Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Novel, Ours

I'm a bit schizophrenic about Sergei Dovlatov.  I was thrilled with his memoir about his time as a prison guard, The Zone, which I found to be both insightful and painfully observant, but disliked his short novel, Pushkin Hills, which I seemed somewhat affected to me.  To resolve my uncertainty about the Dovlatov's literary quality, I'm resolved to work my way through his other works.  Today, I'll discuss his short book of biographical sketches about the members of his family.  Like The Zone, the memoir of family remembrances, Ours, seems to be both trenchant and acutely attentive to the traits and characteristics that make each of his family members unique.  It also gives the reader an overall portrait of the experience of a twentieth-century Russian family.  Dovlatov's family is not perhaps an ordinary one.  The family are firmly entrenched in the Russian intelligentsia and much generally very literary and/or artistic. Some were editors, others were actors or directors.  Most interestingly, Dovlatov shows us that members of the same Soviet family were capable of both embracing and rejecting Stalinism (and Soviet norms in general) at various times.  Indeed, often the same family member wavered in his support of the regime.  Witness the story of Dovlatov's uncle, who worshiped a long series of Soviet leaders, only to privately admit to his nephew (but only when he thought he was on his deathbed) that Soviet communism was a scam. Overall, Ours reinforces my impression that Dovlatov had a particular talent for non-fiction writing.  The individual tales are short, but profound, and often hilarious. And the form of his memoir is incredibly inventive. Somehow, reading a series of character sketches about the author's family members simultaneously gives one a sense of each individual family member, the collective family, the author's unique psyche, and, in some ways, the U.S.S.R. as a whole.


Favorite quotations from Ours 

Grandpa did not like disorder.  For that reason, he held a negative view of the Revolution.

"Begler Formich is a good man.  It's just a pity he waters his wine."

Perhaps the universe, such as it was, did not suit him.  I wonder, did it not suit him in its entirety, or just in certain details?

Tall and straight, he headed toward the market.  If anyone greeted him, he did not respond.

I was insulted very rarely, by the way, maybe three times in my entire life.  All three times were by my  uncle. 

"They say that marriages on the brink of divorce are the ones that last the longest."

"What an awful country!  I've been to America, to Israel.  I've been everywhere in Europe, but I would never got to Russia.  It's good for chess and ballet, but that's it. That and police action."

"Show me one good idea that exists outside of communism!"

A small portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung near the head of his bed.  He took it down whenever guests came. 

"I'm sick of living.  I don't believe communism can  be built in one country.  I've slid into the swamp of Trotskyism."

My father, on the one hand, felt great esteem for the Leader, though he was the one who had good reason to hate Stalin, especially since his father had been shot.

My mother and I lived in a revolting communal apartment.  The long, gloomy corridor led, metaphysically, to the toilet.  The wallpaper by the telephone was covered with doodles, leaving a depressing chronicle of the communal unconscious. 

As everyone knows, the only truth in our newspapers is in the misprints. 

He was an alcoholic journalist and, like many lushes, a man of blinding nobility of character.



Monday, June 10, 2019

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's The Tragic Menagerie

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's had an enormous impact on the pre-war Russian cultural elite.  However, it's relatively difficult to find anything she wrote in the English language.  We have her diary, but not all that much more.  Fortunately, her novel, The Tragic Menagerie, translated by Jane Costlow, is enough to demonstrate her genius. Published in 1907, the exquisite novel describes the coming of age of a young girl who, like most young people perhaps, is both saint and sinner.  Zinovieva-Annibal's book deserves acclaim for many different reasons.  First, the novel is broken down into chapters that independently read like perfectly conceived and executed short stories.  That is to say, although all the chapters are logically related to one another, and the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, each individual chapter can be appreciated on their own merits as a perfectly executed explanation of some particular aspect of the protagonist's moral or aesthetic development.  Second, the novel makes use of the girl's brilliantly empathetic encounters with animals to illuminate her evaluation of consciousness.  While sometimes cruel, the girl is always deeply engaged with the animal world, and this engagement helps readers to enumerate the milestones on her journey toward adolescence.  Third, the author allows her protagonist all of the complexity of an adult, or more.  The book's protagonist is as complicated and conflicted as any Hamlet or King Lear;  indeed, she's wrestling with God and the Devil, good and evil, sexuality, nature, beauty, and mortality.  And somehow, the author presents us with a protagonist who both confronts these issues as a young, privileged girl, and as a more general manifestation of human consciousness, in a way that prefigures Beckett, Faulkner, Gardner, and so many other modernists.


I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows

"I'd have gone far if only I'd had known arithmetic."

"Eh, you women are a watery lot, however heroic you are."

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows is a tale of a group of Russian widows living in a communal apartment with a share kitchen.  In some ways it reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri's book, The Namesake, since both books beautifully express the speed with which lives are lived.  We are born, we live, we suffer, we die.  The book is unusual in that its subjects are almost all relatively ordinary women who have suffered the vicissitudes of twentieth century Russia.  One of the widows is a religious woman who supports the Soviet government but wonders why its leaders suppressed religion and converted so many churches into warehouses.  Another of the widows is a former opera singer, forever having affairs, trading gossip, and searching for romantic love.  Another widow thinks in nothing other than cliches.  The book's chief protagonist is a music teacher.  Her particular story captures much of the tragedy of her times.  Her mother and child were killed by German bombs in World War II.  She was wounded, and remained disabled throughout her life.  The final heroine of the story is a hard-working champion of an unappreciative son she bore out of wedlock.  None of the widows are classical heroines.  They are too flawed to be considered traditional heroes.  They fight, gossip, sin, commit acts of petty selfishness, judge others, and complain.  They have few talents.  Most are self-effacing, demure.  Even the pianist says that she lacks inspiration. Even so, they are survivors, and, by and large, they look out for one another.  And perhaps the point:  individually, the women aren't heroes, but representatives of a gender and generation, and members of a collective, their ability to survive deserves commendation. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Pushkin Hills

Having just read and loved Sergei Dovlatov's prison guard memoir, The Zone, I thought I would certainly also love his famous first-person novel, Pushkin Hills.  Alas, I found Pushkin Hills to be somewhat underwhelming--a pale, late-Soviet version of richer, more insightful American novels about alienation by Kerouac, Salinger, or Bukowski.  While Pushkin Hill's narrator is clever, he's not unusually clever.  (However, the narrator is certainly a member of the intelligentsia, and consistently invokes Russia's literary tradition in order to make sense of his life).  Nor does the narrator have a particularly strong ethical or aesthetic point of view.  It's clear that he loves Pushkin, and despises socialist realist classics, but readers don't read much more about the protagonist's artistic sensibilities than that.

In fact, if the Pushkin Hills narrator has anything to recommend him, it's his modesty.  He makes almost no claim to having a unique point of view, or unique insights into the characters who surround him.  The book as a whole is an interesting artifact of its time.  The protagonist is, after all, generally at odds with the political and cultural establishment.  However, the tension between the protagonist and society doesn't seem particularly sharp.  American Beats would seem more alienated by the government than  Dovlatov is by his government.  Perhaps that's the lesson to be learned by the novel.  Intellectuals and artists could be alienated enough by the Communist regime to think about emigrating, but they didn't necessarily find themselves in open revolt against the system.  Indeed, most people just kept living, and of course drinking.


Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the book


Mitrofanov grew into a fantastic sloth, if one can call lazy a man who had read ten thousand books.

Friends tried to get him a job at the Lenfilm Studios.  What's more, a special position was created just for him:  Consultant on All Matters.

He was diagnosed with a rare clinical condition--aboulia, or total atrophy of will. 

He decided to become a writer of best-sellers.

His tours were twice longer than the average.  At times, tourists fainted from the strain. 

A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.

"Potosky, your appearance disturbs the harmony of these parts."

His speech was not unlike classical music, abstract art or the song of a goldfinch.  Emotions clearly prevailed over meaning. 

"I'll say it one more time, colour is ideological in aspect!"

She scoffed at me.  "Your mug alone demands punitive action..."

