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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Russian literature and film (153)

Friday
Jun162017

Brother

At several junctures in this film we are shown an electric streetcar with no sides, a hollow prism offering a glance at the skyline and sunsets of Russia's most beautiful city. That our streetcar is both transparent and unadulterated may be obvious; but it also masks desires. We are in what is called New Russia, where many have little, few have plenty, and a certain stratum has decided to take what they can before Death casts its shroud. And where does Death lurk? At almost every corner, in almost every alley, but not, most importantly, in every human soul.

Our first scene is like no other: a voluptuous blonde stands against a wall with her black dress peeling off her very white skin. Above her hovers a camera and we understand that what we are watching is counterfeit, synthetic, abstract, someone's concept of what reality should but never could resemble. We then espy a young man who seems to float into the picture asking a crew member what song is playing in the background. He is immediately spotted and berated by the head of security, a bored director contemplates momentarily whether he could use the impending brawl in his film, and as we fade to black our security chief is bounding bloody-minded through the crowd. 

The next vignette has our fellow seated in the local police station. He identifies himself as Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), twenty-two years of age, appropriately residing at the itinerant address of 22 Station Street, and a recent discharge from the Russian army. His wounds are visible but are nothing compared to what he inflicted on his assailant. Danila is offered a job which he politely refuses with a smirk, and as he leaves the police chief comments to a colleague and cold window pane that he was once his father's classmate. The same father who died at forty in a prison after repeated burglary convictions. Danila makes his way home to his mother, who laments in that strange way mothers have of trying to motivate their children that Danila "will croak in prison like [his] good-for-nothing father." Her "only hope" is apparently "little Viktor in Petersburg." This Viktor is hardly little. At least ten years older than his brother, he replaced Danila's father, who died when the boy was only seven, and what he has done with his life in the Venice of the North has not been revealed to anyone at this point; in fact, not even the film's title has been mentioned. The mother insists that Danila peruse once again the photo album she keeps of her beloved Viktor, shown aging into a bald, menacing figure, although Danila has no interest. Yet when his mother recommends a fraternal reunion in Petersburg, he is surprisingly receptive. Perhaps because he knows what his brother actually does for a living – and at this point we get our title and an introduction to a very different world.

We then find Viktor (Viktor Sukharukov), easily identifiable from the photographs, deep in one of those hard-boiled dialogues that involve money, death, or often both. His interlocutor (Sergei Murzin) is an odd, round-headed gentleman (nicknamed "Roundhead" throughout the film) who likes to talk in rhymes and has made his offer at fifteen thousand dollars and one week's preparation "to get a Chechen." Viktor brazenly dismisses this sum and wants twenty, half up front, and twice the time to track his quarry, to which the Roundhead readily agrees, although if we know anything about men of his stamp, quick assent normally indicates ulterior motives – in this case, an added assignment for his two flunkies. At another location in the same magical city, Danila detrains. He walks past one of Petersburg's most famous monuments and pauses, continues his walk around the city freezing, smoking and, most of all, observing. Why would an ostensibly impecunious young man not go directly to his brother's warm apartment? Because Danila has a plan that may or may not include his brother, but which definitely renders his repeated claims to only having served "in headquarters" more than a little dubious.    

This amazing survey is accomplished in about ten minutes of laconic screen time. The vignettes are always curt, almost like the pictures in the album Danila has been force-fed time and again, and perhaps for that reason is he the only one who anticipates the moves of others. He befriends an impoverished German (Yuri Kuznestov) whose penury has not diminished his philosophy, a junkie called Kat, and Sveta, a married thirtysomething woman who happens to be the driver of the aforementioned sideless streetcar. It is among these three characters as well as the morally vapid Viktor that Danila ricochets, and in time we detect the outline of his schemes. Blood is spilled, of course, but literally just off-screen – behind a wall or door, under a bed, from a distance – and Danila makes enough racist comments to disrupt an open-minded person's idea of justice. We are not dealing with a good human being but a criminal with a moral code; unusual surely, though no reason to cheer. Around him Danila sees the more conventional forms of revolution – drugs, long hair, loud music – but prefers his conservative do and this band on his omnipresent discman (which comes in handy in a later scene), and doesn't have any real taste for drugs, alcohol, or the deadening throb of disco bars. As a revolutionary he is most unconventional, which easily makes him the most radical figure in what would otherwise have become a straightforward tale. 

What distinguishes Brother from similar films is the deceptive innocuousness of its fairy tale surroundings and its protagonist, who despite his deep voice and playboy stare does some very adult things in a childish way. There is a hint of something greater at play than man versus man: it devolves into an entire city pockmarked by violent crime against one soul at once above and below the law. A familiar story, but told with such gusto and attention to detail (note how Sveta looks at Danila as he watches a pirated copy of a concert) that we cannot help but wonder whether the German is right when he says of Petersburg, "the city is a horrific force," and "the strong come here and become weak because the city swallows up our strength." And only once do we hear Danila justify his hell-bent tactics, to the German naturally, who can judge him without fear of retaliation. Not that retaliation could really motivate a clerk from headquarters. 

