Not really a biography. It read like a play, a one person show in which Berberova explains Blok, and channels him - performs her idea of Blok. LayersNot really a biography. It read like a play, a one person show in which Berberova explains Blok, and channels him - performs her idea of Blok. Layers of apocalypse: a "monstrous and insane" Europe readying a global war; the suicide of the Russian state; the revolt of the masses; the confusion of the intelligentsia; and the prescience and frantic motions of one generation of that tortured tribe, the Russian Poets. Discipleship, rivalries, love triangles. Night walks. Despair in the dram shop. "He was above all proud of knowing, of being prepared for the catastrophe for which there was no cure."...more
A disappointment in the same line as Bliss Broyard’s One Drop. The same sense of intimate access muddled by so-so writing, of strange people incompletA disappointment in the same line as Bliss Broyard’s One Drop. The same sense of intimate access muddled by so-so writing, of strange people incompletely rendered. The book never quite rose above the level of those “Nostalgia” columns that run in US Vogue wherein the children of forgotten icons share bittersweet memories of their parents' lives off-stage. These brilliantly twisted people deserve a better biographer than their daughter. Worth skimming, though, if you’re obsessed, as I am, with stories of aristocratic Russian émigrés, traumatized but proud, making their way in the literary, artistic, and fashionable circles of the West, dazzling and scandalizing with their weird erotic verve, severe manners, hermetic emotional privacy, and strong, archly accented opinions. ...more
Like Ségur's account of the retreat from Moscow and Grant’s Personal Memoirs, Pushkin’s History of the Pugachev Revolt narrates a welter of insane shiLike Ségur's account of the retreat from Moscow and Grant’s Personal Memoirs, Pushkin’s History of the Pugachev Revolt narrates a welter of insane shit – axe-armed peasant mobs, the flaying-alive of corpulent gentry, total civic breakdown in which “the simple people did not know whom to obey” – in an coolly “classical” style; that is, a style terse and spare, unemphatic, unshockable, and above all, swift. Pushkin moves the story along, records but does not dwell on the bizarre; merely hints at the picturesque. An example: the Russian cavalry, pursuing Pugachev’s nucleus-band of mutinous Cossacks across some desolate stretch of the steppe, stops to interrogate the area hermits. The hermits! Pushkin records what the hermits said – and that’s all. The cavalry rides on. The only thing he tells us about the hermits is where they directed the cavalry. Undescribed, they simply point the way to the narrative’s next phase. I’m sure Pushkin could have colored them in – he knew the Imperial archives inside and out, and did months of fieldwork in the formerly rebellious regions – but his style would not admit such indulgent atmospherics. Not that I’m complaining. The styles of Ségur, Pushkin, and Grant ache with the suggested, the not-fully-pictured; and I like that ache, especially in Grant, whose style puts the plain yet cryptic man of contemporary accounts in the room with you.
Mirsky said that Pushkin was, at heart, too much the eighteenth century classicist narrator to analyze the social conflict behind the Pugachev revolt to ttwentieth century satisfaction. Certainly – but this book contained plenty to trouble the chauvinist. Czar Nicholas I, Pushkin’s personal censor, demanded the original title, The History of Pugachev, be changed to The History of the Pugachev Revolt — because “a rebel,” he said, “could not have a history.” Nicholas’s reaction is understandable, but like all autocrats he plugged one leak merely to open another. To reduce Pugachev to his real stature as an opportunistic bandit is the raise the question of his opportunity. And Pushkin is very clear that his opportunity was the fundamental discontent of the propertyless:
Pugachev was fleeing, but his flight seemed like an invasion. Never had his victories been more horrifying; never had the rebellion raged with greater force. The insurrection spread from village to village, from province to province. Only two or three villains had to appear on the scene, and the whole region revolted. Various bands of plunderers and rioters were formed, each having its own Pugachev…
Ironically, Pushkin’s romance of the revolt, The Captain’s Daughter, with its attractive, at times honorable, and charismatically central Pugachev, lets the Czarist state off the hook. It only fleetingly mentions the series of mutinies, going back decades, of the Cossack and other steppe horse tribes that had entered Russian service as guards of empire's fluid frontiers with the Ottoman sultan and the Shah of Persia, only to find themselves oppressed and robbed by local Czarist officialdom. The Captain’s Daughter also says nothing about a significant portion of the Pugachev hordes, the “factory peasants,” serfs uprooted from the land and made to toil in the mines, foundries and arsenals of the military-industrial base Peter the Great established to equip the armies and fleets of his new, modern, European state. The social changes wrought by modernizing Peter fascinated Pushkin, and appear in all the modes he wrote in -- lyric, prosaic, historical.
