Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter

I have seldom paused to consider the translators who have made my obsession with Russia possible.  Without them, I wouldn't be able to read any of the hundreds of brilliant Russian novelists, playwrights, and poets admire so much.  Recently, I was so floored by the beautifully elliptical prose of Platonov's book, Soul, that I decided to read up a little on the translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, who had, apparently, helped to convey the book's mysterious power to me. Next I decided to read Chandlers' translation of Alexander Pushkin's novella, The Captain's Daughter.  While it's difficult for a non-Russian speaker to know whether one translation is more or less faithful to the original, I can say that Robert Chandler seems to convey a real sense of poetry in his work. In the future, I'll try to pay more attention to the translations I select.  I've already looked up Robert Chandler's interviews online to see which other translators he recommends.

All this being said, The Captain's Daughter is concise but strangely elegant piece of historical fiction.  The book's plot revolves around a young nobleman, Pyotr Grinyov, who serves on the outskirts of the expanding Russian Empire in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.  The book is a romance, and necessarily involves the protagonist in duels, military combat, and acts of chivalry in the service of a young maiden.  It also relies upon rigid gender stereotypes.  For instance, the heroine of the book lacks almost any positive characteristics, and initiates almost no action whatsoever.  She's handsome;  she suffers and cries;  and she awaits rescue.  Her mother does participate in decision-making, but even this version of female possibility seems to involve perpetually hectoring her husband, and eventually making the noble decision to avoid life in the absence of a husband.

The book is rescued from romantic cliche by its acknowledgement of the brutal center of Russia's social structure and imperial adventures. For Pushkin's hero is slavishly served by a devoted serf.  This serf's fate depends entirely on the whim of Pyotr Grinyov his his landowning father.  Although the serf serves his masters faithfully, Pushkin makes it clear that he is entirely dependent on the goodwill of his lord, who may send him to work in the fields for acts of disloyalty, or for no reason at all.

Pushkin's treatment of inequality lies along side his treatment of Russian imperialism.  For on the outposts of empire, Pushkin makes it clear that the Russian czarina is profoundly resented by local Cossacks and tribal peoples. While the hero expresses few doubts about the legitimacy of his czarina, and admires the men and women who dies in her service, he does not doubt that Russia's civilizing mission in this period involved military aggression and torture.  The complexity of The Captain's Daughter is linked to the author's self-evident respect for the villain of the story, Pugachev, who is generous enough to pardon enemies, and respectable enough to allow Pyotr Grinyov to rescue his love interest from the clutches of an evil Russian rival.  (Note that Pushkin's History of the Pugachev Rebellion provides another excellent avenue into Pushkin's sophisticated approach to social upheaval).

In the end, Pushkin also complicates his depiction of femininity. Although the maiden once merely awaited rescue from Grinyov, she does at least set out to beg assistance for her future husband from Catherine the Great.  While pleading for assistance isn't the textbook definition of female agency, the empress is of course able to exert her willpower at both the center and periphery of empire.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Bertolt Brecht's Diaries, 1920-1922

Some Favorite Quotes from Bertolt Bretcht's Diaries, 1920-1922

How Germany bores me!  It's a good middling country, with lovely pale colors and wide landscapes:  but what inhabitants!  A degraded peasantry whose crudeness however doesn't give birth to any fabulous monsters...

..I keep coming back to the fact that essence of art is simplicity, grandeur and sensitivity, and that of its form coolness.

We've already reached a stage where it's impossible to give a compelling description of death because every conceivable way of dying has already been rehearsed and all one can do is borrow.

Meanwhile a lot of time is passing. I'm not making use of it.  I'm simply glad when it's gone, like skin peeling after sunburn.

I don't believe anything terrible happens in hell.

If one could only calm down to the great simple rhythm of life, the eating of potatoes, the dance in little plank-lined rooms, the sad sunsets in which the air expands, the unvaried external conflicts without distinction or refinement.  You rail against the uniformity of life--the mute dumb witted way in which all living creates refuse to meet their old needs in fresh forms--because you yourself are poor and have no compelling needs.

Expressionism represented a (little German) revolution, but as soon as a certain degree of freedom was permitted, it turned out that there were no free people around...

At night you tumbled into bed like a ripe fruit, voluptuously.

In future I shall produce nothing but flaming mud pies made of shit.

...tears don't suit her face.  She begins to look old then:  water trickling out of a ruin.

A queen is a queen, terror is terror, and Bi is Bi.  She's got style, but she never achieves the same effects as Nature.

...they don't wear the plot like a rubber skin but wrap it round themselves like a broad garment full of folds.

But when Hedda starts squiring high and low because I lured her out of her shell and then left her lying naked, then I remain cool as a cattle-dealer.

He served three years in the war, yet he's too much of a coward to ask an old man for some cider...

Previously he would never kowtow to a pig for the sake of its bacon, nor kill it because it wasn't a stallion.  But now he wants to construct brilliantly ingenious catapults with which to crush this sandflea at long range.

Taking tea is a sport with a bit of soul to it.

The third act is good apart from one or two details.  The fourth is a bastard, an abortion, a plan a cow has squashed.

We slithered about on a bench, she was pale, childlike, lascivious.

There's music under my skin like a snoring walrus, I'm not desperate any longer.  10,000 devils are drumming at me, previously there were 9999.

I realize I'm weak on verbs.

They lop off his feet, chuck away his arms, bore a hole in his head til the whole starry heaven is shining into it:  is he still Galileo?  It's a sex murder story.

And yet there's no kind of rule people find harder to bear than reason.

I described our relationship as something between a marriage and an adventure, a child of compromise in fact.

The man from Galilee died for himself, they called him back to himself, had need of him, didn't merely quote him, sent him to his death once again, then again and again, set him up in a tabernacle, whistled to him whenever there was someone he was supposed to die for, and had him dying for killers and skeptics in round-the-clock cinema performances.

The cakewalk doesn't suit a parquet floor.

An invulnerable man, because he puts up no resistance.

Nine of us in Otto's flat spent the afternoon slowly filling up with tea and alcohol.

Paint faces like still-lifes, landscapes like faces...

Idleness.  I kill time with matchsticks.  I take a critical view of the weather.  I walk till I'm exhausted.

He has too much sense of purpose, wraps a meaning into every situation, believes in progress and thinks that every amoeba is sooner or later bound to turn into a monkey.

Recently my fingers have developed a prejudice against comparatives.  They all follow this pattern:  A squirrel is smaller than a tree.  A bird is more musical than a tree.  Each of us is strongest man in his own skin.  Characteristics should take off their hats to one another, instead of spitting in each other's faces.

What alarms me about [Russia] is not the disorder actually achieved there but the order actually aimed for.  At present I am very much against Bolshevism:  Universal military service, food rationing, controls, conspiracies, economic favoritism.  On top of that, at best:  equilibrium, transformation, compromise.

A man with one theory is lost.  He needs several of them, four, lots!  He should stuff them in his pockets like newspapers, hot from the press always, you can live well surrounded by them, there are comfortable lodgings to be found between theories. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti

Some Quotes from Brecht's Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti

Puntila:  What d'you mean human beings?  You're a human being?  Moments ago you said you were a driver.  Caught you contradicting yourself, haven't I?

Puntila:  I've got a kind heart and I'm not ashamed of it.  Once I picked up a stag beetle in the road and put it in the bushes so it wouldn't get run over, that's how far I'd go.  I let it clamber up a twig.