Sunday
May072017

Akhmatova, "Ждала его напрасно много лет"

A work ("For him I waited years in vain") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

For him I waited years in vain,     
This time now seems like drowsiness. 
Yet light invincible did reign 
Three years ago, on Lazarus.  
My voice would break, then words entomb: 
Before me stood my smiling groom. 

Behind the pane, the candles strolled
In unfast crowds. O pious eve!  
So easy will iced April cleave,
Above these crowds the church bells tolled, 
The wisest comfort will pain slake. 
And blackest wind the flames then shake.

White narcissus the table smote,   
Red wine cups waiting to be sipped,
My sight akin to dawn's red mist;
My hand, entrapped in wax's coat, 
It trembled with this kiss my choice, 
And my blood sang: blessed one, rejoice!

Tuesday
Mar212017

Akhmatova, "Как люблю, как любила глядеть я" 

A work ("How I so love and loved to look") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

How I so love and loved to look           
Upon the chiseled twilit shores,                               
The balconies that time adores,                  
Those centuries they would not brook.     

My capital, my city, You,                        
Our haven true, we bright and mad;         
Above the Neva, blue and sad,                 
That dusky hour, so special, pure,    

Brings gusts of May that will careen  
Off columns by the watery lea; 
Then, sinner heaven-bound, You'll see,    
Before Your death the sweetest dream.

Wednesday
Mar082017

The Captive Mind

In the West man subconsciously regards society as unrelated to him. Society indicates the limits he must not exceed; in exchange for this he receives a guarantee that no one will meddle excessively in his affairs ... In the East there is no boundary between man and society. His games, and whether he loses or wins, is a public matter. He is never alone. If he loses it is not because of indifference on the part of his environment, but because his environment keeps him under such minute scrutiny.

                                                                                                              Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind

This famous book is an intellectual's view on Communism, or Marxism-Leninism, or Stalinism, or whatever it happened to be called at the time, movements that do not, by definition, allow for intellectuals to exist. To put it another way, intellectuals only gain such a title by being allowed to deviate intelligently from what we may call bourgeois values. Since Marxism-Leninism is also in opposition to bourgeois values (at least in theory) an alliance seems to take natural shape, and yet the seventy-odd years of Soviet dictatorship featured some of the most anti-intellectual regimes known to man. How this occurred sheds some light on the nature of power, as well as on the persons who spoke in shades of red but behaved like any other robber baron at any other time in history. 

Composed by Miłosz in the middle of life, at age forty-two, The Captive Mind was revised when the poet was already sixty-nine. In twenty-seven years of removing masks and exposing lies one by one, Miłosz saw nothing to indicate that Russians (who should really be called Soviets, but he insists on making the matter national rather than doctrinal) had changed their baleful ways. That he repeatedly denigrates Russia as "a backward nation" shows his nasty biases that betray his argument. In what was 1917 Russia backward? In industry? Is this the measure of a country's development in the eyes of an intellectual? Miłosz makes one mistake: he cannot decide whether he is a poet or an economist. To be certain, poets do not normally make good economists; and I have never heard of an economist becoming a good poet. In terms of art Russia was far from backward: he rightly praises its drama as the very best and occasionally has laudatory words for writers like Blok. But on the whole Russia to him is a primitive wasteland, whereas Poland and Lithuania are somehow among the most advanced countries in the world (the Baltic states "stood on a definitely higher level of civilization than other Soviet citizens"). But these are all cavils. We will forgive him his chauvinism because we cannot begrudge him his anger. And twenty-eight years after the Berlin Wall's last ballyhooed sighting and thirteen years after his own death, Miłosz's remarkable work possesses almost unrivaled relevance.

He begins with an examination of what it is like to be a socialist writer, a fate which in 1953 was no more pleasant than that of the Soviet-endorsed slag now polluting dark, unvisited corners of university libraries worldwide. His survey is initially framed around an obscure novel by this well-known Polish author, and throughout The Captive Mind the non-Polish reader will feel somewhat alien to the discussion. This is both a good and bad thing. The bad element is rather obvious, and becomes more evident in the four middle chapters. Named after the first four Greek letters, they compose a roman à clef to four other well-known Polish writers of varying stature. I should say, there is no roman to speak of, only, we are told, facts. And the facts are not complimentary. Take his opening description of this writer, to whom he refers as Beta:

When I met Beta in 1942, he was twenty years old. He was a lively boy with black, intelligent eyes. The palms of his hands perspired, and there was that exaggerated shyness in his behavior that usually bespeaks immense ambition. Behind his words one felt a mixture of arrogance and humility. In conversation he seemed inwardly convinced of his own superiority; he attacked ferociously yet retreated immediately, bashfully hiding his claws. His ripostes were full of pent-up irony. Probably, though, these characteristics were most pronounced when he spoke with me or with other writers older than he was. As a beginning poet, he felt he owed them a certain respect, but actually he believed they were none too deserving of it. He knew better; in him lay the promise of a truly great writer.