So yeah, highly recommended. A swift and economical account of a rebellion astonishing in its duration, scope, and ferocity.
My favorite scene is the valedictory debauch staged by Pushkin’s maternal grandfather, Osip Abramovich Gannibal. The Gannibals – that unlikely Afro-BaMy favorite scene is the valedictory debauch staged by Pushkin’s maternal grandfather, Osip Abramovich Gannibal. The Gannibals – that unlikely Afro-Baltic family of artillerists and siege engineers. The founder, the “dark star of Russia’s Enlightenment” (said Voltaire), was emancipated and experimentally educated by Peter the Great (who wished to demonstrate to the “backward” Russians that if Africans could learn modern science, so could they), and the sons born to him by a Swedish noblewoman were pillars of Catherine’s establishment and heroes of her wars with the Turks. (The mingled blood of Cameroon and Sweden, fighting for Russia against the Ottomans - what a world! Peter conferred the surname - what else would you call a family of African soldiers?) Once a naval officer, Osip Abramovich had “sacrificed everything to his passion” – in the translator’s (and presumably Tynyanov’s) terse, resonant style that means not simply his passion for the mistress for whose sake he abandoned his family, but his violently sensual nature as a whole. When the book begins Osip Abramovich is ailing and obese, weezing out his last days on his dilapidated estate at Mikhailovskoe – where his grandson will later live under house-arrest – amid a sloppy harem of barefoot peasant girls. In a scene that Claire Denis directed in my head, five sweating servants carry him in his chair out to the banya. One night this wasteland Sardanapalus decides to end it all:
Masha danced for him without a stitch on. He wanted to get up but couldn’t move. Only his lips and fingers trembled like Masha’s gyrating hips. The musicians performed his favorite song more and more loudly and rapidly, the servant-boy beat the tambourine without stopping. Masha’s feet moved faster and faster.
“Ah, white swan!” the old man groaned.
He waved his hand, grasped a big fistful of air, closed his fingers tightly and burst into tears. His hand fell down, his head dangled. Tears were rolling down his face onto his thick lower lip and he swallowed them slowly.
He then orders half his wine distributed to the serfs, the other half mixed with oats in a giant tub and fed to the horses he’s set loose.
The wind was blowing into the living room. He sat by the open window and took in the chill night air through his open mouth. It was dark outside. Tossing their manes with loud neighs, throwing up clods of earth with their stamping hoofs, the drunken horses galloped past the windows.
I also liked Tynyanov’s portrait of Pushkin’s unhappy parents. They are the definition of shabby gentility. His father, Sergey Lvovich, is slippery, vain, forever sneaking out, bluffing, cutting corners, trying to be grand on a budget, desperate to convince the world – and above all, himself – that he is a rakish dandy, of perfect taste and ancient lineage, a gallant man of lighthearted letters, while in fact he is a henpecked wage-earner whose musty title means nothing when each Tsar ennobles a new generation of grateful and obligated sycophants. Pushkin’s mother sleeps so late as to seem depressively bed-bound. Like her husband she funnels her attention and resources to appearances. The Pushkins ride off well-accoutered to balls, leaving in their wake filthy rooms, abused servants and ignored children. Aleksandr is left for years in the care of the émigré Montfort, the shambles of a French nobleman held together by the excitement of intrigues with the maids and by reviving doses of his mysterious “balm.” Young Pushkin doesn’t drop a tear when he leaves home for the Imperial Lyceum, where a meritocratic mixture of boys is educated under the eyes of the Tsar in the palace at Tsarskoe Selo – “Tsar’s Village” – a eerie little theme park of autocracy and official glory where one can “unexpectedly come upon a statue or a sentry among the trees, or feel somebody watching you.”
