Tag Archives: Russian literature

Violations of Light

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“…Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl; this is perfection; but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see—the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they’re slightly rounder, and what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” — The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), p 34

When I read a book I always mark it up: turning up the bottom corners of pages that have a word, line, or passage I love and then sometimes putting a mark in pencil alongside the words so that I don’t have a what the hell did I find so interesting about this page?! moment when I go back to it. Some books I read have many such markings, but some get none. It doesn’t always mean I didn’t like the book if I don’t mark it up, only that there were particular concise arrangements of words that struck me hard as either funny, moving, philosophical, or all of the above that I will want to return to some day. My copy of The Idiot does not have many upturned pages and only one that is marked. That is the above passage.

As I go back over the book to think through my impression of it, I wonder at the general lack of upturned corners. As well, considering the rather somber message of the story, I also note the seeming randomness and levity of the one quote I marked. I know why I marked it, I take a particular interest in the topic…but, also, upon further reflection, I found I enjoyed stretching the metaphor out a bit. In a way, the quote is wonderful because it nearly says everything about the book at once—and, truly, who can resist a paean to scripts? Surely not me.

Reading The Idiot was often like watching a film at one and a half speed that went something like this—a group of people crowd into a room, much passionate talk ensues, the group all depart at once, stumbling out into the hall or street and then it happens all over again for more or less 600 pages. It’s all very amusing on that level. Crazy people all hot and bothered over all their crazy concerns. These personalities are the flourishes and the flourishing abounds. Unreserved, unrestrained, unadulterated flourishing, in their own hand. It can be a mess. I read in some analysis of the story (I can’t remember where now) that the plot was not in fact plotted—Dostoevsky let the story unwind by itself. It did feel that way.

But, like nearly everyone else in the novel, my heart was moved by the dear Prince. Lovely light of a man. He tries ever so hard to find the right proportion. In his way he tries to avoid flourishes, but people read them in anyway. The articulation of that very human condition, in which one thinks one is saying something in the plainest way possible but in which one is instead heard to be meaning something else is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel. We are all taken, most all of the time, to be thought of as manipulating our text, as it were. There is no tolerance for innocence. Bad motives are the only possible explanation. I have taken to sometimes prefacing a question by saying, “this is simply a question, I mean nothing other by it than to ask the actual question…” just to make sure the flourishes of someone else’s life doesn’t spill over and warp a simple point of clarification on my part.

This seems more prevalent today than ever, although Dostoevsky obviously exposes the lie of what something feels compared to what something is. Clearly if he is writing on the subject 100 years before my birth, then what I feel is not necessarily what is so. Perhaps we can say that it’s amplified today—what is social media if not a mega-soapbox of the professionally aggrieved and willfully offended? No question is innocent, everyone is a troll, and it goes without saying that everyone’s motives are evil.

The Idiot has no answer to this dilemma.

You acknowledge that society is savage and inhuman because it disgraces a seduced girl. But if you acknowledge that society is inhuman, it means you acknowledge that this girl has been hurt by this society. But if she’s hurt, why, then, do you yourselves bring her out in front of that same society in your newspapers and demand that it not hurt her? Mad! Vainglorious! p 285

It’s only the tragedy and hypocrisy of it all that can be expressed. We all bring our own flourishes when we endeavor to communicate with others, but they are dangerous things, and the meaning or intent can get lost when we imprint our own neurotic or damaged histories. Maybe, if we could agree that it is right to take care in how we talk to and treat others on a personal and societal level—and how we respond to others, that is to say, tastefully—without leaving a bad taste—we might begin to have something beautiful, something one could fall in love with.

 

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Harmony and Melody

Where was he from? And where should he go, and did he have to go any farther? And what was life, this pulse, this breathing, this waiting, what was this ecstasy, this grief, this war? He was so weak, but he had a powerful harmony in his heart, a melody in his head” (25) – Nina Berberova, The Resurrection of Mozart.

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The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories by Nina Berberova is exhibit A in my perpetual side note defense of libraries. Her books happen to lay on the shelf above the Bulgakov I had sought out. In all honesty it was another title of hers that first caught my eye, The Book of Happiness. I can’t quite say why I chose this one instead…perhaps it stems from my status as an unbeliever, but now that I have read her stories I feel confident that she and I have some congress. Still, one must roam. One must have the opportunity to bump into books. We are all far too limited, left to our own insular and circular devices. What will become of fate?