That this passage is almost boilerplate for any Romantic poet who subscribes to the aesthetic tendencies of Milton's most nefarious creation would be damning enough; what makes it more interesting is that Borowski is the only writer of the four consistently read in survey classes outside of Poland. Andrzejewski (Alpha) is best known for the novel on which this film was based (one of my father's favorites as a college student); the works of Putrament (Gamma) and Gałczyński (Delta) are really only discussed by professional Slavists. Although hailed first and foremost as a poet, Miłosz's malicious and thinly-veiled satire of his compatriots is a joy to read in the same way that any great characterizations in any great novel seem glowingly real. Half-Russian and quick to denounce his friends to save his own skin, Putrament is the easiest target and gets by far the roughest treatment ("Tall, slightly stooped, he had the long, ruddy face of a man who has spent much time with guns and dogs"). 

The benefit of the book's Polishness can be found in the plethora of insider details: Borowski's unnecessary boastings about his ingenious behavior while in a concentration camp; Putrament's inability to describe Miłosz's hometown in anything but the most banal of colors, his subsequent career as a diplomat "for Red Poland," and his odd second wife ("a Polish soldier-wife ... wearing heavy Russian boots"); the poet Gałczyński's drunken demands to be paid up front for any work, almost as if he were running a print-on-demand service; and the ironic stabs at the haughty Andrzejewski's moralizing and distance from his peers. The depictions of these four Poles, two of whom would die rather young, that form in the reader's mind are as striking and focused as their socialist messages are vague and contrived. Upon revising his work almost thirty years later, Miłosz saw little need to apologize for the venom that oozes out of most of his pages. After all, socialism or whatever it happened to be called at the time (never trust a movement that cannot decide on its own name) was ostensibly still going strong. There was still a need to smash the plastic matryoshka into smithereens and expose its hollowness; there was still a need to inform the West and the (albeit dwindling) number of Communist sympathizers that what they heard and saw was absolute poppycock. 

Yet whether they were true socialists or not might have to do with another phenomenon, which Miłosz calls Ketman. Miłosz takes the word from a work by this French writer whose legacy is mired in controversy (in a fantastic bit of understatement, Miłosz terms him "dangerous"), and the word is the same as the Arabic kamin, which means "secret" or "hidden." Generally it implied a method in Islamic thought whereby a dissenter could hide his spots, and Miłosz has no qualms about appropriating it for his context. Dissent did not need to be, however, the main impetus behind such chicanery:

The people of the Moslem East believe that 'He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error.' One must, therefore, keep silent about one's true convictions if possible.

There were also practical consequences for such modesties, but these, I assume, require no explanation. It is to Miłosz's credit that he attempts, if halfheartedly at times, to assign a form of Ketman to each of the four Polish writers he exposes in the following chapters. He assumes that they since there is something or a lot of the artist in them, they cannot possibly accede to the nonsense that the Soviet state wants Polish literature to become. They have the concerns of family, ostracizing, and, of course, finances to take into consideration.  But in the end they do not decide to emigrate or break openly with the party (Andrzejewski would be an exception later in life).  They are all prisoners, often well-fed and well-groomed ones, but prisoners nonetheless. Ketman also has far-reaching ramifications for the path of the human soul:

To say something is white when one thinks it is black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one's adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one) these actions lead one to prize one's own cunning above all else.

Communism in its European variant is over now, but it once was considered the greatest revolution in modern history. Strange that, when you consider how individual we have all become and how much we shun the collective good in favor of our own selfish needs. We may believe the aphorism that no one can imprison our minds, and that might be true with one qualification. The only imprisonment of our minds occurs when we choose to accept a truth imposed upon us from without, a truth we know to be as fabricated as the cheap clothing we are allowed to buy. It is much easier than waking up every morning and trying to escape.

Friday
Feb172017

Lance

Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead that the naive old myth has not come true.

What is science fiction? I have no ready caption for the allegedly imaginative, no-holds-barred nonsense that so rarely broaches the literary (this film, based on a vastly inferior book, is a rare example, although it is more about spirituality) because science fiction, much as science, likes to wallow in its vague fame. It may as a genre constantly reinvent itself, yet its reinventions leave its forebears unworshipped and unappreciated but let us be fair. If science, which has produced so many wonders and made our lives substantially easier and healthier, still knows a fraction of a drachma of a billionth of anything at all about our universe, a literary movement that glorifies the progression of human knowledge cannot aspire to anything greater. Expecting more out of intergalactic internecine is a waste of hope. What we can say without fear of perjury is that a consistent swath of human readers (to distinguish them from the beasts and blobs that haunt those silvery fables) loves deceiving itself with the lure of science fiction, a regrettable phase through which some of us as children pass quickly and unscathed. They think that the reinventions of the wheel of time are profound in their look at human motives, when there is more profundity in one tractate by Duns Scotus than in a fictional universe of a thousand splendid, or not-so-splendid suns. Which brings us to this unusual tale.