Puntila:  Matti, look at me.  What do you see?
Matti:  I'd say a fat slob, pissed as arseholes.
Puntila:  That shows the deceptiveness of appearances.  I'm not like that at all.  Matti, I'm a sick man.

Puntila: I get attacks.
Matti:  You don't say.
Puntila:  It's no laughing matter, my friend.  It comes over me every three months or so.  I wake up, and all of a sudden I'm stone cold sober.

Puntila:  Worse still, when I get these attacks of total senseless sobriety I sink to the level of beasts...I become fully responsible for my actions.  D'you realize what that means, brother, fully responsible for one's actions?

Puntila:  "Dear child, why sue me when you said
We always felt so close in bed."

Puntila:  Is a a forest simply ten thousand cords of wood? Or is it a verdant delight for all mankind?

Puntila:  ...that's a problem to looked at without flinching--cool, calm, and drunk.

The Judge:  I tried a divorce case once where the wife complained that her husband never belted her when she threw the lamp at him.  She felt neglected.

Matti:  I knew a gentleman wasn't at all amusing, but it didn't stop him making a million in margarine and fats.

Eva:  I just wanted to point out that the Attache is an intelligent and kindhearted person who ought not to be judged by appearances or by what he says or what he does.

Eva:  Are you feeling sleepy?
Matti:  Just go on talking.  I'm only shutting my eyes so's to concentrate better.

Puntila:  Sooner die than fail to respect our law and order.  I would.  Because everything I do is according to the law.  If I want to clobber a man to death I do it within the law or not at all.

Puntila:  ...I'm not lying to you.  If I said they'd got glanders that'd be a lie, but when I tell you they've got scarlet fever that's a delicate hint from one gentleman to another.

Puntila:  I don't like fixing a deal after drinking just one glass...

Puntila:  And I admire your integrity, and how you always have my best interests at heart.  But it is Puntila's privilege to have his own worst interests at heart, and that's something you haven't learnt yet.

Puntila: I'm not selling any forest.  My daughter's got her dowry between her legs, right?

Matti:  It's a very human habit, discussing.  It's one great advantage we have over the animals.  If cows could discuss for instance, there'd be soon be no more slaughterhouses.

Eva:  He's not all that easily offended, he's got too much debt for that. 

Puntila:  What kind of terms are you on with Eva?
The Attache:  Good terms.  She is a little chilly to me, but then that is her nature.  It is not unlike our position with regard to Russia.  In diplomatic parlance we'd say relations are correct.

Eva:  When I was at my convent in Brussels I never heard anything but decent talk. 

Puntila:  You should look up to your employer's daughter as to a higher being that has graciously condescended to come down amongst us.

Fina:  Miss Eva'd like to a word with you.
Matti:  All right.  I'll just finish my coffee.
Fina:  No need to impress me by drinking it in such a languid way. 

The Judge:  Half the time they're making babies 'cause the summer's so short, and the other half  'cause the winter's so long.

Puntila:  I didn't give you that posh education in Brussels so you could chuck yourself at the chauffeur... Ten paces distances and no familiarities, or chaos sets in, that's my inflexible rule.

Puntila:  The engagement party's all fixed.  I've had a pig killed, that can't be undone now, he's not going to trot quietly back to his trough again just to oblige me and go on eating merely because you've changed your mind.

Matti:  I propose a confederation of Mr. Puntila's fiancees.

Matti:  ...hopes were aroused and expenses incurred...

The Parson:  ...I am left preaching to empty pews;  as though they lacked transport...why, every milkmaid's got a bicycle...

The Parson:  It's no picnic trying to bash a little culture into these bumpkins.

The Judge:  We live in a commercial age.  Everything gets flattened out and the good old institutions disappear. 

The Lawyer:  It's all very well for Puntila, his fields grow of their own accord, but a lawsuit's a terribly sensitive plan and by the time it's fully mature your hair will have gone grey. 

The Attache:  You see the point:  It's not that she has a lover, which is normal, nor that she beats him, which is understandable, but that she does it with an umbrella, which is vulgar.  A question of nuance.

The Attache:  Lady Oxford that I laughed at jokes or bon mots before they're made, meaning that I'm very quick-witted.

Puntila:  Matti, can you fuck decently? 
Matti:  I'm told so.
Puntila:  That's nothing.  Can you do it indecently?  That's what counts.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Jungle of Cities

Some favorite quotes from Bertolt Brecht's Jungle of Cities

Shlink:  The people in your street feel sorry for you.
Galga:  I can't go and gun down the whole goddamn street.

Shlink:  And on this morning, which isn't just like any other, I declare war on you!  I'll begin the fight by shaking the foundations of your life.

Garga:  May I ask you to provide me with better linen, Mr. Maynes. You can't start a whorehouse on five dollars a week.

The Worm:  So that's what they are, books?  A slimy business.  Why have them at all?  There're enough lies in the world as it is.

The Worm:  Books!  What's the use of them?  Did libraries stop the San Francisco earthquake?

Garga:  What are you trying to do, start a frontier town all over again?  Knives?  Guns?  Cocktails?

Garga:  ...let's go away, together.  To San Fransisco, wherever you want to go. I don't know if a man can stay in love forever, but listen, I promise you this:  I'll stay with you.  

Shlink:  As you please.  I only ask you to consider the conditions on this planet, and to accept my offer.

Garga:  What I like is drinking, making love and smoking, all at once, a couple of weeks at a time.
Shlink:  No doubt you'll spare a couple of moments to leaf through a dictionary, too...

Garga:  It's you who started all this frontier business.  I say, all right--let's have it that wild and woolly...
Shlink:  So you're really joining battle?
Garga:  Yes, I am..
Shlink:  You don't even want to know what it is all about?
Garga:  I don't even want to know what it is all about...For me it's enough to know that you think you're the tougher guy.

The Baboon:  Man, I'd rather work with a razor than with crooked papers.  And don't forget, Chicago's a cold place!

Shlink:  All right, you go.
Skinny:  Go?  I've been sitting here in your office for twenty years, come April...
Shlink:  You've been fired.

Garga:  Listen, my dear mother, isn't it plain to see?  Nothing is going to last long anymore, nothing, not the stove and not the wall either.

Mae:  I don't want you to look at me like that--I gave you birth, and I fed you with my milk, and later with bread, and I beat you, and you can't look at me like that.

Manky:  Well...All I say is:  When I take my brig into port, I know how deep the water is.
John:  Can't trust anybody.  

Shlink:  I'm a simple man:  don't expect any words out of my mouth.  All I have in my mouth is my teeth.

Shlink:  We, for our part, we had a cat we could murder, bit by bit:  She drowned while we were teaching her to swim--although she'd been saving us from getting eaten by the rats.

The Worm:  That kid, the wind must've blown him to dust--there isn't a trace of him in all of Chi.

Marie:  Now Chicago awakens, with the milkmen shouting and the meat trucks rumbling through the streets, with the newspapers, with the fresh morning air.  To go away would be a good thing, and to wash yourself in water is good--and prairie or asphalt, both yield a harvest.  Just now, for instance, there's a cool wind rising down there in the flat country where we used to live;  I'm sure of that.

Jane:  Oh, when I float away it is in two parts, each going its own way.

Jane:  Where's he gone?
The Baboon:  Gone to study the faces of those who are getting out of this down--who find it too tough here, you know.

The Worm:  And there's nothing so papery as real life!