There are dozens of books written about the harmful effects of alcohol.  And not even a single brochure on the benefits.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Isaac Babel's Odessa Stories

I enjoyed reading Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, although it was somewhat difficult to reconcile this relatively modest collection of war stories with his enormously positive reputation as one of the Russia's greatest stylists of the twentieth century.  I suppose his closest American analogue might be Truman Capote, who had a reputation for literary brilliance despite his relatively modest output.  Or perhaps Lorraine Hansberry would offer a better comparison.  She's made her way into the American literary canon largely on the strength of a single play, although she wrote other important works before her untimely death at the age of 34.  In any case, the Red Cavalry stories about Russia's war against Poland demonstrate the author's searing honesty, careful attention to detail, sense of irony, excellent selection of fragments of dialogue to illustrate important human truths, and straightforward, unadorned prose. Isaac Babel's Diary of 1920 also made me appreciate the author's intelligence and sensitivity.  However, Boris Dralyuk's translation of Odessa Stories finally brought the author to life for me.

In Dralyuk's translation, the stories about the multicultural, international city of Odessa read like a fusion of David Sedaris' gentle, self-effacing comedy and Ernest Hemingway's staccato encounters with twentieth century brutality.  The author is especially fond of inventive similes, understatement, comic or ironic dialogue, deliberate repetition, and ellipses.  His stories are enriched by the narrator's willingness to insert philosophical truths into the descriptions of everyday life. They are also enriched by what can only be described as a Jewish or Yiddish sensibility, as evinced by the narrator's paradoxical ability to somehow use protest as the means by which he is able to resign himself to the cruel vagaries of Odessan life.  They are clever, and their cleverness is enriched by the author's ability to make the reader aware of the magic of the storytelling process.  Most of his characters come alive on the page not only because they do and say interesting things, but also because they reflect on the nature of language, the narrative arts, heroism, and other elements of a good story.  If the characters are interested in telling good stories (and indeed they all seem to believe that the best part of life is that we get to explain it to others in the way we would like to explain it), the narrator is also interesting in helping readers see that he or she is a talented storyteller.  Thus the narrator colorfully asserts his or her interpretation of an event or action, or ostentatiously assigns human motives to elements of the natural world.

The Odessa Stories are often comedic, but they almost reference the tragic dimensions of the era.  The city itself emerges as a leading character in almost all of the Odessa Stories.   Babel's Odessa is both largely Jewish and anti-Semitic and subject to pogroms.  It was also on the make, doing business with almost every port in the world and filled with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  Twentieth Century Odessa was necessarily a vertiginous place, since it was assailed by the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, a strong criminal underworld, the Russian Civil War, foreign interventions, and the political whims of the Communists. Babel captures this sense of perpetual uncertainty with preserving a sense of ambiguity in most of his stories.  Although they are almost always poignant, the author tells his stories sparingly, allowing the reader to wonder about true important of each vignette.  Read together, one also wonders how each story helps to make up a compensate picture of a complex time and place. 


Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Odessa Stories



Poetic

Three shadows block the path of my imagination.



Storytelling

What would you do in Benya Krik's shoes?  Ah, you wouldn't do a thing.  But he did.  And that's why he's the King, and you--you just thumb your nose behind people's backs.

"Now, tell me, a young gentleman like yourself, who clips the coupons off other people's bonds, what would you have done in Benya Krik's shoes?  Ah, you don't know.  But he know.  And that's why he's the King, while you and me, we just sit here on the wall of the Second Jewish Cementary and shield our eyes from the sun."

"My respects, Madame Schneyveys, and a good afternoon.  I see you decided to go off on business for three years and dump a hungry child in my lap..."

And the fifth day passed.  And the sixth day passed.  Saturday strolled the streets of Modavanka.

Now try and wrap your minds around the inveterate barbarism of Madame Gorobchik.

Similes

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Benya Krik,  "and the sun rose over his head like a sentry with a rifle.

"You want to snap everything up, greedy Lyubka;  you drag the whole world towards you, like children drag a tablecloth to get a breadcrumbs..."

His tender yellow eyes hung over the table like paper lanterns over a street in China...

The moon went leaping through black clouds, like a stray calf.

"I don't want you, Rook, like no one wants to die;  I don't want you like a bride doesn't want pimples on her head."

He straddles the city, this Utochkin, like a bronze monument, with his red hair and grey eyes.  And all of us have to scurry between his legs.

The King's words fell like a mound of boulders onto the path where nine-headed hunger roved.

Madame Gorobchik sat next to her husband, glancing over her shoulder like a murderer.

He shuffled his father's face like a new deck of cards.

...Madame Gorobchik perched at her husband's bedside like a slop-soaked crow on an autumn branch.

Understatement

Benya finally ruined my health to the degree that he felt like it should be ruined.

Irony


Images of The Sun 

An orange star had rolled down to the very edge of the horizon and stared at them, wide-eyed.

Kaplun's paunch sprawled on the table beneath the sun, and the sun could do nothing about it.

The purple eye of sunset swept the ground in the evening...

By the time dawn began blinking its bleary eyes...

A sunset boiled in the sky, a sunset as viscous as jam, bells moaned at the Church of St. Alexius, the sun descended behind Near Mills, and Lyovka, the master's son, trotted after the dray like a dog trotting after its master.

At that hour the sund hadn't yet reached New Mills.  It poured down into the clouds like the blood of a stuck hog....



Criminality 

"Now, what can you say?  There was a man, and the man is no more.  An innocent bachelor, he lived like a bird on a branch--and a fool thing like that robs him of his life."

"Where do the police start," he howled, "and where does Benya stop?"

Lyova the Russkie smashed a bottle of vodka over his beloved's head.

"And remember, Eichbaum, you weren't no rabbi in your youth either.  Just between us, that will didn't forge itself, did it?"

The Pin went back into the shopw with his crew.  They lined up against the wall and pulled out their revolvers.  Ten eyes and five revolvers were fixed on the door, to say nothing of the sawn-off telegraph pole.


Philosophical truths

And Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world.

A man eager for answers must arm himself with patience.

"There are people in this world who know how to drink vodka, and there are people who don't know how to drink vodka but still drink it."

There's no one else in the world like Benya the King.  He cuts through lies and looks for  justice, be it in justice in quotes or without them.  While everyone else, they're as calm as clams.  They can't be bothered with justice, won't go looking for it--and that's worse.

And she threw ten roubles in his face.  At no point in history have two five-rouble bills ever added up to more than ten.  

"Don't go around saying 'no,' Russian man, when life's clamoring 'yes.'"

Laments

"I've got no help from anyone.  Here I am, all alone, like God up in heaven."

"No, I didn't blow my nose on justice.  Justice blew its nose on me."

Jewishness

"But wasn't it a mistake on God's part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they're in hell?  I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as they eye can see?  Everyone makes mistakes, even God."

Monday, May 13, 2019

Quotes from Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone

Below are some of my favorite quotations from Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone

...any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious.  And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.





"I was a slender string in the thunderous concert of the war," Lieutenant Colonel Mar began.

By then I was a fully formed person, endowed with all sorts of oppressive complexes.

Having a living father might have given the impression of bourgeois excess.

My father was a sort of hidden treasure.  He paid alimony, but not very regularly.  This is natural.

All signs pointed to a typical Soviet biography. 

Love stories often end in prison.

In that world, I saw men with a gruesome past, a repulsive present and a tragic future.

I was friends with a man who had once upon a time pickled his wife and children in a barrel.

What had once seemed important receded into the background.  Trivialities blocked the horizon.

The heels of bread were comparable to diamond desposits.

"I got married," Marconi said in a tragic tone, and hung his head.
"Do I know her?"
"No.  I hardly know her myself.  You're not missing much."

In order to land in the penal isolator of a maximum-security camp, you had to commit some incredibly evil deed.  Strange as it may seem, many managed to do so.

A smile both absent-minded and anxious played constantly over his face.  An intellectual can always be recognized by that smile, even in the taiga.

Your thesis should be:  drink, but within limits.  Not drinking at all--that would be overkill.  That would be an anti-Marxist utopia, as they say. 