The hero of our story, not immediately revealed, is a certain Emery Lancelot Boke, a latter-day knight in a new kind of armor. His mission we are never informed whether this was a lifelong dream or an unsimple twist of fate is to visit another planet and report to Earth on his findings. We learn all of this a few pages into our story because we are initially warned how little this whole business really matters, at least to our omniscient narrator:

Finally, I utterly spurn and reject so-called science fiction. I have looked into it, and found it as boring as the mystery-story magazines the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humor. The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those 'assorted' cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade, whereby their shrewd makers ensnare the salivating consumer in a mad Pavlovian world where, at no extra cost, variations in simple visual values influence and gradually replace flavor, which thus goes the way of talent and truth. So the good guy grins, and the villain sneers, and a noble heart sports a slangy speech. Star tsars, directors of Galactic Unions, are practically replicas of those peppy, red-haired executives in earthy earth jobs, that illustrate with their little crinkles the human interest stories of the well-thumbed slicks in beauty parlors. Invaders  of  Denebola  and  Spica, Virgo's  finest, bear names beginning with Mac; cold scientists are usually found under Steins; some of them share with the supergalactic gals such abstract labels as Biola or Vala. Inhabitants of foreign planets, 'intelligent' beings, humanoid or of various mythic makes, have one remarkable trait in common: their intimate structure is never depicted. In a supreme concession to biped propriety, not only do centaurs wear loincloths; they wear them about their forelegs.

Our narrator may be more or less omniscient, but he is not God; he is not even a deity among men, as far as we can determine. No, he is the ancestor of Mr. Boke, who has long since enjoyed the simplicity of the name Lance to the complications of the Round Table's namesake. What can an ancestor tell us about a descendant? The same quantity, one supposes, predicted daily by science fiction pundits and science reality adherents about what will, may, should, and must occur in a world they have misperceived since the beginning of time. Yes, that's right, they haven't gotten it; the only major change in the last few decades is technology's tailwind, which has man reaching for stars that may not quite be what his manmade telescope tells him they are.

Lance officially a mononym free of extraneous names has bidden his parents farewell, and "the hope of seeing him again in life is about equal to the hope of seeing him in eternity." Someone might whisper to these parents, good folk, that what he is undertaking will make him an immortal part of immortal science, but they do not listen, wisely. Despite our endless evolution, they are firmly of the species that cannot forsake their young, that must know until the end of their (very mortal) days what has become of their beloved son. 

There is such an intolerable silence in Lance's room, with its battered books, and the spotty white shelves, and the old shoes, and the relatively new tennis racquet in its preposterously secure press, and a penny on the closet floor and all this begins to undergo a prismatic dissolution, but then you tighten the screw and everything is again in focus. And presently the Bokes return to their balcony. Has he reached his goal and if so, does he see us?

The interplanetary sighting we may take as figurative, or we may ignore as the dregs of panic, but neither agenda need be endorsed at this time. Surely his parents wish for a safe ascent and, of course, descent, even if they must imagine both on the basis of their earthly experience, which means they can hardly imagine it at all. "Will the mind of the explorer survive the shock?" says our narrator, who does not hasten to reveal the knowledge he may possess. Then there is the narrator's own ascent, of sorts:

When I was a boy of seven or eight, I used to dream a vaguely recurrent dream set in a certain environment, which I have never been able to recognize and identify in any rational manner, though I have seen many strange lands ... The nuisance of that dream was that for some reason I could not walk around the view to meet it on equal terms. There lurked in the mist a mass of something – mineral matter or the like – oppressively and quite meaninglessly shaped, and, in the course of my dream, I kept filling some kind of receptacle (translated as 'pail')  with  smaller  shapes  (translated  as 'pebbles'), and my nose was bleeding but I was too impatient and excited to do anything about it. And every time I had that dream, suddenly somebody would start screaming behind me, and I awoke screaming too, thus prolonging the initial anonymous shriek, with its initial note of rising exultation, but with no meaning attached to it any more – if there had been a meaning.

What on earth or beyond has the narrator imagined for himself? One might do well to keep in mind that the dream recounted is a boy's dream, one easily engorged with impressions of the gigantic summer sky in its awful transparency. If we look closely we can even see the moon's gaunt silhouette hovering, suggesting a point of departure, a beginning to the endlessness that is our universe, and I think we should leave matters at that.  

