Pechorin going places?

November 11, 2011

Pechorin is the ‘hero’ in Lermontov’s novel, A Hero in Our Time.  It’s a strange book, a series of small stories set in a shifting time-frame of multiple narratives.  We learn of Pechorin’s exploits from people who knew him and tell tales, and from lengthy excerpts from his journal, found by one of the narrators.  The setting is the Caucasus, an exotic locale where Imperial Russia meets the mysterious Orient, and seeks to subject it to military authority.  Thus, we have a mixture of Romanticism, Realism, and fictional experimentation.

I must confess, after hearing of this book for so long, I was a bit under-whelmed.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it a great deal, but I am a little jaded with the romantic-cynic-rake-Don Juan hero type.  The novelty of the style was refreshing, despite the irritating and deprecatory notes by the translator, V. Nabokov, which I couldn’t keep myself from reading.  There was something about it that was very direct and powerful:  definitely not a ‘typical set piece’ of ‘tales of the people.’

Pechorin is one of a long line of army officer rakes.  Army life, besides the effect of the pool from which it draws its recruits – often the idle sons of the rich and aristocratic – is mostly boring and routine:  the thrill of battle is sharp and infrequent.  What’s a young man to do with his time but gamble, drink, womanize, and, if the spirit is in him, engage in duels and other futile expressions of personal vanity.  Pechorin is unusual for the depth of his alienation from normal life, his lack of empathy, his egoism – perhaps narcissism is a better word – and his commitment to his sensibility.  He’d rather die in a stupid duel than compromise his ideas on life.  He is heedless of morality, lives for the moment, and cares nothing for the consequences of his actions.

Is he a Byronic hero or a ‘superfluous man’?  I tend towards the former in Pechorin’s case, but so what?  Why is a Byronic hero a positive type?  Thus my lack of enthusiasm.  No, I’m not plunking for simple, utilitarian morals and calculation, but after these egoistic, self-absorbed grand characters, Dostoyevsky’s men of humility, humiliation, and spiritual redemption are looking better and better.  On the other hand, the title, ironic as it is, indicates that Lermontov was thinking of a man and his feelings rendered superfluous by society…maybe.

The more I think about this book and the film Going Places, the more I feel that there is a connection.  Is Pechorin the spiritual ancestor of the two hoods in Blier’s film?  That doesn’t reflect badly on Lermontov at all, but it shows what we have come to.  The Byronic hero, rejecting norms, morality, the ‘superman’ has been democratized and completely watered down.  There is no comedy in A Hero; Going Places is actually funny at times, but mostly, it’s one long jeer.  In our modern urban industrial world, everyone is alienated, everyone can be a Pechorin – just take to a selfish life of crime and flick your nose at society.  More than a century of social critique and rising consumerism has reduced Lermontov’s social discomfiture and rebellion to this weak and paltry ‘rebellion’ of the lumpen


Demons I: Fanatical and Fatuous

October 27, 2011

I am 3/4 through Dostoyevsky’s Demons, in the recent P&V translation, and the action has certainly picked up!  At first, the book was tough going with its large cast of characters, the nicknames, the relationships between them that are hidden, and the strange mix, typical of Dostoyevsky, of parody, satire, melodrama, and biting criticism.  (I agree completely with Frank’s remark in the introduction that Dostoyevsky’s qualities as a satirist and humorist are vastly underrated.)  I had to make a crib sheet to keep the people straight, and it was often difficult to understand what was happening on a page, even though I read carefully.  Sort of like reading an old and decorous novel about sexual seduction and moving over the ‘good part’ without realizing that the characters actually are having sex…but this isn’t about sex, for the most part.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for extreme rhetoric (see links below), from the religious or political standpoint, and crackpot intellectual systems.  The section in Part II, With Our People, an ironic ‘our’, describes a meeting of  local poseurs, provocateurs, agitators, and intellectual wannabees spouting political rhetoric.  There is a heated discussion of whether or not it will be necessary to chop off the heads of one million souls, and whose heads will go flying.  And there are hilarious and idiotic exchanges among students whose heads are filled with slogans and left-wing catch phrases.  At one point, a stuffy respectable gentleman remonstrates with a young student-girl hothead, saying:

But I’m your uncle!  I used to tote you around in my arms when you were still an infant!

The Generation Gap in miniscule.  She replies:

What do I care what you used to tote around.  I didn’t ask you to tote me around, which means, mister impolite officer, that you got pleasure from it.

I sense a delicious parody here of the intellectual obsession with Utilitarian theories, which Dostoyevsky loathed:  people are motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure, simple as that.  No sense in pointing out your former selfless and dutiful familial activities:  you did it for your own pleasure!

