This Provincial Life

January 3, 2014

Chekhov Family and Friends
My recent visit to New Orleans got me reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I thought was very fine, and somehow that led me to Anton Chekhov.  Maybe it’s because I read some of Chopin’s short stories, a literary form I don’t spend much time with, that I decided to try Chekhov’s stories.

First, I read “A Chorus Girl,” which introduced me to the sad humor and unflinching perception of the author, and then I read the novella, My Life:  The Story of a Provincial.  It was a free ebook, and the translation was by the prolific and oft disrespected Constance Garnett, but nevertheless, I was deeply impressed.  I felt that I was reading a kindred spirit to Italo Calvino, perhaps my all-time favorite writer, with his critical and accurate eye that makes observations tempered by a very deep sense of connection to all things human.  Indeed, the story of My Life, with and the somewhat hapless but likeable, and fundamentally honest main character, reminded me of one of my Calvino favorites, “Smog.”

Written and taking place at the end of the 19th century, the story tells of Misail, a young man born to an architect-father who is, in some way, never explained, of noble extraction.  Misail, to the father’s dismay, decides to abandon the pursuit of a “respectable” career, as a professional, in a government clerkship, or in some other walk of life that requires no manual labor, and becomes a simple workman.  This makes his narrow-minded and class-obsessed father apoplectic, and matters are not helped when Misail’s adoring younger sister starts to take after him, at least as far as not acting the part of a proper young woman of means.

At times, the story seems to be running along the lines of the old plot of a young and foolish idealist who is chastened by exposure to the hardships of the real world, but Chekhov is deeper than that.  It turns out that Misail actually does have the courage of his convictions.  He is, diverted, however, by an attractive young woman, who also has a “sledge-driver” of a father, who marries him, and sets them up on a defunct estate, with dreams of creating a model society there.  Her convictions don’t run so deep, and she dumps poor Misail, running off to the metropolis to carry on properly as a sensitive intellectual with visible means of support.

Misail’s sister gets pregnant by a married man, a pompous doctor, and then falls ill.  He goes to their father, half convinced that now is the time to fall on his knees to beg forgiveness, if only to get help for his sister.  After his father makes clear that he despises both him and his sister, and that he blames Misail for his sister’s plight, that notion is put to rest for good, and Misail delivers a blistering indictment of his father’s self-centered life and mentality:

“And who is to blame?” cried my father. “You, you scoundrel!”

“Yes. Say that I am to blame,” I said. “I admit that I am to blame for many things, but why is your life, which you have tried to force on us, so tedious and frigid, and ungracious, why are there no people in any of the houses you have built during the last thirty years from whom I could learn how to live and how to avoid such suffering? These houses of yours are infernal dungeons in which mothers and daughters are persecuted, children are tortured…. My poor mother! My unhappy sister! One needs to drug oneself with vodka, cards, scandal; cringe, play the hypocrite, and go on year after year designing rotten houses, not to see the horror that lurks in them. Our town has been in existence for hundreds of years, and during the whole of that time it has not given the country one useful man—not one! You have strangled in embryo everything that was alive and joyous! A town of shopkeepers, publicans, clerks, and hypocrites, an aimless, futile town, and not a soul would be the worse if it were suddenly razed to the ground.”

Not a pretty picture of provincial life.  Nor is it a nice picture of those who criticize it, and those who live it.  As Meville would have it, …ah humanity!


Soul

September 27, 2012

Soul is a novella by Andrey Platonov, who also wrote the fascinating, disturbing, and enigmatic Foundation Pit.  Thanks again to the NYR Books imprint for publishing these new translations.  The story tells of a young engineer who returns to his homeland to ‘save’ the Nation that gave him birth.  It’s a very mystical and dreamlike take on Stalin and the ‘nationalities problem.’  It reads like a metaphysical poem crossed with a J.G. Ballard story, and the language is less difficult than that of The Foundation Pit, but no less precisely styled, at least as far as translations allow us to glimpse it.

The ethnic group from which the hero springs inhabits the area shown in the yellow circle of the map above, one of my collection.  I like maps of that region:  they are so incomplete, so lacking in clear national boundaries, standing in the cross-roads of colliding and migrating cultures.  Also, the Aral Sea is there, a great monument to modern hydrological radicalism.  The NYRB edition includes a map of the region:  the different shape of the Aral is not due only to changes in mapping science in the intervening 300 years; it’s disappearing rapidly.