“I don’t smoke and I don’t philosophize,” said Astashev (125, Astashev in Paris)

Fine with the smoking but, As Mallarmé wrote, let’s think it over…Berberova’s character’s are a hurting shell shocked bunch, their lives are one blow after another – philosophy is hardly possible in a state of shock, and difficult in a state of poverty, but seems, to me, essential. In these stories, as cynical and inured to fate a person may seem, there is no end to the stupefaction of the dischord. I think we all know it’s not suppose to be like this.

But I wasn’t going to hug her anymore, and I wasn’t going to cry with her. That night I had hardened, and I even experienced a certain satisfaction from feeling harder (177, The Tattered Cloak).

Written in the 30’s and 40’s Berberova’s stories are primarily about Russian emigres in Paris. The one-two whammy of the world wars is described with a cool distance: a disjointed, moorless, disconnect. It is heart wrenching- the true result of war – death: for the dead and living alike. I already would have taken some convincing to believe that anyone could raise the bar for the  Russian Department of Despair- given their exposure, but holy smokes, Nina!

I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you, dear sir, who denied the role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took a skeptical view of vaccinations? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just have a look at the results” (6, The Resurrection of Mozart).

I will confess that I would have most likely put this book aside had I been without another (I have a high tolerance for pain, but I am truly on a campaign to change my errant ways, I swear). There was a glimmer in Astashev in Paris, but that was, apparently,  just my relentless seemingly innate groping hope rearing its head. Needless to say, Berberova slapped that bitch down.

“You’ve got a lot to learn, Zhenechka. I suggest you start taking instruction from me” (141, Astashev in Paris).

I really wanted this one to end well….I think that is the point – isn’t it all suppose to end well? How does it happen that it doesn’t? There is something un-credible about the human ability to manufacture its own pain and suffering so relentlessly.  No child would believe it. Some call it innocence, but I feel there is that bud of love in our cores that wants to grow, must grow, and the perversity of a world which stunts that urge is appalling and unbelievable.

She had everything I hold dear in this solar system, all the rest was Neptune and Pluto (271, The Black Spot).

It was Berberova’s story The Black Spot that will stay with me always. By the time I got to it, I was fully Russian in spirit if not actuality. Far away, almost like a dream, the narrator’s voice called…yes, she said: this is the story, this is reality, but… but I tell the tale for a reason, I give you, Reader, these dead hearts so that you will know there is another way. As bleak as it is, as crushing as poverty and the stupidity of war is, we all want the same thing. Yes. We do. Fate will write the score, but we are not wrong to expect harmony and melody from each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Regular Vaurien

He was at that stage of irritability in which even reserved people say more than they ought. – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Eternal Husband (365)

IMG_2072Dostoevsky is, in my opinion, a beautiful specialist of the crisis of the conscious. I was led to The Eternal Husband by my literary soul mate, who described it as the perfect story. How could I resist?

And something seemed faintly stirring in his memory, like some familiar but momentarily forgotten word, which one tries with all one’s might to recall; one knows it very well and knows that one knows it; one knows exactly what it means, one is close upon it and yet it refuses to be remembered, in spite of one’s efforts (354). 

I think it is the subtle but steady narrative voice of Dostoevsky that I fall for. José Saramago has a similar effect on me. It is the narrator’s observations and framing that one hears, and enjoys. The human ridiculousness is plainly and sympathetically articulated to you, Dear Confidant. The cat and mouse games that people engage in, tenderly and urgently described.

No sort of fact could have made her recognize her own depravity. “Most likely she genuinely does not know it,” Velchanikov thought about her even before he left T–. (We may remark, by the way, that he was the accomplice of her depravity.) (371).

We may indeed – you and I, Fyodor. Reminiscent of the brilliant scenes between Raskolnikov and Petrovich in Crime and Punishment, in The Eternal Husband, the contest is between Velchaninov and Pavlovitch – whose wife was Velchaninov’s former lover (an unkind woman, we may as well remark). Upon her death, Pavlovitch, being ‘the eternal husband,’ is lost without his role in life. Broken and disheveled, (not to mention blotto) he shows up at Velchaninov’s door one late night. But with what motive? What knowledge of his wife’s transgressions…who knew what when, indeed. Let the twisted  Tango begin!

“I must have that man!” he decided finally. “I must solve the riddle of that man, and then make up my mind. It’s–a duel!” (389)

No silly man, it’s a dance, only you’re not the lead, and your toes can’t find the dance floor. But it’s cheek to cheek: the story is tightly told with the precise choreography of a psychological drama.

