Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Elisabeth Gille's The Mirador

Elisabeth Gille's book, The Mirador, is a beautiful alloy:  it's both a creative work of fiction, and an imaginative biography of her mother, whom she lost when she was very young.  With insight from  extensive historical research, Gille wrote a fictional memoir of her mother.  The book is beautifully written, and tells the story of Nemirovsky's childhood in Kiev, coming of age in St. Petersburg, exile in Paris, and eventually doom in the Nazi-occupied French countryside. It's themes revolve around Nemirovsky's Jewish ethnicity, even though she had few if any religious beliefs.

Born into great and constantly increasing wealth, Nemirovsky was nevertheless constantly threatened by anti-semitism.  In the Ukraine, she was the witness to deadly programs.  In St. Petersburg, she remained acutely aware of the tsar's anti-Semitic legal regime.  Fleeing the Revolution, she easily reestablished herself in Paris, and eventually parleyed her perfect French into a highly successful literary career, before fleeing the Nazi invasion and falling victim to Vichy France's cruel anti-Jewish regulations.  

Gille's book operates on several levels.  It is one the one hand the story of a young woman's attempt to make her way in the world in the shadow of a powerful if malevolent mother, whose sexual and class vanity apparently new few bounds. On the other hand, it's the story of a woman who is constantly being defined by her Jewish background. In fact, by the story's conclusion, one starts to feel as if Gille was telling the whole story of the European Jews when she discussed her mother's fate. While Gille always admits that her mother was not prescient about French or European anti-semitism, she goes out of her way to demonstrate the extent to which her mother's life was circumscribed by bigotry.  From the Black Hundreds of Russia to Action Francaise, no European Jew living in the first part of the twentieth century could possibly escape some level of persecution.  Even before Hitler's rise to power, Jewishness--in all of its religious, cultural, and allegedly biological dimensions-- was deeply problematic for a great part of European Christians.

 The book, of course, ends with Nemirovsky standing at the brink of deportation to Auschwitz.  In some ways, the demise of the brilliant French writer, Nemirovsky, in the holocaust demonstrates one more dimension of the horror of Nazism.  As hard as Nemirovsky sometimes seemed to have tried to assimilate, and as privileged as she was at every state of her life, there was simply no escaping Europe's inability to come to terms with difference. Gille's book demonstrates the original appeal of Zionism.  Whether you were in Russia or France, whether you were rich or poor, and whether you embraced your religion or ignored its rituals, your continued existence was, in the end, an open question.

 The sadness of Gille's book reminds me of Gershom Scholem's biography, From Berlin to Jerusalem:  Memories of My Youth, where the great Jewish thinker reminded readers that Zionism would have meant something very different if such a large part of the Jewish people had not been destroyed. Whatever Israel is now, its cultural vitality and generosity of spirit would have been many times richer if European Jewish culture had remained on its nineteenth century trajectory.  Whether Jews like Nemirovsky fled to Israel, or stayed alive in Europe, they would certainly have made Israel a better place.

Some favorite quotes from the book:

In the spring of 1918, everyone had an opinion, a story to tell, a picture to paint, or a poem to declaim.

Because of the Bolsheviks, I never celebrated my fifteenth birthday.

The opening of the play may have marked the moment of my true rupture with my mother.  I had not yet forgiven her for her terrible reaction to my announcement that I was pregnant two years earlier, when she had begged me, on her knees, to have an abortion.

Have I changed so much, once deliciously and exotically Slavic, now an unrecognizable Yid?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Favorite Quotes from Amis' House of Meetings

Below are a few favorite quotes from Martin Amis' House of Meetings.

You are as well-prepared as any young Westerner could hope to be, equipped with good diet, lavish health insurance, two degrees, foreign travel and languages, orthodonture, psychotherapy, property, and capital;  and your skin is a beautiful color.  Look at you--look at the burnish of you.

..this is a love story.  All right, Russian love.  But still love.

Given Russian distances, and the general arduousness of Russian life, you'd expect a verst to be the equivalent of--I don't know--thirty-nine miles.  It's barely more than a kilometer.

Moscow is impressive--grimly fantastic in its pelf.

The Siberian expanse, the olive-green immensity--it would frighten you, I think;  but it makes Russians feel important.

All the money has been divided up between the felons and the state.

My story would be even worse in Russian.  For it is truly a tale of gutterals and nasals and whistling sibilants.

It's not the USSR I don't like.  What I don't like is the northern Eurasian plain.  I don't like the "directed democracy," and I don't like Soviet power, and I don't like tsars, and I don't like Mongol overlords, and I don't like the theocratic dynasts of old Moscow and Kiev.

There is in front of me on the screen of my computer, the graph with its two crinkly lines intersecting, one pink, one blue.  The birth rate, the death rate.  They call it the Russian cross.

By now the five-week Arctic summer was under way.  It was as if nature woke up in July and realized how badly she had neglected her guests;  and then of course she completely overdid it. There was something gushing and hysterical in the show she put on...

There were in fact enormous quantities of thwarted love, of trapped love, in the slave archipelago.

The Secret Speech caused a planetary sensation.  It was "the first time" a Russian leader had ever acknowledged the transgressions of the state.  It was the first time.  It was the last time too, more or less...