Given Nabokov's demolition of the science fiction genre in Lance and other places, some reviewers have graciously refrained from belaboring the point about Lance's pointlessness and if that's not clear enough, there's little we can do for you. Other critics, however, have claimed that Nabokov, at several junctures amidst his works, employs standard science-fiction techniques such as "invisibility" and "telekinesis" (please repeat the end of the last sentence, after the dash). That the story is unique in Nabokov's oeuvre cannot be denied; that what it depicts has anything at all to do with science or the giddy blackness of the unknown may open another discussion altogether. What type of discussion? A hint is dropped, a single word to be more specific, that implies that what we are reading is what we want to imagine as "the pleasure of direct and divine knowledge," even if "the mere act of imagining the matter is fraught with hideous risks." What risks, you may ask? That all our dreams are not dreams but the future in reverse.  

Monday
Feb132017

Turgenev, "Дай мне руку, и пойдем мы в поле"

A work ("Your hand in mine, we walk the field") by this Russian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Your hand in mine, we walk the field,
My thoughtful soul's one dearest friend.
Our life today bears our will's yield,
How shall we choose this life to spend?

Without this passion we will die.
In jest we mark the day and night,
And all we love, and every sigh
We shall forget till later light. 

So let this day pass unreturned
Near bright and weary life above,
As pagan crowds have slowly learned
Of life as childish peaceful love.

Above the brook clumped lightest steam
As dawn burned bright in solemn shell:
O how I would descend this beam
With you, just you, as once we fell. 

"But what, if not the past renewed?"
Comes your response to my soft heart.
Forget, I say, to grieve and brood,
Forget, forget, that we're apart.

Believe me now bereft of pride
That all my soul to you bursts forth
Sad is it how the lake's blue tide
Cannot forgive the wave's rogue course.

Behold the sky's most wondrous stain
Look forth, look back, look all around,
No tremble wastes away in vain
Give thanks that peace and love abound.

And I admit a presence pure
To which no worthy slave am I.
No shame, no fear, no prideful lure
No sadness coats my soul's last cry.

So let us walk in wordless ways,
Or if our words begin anew,
Or passions sound in wavelike maze
Or if we sleep in moonbeam hue.

Eternally they resonate,
These wondrous moments we embrace
This day, perhaps, may save our fate
And then our mysteries unlace.

Tuesday
Jan312017

Akhmatova, "Ведь где-то есть простая жизнь и свет"

A work ("A simple world and life do wait") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

A simple world and life do wait,  
Transparent, warm and joy-filled land ...              
The evening cloaks the soft debate        
Of fences, neighbors, girlish fate,                        
As gentle bees their hum expand.               

So hard and solemn are our days,         
The bitter moments worshipped rites;    
When suddenly a reckless gale            
Rips through our words before their flight – 

Yet never do we dream of more       
Than plush cement of woe and fame,
The bluest ice, wide river shores,    
The dark and sunless gardens torn,
The Muse's voice, though faint, untamed. 

Saturday
Jan212017

Beneficence

I only know how to sculpt and how to love. This was not enough for you.

It is exceedingly rare that I will recommend a literary work as wholeheartedly as this one, which, while a survey of fifty years of genius and subject to many rewrites, is staggering in its precision and scope. There is simply no world like Nabokov’s. No prose writer of the twentieth century is so succulently correct about nostalgia, about love, about memory. And his images are repeated and enhanced over time: a violet bulb expands into a lilac curtain; the distant flutter of a cramoisy wing becomes the softest hair on the softest of cheeks. His familiarity with all levels and outlines of nature’s greatness makes his emotional insights far more rewarding than the sloppy generalizations of existentialists who, crippled by their ignorance of the natural world, can only describe their solipsistic (or perhaps "slop-sistic") feelings. So when Nabokov turns his attention to a single person and that person’s private tragedies, we sense a cosmic importance, as in this magnificent story.

Our narrator, a sculptor in Berlin, has spent the whole night without the woman he loves. She has betrayed him with another body, but it seems as if she has been betraying him all along. With his only weapons, “shards of plaster of Paris” and “congealed plasticine,” he tries to combine her swathed image with the unique blue of Berlin’s evening skies (which I, too, once worshiped) and create a refuge from the loneliness of this world. He fails, and awakes the next morning, nervously giggly, filthy, forlorn. He thinks, as all artists do every day, of redemption:

My love for you was the throbbing, welling warmth of tears. That is exactly how I imagined paradise: silence and tears, and the warm silk of your knees. This you could not comprehend.

They are to meet by the symbol of Berlin itself, the same monument that would split the city in halves for forty-four bitter years. The crowd does not share his happiness or anticipation. So many bureaucrats speed on by, all masked by “weary, predatory faces,” all with the same “turbid nausea” in their eyes. But he is free. He can create and shape the world as he sees fit. By a guardhouse window he finds a stand with postcards, maps, photos for hasty tourists. Before all this, on a stool that is too tall for her, sits “a brown little old woman, short-legged, plump, with a round speckled face.” She is waiting just like he is waiting. Except that she is waiting for the whole world and he for only one person, which might mean that she is actually the lonelier, the more desperate of the two.