Garga:  Stay here, Marie.  We've been marooned in this city, with our country faces.

Shlink:  What a miserable thing life is:  you're living in clover, only the clover isn't good enough.

Garga: You turn members of my family into resources, you live off my supply.  And I'm getting leaner and leaner, I'm drifting away into metaphysics!

Shlink:  You only realize the worth of your affections when their objects lie in the morgue.

Shlink:  It's a straightforward business transaction, no one has to say thanks.

Shlink:  My congratulations, Garga.  You're a revengeful man.

Garga:  I'm sorry, Shlink, there's no chair for you just now.  We're one chair short.

John:  That you'd end up behind bars, well, I guess it was plain as writing on your forehead when you were five years old.

The Worm:  Just consider life on this planet:  A man doesn't get finished off at once, ever--they want to have a least a hundred goes at him!

Jane:  ...people aren't as simple as you think, George, even when they're almost dead and buried.

The Worm:  Maybe you've already noticed:  There's a family here, or rather, the remnants of a family.

Salvation Army Officer:  People are durable, that's their main trouble.  They can do too much to themselves, they last too long.

Garga:  I'm sorry, but you're asking me for a favor at a most unfavorable hour.

Garga:  And now, as the end draws near,  you've become a victim to the black addiction of this planet:   You want to touch others.

Garga:  And the time has passed quickly.  The stations of life are not the same as those of memory.   The end is not the final aim:  The last installment is no more important than any other.

Shlink:  But the coupling of organs...doesn't make up for the divisions caused by speech.

Shlink:  If you cram a ship's hold full of human bodies, so it almost bursts--there will be such loneliness in that ship that they'll all freeze to death.

Garga:  Well, yes, maybe I am a leper, but what's it matter.  You're a suicide.  What do you have to offer me?  You hired me all right, but you haven't paid.

Shlink:  I, Wang Yen, known as Shlink, fifty-four years of age, ended three miles south of Chicago, leaving no inheritors.

Marie:  Go away.  He has just died.  He doesn't want anyone to look at him.  

Bertolt Brecht

Although the playwright Bertolt Brecht wasn't Russian, the life and art of this important German playwright help to illuminate many of the twentieth century themes that help to shape the Soviet political and cultural experience from the early 1920s right through to the 1950s. Coming of age as a playwright in the early years of the Weimar Republic, Brecht quickly became immersed in radical politics.  He also quickly became a cultural figure of international importance. Brecht lived and worked in Denmark, Finland, America, and East Germany, and always remained in contact with leading directors, writers, and musicians from multiple nations.  Over time, Brecht became one of the most influential theorists of radical, didactic, and revolutionary theater.  Bruce Book's collection of essays on Brecht, entitled Brecht in Exile, illustrates the impact of Brecht on global culture. Specific chapters in Cook's book deal with Brecht's often turbulent relationships with Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Kurt Weil, and Fritz Lang.  While critical of Brecht's sometimes self-centered personality, and unconvinced that Brecht's theories of political theater actually influenced his masterpieces, Cook's book demonstrates that the best international art of this period of exile was often a product of a dynamic if contentious dialog between democratic and communist systems of thought.  Of course, if one reads only Cook, one might not get the true measure of Brecht's genius.

To read Brecht's diaries from the period of 1920-1922, one sees a young man vitality, poetic talent, and vast creative energy.  The plays themselves offer the ultimate testimony to Brecht's fertile imagination and powerful drammaturgical impulse. Jungle of Cities, for instance, is an elliptical but nevertheless profound treatise on tragic love in the midst of interpersonal struggle and class conflict. This Chicago story of underworld despair is both morbidly funny and existentially depressing.  As its title Chicago, Brecht envisions capitalist Chicago as a squalid place of exploitation, prostitution, thuggery, and gangland conflict.  Unlike the kinder flat lands that surround Chicago, the city itself is a "cold place."  In Chicago, people learn that "in its natural state human skin is too thin for this world." 

Set in Finland, Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti's setting is slightly more appeal than that of Jungle of Cities, but once again it is a location filled with exploitation and bitterness.  Bruce Book's essays on Brecht imply that Brecht never quite found a way to integrate Marxism with theater.  But Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti in particular seems to demonstrte that Brecht really did find ways to lend theatricality to capitalist exploitation.  For Puntila exploits Matti in extremely comical ways, and Matti resists this exploitation in similarly funny ways.  Neither landowner nor wage slave loses his humanity to impersonal economic forces, but both the fate of both characters is shaped by the logic of the economy.

Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished

Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished doesn't offer any startlingly new insights into the history of early Bolshevism. In fact, Gerwarth's brief account of Lenin's circuitous return to St. Petersburg, subsequent labors to overthrow the Provisional Government, and painful if strategic decision to bring about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, is remarkably free of original historiographical interpretation.  However, the book does place the Russian Revolution into a useful historical context by reviewing the extent of chaos that overwhelmed Europe at the End of World War I.  Gerwarth's argument is not that the experience of total war brutalized human beings as some historians have previously argued.  For the British and French did not experience any particularly virulent disruption of their national political culture after the end of the war.  Rather, Gerwarth argues that the experience of loss in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe led to instability, revolution, and violence on an unprecedented scale in the so-called interwar years.

Gerwarth's thesis is not perhaps new.  But he does offer a shift in emphasis away from the Treaty of Versailles' allegedly misguided war guilt clause, territorial adjustments, and massive reparation payments.  For Gerwarth, the temporary eclipse of the German and Russian Empires, and the complete collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, led to immediate and cataclysmic repercussions for the people who occupied these now furiously contested multi-ethnic, multicultural spaces. Losing the Great War meant losing any semblance of political peace.  At the conclusion of the Great War, Germany endured both a socialist revolution and a failed communist revolution.  Perhaps more importantly, Germany became a space of dark fantasies of political and biological revenge against both internal and external foes.  But disorder also descended upon Eastern and Central Europe.  Most interestingly, the Ottomans managed to partially overturn their loser status by defeating the Greek army and expelling foreign powers from Anatolia.  Uniquely, Italy properly belonged in the victor category, but managed to experience the war as a loser, since it suffered mightily from the conflict and emerged from the war with few clear political gains.  Gerwarth's implicit contention is that this experience of loss in Italy contributed to its willingness to embrace violence in the interwar years, both in its internal politics and in its foreign policy. 

What does all this mean for students of Russian history?  Probably that the tragedies of Soviet history remain firmly linked to the tragedy of the First World War, and that tragedy is twofold:  First, that it took so many lives;  and Second, that it created a power vacuum and therefore failed to end.  Gerwarth makes one interesting if highly controversial insight about Russia's impact on Germany history.  According to Gerwarth, the collapse of the Whites in the Russian Civil War led many profoundly antisemitic Russian emigres to flee to Germany.  These antisemitic Whites then helped to interpret Judaism to German nationalists.  According to Gerwarth, embittered Nazis leaders and other right wing thinkers already blamed Jews for what they perceived as the depredations of international capitalism.  Traditional German antisemitism led them to associate Judaism with banking and international finance.  But the virulently anti-Semitic Russian emigres soon taught people like Hitler to blame the Jews for Communism too.  Of course, the Civil War had created something of an anti-Semitic feedback loop:  when Whites attacked Jews for allegedly aligning themselves with the Bolsheviks, Jews increasingly sometimes turned to the Bolsheviks as their best hope of avoiding further pogroms.  The idea that White Russians contributed to Nazi anti-Antisemitism is an intriguing one, but it seems unfair or even dangerous to even slightly shift the blame for the origins of the Holocaust to Russia, which suffered so much from Nazi invasion and contributed so much to Nazi Germany's eventually downfall. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Lydia Chukovskaya's Sofia Petrovna

The American poet, short-story writer, and humorist once derided a Hollywood film mogul who asked her to give people the happy endings they so desperately wanted.  Parker’s wry response to the mogul was that billions of people had lived on planet Earth, but not one of them had ever experienced a “happy ending.”  

