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.