They wait in tandem; an hour passes. A procession of slow and dulled people, many people, attracted like wild animals to the gaudy colors, approaches the stand but cannot bring themselves to buy. The autumn weather becomes more typically Berliner, spouting and pushing its puny citizens about like the insects we mock and swat with few scruples. Of what did this old woman dream? Of a “rich foreigner … who would buy all her wares, and overpay, and order more, many more picture postcards and guidebooks of all kinds.” This is, we understand, her paradise, relief from subsistence, from the miserable task of depending on the megrims of uncaring strangers. A soldier finally does approach, but the old woman is already in the midst of satisfying her need for happiness in a cup of coffee with milk which she drinks “with such utter, profound, concentrated relish” that our narrator stops thinking about his love. He thinks instead about how much he wants that soldier to buy everything he can from that old woman, how only in that exchange of favors can the most basic necessities of life be procured. And then he thinks:

Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

It is here that another couple arrives to the newsstand that reminds our narrator not a little bit of himself and his faithless siren. He smiles upon his gift and does something we could not possibly expect, but which is the most laudable of human actions. And the most laudable of human actions is our gift, especially when its ambit includes us as well.

Sunday
Dec182016

Pushkin, "Предчувствие"

A work ("Premonition") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

Above me met the clouds anew, 
In silence breeding envious woe. 
That hour will torture me, I know, 
If I a threat therein construe. 
Does second sight betoken fate? 
Should I embrace this vast design
With patience and tenacious brine,
My prideful youth's far-flung estate?

Fatigued am I of restless life, 
Indifferent to the roaring storm: 
Perhaps I can be saved and borne 
To safest pier away from strife ...
Yet premonitions of our end, 
A thankless and most dreaded chime, 
Lead me to hurry one last time, 
And squeeze, my angel, your white hand.

Serene and gentle angel mine,
Forgive me now and speak but soft:
So sad's your tender gaze aloft
That you must hold or fast decline.
Your memories my own shall glaze, 
And fill my weary soul with force,
With pride, with inspiration's course,
And bravery of younger days.

Thursday
Dec082016

Envy

Of all human vices, Schadenfreude is most likely the worst: those afflicted do not seek their own success but the failure of others. Hoping that your neighbor, your brother, or that lovely girl in the office meets with some disastrous circumstance just so that you may feel better about your own mediocrity hints at another form of malicious glee. The one which arises when you daydream about stripping a fellow human of his or her accolades, spouse, money, or anything else they might have earned. In countries where egalitarianism is promoted and preferred, it is not uncommon to see others looking over their shoulders at your small plot of land which, in essence, is just like everyone else's. Or so you think. Upon further scrutiny you realize that in contradistinction to adjoining plots yours boasts, in a small, shaded, almost inconspicuous corner, one dark blue violet of infinite beauty. You have not really noticed this violet before, but everyone in your vicinity cannot take their eyes off it. After a certain amount of time, you begin to hear rumors of others' having had similar flower seeds and good earth, only to have seen their flowers killed by an errant footprint or simply scooped up by an enterprising passer-by. What you will never hear is that everyone tried with equal effort but unequal talent to grow such a violet, and only you succeeded. In fact, you will soon learn that you, of all people, tried the least and were also granted by whatever grants people such powers, the least amount of talent to make a violet bloom. And yet only you have it, which can only mean skulduggery. Germany, a country of unabashed egalitarianism, even coined a word for such a "conspiracy of feelings," a Neidgesellschaft, or society of envy, a place where people are supposed to be equal or close to equal, or at least given as many opportunities as possible to be equal, but where oftentimes human beings' competitive nature gets the better of them. Which brings us to this sensational novel.

The time is the 1920s and the scene is the New Russia. Today we have, admittedly, another New Russia; but back then the legacy of the Soviets was yet to be sensed by anyone except the most prescient and cynical among us. A new society meant reinventing not only the wheel, but also poetry, government, sexual relations, sports, and, perhaps most importantly, simple creature comforts such as sausages and pillows. The sausage maker is a man called Andrei Babichev. He is a large, boisterous fortyish businessman – appropriate socialist terminology is "Director of the Food Industry Trust" – drunk on his own salubrity and boundless, throbbing volition (calling him energetic would be incredibly unfair to marathon runners and other such slouches). As all good citizens do, he dreams of a new world where everything is better than it once was, and where men like Andrei can rule because they have the greatest amount of resilience to creeping mortality. He sings, bellows, and generally expects to be the center of attention wherever he finds himself drumming up business. Despite being a self-made man, he was attacked by some hooligans about ten years ago and survived only thanks to the timely intervention of a burgeoning soccer star, Volodya Markov. Since that fateful incident Markov and Andrei have been like son and father to the point that Andrei would like Markov to marry his lovely niece Valya. Valya is sixteen and Volodya twenty-seven but soon to be capped by the Soviet squad and therefore very eligible. His stated goal is to become a football "machine," to have no superfluous movements or thoughts in the perfection of his craft – the purest allegorical illusion that the Soviets could foist upon their supporters and citizens. This all sounds like a dandy setup for a new, improved society bereft of any malice, underachievement, or selfishness. And it would be were it not for the introduction of two characters – Andrei's older brother Ivan, and a mysterious fellow called Nikolai Kavalerov.