"Dzavashvili has a condom," Matstysn said.  "I saw."
"One?" Fidel asked.
"Oh look, a scholar!"  Volikov said, getting angry.  "This one needs his own private condom!  You'll wait your turn."

My only diversion is cigarettes.  I've learnt how to smoke in the shower.

...it's very important not to confuse harmony with indifference.

I begin with the cemetery because I am telling a love story. 

We were very similar to each other, and even interchangeable.  Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard.  Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

These were people whose feuds and friendships didn't look much different.

"And I come from a long line of Russian thieves.  I have stolen and will again."


Gulag Literature

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the most comprehensive description of the Soviet Union's horrific system of incarceration during the Stalin era.  Entitled The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's moral masterpiece systematically investigated (and condemned) almost every aspect of the Great Power's inhuman slave labor system.  The book was so very thorough in its ruthless depiction of Soviet Communism's greatest villainy, that it may sometimes seem unnecessary to read anything else on the subject.  However, Solzhenitsyn's massive tomes should be supplemented by a close reading of Varlam Shalamov's Kolmya Tales. For Shalamov's artistry is greater than Solzhenitsyn's artistry, and that artistry exposes the variety of human tragedy of camp life more fully than the more prolific writer ever did. In fact, each of Shalamov's many vignettes delivers its own special snapshot of the sadness and bitterness that festered at the brutal epicenter of Soviet oppression.  It's art rather than journalism that can really help readers to get some sense of the many different ways in which the Soviet Union could destroy its citizens in the course of their lengthy prison sentences in the distant north.  It's irony rather than satire that can help readers to see that true dimensions of the anguish that befell the Soviet Union's citizens after they received arbitrary sentences of ten, fifteen, or twenty years of hard labor in a frozen, isolated, and hungry land.  While not, strictly speaking, a work about Stalin's Gulag Archipelago at all, Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone also has much to tell us about the Soviet Union's experience with utterly inhuman prison systems.  For, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out, the Gulag did not died with Stalin; it continued in some for decades, perhaps even until the end of the Soviet Union itself.  Of course, as Dovlatov confesses, he was a guard rather than a prisoner.  Still, Dovlatov knows that at least in some ways this is a distinction without a difference:  guards, almost as much as prisoners in some cases, were degraded by their participation in this system of freedom. In The Zone, Dovlatov seems to maintain that the Soviet Union's terrible political flaws were manifested or incarnated in the prison system.  However, one can't help but think that America's massive incarceration system must bear many similarities with that of the Soviet Union in its later decades.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Masha Gessen's The Future is History

Masha Gessen's books occupy a half a shelf at my house. She's a personal hero of mine.  She's an intellectual, historian, activist, and journalist who routinely helps to translate Russia to an American audience.  The subject of her books is wide-ranging, and includes monographs on Russia's experiment with a Jewish homeland in the Far East, a feminist punk rock (and protest) group, the fate of the Soviet intelligentsia, Putin, her grandparents' experience in the Soviet Union, and the Boston Marathon bombers' process of radicalization (in both America and various sites of the former Soviet Union).  Her latest book, The Future is History, is one of her most ambitious projects to date.  Like all of her other books, it is well-researched, well-written, and full of fascinating details about modern Russian history.  It also makes an attempt to define totalitarianism and explain its endurance in Russian history. 

At times, The Future is History seems overly ambitious.  It's difficult to define totalitarianism, explain a long series of political and economic events, and also describe the lived experience of Russians who lived at various stages of the Soviet and post-Soviet experiment.  Still, Gessen's ambition is laudable: don't we need to somehow combine a theory of totalitarianism with both an exploration of causality and everyday life?  We need to know how the term differs from other anti-democratic political models.  We also need to know why people often actively participate in this process.  Gessen explores a variety of theories of totalitarianism, including those of Arendt and Fromm, although never firmly settles on one and perhaps can do little more than rehearse previous theories.  Indeed, reading Gessen, we are reminded of the genius of Arendt's formulation of problem.  In any event, Gessen's exploration of political events and lived experience benefits from the attempt to wrestle with definitions.  For her, Putin's state is totalitarianisn not only because it centralizes power, suppresses protests, exploits propaganda, and cheats in elections.  Rather, it's totalitarian because it is apolitical and occupies every point on the political spectrum. 

Perhaps Gessen's original contribution to theorizing totalitarianism is her examination of sexuality.  She believes that the totalitarian state seeks a scapegoat in order to compensate people for their loss of individual rights.  This concept recalls anthropologist Girard's theory of sacrifice.  He argued that societies use a randomly chosen, blameless victim to sacrifice. The goal is to turn a society in which everyone is fighting everyone into a society where everyone fights only one defenseless victim (or group of victims).  But what do people get when they "trade" their rights into the state?  Gessen argues that people are seeking greater security and a sense of collective purpose. Although it can feel like you are living "without air," living in totalitarianism can offer a sense of security to people.  Perhaps Gessen's last original contribution to the discussion of totalitarianism is her emphasis on the social sciences.  She says that the Soviet Union intentionally destroyed almost every method by which Soviet residents could understand themselves.  Throughout the Soviet years, men and women were almost incapable of studying modern sociology, history, psychology or other disciplines. Without the resources to truly situate oneself, residents of a totalitarian state are unlikely to be motivated to resist their present conditions. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's The Girl From the Metropol Hotel

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is famous for her unique brand of dark comedy.  It's dry and understated, but bitingly sarcastic. Her short stories provide readers with a macabre but outrageously humorous depiction of everyday Russian life.  This being so, it's not surprising that her short memoir of her early years is both devastatingly sad and funny.  Born into a formerly family of communists, Petrushevskya quickly found herself on the wrong side of Stalin's campaign to terrorize Old Bolsheviks and most other segments of Soviet society.  This mean Petrushevskaya grew up in hunger, social ostracism, and general deprivation.  Like her short fiction, Petrushevskya's memoir reads like a dark fairy tale.  It's heroine is simple, the conflict between good and evil exaggerated, and the story-line seemingly disconnected from any specific time and place.  The heroine lacks shoes for much of the year, gets constantly teased by hostile children, picks food out of the garbage in order to survive, watches her family battle for survival (sometimes physically) with communal neighbors, and meets any number of intimidating characters (mostly teachers) at school. 

The Girl From the Metropol Hotel is a fairy-tale, but there's no real prince.  Born to the manor (or in this case, one of Russia's most famous hotels), Petrushevskaya falls from grace but never really finds redemption in the opposite sex.  In fact, misogyny and the threat of rape or forced prostitution hangs over the protagonist's head throughout her adventures.



Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the memoir:

My great-grandmother Asya died from sepsis at thirty-seven, leaving six children.  Her husband, Ilya, walked down to the river to drown himself--he was a doctor and held himself responsible.  The five children ran after him, carrying the baby;  they stopped him on the riverbank.

I was born on May 26, 1938, nine months after my mother's twenty-first birthday.  I was lucky.  I wasn't left behind in a sealed apartment, as often happened to the infants of the arrested.

I remember living inside Dedya's coyote coat, watching the fire in the furnace through the crack. Dedya spent the journey like a kangaroo, letting me out only occasionally.

At that time it was common--people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharm's famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again.  Later, the poet himself vanished.

I waited for my mother day and night. She returned four years later.

She used to tell me again and again that it was for me, for my sake, that she left, that she couldn't have supported us without a college degree.  For the rest of her life my poor mother justified herself.

Playground rules are worse than sharia. 

Next to the wood stood an ax.  We weren't allowed to use the bathroom, so we bathed with cold water in our room.  One night we heard screams in the hallway.  My poor old grandmother lay in a pool of blood outside the bathroom door.  Fury's husband, on finding my grandmother in the bathroom, struck her on the head with the ax to teach her a lesson.

I had a doll, but it was small, made of celluloid, and missing a leg.

I tolerated hunger reasonably well;  we'd been starving for a long time.

At a certain age every girl had to take her place in the courtyard's hierarchy.   This usually involved being passed around behind the sheds. 

A mother brought her girl to a board school for sickly children and then left.  That girl was me. 

