Tag Archives: Russian literature

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

“And perhaps the reason I always briefly regretted leaving people and countries, perhaps this feeling of only very fleeting regret was evanescent precisely because nothing that I saw and loved–soldiers, officers, women, snow and war–will ever leave me, not until the time has come for my last deathly voyage, the slow fall into the black abyss, a million times more protracted than my earthly existence, so long that while I am falling I will have time to forget about everything that I have seen and remembered and felt and loved; and when I have forgotten everything that I have loved, then I will die.”

Far into Gaito Gazdanov’s novella, An Evening with Claire, the narrator, a young man named Kolya, discusses the Civil War with his renegade uncle Vitaly, a Russian dragoon captain who challenged his commanding officer to a duel. When the commanding officer refused, Vitaly slapped his face and ended up in prison for 5 years. A cuckold and a freethinker, Vitaly advises his nephew not to listen to his teachers or to priests because they are all “idiots” and tell lies. It’s Russia, 1919, and Vitaly learns that his soon-to-be-16-year-old nephew has enlisted in the White Army, not from any political ideology, but because he is on White territory and it’s “expected” of him. Vitaly tells Kolya:

“Russia,” he said, “is entering the zone of the peasant stage of history, the strength of the muzhik, and the muzhik serves in the Red Army. The Whites,” according to Vitaly’s contemptuous observation, “don’t even possess that romanticism of war which could seem attractive; the White Army is the army of the middle class and the semi-intelligentsia. It’s full of madmen, cocaine addicts, cavalry officers mincing like coquettes,” Vitaly said sharply. “Failed careerists and sergeant majors can be found in the ranks of the generals.” 

Vitaly sees the Whites “like dying coral, on the corpses of which new formations are growing. The Reds–they are what is growing.” Vitaly cannot dissuade his nephew–the situation is too far gone, so instead he offers a piece of advice:

“Listen to me,” Vitaly meanwhile said to me. “In the near future you will be witnessing many atrocities. You will see people killed, hung, shot. None of this is new, important, or very interesting, but here is what I advise you: Don’t ever become a man of conviction. Don’t reason or draw conclusions, but try to be as simple as possible. And remember that the greatest happiness on earth is to think that you’ve understood something about the life surrounding you. But you don’t understand and when, after some time, you look back on it you will see that you had not truly understood. And after another year or two has passed you will be convinced that you were mistaken the second time as well. And so it will go without end. And nonetheless this is the most important and most interesting thing in life.”

Vitaly’s advice is central to An Evening with Claire, and it’s also seminal to the novella’s style, for the tale passes through the narrator’s memories rather like a camera recording events, or a photograph album, in which the reader flips through the pages and discovers snapshots of the author’s amazing life.

My first Gazdanov novel came earlier this year with the splendid The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. An Evening with Claire, according to the excellent and informative introduction written by translator Jodi Daynard, was Gazdanov’s breakthrough work. It was published in Paris in 1930 by a 26-year-old Gazdanov who had, up to this point, written a handful of stories. An Evening with Claire touched a nerve within Europe’s émigré population as a whole,” and after reading the book, it’s easy to see why.

This is not a traditional novel with a plottable story line for the book mainly deals with the issue of memory. Critics thought An Evening with Claire was influenced by Proust and Bunin. According to the introduction, Gazdanov didn’t read Proust until after WWII, and while the connections are there, it’s best to approach Gazdanov not as a secondary Nabokov or a pale Proust, but as an important Russian émigré writer who reflected the displacement and loss experienced by those swept up the events of this remarkable time.

Gazdanov (1903-1971) was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the White army during the Russian Civil War, and some of those experiences are recorded in the novel. With the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, Gazdanov left the Crimea and eventually, in 1923, landed in Paris. All these dramatic twists and turns of fate appear in An Evening with Claire, and perhaps the role of memory is emphasised because for those displaced by the turmoil in Russia, memory was–after all–one of the very few things left for the émigré population, and the one thing that could not be taken away.

The novel begins with a very definite structure: the first person narrator, Kolya, in Paris, is visiting, as he does every evening, Claire, the married woman he loves. Her husband, rather conveniently, is in Ceylon. Claire, a tease whose eyes are “gifted with the power of so many metamorphoses–cruel one moment, shameless or laughing the next” has been ill. On this particular evening, Kolya finally possesses Claire–a moment he’s dreamed of for ten years.

I thought about Claire, about the evenings I had spent with her, and gradually I came to remember everything that went before them; and the impossibility of understanding and expressing all of it weighed heavily upon me. This evening it was even more apparent than usual that there was no way for me to embrace and feel that endless succession of ideas, impressions and sensations which, in their totality, rose up in my memory like a row of shadows reflected in the dim and fluid mirror of a seasoned imagination.

Kolya admits that throughout his life he “was far too indifferent to external events; my deaf inner existence remained incomparably more significant,” and from this point, he recalls certain moments–beginning with his earliest childhood memory. This leads to the memories of his robust, generous-hearted father, a chief forester in Siberia,  who wasted away and died when Kolya was eight. Kolya has a much more difficult time understanding his mother as “concealed within her was the danger of internal explosions and the continual conflict of selves.” After the death of his siblings, they grew closer but parted when he attended military school.

There are some incredible memories here as Kolya notes his ability to access a moment from his past and find himself there–a boy, a teenager, a young man, and then a soldier.

Usually much time would have to pass before I would understand the sense of a particular event, and only after it had completely lost and influence on my receptiveness would it acquire that meaning which it should have had when it took place. First it would migrate to a distant and illusory region to which my imagination descended only rarely, and where I would find, as it were, a geological stratification of my history.

Some memories are recalled by the sense of smell and then transmitted to us through Gazdanov’s language which effectively builds a snap-shot:

Just as, in order to remember clearly and distinctly my life in the military school and the incomparable, stony sorrow with which I left that tall building, I had only to imagine the taste of meatballs, the meat sauce and macaroni–so could I, as soon as I smelled coal, immediately picture the beginning of my service on the armoured train, the winter of 1919, snow-covered Sinelnikov, the bodies of the Makhnovites hanging from the telegraph poles, their frozen bodies swinging in the winter wind and striking the wood of the poles with a blunt, light sound, the blackening hamlets behind the station, the whistle of the engines sounding like distress signals, and the white summit of the rails, incomprehensible in their motionlessness.

Moments from the war comprise the most powerful passages in the book: a soldier goes insane–another soldier, Kopchik, is avoided by Kolya who feels that “there was something inhuman and evil about this soldier, something I would not have wanted to know,” and scenes of Sevastopol, the temporary, chaotic home of the remnants of the defeated White army. Claire also appears as an attractive child and as a seductive newlywed, and when the narrator is cast from Russia and becomes a “vagabond,” she rather romantically embodies the narrator’s sense of regret. Ten years later, in Paris, that regret would seem to expunged in the night Kolya spent as her lover, but is regret ever dismissed? Or does is remain ephemeral, inaccessibly frozen in suspended time?

An Evening with Claire is not a quick read and is best read slowly. Gazdanov offers us a glimpse of a vanishing world, and his experiences of war are tempered with time and edged with sadness–yet there’s also an emotional distancing there. As translator Jodi Daynard notes, “it became a mark of his character to measure the value of experience subjectively, seeking to find its meaning, not to judge it.” Absolutely marvellous.