Once upon a time, we are told, there were three Babichev brothers: Roman, the eldest and most gung-ho about defending the homeland; Ivan, a devout non-conformist and a bit of a parasite; and Andrei, the bright-eyed baby who went abroad to pursue his studies and whatever else needed to be pursued. Roman was executed for his role in a revolutionary force's terrorist actions, and we all know what happened to Andrei. But what about Ivan? It is an accepted premise that artistic types, bless them all, often have little inclination to do anything else except engage in their art, a formula which this philosopher rationalized and ultimately justified in a famous discourse. Ivan is most definitely such a man: creative, moody, impractical to a preposterous degree, he too dreams of transforming the New Russia – but not by means of the platitudinous robotic achievements that would so typify Soviet culture at its apex and nadir. No, Ivan is a true artist, which means his genius stems from both originality and a thorough knowledge of the work of his forerunners. While Andrei wants to build a better salami, Ivan's brazen mind envisions a dream machine, soap bubbles that would expand to the size of a hot-air balloon, and his most enigmatic creation, the so-called "Ophelia" machine. What this latter construct entails is not immediately revealed, although it is clear that Ivan considers it his masterpiece and legacy. He finds, however, few sympathizers. Andrei wants no part of him and is only interested in Valya for the sake of Markov; everyone else seems to think him raving mad, a Bohemian louse or some combination of the two. His disheveled appearance and crushing negativity regarding the achievements of his younger brother are reflected in his overwhelming ambition to annihilate Andrei, an ambition shared by Kavalerov, who dances innocuously across the novel's stage without affecting anyone or anything. He and Ivan share a striking number of opinions on matters great and small, and even end up bedding the same widow despite her repulsive demeanor and shape. Kavalerov talks to Andrei, but is brushed aside as if he doesn't really exist; Ivan does exist, or at least we think he exists, and is given similar treatment. Neither one can dissuade Valya from her upcoming nuptials with Volodya, and the effete duo continue to stir up trouble in local pubs with the overt intent of overthrowing Andrei or some substantial chunk of Andrei's world. Ivan – or Kavalerov, a bit hard to tell them apart at times – even mistakenly absconds with a letter from Volodya in which the goalie recommends that Andrei sever all ties with Kavalerov. This infuriates Ivan and Kavalerov in equal measure, which leads them to do, of course, nothing of consequence except scheme.

There are more than a few indications about Ivan and Kavalerov's real identities, although secondary literature conveniently tends to overlook them in lieu of more traditional reading approaches. One important clue is Valya's reaction to both men: she does not treat Ivan like her father, nor does she even acknowledge that Kavalerov, who becomes obsessed with her, actually breathes much of the same air she does. Another hint might be derived from a solid knowledge of the oeuvre of this writer, who specialized in long-winded diatribes about the humiliated, those in life who do not have voices because they are drowned out by guffaws of ridicule. Unlike Dostoevsky, Olesha presents his tale in the most compact of forms, and one that bends in a green arch over every last sumptuous detail. The "Vainglorious and Thoughtless Man," Kavalerov, will be known forever and ever for his envy, just like Iago – and just like, for that matter, Ivan, who once grew a blue violet out of a wart after claiming he had a remedy. But some people have more ambition than simply growing exotic flowers.

Saturday
Dec032016

Bely, "Меланхолия"

A work ("Melancholy") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

An empty bistro by first glow,                                      
Makes whispers and soft organs mate.                     
Smooth leather mats that fairies know,                                      
Show lackeys rumbling with their plates                     

Between the cabinets. Like shade                         
I wander through the smoky webs.              
Soon golden day will launch its raid                       
On window panes as dreamtime ebbs,                      

And cut off cinder in its fist,                 
Aflame in mirrors, diamond-bright...             
Gas lanterns fill with fiery mist                
And pierce each window with warm light.                           

Above the city and the streets,                       
Black cinder clouds from earth-mounts rise.
Beyond our ken, our senses meet                        
Unanswered arias' demise.                         

I lived and died in yearning pure,                      
My tears unseen upon my face.                           
The ceiling waxed in light demure                        
As garlands of ethereal lace                                     

Stretched past our eyes.  And for a time  
All seemed burned hot by tawny light.           
By mirror's glare my double rhymed;           
My silhouette with endless night.                 