In a commune no one is entitled to private meals;  it's considered hoarding. 

It wasn't real poetry, of course, the kind that spills out of a dying person like blood and becomes the stuff of ruthless jokes. 

In my new co-ed class, fifty percent of the students brayed, spat at a distance, looked insolently with unfocused eyes, wore army crew cuts, chewed their nails, and had great difficulty speaking without swearing.


Friday, March 22, 2019

Shostakovitch's Memoirs

Dimitri Shostakovich's memoirs, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, are one of the most intimate and insightful depictions of Stalinism ever recorded.  In the interviews Shostakovitch apparently conducted with Solomon Volkov, the brilliant musicologist and cultural historian, the great composer reveals himself to be one of the most caustic satirists the Soviet Union ever produced.  With dark humor, and tremendous antipathy for every aspect of authoritarian rule, Shostakovitch carefully explains how a dictator in a totalitarian setting can degrade himself, his immediate circle, and almost everyone else in his realm.

The composer's verbal style, as Volkov points out in his introduction, owes a lot to that genius of everyday Soviet reality, Mikhail Zoshchenko (and, in my opinion, to the indirect influence of longstanding Jewish comedic traditions).  The composer's subject matter, of course, is primarily music, and Russian music in particular.  To be sure, Shostakovitch spends a great deal of time on his mentors and musical influences.  However, the subtext in almost any of these discussion is the corrupting influence of despotic power.  The state determined which composers were funded, and which were not.  More significantly, Stalin saw himself as the arbiter of good taste in music, just as he saw himself as the ultimate arbiter of theater, literature, military strategy, and every other field of human endeavor.

The politicization of music affected every stage of Shostakovitch's Soviet career in music.  His music became the symbol of Russian resistance to Nazi aggression in World War II.  He was both lauded by the Soviets as a symbol of Soviet artistic excellence, and pilloried for his so-called "formalism" and allegiance to "bourgeois" forms of creativity.

To be sure, there is no historical record of Shostakovitch "speaking truth to power" against Stalin.  Shostakovitch sometimes asserts that he often did more than his contemporaries to avoid the kind of flattery than many of his colleagues embraced.  However. Shostakovitch's critique of dictatorial power is predicated on the fact that heroes did not, and could not, have existed in Stalin's reign.  His belief is that any public display of integrity would have been  met by unshakable and bloody force.

In many ways, Shostakovitch's Testimony can be profitably paired with Brian Boeck's new biography of Mikhail Sholokhov, entitled Stalin's Scribe:  Literature, Ambition, and Survival:  The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov.  For both the famous composer and the Nobel Prize winner seemed to have existed at the intersection between loyalty and disloyalty. And both men criticized aspects of Soviet power even as they became its very incarnation to internal and external audiences.  Sholokhov often spoke out much more vigorously on behalf of Soviet leaders thank Shostakovitch.  On the other hand, he also took greater risks, pointing out collectivization problems or advocating for political allies (who he genuinely believed were helping people).  Combined, the memoirs and the literary biography point out just how important culture was to Stalin and his successors. They also remind that of the moral complexity of continuing to make art in the midst of terror.

One should also note that there is some controversy about the accuracy of these memoirs.  A quick look on the Internet reveals that some have accused the editor, Volkov, of making up material that suited him.  Even if this is so, which is perhaps unlikely, the "Memoirs" would remain a valuable artifact on Stalinism.  For someone--whether Shostakovitch or Volkov hardly matters--produced a beautifully expressed exposition of the relationship between high culture and Soviet power.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future

I've decided to delve into Russian art history to learn a little bit more aesthetic modernism.  Aleksandr Rodchenko's experimental career is probably the best to start.  Alexander Lavrentiev's compilation of Rodchenko's writings illustrates both the originality of Rodchenko and the richness of the art scene that predated the Revolution but came into its own after the triumph of the Bolsheviks. Rodchenko reminds me of Miro, Picasso, or Warhol in the stylistic or conceptual creativity.  Leafing through this richly illustrated book demonstrates the extent to which Rodchenko (and his contemporaries) continued to innovate through his career.  Fortunately, Rodchenko was a gifted writer as well as artist, so he did a reasonably good job of explaining his work, or at least the general direction of his work. 

Without a detailed understanding of the various competing movements at work in the early Soviet era, I can only say that Rodchenko's writings reveal several basic concerns.  First, he wanted to be a relentless innovators and was prepared to overthrow most artistic conventions in search of a forward-facing aesthetic.  He was, in other words, un-apologetically modern. He was also willing to jettison anything that wasn't immediately useful. Second, he wanted to create help the proletarian class to participate in an aesthetic revolution. "The proletariat sat in cellars," he said, "took shelter like animals in ditches," and "had no time for beauty, for elegance."  Realizing that the proletariat had not previously had all that much time for art, he now urged artists to help the proletariat forge its own definition of beauty.  Third, Rodchenko wanted Russia to be a leader in world art.  As he stated:  "We, the Russian Columbuses of painting, are discoverers of new roads in art."  Here, one senses a slight paradox.  On the one hand, he was an enthusiast for a politics of international revolution, and asserted that "We glorify the revolution aloud as the only engine of life." On the other hand, he was proud of Russia's decorative arts tradition and sensed that its local art scene could do more than any other nation's art scene to create definitions of art that were relevant to the future. He put the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe this way:  "The West, a market of art, was amazed by the decorative arts of Russia, and we of course forget about this and are still admiring Napoleon's hairdo and the house of Wilhelm." Fourth, Rodchenko wanted art to be an essential ingredient to almost every human endeavor.  He wanted art to be transform buildings, city plans, clothes, and every other aspect of human experience.  Every object deserved to be beautiful.  Every object deserved his artistic attention.  As he stated:  "I prefer to paint ordinary things in an extraordinary way rather than paint extraordinary things in an ordinary way."


Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Aleksandr Rodchenko's Experiments for the Future:  Diaries, Essays, Letters and Other Writings.


Down with art as a bright patch on the mediocre life of a propertied man... Down with art as a means to escape a life that isn't worth living.

...Our Russian nature is so boring, monotonous and gray...It's so sad and silent...What does Nature long for?
What is she forever thinking of?...

Nature has her own thoughts, her own sorrow...

A real Russian is also sad, he longs for something, and you'll never figure him out....

I will force people to die for objects, and objects to live.  I'll put people's souls into things, and objects will become souls....

Mama is seriously ill...I'm afraid for her.  She gives me money, after all. If she collapses, what will I do...

Russian critics, always snorting at Russian art, accusing it of imitating the West!
Look, Russia has given  birth to its own art, and its name--is non-objectivity!

The collapse of all "isms" in painting was the beginning of my ascent.

Objects died yesterday.  We live in an abstract spiritual creativity.

Work--is a pleasure.  Life--is torment.

It is usually said that my works in painting are not really works but experiments for some sort of future works or for future artists..

At the INKUK meeting, Professor Shmit said that in Russia there is not and never has been any visual art, only decoration.

He also said that the inventor is never a great scientist nor the great scientist an inventor, that to be an inventor you have to imagine images, i.e., you have to be a bit of an artist, but not a dreamer whose images are blurry and indistinct.

In the West everything is stuck as it was before the war, the same old Picasso and Matisse.  They all say they're looking to Russia with enormous hope, they'd trade places with us without a second thought...

In life, as well, we, humanity, are experiments for the future...

There is nothing eternal, everything is temporary.

The concepts of inviolable DOGMAS and classical CANONS are exploded by this issue, and the existence of ETERNAL BEAUTY in art is killed.



Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbread Race

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbreak Race: A Life in the Closing World Once Called Free

If Moscow is the Hollywood of power, Vnukovo was Beverly Hills.

...there you could crawl through to his thicket of raspberry bushes, peacefully going wild in the totalitarian gloom.

Further down at No. 7, on the assumption of relative equality among the muses, lived the founder of the puppet theater, a Diaghilev of the inanimate. 

She was a distant relation of the original owner, a scientist who discovered the secret of immortality.  This secret was of great interest to the ruler of a vast and powerful country like ours, and he showered her with honors until his death from cerebral hemorrhage.

