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
In 1965, two Soviet brothers wrote The Final Circle of Paradise, a book about a space traveler who, far some unexplained reason, visits an idyllic resIn 1965, two Soviet brothers wrote The Final Circle of Paradise, a book about a space traveler who, far some unexplained reason, visits an idyllic resort city and proceeds to find out what makes it tick. In many ways Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris are writing about the West, a land where cheap wish fulfillment rules, where a cheap and readily available drug called "slug" sends people into paroxysms of enjoyable dreams, such that they could and frequently do die of nervous exhaustion.
Don't mind the Russian title: That's all that Goodreads gave me to work with.
The Strugatsky brothers' hero, Ivan Zhilin turns out to be a special investigator for the Security Council who reports his findings, but is disbelieved by his colleagues. We never find out the name of the resort city, but it seems to be in Southern Europe, perhaps on the Mediterranean.
Zhilin's musings in the book are priceless:
And as for progress -- it will come to an end only for the real society, only for the real progress. But each separate man will lose nothing, he will only gain, since his world will become infinitely brighter, his ties with nature, illusory though they may be, will become more multifaceted; and ties with society, also illusory but not so known to him, will become more powerful and fruitful. And you don\'t have to mourn the end of progress. You do know that everything comes to an end. So now comes the end of progress in the objective world.
Those are fighting words to a card-carrying Communist, and an interesting indictment where two Communist brothers thought the West was headed.
It's a pity that this book appears to be out of print. The Strugatsky brothers always make one think.......more
Victor Serge is virtually unknown in the West, and that is a shame. Born in Brussels, Serge was a Communist Revolutionary who saw action during the ReVictor Serge is virtually unknown in the West, and that is a shame. Born in Brussels, Serge was a Communist Revolutionary who saw action during the Revolution. Conquered City is about the years 1919-1920, when the Bolsheviks have largely prevailed but are being assailed from within by Mensheviks and Left SR's and from without by the White Russian armies financed by the Western powers.
Conquered City skips around from one set of revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries to another. Although some sections are first person narratives, it is not always easy to know who is speaking. The book is, however, a powerful study of cynicism tempered by starvation. The hero is Petrograd itself, which was at the time threatened from the West by a White army.
Several years ago, I read Serge's The Case of Comrade Tularev, which I found to be one of the best, if not the best, fiction relating to Stalin's purges. (Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat trilogy is another candidate.)
Both books showed Serge to be a superb, if unsung, novelist. He wrote in French. In Russia, he quickly came into conflict with Stalin and was imprisoned by him. It was the pleading of Western writers which led the Chekhists to release him. Like Trotsky, he died in exile in Mexico, though, unlike Trotsky, of a natural death.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double is an early novel by the Russian writer while he was still searching for his grand theme. Coming out soon after Poor FFyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double is an early novel by the Russian writer while he was still searching for his grand theme. Coming out soon after Poor Folk, it is a very Gogol-like story of a Petersburg clerk who somehow encounters his double, who promptly gets himself hired in the narrator's office and does everything he can to discombobulate the narrator. Much of the story deals with the narrator's attempt to come to terms with this double, who is not only identical to him, but bears his name and is getting to be ever so much more popular than he is. ...more
This is a review only of Anton Chekhov's long short story (or short novel) entitled The Steppe, which apparently is not published by itself. I had reaThis is a review only of Anton Chekhov's long short story (or short novel) entitled The Steppe, which apparently is not published by itself. I had read it years ago, but felt like giving it another look. It is probably one of my favorite tales of childhood, and certainly my favorite Chekhov story: The story is seen from the point of view of a child in the provinces being taken from his home to attend a school in a larger provincial city. There is a simple beauty and innocence to this tale that time cannot stale. It makes me want to read some more of his stories....more
Years ago, I read Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and found myself not liking it very much. When I heard how Tales of Belkin influenced DostoyYears ago, I read Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and found myself not liking it very much. When I heard how Tales of Belkin influenced Dostoyevsky according to Joseph Frank's biography of the latter, I decided to give it a try. It has been so many years since my first exposure to Pushkin, and I have changed so much in the meantime, that I expected the result this time would be different. It was. The five tales of Belkin were brief, to the point, and composed with a lightness that I found delightful. Curiously, the story I liked best was the only sad one in the lot, "The Postmaster," which I found to be remarkably similar to Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk in tone.