The chilling talk of mass murder might have seemed simply absurd in the 1860s, before Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler, not to mention Pol Pot.  And speaking of Pol Pot, the modern master of barracks communism, as Marx derisively characterized the ravings of the great nihilist,  Nechaev, the trial transcript of Pot’s Russian ancestor was grist for Dostoyevsky’s mill.  (Dostoyevsky was writing in the realist tradition, after all!)  I’ve found very little about Mr. (Nilhil) Nechaev in English, other than the catechism (see link), from which I offer these tidbits:

  • The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.
  • Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, on consolation, one reward, one satisfaction – the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.
  • The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.

And then, at the fete, there is the fatuous Mr. Karmazinov, a lampoon of Ivan Turgenev, the Euro-centered literary master with whom Dostoyevsky had a difficult, and largely hostile relationship.  (Ivan and Flaubert were great friends.) His speech bidding farewell to his readers, none of which is in the audience, is a scornful burlesque of intellectual self-satisfaction and pompousness.  Perhaps it is unfair to Turgenev, but it would not be so funny if it weren’t.  No doubt, he would love it if his fans would beg him, on their knees of course, not to leave Russia for retirement in Germany.  So much for westward-leaning intellectuals who see Russia’s future in Europe.

After his final words, and merci, Karmazinov is called back on stage to loud applause, and the governor’s radical-chic wife hands him a bouquet of roses.

“Laurels!” Karmazinov said with a subtle and somewhat caustic grin.  “I am moved, of course, and accept this wreath, prepared beforehand but as yet unwithered, with lively emotion:  but I assure you, mesdames, I have suddenly become so much of a realist that I consider laurels in our age rather more fitting in the hands of skillful cook than in mine…”

Shouts from the crowd reply:

“Except that cooks are more useful!”  and
“I’ll add three more roubles for a cook”
“So would I.”
“So would I.”
“But do they really have no buffet here…?”

He, he! Oh, that Fyodor, he’s a card!

Some links to over the top talk:


It was I who killed the official’s old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe…

July 28, 2011

I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was in the ninth grade, and I loved it.  Heaven knows what I understood of it.  Generations later, I have tried to read again all those novels that I devoured then – Karamazov, Demons, Idiots – and I could get nowhere.  I found Dostoyevsky’s style repellant and impenetrable, with the exception of Notes from Underground, which has always been a favorite.  Maybe it was the translation.

I am more than half through the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of this novel, and I am amazed at the novelty of the book, its outrageous inventiveness.  The phrase I find myself coming back to is avant garde.  It seems so, even now, after 140 years – fresh, challenging, bizarre, and direct.  Compared to this, Dostoyevksy’s contemporary ‘realists’ such as Dickens (whom he loved), Turgenev (whom he loathed) and Flaubert (I don’t know what opinions of each other they entertained, but Flaubert and Turgenev were fast friends) seem almost pedestrian.  The point of view shifts, the mood varies wildly, the characters often seem to speak to the reader directly, and there is no sense of a cool, omniscient consciousness directing the action.  More like real life?

The novel observes a lot of the conventions of 19th century realism:  the place and person names obscured with a hyphen as if to protect the identities of the real people; the fully realized portraits of the city, its classes, and the grit of everyday life – but it seems profoundly stagey, literally as if a play, not a novel, which makes it seem unrealistic at the same time.  Characters enter, declaim, moan, howl, rave, and exit.  So much of the action takes place in crowded rooms.  People are forever making decisions, talking, arguing, and falling into reverie on stairs, going up and going down.

Unusual also is the recounting of dreams:  they are utterly credible, in a way that I associate with writing of the 20th century only.  Earlier writers tend towards romantic notions of what the dormant mind produces – Raskolnikov’s are completely believable, especially the first in which he imagines following a man, a man who knows his crime, a man who stops, turns, and waves to him from across the street, saying nothing.

Finally, Dostoyevsky gets the jump on all the existentialist notions that would become trite in generations to come.  Listen to this deliciously funny, dark, exchange as Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov discuss the afterlife and eternity:

“We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast!  But why must it be vast?  Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity.  I sometimes fancy something of the sort.”

“But surely, surely you can imagine something more just and comforting than that!” Raskolnikov cried out with painful feeling.

“More just?  Who knows, perhaps that is just- and, you know, if I had my way, it’s certainly how I would do it!”  Svidrigailov answered, smiling vaguely.

How many episodes of the Twilight Zone, how many adolescent rock lyrics, what pile of scripts and plays start with notions like this?

With the climate of political extremism being what it is these days, I think I just might get myself a copy of The Demons next.


Faithful Ruslan – a dog story?