The visitor chanted his phrases as though to music, but all the while that he was holding forth he looked at the floor, though, no doubt, all the time he saw everything. But Velchaninov had by now regained his composure (363).

‘The eternal husband’ is a grotesque thing, as any person who lives a role rather than a life must be. But it is the unyielding humanity of Dostoevsky’s voice that makes one fall in with the protagonist, Velchaninov, not in spite of  his imperfections, but because of them. His struggle to make sense of his part, as the spurned lover, without revealing it to the eternal husband, is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and harrowing.

Here is where I would place the final quote. The final line of this short novel. But, I can’t bring myself to do it on the off chance you have not read this story. I will not ruin the charm, the profound flippancy. It’s just life, the narrator seems to say – what you decide and what decides you. Ah!

* title from pg. 365. ‘Vaurien’ is a French term for a good-for-nothing.

*The Short Novels of Dostoevsky, Dial Press 1945 edition, translator uncredited.

 

 

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Pears and Proletariats

‘What are you laughing for, Professor?’
‘What do you mean – laughing? I’m in absolute despair,’ shouted Philip Philipovich. ‘What’s going to become of the central heating now?’
‘Are you making fun of us, Professor Preobrazhensky?’ 

– Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (28)

IMG_1271I am reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. It’s the sort of book that sets my mind in fits and starts of questions and quagmires. Augustine’s subject is approached with such confident absolutism, that I begin to feel as though I have been thrown into some sort of alternate universe where everyone has agreed on a premise of possibly illogical terms.

‘You know how much work I did on the subject – an unbelievable amount. And now comes the crucial question – what for? So that one fine day a nice little dog could be transformed into a specimen of so-called humanity so revolting that he makes one’s hair stand on end.’ (108)

My first moment of pause came when Augustine lamented his theft of some pears from an orchard. He wrote, “there was no beauty in the pears I stole” hastily acknowledging that they were, of course, the beautiful creation of “you” – God (Penguin classics, 34). Nevertheless, they weren’t so hot as far as pears go. But that is not the point. The point is, he stole them just to steal them and he is a sinner.

Dog laughed, causing maid Zina to faint. Later pronounced the following 8 times in succession: ‘Nesseta-ciled’. […] The professor has deciphered the word ‘Nesseta-ciled’ by reversal: it is ‘delicatessen’…quite extraord…(61)

Now, hang on a minute, I said to myself. What does God have to do with ownership? Before we skip on down the lane of sin, can we stop a moment and ask why a “God given fruit” came to be “owned” by one over another in the first place? Good, bad, sin , God…who defines the terms?

You act just as if you were were on parade here,’  he said. ‘Put your napkin here, tie your tie there, “please”, ” thank you”, “excuse me” – why can’t you behave naturally? Honestly, you stuffed shirts act as if it was still the days of tsarism.’
‘What do you mean by “behave naturally”?’ (91)

Feeling depressed, I went to the library to get some lighter fare.  I spent some time searching for a book that had apparently gone missing and ended up with The Heart of a Dog, the Russian satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov set in the post revolution days of Moscow about a doctor who performs an operation switching out the pituitary gland of a (recently dead) human into a dog. A madcap, biting, and brisk tale in which the illogic of a dog’s move up in the world creates an absurdity of right question – why one man has seven rooms when others have just one….and wrong answer.

Doctor Bormenthal: ‘I shall personally throw Shvonder downstairs if he ever appears in Professor Preobrazhensky’s flat again.’
And Shvonder said: ‘Please enter that remark in the report.’
(128)

I told a friend that I was reading The Heart of a Dog as a sort of demented companion to Confessions. She said, “You know…Dog is God spelled backward…”

*The Heart of a Dog translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny
*Confessions translated from Latin by Garry Wills

**another Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

The Cure For Fancy

The spears of her eyelashes moved apart to let me in and…How can I describe what effect that ancient, absurd, and wonderful rite has upon me when her lips touch mine?  –  Yevgeny Zamyatin , We (142)

IMG_1012The 1921 novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a tale of dystopia as only a Russian reeling from the Russian Revolution could imagine. Set some thousand years into the future, the protagonist, D-503 is so earnestly committed to the United State, and to understanding and curing his irrepressible proclivity for imagination and love, that the effect is one of some serious dark humor- at least to my eyes.