I have not read all of the stories in this collection, but The Return, the wrenching tale of a WWII veteran coming home after the war, and The Third Son, the very short story of the return home for the funeral of their mother of an old man’s six sons, are remarkable.  Both stories leave us with a sense of the transcendent humanity inherent in universal domestic events.

Platonov was a remarkable genius.


Victor Serge

April 28, 2012

I put Victor Serge alongside of Vasily Grossman as an awe-inspiring Russian writer of whom I knew next to nothing, brought to my attention by the wonderful New York Review of Books Press (and also by my friend who recommended Kolyma Tales.)  Serge’s novels are not, in fact, well known at all; certainly not here in America.  He wrote in French, was published in French, and was saved from death in the Gulag because of the outcry of French literary intellectuals who were acquainted with his work.  Good thing he knew French!  His novels were only first published in English in the early 1970s.

Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, in 1890, the son of anti-Tsarist agitators living in exile in Belgium.  He grew up in the militant atmosphere of exiled socialist-communist revolutionaries, and only set foot in Russia in 1919, after years of agitation, prison, writing, various exiles, and a life of poverty.  He landed in Petrograd/Saint Petersburg/Petersburg/Leningrad in the midst of the terrifying five-year Russian Civil War, and threw himself into The Revolution.  He remained a committed revolutionary, but retained his fierce independent (was it anarchist?) bent, and was quick to recognize the ‘betrayal of The Revolution’ that Stalin represented.  From there, it was all downhill.

His writings are unique in their blend of intense sympathy for the revolutionary cause, their unflinching recognition of the crimes committed in its name, their profound disgust with the course of the Soviet revolution, their poetic style, and the modernistic techniques he absorbed from European literary developments.  No plain social realism, no bitter denunciations of the cause betrayed, no simple answers.  Most interesting to me:  he focuses like a laser on the questions of just how people can believe they are struggling for the better  future of humanity while committing acts they know to be outrageous crimes; and why did so many people simply carry on with their work, fatalistically expecting to be unjustly arrested, tried, and perhaps executed?

The shortest of these three novels here, Conquered City, was the first written, and takes place in Petrograd during the siege he witnessed beginning in 1919.  The physical privation of citizens is horrifying.  The novel is actually a series of vignettes, some of which take place out of the city on the various fronts of the civil war, and which introduce characters from all realms of the Russian Empire:  bandits, intellectuals, proletarian communists, proletarian White sympathizers, counter-revolutionaries, Party leaders, and on. Serge depicts them all with sympathy, yes, even the counter-revolutionaries!  Throughout, all are subject to terror:  the Red Terror, or the White Terror.

One episode involves a dedicated young woman communist, hell-bent on “getting a case [investigation of a counter-revolutionary cell] moving.”  She is enthusiastic, relentless, and totally committed to the cause, with little thought for…well, anything. She cracks the case.  It turns out that a well planted worker is actually an enemy agent, and the lover of a formerly middle-class young woman.  Turns out that this woman was friendly with a well-respected, energetic, young communist agent, Arkady.  The woman’s brother was ‘suspected’ of something – wasn’t everyone? – and was hauled in for questioning.  Arkady knew immediately it was all garbage, and got the fellow released.  Now the man’s sister is known to be the lover of a man who is known to be an enemy of the people, and Arkady released his brother!  He’s done for, and he knows it.  Osipov, his friend, arrests him.  “What have you done, my poor old friend, what have you done!”  They shake hands.

Later, another mutual friend visits Osipov and challenges him on the arrest of Arkady:  “You know brother, we’re committing a crime.

“A crime?”  Osipov tossed back at him.  “Because one of us got hit this time around?  Don’t you understand that one must pay with one’s blood for the right to be pitiless?  Do you by any chance imagine that we won’t all end up like that?”

Class war is a dirty business, but “it must be done.”  These views recur again and again through the books.  With views like that, people will do anything.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev may be Serge’s best known novel, and I found it to be the most extraordinary of the three.  It takes place at the height of the Great Purge of the late 1930s triggered by the assassination of Kirov.  A young man gets hold of a revolver, determined to kill Stalin.  On his nightly walks, he actually sees him occasionally, stepping into a limousine at a Kremlin gate.  With the revolver in hand, he approaches the gate again, and Stalin is there!  But he totally looses his nerve, and walks on.  A little later, he sees another Party boss – it’s Tulayev, yes, certainly it’s that murderous scum!  He’s being dropped at the door of his mistress’ apartment.  He walks up to him, shoots him, and runs.  The ripples of terror immediately spread far and wide.