Now I think I am ready to read Eugene Onegin and some of the author's other prose works. ...more
The young Fyodor Dostoevsky was a talented writer even before his work became deeper and more profound as in the great novels that followed. Poor FolkThe young Fyodor Dostoevsky was a talented writer even before his work became deeper and more profound as in the great novels that followed. Poor Folk was by far the better of the two books, being a naturalistic study of urban poverty reminiscent in its small way of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It is written primarily as an epistolary novel with a few pages of the journal of Barbara Dobroselov while a young girl. Her correspondent is a much older man, Makar Devushkin, a copyist in the lowest grades of the civil service. The two end of emotionally lacerating each other even as they try to help each other, despite the scorn of the neighbors, who make fun of both of them.
The same sense of embarrassment can be found in A Little Hero, which is a tale of purely social embarrassment. A large group of people attend a get-together in the countryside. The eponymous "little hero" is only a young boy, but he develops a passion for a married woman, a Mrs M----. This is noticed by many of the other guests, who ridicule him and call him a crybaby.
When Poor People was first published in 1846, it was immediately recognized by the prominent critic Visarion Belinsky as a great book and became instantly famous. It is still well worth reading today, if for no other reason than to follow the path Dostoevski took to writing his great novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov....more
The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is a humorous fantasy about a Russian immigrant who is trying to find himself, and usually finds hThe Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is a humorous fantasy about a Russian immigrant who is trying to find himself, and usually finds himself in hot water. The hero/narrator is one Vladimir Girshkin, who finds himself in a dead-end job and an unsatisfying relationship. He dreams for something better, but the advice of his friends leads him, on one hand, to Florida, where he infuriates a Catalan mobster by refusing to be his catamite. Then -- on the advice of a highly suspect Russian named Rybakov -- he goes to the Stolovan Republic (a kind of generic east European country on the model of the Czech Republic) where Rybakov's son, the Groundhog, is in charge of the local rackets.
In Prava, capital of Stolovan, Vladimir and the Groundhog set up a highly successful pyramid scheme, until the Groundhog turns on him.
In the end, he ends up where I began, in Cleveland, Ohio, married to his American terrorist girlfriend he met in Prava:
Downtown Cleveland. Its three major skyscrapers standing above the cosmopolitan wreckage of factories aching to be nightclubs and chain restaurants; the squat miniskyscrapers that look as if they had been cut short in their prime; the hopeful grandeur of municipal buildings built at a time when the transport of hogs and heifers promised the city a commercial elegance that had expired with the animals... But, somehow, this city has persevered against the unkind seasons and the storms that gather speed over Lake Erie. Somehow, Cleveland has survived, with her grey banner unfurled -- the banner of Archangelsk and Detroit, of Kharkov and Liverpool -- the banner of men and women who would settle the most ignominious parts of the earth, and there, with the hubris born neither of faith nor ideology but biology and longing, bring into the world their whimpering replacements.
Yep, that's Cleveland, all right-- except I don't know about the hogs and heifers. More like car parts and machine tools, but Shteyngart's mostly right.
This is a very funny book, but it tends to get goofy in parts. What keeps it worth reading is Shteyngart's wild imagination in depicting the American and the Eastern European scenes. His Vladimir ranges from a schlemiel to a picaro as we progress through his efforts to find a love and a life in a strange land, wherever it may be. ...more
We tend to be so overwhelmed by the nineteenth century Russian novel that we tend to ignore the literature of Soviet Russia during the twentieth centuWe tend to be so overwhelmed by the nineteenth century Russian novel that we tend to ignore the literature of Soviet Russia during the twentieth century. Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman is one book that almost never made it out of Russia, which would have been a tragedy. It was suppressed for years and finally made it to the West in a typewritten samizdat manuscript sprinkled with lacunae. Grossman was at Stalingrad during the siege and knew many of the Russian military officers, including General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army that held fast under the withering attack of the German 6th Army.
Life and Fate is the tale of an extended Jewish family, the Shaposhnikovs, who are spread from the Ukraine on the West to Kazan in the East. Many of them are directly involved in the Siege of Stalingrad, and many of them are in trouble with the State's security organs, notably the NKVD, which later became the KGB.
