When Fyodor Dostoyevsky returned from his exile in Siberia, he was careful to avoid writing anything that would upset the Tsarist censors. It was duriWhen Fyodor Dostoyevsky returned from his exile in Siberia, he was careful to avoid writing anything that would upset the Tsarist censors. It was during this period that he wrote Uncle's Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo -- both of them comedies about the feckless provincial nobility of Russia.
Of the two, Stepanchikovo is the better. It deals with a youthful nephw visiting his widowed uncle in the provinces. He arrives into a regular snake pit. His mother has moved in with him, along with a large group of toadies, the worst of which is Foma Fomich Opiskin, one of the author's more memorable characters.
It is as if Foma Fomich owned the estate. The mother and her toadies adore him. Many of the males, however, either despise him or at best tolerate him.
Just when we expect that Dostoyevsky would find some suitable fate for the sponger, he pulls a switch on us, the readers. The uncle is in love with the governess, Nastenka, and wishes to marry her. After one of his worst scenes, during which he leaves the household in a frightful electrical storm, he returns to give his blessing to the marriage and makes everyone happy, and also cementing his position in the household.
The Village of Stepanchikovo is not one of the author's better known works, but it definitely worth reading, and is rather fun throughout....more
Take a very talented and spirited poet, and place her in Moscow between the years 1917 and 1922. What you have is Marina Tsvetaeva is Earthly Signs: MTake a very talented and spirited poet, and place her in Moscow between the years 1917 and 1922. What you have is Marina Tsvetaeva is Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922. Although the people of Moscow during this period suffered from near famine (Marina's youngest daughter was placed in a state orphanage to guarantee she god fed, and she died there of starvation), Marina herself and her older daughter managed to hang on for dear life -- and even managed to live with a certain élan.
Although I have not read much of Tsvetaeva's poetry, her prose was so interesting that I am determined to find a good selection of her poetry as well.
This is easily one of the best diaries I have ever read, with a high literary quality throughout, not to mention an unquenchable spirit. ...more
This book of essays and journalistic sketches is one of the best sources of information on what life was like in the last days of the Empire and the fThis book of essays and journalistic sketches is one of the best sources of information on what life was like in the last days of the Empire and the first days after the 1917 Revolution. It is fortunate for us that Teffi, the pseudonym of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was able to make her escape from Russia before Stalin started his purges of everyone who remembered the old days.
Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi is a miscellany of personal, literary, and historical essays -- with a touch of fiction here and there. Probably best is the essay on Rasputin and the two essays of life in the early days of the October Revolution.
Teffi managed to live until 1952, so she also had to put up with the Nazis in Biarritz toward the end of her life.
Not a single one of her essays, from the most childish reminiscence to "The Gadarene Swine," about the panic of living in the early days after the Bolsheviks took power, is less than a small masterpiece. Anyone who can find funny things to say about Rasputin has reinforced concrete in her spine. ...more
Sometimes, especially with fantasy, it is best to use a lighter touch. Take Vladimir Sorokin's The Blizzard: A Novel could very well be set in the 19tSometimes, especially with fantasy, it is best to use a lighter touch. Take Vladimir Sorokin's The Blizzard: A Novel could very well be set in the 19th century except for a cellphone at one point and a mention that Stalin happened a long time ago.
The story has a dramatic start. Platon Ilich Garin is a physician traveling during a major blizzard with vaccinations against the Bolivian Black Plague, which has broken out in nearby Dolgoye. He needs horses to take him there (aren't there cars?) and finds the only local who can help him is Crouper, who has miniature horses and a special sled that could could get to Dolgoye.
Garin's journey is fraught with strange disasters and opportunities. He is seduced by the miller's wife at one overnight stop. (The miller himself is a midget no bigger than a doll.) We hear that there are in addition to miniature horses and people, giant horses and giant humans, over twenty feet tall. Then there are the Vitaminers (sort of like gypsies) who sell strange "products"in the form of spheres, cubes, and pyramids which, when heated, give the taker strange delusions. In Garin's case, he is being boiled slowly in oil.
Instead of being disappointed by his drug trip, Garin is exhilarated. (I mean, really, who wouldn't like to be slowly boiled in oil?) They continue on their trip until a final mishap occurs within a few miles from their goal.
This is the third Sorokin novel I have read (after Ice and Day of the Oprichnik). I find myself unable to put his books down. I always want to find out what's next. With Sorokin, whatever it is, it's bound to be strange. ...more
When one thinks of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one does not think of comedy; yet this, one of the first works that the author wrote when he was allowed once aWhen one thinks of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one does not think of comedy; yet this, one of the first works that the author wrote when he was allowed once again to publish after serving almost ten years in Siberia for belonging to a dissident group, the Petrashevsky Circle. During that time, many of his beliefs were either strengthened or otherwise changed, but he was afraid of publishing something that would arouse the suspicion of the censors, who were still keeping on eye on him.
