Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Vsevolod Ivanov's Fertility and Other Stories

Lately, I've been struck by a style of Russian (or perhaps Soviet) writing I had never encountered before.  The style is haunting, lonely, and depressing;  it's intimately familiar with devastated landscapes and forlorn animals.  It seems at home in extremes of climate, whether desert, mountains, or Siberian tundra, and draws inspiration from human tragedies related to war, pestilence, and famine.  It's usually, though not always, associated with the Eastern outposts of Russian influence, including the Central Asian Republics and Mongolia.  The style is elliptical, rarely explaining any of its characters' motivations in full.  It breaks down the boundaries between the natural world and the world of culture.  In this writing, animals have human qualities, and humans have animal qualities.  The clouds and other natural objects have the ability to suggest human sadness. 

Plotonov's Soul is no doubt the genre's masterpiece.  Here, the novelist suggests a level of human grief and tragic destiny that borders on the transcendent.  Plotonov's sad characters seem almost to be experiencing sadness or loneliness as a form of spiritual practice, as if their grief might somehow become pure enough to lift them on to some higher plane of existence.  David Bergelson's book, Judgement, seems to be another example of this style of writing.  Although the book takes place in the West, it also describes a bleak landscape of human and animal suffering, with  nature (and even the houses set against that nature) seem to be exhibiting malevolent intentions toward men and women.

In some cases, the scale of suffering seems linked to the legacy of World War I or the Russian Civil War.  Certainly Vsevelod's Fertility and Other Stories inspired by the violence, disorder, and hunger associated with these chaotic years.  Here, it seems that the author could only have used a new style to suggest that no traditional sense of realism (and no 19th century vocabulary) could explain what had happened to Russia.  This level of tragedy was simply inexpressible, at least directly.  Humans couldn't possibly bear the weight of abandonment, terror, and grief by themselves.  The landscape had to should its share of the trauma as well.

But of course the Soviet Union didn't stop suffering in the 1920s.  Things grew worse in the late 1930s, and then World War II set a new standard in human misery.  And that misery reverberated for decades afterward.  For this reason, this new style of fiction made sense to writers even as late as the 1990s, when Hamid Ismailov wrote his Central Asian masterpiece, The Railway, in which decaying communism and Islam collide. 

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from some of the stories in Vsevelod Ivanov's Fertility and Other Stories. 

Empty Arapia

The trees grew out of rats.  The sun began out of rats, and the win blowing above the rats was a thin-ribbed hungry dog.
Then birds with hungry scarlet beaks flew out from behind the sky.

The sun, fat from overeating, settled on the trees.  The clouds stuck out their fat, protruding stomachs.

Nadka;s speech was somewhat hoarse, with gasps for air from hunger. She didn't have enough saliva for words.

Whole earth is sand.  Blue sands.  And the sky is blue sand.

Rabbits have run off to the lands of Arapia, leaving the bark for people to gnaw on.  It's a sly animal.

The Child

Mongolia is a wild and joyless beast!  The rock is a beast, the water is a beast;  even a butterfly, even it schemes to sting.

And the Kirghiz women, sighting the Russians, would like down submissively on their backs.

Their narrow eyes shone crimson, like a wound from a fishhook. 

Afanasy Spat.
"You're a monster and a bourgeois... You have no feelings, you bastard."

Selivanov called a meeting and declared, "A Christian lad shouldn't die like an animal.  Let's say the father's a bourgeois, but what about the child?  It's innocent."

And beyond the canvas tent, no one knew where, ran the gullies, the cliffs, the steppe, alien Mongolia.
No one knew where Mongolia ran--the wild and joyless beast.

The Return of the Buddha

"...interest in history always intensifies in revolutionary times."

"During a revolution the goal of self-preservation makes it essential to stay home."

"Citizen professor...when there's a revolution going on, it's not an opportune time to drag your feet."

"As a result of the Revolution foreigners are going to despise Russia just as much as they were afraid of it before."

Only he doesn't understand where they get the tea; there's no tea at all in Russia right now.

The station bells jingle frostily.  The station bells are are ringing the funeral bells for Russia.

In times past, if he had wanted to eat...he would have bought some food.

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