Perhaps the most sustained character is the Soviet physicist Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, who is involved in nuclear research. Torn between his wife Ludmila and the wife of a colleague, he runs into some heavy going when he appears to run into some anti-Semitism when he relocates from Kazan to Moscow. Thinking he is about to be arrested for some unusually frank conversations with his superiors, who he imagines are about to denounce him, he suddenly receives a call from Stalin himself inquiring about his work and praising him for his discoveries. Although the picture for Shtrum improves, there is a scorpion sting when he must sign a letter denouncing two Jewish physicians as murderers of the writer Maxim Gorky.
This is a big novel (almost 900 pages) and takes a number of days or weeks to read, but the effort is more than worthwhile. There are beautiful scenes such as the following, when Ludmila's mother walks the streets of Stalingrad after the siege has been lifted:
And here she was, an old woman now, living and hoping, keeping faith, afraid of evil, full of anxiety for the living and an equal concern for the dead; here she was, looking at the ruins of her home, admiring the spring sky without knowing that she was admiring it, wondering why the future of those she loved was so obscure and the past so full of mistakes, not realizing that this very obscurity and unhappiness concealed a strange hope and clarity, not realizing that in the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realizing that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that fate alone has the power to pardon and to chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory and infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings. No, whatever life holds in store -- hard-won glory, poverty and despair, or death in a labour camp -- they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man's eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be ...
In many ways, Life and Fate is reminiscent of Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat trilogy (Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Dust and Ashes) in that they cover much of the same territory. One difference is Grossman's unique perspective on Stalingrad, though Rybakov does an outstanding job covering Stalin's purges of the late 1930s.
I rather doubt that most readers will have the sitzfleisch to attack either Grossman or Rybakov. Unless one is somewhat familiar with the history and with Russian character names and patronymics, one is not likely to stray too far from the tried and true and excessively familiar. But, know this, there are rewards for those who do....more
This is a painful book to read, as it shows the horror of the war on both sides. The half-year battle for the streets of Stalingrad was an unremittingThis is a painful book to read, as it shows the horror of the war on both sides. The half-year battle for the streets of Stalingrad was an unremitting horror, with not only two armies, but thousands of civilians jammed into a city that was being bombed into rubble while everyone was starving or dying of thirst. (Apparently this book demonstrated the dangers of trying to substitute snow for water.)
Just when the battle for the streets of Stalingrad appeared to be turning into a stalemate, with General Vassili Chuikov of the Soviet 62nd Army fighting Paulus's German Sixth Army to a virtual draw, Marshal Zhukov initiated an encircling movement that caught the Nazis unaware. Both Hitler and his generals were astonished that the Russians had so many more men, tanks, and planes when it had seemed that there was nothing left on the Russian side but stumbling starvelings. In a trice, it was the Sixth Army that turned into stumbling starvelings sans food, sans ammunition, sans fuel, sans everything.
Hitler forbade Paulus to surrender. It was his fervent wish that the whole army commit suicide so that they could go down as heroes. They didn't: tens of thousands surrendered. But Hitler and Goebbels tried to buffalo the German people into thinking that the whole army was wiped out.
In the battle between Hitler and Stalin, it appeared that the Russian was the more reasonable. Hitler had no notion whatsoever of supplying a large army that was thousands of miles from its base in Central Europe. He just thought that his armies could supply themselves by living off the newly occupied territories. That worked to a certain extent, but how does an army make its tanks and cannon work without replacement equipment? And what about ammunition? As the Eastern Front collapsed toward the Volga, the Russians were closer to their base of supply in the Urals and around Moscow, while the Germans were dangerously stretched.
Antony Beevor has written an excellent history which should be required reading for those who think that D-Day was what broke the back of the Nazi war machine. The Wehrmacht units on the Ostfront would have paid to serve against the Americans and the British, instead of dying by the millions on the pitiless steppes of Russia....more
We have been trained to think of World War Two as essentially a Western war, with the Russian contribution somehow beinActually four and a half stars.