The result was Uncle's Dream, set in a provincial city much like Semipalatinsk (now Semey in Kazakhstan), where he was serving with the Seventh Line Battalion awaiting his restoration to civil society.
Uncle was Prince K, a doddering and decrepit old fop who has come into money and who is paying a visit to the provinces. Maria Alexandrovna decides to try to marry off her beautiful young daughter Zenaida to him, but the whole town has had a snootful of her and tries to buck her plans at every turn. Still, she manages to come out in the end after a series of reverses. Not for nothing does Dostoyevsky compare her at the beginning to Napoleon.
As comedy, Uncle's Dream is surprisingly savage at times, but it's still good reading. I am surprised that it is not more frequently read with the great long novels of his later years. ...more
There was a ten-year gap in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's writing career. In 1849, he was arrested for suspicion of treason for belonging to the dissident PetrThere was a ten-year gap in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's writing career. In 1849, he was arrested for suspicion of treason for belonging to the dissident Petrashevsky Circle. Although he and his fellow co-conspirators were condemned to death, the firing squad was a charade; and the young writer was packed off to a forced labor camp in Siberia, at Omsk. There he served four years with criminals and other political prisoners.
After he had served his sentence, he was forced to serve in the army at Semipalatinsk, also in Siberia. During the whole time, he was forbidden to publish and he was still under surveillance by the Tsar's government.
Joseph Frank dedicates an entire volume to this period, which although fallow in a literary sense, marked a sea change in his feelings about Russia. Also, during this time, the cruel Nicholas I died. His heir, Alexander II, was committed to freeing the serfs, which was Dostoyevsky's main raison d'etre for risking joining the Petrashevsky Circle.
One would think that Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 would be relatively boring because the writer's only works during this time were the relatively unread Uncle's Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. While Frank has very little to discuss with Dostoyevsky's works, there was a lot happening in his life. For one thing, he got married in Semipalatinsk to his first wife, Marya Dimitrievna -- which turned into an unhappy marriage.
As I continue to read Frank's magisterial five-volume biography, I also intend to read most of Dostoyevsky's fiction around the same time. ...more
I had not read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment for decades. Despite all the intervening time, I was shocked to find that it acted one me theI had not read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment for decades. Despite all the intervening time, I was shocked to find that it acted one me the same way as it did when I was a young man, who had just emerged from the Siberia of more than ten years of a brain tumor and excruciating headaches. The last hundred pages, I read in a rush -- the same way I did back then.
The young intellectual Rodion Raskolnikov commits a grisly axe murder of a grasping old pawnbroker woman and her innocent sister. He spends most of the novel in a kind of fever, torn between his actions, the demands of his family and friends, and the law.
It is a novel that could have gone anywhere. Up to the very end, Svidrigailov offers him passage to America -- but Svidrigailov was a man no one could wholly trust, although he was capable of generosity intermixed with his despair. The prosecutor Porfiry Petrovich plays with Raskolnikov and only deepens his indecision.
In the end, it was the young prostitute Sonia Marmeladov who makes Raskolnikov want to confess his crime to her. And his acquaintance with her was the fruit of his own act of kindness providing the moneys to bury her father, who is run down in the streets of St. Petersburg.
Why is Crime and Punishment such a great novel? The crime is dispensed with early in the story; and punishment is not really a factor in Raskolnikov's decision. Ultimately, he had to decide in a relatively short time what kind of person he really wanted to be, irrespective of the forces drawing him in different directions. He does so in the most convincing way possible. ...more
This is both a wondrous and a grim book. It consists primarily of interviews with Ukrainians and Belarussians who were involved in the Chernobyl meltdThis is both a wondrous and a grim book. It consists primarily of interviews with Ukrainians and Belarussians who were involved in the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986 and its horrifying aftermath -- which is still going on.
She does not claim to be a journalist, although everyone calls her one, because she has been known to edit her oral histories from one edition to the next. No matter, what she might lose as a historian, she gains as an imaginative writer. And most of the testimonies are not only accurate, but horrifying. This is especially true of the descriptions of the decline and death of the so-called "liquidators," the military men who were ordered under threat of courtmartial to clean the roof of the reactor building after the meltdown.
Although the military forcibly evacuated an unspecified number of towns and villages, many of the residents sneaked back in, only to find their property broken into, vandalized, and robbed.
There are parts of the book for which readers will need a strong stomach. Both soldiers and civilians suffered from radiation equivalent to some 300 Hiroshima bombs. ...more
I am a great fan of Andrey Kurkov's mystery novels set in the Ukraine, most notably Death of a Penguin and Penguin Lost -- both of which feature a cutI am a great fan of Andrey Kurkov's mystery novels set in the Ukraine, most notably Death of a Penguin and Penguin Lost -- both of which feature a cute penguin named Mischa.