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The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

“Lenin was depicted in his familiar pose–a tourist hitching a ride on the highway. His right arm pointed the way to the future. His left was in the pocket of his open coat.”

The words “A Novel” appear on the cover of Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, but that isn’t an accurate description of the book’s 8 chapters which are bookended by the sections “Foreword” and “Instead of an Afterword.” In each chapter Dovlatov (1941-1990) examines one of the few objects found in his suitcase–the single piece of luggage he took with him when he left the Soviet Union and emigrated to America. Here’s how the book begins at The Russian Office of Visas and Registrations (OVIR):

So this bitch at OVIR says to me, “Everyone who leaves is allowed three suitcases. That’s the quota. A special regulation of the ministry.”

No point in arguing. But of course I argued. “Only three suitcases? What am I supposed to do with all my things?”

“Like what?”
“Like my collection of race cars.”

“Sell them,” the clerk said without lifting her head.

Then, knitting her brows slightly, she added, “if you’re dissatisfied with something, write a compliant.”

“I’m satisfied,” I said.

After prison, everything satisfied me.

“Well, then, don’t make trouble…”

A week later I was packing. As it turned out, I needed just a single suitcase.

I almost wept with self-pity. After all, I was thirty-six years old. Had worked eighteen of them. I earned money, bought things with it. I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me. And still I only needed one suitcase–and of rather modest dimensions at that. Was I poor, then? How had that happened?

The narrator takes his one suitcase from the Soviet Union and finally to New York. The suitcase is “plywood, covered with fabric.” The lock doesn’t work so it’s wound with a clothesline to keep it shut. The narrator begins his new life in America, dresses completely differently, and forgets about his old battered suitcase until one day, years later, his attention is drawn to it. He opens it and sees “pathetic rags” which are relics of his “lost life.” From this point, he examines the articles of the suitcase–including some Finnish crepe socks, a pair of half-boots, a suit, a belt, a jacket, etc, and each piece of clothing is its own piece of uniquely Soviet history. The Finnish crepe socks, for example, are part of a black market story which extends into the vagaries of consumerism and friends lost to the past.

While The Suitcase details these neglected relics of the narrator’s life, the stories told here are really about lost identity. The items that meant something to the narrator in the Soviet Union are useless in his new life, and yet even though they are seemingly ‘worthless,’ they are markers of Soviet life and reveal the author’s former identity. Here’s the narrator on the fate of 720 pairs of useless, pea-green Finnish crepe socks, and his friends Asya, Fred, and Rymar:

They reminded me of my criminal youth, my first love and my old friends. Fred served his two years and then was killed in a motorcycle accident on his Chezet. Rymar served one year and now works as a dispatcher in a meat-packing plant. Asya emigrated and now teaches lexicology at Stanford–which is a strange comment on American scholarship.

Dovlatov was a journalist and a part-time tour guide in The Pushkin Preserve. In the chapter, A Decent Double-Breasted Suit, the narrator is told by the director of the Preserve that he dresses so shabbily that “his trousers ruin the festive mood of our area.” In the narrator’s tatty old suitcase is a suit that carries a tale of the narrator’s employment as a newspaper reporter and how he managed to upgrade his pitiful wardrobe. He’s assigned a series of tasks, finding an Uzbek to quote for a Constitution Day article, a “modern Russian handyman” for Efficiency Day , and a “Heroine Mother.” Things become complicated when a KGB major appears at the newspaper office and begins quizzing the narrator for information about a visiting Swede. The narrator manages to get a new suit out of the deal without compromising his morals.

Dovlatov was unable to publish his work in the Soviet Union and so smuggled out his writing which was subsequently published in Europe. In 1979, he emigrated to America.

Told with a self-deprecating, yet gently ironic humour, there’s a bitter-sweetness to the book, and I came away with the feeling that I would have liked to have known Dovlatov.  

My copy translated by Antonina W. Bouis

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The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

One of the many pleasures of blogging is the possibility of resurrecting names of writers who’ve been buried in obscurity, and while reviewing a long out-of-print book may not send thousands flocking to buy it, at least it stakes out a small spot in the vast world of the internet for those who may one day be curious about a book’s content.  And this brings me to Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971). Born in Saint Petersburg but of Ossetian background, he grew up in Siberia and the Ukraine. At age 16, he joined the Whites during the civil war but made it out alive and arrived in Paris in 1923. There he worked a range of jobs, but finally settled into driving a taxi by night, as the job, he argued, allowed him to write. Gazdanov has been compared to Nabokov, and I don’t think it’s doing any favours to compare another writer to Nabokov. While I can see some similarities, I think it’s best to keep the comparisons to a minimum and appreciate Gazdanov for his own sake.

I now own all of Gazdanov’s book I can find in English. There aren’t many, and some weren’t easy to find, but I picked up The Spectre of Alexander Wolf first. Some argue it’s a noir novel which once again is going to bring disappointment. While The Spectre of Alexander Wolf includes a large component of mystery, this is primarily and overwhelmingly a Russian novel. It’s not perfect. It’s undermined by a certain lack of lack of tension which can be construed as digression (it isn’t), but nonetheless, in spite of its flaws, this is a haunting tale which illustrates the loneliness of displacement and the inescapable nature of Fate.

This is how the novel begins:

Among all my recollections, among all the numberless sensations of my life, the memory of the lone murder I had committed weighed heaviest on my mind. From that moment on I cannot remember a day during which I have not regretted it. I never have been threatened with punishment because of the most extraordinary circumstances and because obviously I could not have done anything else. Besides, no one except me knew about it. This murder was one of the countless episodes of the Russian civil war. In relation to the general course of contemporary events it would be viewed only as an inconsequential detail, particularly so because during the minutes or seconds which had immediately preceded it only two people had been concerned with the outcome: I and a man unknown to me. Then I was alone. No one else played any part in it.

After this opening explanation, the narrator then goes on to explain the circumstances of the murder, and it’s interesting that the narrator choses to call this act ‘murder’ since it’s one soldier shooting another. By choosing the word ‘murder,’ this tells us, essentially, how he feels about it.  He was a 16 year-old soldier in the south of Russia, who, due to exhaustion, became separated from his comrades. He’s half asleep on his horse, when someone shoots the horse and kills her. Scrambling to his feet, he sees a large white horse with a rider galloping towards him, and the rider raises a rifle to take aim. The narrator shoots the rider, and he falls to the ground. Then with an “irresistible urge” to see the man he shot, he approaches the dying man who lay on the road with “bubbles of pink foam” coming from his lips. The narrator takes the dying soldier’s horse and escapes, leaving Russia behind. He cannot, however, forget the man he shot, and he’s haunted by, he says  “a dismal memory which pursued me quietly no matter where the fates carried me.

Years pass. The memory recedes, and then one day the narrator picks up a collection of short stories written by an English author named Alexander Wolf. The book is called I’ll Come Tomorrow, and one of the stories, The Adventure in the Steppe is “an episode out of a war.'”

The opening of the story was:

The finest horse I ever owned was a large, half-blooded, white stallion with an unusually loose, long gait. He was so fine that I always thought of him as of the four horses mentioned in the apocalypse. This resemblance was borne out for me when on the hottest day summer day I have ever known I galloped astride this stallion across a sweltering earth to meet my death.

The details in the story mirror exactly the incident between the narrator and the man he shot all those years ago during the last days of the civil war, and the narrator asks himself if the author of the story could also be the person he shot. Could the man have survived what seemed to be a fatal wound? Could the author have talked to the man who was shot or did he somehow witness the event? Is the story just a product of the author’s imagination? Is this just coincidence–one of  a million similar stories from the time? 