June 17, 2011

Despite my immersion in the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, the novels of Vassily Grossman, and other Stalin-era material, I had never heard of Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladmiov.  Many thanks to the author of the anonymous comment at this dog-oriented post who pointed me to it!  Vadlimov is not well-known here, but he should be.

The plot takes place over a year or two at the time of the great political thaw in the USSR, when Khrushchev made his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s great crimes (he did not refer to his own deep complicity in those crimes, of course) and many prisoners of the slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, were released.  Ruslan is a guard dog, born and bred to the role, who is let go after his master cannot bear to shoot him down.  He struggles to find a role in the world after his entire universe is upturned, except that he doesn’t really understand how completely it has been ended.  The camp is gone, the prisoners have not escaped: they were released, and they are not returning.

The story is told from a ominiscient (human) point of view, but the portrayal of dog-consciousness is absolutely wonderful.  Inherent in the structure of the tale are many levels of dramatic irony: we, the human readers know things that the hero, a dog, could never know in his time, or ever;  we know things simply by virtue of being readers, many years after the events related; the human characters know things the dogs do not know; and the dogs know, or seem to know, some things the humans do not and could not know.  The fractured points of view which comment on one another give the tale tremendous power.

On another level, the story is an allegory of Stalin’s USSR, and of human subservience to authority in general.  The allegory is not subtle – is subtlety called for in a discussion of Stalin’s rule?  Ruslan regards his hard master as a godlike being, and he lives simply to serve him and love him.  At one point, he dreams of a world in which everyplace is within the barbed wire of a great prison camp – wouldn’t that be wonderful! – but of course, there must be an inside and an outside, or where would you place the malefactors who would not follow the rules?

Through Ruslan’s memories and the conversations of the humans around him, we get vignettes of camp life that are harrowing in their brutality.  This relatively simple tale is very deep, sad, and upsetting.  My copy of this book is an old library edition – I’m not sure if it has been republished lately.  I was aware reading the blurbs and introduction that the great troika of 20th century horrors – Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s mass-murder by purge and policy – are fading away into history.  Do young people today feel them with the immediacy that I did as a student, though even then it was old news?


People of the Heart

April 11, 2011

Ice is the middle volume of a trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin.  (NYRB published Ice first, and has just now published the entire set in translation.)  It tells of a weird, blonde-haired, blue-eyed brotherhood of souls who are awakened to true life after being hammered in the chest with sledges made of blocks of ice from the comet that nearly slammed into the Earth in 1908.  Other humans are regarded as “empties,” empty of spiritual heart, that is, and simply die under the impact of the hammer.  It’s a mix of vulgarity, pulp, sci-fi, absurd New Age fantasy, and social satire.  Among the most biting passages were those that depicted the ruthlessness of Stalin’s minions among whom the Brothers and Sisters of the ice move in an effort to find the rest of their group.  Can’t say I feel tempted to read the other two volumes, but this was a quick read that started off really well, and then just petered out.


The Foundation Pit

March 24, 2011
 
“We must smash the kulaks, eliminate them as a class.”  Joseph Stalin
 
The Foundation Pit, by Andrey Platonov is a short novel writen around 1930, but not published in Russian until the 1950s.  Platonov was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, but came to understand firsthand its horrific consequences for the rural peasantry.  Unlike a lot of Soviet intellectuals who had their doubts about Comrade Stalin’s methods, and who were only at home in the cities, Platonov travelled and saw by himself what was going on during the period of forced collectivization and de-kulakization.
The kulaks (from the Russian for tight fist) were so-called rich peasants who would naturally tend to resist being forced to relinquish their property and livestock to join a collective.  In fact, any peasant who had any property at all could be deemed a kulak, and they were deported en masse to various parts of the USSR, with large percentages of them dying on the way.  The master plan was to force the rural masses to supply grain to the cities, where Stalin’s breakneck industrialization program was centered, and to supply the grain on demand, as called for by the central bureaucracy, regardless of what a fair price would be or what the rural nutritional needs were.  As a result, millions starved.  The incredible brutality of this policy caused a split in the Party, with horrific consequences. 

The book is rather difficult to read despite its brevity.  It begins and ends at the site of an enormous excavation for a housing project’s foundation, although it isn’t all that clear if the work is being carried forward in any rational manner, and in between there is a long section that takes place in an agricultural village where a party functionary, known as The Activist, is pushing along the collectivization program.   The story is structured like a fable, almost a fairy tale, but the landscape is bleak, and people speak only in political sloganese.  In fact, the language of the text is what is most difficult, for every sentence seems to contain within it many allusions, parodies, sarcasms, and deep ironies.   Readers who are not familiar with early Soviet culture and its controversies are likely to be mystified, or bored.