Ukraine Diaries is a day by day diary of the events in Ukraine beginning with the protests at the Maidan late in 2013 and continuing on to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the fomenting of violence by the Russian security agencies in the mostly Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, a.k.a. Donbas Region.
What characterizes this book is the same dark humor to be found in the author's mysteries. Toward the end, he says "there's an old Ukrainian proverb that I often hear: 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.'"
On another occasion, he writes:
There are too many different groups, incapable of getting along; some revolutionaries are demanding a free apartment, others aproof of residence, and yet others help in finding a steady job in Kiev. They took Kiev, didn't they? They got rid of [ex-President] Yanukovych. Now they want to be rewarded. But isn't a normal country, freed from corruption, the greatest prize any normal citizen could ask for?
It is easy to be sardonic when your adopted country (Kurkov was born in Russia) is controlled by thugs and looters, and Karkov was sardonic enough to be in danger during the revolt.
Ukraine Diaries is well worth reading for a day by day picture of a revolution that, one supposes, is still going on. Putin is like a Gila Monster that, once he bites into your skin, just keeps chewing until all the toxin is worked in.
The Gayev family seems to represent a level of fecklessness that is hard to believe. Their entire lives have been involved in the business of lettingThe Gayev family seems to represent a level of fecklessness that is hard to believe. Their entire lives have been involved in the business of letting money run through their hands until there is none left. And now it is the turn of their estate with its famous cherry orchard to be sold at auction and for the family to dissipate to the four winds.
Anton Chekhov has in his plays, particularly in The Cherry Orchard, concentrated on the sad case of the incompetent landed gentry gone to seed. Gayev himself is unable to talk without lining up a billiard shot in his head. His sister doesn't know whether to give a beggar a copper or a gold sovereign. Their daughter would like to get married, but nobody asks her. And there are the usual hangers-on who serve only to emphasize the damage being done.
Only Yermolay Lopakhin, the local tycoon, seems to know what to do; but he feels as helpless as the Gayevs, and leaves the possibility of marrying Gayev's daughter Varya by the wayside. Very sad.
The tile refers to the zinc coffins in which the dead from the Soviet war in Afghanistan were returned to their families. There was usually no initialThe tile refers to the zinc coffins in which the dead from the Soviet war in Afghanistan were returned to their families. There was usually no initial contact: A military contingent would show up at the parents' or widow's door with a zinc coffin.
Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her unique style of letting people speak for themselves. These included soldiers and civilians returned from the war, mothers, and widows.
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War is not an easy book to read. The suffering, both from participants in the carnage and their loved ones left behind at home, is so extreme that I wonder if our troops have had similar experiences in the fifteen years we spent trying to keep Afghanistan free of the same mujaheddin that the Russians fought (and that we armed).
One veteran writes:
When you get home for demob[ilization] you have to report to the local recruiting office. A coffin was brought in while I was there—our 1st lieutenant, by sheer chance. "He died in the execution of his international duty," I read on the little brass plate, and remembered how he used to stumble along the corridor, blind drunk, and smash the sentry's jaw in. It happened regularly once a week. If you didn't keep out of the way you'd end up spitting your teeth out. There's not much humanity in a human being—that's what war taught me. If a man's hungry, or ill, he'll be cruel—and that's just about all humanity amounts to.
Again and again, Alexievich's sources impart to the author the lessons they learned in what they saw as a hell on earth.
As difficult a book as this is with its assaults on the emotions, it is a useful reminder that war has very little to do with patriotism or heroism or duty: It's all about survival in hell, when and if possible. ...more
This is a strange sort of novel, written by one who never lived to see it published, but withal one of the greatest works produced during the Soviet eThis is a strange sort of novel, written by one who never lived to see it published, but withal one of the greatest works produced during the Soviet era. Picture a doctor who is obsessed with the life of Dostoyevsky, who sees his own life as if it were in lock step with that of earlier writer. He recreates his life, and that of his second wife Anna Grigor'yevna, so vividly that I will have a difficult time unlinking it from this work.
Picture this memory of Anna Grigor'yevna's while her husband lies dying:
[S]he was on her knees before her dying husband, her husband, Fedya, who used to come to her every evening to say goodnight, used to write long, passionate letters to her from Bad Ems, where he would travel every summer to take the cure, who used to cause jealous scenes at readings of his works whenever she exchanged a quick word with anyone or he thought she was looking at someone, and then they would walk home separately, but he would not be able to keep it up, and he would catch up with her and ask her to forgive him, saying that if she refused, then he would throw himself on his knees before her there and then—and she would forgive him, and they would walk on together—and supporting her carefully by the arm, he would look into her eyes and then, leaving her for a moment, would dash into a shop and buy her some sweetmeats—nuts, raisins, bon-bons—and when they arrived home they would drink tea and he would produce the sweetmeats for her and the children, but if she had a cold, he would get irritated and ask her to stop sneezing, and this made her laugh, and in the end he would start to laugh as well.