Joseph Vissarionovich:  I knew his face better than I knew my own mother's.

You must try to imagine it, the disgusting proximity of the state, its body odor, its breath on your neck, its stupidly expectant stare.

But at the time we had no idea what was going on.  We never had any idea what was going on.

You have consumed your share of Russian novels:  every time a new character appears, there is a chapter break and you are suddenly reading about his grandparents.  This too is a digression.  And its import is sexual.

That's how a "love triangle" could be wonderfully simplified.  An anonymous phone call, an unsigned letter, to the secret police.

...the shortage of housing was slightly eased by the shortage of people...

Universal dissatisfaction took the following form:  everyone everywhere complained about everything.

Come over here to participate in the Soviet experiment, he told the CP man who issued his passport that he was fully prepared to take the big cut in his standard of living.  That same day he got the quarter--twenty-five years. And were you praising America?

I remember the convocations of the Komsomol:  try to imagine something halfway between a temperance meetings and a Nurenberg Rally.

Something strange was happening in the Soviet Union, after the war against fascism:  fascism.

Over here, now, there's no angling around for your male midlife crisis.  It is brought to you and it is always the same.  It is death.

The train rocks and knocks across the simplified land forms of the tundra: Russia's great white page, awaiting the characters and sentences of history.

In the Gulag, it was not the case that people died like flies.  Rather, flies died like people.

At the moment of arrest you already feel halfway vanished.  In prison you're a former person and already dead.  In camp you're almost sure you've never been.

The sound seemed to trumpet the dawn of a new dominion (more savage, more stupid, more certain) and to repudiate the laxity and amateurism of the day before.

"...if God really cared about us, he would never have given us religion." But this loose syllogism is easily exploded, and all questions of theodicy simply dissappear--if God is a Russian.

I became convinced, around then, that boredom was the second pillar of the system--the first being terror.

Now [Stalin] was nowhere.  But he used to be everywhere. 

I knew then that massacres want to happen.  Massacres want there to be massacres. 

The center--I could feel it tugging at me, with its women and its money.  And in the late summer of 1958 I started orbiting Moscow. 

Between 1946 and 1957 I ate two apples, one in 1949 and one in 1955. 

He despised my appetite.  I had drive, and all Russians hate that. 

We were both subject to the centuries-old momentum of Russian drunkenness

Now, smoking (like drinking) allays anxiety.  So try not smoking in Russia and see how far you get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Gulag in Fiction

Like many people, I have relied upon nonfiction books such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History to help me understand one of the twentieth century's greatest moral catastrophes.  This past month, I dipped into several works of modern fiction to see what novelists could do to further explain the historical and moral meaning of Stalin's grand experiment with systematic cruelty and economic exploitation.  The first book, Martin Amis' House of Meetings is a powerful work of fiction predicted to some extent on the Amis family's historical antagonism to Stalinism, previously discussed in his memorable nonfiction account of Stalin's legacy, Koba the Dread:  Laughter and the Twenty Million.  For me, the best part of House of Meetings is that Amis gives the denizens of the gulag a great deal of agency.  That is to say, Amis' narrator is not merely a victim, but also a multidimensional character capable of inflicting both good and evil on those around him.  Amis' novel provides readers with a detailed description of the violence, brutality, and hunger associated with life in the gulag, but it also manages to tell a story of love and hate that is not completely subsumed by the coercive exigencies of prison life in Russia's inhospitable northern climates.  The protagonist of the House of Meetings is not a martyr, but a typical Russian who has been at one time or the other both an exploited person and one who has exploited others.  In fact, Amis is careful to tell us that his protagonist had raped Russian women in the course of his participation in the conquest of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.  Thus, Amis' protagonist has already been victim and the victimiser prior to his experience in the camp.  And both in the camp, and after the camp, the narrator will possess his moral Janus-head:  on the one hand, the narrator nobly protects his defenseless brother from camp villains, but on the other hand,  employs extreme forms of violence to do so. 

Perhaps the moral ambiguity of the narrator is fitting for a story of the gulag, where innocence quickly disappeared in a savage fight for existence against guards, the so-called "bitches" and "brutes," and other camp actors.  Certainly gulag characters deserve to be depicted as something other than passive recipients of communist cruelty.  Another excellent approach to the gulag was written by novel prize-winner, Herta Muller, an ethnic German from Romania whose own mother once survived a deportation to the gulag.  Muller's treatment of camp life is meticulous.  It's creative power stems from the fact that Muller has analyzed so many components of gulag life in such exquisite detail.  In fact, each chapter of The Hunger Angel explores an extremely specific facet of camp life, such as bread-hoarding, in order to depict or even create a complete universe of suffering for readers.  Like Amis, Muller does acknowledge that her protagonists were not purely the subjects of history.  As ethnic Germans, they had listened to German propaganda and felt a great deal of sympathy for the German Chancellor.  Although they had not personally committed any crimes against humanity, they had been typical of men and women in the 1930s had done little to resist the advancing tide of totalitarianism. More than that, they had not even realized Hitlerism was an evil.  And then again in the camps, Muller's subjects were thrown into a moral morass almost incapable of supporting the existence of heroes. 

