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.