My imagination found it difficult to reconcile the vision of a horseman galloping astride a white stallion to meet death, that special kind of death when a man riding at a gallop is slain by a bullet fired from a gun, with the vision of a writer of a collection of short stories who had chosen a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe for an epigraph. Sooner or later, I thought, I had to learn more about him. Maybe I would be able to follow to the end the history of his life, the double aspect of which interested me so much. But even if this should ever come about, I could hope for it only in the future; if it was my fate to learn more about him, I could not imagine under what circumstances I would have the opportunity. Unconsciously I was drawn to the man. Besides the more apparent and obvious reasons for my interest in him, I had one particular, most important motive which concerned my entire fate. The first time this thought had occurred to me, it had seemed absurd. I felt it was an expression of the urge for self-justification and the search for self-understanding. I was conscious that I was like a person who, being sentenced to a certain type of punishment, seeks out the society of others serving similar sentences. To put it another way, the fate of Alexander Wolf interested me because throughout my existence I, too, had suffered from a pernicious and obdurate case of split personality against which I had struggled in vain and which had poisoned the best moments of my life.

The story by Alexander Wolf ends with the idea that the young man, “has perished astride the white stallion and that in his person the last phantom of this adventure in the steppe has dissolved in nonexistence,” but that he “would give anything to know where, when and how they encountered death again.” So the narrator, theorizing that if Alexander Wolf is indeed the person he shot, Wolf must be as curious about him as he is about Wolf. Compelled to track down Wolf, the narrator is determined to uncover the truth of Wolf’s identity, but this quest seems doomed. Just as it seems as though the narrator has Alexander Wolf in his sights, the man vanishes. Does he really exist? Then the narrator travels to England and meets Wolf’s publisher who says something rather strange. Suddenly, Alexander Wolf, a spectre is everywhere and nowhere….

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, a mystery, and a marvellous entry into Russian emigre literature, is infused with an emphasis on death, character and fate. It’s impossible to read it and not make a connection to Dostoevsky (and Nabokov) for the book’s exploration of the Double, for it is through the Double, the Other, the spectre he chases, that the narrator comes to a crisis of identity.  

Translated by Nicholas Wreden

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The difficulties of reading Russian novels in Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

I’ve long since overcome my reluctance to read Russian novels, but I’ll admit that there was a time when they seemed impenetrable. At best, I’d have to draw up a list of characters in order to keep all the names straight–no easy task with those patronymics. Now I seem to have overcome these early difficulties. Was it just practice? The main point is that I identified and laughed at a section of Ernesto Sabato’s novel The Tunnel in which a few characters discuss this same issue. Since the narrator of The Tunnel reminds me of the narrator from Notes from Underground, it’s no coincidence the Russian novel mentioned was written by Dostoevsky.

In The Tunnel, the main character, painter Juan is in pursuit of Maria, the woman he’s obsessed with, and he travels to the country home of her cousin Hunter to find her. Here’s Hunter and Mimi Allende (“a skinny woman with a ridiculously long cigarette holder”) discussing art which leads to the subject of Russian novels. We start with Mimi and Hunter talking while the narrator listens:

After all to claim that one is original is really like pointing one’s fingers at the mediocrity of others–which to me seems in very doubtful taste. I am sure that if I painted or wrote, my art would never attract attention.

“I don’t doubt that,” Hunter said maliciously. “Then you would not want to write, let us say, The Brothers Karamazov.

“Quelle horreur!” Mimi exclaimed. She rolled her eyes heavenward, then completed her thought:

“To me, they are the nouveaux riches of the consciousness. Can you bear Russian novels?”

The last question, unexpectedly, was directed at me, but the woman did not wait for an answer; she rushed on, again speaking to Hunter:

“My dear, I have never been able to finish a Russian novel. They are so tiresome. I think there are thousands of characters, and in the end it turns out there are only four of five. Isn’t it maddening just when you begin to recognize a man called Alexandre, he’s called Sacha, and then Satchka, and later Sachenka, and suddenly something pretentious like Alexandre Alexandrovitch Bunine, and later simply Alexandre Alexandrovitch. The minute you get your bearings, they throw you off the track again. There’s no end to it; each character is a whole family in himself. Even you will agree that it is exhausting, even for you!”

Later there’s a discussion of mystery novels….

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The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky Part I

“She was faithful to her lover–though only until he bored her.”

The Eternal Husband, written by Dostoevsky in 1869,  explores the relationship between two men–Velchaninov, a middle-aged bachelor who suffers from hypochondria, and Trusotsky, a widower from the provinces. The two men are connected by relationships with a woman who’s now dead. The woman, who died from consumption, was Natalya Vasilyevna, Trusotsky’s wife and Velchaninov’s lover. The affair took place nine years earlier when Velchaninov stayed in a provincial town named T. ostensibly to oversee his interests in a lawsuit but, in truth he lingered to conduct the “liaison” with Natalya. The affair lasted for a year, and during this time Velchaninov was in “thrall” to his mistress. This was a new experience for Velchaninov as he was used to being the one in control in amorous relationships–“neither before, nor after had anything like ever happened to him.” Velchaninov, at Natalya’s insistence and argument that she thought she was pregnant, agreed to return to St Petersburg for a short period of time to allay her husband’s suspicions. But once there, Natalya writes to Velchaninov and tells him the affair is finished.

Due to the affair’s abrupt conclusion, Velchaninov has deeply buried unresolved feelings, and there’s “the question which was to remain forever unsettled for him: had he really loved that woman, or had it been just ‘pleasure’ alone?”

Don’t imagine that Velchaninov suffers from a broken heart. Velchaninov is a classic Ludic lover, a man who enjoys the game and the strategies of love and who avoids commitment at all costs. With Natalya, he was simply outmanoeuvred. Dostoevsky paints Velchaninov as a spoiled, vain, self-focused man who’s thoughtlessly ruined more than one woman. Here’s one of Velchaninov’s more shameful amorous adventures, including an instinctive justification which concerns:

 a young girl, a simple townswoman, whom he had not even found attractive and of whom, without knowing why himself, he had had a child, and how he had simply abandoned her, together with the child, without even saying goodbye (true, there had been no time), when he had left St Petersburg. He had spent a whole year hunting for the girl later on, but was already quite unable to find her. Moreover, there proved to be all but hundreds of such memories–and it was even as if each memory dragged dozens of others along after it. Little by little his vanity began to suffer too.

Fast forward nine years when the novel begins. It’s St. Petersburg, and Velchaninov at age 38 or 39, in some aspects already seems to be elderly. Perhaps it’s his ill-temper, or even his hypochondria. He is peevishly waiting for the resolution of  yet another lawsuit:

This case–a lawsuit concerning an estate–was taking an extremely bad turn. Only three months before it had looked not at all complicated, almost indisputable; but everything had somehow suddenly changed. ‘Every thing in general has started changing for the worst!’ Velchaninov had started repeating this phrase to himself often and with malicious exultation. He was employing a lawyer who was cunning, expensive and well-known, and he was unsparing with his money; but in impatience and out of mistrust he had taken to dealing with the case himself too; he read and wrote documents which the lawyer entirely rejected, he ran from one office to another, made enquiries, and probably hindered everything greatly; at least, the lawyer complained and urged him to go away to a dacha. Dust, stifling heat, the white St Petersburg nights irritating his nerves–that is what he enjoyed in St Petersburg. His apartment was somewhere near the Grand Theatre, was newly rented by him, and was not a success either; ‘nothing was a success!’ His hypochondria increased with every day; but he had already long been inclined to hypochondria.

