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


Three shadows block the path of my imagination.


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.


"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.


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


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....


"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.'"


"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."


"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.'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.