He nears, and nods to me alone;                                 
In torture I cannot escape;                          
Then breaches depths of mirrored gloam                  
His hands aflail at life's mad cape.

Sunday
Nov202016

The Vane Sisters

Many years ago now, I happened to be visiting one of America's most ravishing college campuses, a green Gothic strip where I would end up completing my graduate studies. Fresh air, the charm of the young and untried swimming nearby, one of the most awesome libraries machines and minds could ever erect, and a friendly welcome from the professors all settled my choice. One of those erudite gentlemen, himself a Russian émigré, was kind enough at the end of our chat to autograph one of his books as a parting gift. Since we shared an unabashed admiration for the book's subject, this was as fine a token of goodwill as could possibly be expected between two people who had been verbal strangers only twenty minutes before. I read most of the book in one sitting, filed it away as I almost always do for reevaluation, then swallowed the rest in small chunks during my coursework. The tome and scholar need not be mentioned here; anonymity is one of the blessings of non-conformist genius. But his theory was groundbreaking, original, and meticulous, and is perhaps best buttressed by the motifs in this sensational work of art.

Our narrator is a nameless and perhaps typical Frenchman (one who prefers "the grape to the grain"), with an atypically magnificent command of written English and a literature professorship in 1950s New England. Not ours to worry, in any case, since in more than one way he will only serve as a conduit for the descriptions and jeremiads of others. He begins his eerie tale by observing, with the cautious glee of someone who has lived his life for art's thrills, "a family of icicles" drip down the ultimate gables of a roof and defiantly into the setting sun. After staring at a multicolored windshield's reflection, he is nearly run over by an almost as anonymous acquaintance and fellow academic, D. D. immediately informs him that Cynthia Vane, a painter and the elder of two somewhat flighty sisters known all too well to our professors, has died of a weak heart. The news is as shocking to us as it is to the narrator because no one called Cynthia Vane should ever really be dead. 

In time we learn the links. D. slept with and discarded that other sister, Sybil (a borrowing from this work), to whom our narrator once administered a disastrous French exam that concluded with Sybil's quite finite jest: "Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than life without D." The next morning she is no longer among the quick, her own hand blamed by her own handwriting. Four or five months later, the narrator consoles the sister with the warmth of all his hairy strength and discovers to his mild chagrin and amusement that our survivor believes she is puppeteered by specters. He initially imputes this to a heterodox form of Puritan fatalism, underpinned as it simply must be by charlatan chums and astrological calculations. And yet (igniting a domino-like trend) he turns out to be wrong:

For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months or years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded. The influence might be good or bad; the main thing was that its source could be identified. It was like walking through a person's soul, she said. I tried to argue that she might not always be able to determine the exact source since not everybody has a recognizable soul; that there are anonymous letters and Christmas presents which anybody might send; that, in fact, what Cynthia called 'a usual day' might be itself a weak solution of mixed auras or simply the routine shift of a humdrum guardian angel. 

Amidst these phantoms Sybil's personality "had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus" – what one might reasonably expect given the age and method of her extinction. Actually, "extinction" is most definitely not the right word. Their affair drags on, as all affairs of physical convenience do, well past any semblance of affection or mutual understanding (one is reminded of that old, women's monthly adage that every failed relationship devotes its latter half to dysfunction). One especially fateful night collects the narrator, Cynthia, and a gaggle of "sociable weekend revelers" into a single bourgeois home for what would pass to most people for amusement, but can only horrify someone who finds society at large, well, repellent. Does this antipathy explain the added antipathy to the shaded powers of the afterlife? Or is our narrator simply an overeducated snob toying with a fragile, frowzy woman who probably enjoys this lack of control when confronted with the tools of adult pleasure? Our narrator mulls these and other oddities, but does not land at the conclusion we think these oddities might deserve.   

You may strum your fingers or race to your shelves, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better short story in this century or any other. Nabokov's genius resides in his ability to take forceful, almost unnecessarily subjective opinions and coax therefrom a choir of paradise. With the possible exception of this incomparable man of letters, no other writer has possessed this talent to such a degree. The ending, so famous and yet so unprecedented in serious prose, brought Nabokov his first accolades as an inventor, a fact that would be painfully obvious to those of us who do not suffer gimmicks fondly. Cynthia does not, however, see matters that way. And since we and the narrator seem to like a few things about Cynthia, we can, should, and must be sympathetic; it is the only way we know how to relate to lesser beings. So when we coddle her with kindness and platitudes ("These rather tasteless trivialities pleased Cynthia hugely as she rose, with gasps, above the heaving surface of her grief," one of the most exquisite sentences ever composed) – the two are so coterminous at times we can almost claim they come naturally – we are doing the right thing. Her sister is dead, after all. We can also aver that icicles and parking meters will never feel quite the same again, nor will the sounds of those things that go bump in the night. You know, those things.