“But it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward...to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetim“But it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward...to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax….Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, refusal to change--which made it, in a way, a kind of courage...The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.” (p.171)
On the one hand (and this is a very large hand), I’m completely unable to relate to Dmitri Shostakovich, having never lived under the thumb of a repressive regime. Each time I would question his decisions or motives, I’d quickly remind myself that I haven’t the slightest clue of how I would have reacted were I in his position. The only thing I know for sure is that I bear him no envy.
Yet, thanks to Julian Barnes’s vivid and human portrayal, I ultimately felt deeply connected to the composer. The tension between pursuing one’s career and ambitions and devoting yourself to others; the neuroses; the fear of failure, of failing out of favor with the powers that be; the feeling that you’re doomed to cowardice. Man, I can relate, though again: Shostakovich was under far more pressure and stress than I will ever know. All the more reason for profound admiration.
These anxieties are still so prevalent, and Barnes knows it. This is why--along with the craft of his pen--The Noise of Time is such a moving text. So, push forward, embrace the irony and absurdity of it all, and remember that, in doing just this, you’re being courageous. ...more
A odd sort of book that makes for a wonderful read. The balance between wit and insight is impressive—I frequently found myself bowled over by how DyeA odd sort of book that makes for a wonderful read. The balance between wit and insight is impressive—I frequently found myself bowled over by how Dyer could start with, say, a humorous and mopey recounting of losing a beloved knapsack only to wind up in a fairly profound discussion of regret, loss, and mortality by the end of the same passage. Even when I might quibble with Dyer’s interpretation or handling of an aspect of Stalker, Zona, which starts as a kind of cheeky reaction to a film but blossoms into a dedicated and deeply personal work, is a very fitting and meaningful homage to what I, too, think is one of the great works of cinema....more
In trying to place this wonderful text on one of my Goodreads shelves, I was pleased to discover that it doesn't exactly fit anywhere (I settled for "In trying to place this wonderful text on one of my Goodreads shelves, I was pleased to discover that it doesn't exactly fit anywhere (I settled for "Russia" on geographical terms, but that's completely arbitrary). That's be cause A Dream in Polar Fog is kind of about everything--at least more so than most books I've read that have been given such a label.
On the surface, it's an engrossing travel tale about John MacLennan, a novice Canadian explorer that finds himself marooned amongst the Chukchi people of the Bering Sea after having lost his hands in an explosion. The narrative follows MacLennan's transformation from a stranger in a very unforgiving climate to a full fledged luoravetlan, the Chukchi term for a "proper person."
But A Dream in Polar Fog is not simply a story of personal metamorphosis, but one of an entire community's evolution. It's a meditation on our connection to our environment, no matter how forbidding. It's about the process of change. It's about learning to love a place and people that once seemed inhospitable. It's about understanding the ties that bind all of us together as well as embracing and preserving that which is truly unique within each person, each community.
Quite impressively, Rytkheu manages to fold all of the above themes into a tale that is engrossing and not the least bit pretentious or heavy handed. In other words, A Dream in Polar Fog is a very good book about a bit of everything....more
The title (taken from Anna Akhmatova’s christening of a group of her students) could’ve just as easily been *The Mystical Chorus.* Volkov persuasivelyThe title (taken from Anna Akhmatova’s christening of a group of her students) could’ve just as easily been *The Mystical Chorus.* Volkov persuasively shows the requisite religious fervor with which art has been pursued in Russia since Tolstoy--an issue that is reigns relevant, as Putin/Medvedev tighten their grip over current Russian culture and media.
For a State that was officially "sans religion," headed by a government that dealt with artists as violently as any persecuted religion (Andropov, the head of the KGB under Brezhnev and, later, General Secretary of the Communist Party in the early 80s, employed the terms “culture” and “ideology” synonymously), pursuing art in Soviet Russia was akin to practicing a forbidden religion or being a political dissident. As Louis Menand points out in his foreword to the NYRB's edition of *To the Finland Station,* history, too, took on a religion-like status in this supposedly (and violently) secular society: "[History:] was an idea indistinguishable from faith, and for many people Marx was its prophet." (p. xiii)
As seminal of a role as art plays in my life, it’s hard imagine the extent of the commitment an artist had to make in pursuing their work under the eyes of the KGB and the Soviet State. Volkov does a wonderful job illuminating innumerable artists’ struggles and the significance of their work, often exposing artists that never found their way into deserved recognition in the West.
Volkov’s knowledge of Russian culture is immense and personal, which makes for a rich study. He also avoids the trap of stale historiography by following the breadcrumb trail of themes, artists, and genres, rather than sticking to a chronological trajectory. This can feel a bit tangential and be hard to follow at times, but, as a whole, I preferred his style to a more “traditional” history narrative, as it often feels more like listening in on an impassioned conversation, rather than reading a historical text.
While essentially a gloss on what seems like every major and secondary artist in Russia since Tolstoy, I’m not sure that this is the place to start for readers that are just beginning their study of twentieth century Russian culture, as I sometimes had a hard time digesting the minutiae all the while keeping the “big picture” in mind, and I have studied a fair bit of Russian history and culture. That said, Volkov’s wit (kudos to Antonina Bouis, the translator, for conveying this), forceful opinions (biographical bits are often almost gossipy at times), and vast knowledge of the subject matter, make *The Magical Chorus* a wonderful read....more
My very favorite piece of Russian literature. I mean, come on! It has a vodka-drinking, cigar-smoking, poker-playing, havoc-wreaking cat for a main chMy very favorite piece of Russian literature. I mean, come on! It has a vodka-drinking, cigar-smoking, poker-playing, havoc-wreaking cat for a main character....more