Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark

Over time, I hope to make my way through most of Nabokov's books. However, thus far I've only read Lolita, Mary, the Gift, Speak, Memory, and now, Laughter in the DarkLaughter in the Dark is a short, delightful book, originally written in Russian. The book is seems more concerned about a suspenseful plot than Nabokovian wordplay or complexity.  It's a short book, but filled with urgency.  It's hard to put down.   As its title suggests, Laughter in the Dark somehow both tragic and comical.  One stands in awe at Nabokov's ability to describe the state of blindness standing at the center of the novel's denouement.  Nabokov's book is lots of fun, but the protagonist's physical blindness to say something profound about the metaphorical blindness of its bourgeois hero, about the metaphorical blindness of all of us.  Metaphor or not, the book mainly succeeds in describing the inevitable costs of infidelity. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Steinbeck on Russia

I am sure someone has already written a wonderful dissertation or book (or several) about the many famous Western writers who visited the Soviet Union and wrote up their travel journals.  Benjamin, Feuchtwanger, Hughes, Gide, ee cummings, and others come to mind.  Reading a massive Steinbeck biography by Jackson Benson (perhaps I should have gone with Parsini's shorter one), I figured it was time to read Steinbeck's contribution to the genre, A Russian Journal.  Not a particular fan of Steinbeck's fiction (with the exception of East of Eden), I was skeptical that he would be able to escape his official minders or see beyond the ideological constraints of the early Cold War.  However, Steinbeck's book is really pretty good.  His strengths as a fiction writer are revealed in his approach to travel writing.  That is to say, he goes out of his way to avoid taking sides, or sermonizing.  

Steinbeck's biographer claims that both communists and capitalists often criticized his fictional depictions of worker exploitation and unrest.  One can see why.  In this book, Steinbeck tries to stick to what he can see or hear for himself.  He calmly notes what his American friends say about Russia before he goes, but doesn't give any of these anti-Russian comments a great deal of weight.  In Russia, he is careful to tell his readers what he is and is not allowed to see, and how his stay is mediated by Intourist and various prohibitions against photography, industrial reportage, etc.  He also notices many hallmarks of totalitarianism, including Stalin's pictorial omnipresence, the general culture of secrecy, and Trotsky's elimination from Soviet history, but tries to be as open-minded about the Russian people as possible.  

The best part of Steinbeck's book is that he really doesn't try to be make too many overarching claims about his Russia as a result of his relatively short stay there.   Steinbeck's relative humility is even evident in his treatment of Russian questions about America.  When they ask him about Truman, he truthfully admits his relative ignorance about the man.  And he's careful to say that he isn't really all that qualified to speak about America as whole, knowing only certain portions of the country, or certain segments of it.  Another interesting aspect of the trip is that it occurs in 1948, when Russia was just barely recovering from the German invasion and war years.  He visits Moscow, Ukraine, and Georgia, but his trip to Stalingrad is perhaps the most revealing portion of the book.  The city remains physically devastated.  In the end, Steinbeck offers readers few theoretical insights about the Soviet Union or communism.  However, he does make readers feel as if they themselves were on the tour, visiting a country recovering from war, and still in the throes of dictatorship, but still resilient.  Of course, neither Steinbeck or the reader ever visit the places in the Soviet Union, including the gulags, which might have forced him to do more sermonizing than he did. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Turgenev's Diary of a Superfluous Man

Soviet Roulette has taken a bit of a hiatus.  I required a break and dove into all manner of literature since the pandemic broke out, starting with George Eliot's oeuvre.  Yet I'll keep my oar in the water by mentioning a few Russian books now and again.  Today, I'll mentioned that I've read Ivan Turgenev's Diary of a Superfluous Man and found that the novella seems to foreshadow many of the later classics of modern fiction, including Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground or Goncharov's Oblomov.  In truth, I wasn't a huge fan of Turgenev, and was particularly underwhelmed by his most famous work, Fathers and Sons, which seemed a little crude, a novel of ideas rather than a novel of living characters.  However, as I've read more of Turgenev, I've become more and more impressed with his versatility.  They say Turgenev is a great stylist, and perhaps that is difficult to capture in translation.  But what strikes me most about the man is that he was willing to continuously test out new ideas and new literary forms.  While I have many more books to read, I am struck by how different each of his books can be.  Smoke seemed like a light, gossipy novel;  Fathers and Sons seemed obsessed with philosophical posturing;  Diary of a Superfluous Man seems like an investigation into morbid psychology;  First Love seems like a tender romance. I now have the feeling that I will get a wonderful overview of Russia's literary tradition if only I allow myself the time to read all of his diverse novels.  That's a wonderful thing.  I am not sure if I will ever encounter a Turgenev book I like as well as Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, or any of Chekhov's major plays.  Even so, I think I will come to think of him as deserving to be considered in their company.  I will have to tackle Saunders' new book to see how it looks when he considers a Turgenev story along side stories of these other greats.  

Some favorite quotes

How is that that fourteen days are less than fourteen years or fourteen centuries?

..she was always busy, forever bustling about like an ant--and completely without purpose, which cannot be said of an ant.  

That is what children are for, to keep their parents from getting bored.  

While a man is truly living, he has no sensation of his own life;  like a sound, it becomes clear to him only a short time later.  

I have nothing against happiness;  in fact, I have tried to approach it from every angle...