Tuesday, May 11, 2021

George Saunders' A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

George Saunders' new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, analyzes several Russian short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol.  As a Russophile, I was happy to read or reread the stories he selected, which included The Nose, The Master and the Man, The Cart, and at least one story from A Sportsman's Sketches, and other nineteenth century classics.  On the other hand, I was just slightly disappointed that Saunders didn't have any special expertise in either Russian literature or history.  Picking up the book felt like a case of false advertising.  Yes, Saunders had taught a course in the Russian short story for several decades and knew these stories intimately.  However, he was primarily concerned with the craftsmanship of the stories, rather than their Russian themes or the Russian literary contexts from which they emerged. Indeed, Saunders analyzed these short stories primarily from the point of view of a writer, or would-be writer.  In some ways, Saunders could have written the same sort of book about any group of short stories.  He really did not need to limit himself to Russian stories, so the book seemed a bit gimmicky.  In any case, Sanders did something new by asking readers to read these stories, and then carefully deconstruct them in terms of their plot and other literary devices.  And certainly it was nice to approach these classics from the point of view of a writer learning a craft.  It was somewhat exciting to be asked by Saunders to think about the many choices each of these Russian authors made when creating their masterpieces.  It was also interesting to see that Saunders thinks that a writer like Turgenev may have actually created something unique as result of his own creative limitations.  That is to say, Saunders argues that Turgenev was not an expert at plot, but therefore turned characterization and setting and detail into something extraordinarily beautiful.  

Monday, May 3, 2021

Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism

Vivian Gornick, where have you been all my life?  As famous and prolific as she is, I don't remember ever reading anything by Vivian Gornick before.  I actually just stumbled upon her this week when I encountered a short book of her insightful literary essays entitled, The Men in My Life.  Loving this small book, I moved on to a larger book, The Romance of American Communism.  This book is phenomenal.  A work of oral history, The Romance of American Communism traces the rise and fall of American Communism by relying on many of its surviving members.  Gornick was perfectly positioned to write this book.  A product of of the New York Jewish Left, Gornick grew up around every shade of American socialist, cooperative enthusiast,  trade unionist, Wobbly-descendent, and communist.  She also writes beautifully, and seems just how to conduct interviews that honor their subjects without a critical spirit of inquiry.  The variety of communist experience was of course vast, and Gornick captures that variety.  Still, Gornick's respondents elucidate some big and unifying themes in the movement.  Many people were practically born into communism, especially those whose families emigrated from Tsarist Russia or other lands of poverty and persecution.  Others were appalled by the Depression and specific injustices, often in the California agriculture districts.  Many communists were attracted to the idea that they were participating in something larger themselves.  Interestingly, a great many men and women said communism helped them to "discover" politics for the first time.  In other words, prior to recruitment, these men and women had no way to explain their lives, and how those lives connected to communities, and how those communities connected to the world at large.  After recruitment, these men and women had a diagnosis for what was wrong in the world, and felt that they could make a difference.  Over time, communism was confronted with state-sanctioned harassment.  Also, Stalin's Show Trials and later Soviet conduct in the Cold War did much to dampen the enthusiasm of American communists.  But even after the diminution and end of the American communist movement, former communists remembered how much the movement had meant to them.  Participation in the Party had given their lives meaning.  They had made friends and lovers by way of their political activity.  Some were disillusioned, but even many of these were convinced that nothing else in their lives had been so important, so meaningful.  

Julian Barnes' Noise of Time

 Since the pandemic arrived, I've taken a bit of a hiatus from Russian subjects, reading widely.  However, I try to make sure a few Russian books, or Russia-themed books, stay in the mix.  I happened about Julian Barnes' novel on Shostakovich in a roundabout way. I had just finished several books by Flaubert, and was in particular greatly impressed by A Sentimental Education.  This, in turn, led me to pick up Barnes' magnificently clever paean to the master stylist, Flaubert's Parrot.  After that, I needed to find another Barnes book immediately, so selected Noise of Time.  Well, Noise of Time can't compete with either A Sentimental Education or Flaubert's Parrot, but Barnes does do a wonderful job of depicting the moral dilemma of many ordinary (and extraordinary) Soviet citizens.  For Shostakovich was neither pure saint nor pure sinner.  Like many, he lived through the Great Terror and entered into the Thaw in a somewhat traumatized state.  While I didn't find Barnes had all that much to say about Shostakovich as a musician or artist, he did help demonstrated the complexity of making one's way in a totalitarian society.  Of course, Shostakovich's own memoir, Testimony, is an even more eloquent account of survival in Soviet society.  That great work is filled with Shostakovich's rage and bitterness at all kinds of people who made dark compromises with power.  Some have argued that Volkov actually authored (or too actively curated) this memoir, but even if he did, the work expresses deep truths about moral corruption.  Rubenstein's  biography of Ehrenberg, Tangled Loyalties, is another exceptionally insightful take on artists who managed to maintain some moral integrity despite being frequently called upon to serve as apologists for Stalinism and post-Stalinism.