The chapters of the novel tell the story of Party members caught in the net of the pseudo-investigation into the murder.  There must be a conspiracy of course:  how could it be otherwise?  Most of them end up dead, shot for their invented complicity in the international plot against the Socialist state.  Among the victims: a long-exiled party member brought in from his Siberian house-arrest for interrogation; a young woman studying textile production in Paris on a plush-assignment (her father is a bigwig in the police organs – he is arrested too) who reads of the arrest of a former teacher and makes the fatal mistake of sending a telegram to papa demanding that he help the man; a commissar working in Spain – just what was Stalin’s aim in the Spanish Civil War? – who intercedes to help a young American communist arrested as a Trotskyite [He actually confronts Stalin in the Kremlin, and is let off with a posting to Siberia to work in forestry.]

One victim, in prison, is visited by another old Bolshevik who has been broken.  He urges the resister to give in, confess to whatever is asked:

Better men than you and I have done it before us.  Others will do it after us.  No one can resist the machine.  No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy.  Neither you nor I will ever go over to the enemy…And if you consider yourself innocent, you are absolutely wrong?  We innocent?  Who do you think you’re fooling?  Have you forgotten about our trade?  Can Comrade High Commissar for Security be innocent?  Can the Grand Inquisitor be as pure as a lamb?  Can he be the only person in the world who doesn’t deserve the bullet in the neck which he distributed like a rubber-stamp signature at the rate of seven hundred per month on the average?  Official figures – way off, of course.  None will ever know the real figures…”

As someone wrote of Kruschev, commenting on his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, he too was up to his elbows in blood.  They all knew the score.  They had quotas for arrests, imprisonment, execution…  Amazing that through all this, Serge still manages to convey why these people got into this in the first place:  their intense thirst for justice, fairness, an end to the crushing tyrannical poverty of the old regime, and a deeply felt desire for a society in which human equality is prized.  To note this as an irony is so obvious as to be ridiculous.

Unforgiving Years is the last of the three that I read, and the strangest in many ways.  In this book, Serge adopts a style that is at times elliptical, modernistic, and sometimes seems hallucinatory.  It is the tale of a communist agent who has had enough – he can’t go on, and he decides to escape to Mexico.  He knows the machinations of the security apparatus and how hard they are to evade, and he knows that his knowledge only gives him a little head start over his inevitable pursuers.  There’s also the business of his lover:  he wants to take her too, and that makes it harder.

The novel seems like a screenplay for a political film noir, but the level of tension, paranoia, and sheer horror exceeds anything from that genre.  At times, I felt that Thomas Pynchon had cribbed the entirety of Gravity’s Rainbow, from Serge:

In every war there is a rear that holds better than the front, a rear fat with noble sentiments, creature comforts, and lucrative deals:  this rear, which balances the front, makes the insanity total…The beaches of California still exhibit, in season, a full complement of pretty women with smiling thighs:  such is the natural order of things.  After all, there’s philosophical solace to be found in the fact that some still live while others die, an obvious improvement on everyone dying…But it  is no longer possible to embark upon a  coherent line of reasoning without falling into absurdity.

This novel was published in English in 1970, about the time Gravity’s Rainbow came out, but who knows?  Maybe Pynchon read it in French?

The ending of the story takes place in a paradisaical Mexican mountain setting but has all the weirdness and menace of the finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway.  Knowing as we do the end which Trotsky met in hiding, it is no surprise what happens, but just how the long arm of the Party reaches out to crush those who stray is terrifying nevertheless.

Not exactly happy reading these three books, but Victor Serge is a novelist for the ages – brilliant!


Atlas Shrugged…

March 1, 2012

I like to read things I disagree with – keeps me sharp.  Besides, if I’m going to condemn something, a movie, a book, a philosophy, I prefer to have dealt with the original.  Thus, I began this doorstop of a novel.  I’ve read short pieces by Ayn Rand, and found them lacking.  Fifty pages or so into this one, I had to stop.  The book is without any literary merit whatsoever.  Even that commie turned red baiter, Whittaker Chambers, reviewing it on publication said that to call it a novel was to “demean the term.”  Hey, he was right about Alger Hiss, too!