A third creative approach to the gulag appears in Anthony Marra's wonderfully witty and wise collection of linked short stories, entitled The Tsar of Love and Techno. Although Marra's book isn't centered in the gulag, it does demonstrate the centrality of the slave labor system to twentieth century Russian lives.  Marra's short stories span seven or so decades, but in each case the gulag plays an important direct or indirect role in character story-lines.  Characters are either worried about being sent to the gulag in the Great Terror, struggling to survive the gulag, or living in its shadow.   Marra's book has much to recommend it.  Its dialogue is clever, its stories linked together in original ways, and its depiction of both Soviet and post-Soviet life spot on.  But perhaps the book's best quality is the way in which Marra, like the other authors mentioned in this post, gives agency to his characters without ignoring the tragedy of gulag life.  For Marra, the gulag seems to be both a microcosm of totalitarianism and also an explanation of both the demographic and moral state of modern Russia.  Although Marra ends his story by dwelling on the moral morass of the Chechen conflict, he seems to be saying that it wouldn't have been possible without the lasting effects of the authoritarian legacy of the Great Terror and its associated prison system.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Curzio Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

The prose of Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball, is as stylistically inventive as its ideological perspective is historically destabilizing.  To read Malaparte, is to be bombarded by frenzied dialogue, absurdist plot lines, biting political satire, and madcap descriptions of Russia's Bolshevik elite in 1929. But to read Malaparte is also to be stunned by his depiction of the Soviet elite as just another decadent aristocracy.

Malaparte's vertiginous prose relies upon the stylistic conventions of journalism and creative fiction in equal measure.  The Italian diplomat, political actor, journalist, and cinematographer, frenetic plot has few analogues, but could perhaps be compared to the comic tone and modernist pyrotechnics in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.  The protagonist, an Italian diplomat with old-world charm, seems to regularly encounter Moscow's most inaccessible political actors, including Lunacharsky and Tolstoy's sister.  In terms of content, the protagonist seems intent on proving that Moscow's new revolutionary elite is every bit as pretentious and out of touch as Europe's most fragile ruling classes. 
Malaparte's novel seems as intimate as a roman a clef, only the circle of his protagonist's circle of acquaintances is large enough to include several dead people, including Lenin (slowly rotting despite the best efforts of embalmers) and Mayakovsky (whose suicide is interpreted as a revolutionary act of bourgeois romanticism). 

As one might expect, Malaparte's Stalin-directed Soviet Union of 1929 is militantly atheistic and awash in political orthodoxy.  However, it's also shockingly hypocritical.  Its leaders shop abroad, display their power to one another, and do their best to hang on to power for its own sake. Traditionally, the Soviet Union has been depicted as absurdly terrifying as it entered into the bloody 1930s.  But Mapaparte's genius is to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was terrifyingly absurd as well.  In some ways, this insight into the insanity of totalitarian Russia was recently replicated in the move, The Death of Stalin.  One customarily, and understandably, dwells upon the horror of Stalin and his bloody epoch.  The movie, The Dean of Stalin, seems to reverse the equation:  asking the audience to note how, given enough historical distance or philosophical perspective, even terror can prove to be ridiculous.  For only terror could have produced the circumstances in which Stalin's heirs prevented Stalin from getting immediate medical attention, or produced such intertwined sycophantic ravings and cynical power plays.

Some favorite Quotes from Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball


One day while speaking with Lunacharsky, the author asked him if a Marcel Proust existed in Russia. 
"Yes," Luncharsky responded, "every Soviet writer is a proletarian Proust."

Since the Europe of tomorrow is to be found in the Russia of tomorrow, it is equally true that the Europe of today is to be found in the Russia of today.

The time for laughter is well-night over for the free men of our times.

Character Descriptions

Her black eyes were swollen with sensuality, malice, and lack of sleep. So unlike the glassy eyes of Russian working-class women, her eyes were eyes of the flesh in which images didn't reflect but appeared tattooed.

She had a large pulpy mouth with thick lips across which an ironic and sometimes spiteful smile strayed like a ray of light through the crack beneath a closed door.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multi-shaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

At the base of the Kremlin wall in Red Square, inside the great wooden mausoleum designed by Shchusev, Lenin's mummy, small and shrunken like the mummy of a child, was slowly rotting.  Periodically, German specialists showed up from Berlin to empty, scrape out, and disinfect the shell of that precious crustacean, that sacred mummy, the porcelain white face lit up by freckles veiled by a greenish mold-like sweat.

His small decrepit hand, dark and hairy, moved across his face like a large spider on its web.

Communist Elite

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity, and power:  It is suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence.

From a social point of view, actually, snobbishness was the hidden source behind the many worldly activities of that very powerful, and already corrupt, society, which had lived, up until just a moment before, in misery, suspicion, and with the uncertainty of secrecy and emigration.

I felt it was all doomed--all that rot, that corrupt class, that great jumble of prostitutes, pederasts, actors, actresses, libertines, and profiteers, of Nepmen and kulaks, of black-market merchants, of Soviet functionaries who bought their clothes in London and Paris, and imitated the fashions in New York and Berlin...

Moscow's communist high nobility didn't  like to show off in public places.

"Only a blind man," he said, "could laugh at Lunacharsky.  Of all the communist high nobility in Moscow, he is the only one who has a presentiment of death."