For the animals she cooked a kind of nightmare stew, although at times it resembled plain gruel, perhaps simply oatmeal porridge with lots of innocent water, which was sticky and therefore frightening to a child who had never been exposed to life in the raw. 

To compensate, he had a reproduction of the Picasso etching of Don Quixote tacked, upside down, to the wall above the television set, presumably in order order to say "Is this art?", or even "Is this Don Quixote?"....

He was, of course, a mass murderer...

Father would often stop to chat with him in Mayakovsky Street.  "I told Iosif Vissarionovich to grab hold of Yugoslavia," I remember once overhearing.

Father though photography vulgar and discouraged the practice...

I was struggling with Xenophon's Anabasis.  "Can the child read Greek?" asked the inspector.  "Only with a dictionary," the child interjected with crushing modesty....

...and other tribal rites that punctuate the sanctimonious ordeal of human existence.

In the land where their parents might have disappeared without a trace and their own children might still be forced to swallow shards of glass in a cellar, they feared thieves.

The principle of the family as a voluntary assembly of peers was upheld.

But on closer inspection, these freedoms were little more than latitudes...

The infinitely wise Zamyatin--who said that Russian literature had only one future--its past--returned and mocked England in The Islanders.

In the Russian idea of nobility, disdain and sadness are fused so that it is impossible to tell where one ends and other begins.

I do not mean that the Vnukovo ravine was my Galilee.  I merely note the essential clumsiness of all that is genuine, and what an evanescent thing is truth.

My nanny, who had firm instructions not to interfere with my personal life, did not object when I went on to tell the girls that performances began promptly at eight.

It was the only time in my life when I felt like a child.

It is equally obvious that if Flaubert had known all along what would become of Emma Bovary, she would not have outlived him.

In somewhat more modest terms, film is to the theater arts what sport is to the arts of war.

A writer explained why books were dear:  "Because books ought to be dear.  A book is not vodka, not a woman walking the street."

A poet, after all, cannot be expected to be understood by more than a few hundred contemporaries.

To occupy ourselves with the future of our earthly possessions would have been as incongruous as loading a funeral barge with an alarm clock and spare she horns.

Here in Vnukovo, apparently, bourgeois relaity was only a generation away from totalitarian artifice.

In the West, Prokofiev and Shostakovich would have let go, lost their moorings, put on the faceless modernism which is one of the masks of timeless banality.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man

Like Irene Nemirovsky before him, Andrei Makine is a talented, prolific, and Russian-raised French author.  Unlike Nemirovsky, Makine's novels almost always deal very directly with Russia or Russian nostalgia. Makine's The Life of an Unknown Soldier tells the story of a a minor expat Russian writer who gets dumped by a younger lover and makes the desperate decision to journey back to St. Petersburg in search of an old love.  The protagonist returns to St. Petersburg in the middle of its 300th anniversary. The writer is of course immediately confronted by the fact that the city has changed just as irrevocably as his former lover, who welcomes him, but seems little-inclined to think about the past.  This first part of the novel feels someone less interesting than Makine's other novels, including his prize-winning My Russian Summers.  While well-written, it lacks both the beauty and subtlety of Makine's best work.  It also feels somewhat cliche to see a returning exile to feel estranged in his home town.  Certainly George Orwell's Coming Up for Air does this brand of nostalgia much better. 

However, Makine being Makine, the novel becomes much more powerful after the protagonist begins to listen to the life story of an old man who is about to be evicted from his real estate agent and host's rapidly expanding millionaire's pad.  For the old man's biography includes much of Russia's twentieth century history. As it turns out, the old man survived the siege of Leningrad, the battles of Stalingrad and Kurst, the Gulag, Purges, and everyday communism. After completing the second half of The Life of an Unknown Soldier, one is tempted to credit Makine for making the first half of the novel banal on purpose.  Perhaps the contrast is meant to demonstrate the extent to which the power of nostalgia and the excitement of history overwhelm the reality of our present lives. In any event, Makine is a writer's writer, and exhibits an ability to describe hunger, war, and fear with incredible precision.  And so the book, as a whole, represents another of Makine's sophisticated tours of the space between Russia's past and present.

Below are a few quotes from the book:

"An exile's only country is his country's literature."  Who said that?

He would also quote Chekhov:  "In a short story cut the beginning and the end.  That's where most of the lies are told."

"Playboys take women out for drives in convertibles," Shutov thought with a smile.  "Destitute writers treat them to the Russian classics." 

On a boat just about to leave a Crimea put to the torch by the Revolution, the young Nabokov was playing chess. 

The aesthete, Nabokov, care more about an elegant metaphor than the land of his fathers.

"I'm not Russian, Lea. I'm Soviet. So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious. Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about."

 "Listen, Shutov, I know she went back to Leningrad, well, Saint Petersburg.  She'd married a fellow who was in oil.  Yes, you get the picture.  And it didn't work out...No, not the oil.  The marriage."

"We've reached the stage of irony."  At first Russia copied these Western fashions, now they delight in pastiching them."


Michael Idov's Dressed Up for a Riot

Michael Idov's frenzied memoir of his life in Russia offers a suitably chaotic depiction of Putin era Russia.  As editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, and sometime novelist and film entrepreneur, Idov, who grew up in Russia but emigrated to America prior to college, is well-placed to tell us about Russia's vertiginous contemporary life. According to Idov, Russia has descended into full-fledged dictatorship.  The evidence Idov cites is not original.  It is common knowledge that Russia has taken over the Crimea, supported separatist forced in the Ukraine, passed homophobic legislation, granted the president control over leadership positions in the provinces, jailed political opponents, harassed protesters, centralized media coverage and put that media under government control, committed election fraud, encouraged the assassinations of political and journalistic opponents, sponsored systematic public misinformation campaigns, and so on.  But it's interesting to follow Idov's narrative to see how democratic practices can be eroded over time, one police or legal action at a time.  It's also interesting to read Idov's argument that Russia's problems are an increasingly global phenomenon.  For although Idov seems to think Russia's problems are not inherently Russian.  In other words, he seems to imply that almost any society could become a victim of insecurity, self-loathing, and superficiality. And indeed, America in the age of Trump does seem to mirror the worst aspects of Russia's elite political and popular culture in the Putin era.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Ekaterina Television Series

This first season of the Russian television, Ekaterina, tells the story of Catherine the Great's arrival in Russia, trials and tribulations under the rule of the aging Elizabeth, and seizure of power.  As a television show, the series is similar to The Tutors in its excitement, passionate love affairs, and political intrigues.  Its leading ladies (especially the actress playing Elizabeth) are excellent actors.  The theme sound is appropriately redolent of the Game of Thrones' soundtrack. As history, the series reminds us of that the awesome autocratic power of the post-Peter the Great Romanovs was somewhat tempered by Church authority and alternative claimants to the crown whose very existence could potentially inspire revolts.  The series also reminds us on the complex diplomatic affairs of eighteenth century Russia.  While capable of sending almost anyone to her dungeons, Elizabeth employed royal advisers, an expensive army, and a complex counter-espionage services to keep her royal prerogatives and her country's borders safe.  As importantly, Elizabeth understandably worried about her heir.  In fact, the dynastic succession was an almost overriding obsession for the empress. Who would follow her policies, continue the Romanov dynasty, or at least rule Russia competency after she died?  The film depicts Catherine as intelligent and, increasingly, politically savvy.  She learned Russian quickly and avoided political intrigue enough to stay alive.  On the other hand, the film also suggests that Catherine craved love, and really did love both Saltykov and Orlov.  In terms of its narrative power, the film does a wonderful job of depicting Peter III as a tragic hero.  Flawed in terms of intellect, judgement, and (after a bout of smallpox) appearance, and capable of great personal cruelty toward Catherine, the film's Peter III nevertheless emerges as a complex and often sympathetic person. Suffering mightily throughout Elizabeth's reign, the often childish Peter III somehow mustered enough courage to periodically defy his aunt.  He also demonstrated great musical talent, a capacity for love a woman of his own choosing, and some measure of courage when faced with a coup.  He also tried to assert bold new policies for Russia, although these policies (especially those related to Lutheranism and the war against Prussia) were admittedly naive insofar as they flew in the face of popular Russian opinion.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Andrei Makine's Brief Loves that Live Forever

Andrei Makine is a masterful prose stylist.  His Dreams of my Russian Summers was notable for lovely nostalgia and its beautiful if sometimes elliptical prose.  Brief Loves That Live Forever is also both concerned with nostalgia and exquisitely written.  Born in Siberia, but living in France and writing in French, Makine's greatest talent seems to be his ability to write very precisely about fairly vague (if nevertheless powerful) sensations, including love, longing, loss, bi-cultural understanding, and nostalgia. But Makine is also extremely adept at combining the personal with the political. In other words, he is able to describe how our personal lives are affected by the grand architecture of world-shattering events and global processes.  But he does so in a way that never crowds out the essential elements of bildungsromans.  In some ways, Makine could set his stories anywhere, but the Soviet leaders' megalomania sharpens the contrast between Big History and small (or personal) history, between revolution and everyday life, between Marxist philosophy and love, between politics and psychology, between great events and epiphanies. 