Did you notice that this is all one sentence with phrases strung together by ands or other conjunctions. The translation by Roger and Angela Keys is so spot on that Leonid Tsypkin's sesquipedalian sentences would flow like a river in flood.
Summer in Baden-Baden is such a good book that it makes me want to re-read what Dostoyevsky I have already read and maybe include some of the obscure ones I haven't, such as The Insulted and the Injured and A Raw Youth....more
I first read this book twenty-five years ago, but now ... it is no longer the same book ... it is a much better book. For one thing, the old English vI first read this book twenty-five years ago, but now ... it is no longer the same book ... it is a much better book. For one thing, the old English version was based on a manuscript that was heavily edited by Soviet censors. For another, I have changed, and so the impressions I received were altogether different.
Think of a community of scientists and scholars in Leningrad, all on the point of making breakthroughs. Suddenly, they find themselves being literally driven to distraction by ... by anything. Fake phone calls. By a visit from a sexy friend of your wife, who is currently vacationing in Odessa. By a delivery of booze and caviar supposedly from the vacationing wife. By a warning from the state security services threatening a fifteen years' imprisonment. By even nameless threats.
Definitely Maybe is organized into eleven chapters composed of twenty-one fragments. The fragments in each case seem to indicate that a small excision, as from censorship, has occurred. What's "missing" is in each case a few words, a few sentences, certainly no more than a small paragraph.
Something or somebody does not want the scientists and scholars to make their breakthrough. Vecherovsky and Malianov, two of the scientists, resolve on different after their clear defeat before a "homeostatic universe" that resisted any significant change:
He didn't say anything; he shrugged and filled his pipe. We sat in silence. He was trying to help me. Paint some prospects for me, prove that I wasn't such a coward and that he wasn't such a hero. That we were just two scientists; we were offered a project, and due to circumstances, he could work on it now and I couldn't. But it didn't make it any easier for me. Because he was going to the Pamirs to struggle with Weingarten's revertase, Zakhar's fadings, with his own brilliant math, and all the rest. They would be aiming balls of fire at him, sending ghosts, frozen mountain climbers, especially female ones, dropping avalanches on him, tossing him in space and time, and they would finally get to him there. Or maybe not.
It is never made clear who or what "they" is -- and this is one of the novels strong points. In any case, it confirms for me the excellence of those two now deceased brothers, Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky who were the great stars of Soviet science fiction. ...more
...until his neighbor whose plants were destroyed by the postmistress's cow turns him in as a deserter. A detachment of NKVD -- the predecessors of the KGB -- is sent to arrest him, and is arrested in turn by Chonkin. More and more people from headquarters start showing up.
The end is a hilarious confrontation when the imprisoned NKVD officer is in turn imprisoned by the Russian army, who mistake him for a German. The NKVD officer plays along, yelling "Heil Hitler! Stalin kaputt!"
Vladimir Voinovich has, in Chonkin created a classic of humor comparable to Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. In many ways, Voinovich's novel is even better. ...more
Very early on in this short novel, the narrator, a Russian emigre named Smurov, appears to commit suicide by shooting himself in the heart. But that dVery early on in this short novel, the narrator, a Russian emigre named Smurov, appears to commit suicide by shooting himself in the heart. But that does not appear to be the end of him. He returns to his haunts as if attempting to investigate his life. The pity of it is, he turns out to be something of a sneak, based on how others view him.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote this quasi-detective piece around 1930, making it the fourth of his novels. Imagine the surprise of Playboy readers when it was serialized there in three installments in the 1960s! A dead man investigating his own life! ... and not particularly liking what he sees.
The Eye is an amusing novelette that is slightly disturbing based on its central premise, a narrator who is both dead and not dead. If this is what immortality is all about, I'll pass....more
I first saw a couple short essays from this book in an issue of The New York Review of Books. Being something of an aficionado of Russian prison literI first saw a couple short essays from this book in an issue of The New York Review of Books. Being something of an aficionado of Russian prison literature, ranging from Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead through Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales to Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is perhaps Putin's most famous prisoner. Founder and head of Yukos, Khodorkovsky angered Putin, who had him put away for two jail terms, some of which was served in Siberia. My Fellow Prisoners is very like Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead, consisting as it does of isolated recollections that add up to a system in which people serve as much time as the State wants them to, whether they are innocent or no.