Tolstoy seems to have anticipated Parker’s point about the human lifecycle with his short but powerful work of fiction, The Death of Ivan Illiviach.  With apologies for spoiling the end of the book, Tolstoy’s eponymous hero does little more in the book then slowly and grudgingly accept the fact of his own morality.  Tolstoy’s message seems to be that we all go to great lengths to avoid thinking about death, the one experience common to us all. 

In way, Tolstoy’s book reminded me of the brilliant conclusion of the popular American television series, Six Feet Under.  In this series,--and again, apologies for ruining the series if you have not already read it--the screenwriters appropriately ended a series about funeral home workers by ruthlessly exposing us to the deaths of every single one of the shows characters.  Whether the character died two weeks after the temporal conclusion of the previous episode, or fifty years after that conclusion, the show allows us to see everyone leave this mortal coil. The shocking part of the series’ conclusion, is threefold:  first, the series’ characters die—all of them, without exception; second, their deaths are unanticipated; third, their deaths foreshadow our own.

The Death of Ivan Iliviach exposes us to this kind of truth:  we live, we suffer, and we die.  But it took Soviet authors to add one more truth to this morbid plot structure.  In Lydia Chukovskaya’s short novel, Sofia Petrovna, the protagonist slowly, begrudgingly comes to the realization that the Soviet state may be author of universal—or nearly universal—death.   

At the outset of the book, Sofia Petrovna has made her peace with the Soviet regime.  Although she had enjoyed a comfortable, bourgeois pre-war existence, the October Revolution had overturned social norms and, more immediately, forced her to share her large apartment with a number of working class families.  Notwithstanding the loss of many rooms in her old apartment, Sofia Petrovna had taken a job as a typist at a prestigious publishing house, and advanced there through hard work and considerable precision.  Additionally, Petrovna’s son, a model Soviet citizen, had played by the rules of the new society and done exceedingly well in the process.  Educated as an engineer, Sofia Petrovna’s son believed in socialist ideals and dedicated his extraordinary intelligence to advancing the industrial capability of the Worker’s Paradise. 

Over time, the inevitable truth about Soviet power emerges, as Sofia Petrovna’s boss, son, and close friend all suffer from State violence.  Like Tolstoy’s hero, who resists the notion that his comfortable life could be drawing to a close for not apparently good reason, Sofia Petrovna resists the realization that the government she once supported could arbitrarily imprison not only her son, but also the thousands of other ordinary Soviet citizens from all walks of life she encounters as she attempts render her son aid through an overwhelmed, heartless, and even malevolent, judicial system.  The difference between Tolstoy’s hero and Chukovskaya’s heroine is only this:  Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna seems so overwhelmed by the knowledge of the State’s malevolence that she seemingly allows herself to escape into madness. With her friend dead, her old job surrendered, and neighbors conspiring against her, Sofia Petrovna invents a story of redemption:  in this alternative reality, the Soviet State acknowledges its gross judicial error, releases her son, and allows him to return to the service of a just society.   

The escapism of Sofia Petrovna is not quite as heroic as the stoicism of Ivan Ilivianch.  But can we begrudge Sofia?  At her funeral, a friend of the famously morbid Dorothy Parker suggested that she wouldn’t have been adverse to a little escapism herself.  To paraphrase, the orator said that Dorothy wouldn’t have liked the formality of her funeral ceremony.  In fact, the speaker continued, had she had her way, Dorothy would have preferred not to be at her funeral at all. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

Andrea Pitzer's The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov isn't quite as fugitive, subtle, or revolutionary as its name suggests.  The book is well-researched, and well-written, and offers readers an excellent overview of many of the political themes that Nabokov directly or indirectly addresses in his large oeuvre. However, the book isn't really offering readers an especially novel interpretation of the author's general perspectives on politics.  In any event, reading Pitzer's treatments of Nabokov's life and major works reminds one of the extraordinary way in which a single life can touched by multiple historical tragedies. For Nabokov's life was overturned by the Russian Revolution, and his subsequent exile was disrupted by the rise of fascism in Germany.  In the end, Nabokov and his Jewish wife barely Germany's invasion of France in 1940, but Pitzer notes how his experience with authoritarianism and antisemitism permeated many of his books, including his English-language ones.  By and large, Nabokov chose to remain aloof from politics, but his support for Russian liberalism, and virulent hatred for communism were always well-known.  In fact, Nabokov's growing disgust for Edmund Wilson's socialist sympathies helped to dissolve a long and productive intellectual dialog.  Perhaps the most original aspect of Pitzer's book is to place Nabokov's aesthetic and political life along side those of Solzhenitsyn.  Both writers were of course famous anti-communist Russian exiles who spent time in America and had at least some connection to Switzerland.  However, comparing the two greater writers reminds the reader that only one of them placed his political and moral opinions at the forefront of his literary project. For while Solzhenitsyn wrote about Soviet authoritarianism in The Gulag Archipelago, The Cancer Ward, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and various other fictional and nonfictional works, Nabokov attacked his Soviet enemies only obliquely in his novels.  Which author had the greater work on moral and aesthetic history remains to be seen.  Certainly Nabokov he had no business conflating the political with the literary.  But the author dismisses these objections, insisting that Nabokov's worldview is encapsulated in his fiction.  Thus, if Nabokov had a secret history at all, it was primarily a secret he kept from himself.  This may of course explain his vociferous opposition to psychotherapy. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Mikhail Zoshchenko's The Galosh and Other Stories

Zoshchenko was once immensely popular with the Soviet people.  It's easy to see why.  His stories are short, easily digestible, endlessly inventive, and funny.  More than this, Zoshchenko's stories allowed Soviet citizens the opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of dozens of dimensions of everyday Soviet life.  Zoshchenko's stories make fun of both the bourgeoisie and the unthinking proletariat who bore such visceral animosity toward this declining class.  Indeed, Zoshchenko's stories are filled with characters who don't quite know how to treat formerly middle class or aristocratic men and women. While the atavistic class elements aren't given a lot of dignity, Zoshchenko's workers seem to confront their class enemies with a great deal of awkwardness, insecurity, unnecessary anger, and even guilt.  The stories are in many ways the best way to measure the depth of the transformation taking place in Russian during the 1920s.  Somewhat paradoxically, Zoshchenko's sketches show both that traditional Russian life was being rapidly overturned, and that revolutionary change was often transitory, superficial, and skin-deep.  Thus, the new Russians had different words, different governmental structures, and different belief systems.  But they still suffered from perennial Russian problems, including housing shortages, bribery, gender insecurity, and stupidity.  In once read a review of Tolstoy's book about the pre-revolutionary judiciary and prison system.  The reviewer claimed that Tolstoy's catalog of ancien corruption and brutality and shown him why the Revolution had occurred.  Zoshchenko's stories are similarly revealing about the post-revolutionary years.  They reveal just how much was still being worked out by everyday Russians who didn't quite know what the Revolution man for their everyday lives.  After Revolution, how were you supposed to date, play, think, pray, eat, live, or even talk?  Whatever was happening in elite Soviet circles, ordinary Soviet citizens had to continuously decide the meaning of revolution for themselves, from one day to the next.  After the Revolution, was a wife suppose to keep cooking all of the family meals? Was it okay to date a formerly wealthy person? Was it okay to accept the authority of others in the workplace?  Was it okay to keep believeing in God? Zoshchenko's stories address dozens of these questions, but most importantly, they addressed one central question:  After the Revolution, what was funny? 