Makine 's Brief Loves That Live Forever is a biographical story set in the late-Soviet era of Brezhnev.  Sharply divided into various vignettes, the protagonist was raised as an orphan and ended up a dissident.  Orphan-hood seems to be the appropriate symbol for both late Soviet citizens, who often suffered the loss of family members to the Gulag or other totalitarian horrors, as well as post-Soviet citizens, who suffered the lost of their country, the Soviet Union, as well as an economic system, political creed, and way of life.  In the protagonist's memory, the October and May Day celebrations loom large.  So too do propaganda, parades, Soviet heroes, leaders' portraits, edifying stories about Lenin and Stalin, and Soviet symbols.  Makine mentions concrete facets of the Soviet experience, but dwells upon a generation's general feelings of disenchantment as young people in particular begin to realize that the Soviet dream of equality and cooperation is unrealistic if not outright ridiculous. It's an award place to be in.  The failed dream remains an important part of one's past.  The effect must be akin to finding out that Bill Cosby is a convicted mass rapist.  We are obliged to hold two different versions of the world in our hearts at the same time, both the Cosby Show's depiction of a world of racial equality, and the accusers' reality of malevolence and rape.  But of course post-Soviet citizens must deal with the two all-encompassing versions of the past. 


Some favorite quotes from the book:


The Party had just proclaimed that communism would arrive within the marvelously brief span of twenty years.

Official propaganda congealed these dream visions together into tangible, simplified language, common to the country's whole population.

...this dress rehearsal for the messianic society.

"Well, what can you say?..He was a submariner, her man.  And if they're lost at sea they don't get a grave, or a cross..."
The other one stopped scraping, leaned on the handle of her shovel, and sighed as well:  "Well, as for a cross, you know...Maybe it's better there's no grave. She'll get over it quicker..."

Everything was provided for in the ideal society:  enthusiastic work by the masses, incredible advances in science and technology, the conquest of space, taking man into unknown galaxies, material abundance and rational consumption, linked to radical changes of attitude.  Everything, absolutely everything!  Except...

Anyway he said she wasn't patriotic, you know.  He divorced her. 

The fatal mistake we make is looking for a paradise that endures.

This obsession with what lasts causes us to overlook many a fleeting paradise. 

We would laugh when a book on our study program struck as too stupid (one somewhat visionary author declared that the completion of a five-year plan within four years would speed up time throughout the universe.)

And while I so longed to believe in this fraternal world, I knew that when you passed through our city's suburbs at night it was better to have a switchblade in your pocket.

Totalitarianism, even in the mild form our generation knew, dreaded the spectacle of two beings embracing and escaping its control.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Quotes from the Education of Lev Navrozoc

Below are some favorite quotations from The Education of Lev Navrozov

Czechoslovakia, twelve years after Hungary.  The time in Russia is clocked by her western periphery.

The pre-1917 generation surviving into the thirties was as defenseless as an old strain of microbes against a new antibiotic. 

"Let us live.  Everyone is unhappy.  Before 1953 everyone was happy. Then it became safe to be unhappy, and everyone became unhappy."

"These are not quite freedoms.  Rather leniencies.

"So many people are innocent, historically.  They are happy. They live.  Tell them you live in the Golden Horde.  They will not even understand."

"For every paranoia there is a superparanoia."

There were no Sundays at that time because Sunday in Russian means Resurrection.  So there were days off instead...

"We could live anywhere I liked, he said.  Except of course, Russia, impossible to settle in, and we laughed at the horror of Russia.  He was a comic figure from a comic country."

Why is it that in only in retrospect that life looks like life, and when you are within it, you can notice it no more than you can a cloud when you are within that cloud? 

In 1921 capitalism, that worse evil on earth for the elimination of which almost anything had to be endured, was invited to save the country, and the worst evil on earth did save it...

"But then everything was the state."
The state.  Masterdom.  What a word in Russian:  the adjective has fifteen letters--the very word is leviathan, its scales dully glimmering as it uncoils its five crustaceous syllables.

With the chief of the organs of state security Beria it was different:  the whole organ was his harem. 

The friend was a phony.  But communism is so theatrical, contradictory, and deceptive that it is hard for a communist to detect phoniness in a friend.

Yet the retreat was over in 1928, the society began to be rewarded, supplied, and inspected from the center, and hence the farther off the center, the more pauperized, lawless, and savage life became.

Nikolay Nikolayevich was included to suicide.  I do not say he had a suicidal mania, because he might have thought that it was trying to live that was a mania. 

Living space has influenced all social relations, and there have been marriages of living space, living-space crimes, and struggles for inches of living space more fierce perhaps than for multi-billion fortunes, chains of casinos, or colonies promising gold, ivory and spaces.

"You not-yet-knifed bourjuy"

When grain was taken away from them entirely free, it was called procurement, grain-procurement, or grain-proc for short.

Now there were no bed sheets at all.  We slept on rustling desk paper, but everyone who enters a greater degree of unfreedom in an infinite series of degrees of unfreedom must realize at once that he is in a new life, and no comparison with his former life is possible.

Unheard-of luck it was,  because I was not born under Sagitarius, the archer--I was born under the organization of the country's first machine and tractor station on the shevchenko state farm, odessa region.

When Ulyanov-Lenin still lived in Smolny of Petrograd-Petersburg, he wanted to start the elevator there.  But no stupendous exertion of his dialectical intellect could start it.  Evidently to create a new society and a new man is easier than to start an elevator.

By virtue of his rank, Ulyanov-Lenin was the highest incarnation of self-sacrifice.

After 1917 the populace was his property. 

There were portraits of great Lenin everywhere, but was this enough considering the greatness of his modesty?

The county unit of fewer than a million deaths simply ceased to exist after 1917. 

Not to write, but just to say something which one was not authorized to say was now a crime.

Torture was mentioned officially quite sparingly, while shooting was a good, pleasant, romantic word...

Anna Karenina

In the last several weeks I've launched an assault on Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina. So far, I'm only 200 or so pages in.  I last read the book almost thirty years ago, and consequently remember almost nothing of my experience with the book.  To support my reading, I viewed the Tom Stoppard movie adaption of the book.  Starring Keira Knightly, the movie is competent but seems to suggest that Tolstoy's books don't really belong on the screen.  With apologies to Greto Garbo, who starred in an early version of the book, no screen version can do justice to the internal debates that constitute so much of the novel's style and substance. 

Stoppard's main innovation in this version of Anna Karenina is that he avoids any pretense of realism by relying on an overtly theatrical mise en scene. While there's nothing wrong with converting the book into a play, it often seems as if this technique is primarily employed to avoid the cost of staging large-scale scenes.  As for the character of Anna Karenina, the new movie version seems to suggest that a lot of her power resides in her physical beauty.  Certainly her lines don't suggest any undue curiosity about the complexity of her life journey.  On the other hand, Jude Law is brilliant as Karnenin. He's dignified, reserved, proud, wounded, and cold--everything Tolstoy seemed to have meant him to be. 