"And to think," she said after a brief silence, " I am accused of having counterrevolutionary tendencies simply because I dress decently."

"Here in Moscow, one likes only what is liked by the workers."
Everyone contents himself with whatever Napoleon he happens to find.

Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn't have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.

"Not everyone knows how to die in a gilded armchair..."

"William Blake saw angels perched on tree branches," Mayakovsky said.
"Hush, it's forbidden to speak of angels in Russia."

"Mayakovsky was nothing but a dirty bourgeois."

"Mayakovsky didn't have the right to kill himself."
"You're right, Marika," I said.  "In Russia, it is forbidden to kill oneself for nothing."
"The word nothing," Marika said, "doesn't exist in Lenin's Russia."

"Why do you want to see the room where Mayakovsky died?" Lunacharsky asked.  "Are you by chance a bourgeois romantic?"

"...occasionally there are deaths, but never corpses."

"Are you sure you believe in God?  All foreigners, as soon as they've set foot in Soviet Russia, suddenly realize they believe in God!"

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

"In Soviet Russia," I said, "suicide has the explosive power of a miracle."

In the USSR, miracles don't happen.  God doesn't count for anything here and has nothing to do with what happens in Soviet Russia.

What presumption, what insolence, what a lack of tact to be stationmaster during a revolution.  He deserved what he go.  It's a luxury to be innocent when the world is blowing up like an old locomotive boiler.

It was a bourgeois presumption to believe oneself innocent, always innocent.  Christ hadn't possessed that stupid bourgeois presumption.

Jesus Christ was a notorious instrument of global capitalism, a dangerous Trotskyite.

On Soviet Man

He was the first "lonely" man that I had seen in Soviet Russia, where loneliness was considered a luxury, a form of bourgeois degeneracy, an intellectual condition that was incompatible with Marxism.

"What is Christ called in Soviet Russia?  In the USSR where is Christ hiding?"

"Christ is by now a useless character in Russia.  It's useless to be Christian in Russia.  We don't need Christ anymore."

"Christ was not resurrected!  When Christ tried to go up to heaven he was shot down by the glorious Red Army Air Force."

"Why are you laughing?" he asked me.  "Perhaps you find me ridiculous?  Perhaps you think that an armchair in Soviet Russia is a useless and ridiculous object?  Lenin actually died in an armchair."

"What do poets sing about in Russia?" I asked in a raised voice.
"...We sing of the smell of iron filings," he said, "of the smell of human sweat in Soviet workshops full of men drunk on weariness, we sing of calloused hands, unkempt beards, of the flaming eyes of naked men before the mouths of the blast furnaces.  We sing of the Five-Year Plan, of tractors, of mechanical plots, anvils, hammers and trip hammers, of Stalin's genius and of the red flags fluttering on factory chimneys."

In the USSR, a waistcoat and a briefcase under your arm were signs of power.

Suicide in the USSR was a typical counterrevolutionary act...

He was a man without guilt, an innocent man, finding himself at a particular moment in the middle of the railway tracks, and the locomotive that was the Soviet Revolution had run him down.


One cannot pretend that in a revolution only the guilty die.  Imagine such a thing!  Someone has to die.  In fact, the death of someone innocent is always much more useful than the death of someone guilty.

On Russians

I asked myself if his personality hadn't been, in fact, determined by that typical Slavic narcissism that afflicts every character in Russian literature, especially in Dostoevsky, as well as every Russian hero, be he the most humble, the most deprived, the most ignoble, the most corrupt.

He appeared oppressed by a resentful modesty, by a sad jealousy, but at the same time intoxicated by the deep gratification of his own public humiliation, which is characteristic of Russians and left him naked and helpless.

...displaying that loving familiarity with the dead unique to Russian people.

"All of Russia is a tomb.  All of Russia is Stalin's tomb."


Sparrow Hills, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Isadora Duncan


Stalin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Luncharsky, Lenin, Patriarch Tikhon, Trotsky's sister (Madame Kamrneva), Prince Lvov, Chekhov, Solovyov, Krapotkin

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

David Bergelson's Judgement

David Bergelson's Yiddish novel, Judgment, reminds me of Platonov's beautiful but profoundly sad book, Soul.  Bergelson resembles Plotonov in his capacity for deploying metaphors and similes to make everyday life feel exceedingly unfamiliar and strange.  Like Platonov, Bergelson's prose is powerfully original, and derives much of its poignancy from its systematic conflation of the animate and inanimate worlds.  In Soul, Platonov describes the emotional condition of his protagonist by projecting that protagonist's desperate loneliness and existential isolation onto the animals he encounters in his travels.  For Platonov, every camel, vulture, or dog, is actively reflecting the ongoing tragedy of earthly existence. Here, for example, is a description of homes in a local Jewish village:  "The houses were buried deep in the snow.  Like wrestlers in the ring too exhausted to throw their opponents, they remained hunched over in their corners."  For Bergelson, every cloud, gust of wind, forest, or home is alive with a kind of ominous and willful intensity. Thus, abandoned buildings "peer" out of dark corners, storms are "measured and coldblooded," and the moon has the "face of a cadaver." Bergelson's depicts the physical world as dark, threatening, and unsafe, but also curiously magical and furiously alive.  Probably the greatest similarity between Bergelson and Platonov is that they each somehow manage to demonstrate that the world can be both sad beyond recoking and simultaneously beautiful.  Take, for example, Bergelson's bleak depiction of characters who are both tragic and magnificently unique.  One character was "gypsy dark with gold hoops in her ears, with a pair of eyes that always looked exhausted, worn out from her own beauty."  Another character was a "deaf-mute" but still had enough vitality to "flood the whole world with pancakes" if he wasn't told to stop cooking. 

