Friday, March 9, 2018

Lydia Chukovskaya's Sofia Petrovna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

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