The one book that this writing reminds me of very strongly is What is To Be Done?  That too is without literary merit.  Ironic, isn’t it?  A book of right-wing libertarian cliches is the literary twin of the bible of the early Russian revolutionaries.  Both have characters of phantastic nobility, character, discipline and resolve.  Both are …

Well, read it if you can.


What Is to Be Done?

November 28, 2011

What are we to think of What Is to Be Done?  I posted about it earlier, when I was partway through, commenting on its stilted dialog, its place in Russian history, and its lack of literary worth.  Having finished it, I can say that it is a weird book, a fascinating book, and yes, a novel without literary merit.  None at all – zilch.  But since it is such an incredibly important book in the history of Russian literature, ideas, and revolutionary politics, it is nevertheless a fascinating read! If  its only claims on our attention were that it stimulated Dostoyevsky to respond with his great anti-nihilist novel, Demons and his short novel, Notes from Underground, wouldn’t that be enough to make it worth our time?  And add to that the inspiration it gave to generations of radical revolutionaries, who finally overthrew the Russian old order, and you have a book that is hard to resist.  Why did I wait until now to read it!

Nikolai Chernyshevsky published the novel in 1863, and wrote it while in the Peter-Paul fortress, where he had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.  The rest of his life, nearly twenty years, were spent in unproductive exile in Siberia. He was a revolutionary, although not one who actively involved himself in plots.  His appeal to the radical intellectuals of his day and afterwards was in his thorough rejection of the existing social order, his advocacy of complete and radical revolution, his scorn for reformist politics, and the mixture of traditional Russian cultural and religious themes with utopian socialist ideas from the West which form the material of What Is to Be Done?

Why did he ask that question?  Why were all the intelligentsy asking it? Because they were a vanishingly small class of educated and modern people living in a society that was more or less a holdover from the feudal age.  A society dominated by church, the Tsar, and landowners with serfs, who were more or less slaves.  The situation must have driven a thinking, secular, progressive person around the bend!  Not for nothing does Chernyshevsky reference Uncle Tom’s Cabin at several points in the narrative:  That book, a far superior literary work, also grew out of a maddeningly unjust social order against which it argued.

What Chernyshevsky’s novel offered to the radicals of his day, if not a literary model, was an inspiring character model:  the ‘New Ones,’ who would lead Russia into a revolutionary new social order.  The men and women, free, independent, liberated from oppressive social mores, feminists and atheistic materialists all, who, with a noble dedication to bringing about the greatest good for all, would steadfastedly direct their efforts, guided by Reason, to The Revolution.  They would educate and lead the masses to take what is theirs by right.

If it sounds a tad too good to be true, we need only look at the history of the USSR to see what came of it, and say, “Yes, too good to be true.”  The New Ones can easily become a vanguard of the masses that oppresses the masses.  And these characters, who all speak like disciples of Ayn Rand (I would love to know what she thought of it!) even when they are discussing love and marriage, seem a wee bit on the nutty side.  They are guided by a philosophy of Rational Egoism (not all that different from Rand’s ideas), but are convinced that pursuing their own interests will invariably benefit all the most.  Ah, but the rub is defining one’s interests properly, and that’s not as simply logical as they would have it.

Reading this book, and keeping in mind the insanity that passes for Reason in revolutionary politics at its worst, makes some things very clear.  The weird, incestuous and fanatical nature of the Bolsheviks, so well described by Sebag-Montefiore and Nadezhda MandelshtamThe incredible and ruthless violence against civilians, political opponents, and their own cadres of which they were capable…once the arguments had conclusively demonstrated the necessity of liquidating them.  The style of argument, again Ayn Rand comes to mind, that uses Reason and Logic as a brick with which to hit you in the face.  The characters in this book all speak with gentle affection, or controlled disdain, but…this is a novel.  People inspired by it are apt to take with it the parts that appeal to their own personalities, and then…who knows?

There really isn’t too much discussion of politics in this book:  the Tsar’s censors would not permit it.  There is a lengthy discussion of a sewing cooperative that goes swimmingly, of course, and is presented as a model of socialistic, un-alienated work, but much is presented only allegorically, or hinted at very obliquely.  There are several long dream narratives presented as set pieces, introduced by the author-narrator, that comment on the plot or present utopian futures.  In one of them, The Crystal Palace appears as the symbol of the utopian order to come.