If Bergelson's novel resembles the mood and style of Platonov's Judgment, its plot or subject matter more closely resembles Babel's Red Cavalry short stories. For both books deal with the chaotic period immediately following the Revolution.  While Babel's Red Cavalry follows the Bolsheviks' ultimately unsuccessful campaign against non-communist Poland, Bergelson's novel depicts a border region in which the communists are still working to more fully exert their influence. In Bergelson's world, revolutionaries are still rounding up enemies, patrolling the border areas, and suppressing Social Revolutionary plots. A doctor waits to see if the revolution will be overturned.  As Bergelson writes, "Every time he put a piece of gauze in a patient's mouth, he would run to the window to check whether the current regime had been abolished."

 Bergelson's view of the Revolution is complex and multifaceted. To be sure, the revolution is violent.  In the new revolutionary climate, you could grab and whip you "just the same as if you'd done nothing."  It was best "not to get in the revolution's way."  And many were "given the authority from the revolution to reduce everyone standing here to ashes..."  The revolution is also a monumental force of change, capable of rupturing both time and space.  In terms of time, the revolution has created a clear divide between past and present.  New types of people had emerged in its wake.  "In the past men like Filopov didn't exist," writes Bergelson. The world had been overturned by revolution.  As the narrator laments, "People just didn't know how to live in times like these." Bergelson's characters agree with the narrator.  One says that "if you knew somebody yesterday, that doesn't mean you know who he is today," and another exclaims that "life got rerouted onto a strange and crooked path."   In terms of space, the revolution was someone akin to Tarkovsky's alien zones in the film Roadside Picnic.  Where the revolution existed, life operated according to one set of almost physical laws;  where the revolution did not exist, life operated in entirely different ways.  As one characters declares, a "journey of a mere four or five hours gets you to a place where the revolution is over" and this meant that one could encounter a "different kind of snow, whiter and freer..."  Just across Russia's border there was a "city at the seashore" where "music will be playing--just music, without speeches."  The revolution's defenders agreed with this sentiment and saw the revolution as a sack.  "We keep on patching it up, but you here at the border are like mice, nibling away."  The fear was that the revolutionary zone would spill into the non-revolutionary zone, or vice versa.  "You are eating out a hole at the edge of the sack and everything's going to spill out," declared the local communist boss. 



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Favorite Quotations from David Bergelson's Judgment

Here are few favorite passages from David Bergelson's beautifully written novel, Judgment.


"Large, invisible hands merrily picked up whole heaps of snow and just as merrily released them."

"Above them was the broken, jagged sky, as if made from silent mountains;  from the smoky clouds a young, limping moon hurried the riders along."

"The full, brass moon with the face of a cadaver was swimming and floating above them.  It had no eyes but wanted to see."

"In the deep darkness naked branches clattered.  A hoarse cry of pain broke from the disheveled trees.  The events hidden in the nooks and crannies of the countryside seemed to be riffling through their leaves. It sounded as if the rustling was causing someone pain."

"To the right of Golikhovke, a young forest noisily awoke from the wind that swept through it over the fields."

"The cloudy sky cut a deep, rusty gash into the corner of the horizon."


"He acquired this habit after the revolution took the wrong turn when he decided:  What is this revolution? In a word, it's Kamino-Balke."

"...he slept through the revolution's evil waking hours, as if to spite it;  he snored as a sign that between him and the revolution all bridges had been burned."

""Rrrrree....vv....vv....o....o....lluu....shshsh...un!' This was the word the doctor had taught the deaf-mute just three years earlier, in the first, festive weeks of the revolution.  By this time the doctor had long since been dissatisfied with it;  the word 'revolution' grated in his ears, it was claptrap and dangerous besides.  The doctor scowled when he heard it and winked to the deaf-mute that he ought not to say it.  But taking away from the deaf-mute was a lot harder than giving it for good."

" But I am certain:  death is death.  My life right now is all I get.  I will never have anything else.  And the revolution is my death.  That's why I'm running away from it."

"'The times we love in," he said, 'if you knew someone yesterday, that doesn't mean you know who he is today.'"

"People just didn't know how to live in times like these."

"'In the past men like Filopov didn't exist, which means he's playing a role, that's it...A comedian, that's what he is."

"Every time he put a piece of gauze in a patent's mouth, he would run to the window to check whether the current regime had been abolished."

"...life 'got rerouted onto a strange crooked path."

"'The times we live in!' he'd say to her with a chuckle.  "Even knowing something they grab you and whip you just the same as if you'd done nothing.'"

"Because a journey of a mere four or five hours gets you to a place where the revolution is over, do you understand, doctor? There, on the other side, it snows every morning, just like here.  Only it's a different kind of snow, whiter and freer, a snow from the other side, spring will be in full bloom there. Somewhere in the a city at the seashore music will be playing--just music, without speeches."