Below are some snippets from The Galosh and Other Stories:

"Bribery.... The word alone drives me mad with indignation..."

"The times are over when people could just be shoved in broad daylight.  We've been shoved enough."

"He was rich.  Home comforts, and a wardrobe, and chests full of goods...he even had two samovars."

"I'm telling you:  If you, you old fart, go to Labourers' Gardens at seven o'clock in the evening on Saturday the twenty-ninth of July, then you'll see with your own eyes what a roving butterfly your spouse is.  Wake up, you old fart.  Respectfully yours, An anonymous friend."

"So, you see, I polished the floors, say, on a Monday, and on Saturday the Revolution took place." 

"It was in the theater that she exposed the full extent of her ideology."

"And suddenly she walked over to the plate in her decadent way, grabbed a cream cake, and chomped away on it."

"I suddenly felt some bourgeois embarrassment."

"I used to take a skeptical attitude towards the abilities of dogs.  But not now, now I fear and respect dogs."

"Kind people, class-conscious citizens!" he said.  "Tie me up.  "I," he said, "collected money for the water, but I spent that money on myself."

"She wasn't pretty of course, this lady, but I wasn't looking at her exterior, I was looking at her interior."

"You can go and croak," he said, "and don't count on the aid of science."

"The most fashionable word you could possibly find these days is, of course, electrification."

"And next day to her some bourgeois bastard was leaning over to her and whispering in her inner ear."

"Out the window with the lot of it:  the cooker, the saucepans, the washtub.. Let the woman know freedom... She's got the same rights as me."

"You can't imagine how much better off we are for this change.  It's brought nothing but advantages, clear profit!"

"This Russian's a hard language, my dear citizens.  A disaster, it's so hard."

"I haven't got a very good imagination.  That's why I don't like wasting my previous life-blood on some non-existent made-up stuff. I know, dear reader, that life is much more important than literature."

"Firewood--said the man--is precious stuff... You can even give firewood as a birthday present."

"You can't give firewood away as a present, this isn't 1919, you know."

"Citizens, you ask me whether I was ever an actor.  Well, I was.  I've played in a theater.  I've been entangled in that art."

"Productivity, he said, that foundation-stone of Soviet life, is improving."

"They say, comrades, that the bathhouses in America are totally excellent."

"But where's a naked man to keep tickets?  I'll tell you where, no where.  He hasn't got any pockets.  It's all stomach and legs."

"This isn't the tsarist regime, You can't just go round whacking people with tubs." 

"I won't say what street it's on.  I can't afford to.  Because then when I next go there they'll bash my brains out with a tub, and that would be the end of a politically conscious, thoughtful citizen."

"And people talk about civilization and education!  For example, now they use these new diesel locomotives to pull trains.  But then they allow totally uncivilized behavior in the carriages."

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Linor Goralik's Found Life

I have been impressed with many of the new titles in Columbia University's new series of Russian translations.  See, for instance, my posts on Platonov's Fourteen Little Huts and Other Plays as well as my posts on Iliazd's Rapture.  Thus is came as no surprise to me that Columbia University Press' book by Linor Goralik, entitled Found Life, would be almost equally good.  The book is a collection of the modern author's richly creative and varied productions, and includes poems, stories, and comics, as well as a play and an interview.  This post will dwell on Goralik's collection of extremely short sketches of modern Russian life.  Although her short prose is apparently fictional, they somehow closely resemble Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich's project of recognizing ordinary, everyday Russian speech as a form of literature.  Although Goralik's short prose is apparently highly polished or outright fictional representations of overheard speech, it somehow seems like an oral history of the present moment.

To be sure Goralik's short prose doesn't reach the emotional depth or historical significance of Alexievich's work on Chernobyl, Chechnya, the Soviet experience, or World War II.  Goralik's work is a form of oral history sans history, if such a thing is possible. To my mind, the project of recording the tragedy of quotidian life via banal speech patterns is extraordinarily captivating.  For good or evil, it reminds me of what television producers and audiences alike realized not so long ago:  one needs neither actors, nor scripts, to produce well-acted, and well-descriptive television.  But like reality television, one wonders if authors such as Goralik will reach the limits of this genre in the near future.  If Duchamp's toilet seat was art, everything else could be considered art too.  It's a revolutionary moment, but it doesn't last all that long.  Sooner or later, the experiment is over. With respect to reality television, the conventions of the new art form remain:  the camera shakes, the actors try to say unpredictable things, and the content appears to be as frivolous as ever.  But over time, the audiences become increasingly sophisticated, and demand well-crafted "spontaneous" moments and actors with enough training to really pass themselves off as "amateurs."  In any event, we must appreciate the artistic moment while it lasts, and celebrate authors such as Goralik who have produced such startlingly revealing--if almost overbearingly light--archives of the present.

Some snippets from Goralik's short prose pieces:

[Speaking of Jackie Kennedy].  "If I were as much as love as she was, I would have work those gloves for the rest of my life.  I mean, well, probably I'd go crazy first then I'd be a crazy old lad wearing gloves with President Kennedy's blood on them.  And I'd call them 'John."  Both of 'em.  Or maybe one John and the other one Robert."

"...the wife comes home and the cat smells like someone else's perfume."

" just imagine you're looking at a copy of 1950s Amateur Erotica and inside, on like page ten, there's your mom covering up her left breast with a hand mixer.  Sure, there's really nothing wrong with that. But some book to get as a present, right?"

"Anya, you know, her mom abandoned her too, but not like how you abandoned me..."

"I just don't want to be a girl, I just don't want to, I don't.  The good thing is at least I lost my virginity.  At least that's done, thank God."

"You know, he did ballet as a kid, then worked for the KGB, so, like basically a real inspired dude."

"And his mama bitch slaps him, screaming:  'What did I tell you--never admit to anything!!!"

"...when he loved me I was never jealous, but when he didn't love me--I got jealous."

"So he bought like five pounds of meat and went around his neighborhood that night and switched out all the Jesuses with, like hams...It was super conceptual, really great.  Not like just sitting at home with the family, smiling like dumbasses."

"Because real life just doesn't produce tragedies of that magnitude."  

"...he ate one hot dog and left. I mean, tell me, Lena, do I need this?"

"...she's got strawberry yogurt inside instead of blood... And then in a year she'll give birth to a kid with Pyle's syndrome.  And that, Pasha, is what you call God's plan."

"... I don't like people like that.  She makes three thousand bucks in a month, but her cat craps in that seventy-ruble Soviet litter."

"...she is a weak, cowardly, clingy, totally incompetent, very difficult, very unhappy woman.  And we should feel sorry for her and not talk shit."

"What difference does it make how it all ended?  The important thing is how it started, you know?"

"...They were saying the worst shit about you behind your back!  That you're pregnant, married, and you have a three-year-old!  Can you believe it?  The bastards!"