I must now go and read again Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book that many see as a parodistic response to Chernyshevsky’s story.  We have the Crystal Palace to throw stones at, and passages like this one exhorting us to follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones:

Superior natures, which you, my pitiful friends, and I cannot keep up with, aren’t like this at all.  I showed you a faint outline of the profile of one of them:  there you see very different features.  But you can become an equal to the people described here in full, if only you wish to work a bit on your own development.  Anyone who is beneath them is very low indeed.  Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up.  It’s not so difficult.  Come out into the light of day…

To which Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man answers:

I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

And I am with you, Fyodor!


Love and Death

November 20, 2011

Reading through What Is to Be Done?, I found myself remembering Woody Allen’s film, Love and Death, from 1975.  The stilted dialog and philosophical expositions in the novel are so wooden, they seem like the parody of Allen’s film.  I am amazed at how much of the film I remembered, but I thought it was much funnier this time around, despite the fact that when I saw it, I was in my Russian Lit phase.

It’s a wild parody and pastiche of 19th century Russian literary themes, primarily Tolstoy’s War and Peace and various Dostoyevsky works, with visuals that humorously echo Ingmar Bergman.  In the scene above, Allen, a new recruit, shamed into enlisting to fight Napoleon, is upbraided by a black drill sergeant.  He goes on to inadvertently save the battle by being shot out of a canon into the French generals’ tent.

I even found Diane Keaton, an actress to whom I usually react as to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, very entertaining.


The Revolution Will Be Drained

November 16, 2011

Nostalgic Realist School

Once again, I find myself reading a book that I have heard of for ages, but never got to:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?  What indeed?  It was so influential that both Tolstoy and Lenin wrote pieces by the same name.  The introduction to my translation says that Notes from Underground is a sustained parody of the book and its ideas.  Basically, everyone was talking about it, and responding to it.  As the Dostoyevsky scholar, Joseph Frank, puts it:

If one were to ask for the title of the nineteenth-century Russian novel that has had the greatest influence on Russian society, …a non-Russian would choose among….Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment…No, the novel that can claim this honor with the most justice… What Is to Be Done?…  No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, can compete.

Unlike that American novel, another that took me time to get around to reading, and which I found to my surprise to be a stunningly powerful work, What Is to Be Done?  is simply awful as literature.  There’s no getting around it.  It’s clunky, talky, the characters are allegorical and speak in the most stilted way imaginable, and in addition, the author had to use ‘code’ to get by the censors of the Tsar.  The plot is a soap opera about idealistic young people who are, we gradually realize, members of a revolutionary movement, yet politics is not the focus of the book, but the liberation, legally and sexually, of women is.  Strange to think that this is the book that set the Bolsheviks in motion, but Lenin himself, besides his homage to the book’s title, energetically defended the novel against critics.

The book is also quite strange:  Chernyshevsky frequently indulges in meta-literary interludes, addressing the ‘dear reader,’ hinting at what’s to come, congratulating us for already knowing what’s to come, psychologizing his characters, and generally managing the action like a vaudeville impresario.  Yet, this was the book that led to the October Revolution!

The nihilistic revolutionaries of the story are pretty nice, wholesome, energetic, idealistic guys and gals, for the most part.  They just happen to be atheists and thoroughgoing materialists.  Chernyshevsky uses the story to espouse his theories of ‘rational egoism,’ which is a radical distillation of English utilitarianism:  all people act for advantage; there is no morality, there is only calculation of what one’s advantage is.  The same old rubbishman is motivated by two things: the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain…  But because of the importance of the book, and, oddly, because it is chock-full of ideas, even if they are expressed in a wacky manner, it is, honestly, fascinating!

But, but, what’s this I find on page 216?  Something that lifts my spirits into the heavenly realm of drainage!  Here is the main character discoursing to his young wife on ‘agriculture’ and how to improve swampy wastelands:

Until very recently no one knew how to restore such fields to health; but now a method has been discovered.  It’s called ‘drainage’.  Excess water is channeled off into ditches, leaving only the required amount.

 The editor makes clear the real meaning of this ‘Aesopian’ language:

Russian radicals referred to mechanical processes such as drainage to indicate revolutionary means of change, and chemical processes to signify evolutionary change. Thus Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on drainage rather than on chemical improvement indicates his advocacy of revolution

I always knew that Drainage would serve The Revolution.  I will post more when I finish it.


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