The book itself is going well.  On the negative side, I sometimes wonder what makes the book so beloved.  Unlike the grandeur of the Napoleonic context of War and Peace, Anna Karenina sometimes revolves around an almost intentionally ordinary adultery scandal. On the other hand, Tolstoy does demonstrate an uncanny ability to appreciate both the strengths and the weakness of all of his characters.  As I move further through the novel, the villains seem less and less villainous, and the heroes seem less and less heroic.  That is to say, while Vronsky is somewhat spoiled and immature, he's also capable of behaving with courage and gallantry.  Conversely, while Count Karenin is awkward and off-putting, he exhibits many excellent qualities, including self-control.  But even Kitty's scorned lover, Levin, turns out to be something less than the hero one expects him to be. He's hard-working, loyal, and romantic, but he also lacks many of the wonderful traits of his fun-loving and tactful friend, Prince "Stiva."

To be sure, I'll post again on Anna Karenina as I get deeper into the novel.  But Gary Saul Morson's work of criticism, Anna Karenina in Our Time:  Seeing More Wisely, suggests that my early impressions of the book are not entirely original.  Morson argues that Tolstoy's genius lies in the fact that he often intentionally veers into long descriptions of mundane topics in order to make a philosophical point:  that life isn't made up of a series of meaningful plot points.  Reading 200 pages of Anna Karenina involves one in several narrative dead ends.  For instance, there's no really compelling need for the reader to spend so much time on the details of a hunt, race, or ball. Morson maintains that Tolstoy's decision to spend time on these ostensible plot detours is intentional.  He wants to depict life as it is, as a canvas filled out by as many blank or empty spaces as colorful ones. Of course, Tolstoy has the power to hold our attention even when he's depicting the quotidian details of life.  This is why many people enjoy the society scenes in War and Peace as much as they do the description of the battle of Borodino.   But Morson argues that we become really enthralled with Tolstoy's great works when the blank spots on the canvas convince us that we are finally seeing life "as it really is," with all its highs and lows, and all its detours and dead ends.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Lev Navrozov's The Education of Lev Navrozov

Russia has suffered experience despotic government for many generations. The upshot of this has been the effect despotism has had on moral thinking.  Just as many American slave owners used their intimacy with tyranny to formulate powerful theories of freedom, so too have many Russians used their familiarity with oppression to articulate clear definitions of moral liberty.  Custine, Herzen, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, are just a few of the Russia thinkers who helped Europe and the world at large to think more deeply about what a society should do to afford its members enjoy personal liberty of conscience.

Another often overlooked Russian moral thinker was Lev Navrozov, whose brilliant social critique of Soviet Russia is entitled The Education of Lev Navrozov.  In this book, Navrozov, the translator, intellectual, and Russian exile, systematically attacks almost every aspect of the Soviet system, including its history, leadership, culture, and guiding political and economic theory.  The book is a skillfully (even beautifully) written polemic masquerading as a memoir.  Its satire is both biting and darkly comic.  Often, his extended rants about particular aspects of Soviet society seem like William Burroughs' famously outrageous "routines" about American society, such as "Thankgiving" prose poem about the place genocide occupies in our country's founding myths.

Navrozov analysis of Russia is a pleasure to read.  With his unmitigated confidence, and deep familiarity with elite Russian political and cultural society, he is perfectly positioned to wound or kill every single sacred cow of communist life.  He asks us to believe, for instance, that the Soviet Union was least friendly to the very people it was allegedly created to help:  the workers.  Navrozov takes Soviet Russia to task on every level.  Starting with Lenin, Navrozov has absolutely no sympathy for any aspect of Soviet society, which he perceives as uniformly hypocritical, inefficient, unequal, and oppressive.  He attacks Soviet policies toward national minorities, antisemitism, food requisitions, policies that induced famine, inequality, attacks on Czechoslovakia and Poland, the gulag system, the absence of democratic processes, the use of torture and capital punishment in the criminal justice system, show trials, propaganda, the absence of a free press, housing shortages, the extraordinary powers of the secret police, the banning of allegedly subversive books, regulations that made employment tardiness a crime, the diminished aesthetics of Socialist Realism, and much, much more.

It is, of course, possible to argue that Navrozov overstates his case by asking us to believe that Lenin was only concerned with his own personal power.  However, he backs up even his least provable claims with logical assertions and a mountain of evidence.  Navrozov is perhaps the Soviet Union's most effective critic insofar as he avoids limiting his criticism to Stalin's purges, and other well-documented episodes of murder and mayhem.  For Navrozov attacks the problem at his roots, arguing against even Marx's suppositions, and insisting that Stalin was chosen over Trotsky and Bukharin precisely because his colleagues perceived him to be the least likely to kill them.  In other words, Navrozov not only denies that the Soviet Union suffered because it failed to honor Lenin's legacy.  He argues that the Soviet Union might have been even worse if Lenin had lived.  The theory cannot, of course, be proven.  However, by the time one finishes The Education of Lev Navrozov this unusual counterfactual history seems as plausible as any other one is likely to encounter.  Even more importantly, by the time one finished this book one has a new vocabulary for explaining Soviet oppression, and terms like "possession-power," "superparanoia," "superlandlords," "caste serfdom," "pseudo-tsar-god," "torture-death station" "mega-scale agent provocateurs," and "nascent global gangsters" makes sense.






Monday, January 14, 2019

Quotes from Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus

Below are some favorite quotations from Vololazkin's Laurus



General

He has four names at various times. A person's life is heterogeneous, so this could be seen as an advantage.

It melted before reaching the ground and brought joy to nobody.

Paupers can feed themselves:  begging, after all, is their profession.

The horses and the donkey walked side by side, despite the difference in their strides:  This was a matter of honor for the donkey.

Imagined her hair was a lake and the comb was a boat.

The brain is the body's tsar...

Religion

Christofer did not like heretics.

Arseny made the rounds of Zavelichye, keeping an eye on life's flow.  He pelted demons with stones and conversed with angels.

Arsney tosses clods of mud at several venerable residents of Zapskovye.  He can faultlessly discern small and large demons behind their backs. The residents are displeased.
There is consolation only in the fact, Arseny informs Ustina, that the demons are even more displeased.

During the dayes, God's servant Ustin laughs at the whole worlde, at nyghte he mourns the same worlde.

Mortality

What is death?  asked Arseny.
Death is when people are silent and do not move.

The seventh decade of his years would end the next day and he had decided to ask Nikandr, the elder, what to do next.
In principle, replied the elder, I have nothing to tell you. Just this:  live, O friend, close to the cemetery.

I saw only the dead.
For God, all are living.

We do not build marble crypts and we do not carve out names, for our cemeteries are granted the right to turn into forests and fields.  Which is gratifying.

One might ask a young person, who is this Yeleazar?  And he would not answer.  And even old men only vaguely remember him because they remember indifferently, without love.  But the Lord remembers with love and does not let any small detail slip his memory, thus He does not need his name.

It was clear to the old man that it was the living who should be feared.  All the unpleasantries that had occurred in his life hitherto had certainly originated with them.

Death gave off the smell of an unwashed body and the inhumanity that causes horror to arise in the soul.  The gravity that everything alive could feel.  That made the trees outside the window lose their leaves before their time.  And birds fall from the sky in horror.

Nikandr's temporary necrosis was a display of solidarity.

And they do not understand at all that the dead can be resurrected in no time at all.

It had been revealed to them that the elder's resolute spirit was in irreconcilable contradiction with the decrepitude of his body.

Suffering and grief are in his eyes:  he thinks they are already going to bury him.  He fears his pain will never pass, even in death.

The saints were not exactly moving or even speaking, but the silence and immobility of the dead were not absolute.

Does that mean you think the end of the world already exists, too?
Of course death of individual people exists, and is that not, really, a personal end of the world.  In the long run, history over all is just a part of personal history.

A person is not born ready-made.  He studies, analyzes his experience, and builds his personal history.  He needs time for that.