If someone powerful wants you in prison. There you'll go, and serve out as much time as the powers that be want....more
After having finished Andrei Platonov's Soul, I am beginning to think that Platonov may well be the best Soviet-era writer of fiction -- perhaps not qAfter having finished Andrei Platonov's Soul, I am beginning to think that Platonov may well be the best Soviet-era writer of fiction -- perhaps not quite on the same level as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but amazing nonetheless.
Half the book is taken up by the title story, about a Turkmen named Chagataev is abandoned by his starving mother, is taken as an orphan to Moscow to be educated, and returns to the arid region south of the Aral Sea to help his people. This he proceeds to do, as a loyal follower of Comrade Stalin. Yet here and elsewhere, Platonov goes far beyond mere slavish ideology in discussing the will of a downgraded people to survive.
Among the other stories, I particularly liked "The River Potudan" and "The Return," mong the best stories ever written about returning soldiers and their problems adjusting to civilian life. Interestingly, the first story hails from the period after the Civil War, and the second World War Two.
I intend to read everything I can find by Platonov. Fortunately, three titles, including this one, have recently been published by the New York Review of Books....more
To understand this book, one needs a little background. The oprichniks were a semi-monastic brotherhood that acted as enforcers for Tsar Ivan the TerrTo understand this book, one needs a little background. The oprichniks were a semi-monastic brotherhood that acted as enforcers for Tsar Ivan the Terrible. What Vladimir Sorokin does in Day of the Oprichnik is to move the institution into the near future in a post-Putin society in which the West has been walled off and the Chinese are moving into Russian society.
The oprichniks of the future ride through the Moscow traffic in their red Mercedovs in special lanes, their cars emitting a loud snarl to make traffic move over for them. Each car is fitted with a dead dog's head as the hood ornament and a broom behind to show that they sweep Russia clean of the Tsar's enemies.
We follow one Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, one of the senior oprichniks, as he participates in the destruction of a wayward noble's estate. This consists of hanging the noble from the gate of his estate, gang-raping his wife and delivering her naked and wrapped in a fleece to her relatives, and sending the children to a state-run orphanage. There are several other tasks, including visiting a famous clairvoyant in Orenburg on behalf of the Tsarina and participating with his fellow oprichniki in a combined steam bath and homosexual drug orgy.
The author shows us aspects of the Russian character that are not usually known to outsiders, which makes this book endlessly fascinating. This is far more than an alternative history fantasy: It approaches the cross-over line into literature....more
It took me a while to warm up to The Case Of The General's Thumb: At first, it struck me as being an earlier effort than Andrey Kurkov's two penguin nIt took me a while to warm up to The Case Of The General's Thumb: At first, it struck me as being an earlier effort than Andrey Kurkov's two penguin novels -- Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost -- but it looks as if it were written between the two. In The Case of the General's Thumb, there is no Mischa the Penguin, but there is a tortoise named Nina. It must be said, however, that Nina has not a hundredth the character of Mischa.
Kurkov was born in Leningrad and writes in Russian, but he appears to be a self-identified Ukrainian. (This leads me to think that this is not an unusual situation these days.)
The case of the General's Thumb, like the two penguin novels, is a murky stew of various security agencies going at one another hammer and tongs. We see the story through the eyes of Viktor Slutsky (not the same Viktor as the penguin novels) of one unnamed Ukrainian security agency and Nik Tsensky, a military translator. Ostensibly, Viktor is on the trail of the person or persons who murdered a Ukrainian general, cut off his thumb, and left his body dangling over Kiev attached to a Coca Cola advertising balloon. Nik, on the other hand, is paired with an assassin and directed by telephone to perform various odd and threatening actions, mostly in Germany. For most of the book, the chapters are interspersed between Viktor and Nik, eventually coming together at the end.
At first, I was disconcerted by the flipping back and forth between the two characters, but as I grew to know Viktor and Nik more, I came to accept it.
If you want my recommendation, however, the penguin novels are clearly better. ...more
I, who have always loved books on travel, had never heard of An Armenian Sketchbook. Yet, as I started reading Vasily Grossman's book, I saw that thisI, who have always loved books on travel, had never heard of An Armenian Sketchbook. Yet, as I started reading Vasily Grossman's book, I saw that this was not only one of the greatest of all travel books -- on a par with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sir Richard F. Burton, and the great E. Lucas Bridges, author of The Uttermost Part of the Earth -- but also a great work of literature in its own right.
Arriving in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, Grossman is not met at the railroad station, but must find his way through a city not knowing a word of the local language -- and all this time with a painful need to urinate. I know this feeling, having urethral strictures as a result of some medical orderly's inept attempt to catheterize me forty-eight years ago. Although I have experienced this same feeling myself, many times, I had never seen it expressed in writing.