"'The revolution,' he said, 'is a sack.  We keep on patching it up, but you here at the border are like mice, nibbling away.  You are eating out a hole at the edge of the sack and everything's going to spill out...What do you think--that we're joking with you?"

"'From the revolution...he says he has the authority from the revolution to reduce everyone standing here to ashes, and all of Golikhovke, too."

"He's saying not to get in the revolution's way."

"When he ordered some one's death, when he gave the command, 'Shoot!'--there was no wisdom that could dissuade him, because it wasn't Filipov who was giving the orders. It was History."

"All was lost, everything had turned out badly:  he was riding in some strange wagon--he was the unwilling passenger of a conveyance that belonged to the revolution."

"...the entire revolution that was simmering and boiling in all of the big cities."

"But he had no choice, because he was obliged to do the revolution's bidding, without having agreed to it.  Whether he wanted to or not, he had to follow the revolution..."

"'It's high time, my darling, that you got married,' he told her.  'Then you could have some children to take care of.  We have a revolution here--this is no place to play with dolls.'"

"There, the revolution was no longer in charge--its last strength had flickered and was going out."

Descriptions of Characters

"If the doctor didn't get up and tell him--'Enough!'--the deaf-mute would flood the whole world with pancakes."

"...--she was gypsy dark with big gold hoops in her ears, with a pair of eyes that always looked exhausted, worn out from her own beauty."

"Her eyes were innocent, as kosher as two crucifixes."

"Her powdered nose began to flirt with the doctor."

"Her eyelids smiled."

"The smugglers--looking very proper yet very suspicious--seethed with the resentment befitting highly respectable people."

"Frizzy beards, crooked faced, bent shoulders, and backs twisted from shrewdness--these were the homeowners."

"His arms were hairy and thin;  his fingers, long and shiny, as if he had just been digging through the innards of a roast chicken.."

"Bluish red veins covered his face, like the hind parts of a cow that had just been slaughtered.  The eyes on the face were diseased;  the eyelids were two red, oozing pieces of rotting flesh."

Breakdown of Animate/Inanimate Dichotomy

"A wagon rolled into the courtyard.  The clanking of its wheels on the uneven, frozen road gave the impression that the wagon had something to fear, even though it didn't want to be afraid.  The doctor, too, felt that he had something to fear, even though he didn't want to be afraid."

"The houses were buried deep in the snow.  Like wrestlers in the ring too exhausted to throw their opponents, they remained hunched over in their corners."

"..everything he did was measured and coldblooded, like the storm."

"He was standing next to the door, freezing, as if he were a dirty piece of the cold, gloomy street..."

"Abandoned buildings peered out from all the dark corners."

"Dirty hours stretched slowly before someone's sentencing--just like the dirty snow trampled in the courtyards."


"Everything that had taken place in his life now seemed to him foul, cold, and frozen, like the world around him.  His life was like the dirty snow that lay on the fields, dotted here and there with heaps of trash, like the crows, which flew over them, and the entire cavernous emptiness near the border."

"Going round in circles in the dusty cracks and ruts of his life made the doctor deeply uneasy, as if he had accompanied his own funeral procession and was considering the impression it made."

"..coming to terms with his own insignificance released him from the burden of helping anyone else."

"It seemed that the clock was counting out his last minutes..."

"'Myself, I haven't seen my mother in eighteen years, and I haven't died from it yet."

"Now, when the deep night infused him with its strong potion of slumber, it would have been easy to follow those steps and not notice you were following them, to be killed and not realize that you were being killed."

"something awakened them from their sleep, something nameless that ripped pieces of flesh from their bodies and brains."

"'Let me spit in your face exactly the same number of times that he kissed you.'"

Self-contained Stories

"Since the age of sixteen, he had been ready to sacrifice his life to the workers' movement.  And now the movement was going to shoot him."

"The blonde was fasting.  Since the early morning she had been kneeling and bowing her forehead to the ground in a stubborn resolve not to move from her place until she prayed her way into a miracle."

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Timothy Synder's Quotations

Below are a few quotations from Timothy Synder's book, The Road to Unfreedom:  Russia, Europe, America.

"The adviser of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate had been the advisor of the last Russian Ukrainian president."

"The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas."

"Life becomes a sleepwalk to a premarked grave in a prepurchased plot.

"Russia would be a centralized state as the fascist regimes of the 1930s had been.  There was one party too many.  Russia should be a zero-party state, redeemed only by a man.  Parties should exist, according to Ilyin, only to ritualize elections."

"Allowing Russians to vote in free elections, thought Ilyin, was like allowing embryos to choose their species."

"Rather than governing, the leader produces crisis and spectacle."

"Totalitarianism is its own true enemy, and that is the secret it keeps from itself by attacking others."

"Putin and his friends and allies accumulated vast wealth beyond the law, and then remade the state to preserve their own gains.  Having achieved this, Russian leaders had to define politics as being rather than doing."

"Hegel's was an appealing way of seeing our fractious world, since it suggested that catastrophe was an indication of progress."

"Nikolai Berdyaev found in Ilyin's work 'the nightmare of evil good.'"

