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...

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