Tag Archives: Russian literature

The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Filed under Berberova, Nina, Fiction

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution: Selected by Boris Dralyuk

“Every pickpocket who takes a wallet from some heedless passer-by can now say that he’s a follower of Lenin.”

“Why not? Lenin takes somebody else’s house, a pickpocket takes somebody else’s wallet. The only difference is one of scale. After all, great ships need deep waters.” (Teffi)

Welcome to 2017, a year to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s perhaps then not surprising  that the ever innovative Pushkin Press should mark the occasion with a very special book: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Editor Boris Dralyuk concentrated his selections on the period between February 1917 and late 1919 with the aim “to steep the reader in its tumult-to recreate that heady brew of enthusiasm and disgust, passion and trepidation that intoxicated Russia and the world as events unfolded.” 

1917

Contents:

The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle

Stolen Wine:

Marina Tsvetaeva

Zinaida Gippius

Osip Mandelstam

A Distant Voice:  

Osip Mandelstam

Anna Akhmatova

Boris Pasternak

Wake Me Tomorrow

Mikhail Kuzmin

Sergey Esenin

Iron Flowers

Mikhail Gerasimov

Vladimir Kirillov

Alexey Kraysky

Purifying Fire

Andrey Bely

Alexander Blok

Titsian Tabidze

Our March

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Prose

The Break

Alexander Kuprin

Valentin Kataev

Alexander Serafimovich

Dovid Bergelson

Teffi

Vasily Rozanov

Alexey Remizov

Of Dragons and Men

Yefim Zozulya

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Blue Banners and Scarlet Sails

Mikhail Prishvin

Alexander Grin

Future Prospects

Mikhail Zoshchenko

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the important aspects of this collection is that these pieces were not written with hindsight; they were written at a very specific moment of history, capturing the transient feelings of those times. Not only does this collection gather together the most important creative voices of the period, but each section gives a short bio of the writers–along with their fate (so few lived to old age.) I had intended to write a short description of what happened to each writer before I came to this review but the editor did this in the book, and shows, effectively how writers of such amazing talent were killed or displaced–an entire generation swept off the map.

I won’t review every piece–some given the outcome of the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war are extremely painful–but instead I’ll say that by far my favourite is Kuprin’s story (perhaps not too surprising since I loved The Duel.) Kuprin’s tale Sasha and Yasha: An Old Story is an incredibly moving piece in which we are left to wonder what happened to the characters whose photographs are in an old album:

It feels like none of it ever existed: the glorious army, the extraordinary soldiers, the heroic officers, our dear, good, carefree comfortable Russian life… The old album’s pages tremble in my hand as I turn them.

Teffi presents a frightening picture of Russian society with her vicious little story The Guillotine, and in her piece, A Few Words About Lenin (1917), she presents an unflattering portrait of the man and his ideology.

He sensed nothing, predicted nothing. He knew nothing but what he’d been stuffed with: the history of socialism

Yefim Zozulya’s story,  The Story of Ak and Humanity augurs the Red Terror yet to come with the commodification of the individual.

Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours.

I loved Alexander Grin’s story, The Soul’s Pendulum, a story in which a man sees the revolution as one of history’s “exhilarating and magnificent upheavals.”  Valentin Kataev’s story The Drum focuses on a group of cadets–one in particular whose greatest concern in life is getting some extra time with his sweetheart, but everything changes when the news arrives that the Tsar has abdicated. On the other side of the political equation, Bolshevik Alexander Serafimovich’s story How He Died is also incredibly moving even though it’s initially heavy-handed. This is a wonderful collection that provides many pointers for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Russian literature, but readers are best advised to come to the book with some idea of the history of the period.