"... I'll tell you a story that is totally St. Petersburg.  I don't know why Petersburg, I mean it happened in Prague, but it's really just so Petersburg."  

"...we have a family tradition--doing idiotic deeds for absolutely no personal benefit."

"...I don't go to class reunions so as not to fall into pride...Like, the majority of them are living these lives, like, even Google isn't looking for them."  

"I showed  my knife right away, it was that kind of conversation."

"You'll be thirty-two next year.  If a man still has questions at thirty-two, he's an idiot, a waste of space, he doesn't deserve to live, no one can live like that."  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tristram Hunt's Marx's General

Tristram Hunt's biography of Friedrich Engels, Marx's General, provides readers with an excellent introduction to the evolution of socialism in the 19th century.  Indeed, Engels repeatedly found himself at the very epicenter of European and even global history.  He was, of course, a student of German philosophy at its zenith, and was well-versed in the work of almost every philosophical giant of the early nineteenth century, including Hegel and Feuerbach.  What is more, Engels was an extremely successful industrialist in Manchester at precisely in time when Manchester's mills were conquering every market they encountered.  Most importantly, Engels was both also a famously trenchant social critic and an active revolutionary who participated in the revolutionary events of 1848 and tried to offer support for a variety of other social and political upheavals right up until his death in the 1890s.

As a biographer, Hunt seems most intrigued by the way that Engels was able to balance his bourgeois (and almost aristocratic) existence even as he plotted to destroy capitalism.  On the one hand, Engels worked faithfully for the family firm and revealed in aristocratic activities such as fox hunting.  On the other hand, he authored the Condition of the Working Class in England, coauthored The Communist Manifesto and other influential socialist texts, and worked tirelessly to promote working class revolutionary politics.

From the perspective of Russian history, Hunt sometimes seems to argue that Engels' is only indirectly relevant.  After all, Marx and Engels seldom focused on Russia in their work.  Nor could either man have predicted that a communist revolution would first be successful in the relatively backward economic conditions of Russia.  Indeed, if the Russian Revolution was at least partly the product of a very long history of intellectual ferment in the West, Hunt argues that Marx and Engels bears very little, or perhaps no, responsibility for Bolshevik or Stalinist totalitarianism.  According to Hunt, Marx and Engels' produced essentially humane works of criticism, and the political positions they supported, including feminism, the North's war against slavery in the United States, and government involvement in social welfare programs, have very little in common with post-World War I experiments in state coercion.  Seen in the light Engels' long life of revolutionary thought, Hunt argued that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath have very little in common with twentieth century state brutality.

Of course, Hunt's book is ultimately a biography. So while it touches upon all of Engels' many contributions to what has become known as Marxism, it does not offer a very meaningful perspective on the impact of his ideas on totalitarianism as a system of thought.  We can perhaps accept the fact that Marx and Engels were humane figures who passionately believed that capitalism could be improved upon, without necessarily accepting the fact that their belief systems did not have some deeply troubling if unintended consequences.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's The Return of Munchchausen

Surely Sigizmund Krzhizhandovsky is one of the smartest writers twentieth century Russia has produced.  Filled with lyrical prose, and beautiful descriptions of various locales, all of Krzhizahdovsky's books are filled with powerful and original ideas about life and art.  In fact, their absurd, modernist plots sometimes seem overshadowed by the complex ideas the author is explicating.  Half science, half art, The Return of Munchausen is probably one of Krzhizhandovsky's most innovative books.  In fact, it reminds this blogger of a better version of Ilya Ehrenburg's later work, The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, which is also an absurdist adventure tale of genius. 

The Return of Munchausen contains a reasonable narrative arc, but that arc is often less important that the vitality of the myriad ideas that populate each chapter.  Krzhizhandovsky is a brilliant thinker and an original modernist stylist, whose flights of fancy make a  master American modernist like William Burroughs look almost derivative by comparison.

The author's surreal plot points mock many different aspects of modern European life but are particularly effective at satirizing the early years of Soviet Union.  For Krzhizhandovsky, the Soviet experiment appears to be insanely bureaucratic, criminally negligent, duly scientific, unthinkingly militaristic, and cruelly egalitarian.  Krzhizhandovsky is not, however, merely concerned with criticizing the Soviet government.  Rather, he seems to be dissecting the post-World War I human condition, which involves violence and disorientation.

Notwithstanding his apparent disgust for Soviet rule, Krzhizhandovsky evidently has a grudging respect for the importance of revolution, which, the baron claims, is the primary method for dividing time into different historical periods.  Not merely serving as the numbers on a clock, revolutionary events serve to speed up time.  If 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 came as violent shocks, 1917 threatens to throw everyone off balance entirely.

The shock of the 1917 revolution is particularly unnerving as a result of its close connection to war.  Throughout The Return of Muchchausen, traces of World War I appear, including Versailles and other so-called peace treaties.  But Soviet society seems to be the society most specacularly transformed by the Great War.  The impact of World War I on Russian life is paritcularly evident in the author's recurring use of war terminology, including trenches, missiles, artillery barrages, musket locks, and hunger.  It's also evident when the baron encounters buffer states, guard towers, frontiers, and customs officers as he attempts to make his way into the secretive "Land of the Soviets."  As a reflection of the future, Russia is perhaps inherently warlike.

However, the impermeability of the Russian frontier also speaks to the fact that non-Russians find the mysterious Soviet Union as tantalizing as a glimpse of the unknown future should be.  Bad or good, people want to know what the future has in store for them.  They expect to keep their eyebrows raised continuously as they encounter the future in every facet of Soviet life.  In the case of the baron, he eventually has to restart to riding on the back of a rocket to enter Bolshevik Russia to get a proper taste of modernity.  "Yes, I had at once to admit that you cannot outrun technology.  Even phantasms cannot outstrip it."

The new revolutionary government isn't merely modern by virtue of its warlike qualities.  It is also modern in its class antagonisms.  In Soviet Russia, the baron is obviously an atavistic presence.  As an American writer once said, the world had (formerly) been ruled by men who did less than two hours of work a day.  Things would be different in this Soviet society of the future where everyone could be equally impoverished.

What of the politics of the future?  In Russia, men and women lived in a state of constant surveillance.  Soviet people lived "lives fenced off by denunciations and chekaneries;  raise your eyes to theirs and you see pupils like point-blank muzzles."  The baron notes that democracy has no role whatsoever to play in this most modern of countries.  In fact, back in Britain, the British are forced to do some extraordinarily absurd calculations--i.e., they quantify the work power required to move the tongues of politicians--to justify the system they have defended for so many years.

One of the more interesting aspects of Krzhishanovsky's portrayal of time, revolution, and modernity, is that he demonstrates that modern men and women are increasingly disoriented by their headlong movement into unknown territory even as they continue to have access to the experiences of multiple historical epochs. 1917 wasn't just a year of political experimentation, it was a year of films, electricity, and "rivers of automobiles."

Russia's current experiment with centralized bureaucratic rationalization has its antecedents in Catherine the Great's flirtation with the Enlightenment, the Russian people are somehow able to remember life before the Soviets brought them electrification and every other symbol of modernity.  Post-World War I life in Russia wasn't therefore merely a bold movement into the future. It was also a radical juxtaposition of many different historical eras operating on the same temporal plane.  As a countess argues:  "And when we became angelless, the smoke rose up from space to time and so began our beclouded (as through a haze) Time of Troubles. Time itself became troubled and the centuries confused, the thirteenth with the twentieth,  and then:  revolution."