Pushkin’s mother is a cipher, except as the channel through which the Gannibals’ passionate African blood reaches Pushkin (he saw it that way, and said it proudly, remember his was the age of Byron, exoticism, fatality), and the book is really about how the poet was formed by his father and his uncle, and his school fellows. The exiled Vladislav Khodasevich (“the greatest Russian poet that the twentieth century has yet produced,” said Nabokov clearly and loudly, so someone please commission an English translation of Necropolis – a memoir, not verse, so you can’t cry “poetry doesn’t sell” – and slap that fucking blurb on the cover. I mean Jesus Christ! We all know Andrei Bely’s name partly because Nabokov, so often resented by émigrés for leaving the mother tongue for English, made a point to use his post-Lolita celebrity to herald obscured Silver Agers, untranslatable though they may be. Dalkey, NUP European Classics, NYRB Classics, do this! Calasso’s Adelphi made an Italian translation in 1986), in one of the Pushkin studies in prose he wrote during his terminal poetic muteness, when he saw Pushkin’s “long, life-giving ray” dimming over the diasporic cities, was interested in reconstructing Pushkin’s “psychic metabolism,” the process by which a biographical fact was transformed into an artistic one. Khodasevich wondered how many of the boudoirs of older ladies, young Pushkin’s lovers, stand behind that of the Countess in “The Queen of Spades.” I feel Tynyanov was on a similar historical-aesthetic hunt, but he seems to have been interested in the formative force of the male boudoir, the gentleman’s locked library of anti-clerical satires, ribald verse and curious engravings. Boy Pushkin ranged freely in this masculine domain, as his later masters at the Lyceum, anxious prigs, realized to their envious horror. In Tynyanov’s telling Pushkin was a perceptive if barely noticed spectator of his father and uncle, of the advance and retreat of their vanities, of their preparations for presentation – and of their attempts at poetic fame. Sergey Lvovich periodically repairs to his library to nervously verify then gratefully fondle the old parchments of the Pushkin title. (I had never quite felt the Petrine order of civil ranks before Tynyanov showed me the class anxiety it generated, civilians strutting about in ribbons and decorations.) Tynyanov died of multiple sclerosis during World War Two, having imagined Pushkin up to age 21, when he was banished to an army outpost on the Caucasian frontier, so there’s no telling how (or if) he would have connected the poet’s witness of the male boudoir to the later works, or to his death drama, when Pushkin’s “passionate” pride broke its bonds and demanded satisfaction – even from a symbolic, deputy evil. He was carried to his library, gut-shot, and placed on a couch. He died slow. “‘Farewell, friends,’ Pushkin said softly, glancing around, perhaps taking leave of his books” (Vitale). Tsar Nicholas I, in fear of a popular demonstration, ordered Pushkin interred under cover of dark, hugger-mugger. “The first thing I learned about Pushkin is that they killed him,” wrote Tsvetaeva, “Pushkin was my first poet and my first poet was killed.” This paragraph took a long time to get to its point because I’m too fond of parenthetic vistas.
The style of the translation is easy, anecdotal, sharply scenic. The sentences and the chapters are short. The translator calls Tynyanov’s Russian style “cinematic” but you could just as easily say Franco-epistolary. I like reading about Russia in this era because it was such an interesting Northern copy of French fashions in thought, manners, and dress. I thought of the letters of Madame de Sévigné and others I encountered in Craveri’s The Age of Conversation. I felt I was reading letters from a friend recounting the doings of mutual acquaintances. The characterization is elegant, gossipy – superficial in the best sense, that of letting someone’s surface – their reported action, situation, manners – suggest their deep nature. After the interlude of Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow, we check in with Pushkin’s parents:
Sergey Lvovich and Nadezhda Osipova had not returned to Moscow. A vacancy had turned up in Warsaw and Sergey Lvovich was going to take it. The experience of the journey, the remoteness of the place from the capitals that had failed to appreciate him, Warsaw itself with its great number of charming Polish women – all aspects of his new appointment appealed to him. Although his rank remained the same, the move to such a remote province was an attractive enough prospect in itself. He was in no hurry, however, to go off to the outskirts of the Empire and had been finding pleasant uses for his traveling expenses.