Since Velchaninov has successfully buried many unpleasant memories in his past, perhaps it makes sense that when he starts seeing a man everywhere he goes, at first he doesn’t recognise him. The man is, as it turns out, none other than Trusotsky, the husband of his former lover. The two men form an uneasy relationship, and from Trusotsky, Velchaninov learns of the death of Natalya and that she left behind a little girl. Velchaninov does the arithmetic, wonders if the child is his, and sees a chance for redemption….

Dostoevsky’s tale explores the relationship between the two men–Trusotsky, the cuckold, and Velchaninov, the lover. Since Trusotsky appears to be a complete idiot, the perfect cuckold, Velchaninov isn’t quite sure what Trusotsky knows about his relationship with Natalya. His conversations with Trusotsky are fraught with danger and nervous tension. Things heat up when Trusotsky announces his engagement and then, rather strangely insists that Velchaninov accompanies him to meet the girl he intends to marry.

At one point, Velchaninov muses on the relationship between Trusotsky and Natalya. “She was one of those women,” he thought, “who just seem to be born to be unfaithful wives.” And then he reasons that conversely there exists “a type of husbands corresponding to those women, whose sole purpose lay only in corresponding to that female type. In his opinion, the essence of such husbands consisted in their being, so to speak. ‘eternal husbands’, or to put it better, being only husbands in life and absolutely nothing more.” Velchaninov gets to test his theory of Trusotsky as Eternal Husband or perpetual cuckold.

The Eternal Husband contains Dostoevsky’s characteristic humour, and as usual, he gives his characters nowhere to hide when it comes to the illumination of the baser self, the petty spitefulness of human nature and the sly ulterior motive. There’s a sadistic element afoot emanating from the sanctimonious Trusotsky who very possibly knows more than Velchaninov thinks, and yet both men are pathetic creatures for their exploitation of the women in their lives. The scene that takes place of the Zakhlebinins (the home of no less than 12 marriageble daughters) shows the plight of women who are at the mercy of whatever replusive eligible men come to visit. The Zakhlebinin family is on the brink of financial disaster, so it is imperative that the girls are married off. Dostoevsky shows the plight of sweet-natured Katerina, the eldest girl, who now has few prospects of marriage, and contrasts her to Nadezhda, the youngest girl. Nadezhda, very much a modern girl in the Nihilist camp, is brunette whereas her sisters are blonde. Is Nadezhada, hardly a pliable girl, the result of yet another Eternal Husband? And it’s over Nadezhada that the two men, Trusotsky and Velchaninov form a strange truce when they find themselves trumped by youth.

My copy from Hesperus Press includes a foreword by Andrew Miller and is translated by Hugh Aplin

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Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev

First, credit must go to Book Around The Corner for pointing out Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev. It’s doubtful that I would have come across this nasty little tale of adolescence and addiction without her review. My copy is one of the European Classics series from Northwestern University Press, and the translation is by Michael Henry Hein.

The blurb on the back (yes I know that’s shallow) states that this is a “Dostoevskian psychological novel of ideas [and] Novel with Cocaine explores the interaction between psychology, philosophy and ideology.” It’s apparently not enough to throw out the link to Dostoevsky, because there’s also a quote from John Updike: “fascinating … Reminiscent of Nabokov’s eccentric precision.”

Well which is it? Is Novel with Cocaine Dostoevskian or “reminiscent of Nabokov?” I press the point because Nabokov did not admire Dostoevsky (he called him a “cheap sensationalist” amongst other things) and he would not have appreciated being compared to a book that’s compared to Dostoevsky. Russian literature is composed of more than one flavour.

Since I read Novel with Cocaine, that entitles me to an opinion on the book, so here it is: it’s Dostoevskian.

The novel is split into four distinct sections: School, Sonya, Cocaine and Reflections, and the story begins with the school days of Vadim, the Russian anti-hero. The setting is pre- and post-Russian Revolution and 17-year-old Vadim, his mother and their servant live in Moscow. In spite of the fact they are terribly poor, Vadim manages to squeeze a couple of roubles from his mother (and the servant) in order to buy himself a few luxuries. He’s bitterly ashamed of his mother’s poverty, and when his mother extends love and affection, it’s returned with shame and loathing. Most teenagers are eager to shed the yoke of childhood–a role that implies a number of conditions of subordination, but in Vadim’s case, his loathing of his mother is pathological.

But this pathology is not limited to Vadim’s relationship with his mother–although it may begin there. School details how Vadim, who’s being treated for venereal disease, seduces a girl knowingly infecting her too. Vadim, at seventeen, is an accomplished manipulator, and he even convinces the poor girl to pay for the room. Here’s Vadim analysing his actions:

It would be absolutely wrong to assume that during the few minutes it took to drive to the maison de rendez-vous I was unconcerned about passing on my illness to Zinochka. Pressing her against me, I thought of nothing else; but my thoughts centered not so much on the responsibility I might incur as on the trouble others might cause me. And as is so often the case in these matters, fear of discovery did not in the least deter me from the act; it simply led me to go about it in such a way that no one would know who had perpetrated it.

In order to avoid any future difficulties, Vadim, the scumbag, gives a false name and phone number, and he later regrets the incident, not for infecting the girl, but because he didn’t have much fun:

It was wasteful of me to contaminate the girl, I thought and felt, but what I meant by the word “wasteful” was not that I had committed a horrible act; on the contrary, what I meant was that I had made a sacrifice, hoping to gain a certain pleasure in return, which pleasure had not been forthcoming.

This incident reminded me a great deal of Apropos of the Wet Snow: Part II of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, and the relationship between the young narrator and a prostitute. Novel with Cocaine is Dostoevskian in its exploration of the toxicity of the protagonist’s relationships, and also for its philosophical emphasis. More of that later.

Lest you get the wrong impression, Novel with Cocaine is also very funny. The scenes with Vadim and his school chums are priceless and also observant. In one section, Vadim describes the political dynamics of the classroom as a “horseshoe” with the excellent students on one end and the terrible students on the other. Vadim notes that “the closer the students moved to the middle, the duller they became.” He observes that students fail to make progress through the horseshoe as each is hampered “by the reputation he has made for himself over the years.” Thus a halo effect rules the teachers’ perceptions, and Vadim relates a series of hilarious incidents in which one student, Burkewitz, achieves the impossible–he alters the opinions the teachers have of him and ‘moves’ from one end of the symbolic horseshoe to the other. Burkewitz is to appear later in a significant role.

Sonya relates Vadim’s relationship with a married woman, and through this affair Ageyev effectively inverts the Great Russian Tragedy of Anna Karenina. Vadim’s liaison is no great, tormented love affair. It’s not grand passion ending in scandal, societal rejection and suicide. No, Vadim’s affair with Sonya is tawdry, sordid, grubby and very, very petty. In a marvellous letter to Vadim, Sonya complains about Vadim’s dirty underwear and reveals an affair conducted with the “equanimity of a civil servant“:

 Is that the love I was ready to leave everything for, to ruin my life for? I asked myself. No Vadim, no my dearest, it wasn’t love at all; it was a foul, a loathsome mire. I have enough of that mire at home not to bring more back to my all-mahogany conjugal bed from the fusty back room of some dive or other.

