of Ivan Llyich (showing the same humility and honesty about mortality as he had about youth so many decades previously). And I can't forget his novella, The Cossacks, wherein a young Tolstoy shows that he can write an old-fashioned, romantic adventure tale (Sure to have generated scores of post-colonial literary dissertations). Next Chekhov's The Duel and Other Stories (so cool, so understated, so enigmatic) and Ivan Turganev's Fathers and Children (compelled me to read more about the anarchist Bakhunin who was the model for the generation in revolt; and made me wonder whether my translation was fairly depicting Turganev's famous fluid style).

Who knew I had read so much literature these past four years? I'm only sorry I didn't post as much about literature as I have about political and social history.


As I continue to pack up my office collection of Russian books, I discover more books that I completed prior to embarking on this blog. As mentioned previously, some of these books were unremarkable, but not many. Russian writers and even non-Russians who write about Russia seem to be, to quote Garrison Keiler, all above average. A few others were outstanding, but somehow still failed to stick in my memory. I suppose this blog is largely attempt to capture some small part of each and every book I read before it evaporates forever.

Serge Schmemann's book, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village is one of the books I'm putting into a large, plastic crate today. It may remain buried in a basement for many years. But that's how history works: that is it's melancholy charm--oneday it will be accidentally discovered, perhaps re-read. As I say, I don't remember too much about this book, only that Schmemann is a noted journalist whose beat was Moscow. Schmemann's once-wealthy family fled Russia long ago and Schmemann somehow managed to brave communist authorities and state handlers to visit the estate and research the legacy of his family.

Over time, he got to know the village and its people, and perform what amounts to an archeology of the area. With some understandable bias, the author documented the complex but often friendly interactions between landowners and peasants, and then the Revolution and its aftermath, which steadily deprived his family of any pretence of a dignified existence. Schmemann's account of the area seems to represent the best traditions of micro and oral history. Whenever possible, the peasants tell the story of their lives. Peasants were clearly exploited by tsarist economic arrangements, but communist ideology and the generic processes of modern economics bled the area of people and left only a small, dispirited group of elderly pensioners to tell the story of the village.

Soviet Chess

This post may sound like a repetition of an earlier one. But if you're speaking about the Soviet Union during the age of detente, you can't say enough about chess. The USSR invested a great deal of energy, money, and prestige into churning out wonderfully trained soviet grandmasters. It believed that its mastery of the game would reflect the inherent superiority of the socialist educational system.

Chess has had a strange career in the modern era. It somehow moved from a mostly amateur board game into a global sport, although it may now be somewhere in between. Reading Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, one is carried back to the heyday of chess, before computers had seemingly devalued the game. At that time, chess looked more or less like boxing, when regional leagues created their own competitive traditions, and regional winners slowly--but not inexorably--moved closer to world championship bouts.

The USSR's regional league was the strongest of all other leagues during the 1970s; and their champion, Boris Spassky, had claimed the title previously held from another Soviet player. Bobby Fischer, selfish, rude, and monomanically consumed by chess, overthrown the Soviet juggernaut. Fischer's brilliance is part of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, but it's not the whole story. The authors are equally concerned with telling Spassky's story. Ironically, when analyzed in detail, neither Fischer nor Spassky seem to represent their respective ideologies. Spassky was a self-described Russian patriot, but not necessarily a Soviet one. By Soviet standards, he was also am individualist and a rebel. Similarly, Fischer was not the quintessential American. Far from being America's poster boy, he often embarrassed the country with his unorthodox behavior and crass allusions to money.

If Fischer and Spassky weren't really strong representatives of their respective countries, the authors also point out that the battle didn't really reflect what was going on in the Cold War. For while the Soviet and American chess authorities suspected one another of every shade of villainy (from mind games to poisoned chairs), diplomatic relations between the USSR and American grew much more cordial during this period.

Friday, June 4, 2010


A few weeks ago I accepted a new position at another college. One of the consequences of my decision is that I'll no longer actually be going to Russia anytime soon. That's sad, in a way, but I suspect that my obsession with Russia would be diminished by any contact with the Thing Itself. (And in reality, I've since discovered that the whole Russian exchange program in which I was supposed to participated has been put on hold for the moment).

At any rate, moving means packing up the Russian books in my office. As I do this, I'm logging them into this blog's pages for easy reference, but I'm also thinking about the impact each book has had, or hasn't had, on me. I think that I can honestly say that the vast majority of the books mentioned in this blog, whether works of fiction, poetry, politics, or biography, have been spectacular. However, some of them--good or bad--haven't left a dent on my memory. Take for instance Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line. I have to read the cover again just to tell you what this short novel is all about. (As it turns out, Erofeev is a "thaw" author and the work is descried as "darkly hilarious, crude, and brilliant" which sounds intriguing enough. And the plot description brings back a vague recollection of alcoholism.)

Better yet, there is Ruben Gallego's White on Black, a story of dignity and disability in the midst of Soviet state institutions for orphans and the like. I take no pride in forgetting how Gallego struggled to find an identity despite the general inhumanity of his family and the Soviet system of care.

The list goes on, but I'll close with Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. I know the book dealt smartly with the intellectual climate of Russian intellectuals, anarchists, socialists, and Utopians near the turn of the 19th century. But what Stoppard said, specifically, is lost to me. I've never been one to re-read anything, unless I happen to be teaching the book. Yet putting away so many books makes me think that it's time to start re-reading all of them, even the least memorable.

To contract the forgotten with the remembered, I'll close with a book that I remember somewhat better, Solzhenitsyn's The Oak and the Calf. I don't remember very much of course. Who can remember the details of something read two years ago? But I remember discovering a bookstore across from my hotel in Boulder, Colorado. The bookstore, itself a nice find, soon led to the discover of what is reputed to be one of Solzhenitsyn's best books. It turned out to be just that, although the silly, dated cover photo of the author was a bit embarrassing to carry around town. The book revealed the depth of Solzhenitsyn's courage and moral fortitude in the face of Soviet immorality. It also made me respect the author's capacity for incorporating hundreds of folksy Russian proverbs into his most sophisticated interactions with the Russian intelligentsia. To this day, I wish I had jotted them down as I read. Would it be worth while to read the whole book again merely to find these gems once more and make a list? Is there a book of Russian proverbs out there that would save me the trouble?

That's not a lot to remember about a five hundred page book, I suppose. But holding the book, getting ready to put it into its new home, a plastic crate, reminds me how I moved from this particular bookstore to another, a Left Wing bookstore filled with new editions of Trotsky's books. I know: I was in Boulder and out to have been out cycling...