A poem by Blok 

Review copy

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A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press

“In California they drink gin instead of tea.” 

a-very-russian-christmas

I saved A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press for the right time of year, and while I can’t say that the stories made me full of good cheer, they all definitely contained elements of Christmas in one way of another. There’s a universality to these stories which show Christmas as a troubling time, a time for reflection and, as cheesy as it may sound, being grateful for what we have. Here’s the line-up:

The New Year’s Tree: Mikhail Zoshchenko

The Boys: Anton Chekhov

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding: Fyodor Dostoevsky

At Christmastide: Anton Chekhov

Dream of the Young Tsar: Lev Tolstoy

Makar’s Dream: Vladimir Korolenko (translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh)

A Woman’s Kingdom: Anton Chekhov

A Distant Christmas Eve: Klaudia Lukashevich

The Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Christmas Phantoms: Maxim Gorky

A Lifeless Animal: Teffi

My Last Christmas: Mikhail Zoshchenko

Chekhov’s The Boys is the tale of a planned escape to America; In Mikhail Zoshchenko’s, The New Year’s Tree, the forty-year-old narrator recalls the lessons learned 35 years earlier. In another story from Chekhov, At Christmastide, an older couple pay someone to write a letter to their daughter who has married and moved away. Dream of the Young Tsar from Tolstoy was a bit of a disappointment; it’s sort of a Russian version of A Christmas Carol, heavy handed and moralistic.I’m not going to review all the stories, and instead I’m going to concentrate on my favourites in the collection.

Maxim Gorky’s story, Christmas Phantoms, is the story of a writer who, on one very cold night, is finishing a story about two peasants–a blind husband and his elderly wife, who, after an unsuccessful day begging on Christmas Eve, freeze together to death in the snow. What a dreadful story, I thought to myself, and I felt disappointed (too soon) by Gorky, but he pulled a few tricks and before the story was done, I had a few chuckles. All I’ll say is ‘writers beware what you do to your characters.’

Another favorite was Chekhov’s A Woman’s Kingdom. The story opens on Christmas Eve and focuses on unmarried Anna Akimovna, a young woman who owns substantial property, including a factory which employs 1800 workers. Every year at Christmas, she distributes a certain amount of money to the poor, but this year, an extra 1500 roubles lands in her lap, and she decides to give it away. But who to give it to? She’s faced with a stack of begging letters (and hateful letters), and letting fate award the 1500 roubles, she picks a begging letter at random.

A Woman’s Kingdom is a fairly long story, and one that could have been worked into a novel. We see Anna’s Christmas when she is visited by the local poor who shivering with cold, pay respects, Anna notes “in reality there is something cruel in these Christmas customs,” but she’s powerless to stop the century old traditions.

For Christmas dinner she’s joined by a civil councillor and a slimey barrister, Lysevitch. These men can be seen, ostensibly, as suitors, but neither of them court Anna-although sleek Lysevitch, “like a spoiled horse fresh from the stable,”  is full of stupid advice about Anna taking multiple lovers.He’d “long ceased to believe in anything he had to say in the law courts, or perhaps he did believe in it, but attached no kind of significance to it–it had all so long been familiar, stale, ordinary ..”

Anna, an extremely sympathetic character, was raised from peasantry to wealth by inheritance. She’s not entirely comfortable with her position. She longs for love and marriage, but it seems that she’s destined to remain unmarried. We see a life of privilege but a life that’s sterile. She has wealth but she’s being ripped off in various ways; she’d like to help those in need and give charity, but her actions are either thwarted or futile.

My favourite story in the collection was Dostoevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding. The narrator is an unnamed man who sees a wedding, and then casts his mind back to a children’s party which took place five years earlier on New Year’s Eve. The family who threw the party were wealthy, and the narrator, an outsider, observes the other guests, the children and their accompanying governesses.

Particularly charming was a blackeyed, curly-headed boy, who kept trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, pensive, pale with big, prominent, pensive eyes, exquisite as a little cupid. 

Idle gossip between the guests whispers that the little girl will inherit 300,o00 roubles, and the supposedly disingenuous narrator notices that gifts, which seem to be randomly distributed, are awarded to the children with “presents diminishing in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy children.” The son of the governess, “the child of the lowest degree” gets a cheap book while the little heiress receives the most expensive doll. To say what happens next would be to spoil the story for other readers, but once again Dostoevsky chronicles the lowest points of human behaviour.

Review copy

Makar’s Dream translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh

My last Christmas and The New Year’s Tree copyright estate of Mikhail Zoshchenko

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Filed under Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gorky Maxim, Korolenko Vladimir, Lukashevich Klaudia, Teffi, Tolstoy, Leo, Zoshchenko Mikhail

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 be expunged in the night Kolya spent as her lover, but is regret ever dismissed? Or does it 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 DoubleBreasted 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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