If a bildungsroman is a book in which the character matures, then the opposite happens here. Vadim reaches so-called adulthood with an uncanny understanding of his own motivations, but that knowledge brings him nothing whatsoever. Instead he lurches into an addiction–as the title indicates–with cocaine. Vadim, a twisted self-absorbed individual incapable of the reciprocity requisite in relationships, begins to conduct the only relationship for which he’s suited: a love affair with cocaine.

In Reflections, reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in which the narrator argues to himself in isolation, Vadim presents certain philosophical arguments designed to examine the intricacies and baseness of human nature while hinting of the Russian Revolution:

For all we should have to do is fill our theaters with plays in which villains not only survive, not only escape punishment, but triumph, plays in which villains triumph and the virtuous poor succumb, and we should soon see people pouring into the streets in revolt, rebellion, insurrection. But, you may object again, it would be a revolt in the name of justice, in the name of the most noble of human feeling. And you are of course correct, perfectly correct. But have a look at us as we come out to revolt in the name of humanity, have a good look at our faces, our lips, and especially our eyes, and if you refuse to see that you are surrounded by wild animals then you had beat a hasty retreat: your inability to distinguish man from beast may cost you your life.

There’s just one last thing I want to bring up. The translator’s intro mentions that M. Ageyev is a pseudonym, and that the real name of the author is unknown (Wikipedia identifies the author as Mark Levi). Here’s the book’s spotty history:

In the early thirties a Paris-based Russian émigré journal, Numbers, received an unsolicited  manuscript from Istanbul, a manuscript entitled Story with Cocaine. Following the succes de scandale of its journal publication, it appeared as a book under the title Novel with Cocaine … then disappeared, seemingly forever.

Ok, so far so good. Then this:

Now about fifty years later, it has resurfaced. One of the work’s early admirers (and we are told, a close friend or relative of the author) came upon it in a second-hand bookshop in Paris and immediately set about translating it in French. At the same time she tried to uncover as much information as she could about the author. Rumor and speculation aside, all that has come to light is this: ‘Ageyev,’ a Russian émigré living in Istanbul, wished to move to Paris and establish his reputation as a writer there. Encouraged by the reception of Novel with Cocaine, he sent first a short story, then his passport to a friend in Paris. The short story was published, the passport lost. Recent attempts to locate him by means of notices in French and Turkish press have proved fruitless. Neither the friend nor anyone else has ever heard of him again.

The intro goes on to speculate that perhaps the anonymous author returned to Russia and died in Stalin’s purges.

Here’s what I don’t understand: How can the author be unknown and yet a “close friend or relative” finds a copy of this book in Russian in a second-hand bookshop. Which is it? A friend or a relative? And how can this friend or relative not know the name of the unknown author if they are a friend or a relative? Is the identity kept secret to protect the author? This doesn’t any sense to me or am I missing something here?

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Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part II

From the safe distance of more than a century, it’s quite clear that Turgenev is, as Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov states: “seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky [was] the leader of the Slavophile conservatives,” but at the time, it seems questionable that Turgenev realised the monumental position posterity would assign to him. While he was much loved, feted and respected by the French literati, he was largely rejected, rather cruelly at times, by other Russian writers. Perhaps the reason for at least a large part of this trouble with his fellow countrymen can be found in the fact that Turgenev’s novels were judged primarily for their political content. Some of his novels were acclaimed by both sides of the Russian divide: the pro-Western Russians and the Slavophiles, but for the most part, Turgenev failed to keep either side happy, and he was considered passé.  According to Troyat:

Turgenev had always been a misfit in every aspect of his life. He was close to the extremist conspirators, but not a revolutionary; he was Russian to the very soles of his feet, but happy only abroad; he had been in love with the same woman for twenty years and lived beside her without hope of anything more than a kind word. Pulled by two ideas, two countries, and two destinies, he suffered from constant inner conflict, yet at the same time it gave him a kind of mournful satisfaction.

Also there’s the sense that Turgenev seems mostly out of tune with the events taking place in Russia, and he expressed that thought at more than one time during his life. Of course, he was mostly living abroad and slowly selling off his land at Spasskoye to maintain his European lifestyle. Troyat states that Turgenev’s “favourite position” was that of “international onlooker,”  and this certainly seeps through in the bio. Here’s the paradox of Turgenev: Turgenev visited Russia rarely, lived abroad most of his adult life, displeased both the Westerners and the Slavophiles, and was frequently viewed as anachronistic, yet in spite of these facts Parfyonov states Turgenev is  “the main author of conflicts of the epoch.

Turgenev (1818-1893) appears primarily as a kind man who avoided turbulence: that avoidance is manifested in Turgenev’s personal life (he had a track record of jettisoning from several relationships) and he also avoided extreme politics. At the same time, he didn’t drop friends when he disagreed with them politically. This character trait, while admirable, also led Turgenev into trouble with the Tsar. In increasingly difficult political times, with intense polarization of beliefs dividing the country, Turgenev’s continued friendships with Bakunin and Herzen, for example, were both frowned on and misunderstood. Turgenev “had given a roof to Bakunin, who had escaped from Siberia, provided him with an annual stipend of five thousand francs, and launched a fund on his behalf.” Quite a commitment to a friend in trouble. Turgenev also visited Bakunin’s brothers in the Peter Paul fortress. Turgenev’s friendships with Bakunin and Herzen became increasingly difficult and fractured by political differences that Turgenev tended to ‘overlook’ as separate from the friendships. Herzen’s movement towards “pan-Slavist tendencies”, however, led him to criticise Turgenev. Here’s a politically flavoured-quote from Troyat who states that Herzen was:

 attacking the petty, money grubbing civilization of western Europe and glorifying the ancestral values of the Russian people–the only people, according to him who were capable of saving mankind from total collapse. Bakunin and Ogarev had allied themselves with Herzen. Russia’s mission as reviver of the race seemed self-evident to them, and they were energetically demolishing anyone who, like Turgenev, still believed in the improving virtues of the West. They accused him of drifting away from them out of weakness and idleness, ‘epicreanism,’ or possibly old age.

Turgenev also promoted the publication of work written by revolutionaries. While Turgenev saw his tolerance and promotion as a matter of censorship and “intellectual integrity,” others viewed Turgenev as a troublemaker since he refused to draw the line on anti-Tsarist regime literature:

Russian authorities were made uneasy by his ambivalent attitude, and saw him as ‘flirting’ with the extremists at the same time he was scandalized by their deeds.

The book charts Turgenev’s turbulent relationships with Dostoevsky (he borrowed money from Turgenev), Goncharov (he accused Turgenev of plagiarism twice ) and Tolstoy (he challenged Turgenev to a duel).  The single most glaring fact of this biography is that Turgenev was loved, admired and feted by French literati while it’s really no exaggeration to say that he could barely stay in the same room with Russian contemporary writers. But by the end of his career, it seems as though Turgenev was finally recognised for what he was: one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature.

It’s impossible to write about the life of Turgenev without bringing up the fact that some of his fictional characters embody the idea of the “superfluous man.” The superfluous man is a Russian literature character type who does not fit into Russian society; a member of the gentry educated abroad, he may be a drifter or perhaps he’s ridiculous or ineffective, but whatever the reason, he seems to have no fixed place in Russian society, and while elegant and charming, he is often incapable of sincere emotional attachments.  It’s also impossible to read Troyat’s biography without seeing Turgenev as a superfluous man and in particular, I see the connection with one of his most memorable characters: Lavretsky in Home of the Gentry. Not that Turgenev was a cuckold, but he was certainly uncomfortable in Russian society and also uncomfortably aware that he seemed, at times, anachronistic.