We have been trained to think of World War Two as essentially a Western war, with the Russian contribution somehow being amorphous, off line, and, to to speak, off-screen. It might not be a bad idea to begin reading this book with Table E on page 307, which shows the Wehrmacht losing 13,448,000 dead, missing, and disabled by war's end. Of these, the overwhelming majority fell on the Eastern front -- as many as 9,000,000. In comparison, all the Western front battles from North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany itself was a comparative small fraction, irrespective of what we learned in school and from watching endless documentaries lauding the American and British contributions.
Glantz and House have written a formidable book. Perhaps it is too formidable in its massive details, often whole paragraphs of different units and generals with relatively few anecdotes. In a way, it needed something equivalent to the Knocking at the Gate scene in Macbeth to relieve the tension. At times the book resembled a sentence outline jam-packed with statistics.
In the last two or three years of the war, the Soviets fielded six million men in arms stretched over a front line that extended almost 3,000 miles from Finland to the Caucasus.
Despite the dryness of the authors' presentation in When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, the magnitude of the Soviet accomplishment shines through. (Even I find myself trying to cite statistics in describing the Eastern Front, it was just so massive in scale.)
Stalin, Zhukov, Vasilevsky and other members of the Stavka, or Supreme High Command, are probably the heroes of World War Two. Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery and Bradley would have just been four generals in Russia, among scores of others who merited equal praise.
Books like this make one think about our closely held cultural myths which we have perpetuated across three or more generations. For us, WW2 was a "Good War"; for the Soviets, it was either win or die horribly. ...more
Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat Trilogy is probably the most detailed look at Stalin's Purges and the "Great Patriotic War" (World War Two) that followed immeAnatoli Rybakov's Arbat Trilogy is probably the most detailed look at Stalin's Purges and the "Great Patriotic War" (World War Two) that followed immediately upon its heels. I have now read all three volumes: Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Dust and Ashes. I find them to be probably the most sustained look at a society that is both fearful of being caught up in the NKVD's meshes and yet determined to last through the horrors that await them.
This is not a series for people who like neat, happy endings. Some really nice people die under grim conditions. Although the books do not spend any time in the Gulags, what was happening in Moscow and along the long three-thousand-mile front that formed the war against the invading Germans was bad enough.
I will not quickly forget about a dozen of the characters, whose careers I followed from their youthful follies in the old Arbat section of Moscow, characters like Sasha Pankratov, Varya, Lena, Gleb, Shamov the Chekhist, and a host of others. Among the characters are some more famous names: Stalin, Yezhov, Beria, Zhukov, and Vasilevsky.
I took more than four years to read the 1,500-odd pages of the trilogy, but it was worth it. Rybakov is a traditional novelist -- no postmodern touches -- but he writes a story that is, I firmly believe, true to history and to the character of the Russian people.
If you are not put off by lengthy reads, I recommend Rybakov to you. His Arbat trilogy is well worth any time and effort you put into it. ...more
This is another big-ass Russian novel, with close to 700 pages and a huge cast of characters spread across a good chunk of the old Soviet Union, fromThis is another big-ass Russian novel, with close to 700 pages and a huge cast of characters spread across a good chunk of the old Soviet Union, from Siberia to Moscow to Kaliningrad. It is the second novel of a trilogy, the first entitled Children of the Arbat, which I read in 2008 not even knowing it was part of a trilogy. Sequel or not, Fear is so good that I plan to move on to the third novel, Dust and Ashes, some time in the coming year.
Anataly Rybakov took his chances writing these works during the 1960s and 1970s, when Khrushchev and Brezhnev were still not ready to face the collective horror that was Josef Stalin's purges of the 1930s. For decades, the Arbat trilogy circulated in samizdat format until they finally reached the printers during the rule of Gorbachev.
There are numerous characters who narrate bits and pieces of the story, the two main ones being Sasha Pankratov, who has been exiled to a small Siberian village near Taishet for a implied slur on Stalin, and Stalin himself. Others include: Yuri Sharok, an interrogator for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB); Vadim and Vika, brother and sister, the former an informer for the NKVD and the other an escapee from Russia when she marries a French writer; and Varya and Nina, two sisters, one a devoted Stalinist who finds herself liable to arrest for associating with the wrong people, and the other a young divorcee who tries to get together with Sasha, but is flustered by his being forbidden to visit Moscow because he was a political prisoner.
Mind you, Rybakov's novels requi9re a great deal of attention, as -- typical with fat Russian novels -- every character has multiple names and nicknames. A familiarity with such conventions as Sasha being a nickname for Aleksander and Varya, for Varvara, will help.