The weird language that Platonov creates seems to be mirror of the weird, irrational, tortured state to which Soviet society was reduced during the era of the purges and collectivization.  It seems to mock its speakers with its haywire intellectual pretensions, and sometimes notes of intense tragedy break through, in spite of it. 
 A sample – The activist is making a raft on which to float away the deported kulaks, perhaps an allusion to the practice of filling barges with anti-revolutionaries and sinking them that occurred during the French Terror – a kulak challenges the authorities:

“Show me your papers then, if you’re truly an authorized body.”
“What kind of a body am I to you?” said Chiklin [an engineer at the pit].  “I’m a nobody.  The only body around here is the Party.”
“Show me the Party then.  I want to take a close look at it.”
Chiklin gave scant smile.
“You wouldn’t recognize it – not if it were staring you in the face – I can barely sense it myself! Report to the raft at once, you capitalism, you bastard!”
“Let him sail the seas.  Here today, and gone tomorrow, isn’t that right?”  pronounced Nastya [a very youg girl].  “Bastards like him make life boring.”
Chiklin and the hammerer [a bear that acts like a human - often found in Russian folklore] further liberated another six huts that had been built with the flesh of poor laborers, and then returned to the OrgYard where the masses, now purged of kulaks, were standing in expectation of something.
The activist checked the newly arrived kulak class against his own social stratification register, found complete precision, and rejoiced in the action of Chiklin and the forge hammerer.  In return, Chiklin showed his approval of the activist:  Now that’s what I call consciousness!  Your sense of the classes is just like an animal’s!”

Zhachev, a legless veteran of the “imperialist war” watches the kulaks float away.

By then, the kulak river transport had begun to disappear around a bend, behind the bushes on the bank, and Zhachev was loosing the appearance of the class enemy.
“Fa-are we-ell parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Fa-are we-ell! responded the kulaks floating off to te sea.

Does he loose site of the kulaks, or does he cease to see them as class enemies once they are reduced to their helpless state?  Does he know which?  Later, the activist is made frantic by a directive from on high that states that many people like him have gone too far, undermined socialist progress, maybe even been wreckers!  Such forward and backward leaps of policy, leaving the fanatical and the opportunistically faithful vulnerable to purges were common, and completely planned by Stalin.

After a while, the activist descended an inventory down onto the floor so that the child could leave a mark confirming receipt in full of all the property acquired in life by the landless laborers who had died without kin and stating that she would put this to good future use.  Nastya [who dies at the novel's end] slowly drew a hammer and sickle on the paper and handed the inventory back.

A symbolic exchange.  Note the weird verb cases – “descended an inventory down onto the floor…”  This is not a poor translation, it’s a deliberately odd use of the passive voice, mocking, I think, the pseudo-scientific, objective prose to be found in so much communistic hack work.

Somehow Platonov survived to die in 1951 from the TB he caught from his son who was sent to the Gulag at age fifteen.

… And now, for some comic relief:

Amiel

18 February 2009
Bankers are the new kulaks, rails Lady Black
As credit-crunched citizens of the world unite to scream “Off with their heads!” at bankers, who will protect the money-spinning classes from the howling mob? Step forward Barbara “My extravagance knows no bounds” Amiel.

In an extraordinary article for the current issue of the Canadian magazine, Macleans, Lady Black compares the treatment of bankers to that meted out to the intelligentsia in Mao’s China and the kulaks in Stalinist Russia.

“Those 1960s and 70s marches, complete with stops at which foul intellectuals would kneel and allocate [sic] to the mobs, are not so different from the modern American perp walk. These days it’s the pointy-head intellectuals and the media class that are the Red Guard, and Wall Streeters the accused. Every night, some TV station posts photos of the day’s addition to the Top 10 Business Villains and another fund manager is added to the list of foul CEOs…We are living through a collective madness, all part of the mob, finger pointing, judging, some driven by fear of economic chaos, others enjoying the schadenfreude express.”

This, of course, would strike a chord with Amiel, whose husband is currently serving a 6 ½ year jail sentence in Florida for defrauding Hollinger shareholders.

“I suspect current economic criminals resemble past ones in that they come in two varieties: the ones who really commit economic crimes and the ones who are elevated by political fashion to the status of criminals. Stalin’s taste made economic criminals of the entire kulak class; kulaks in today’s America would include CEOs and Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. Certain titles such as ‘hedge fund manager’ have become terms of disapproval that trip off the tongues of people, at least half of whom I suspect have utterly no idea what a hedge fund is,” Amiel rails.

Amiel concludes, “Driven by old fears and left-wing hates, we are moving to notions, à la Bertolt Brecht, that all wealth is suspect. If, as I suspect, the economy is a psychodrama, anti-market hysteria is unlikely to restore equilibrium.


Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

January 20, 2011

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…


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