And there you have him. One of the translators, Anna Kurkina Rush (she and Christopher Rush are the other connubial translating team), even says that Tynyanov’s portrait of Sergey Lvovich is superior to that of the pure biographers because he is shown in the midst of his failures, when those failures could be dismissed as minor setbacks, or were still hopeful schemes.
The Russian “Formalists” would be one of the great literary boy bands – with the Surrealists, whose line-up I can’t keep straight, what with Breton and his banishments; the “New York School,” Manhattan flaneurs and art critics when not poets, Whitman’s and Baudelaire’s gay grandsons (Whitman was a poet and opera-reviewer in 1850s New York but affected the accessories of an Irishman, a Bowery tough, and so is the original “hipster”; and ok, Koch was straight, but I only know him as an anthologist not that anthologists suck, Words for the Wind introduced 16-year-old me to “A Cloud in Trousers”); and the Beats, the cozy avant-garde save that three-piece-suited pervert Burroughs, aka Zombie Walter Bridge, though even he can be cuted-up – if Viktor Shklovsky weren’t so exclusively distinct, like a lead singer. So distinct that the non-Russian reader is able to discern at least three sides of a complex man. He was a soldier, one of those Russians who fought a world and then a civil war, under the flags of three quickly successive regimes, an Imperial officer in 1914, a Red Cavalryman in 1922; a clowning theorist in proclamatory prose (even the literary critics shouted through semaphores, so to speak); and the man who, with Tynyanov, stood beside Osip Mandelstam to the very end. Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that the Shklovskys’ was the one house in Moscow “to which the outcast could always go.” There is, however, a faint acid, or perhaps a pitying I-told-you-so, in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s descriptions of the Formalists, particularly of Tynyanov. I assume that is so because the Formalists’ heyday, the early-mid 1920s, was the same time her husband was in creative crisis, despondent before the new order that loomed above the experimental frolics, and stunned that the traditions of Russian verse seemed to have lost spiritual prestige. When Stalin showed himself for what he was, Mandelstam nailed him in a single, fatal epigram. “Poetry is power,” M once said to Akhmatova in Voronezh, and she bowed her head on its slender neck.
This review is brought to you in part by my elation after seeing Terrence Malick’s new movie, To The Wonder. He is a great artist in our time, and watches us tenderly, though from a great height. ...more
Ripellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroiRipellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroic as any of Ulysses, I hear tell), and a servant of Czech letters whose devotion extended, in one instance, to the patient chaperoning of Věra Linhartová during her cognac-confused dipsomaniacal descent on Rome. Ripellino lived in Prague for some years after WWII, became a student of its various hauntings and urban demonology, its “lugubrious aura of decay…smirk of eternal disillusionment,” and married a Czech woman. Denied visas after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, he joined the émigrés in a sympathetic semi-exile, and under an exilic gloom compounded of ill-health and nostalgia, “despair and second thoughts,” composed Magic Prague—wistful anatomy, elegiac bricolage, “itinerary of the wondrous”:
How then can I write an exhaustive, well-ordered treatise like a detached and haughty scholar, suppressing my uneasiness, my restlessness with a rigor mortis of methodology and the fruitless discussions of disheartened formalists? No, I will weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores, and I will be gratified if, in contrast to so much of the printed flotsam and jetsam surrounding us, it is not dominated by boredom…I will fill these pages with scraps of pictures and daguerreotypes, old etchings, prints purloined from the bottoms of chests, réclames, illustrations out of old periodicals, horoscopes, passages from books on alchemy and travel books printed in Gothic script, undated ghost stories, album leaves and keys to dreams: curios of a vanished culture.