The most frightening part of the books are the chapters seen from Stalin's point of view. As Rybakov sketches him, he is a frightening paranoid. Even a stray look askance from a subordinate sets him off, leading to the latter's execution after days of torture. Most of these chapters conclude with a "butcher's bill" summarizing the executions of the former leaders of the Russian Communist Party and the military.
The purges started with the assassination of Sergey Kirov, head of the Leningrad Party, in December 1934. This assassination is now thought to have been the work of Stalin, who was widely thought to be his best friend, but who was actually envious of his popularity. That theory is backed up by the mysterious disappearance of virtually the entire Leningrad Party security apparatus.
Once he got started, Stalin added other enemies, accusing them of being involved in the murder of Kirov -- and why not kill two birds with one stone? -- tools of the evil Trotsky, who by this time had left the country. First there were Kamenev and Zinoviev, who right after the October Revolution were among the most powerful leaders of the Party. Then Bukharin, Rykov, and scores of others. Then, just before World War II, he decided to purge most of the generals and admirals of his armed forces, starting with the Civil War hero Tukachevsky.
At one point, at a political denunciation meeting in Kaliningrad, Pankratov (who managed to leave Siberia as his 3-year term was up and the security organs had not yet tracked his peregrinations) has this thought:
They were all tied to the same rope. A country of many millions, singing, shouting, damning invented enemies, and glorifying their own executioners. The herd was rushing at wild speeds and whoever slowed would be trampled, whoever stopped would be crushed. You had to keep running and shouting at the top of your lungs, because the whip would hit whoever was silent. You couldn't stand out in any way. You had to trample the fallen ruthlessly and recoil from those who were hit with the guard's whip. And shout and shout to quell the fear within you. Victory marches and songs were that shouting.
At the end of Fear, Sasha is surprised to hear that Kaliningrad is declared off limits to all ex-Section 58 (Political) prisoners; and he is given 24 hours to leave. He sets his sights on Ufa in the Urals, where his fellow truck driver Gleb has gone with several other politicals to start a ballroom dancing act....more
The historian Amy Knight has chosen for herself an interesting niche in Russian history of the Soviet period: She is perhaps the most renowned chronicThe historian Amy Knight has chosen for herself an interesting niche in Russian history of the Soviet period: She is perhaps the most renowned chronicler of the secret police. Abd what greater mystery is there in Soviet history than determining who was responsible for the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the party chief of Leningrad and supposed friend of Stalin. On December 1, 1934, he was shot in the back of the neck just in front of his second floor office in the Smolny Institute.
As soon as he heard the news, Stalin rushed to Leningrad and personally took charge of the investigation. Surprisingly, Kirov's bodyguard, Borisov, died in a freak traffic accident on the way to be interrogated. (Hmmm.) Not surprisingly, Stalin claimed that the gunman, Leonid Nikolaev, was a tool of a conspiracy hatched by -- oh what a surprise! -- Stalin's main enemies, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, who were forthwith arrested to be reserved for the first big show trial to kick off the infamous purges that peaked a couple of years later.
Although Stalin publicly treated Kirov as his best friend, Kirov was under no such misapprehensions. At the Seventeenth Party Congress, Kirov came within an ace of beating Stalin in a popularity contest in which the latter garnered a large number of negative votes, which, not surprisingly, have been lost. Knight concludes that Stalin used Kirov as a pretext to formulate a vast conspiracy (which was born suspiciously soon after Kirov's death) to be used for ridding the party of anyone whom he felt opposed him or could even conceivably oppose him. As Knight writes:
The story of Kirov's murder did not end with the trials of January 1935. On the contrary, the murder and its aftermath marked the beginning of a nightmare that would consume the Soviet Union for the next four years. Some historians insist that the police terror that unfolded after Kirov's assassination was not the product of any grand strategy of Stalin's, but rather a haphazard, frenzied process that fed on itself. But when one considers how Stalin meticulously pored over transcripts of interrogations and indictments and how he systematically meted out retribution to his real or perceived enemies, a picture of a carefully planned vendetta emerges.
I highly recommend Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery to anyone interested in the great purges that culminated some seventy-five years ago and more. ...more