Grossman was to die two years later of kidney cancer. At several points, he meditates on his own mortality, on good and evil, and other basic topics. Here he is after having been unimpressed visiting the head of the Armenian church, and supremely impressed by a genuinely good peasant:
True goodness is alien to form and all that is merely formal. It does not seek reinforcement through dogma, nor is it concerned about images and rituals; true goodness exists where there is the heart of a good man. A kind act carried out by a pagan, an act of mercy performed by an atheist, a lack of rancor shown by someone who holds to another faith -- all these, I believe, are triumphs for the Christian God of kindness. Therein lies his strength.
Again and again, I find myself reading passages that are the equal of the best I have read anywhere.
Grossman was sent to Armenia in 1960 after the Communist authorities had confiscated the text of his great masterpiece Life and Fate. He was to produce a translation from the Armenian of a novel by Hrachya Kochar. Bear in mind: Grossman did not know any Armenian. So for him this was an existential journey that resulted in a book whose Russian title was Dobro van, or "Good on you!" -- a general blessing, a feeling which the author felt from the bottom of his capacious heart....more
Anton Chekhov seems so deceptively simple in his great plays such as The Three Sisters that we sometimes don't see the mystery that is there. In thisAnton Chekhov seems so deceptively simple in his great plays such as The Three Sisters that we sometimes don't see the mystery that is there. In this case, we have a young family consisting of a brother and three sisters, all full of high hopes and expressing a wish to move to Moscow, where "the lights are much brighter there/you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares." The mystery is in the curious entropy of life, that proceeds heedless of our wishes and dreams.
Even Andrey, the brother, whose "brilliant career" as a Moscow professor, comes to grief in the garrison town in the provinces:
Oh, what has become of my past and where is it? I used to be young, happy, clever, I used to be able to think and frame clever ideas, the present and the future seemed to me full of hope. Why do we, almost before we have begun to live, become dull, grey, uninteresting, lazy, apathetic, useless, unhappy.... This town has already been in existence for two hundred years and it has a hundred thousand inhabitants, not one of whom is in any way different from the others. There has never been, now or at any other time, a single leader of men, a single scholar, an artist, a man of even the slightest eminence who might arouse envy or a passionate desire to be imitated. They only eat, drink, sleep, and then they die... more people are born and also eat, drink, sleep, and so as not to go silly from boredom, they try to make life many-sided with their beastly backbiting, vodka, cards, and litigation. The wives deceive their husbands, and the husbands lie, and pretend they see nothing and hear nothing, and the evil influence irresistibly oppresses the children and the divine spark in them is extinguished, and they become just as pitiful corpses and just as much like one another as their fathers and mothers....
At the end, the garrison is transferred to Poland; and the three sisters have resolved to soldier on in their own way, perhaps even irrespective of happiness.
Reading Chekhov could be like a cold bath on an icy day. But there is something in his stories and plays that reminds us that happiness does not come to us as the result of the fulfillment of pipe dreams. It may not come to us at all. No one ever told us that life was going to be fair....more
I will tentatively give Penguin Lost five stars because I loved the book only until the last few wish-fulfillment plot twists. The world of Viktor ZolI will tentatively give Penguin Lost five stars because I loved the book only until the last few wish-fulfillment plot twists. The world of Viktor Zolotaryov is a strange one: In Death and the Penguin, of which this novel is the sequel, he lived alone with a penguin named Mischa he had rescued from the local zoo, which was unable to care for its animals. He befriended a militiaman named Sergey Stepanenko, who suddenly winds up dead. He adopts the daughter (Sonya) of a friend, then is joined by Sergey's niece Nina. But Viktor is in danger of losing his life, and Mischa becomes ill. On the lam, Viktor escapes to Antarctica, of all places.
... where we join him in Penguin Lost. Viktor returns from Antarctica with some ill-gotten gains and finds Mischa disappeared. Sonya and Nina are all right, but Viktor leaves in search of Mischa, who has been taken to Moskow, In Moskow, he finds it has been taken to Chechnya (then in the middle of the worst of its war) where it is owned by a Chechen entrepreneur named Khachayev. Viktor works for him at an informal crematorium burning Russian and Chechen bodies that have to be gotten rid of. Eventually, he comes to the attention of Khachayev, who reluctantly promises to return Mischa. First Viktor returns to Ukraine, and Mischa finally shows up some time later.
Andrey Kurkov still tries to get Mischa back to Antarctica, and here the story falls apart somewhat. What remains in my memory, however, is the sad, good-hearted household of Viktor, consisting of a penguin, a jealous cat, a legless Afghan War veteran, Sonya, and Nina. Even the villains are occasionally good-hearted, especially Andrey Pavlovich, a politician who hires Viktor as his idea man.