To be sure, Krzhizhanovsky's problem with time isn't unique.  As literary critics have pointed out, many modernist authors were deeply concerned with the nature of time, and set out to explore its mutability in bold literary experiments.  Krzhizahanovsky may be reasonably original, however, in that he has associated a new temporal reality with the Russian Revolution.  For his characters, modernist time isn't merely something to be explored, it is something to be lamented.  As the countess continues:  "Look at the street-clocks disks:  are their hands not trembling with disgust, flicking off the seconds' soot and cinders?  Are your eyes not crying, stung by the smoke of the times?"

Even in Europe's most modern state, the underside of modernity continues to exist.  Thus, officially atheist Russia continues to harbor deeply religion peasants, and communist leaders of a nationalized economy continue to feel anxiety about the possible return of exiled property owners.  Even the ancient "hordes" of Russian history remained ready to strike out in violence against undetermined targets.  Thus, on one level at least, communist Russia remains "unhurrying, ever in slow motion."  As one Russian puts it, "We may inch along, but we do advance."  Paradoxically, the Land of the Soviets was therefore a site of technological innovation and a site of peasant "pitchforks" and "bast shoes."  It was a place where superstitious, "know-nothing" peasants might yet take heed to the baron's stern advice:  "I told him he should be ashamed, at his hoary age, of trading God for socialism."

The Land of the Soviets was therefore essentially a series of paradoxes.  It was the kind of place where plans were being drawn up for everything, including that which could not, or should not, be planned.  As the baron recalled, upon entering the Soviet Union he "drew up a plan to rationalize brigandage."  The expression, of course, seems to perfectly capture the criminality of Stalin's version of socialism.  The Land of the Soviets was a place where advanced "Red Science" could easily coexist with basic food shortages.  As one Soviet representative told the baron, "Our life is like an exhibition:  One of everything, but not more."  In the topsy-turvy landscape of modernity, Russian reality rubbed against Russian dreams.  "We are poor and shall be poorer still," states a communist apologist. "But all the same, sooner or later, our country of huts shall become a country of palaces."

Below are some favorite quotations from the book.

"You do Berlin a disservice, baron.  We too have mastered a few things:  ersatz, for instance, and the metaphysics of factionalism--"

"Not at all:  Life, like any ware, is subject to supply and demand.  Have newspapers and wars not taught you that?"

"I flatter myself that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy."

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, now you must not object.  In your hands you hold not only glasses of champaign;  you have opened a savings account for me in Being."

"Russia, unhurrying, ever in slow motion"

"On arriving in Moscow, I must find out how long the supplies of Russian literature will last."

"At this I raised my eyebrows and indeed I did not lower them during my entire sojourn in Moscow.  Prepared for extraordinary things, my heart pounding, I now entered that city build on blood and mystery."

"Yes, I had at once to admit that you cannot outrun technology.  Even phantasms cannot outstrip it."

"The sun and I, having completed our trajectories, were both ready to drop."

"here I was in a country of superstitious know-nothings..."

"I told him he should be ashamed, at his hoary age, of trading God for socialism."

"I applied my spurs, but you cannot gallop away from four-legged horses on a two-legged one."

"I drew up a plan to rationalize brigandage."

"people are kind so long as you don't contradict them."

"These men had enviable lungs (the Russian people develop their lungs by blowing on their samovars)..."

"an asthmatic man was running, butting the air with his bald pate"

"My interlocutor spoke tersely (without incidental or dependent clauses), preferring question marks to all others.  He put his questions the way people put buckets and basins under cracks in the ceiling ahead of rain, and waited."

"Our life is like an exhibition:  One of everything, but not more."

"We are poor and shall be poorer still.  But all the same, sooner or later, our country of huts shall become a country of palaces."

"His laugh lengthened, then shortened the crack of his mouth, like an aperture during a short exposure."

"So then, all of our penmen are given a choice:  feast or famine.  Some work steadily;  others starve."

"The Dictionary of Omissions: Complete and Unabridged"

"Revolution's notorious broom, which raises more dust than it sweeps out, tried to sweep the idealists out of Russia's house, but of course, so I reflected, many of them got stuck in the doorway"

"Have you noticed that the crows of Tsverskoi Boulevard, instead of cawing, have started hurrahing? Now what could be the point?"

"And when we became angelless, the smoke rose up from space to time and so began our beclouded (as through a haze) Time of Troubles. Time itself became troubled and the centuries confused, the thirteenth with the twentieth,  and then:  revolution."

"Look at the street-clocks disks:  are their hands not trembling with disgust, flicking off the seconds' soot and cinders?  Are your eyes not crying, stung by the smoke of the times?"

"..lives fenced off by denunciations and chekaneries;  raise your eyes to theirs and you see pupils like point-blank muzzles."


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Iliazd's Rapture

The Georgian Iliazd's Rapture is a prose poem if ever there was such a thing.  It's filled with lyrical descriptions of nature, brilliant flights of fancy, clever turns of phrase, and powerfully original ideas about existence and non-existence.  Below are a few favorite passages.

"..something like violins or the whine of an infant in pain barely bled through the tempest."

"the blissfulness of this glacial slumber..."

"the forecourt of paradise"

"But Brother Mocius slept and was not sleeping..."

"A sequence of trivia, more and more numerous..."

"Summits, spiteful and disfigured.."

"floating on the preposterously lilac water, a rabble of alpine butterflies was bathing very peacefully..."

"suspicious crags"

"promenading on the bottom, you could make out their teeny-tiny antennae"

"But imps are no longer menacing in these parts"

"Here, goats and chamois ambled under the watch of spirits with dense feathers and rudimentary feet"

"Sinless, they would stare at the sun for hours without squinting"

"The hamlet...was situated right next to the glaciers and forests and renowned for being populated exclusively by cretins and people with goiters"

"The old man was approaching eighty and had irrevocably lost his mind, without, however, losing his ability to sleep with his wife, shoulder loads of firewood, and be the wisest shepherd in the neighborhood."

"The wenny wife was a very ordinary old lady, well-preserved and beautiful, despite her monstrous goiter and hunchback"

"Busy with his chess, his speculations, and his books, the former forester overlooked his daughter growing and maturing beside him."

"even in this land where all women were beautiful, Ivlita was an altogether exceptional phenomenon.  And not, like all perfect things, dead.."

"Her movements were intrinsic to fleshy perfection..."

"And, to be precise, the young woman hadn't grown up, hadn't suffered the ponderousness of earthly existence and the tedium of growth.."

"the dew was bitter and brackish.  The lavishness of falling starts lighting up the heavens made sleeping difficulty, and the roosters' crowing particularly throaty."  

"you couldn't leave the hamlet without running smack into a bears' wedding."

"The forest, anticipating the snow, was gripped with fever, and moans and groans burst from the thickets."

"But her animation soon drained away, replaced by a stupor, a dormancy full of visions, a daily life rich in emotional turmoil and short on events."

"Spring drags on overlong, longer than the winter and more restive.  More superfluous variety."

"And yet, no matter how simple this sensitive life and how alien Ivlita was to desires, she was short on rapture.  Her cultivated and complex mind's mind, endowed with inward contemplation at the expense of outward, was conscious of being its own enemy."

"Beliefs and rituals--she fled them to keep the emptiness from expanding even more."