"In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet leaders agreed not to kill one another, which removed dynamism from politics."

"The Soviet Union that expelled Ilyin and educated Putin had a troubled relationship with time.  It lacked a succession principle and lasted only sixty-nine years."

"Workers were represented by the party, the party by the central committee, the central committee by its politburo, and the politburo usually by a single leading man."

"It was Brezhnev who proved to be Stalin's most important successor, because he redefined the Soviet attitude to time:  he buried Marxist politics of inevitability, and replaced it with a Soviet politics of eternity."

"The Bolshevik Revolution had been about youth, about a new start to be made after capitalism.  This image depended, at home and especially abroad, on the blood purges that allowed new men and women to rise through the party ranks."

"Once Soviet citizens expected no improvements from the future, nostalgia had to fill the vacuum left by utopia."

"The myth of the October Revolution promised everything; the myth of the Great Fatherland War promised nothing."

"What was, was normal.  To say otherwise in Brezhnev's Soviet Union was to be condemned to an insane asylum."

"Wild privatization was not at all the same things as a market economy, at least as conventionally understood.  Markets require the rule of law..."

"'Operation Successor,' as the challenge was known in the Kremlin, had two stages:  finding a new man who was not a known associate of Yeltsin, and then inventing a fake problem that he could then appear to solve."

"The ink of political fiction is blood."

"Democracy is a procedure to change rulers.  To qualify democracy with an adjective--'people's democracy' during communism, 'sovereign democracy' thereafter--means eliminating that procedure."

"The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional."

"Human sexuality is an inexhaustible raw material for the manufacture of anxiety."

"That year it became a criminal offense to portray Putin as a gay clown."

"Russia's real geopolitical problem was China.  But precisely because Chinese power was real and proximate, consider Russia's actual geopolitics might lead to depressing conclusions."

"The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.  Unlike China, the EU had no army and no longer border with Russia."

"Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo."

"In 2012, Putin made it clear that he understood democracy as ritualized support for his person."

"Russia's own past became a foreign threat."

"In 2013, the Russian Federation proposed an alternative to integration under the name 'Eurasia:' empire for Russia, nation-states for everyone else."

"Rather than monopolizing law, the Russian state under Putin monopolized corruption."

"Because failure had to be presented as success, Russia had to present itself as a model for Europe, rather than the other way around."

"What the EU might describe as failures of governance were to be experienced as the flowering of Russian innocence."

"Using the odd word 'passionarity,' Putin evoked a special Russian ability to thrive amidst global chaos."

"Gumilev was born to an extraordinary family, and lived one of the most tragically and garishly Soviet lives imaginable."

"Joseph Stalin understood the Soviet project as self-colonization.  Since the Soviet Union had no overseas possessions, it had to exploit its hinterlands."

"One can record that these people [Ukrainian protesters] were fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences."

"Must any attempt at novelty be met with the cliche of force and the force of cliche?"

"Putin's direct assault on factuality might be called implausible deniability."

"In the Russian invasion, the strong used the weapons of the weak--partisan and terrorists tactics--in order to pretend to be the weak."

Timothy Synder's The Road to Unfreedom

Timothy Synder's The Road to Unfreedom offers a powerful critique of Russia's authoritarian regime.  Set against the backdrop of many of the events depicted in his earlier book, The Bloodlands:  Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Synder's current book suggests that Putin's regime is the heir to at least some of the insidious political traditions established by its predecessor states, the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.  Synder's critique of Putin's Russia is unremitting.  In many ways, the book resembles Hannah Arendt's classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, only Synder is content to direct his fire at antidemocratic--as opposed to fully totalitarian--tendencies in the modern world.

According to Synder, Russia isn't merely a Great Power seeking to exert its geopolitical influence over its neighbors.  Rather, Synder's Russia is actively seeking to destroy democratic politics both at home and abroad.  Synder's analysis of Russia and its allegedly nefarious influence over international relations stems in part from his belief that Russian politics are a cover for oligarchy and cronyism.  However, Synder doesn't merely argue that Russia is a corrupt, unequal, and belligerent society.  For Synder actually argues that modern Russian leaders are increasingly attracted to many of the fascist ideals outlined by Arendt and other political theorists.

Thus, Synder spends considerable amounts of time exploring the thinkers who have inspired at least some of the principle figures in Putin's government.  The common denominator among such thinkers is a belief in Russia's essential innocence and victimization at the hands of the United States, Europe, and so-called "international Jewry." The result of Russia's belief in its own innocence has been the military invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine, and the social media attacks against America and varied European countries.

While Cohen and others have argued that Russia has merely been reacting to the expansion of NATO and the European Union, Synder vigorously disputes this claim, arguing that Russia only recently turned against the West, and did so in response to no obvious new or rising geopolitical or military threat.  Synder believes that Russia turned against Europe only when it became clear that it was clearly losing the race to make its population safe, well, free, or prosperous.  With high mortality rates, and even higher rates of corruption and inequality, Russian oligarchs needed to discredit successful Western political and economic forms by mounting vigorously propaganda campaigns.