It's worth reading Kurkov's two penguin books. There won't be any more, because Mischa is now in the Antarctic. ...more
As a Hungarian-American who lived through the period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (we even took in two refugee families at different times), ViAs a Hungarian-American who lived through the period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (we even took in two refugee families at different times), Victor Sebestyen's Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution help refresh my memory. Plus, it made me even more furious at the Eisenhower administration's craven failure to pay any attention to the failed efforts of my people to break free of the Soviet yoke.
During the Revolution, the propagandists at Radio Free Europe, in effect, kept promising American and UN aid, going so far as to give specific military advice. But the eyes of Eisenhower and of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold were on the Suex Crisis, which was taking place at the same time. Even the Russians were nonplussed: They had lined 20,000 troops with armor and artillery along the Austrian-Hungarian border in expectation of an invasion.
Over the long haul, the Hungarians won. Janos Kadar, who was put into power by Kruschchev proved to be a good leader -- years after he had all the uprising participants executed. After the Hungarian people, the biggest casualty of the Revolution was all the Communist parties of Europe. Russia's naked aggression did not stand well with the West, and it was one of those subtle turning points in history that preceded by some thirty years the collapse of Soviet Communism itself. ...more
Anton Chekhov's plays are so dense with the aura of disappointment that it is difficult to summarize them. Here we have a country estate which is runAnton Chekhov's plays are so dense with the aura of disappointment that it is difficult to summarize them. Here we have a country estate which is run by Ivan and Sonia, unmarried brother and sister, for the benefit of their selfish father, the now retired Professor Serebryakov and his young wife. Ivan loves Serebryakov's twentyish wife Yelena; and Sonia, Doctor Astrov, who is in turn also in love with Yelena and thoroughly tired of her aging husband's hypochondria.
Even Astrov realizes that his love for Yelena, in addition to being immoral, is morally suspect:
In a human being everything ought to be beautiful: face, dress, soul, thoughts. She [Yelena] is very beautiful, there's no denying it, but all she does is eat, sleep, go for walks, fascinate us all by her beauty and -- nothing more. Other people work for her. Isn't that so? And an idle life cannot be pure.
Be that as it may, that doesn't stop Astrov, Ivan, and Sonia from feeling trapped by their longings. Why? Because no one's perfect.
As for Yelena herself, she is exasperated not only with her husband, but with the two men who are chasing her and with herself as well. ...more
Serendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor AkSerendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor Akelseyevich Zolataryov who writes for publication what his editor refers to as obelisks. These are obituary essays written about living people so that, when death comes to them, the newspaper is not caught short for materials to publish quickly. Oddly, though, it seems that all too many of the individuals Andrey memorializes is deathless prose wind up … dead.
My favorite character is Viktor’s pet and companion, the King Penguin Mischa. When the zoo in Kiev was suffering a financial meltdown, they sold their penguins; and Viktor bought the one he called Mischa.
Mischa is very like the King Penguin at the right in the photo on my blog site, which was taken on the Isla de Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Tierra Del Fuego. The largish penguin took a wrong turn into the Beagle Channel and wound up in a rookery consisting mostly of Magellanic Penguins and some Gentoos. It was obviously very lonely and disappointed. Every once in a while, he would try to mate with one of the Magellanic females, but caused uproars every time he tried.
Viktor’s Mischa shambles around the apartment, looking into the mirror, establishing a kind of hiding place behind some furniture, and displaying all the symptoms of a morose and puzzled disposition occasionally verging on depression. Even while Viktor worries that his writing job is connected with an assassination ring, Mischa slowly keeps getting worse. At the same time, he winds up taking care of Sonya, the daughter of one “Mischa-non-penguin,” who was associated with the editor who hired the writer, and who disappears after leaving money and a pistol. He also hires a teenage girl, the niece of his friend Sergey (who dies mysteriously) as a nanny for Sonya, who lethargically enters into a relationship with him.
I loved Death and the Penguin for its mellow strangeness. For a man surrounded by violent death, to which he may be contributing in some unexplained way, Viktor is relatively cool. Eventually, the situation changes rapidly. Mischa becomes ill and gets a heart transplant; and Viktor, well, let us say he takes action of an unexpected kind....more
Yuri Olesha wrote Envy in 1927, at a time when many of his contemporary writers were either shot or trundled off to the Gulag. My guess is that the GPYuri Olesha wrote Envy in 1927, at a time when many of his contemporary writers were either shot or trundled off to the Gulag. My guess is that the GPU (predecessor to the KGB) couldn't quite understand Olesha's humor, and I tend to sympathize with them.
