Tag Archives: russia

Sun and Stone

To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (40)


I regret my occasional tendency toward a penurious sympathy. While I am deeply empathetic to the underdog, I have been known to scoff or display ungenerous feelings of exasperated chagrin when reading page after page of the wonders of other people’s good fortune.   As I began Speak, Memory I was afraid I might come down with a severe case of exasperated chagrin. Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I didn’t want to disturb my love.  I was not at all sure I was in the mood to go along side the memories of a man who had an idyllically over-privileged aristocratic Russian youth and turned out to be a literary genius to boot – a gluttony of riches I pity myself never to have known.

And yet, this tremendous autobiography won me over in every way: content, form, and fancy all come together to tell a biography of an amazing life in an extraordinary time.

In choosing our tutors, my father seems to have hit upon the ingenious idea of engaging each time a representative of another class or race, so as to expose us to all the winds that swept over the Russian Empire. (153)

Nabokov begins the story with a natural focus on his mother, and she sounds wonderful, (the opening quote at top describes her creed) but it was in his loving and amused description of his various tutors and studies that I really became transfixed by the unique world of early 1900 Russia- to say nothing of his fascinating lepidopterology or esteemed father. By the time we come to his family’s exile, the simplicity and true profundity by which, through him, we have come to experience a slice of the vast beautiful curiosity and complexity that is Russia is fully realized in his regardant prose.

Nabokov is at once self-deprecating while at the same time scathingly opinionated. But what comes through most beautifully is his tenderness. Well into the book, if I am not mistaken in the chapter concerning his brother, whom he has painfully little to say (by his own admission) he suddenly addresses the reader- and it is you. You (Vera).

When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. (297)

He is telling the story to his wife. At each “you,” a stab of affection ran through my heart. With a delicious casualness reminiscent of Ada, or Ardor’s Van we know she is the meaning and purpose of this book, and his life. He never describes her, their meeting, or how they came to love each other, she is simply the one – you. By the end of the story the intimacy of his referring to her is completely out in the open. It is lovely.

Here is a man to whom everything good was given, a lot of which was taken away, and yet all that is good, worthwhile and true- all the love, remains.

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (139)*
*Here he is explaining his passion for lepidopterology – the study of butterflies.


Expertise and its Exposé

Margarita recognized him immediately, she let out a moan, clasped her hands and ran to him. She kissed his forehead, his lips, pressed her face against his prickly cheek, and long pent-up tears streamed freely down her face. She uttered only one word, senselessly repeating it over and over, “You…you…you…”
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (243)


One of the many wonderful jokes in the book The Master and Margarita is the Devil’s inability to impress the good people of Moscow circa 1930 of his unsavory powers, poor Dear. Time and again he is assumed to be a German or an agent of some frightening official governmental agency- and really, what could be worse?

“Well,” the latter said pensively, “they are like people anywhere. They love money, but that has always been true…People love money, no matter what it is made of, leather, paper , bronze, or gold. And they are thoughtless…but, then again, sometimes mercy enters their hearts…they are ordinary people…On the whole, they remind me of their predecessors…only the housing shortage has had a bad effect on them.” (104)

Just so- as only a housing shortage can. I sympathize. In this reworking of Faust and Pontius Pilate, Bulgakov combines life’s most ordinary details with the theater of mystery. The eponymous Master and Margarita do not even enter the novel until about one hundred pages in, it’s the Devil’s work apparently to earn the respect of the already fearful, weary denizens of Russia and establish oneself as the cynosure. But, Satan, although necessary, never was the center and finally the heart of the story unfolds:

“Just like a murderer jumps out of nowhere in an alley, love jumped out in front of us and struck us both at once! The way lightening strikes, or a Finnish knife! She, by the way, would later say that it wasn’t like that, that we had, of course, loved each other for a very long time, without knowing or even having seen each other, and that she was living with another man…and I was then…with that…what’s her name…” (116)

A Finnish knife, I love that. The Devil is a magician and a consultant, a fair dealer that understands compassion, not to mention what is perhaps particularly devastating to human beings: when Margarita helps host Satan’s ball she is given the most sage advice:

And another thing: don’t ignore anyone! Give a little smile if you don’t have time for a word. Even the tiniest nod of your head will do. Anything you wish, but not indifference. That causes them to wither…” (224)

Bulgakov invariably speaks in code, leaving hints and tidbits throughout the novel to exact revenge, or poke fun at individuals, groups and even certain apartment buildings. Musical, literary and religious references abound, every number, name, and event is significant and adds to the fun of reading the book.

As it turns out we are, most of us, alike. Not even the Devil’s minions are immune to life’s humiliations- Trying to get seated at a restaurant frequented by writers, even they cannot escape the double whammy of bureaucratic harassment and artistic limitations:

“Are you writers?” asked the woman in turn.
“Of course we are,” replied Korovyov with dignity.
“May I see your ID’s” repeated the woman.
“My charming creature…” began Korovyoy, tenderly.
“I am not a charming creature,” interrupted the woman.
“Oh what a pity[…]But here is my point, in order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for ID? Just look at any five pages of any of his novels, and you will surely know, even without ID, that you are dealing with a writer[…]”
“You are not Dostoevsky.”