I myself remember being shocked by Russian Times' television coverage only a few years ago.  Although I expected a country to promote a positive image of itself, I couldn't imagine why Russia was investing so much time and energy to attack American and European policies and practises.
I was also shocked by the extent the Russian media service had begun to actively gloat about any and all problems European or American governments faced. Further, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union often tried to divide Europeans from their American allies.  However, the Russian Times editorial bias seemed to be geared toward treated America and its European allies as if they were all part of the same colonial conspiracy to undermine the peace and prosperity of Russia and the rest of the world.  My Tunisian-born wife reminded me that it was very normal for non-Western countries to resent America and all of the former colonial powers.  I understood this, but still wondered why Russia thought it a good idea to brazenly attack such a powerful group of countries.  It was one thing to deprecate American and Europe to its a domestic audience, but quite another to export negative propaganda to American and European audiences.  Fora time, I watched Russian Times, and subscribed to its Facebook page, in order to gain a critical perspective on American foreign policy.  Over time, however, I learned that Russian Times had no particular editorial viewpoint.  Rather, its reporters and writers tended to celebrate any American or European setback, whether that setback was experienced by governments or whole peoples. 

To be sure, Cohen has his own biases.  He certainly does believe in European-style democratic politics and social welfare policies.  But his biases seem to be based on objective economic and political facts. After all, European peoples are, relatively speaking, extremely wealthy, and, in contrast to the modern Russian experience, European governments succeed one another from time to time.  As an historian of middle Europe in the first part of the twentieth century, Synder is also somewhat biased in favor of the long-suffering Ukrainian people.  But again, his bias is rooted in the historical experience of Ukraine, which was brutalized by Nazi invasion, and Stalinist terror, and has now experienced Russian political interference, the Russian seizure of the Crimea, and the surreptitious but very real Russian invasion of Russian-speaking portions of Ukraine. 

The boldest aspect of Synder's new book its ability to set contemporary politics into a global framework.  According to Synder, Russia is actively working to support the domestic enemies of American and European democracy.  Synder repeatedly highlights the tangible connections between the Russian government and oligarchy on the one hand, and European separatists and European far-right parties--to say nothing of the Trump Administration--on the other.  It is possible that Synder overstates this case, since Russia qua Great Power may be motivated by traditional geopolitical instincts as much as it is motivated by ideological conspiracy.  Even so, Synder makes a good case that Russia's sense of victimization is overblown, and Russia is actively attempting to undermine democratic institutions in neighboring countries as well as the West. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Andrew Kaufman's Give War and Peace a Chance

Like this blog, Andrew Kaufman's book, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, offers up a sometimes awkward blend of personal reflection and literary criticism.  Kaufman's sole concern is that ordinary people do as his title enjoins by taking up Tolstoy's magnum opus.  Although many people are no doubted by the book's 1500 plus pages, Kaufman tells us that Tolstoy's massive tome is worth the time and effort.  Kaufman divides his book into twelve sub-themes.  According to the Russian literary scholar, each of these themes reveals one distinct form of Tolstoyan wisdom.  These theme include courage, love, imagination, success, and happiness. Overall, Kaufman seems to believe that Tolstoy's main strength as both a creative writer and a philosopher is that he had an almost existentialist approach to life avante la lettre.  That is to say, Kaufman is often most struck by the fact that Tolstoy seems to think that Tolstoy imaginatively blended any plot detail with ontological reflection.  For instance, Kaufman dwells upon Tolstoy's treatment of battle in War and Peace by describing how truly insightful protagonists can sometimes pause in the middle of the fray to dwell upon the frailty of human existence or the beauty of the universe.  To my mind, Kaufman's Tolstoy seems like an progenitor of Heiddeger.  But then again, Kaufman's Tolstoy also reminds me of Melville.  Tolstoy's striking originality seems to have been that he wanted to capture both historical themes and personal ones, alternating between the two modes of analysis in order to shed light on both of them.  The American author who accomplished something strikingly similar is Melville, whose Moby Dick captures a whaler's voyage even as it also attempts to wrestle with the nature of zoological life.  As Kaufman points out, many readers of War and Peace evince a definite preference for either the war or the peace scenes.  It's rare to find a reader who likes both topics equally.  It's probably even rarer to find the reader who truly understands the fact that the two topics are intrinsically intertwined.  But both Tolstoy and Melville had capacious minds and great empathy for their surroundings.  I think it was Gorky who said that Tolstoy seemingly understood the life of horses, so great was his capacity to see things from radically different perspectives.  Similarly, Gorky seems to have had the ability to understand the whale almost as well as he understood the whaler.

Of course, Kaufman's book is also a series of reflections about his own life.  He's a good role model for readers who will get more out of a nineteenth century novel if they can somehow find ways to link it to their present reality.  In any case, his approach reminded me of my own experience reading War and Peace.  Over thirty years ago, I was a recent graduate of college, down and out in Los Angeles.  I figured I would at least read a great classic while I was in the process of looking for a job.  I did that, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  I did, as Kaufman suggests is a common experience, definitely prefer the Napoleonic scenes to the love scenes.  But I suppose that if I returned later in life to the work I might realize that the history of personal or family life is no less important than the history of warfare and national strife.  In any case, I can't remember much about War and Peace, only that it probably led to my somewhat delayed obsession with Russia and Russian literature. 

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.