A sharp physical pain in my heart. I remember my thought: “If non-physical causes produce physical pain, then it is clear that…”
I regret that I did not come to any conclusion. (133)

Told in the form of a diary, this story is particularly compelling for its focus on the impossible utopia of happiness and equality. The humor of the irony left dangling at the end of many of Zamyatin’s sentences is a difference of ardent belief and deadpan reality which seems to me a sort of Russian sensibility- a poetically negative equation. Zamyatin intelligently follows the road of fundamentalist idealism to its logical and terrifying conclusion.

Our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that. (162)

D-503 is so tormented by his “fancies,” he craves clarity “unclouded by the insanity of thoughts,” but there is such sweetness to his philosophical angst, I was deeply charmed. Of course that he equates his tortured mind with irrational numbers and the square root of minus one makes me love him all the more.

This irrational root grew into me as something strange, foreign, terrible; it tortured me; it could not be thought out. It could not be defeated because it was beyond reason. (37)

I have noticed this mathematical problem as a reoccurring vexation for literary characters, but it is one that I very much appreciate. Not least of all because, for me, the beauty of math is its elegant logic, its perfect fit. Unknowns are uncomfortable.

Our hearts are nothing more than an ideal pump: a compression, i.e. a shrinking at the moment of pumping, is a technical absurdity. Hence it is clear how essentially absurd, unnatural, and pathological are all these “loves” and “pities,” etc., etc., which create that compression…(159)

A technical absurdity. And yet, and yet…why do we associate our hearts with love- because that is what hurts, that is what is broken when love is lost. And yet, Love too can be a perfect fit; and even if, as D-503 figures, L = f(D) [ love is the function of death] it cannot be suppressed, crazy as it is: “Yes, yes precisely. All must become insane; we must become insane as soon as possible! We must: I know it.” (147) We are human, and to take away our capacity for love or pain is to take away our very souls, flawed as they are. Nevertheless, to fall in love is an astonishing thing, and poor D-503, bless his number,  is simply flummoxed and quashed.

He longed for the day when someone would tell him what happiness is, and then would chain him to it. (200)

Our hearts, are the eyes into our souls. And Love, with all of its messy absurdity, is the only thing that reaches into the divinity of our shared infinity.

But, dear reader, you must think, at least a little. It helps. (11)

* translated by Gregory Zilboorg

**Thank you to catherinewillis.tumblr.com for the wonderful recommendation

Feeling Glaucous

He is surging up from under my pen.
Vladimir Nabokov, Spring in Fialta (298)

IMG_0031The sea, its salt drowned in a solution of rain, is less glaucous than grey with waves too sluggish to break into foam. (289)

Glaucous. It was Vladimir Nabokov’s short story Spring in Fialta that made me look it up. Some people prickle when the more obscure words of our language are put to the use they were meant for. But not me. I love my dictionaries and especially, with a mother’s love of the neglected, the recondite words within. Specific words can have complex personal histories of epic proportions to the user or writer: a life that looms like a long shadow behind the letters which readers can never fully make out. Still,  the secret life of the writer’s words breathe and color the sentences. I experience words in a very visceral and visual way. I don’t have synesthesia, as Nabovov did, but I do understand the personal connection.

…but with every new book the tints grew still more dense (299)

However,  glaucous is a problem child. The definition says it is blue-grey. Ah, but it also says it is yellow-green. That is a obfuscation that I can not quite forgive. In the story Nabokov surely intends it to mean blue-grey- his sea is more grey, but the mood is clearly blue. A woman, Nina, comes in and out of Victor’s life, casting a glaucous glaze of love and longing over his life, his story.

And moreover was she not chained to her husband by something stronger than love – the staunch friendship between two convicts? (306)

Nabokov uses color to illustrate what is a story of a story. The way that our remembrances take on a remote quality of literature within our own minds is fascinating: the fugue of color and book beautifully describing memory’s form.

Inspired, I perused (another problem child having -in many dictionaries- duel opposing meanings, in this case I mean skittered through- which is of course the meaning sometimes rejected, but I always root for the underdog) Color: A Natural History by Victoria Finlay. It was fun poking around the history of how the colors we use were and are procured. They all have their own tales of intrigue, blood or murder. I can’t look at my freshly painted red nails now without conjuring up the image of  bloody cochineal beetles farmed from the cactus prickly pear to make true carmine red. The mythical cow piss and mango makings of orange, and the horrors of slow death by (lead) white paint all linger in the technicolor images of my mind.