Envy is divided into two parts. The first part is fairly straightforward: A lowlife drunk named Nikolai Kavalerov is "adopted" by a party apparatchik by the name of Andrei Babichev. We see Babichev as a self-important buffoon, who sees his role as creative a gigantic communal kitchen named Two Bits in which the cheapness and wholesomeness of the food with compete favorably with home cooking.
Then, in Part Two, Nikolai meets with Babichev's brother Ivan who is fully as envious of Andrei as Nikolai is. Nikolai takes up with Ivan, who has a strange device called Ophelia, which he plans to use to destroy Andrei and Two Bits. But here things get a little confused: It is sometimes difficult to determine what is actually happening, and what is merely a delusion or figment of Nikolai or Ivan's imagination.
In the end, Envy is good for a few laughs, though decidedly second rank compared to Nabokov and Bulgakov.
This is another work by the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who -- before his imprisonment in Siberia -- was trying to decide whether he was E. T. A. HoffmaThis is another work by the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who -- before his imprisonment in Siberia -- was trying to decide whether he was E. T. A. Hoffmann or Nikolai Gogol. Polzunkov is an extended anecdote about one Osip Mikhailich Polzunkov who narrates a story of how he tried to pull an April Fools joke on a well-respected resident of Petersburg, only to have the stunt backfire on him. Instead of being taken into the bosom of a respected family and marrying the young daughter, he is discharged from his post and forced to try his hand at borrowing money, unsuccessfully.
Even Dostoyevsky's less successful efforts are interesting. ...more
It has been a long time since I had run any of Anton Chekhov's plays, but after I read his long short story "The Steppe" while on vacation, I wanted tIt has been a long time since I had run any of Anton Chekhov's plays, but after I read his long short story "The Steppe" while on vacation, I wanted to take another look. We are sometimes so cowed by Tolstoyevsky -- as my late mother called him -- that we ignore that there are other Russian writers who are just as great.
The central symbol in The Seagull is, of course, the dead seagull. I can imagine high school teachers making much of this, but I don't think one can assign any cut-and-dried meaning to the dead seagull. In the play, we are confronted with a group of characters who are far from comfortable in their own skin. Nobody seems to be what he or she wants to become. And when, in the course of the play, they do manage to become what they wanted, they become dissatisfied and drawn back to the scene where we originally met them.
The seagull is a bird usually found by the ocean, but the play takes place by an inland lake. The men and women meeting at Sorin's country estate would love to soar, but in their own ways, all are shot down like the seagull. In the end, the seagull has been stuffed by a taxidermist and has become a ridiculous reminder of crushed aspirations.
A wonderful play, with a keen appreciation of the ways people become dissatisfied with their lives and one another....more
**spoiler alert** This grotesque little story owes much to E. T. A. Hoffman and Gogol and does not even begin to suggest the mature Fyodor Dostoyevsky**spoiler alert** This grotesque little story owes much to E. T. A. Hoffman and Gogol and does not even begin to suggest the mature Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Yet it is fun to read about this wizened little old man who rents a corner of a room in a Petersburg boardinghouse and is ignored for years until ... until the establishment begins to fill up with younger bachelors who work in the chancelleries and who begin to taunt Semyon Ivanovich Prokharchin beyond his ability to respond.
He runs off for a few days, is seen with low company, returns in the middle of the night -- and the "persecution" begins to ramp up even more. Finally, a drunk slashes his mattress, which scares Mr. P. out of his life. He dies, and the mattress is found stuffed with 2,500 rubles -- not a fortune, but a tidy some nonetheless.
I enjoyed reading this little sketch, but have no doubt that it confused Dostoyevsky's contemporaries. Still, if you idolize him as much as I do, I suggest you give Mr. Prokharchin a try....more
This novelette cannot have been written by anyone other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky, yet it is by no means one of his greatest works. Rather, it harks bacThis novelette cannot have been written by anyone other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky, yet it is by no means one of his greatest works. Rather, it harks back more to the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann than to the mature Russian author.
The Landlady seems to be stuck midway between two genres: German fantastic romanticism and the typically Dostoyevskian "narcissistic complex of self-lacerations and enjoyment of humiliation," as one critic calls it.
The (anti)hero is one Vassili Mikhailovich Ordynov, a poor student of a good-but-not-noble family who in wandering the streets of Petersburg runs into a strange old man accompanied by a beautiful young woman. He becomes obsessed with her, follows the couple, and asks if they could lease a corner of their apartment to him.
Almost immediately, Ordynov falls ill and is nursed back to health by the beautiful Katerina, who seems to be falling in love with him. Yet the interaction between our hero, Katerina, and the old man Murin becomes ever stranger. It turns out that neither of the two are trustworthy in what they convey to Ordynov. Surprises follow, that I do not wish to divulge.
I liked The Landlady, but I think it serves only to whet my appetite for his more mature works....more