No, but Bulgakov understands and wants to say that the possibility exists, and the way is through mercy. In his novel, that is an area of agreement between both Satan and Jesus. Compassion is the key to art, to peace, and to life.

“Follow me, reader! Who ever told you there is no such thing in the world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and only me, and I’ll show you that kind of love!”

If we are going to be followers, we might as well follow the love.

*Title from page 100-101, The Devil (as the magician Mr. Woland) is introduced onto the stage- “And so, since we all applaud both expertise and its exposé, let us welcome Mr. Woland!”

*Thanks to the wonderfully named tumblr blog wordskillunltd for the recommendation.

How do you say…

“That sounds like hell. Like…damnation. Waiting. After your one chance has gone by.” 
The Translator -John Crowley


The Translator by John Crowley is a beautiful story about – love. A Russian poet/professor and young American student have a deep, quiet, sort of an affair. The clarity of their love is contrasted with the complexity of actually living the love in a world on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis and modern-world madness. The poet, Innokenti, asks her to help him translate his poetry into English:

“She thought, long after, that she had not then ever explored a lover’s body, learned its folds and articulations, muscle under skin, bone under muscle, but this was really most like that: this slow probing and working in his language, taking it in or taking hold of it, his words, his life, in her heart, in her mouth too.”

That passage is so wonderful: all at once Crowley connects the sensual beauty of communication in words, spirit and body.

At the very start of the book, the now adult protagonist, Kit, travels to glasnost Russia, having to defend/explain the quasi-secret relationship and man that she’s not sure she understood; she tells the story of her younger self. Kit’s initial defensive feeling highlights the judgments and secrets absorbed by the younger Kit. Consequently there is a profound yet subtle commentary throughout the story that exposes our constant need to justify and often hide ourselves. Afraid to be ambitious for our hearts, the horror is that all too often we pre-empt the process by talking ourselves out of our desires- we simply swallow our pain. Repression is our prison.

“She had let him say these things, she had let him put her out and had said nothing.”

Life is relentlessly complicated and love gets tangled up and smothered along the way. But through the telling she begins to understand him better. The fears we all face are terrifying, and sometimes, just knowing that someone loves you, just knowing that you love with an endless depth- is, for a few moments, everything. “Through him she had recovered a way to speak…” In this story words are powerful, perhaps world changing, still, I felt Kit’s wound: left open.

“There was a time when she refused to sleep, afraid that in the anti world it would come again, the huge hollow that opened in the world, or in her heart.”

I was fortunate enough to make Prof. Crowley’s acquaintance during the Yale Writer’s Conference that I attended. A lovely man, although not my teacher for the conference, he generously spent time with many of the participants. After an engaging discussion with him I ask, based on our conversation of (what else?) books,  which one of his I should read (he has written many). This was his suggestion, and I turn the suggestion, now a recommendation, around to all of you…

Oh Say Can You Sing?

“Please rise for our National Anthem,” the loudspeaker announced quieting the packed gymnasium. It’s not my favorite tune but I’m always up for a song. The music commenced and I began to sing along. “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” I paused for a moment to confirm my suspicion that I was the only one singing. Yep, just me. Oh, what the hell I thought, I’m already making a fool of myself, might as well go all in. My daughter and sons turned to look at me: my sanity always a question in their minds, I think. But come on,  can one really be expected to ignore a voiceless musical score blaring over the loudspeaker: it was a karaoke Siren’s call to me.
I will tell you, I like the idea of anthems: a song to release deep feelings. I guess I’m not so moved by the concept of nationalism, but certainly other emotions within me respond to music.
Naturally I wouldn’t announce this to a crowded high school gym full of basketball fans, but as far as national anthems go I actually prefer the Russian: Gosudarstivenniy Gimn SSSR. It is stirring, really builds up a patriotic fervor which rather seems the point, no?  The song was originally called Anthem of the Bolshevic Party,  it was decided it was an uncomfortable reminder of Stalin, he was specifically named  in a verse, so it was played lyric-less from the the 70’s until they changed it altogether in the 90’s to a bland wordless anthem conspicuously called Patriotic Song, then in 2000 they wisely reinstated the old tune with new words written by the same writer as the original: Sergey Mikhalkov, much to my pleasure.
Our anthem on the other hand, is tricky; the words muddle easily and it is all over the place making it difficult for the average jingoist to join in. Never the less, as I had already committed my voice out loud, I sang on; I’d just get through home of the brave and land of the free and then my hot face and I could sink onto the bleacher back into anonymity.
Here is my last helpful hint of 2011, If you are ever in this situation I can tell you that most people, when confronted with your awkward situation, will simply ignore you.
Live and let live, baby.