Each of the side-pillars [of the door] is fluffily fringed with white, which rather spoils the lines of what might have been a perfect ex-libris for the book of our two lives. (292)

The Spring of Fialta is a chromatic tale that comes together into a epiphany of white light at the end: the full spectrum moment of clarity in which the admission of unrequited love is made. The “scarlet woman” of his affection has the same problem many pigments throughout history have had- they never “fix.” They fade, or worse turn into completely different colors- white or green turns black, reds become drab browns. The color of love may be unknown or different in each heart, but surely it is color fast?

She kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning (291)

Of course, as Finley tells us, the word scarlet didn’t originally mean the color red. It was rather the cloth itself. A scarlet woman is a woman of the cloth. Oh that’s funny. I love words.

*The Spring of Fialta from The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories edited by David Richards

Not So Muted Mirth

“It’s nothing but a kind of microcosmos of communism – all that psychiatry,” rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (52)

IMG_0288One of the most delightful aspects of this blog is when someone comments that they are excited to read a book or author that I have written about. A rare, but delightful joy. The other morning I was collecting some of the essays that I have written, about the books of one of my favorite authors- Vladimir Nabokov. By the time I was done re-reading and repairing them, as much as I could, for a critical viewing, I was overtaken with desire for more Nabokov. I controlled myself long enough to take a shower but then practically ran out of the house with a towel turban still on my head in my febrile haste to the library.

Once the book was in hand, I had a moment’s calm to reflect, and I was struck with the realization that I was that person! I had influenced someone to run in a dead heat to the library to read something! I was quite pleased with myself. Right up until the moment that dawned – I was that person. Oh. That’s pretty pathetic, Jessica. Might even have to remove the qualifier from that sentence- nothing pretty about it, the narrator in my head added.

Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you an anarchist?’ I answer ” -time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth – (11)

Call me over sensitive, but the narrator of Pnin hovered around charity, sometimes dipping a finger into condescension. I found myself talking to him, “Narrator, be nice. Poor Pnin is trying, and his heart! He’s heartbroken. Do be kind.” Pnin is a Russian émigreé working in the world of academia. With a caustic charm, Nabokov gently skewers the ridiculous people that populate Pnin’s world: from his silly colleagues, truly awful ex-wife, to a hilariously serious conversation about the flawed chronology of Anna Karenina. It’s all wonderfully told.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading the bulk of this book in an examination room of a cardiologist with my client. Every now and then she’d look over at me, “It’s very funny,” I would offer. But her narrator was keeping her busy working her up into a fit of fury that exploded on the doctor’s head when he came in. She was too cold, had waited too long, and had come too far. Finally, the heart doctor made an intellectual decision to say, “I’m sorry.” She was not fooled. “That doesn’t help me AT ALL. You have wasted the time of this valuable person!” All eyes turned to me. Of all three people in the room to have the word “valuable” attached to…I smiled with wholesome disquiet at the floor, looked up to the doctor and gave him an I have no idea what she’s talking about look, but he was done with me before I got to I have n-. Meanwhile my narrator was in a paroxysm of giggles flopping about uncontrollably, mockingly holding up my paycheck- Oh shut up. I went back to my reading.

“Our friend,” answered Clements, “employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are ocacular. He calls my wife John.”  (165)

The narrator of Pnin does not fully insert himself into the story until very near the end, just to underline and dot the head-scratchingly odd awkwardness of Pnin. But it’s not, perhaps, Pnin that is entirely at fault, it’s what’s distorted and lost in translation. That’s a feeling we all understand: translating what we feel, into what we say and how we act, into how we are then perceived- it’s a wonder there are any forms of successful communication at all. Maybe there aren’t. We all just think we understand each other. Pnin’s narrator is at the ready, standing by to laugh under his breath, shake his head just a little, Oh you poor dear. You’ll be alright.

“So I take the opportunity to extend a cordial invitation to you to visit me this evening. Half past eight, postmeridian. A little house-heating soiree, nothing more. Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?”
( Oh, punster Pnin!)   (151)

Pnin is very endearing, but of course it’s the narrator that we fall in love with. He’s the voice in the head of the book, in a good mood, teasing without malice. I wish my narrator was in a good mood more often.

More reads by Nabokov, towel turban or not:

Avoid Vocatives: King, Queen and Knave
More Bleeding Stumps of Verse: The Gift
Sun and Stone: Speak, Memory