Thursday, September 17, 2020
My response to the current pandemic was to step back from Russian history and literature for a few months. I've used the time to read a variety of things, including the entire oeuvre of George Elliot. I've also ready biographies of Elliot, Dickens, Hardy, and other Victorians. I even started watching BBC productions of Victorian classics, including wonderful productions of Vanity Fair, Tess, and Bleak House. Since I majored in British history, I used the time to remember why British history and literature was once so interesting to me. Elliot's sophistication as a thinker is probably the best advertisement the Victorian age ever had. I've also started reading about the American prairie, polishing off three Little House books , one Willa Cather novel, 'O Pioneers, and the fascinating biography of Wilder and her daughter, Prairie Fires. But never fear, once a Russophile, always a Russophile. For instance, I've just completed Gary Shteyngart's memoir, Little Failure. While not a huge fan of his fiction, I did enjoy this witty and sardonic analysis of his experience as a Russian immigrant in New York City and Wooster College. While the book would probably resonate with anyone who is interested in how immigrants experience the world, Little Failures specifically discusses the Jewish Russian in the context of the 1980s. The period is fascinating, but especially so for someone venturing from an ailing superpower to a dominant one near the end of the Cold War.
Shteyngart's memoir is a deeply personal one, filled with his own personal insecurities, but it takes place against the backdrop of Russian history. We learn that Shteyngart's family was decimated by the German invasion, and his grandfather suffered a further calamity after being sent to Siberian hard labor for the crime of praising German technology. We learn that his family only escaped the Soviet Union as a result of the deal his country struck with the USA, a deal to exchange exit visas for Jews in exchange for grant and limited technology transfers. Like most emigrants, Shteyngart's family lived in fear of being prevented from leaving, and shed most of its possessions in the flight, via Vienna and Italy, to America. More mundanely, we learn about Shteyngart's everyday life in late Soviet Russia, including his experience with bureaucracy, queues, airport searches, space shortages, anti-Semitism, poor medical assistance (e.g., he didn't receive albuterol for his asthma until arriving in America), communist propaganda, and limited material comforts.
In America, Schteygart's memoir helps us to see how the Cold War affected Russians. In addition to the traditional dilemmas of finding work, learning English (and a new alphabet), and navigating a brand new culture, Schteygart endured a great deal of psychic distress by learning that Americans were still afraid of the Soviet Union. In the late 80s, the Soviet Union was an "Evil Empire" that would, according to Reagan at any rate, be bombed "in five minutes." On the other hand, American Jews did help Schyngart's family, with used furniture, used clothing, job assistance, and cash. As embarrassing as the assistance was to a nerdy child, it seems to have been a vital element in moving Schyngart's family from poverty to the coveted American "middle class."
Thursday, September 3, 2020
As a free thinker, I've hesitated to delve too deeply into Tolstoy's religious writing for fear of undermining my love of his novels. However, the excellent novel, Resurrection, helped me to understand that his secular and religious writings are not so far apart as they first appear. Tolstoy's short tract, A Confession, seems much less "religious" than one might expect it to be. Instead, the long essay has a philosophical tone, and is relatively free of mysticism or theology or even religious fervor. It's a biographical exploration that is not unlike the kind of exploration Tolstoy makes when analyzing his characters' complex, mercurial, and layered decisions. A Confession also bears similarities to Tolstoy's What is Art? in that it often seems more of an intellectual exercise in rational analysis that any kind of investigation of a supernatural force. When reading Tolstoy biographies, the two periods of his life seem sharply divided. In the first part of his life, Tolstoy sins and then writes a series of brilliant novels. In the second part of his life, he repents and pens a series of didactic and/or religious tracts. However, A Confession seems to suggest that Tolstoy's signature and quasi-religious self-doubt is the source of his genius as a novelist, and his intellectualism and rationalism the source of his creative power as a religious thinker. Tolstoy's plays also seem to suggest an absence of a divide between the two halves of Tolstoy's life, since even deeply religious themes turn into abstractly philosophical moral dilemmas. Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised: I've always speculated that the best religious thinkers have much more in common with the best atheist thinkers than they do with the majority of men and women who lead the Church, Mosque, and Synagogue.