"And that autumn, after languishing to her heart's content during the course of the year, Ivlita was thinking of snow as though it were death"

"Who would climb up under the clouds for the love of crime?"

"vainly attempted to drown out the chiropters"

"And if the snow had gone on for years, she would have felt neither more joyful nor more melancholy."

"And that autumn, after languishing to her heart's content during the course of the year, Ivlita was thinking of snow as though it were death."

"Ivlita tried to avoid complications, replying neither 'yes' nor 'no."

"Ivlita arranged the dollars, named them, played with them;  in short did nothing but beat one another in spite, kill one another, and Ivlita saw this way, too, had been choked off.  One day, she hurled them into the stove"

"The master of the house was lying there--deceased, perhaps, but formidable."

"Previously, his colloquies on the advantages of brigandage had largely been exercises in eloquence"

"And those fingers, what rings did they not demand, what necklaces did her neck not await, what tiara her precious head?"

"As though his victims had infected him with the malady of nonexistence."

"In the end, it wasn't worth robbing churches, either--a lot of complications and trouble with the locals.  And when you got right down to it, could your really walk around the forest in vestments carrying gonfalons?"

"and since you wouldn't think of drinking coffee at home, the whole populace hung out at the coffeehouse, including children, peacocks, parrots, and cats."

"The sea, poured out before him, didn't speak to him and only aggravated his boredom."

"She'd never before suspected how unbelievably difficult dying was.  Much more complicated than living."

Well, have you brought us good fortunate with your unlawful sleeping around?  Have you seduced Laurence to quench your abominable lust?  Did you conquer him with your fucking beauty?"

"But, really, he was right, she thought to herself.  Those unpardonable blasphemies against rapture she was guilty of."

"From the the heights, the lark that never lands on the treats sprinkled a trill of eternal return."

"It's not seemly for a murderer to remain with the victim"

"The hard life is a ficticious life.  Natural life is easy and cloudless."

"framed by crags, fettered in ice"

"but does a mirror reflecting something animate cease to be itself inanimate?"

"I wanted to assault you, but, you see, it's hard without my leg."

"Bull fuck your mother!" roared Laurence, "I would have killed you, but I'm sick of getting dirty."  

"We strive to take everything from the rich so there won't be any rich people and everyone will be equally poor."

"Our only concern is the world, where we want to establish equality and expedient coercion.  You seek freedom, but necessity propels you, the party strives for what is necessary and is therefore free."

"...reared their heads up all day, picking their teeth, although they never ate anything."

"The time comes when you can't even trade your wife at a loss--you can move on to your own children.  That's the reason here raise children."

"monotonous to the point of nausea"

"But Laurence could no longer sleep in the company of Basilisk, who took the liberty of killing his friends in their beds."

"his speech dripped, accentuating his silence"

"Day seeped into the room at a revoltingly slow pace."

"The slaughtered beasts showed black from afar, a magnificent hill"

"On the steep slopes, the corpse slid down more quickly, knocked her off her feet, drew her behind it, pulled her down into the snow, and she would get up after lying in the dead man's embrace, covered in blood."

"Laurence, without any sales pitch, parted with his gold, overpaying for everything--regardless of the conscientious tavern keeper's intervention--by a factor of three."

"Neither police, nor perfidy, nor bullets had dissuaded him."

"But the thought of future massacres, the blood that would flow, enraptured them all, cheered them, made some cling to others, draw deep breaths, find life magnificent, and themselves likewise"

"In its first advent, nature was comprehensible, but meaningless."

"..everything was insignificant, or significant, to the extent that the noise of a waterfall, an owl's cry, or the groan of a tree entering its senescence is weighty."

...Ivlita found comfort thinking that nature is absolute equilibrium."

"With his eyes he squared accounts for all his liberties, and his witticisms were so flat, while his eyes were so horrifying, that by way of exception, everyone pretended to believe him"

"And even though the highlanders' dress was picturesque, no one lifted their heads, let alone turned to look at the new arrivals."

Monday, February 5, 2018

Emma Gerstein

Emma Gerstein's Moscow Memories:  Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia under Russia is an invaluable resource.  It imitate portrayal of the intelligentsia in the age of Stalin allows readers to understand that intellectual and creative work continued even in the midst of authoritarian terror. Although Gerstein was a serious scholar of Lermotov, her memoirs--as the subtitle implies--are particularly interesting insofar as they offered additional or even alternative descriptions of two of Russia's greatest modern poets:  Akhmatova and Mandelstam.

In Gerstein's account, Mandelstam emerges as a deeply flawed human being whose nervous disposition often made life difficult for friends and family.  Gerstein's depiction of Mandelstam's wife is even more caustic, with Nadezdha Mandelstam emerging as a relatively selfish champion of her brilliant husband.  Gerstein's worst complaint of the couple is related to the claim that Mandelstam evidently offered up Gerstein's name in at least on interrogation by the secret police.  According to Gerstein, Nadezhda justified the action on the grounds that her name was already compromised.  Nevertheless, Gerstein was rightly hurt that she was delivered so nonchalantly after years of aiding the two.

In the end, one believes Gerstein, not only because she seems to be a singularly honest memoirist, who constantly testifies to her own moral failings, but also because it's easy to believe that a great poet would have found it difficult to live in Soviet Russia without resorting to petulance, selfishness, moral compromise, and self-pity.  Authoritarian pressure on free intellectual discourse made life for sensitive souls all but impossible. Gerstein's take on Nadezdha in particular is easy to credit, largely because unfettered moral genius probably always has its downside, including insensitivity to men and women who fail to live up to unusually high ethical standards.  One thinks of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who bravely opposed Soviet totalitarianism for decades, but then failed to interrogate his own self-serving nationalism in the final years of his life.  In the end, there is room to believe both Gerstein and Nadezdha.  For if Nadezdha had not been the sort of woman who could occasionally ignore the legitimate complaints of friends, neither would she have been the sort of woman who could have single-handedly defended the legacy of her husband against the false and egregiously immoral demands of Soviet elites. 

In contrast to the chapters on Mandelstam, Gerstein's account of her friend, Akhmatova, is almost entirely positive. Gerstein clearly admired the dignified fortitude of her long-suffering friend. In particular, she defends the poet against the accusations of her son, Lev Gumilev, with whom Gerstein had once been in love.  Gerstein's description Gumilev's relationship with his mother is probably the most fascinating aspect of Gerstein's memoirs. They explicate the elements of the myriad personal tragedy associated with Stalinism.  Gumilev, also son of the executed poet by the same name, was a genius in his own right, and someone incapable of accommodating his own behavior to the exigencies of authoritarianism. While Gumilev became an important Russian ethnographer, he was ultimately severed from his mother by his horrendous experience in the labor campus.  With tenuous, surveillance-state communications between mother and son, Gumilev began to blame his mother for his condition, or at least blame her for not caring enough about his bitter fate.  Gerstein was a front line witness to this personal catastrophe.

Of course, Gerstein's memoirs demonstrate that intellectual life continued even in the midst of Stalinism.  For instance, Gerstein's acquaintance, the brilliant Yury Tynyanov somehow managed to write the extremely well-researched and sensitive book, Young Pushkin, between 1935 and 1943.  Nevertheless, Gerstein's description of everyday life under Stalin reminds readers of the creeping terror of those years, since so many of her acquaintance of her casual acquaintances end off dead, and not merely as a result of the brutal Nazi invasion.