For those interested in film, in the marvellous DVD set Russian Empire, Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov tackles the sweeping centuries of Russian history. In one episode, he visits Turgenev’s chalet in France. It’s a wonderful sequence, and the chalet appears to be maintained quite beautifully. There’s also an exquisite, lovingly adapted Soviet version of Home of the Gentry (sometimes translated as Nest of the Gentry).

Finally here’s Dostoevsky on Turgenev’s story The Epoch:

In my opinion, it is full of excrement, there is something unclean, unhealthy, senile in it, something weak and therefore unbelievable, in a word, it’s pure Turgenev.

Well, you’d never really expect Dostoevsky to go halfway, would you? Turgenev, according to Troyat, considered Dostoevsky to be  a “maniac.”

In a letter to Flaubert, here’s Turgenev doing some mud-slinging of his own :

I do not believe I have ever read anything as perfectly boring as Nana.

 There’s simply no accounting for taste….

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Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part I

I’ve enjoyed a couple of Turgenev novels (Home of the Gentry & Fathers & Sons) and I plan on reading other titles starting in 2011. It seemed like a good time to move into a Turgenev bio,  so I picked up Henri Troyat’s study of Turgenev to get the details. Troyat (real name Lev Tarasov) was born in Russia in 1911, but the family left in 1920 and settled in Paris.  When dealing with some aspect of Russian history (and Troyat does discuss certain names and beliefs in this book), it’s a good idea to know where the author stands on the subject of 19th century Russian politics.

Troyat was a prolific author and produced over a vast number of books before his death in 2007. One of his specialties was the biography. His Russian subjects include:

Dostoevsky

Pushkin

Tolstoy

Pasternak

Gogol

Gorky

Turgenev

Apart from covering a fair number of 19th century Russian authors, Troyat also tackled monarch biographies and later in his writing career moved onto the French giants of literature including: Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert and Zola. According to someone who’s read nearly all Troyat’s Russian bios, at just over 160 pages, Turgenev is a relatively light analysis when compared to the Pushkin bio which clocks in at well over 600 pages.

Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov, calls Turgenev “the main author of conflicts of the epoch” –the most prominent 19th century so-called Westernized Russian author. Turgenev, a tireless promoter of Russian literature in Europe, was reviled by most of his Russian peers, but then the Russian literati scene was as fractured as Russia itself:

In those days the literati of Russia were divided into two camps: the Slavophiles, for whom there was no salvation, in art, philosophy, or even politics, except in traditional, Russian, Orthodox, grassroots sources; and the Westerners, who maintained that all thing good came from abroad. The former vibrated solely to the nation’s past, its specific personality; they feared pollution from new ideas, they claimed that Russia should become the spiritual guide to all mankind. The latter proclaimed themselves open to the world, to progress; they wanted to see Russia merge with Europe.

Here’s another quote from Parfyonov who states that “Turgenev was seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky was the leader of the Slavophile conservatives”:

They were authorities of those doctrines, rulers of other people’s minds. But they themselevs were free from those doctrines. But they were not free from their own minds.

It seems difficult to slot someone like Tolstoy into either the camp of the Western liberals or the Slavophile conservatives. Plus where do the revolutionaries fit in? I don’t feel comfortable with catch-all terms such as ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’. Real life is much more muddled and complicated than that. Here’s a quote from The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov on exactly where Tolstoy was supposed to fit in the scheme of things. Hint: he didn’t:

Since Tolstoy the writer was cast by critics as the patron saint of everything from realism to socialist realism, it comes as no surprise that politically he was variously labeled as well. Contemporaries tried to pin him down as a repentant aristocrat, or the voice of the patriarchal Russian peasantry, or a Christian anarchist, and even as a die-hard revolutionary. It was all true to a point: Tolstoy preached an extreme simplicity of life and took a hard libertarian stance toward government, which he considered immoral and illegal, yet he also rejected all forms of violence. In his famous 1909 article ‘I Cannot Be Silent,’ he protested capital punishment in Russia and did not recognize the authority of organized religion. This inevitably led the rebel count into conflict with the autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believed that a confrontation with Tolstoy gravely weakened both institutions.

Polyglot Tolstoy, who doesn’t fit neatly into either the Slavophile or the Western camp, is often described as an anarcho-pacifist. 

But back to Turgenev….Turgenev’s era was hardly the first time the Western/Slavophile debate raged in Russia. After all Tsar Peter the Great founded St Petersburg with the idea that it would serve as a ‘window to the west’, but the debate was gathering steam. For most of his life, Turgenev, with a lifelong horror of violence and “radicalism,” found himself increasingly alienated from his Russian peers. While the Slavophile author, Aksakov found much to admire in the pure Russian sensibilities of the 1852 story Mumu, within a few years, in increasingly turbulent political times, Turgenev’s great novels were largely trashed by critics on all sides.  Russian critical appreciation of Turgenev’s work came, finally, towards the end of his life.

Troyat takes a strictly chronological approach and begins with some initial background information about Turgenev’s parents. This sets the scene for the family dynamic–a tyrannical mother who failed, in spite of her superior material circumstances, to rule her indolent husband–a man who appeared to prefer the easy company of serf girls. Turgenev’ s mother, Varvara Petrovna sounds as though she was a tough, hard woman. After her mother’s death, at age 16, Varvara’s stepfather tried to rape her:

She left home and walked sixty versts half naked through the snow to Spasskoye an estate belonging to a maternal great-uncle.

A verst is about 2/3 of a mile, by the way. Life at Spasskoye sounds rather explosive, for while the great-uncle allowed Varvara to stay there, they fought continuously, and Troyat tells us that:

Just as he was about to disinherit her, he died, in rather peculiar circumstances.

After dropping that nugget of information, Troyat explores it no further. Frustrating.

Varvara inherited the “vast estate” of Spasskoye which included twenty villages and over 5,000 serfs. When making tallies of serfs women and children were not counted, so we can extrapolate the real total from 5,000. Varvara, naturally, had her pick of suitors  and selected Sergey Nikolayevich Turgenev. He was, according to Troyat “a lover of luxury” and of course, “drowning in debt.” The marriage does not sound happy. He “lived in idleness and opulence” bedding the serf girls. Varvara “took her revenge for the humiliations she suffered at her husband’s hands by maltreating the servants.” According to Troyat, this became a lifelong habit, and at one point she actually told Turgenev that she’s beat the serfs if he didn’t come home and visit. How’s that for transparent manipulation?