I, Ambrogio, am very afraid that time might end.  We are not ready for that, neither she nor I.
Nobody is ready for that, Ambrogio quietly said.

Confess to me.  I will take your Confession to Jerusalem and, I do believe, your sins will turn to dust.
But that will happen only after my death.  Will that really count for me?
I am telling you: the very existence of time is open to question.  Maybe there simply is no after.

I do not like parting.
Life consists of partings, said Arseny.

It is hardest of all, O Arseny, to foresee the future of one's own life, and that is good.  But of course I hoped to be saved.  If not in this world, then in the next.

Arseny should keep in mind that Abba Kirill's monastery is expecting him.  That's all.
After saying that, holy fool Foma died forever.

Why give birth for death?  boyar Frol said to the servants of his house.
But everyone is born for death, the servants objected.  We have yet to see other types.

This was inquired of Aristides the righteous:  how many yeares is it good for a man to live? And Aristides answerd:  untill he does understonde death is better than lyfe.

People are free, Ambrogio replied, but history is not free.  As you say, there are so many intentions and actions that history cannot bring them all together, and only God can holde them all.  I would even say that it is not people that are free but the individual person.

Russia

Christofer understood that fifty-four years was considerable for a country with a turbulent history.

Everyone in Rus' knows that you're not, like, allowed to beat holy fools.

And a Russian person is pious.  He knows a holy fool should endure suffering so he goes ahead and sins to supply him with suffering.

A Russian person, after all, is not simply pious.  Just in case, I can report to you that he is also senseless and merciless and anything he does can easily turn into mortal sin.

Determining the time the world would end seemed like an estimable pursuit to many, for people in Rus' loved large-scale tasks.

..the condition of your roads will not change;  Basically, the history of your land will unscroll in a rather unusual way.

Lots of Russians are gloomy, said Ambrogio, sharing an observation.
It is the climate, nodded Arseny.

Russians are not as gloomy as you seemed to think, after all, Arseny told Ambrogio.  Sometimes they are in a good mood.  After a horde leaves, for example.

I heard you were talking about death, said the merchant.  You Russians really love talking about death.  And it distracts you from getting on with your lives.
Ambrigio shrugged.
So, do people just not die in Poland? asked Arseny.
The merchant Vladislav scratched the back of his head.  There was a doubtful expression in his face.
Of course they die, but ever less and less frequently.

The expanses of the Russian land were curative:  they were not yet boundless at the time, so they gave, rather than demanded, strength.

What kind of people are you?  says the merchant Zygfryd.  A person heals you, dedicates his whole life to you, and you torture him his whole life.  And when he does, you tie a rope to his feet, drag him, and tears stream down your faces.
You have already been in our land for a year and eight months, answers blacksmith Averky, but have not understood a thing about it.
And do you yourselves understand it? asks Zygfryd.
Do we?  The blacksmith mulls that over and looks at Zygfryd.  Of course we, too, do not understand.

Time

Because there is no already where she is now.  And there is no still.  And there is no time, though there is God's eternal mercy, we trust in His mercy.

From then on, time definitely began moving differently for Arseny.  More precisely, it simply stopped moving and remained idle.  Arseny saw events taking place on earth but also noticed that events had, in some strange way, diverged from time.  Sometimes events came one after another, just as before;  sometimes they took a reverse order.  Rarer still, events arrived in no order whatsoever, shamelessly muddling prescribed sequences.  It refused to govern those sort of events.

And do you know, holy fool Foma asks Arseny, how many years have passed since you showed up here?
Arseny shrugs.
Well, you don't need to know that anyway, says holy fool Doma.  Live outside time for now.

He is attempting to determine when the world will end and though I am not sure this is within his competence, attention to eschatology, even on its own, seems worthy of encouragement.

All history is, to a certain extent, a scroll in the Almighty's hands.

I think time is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up, because a person's consciousness cannot take in all events at once.  We are locked up in time because of our weakness.

Time is likely a curse, for it did not exist in Heaven, O Arseny.  The forefathers lived that long because a heavenly timelessness still glowed in their faces.

After a brief but heated argument, they came to the conclusion that the infiltrators should be hung.  Further, the residents of Zara were not inclined to postpone the matter to a later date, since they were well aware that time is the arch-enemy of decisiveness.

Are those the same women who saw them off in Venice?  asked Ambrogio.
Yes, they look like them, replied Arseny, but they are different women. Completely different.  As it happens, I thought in Venice about how there is no repetition on this earth:  only similarity exists.

A thought slwly rises toward him from the leaden depths:  the ocean is mighty and he will never find Arseny.  That he will find him only if he drowns.  Only then would heave time to search.

Time was coming apart at the seams, like a wayfarer's traveling bag, and it was showing its contents to the wayfarer, who contemplated them as if for the first time.

Time no longer moves forward but goes around in circles because it teems with events that go around in circles.

There are events that resemble one another, continued the elder, but opposites are born from similarity.

Space

In the most general sense, journeys confirmed to the world the continuity of the expanse, a concept that continued to evoke certain doubts.

And so, my love, am going to the very center of the earth.  I am going to the point that is closest of all to Heaven.

Moving around within an expanse enriches our experience, the brother modestly said.
It compacts time, said Ambrogio, and makes it more spacious.

And do not become like your beloved Alexander who had a journey but had no goal.  And do not be enamored of horizontal motion.
Then what should I be enamored of? asked Arsney.
Vertical motion, answered the elder, pointing above.

Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus

Eugene Vodolazkin's book, Laurus, is a beautifully conceived and gracefully executed novel about life in the middle ages.  Primarily set in Russia, but with short excursions into Lithuania, Poland, Venice, and the Holy Land, Laurus recounts the life of a holy man on the cusp of sainthood. Although the plot would be darkly comic if set in the modern era, the book manages to depict medieval Russia on its own terms, and without so much as a hint of condescension. 

The book offers a rich, almost anthropological vision of a strikingly different worldview from our own. In this world, men and women believe that God permeates almost every facet of the physical world.  In fact, the physical world seems to be only one manifestation of God's magnificence. Reading Laura, one cannot help but think that Vodolozkin is offering a remedy to William James' famous paradox about religious studies outlined in the seminal Varieties of Religious Experience. According to James, neither theists nor atheists can fully understand religious life;  theists lack the perspective required for understanding religious experience with any degree of objectivity, while atheists lack the sympathy required for bearing witness to its powerful emotive force. 

Vololozkin offers a third way.  He asks readers to follow the life of a deeply devout person embedded in a deeply religious culture.  However, his description of this religious journey doesn't require supernatural phenomena to make sense.  By immersing us so deeply in a waters of overlapping religious sentiments, Vodolozkin gives us a glimpse of a world enchanted by faith alone.  In other words, Volozkin demonstrates men and women can be powerfully motivated by religious belief even if no god exists to alter the physical laws of the universe.  In Laurus, characters believe in religious healing ceremonies, local pilgrimages, icons, treks to the Holy Land, and Holy Fools.

Vodolazkin describe a deeply religious society that probably existed across Europe during the Middle Ages.  On the other hand, his vision of life in the Middle Ages seems quintessentially Russian insofar as his lead character's faith leads to a lifetime of almost masochistic suffering in the pursuit of religious ecstasy. 

Laurus is also a meditation on the nature of time.  The one mystical aspect of Laurus is the fact that one holy man is apparently able to foretell the future. His gift is murky, or imprecise, but he does seem to divine the fact that millions of Eastern Europeans will die in the Holocaust one day. However, the point here seems to be less about the reality of God and more about the nature of time.  As the ancient philosopher, St. Augustine, argued, every age is equidistant to God.

In Laurus, Medieval men and women embrace a different concept of time than that of modern men and women.  These Russians believed that the world was likely to come to an end in the near future.  Historians of time such as Reinhart Koselleck have postulated that only modern men and women expect that the future will be different than the past and last indefinitely.  Ironically, Laurus' depiction of Millenarian thinking resonates today.  After all, post-modern men and women have come full circle:  with the advent of nuclear bombs and greenhouse warming, we seem to believe, as our ancestors believed, than history will come to an end in the very near future.