Troyat argues that Varvara–a powerful, indomitable and controlling woman–had a profound impact on the lives of both of her sons. Not only did they stay away from her as much as possible, but they both consequently sought out similar women for their lasting relationships. Here’s a wonderful quote from the book which particularly stands out as it describes Varvara as a veritable unchallenged tsarina of her own kingdom at Spasskoye:

The domain over which she ruled as an absolute monarch included, in addition to the ordinary household staff, tutors, and governors, singers, serf actors and an orchestra. The household servants formed a brotherhood of some sixty families; they all lived within a few hundred yards of the main house, which had forty rooms. They worked as locksmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, gardeners, cooks, land surveyors, tailors, shoemakers, upholsterers, coachmakers. It was like a rural principality living in a closed economy. Everything needed for survival could be produced on the estate. Varvara Petrovna took great pride in the fact she could sustain her little world without any outside help. She called her butler “court  minister,” and it was the “minister of the post” who brought her her letters from Mtsensk, after they had been scrutinized by the court minister, who decided, in light of their contents, whether the mistress of the house should be prepared for their perusal by a cheerful tune or a mournful one. Every morning at the same hour she sat in her office to hear the reports of her private secretary, estate manager, and steward, and, from her seat in a throne-like armchair on a raised platform, issued orders to her minions, who stammered with subservience. She had her own police force composed of retired guardsmen. Her justice was implacable. On her ruling, two serfs were sent to Siberia for failing to take off their hats in her presence. She had a waterfall rerouted because it disturbed her sleep. There were horsemen whose task it was to bring her a sort of porridge that could be made to her taste only in one village a long way from the house. 

 That’s a long quote, but it’s included to show both the absurd and the despotic behaviour Turgenev grew up with.  Both Turgenev and his brother were kept on an allowance with their mother refusing to loosen the purse strings. The widowed Varvara, by the way, later bore an illegitimate child with her doctor–none other than the father of Sonya, who later became the wife of Tolstoy.

Troyat charts the major events in Turgenev’s life: his most significant love affair was with opera singer Pauline Viardot. Turgenev adored Pauline and he followed her around Europe, setting up house upon several occasions with Pauline, her husband and her children. One of those children may possibly have belonged to Turgenev. This premier relationship, however, did not stop Turgenev from “capricious” dalliances with several women of the gentry class (the list included Bakunin’s sister, Tatyana and Tolstoy’s sister, Marya, and this may partly explain why both Bakunin and Tolstoy were often out-of-patience with Turgenev). Turgenev engaged in several relationships in which he jettisoned right before that crucial commitment, and it seems that he left more than one woman feeling confused and anguished about the disrupted courtship.  He also sired a child, named Paulinette (after his married idol), by a serf girl. The child was later raised by the Viardots.

I mentioned earlier the reference to the “mysterious death” of Varvara’s great-uncle. No explanation is given,  just innuendo, but since Troyat brought up the subject, he really should have dug around a bit more.  Later Troyat mentions that the Viardots had some financial difficulties due to the Franco-Prussian war, and money troubles were compounded by the gradual loss of Varvara’s voice. At one point she was giving singing lessons to augment the family’s income, and according to Turgenev the Viardots were “virtually ruined.”  Later, Turgenev wrote to a friend that “The Viardots and I have bought a wonderful villa” at Bougival.  Turgenev had a modest “chalet” built close by, and there is some indication that his friends found Turgenev’s living conditions alarming–not that his place was a dump by any means, but it hardly met the standards of his previous residences (the book includes a photo of the palace Turgenev built but could not afford to furnish at Baden-Baden). In addition, he was forced to sell his painting collection at a huge loss as he needed money so badly. Putting these facts together, it seems very likely that Turgenev, who’d more or less ‘adopted’ the Viardots, was footing the bills. There is mention made that Pauline Viardot was concerned at one point that Turgenev might stay in Russia. Troyat says she “needed him at her side to make her ‘household’ complete.” While Troyat wisely avoids any nastiness towards Pauline Viardot, once again, there’s significant unexplored innuendo that Pauline Viardot’s desire to keep Turgenev in France was very possibly rooted in financial interest.  

Troyat’s book seems slight but competent at 162 pages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Patrick Marnham’s excellent bio of Simenon

Part II up next….

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The Pale Horse by Boris Savinkov

“You simply have to spit at the whole world.”

It’s impossible to write about a novel by Boris Savinkov without talking about who he was. In Western culture, Savinkov’s name seems to have almost faded from view, but in the early twentieth century, he was known as the “General of Terror” and considered one of the most dangerous revolutionaries of the time. Born into a privileged family in 1879 Warsaw, Savinkov,  the son of a judge became a law student. He joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and within a short period of time, he led a combat unit responsible for the most spectacular assassinations of the time, including the assassination of Grand Duke Sergius.  His controller, although I doubt the word was used at the time, was Evno Azef, the head of the organization’s Central Committee. As it turns out, Azef was actually in the pay of the Okhrana, and so his dual role–organizing assassinations and revolutionary activity while also reporting back to the Imperial secret police makes him one of the most infamous agent-provocateurs in history.

Savinkov led a remarkable and curious life. Apart from his life as a terrorist, during WWI, prior to the Russian Revolution, he enlisted in the French Army as a private. Following the February Revolution, he made a number of alliances while fighting against the Bolsheviks (whom he hated with a passion), and he acted as Assistant War Minister under Kerensky in the Provisional government.  After the October Revolution, he continued to fight as a counter-revolutionary, and the Bolsheviks offered a large reward for his capture. Savinkov left Russia but was lured back in 1924 through letters from a friend. In reality the letters were most likely dictated by the GPU (secret police). Savinkov was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Minsk. After a brief trial he was sentenced to ten years and sent to prison. Savinkov never served his sentence. He ‘fell’ out of a window–an alleged suicide.

The translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, Joseph Shaplen (who believes the suicide story, btw), calls Savinkov a “strong individualist” and that he “believed himself the sole judge of his actions.” This attitude didn’t go down well with Savinkov’s comrades, his so-called ‘superiors’ and it eventually led to his expulsion from the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

Savinkov was a shapeshifter of extraordinary talent, and under the pen name Ropshin, he also wrote a number of short stories, poems, a few novels, and his memoirs. The Pale Horse was called “The most Russian novel of the period” by Russian writer Dmitry Mereshkovsky while the Socialist Revolutionary Party considered Savinkov’s novels to be spoofs. It’s hard to pin down a man like Savinkov–he was determined to bring revolution to Russia through the destruction of the Romanovs, and yet he wasn’t too picky about who he aligned himself with to fight the Bolsheviks.

The Pale Horse, Savinkov’s first novel is written in the form of a journal–an account of a planned assassination.  It’s a thinly veiled account of Savinkov’s terrorist activities in 1905 pre-revolutionary Russia, although for the purposes of the novel, the target is a governor and the names are changed.  The tale is told by George, the leader of the combat unit, “a small group of five,”  –Fedor, Heinrich, and Vania, an idealistic and religious young poet, with the explosives manufactured by “chemistry expert,” Erna (a thinly disguised Dora Brilliant). The novel charts the persistent attempts to kill the governor and the lengths the group is prepared to go to to achieve their ends. We follow them through the planning, the tawdry gaiety of the Tivoli gardens, the disguises, the spies, the failed plots, the relocations and the clash of personalities over the question of just who is going to throw the first bomb. Even Azef appears as Andrei Petrovich–a man who thinks that the orders from the Central Committee mean something to George.

Since the events in the novel so closely follow events in Savinkov’s life, it’s almost impossible to untangle just where the fiction begins. George is a fascinatingly odd character who at times seems to eviscerate his belief system to reveal that it rests on exactly… nothing. He exploits Erna’s feelings for him, and engages in an affair that’s more about making a point than love or lust. His mild distaste for Erna is seen through frequent references to various body parts (her large hands, her red nose, for example), and yet at the same time there’s a hint of a vague, distant pity for this woman simply because she’s weak and doesn’t ‘get it’. George’s deepest feelings and his greatest arguments are reserved for the idealistic Vania. Vania, based on the real-life Kaliayev, struggles with the thou-shalt-not-kill part of Christianity even as he makes the moral choice to be a revolutionary. Rather surprisingly religious arguments, through Vania’s inner turmoil, take up a fair portion of the text, but George always has an answer. Here’s one of George’s nihilist statements:

 I somehow could not believe in death. It seemed unnecessary and therefore impossible. I did not even feel joy or pride at the thought that I was dying for my cause. I felt strangely indifferent. I did not care to live, but did not care to die either. I did not question myself as to my past life, nor as to what there might be beyond the dark boundary. I remember I was much more concerned as to whether the rope would cut my neck, whether there would be pain in suffocation. And often in the evening, after the roll-call, when the drum ceased beating in the courtyard, I used to look intently at the yellow light of the lamp, standing on the prison table, among the bread-crumbs. I asked myself; Do I fear or not? And my answer was: I do not. I was not afraid – I was only indifferent.

And here he is debating his relationships with fellow revolutionary Erna, married lover, Elena, and humans in general:

People say that where there is no law there is no crime. If that is true, where is the wrong in my kissing Elena? And why am I to blame in not caring any longer for Erna? I ask myself this and I can find no answer.

If I acknowledged a law I probably would not kill; I would not have made love to Erna, and would not be seeking the love of Elena. But what is my law?

They also say: love your fellow-man. But suppose there is no love in my heart? They say: respect him. But suppose there is no respect for others in me? I am on the border of life and death. Words about sin mean nothing to me. I may say about myself: ‘I looked up and I saw the pale horse and the rider whose name is death.’ Wherever that horse stamps its feet there the grass withers; and where the grass withers there is no life and consequently no law. For Death recognises no law.

A fascinating read. While there’s a story here, the book is a treatise on revolutionary ethics and the primary question: Do the ends justify the means? Camus’ play The Just Assassins is another look at this question. Savinkov strikes me as more aligned philosphically to the revolutionary of the 1880s People’s Will, and I shortly confirmed this by reading an excerpt from his memoirs:

The Social-Democratic program had long ceased to satisfy me. It seemed to me that it failed to meet the demands of Russian life, particularly on the agrarian question. Moreover, on the question of terroristic struggle, I inclined to the traditions of the Narodnaya Volia (People’s Will).

A word on my version. I bought a print on demand copy (the book is no longer in print). While I’m grateful to be able to read this at all, the typos were annoying. Apparently the publisher uses OCR software to reproduce the book, and since the technology is automatic, old texts will yield typos and missing texts.

Finally, The Pale Horse is available as an excellent film version called The Rider Named Death.

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Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is divided into two sections- I: Underground and II: Apropos of the Wet Snow. The first section is set in the 1860s when the narrator has retired on a small inheritance and is now forty years old. The second section is set  in the 1840s. Dostoevsky stated that he considered Gogol to be one of the major influences on his work, and that comic connection is apparent in Apropos of the Wet Snow–one of the funniest, meanest things I’ve read in some time. It’s also this second section that led to a split of opinions and some lively debates at home. But more of that later.

In Apropos of the Wet Snow, the narrator is twenty-four years old.  He is employed and claims that his life is “already gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.Indeed it’s through this character’s social interactions that his many problems become clear. While he spends most of his time at home reading, his “debauchery” takes place at night. In one of the episodes described by the narrator, an unknown officer causes him a great deal of distress:

“I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently-with no warning or explanation-moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could even have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me.”

The narrator enraged by his treatment then stalks the officer with some notion of revenge. I’m not going to spoil this for any potential readers out there, but the narrator’s attempts to get noticed, strike back or somehow or another get even with the insult is hilarious.  In dealing with the officer, the narrator builds the insult in his mind, and he builds his revenge in a similar fashion. As the narrator obsesses on the officer and the insult, the revenge becomes more fanciful.  

In one of the sections of Part I Underground, the narrator discusses the “mouse” who seeks revenge, and it’s in the impassioned details that he seems to go a bit overboard:

“The wretched mouse, in addition to the one original nastiness, has already manged to fence itself about with so many other nastinesses in the form of questions and doubts; it has padded out the one question with so many unresolved questions that, willy-nilly, some fatal slops have accumulated around it, some stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, of the spit raining on it from the ingenious figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators, guffawing at it from all their healthy gullets. Of course, nothing remains for it but to wave the whole thing aside with its little paw and, with a smile of feigned contempt, in which it does not believe itself, slip back shamefacedly into its crack. There in its loathsome, stinking underground, our offended, beaten-down, and derided mouse at once immerses itself in cold venomous, and above all, everlasting spite.”

So when I arrived at Part II and read of the narrator’s tireless attempts to enact “bold” revenge on an officer who sees him as less than an insect, it was easy to understand that the narrator is the “mouse” in pathetic and hilarious action. This creates an interesting result, for as readers we now understand that the narrator is still chewing over this incident from the distance of twenty bitter years. Dostoevsky’s decision to place the two sections of Notes From Underground out of chronological sequence is brilliant. We first see the middle-aged narrator as a lonely, bitter and thwarted human being who bitches about his smelly servant. Then through Apropos of the Wet Snow, we see the narrator as a young man with many problems, scheming of ways to not pay his servant. The nonlinear structure of Notes From Underground reminds me of A Hero of Our Time.

In another section, the narrator details an evening spent with some other young men, old “schoolfellows”  of his acquaintance. They treat the narrator “as something like a quite ordinary fly.” Hearing of a planned farewell party for another old schoolfellow, Zverkov,  the narrator invites himself along–in spite of the fact that he’s obviously not welcome and he doesn’t have the necessary funds to contribute to the evening’s meal. Shamelessly, he invites himself, gets drunk, and makes a complete arse out of himself.

Another major section concerns the narrator and a young prostitute named Liza. The narrator tells Liza the tale of a consumptive prostitute who was worked by her madame until she died. The tale, ladled on with thick detail about the typical brief shelf life of a prostitute, would seem to take the shape of a morality lecture with the narrator hinting that Liza should get out of the whorehouse while she still can:

“At any rate, in a year, you’ll be worth less,” I went on gloatingly. “So you’ll go from here to somewhere lower, another house. A year later–to a third hose, always lower and lower, and in about seven years you’ll reach the Haymarket and the basement. That’s still not so bad. Worse luck will be if on top of that some sickness comes along, say some weakness of the chest…or you catch cold, or something. Sickness doesn’t go away easily in such a life. Once it gets into you, it may not get out. And so you’ll die.”

But the narrator isn’t out to save Liza’s soul; he has another much more devious plan in mind while he waxes on about love. It’s this section of the story that led to the Great Debate at home. I argued that the narrator set the stage for a game in which–no matter the outcome–he could not lose. When Liza arrives at his flat, he’s either going to get free sex or having broken through her hard, self-protective shell, he’ll wallow in the enjoyable prospect of robbing Liza of any illusions she may have of ever being loved or being treated like a human being. Either way the narrator wins. Free sex or glee at the manipulation and humiliation of another human being.

The ‘other’ argument was that the narrator ‘missed’ the opportunity for love–an idea which does not fit the cynicism of Apropos of the Wet Snow.

Finally, while Notes From Underground isn’t the Dostoevsky novel we all hear about, this was a wonderfully funny and extremely entertaining read.

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