That Magic Prague is consistently passionate, that Ripellino never succumbs to boredom, is remarkable when one considers that most of the book is devoted not to Kafka or Hašek or Apollinaire—subjects of inherent interest—but to a vast corpus of forgotten crap, an unread library of “mawkish novelettes” harboring “all the lachrymose resources of the nineteenth century,” all “the hackneyed devices and trite horrors of late Romanticism.” (Some titles: Spawn of Satan, The Crucified Woman, The Cremator.) Ripellino boldly gambled that his summaries of “Prague horror-tale kitsch” would be fun to read, and profound. He’s obsessed with the mutation of motifs, the process by which Prague’s traumatic and macabre history, like St. Petersburg’s, gave rise to a demonic mythos—the golem legends, rabbinic esoterica, alchemist cabals, fabled dungeon languishers and eerily ecstatic religious statuary; the brooding, self-sequestered princes, the closed caste of intermarried executioners; the “monsters and infernalia,” storied massacres and famous ghosts that thrilled and nourished the Gothic romancers of middle Europe, as well as their assorted twentieth century progeny: Decadents excited by infamy and decay, Surrealist students of obscenity, a duo of Dadaist clowns. The Romantic agony is just one thematic cluster, one path through Magic Prague, but the morbidity of the nineteenth century occasions, I think, Ripellino’s most compelling insights into the way memory emerges from history, culture from circumstance, writing from life. In a representative passage, Ripellino examines the literary figuration of the Baroque churches and statuary propagandistically imposed on Prague by the forces of Catholic reaction after the Thirty Years’ War:
Lvovic ze Karásek transformed every church into a melancholy Panoptikum, dwelling on the decay of the altar flowers, the languor of the statues outlined by garments of glossy creased silk, the infirm penumbra of the sanctuaries and the White Mountain dirges. When the Decadents used churches to exalt the corruption of the flesh, the ecstasy of martyrdom and the rapture of sainthood, they were simply indulging in a predilection for the Baroque, a Prague constant…Karásek painted the mystery of Prague’s sanctuaries in even bleaker colors in the novel Gothická duše (A Gothic Soul). The hero, the last scion of a noble line with a long history of insanity, is a Rudolf-like hypochondriac. Fearing he too will go mad (he does in the end—and dies in a mental hospital), he retreats into solitude, his greatest delights the smell of incense and wilted flowers, the sight of “glass coffins containing embalmed cadavers atop the altars.” He also feels drawn to the Barnabites or Discalced Carmelites, who live like moles in the darkness of mystical reclusion. Their lugubrious cloister near the Castle was shrouded in wildly imaginative legends. People said that before taking vows each novice had to remove the ring from the shriveled hand of the terrifying mummy of the Blessed Electa at midnight. During mass the faithful heard the chanting voices of those buried alive coming from the bowels of the church and saw the flickering of troubled eyes behind its rusty gratings. “The altars rose like shapeless catafalques.” “Only the main altar, covered with candles beneath the image of St. Theresa, fervent in her devotion to Christ, shone like a great pyramid of liquefied gold, glowed like an immense castrum doloris.” The church deranges the Gothic Soul; it drives him mad. The by-then jejune motif of the haunted basilica acquires new vigor in the myth of a lifeless, funereal Prague.
In 1915, with Europe aflame in what everyone thought would be its worst war, W.E.B. Du Bois published a theory of the belligerents’ motives in the AtlIn 1915, with Europe aflame in what everyone thought would be its worst war, W.E.B. Du Bois published a theory of the belligerents’ motives in the Atlantic Monthly. “The African Roots of War” argued that the proverbial chickens had come home to roost: that imperial competition, especially the “scramble for Africa,” had created the jealousies fueling the war, and had raised the stakes almost to preclude a lasting peace. “The Balkans are convenient for occasions, but the ownership of materials and men in the darker world is the real prize that is setting the nations of Europe at each others’ throats to-day.” Du Bois’ tone is not one of mordant gloating, but rather deep alarm at what the colonizing mindset and respectable, “scientific” racism might do to Europe in the future—and Du Bois knew something of Europe’s ethnic conflicts. David Levering Lewis describes how during vacations of the University of Berlin, in the 1890s, graduate student Du Bois tramped the back roads of the German and Hapsburg dominions, to the gates of Tsardom, once staying in Kraków with a classmate, later a victim of the camps, who had told him that if he really wanted to see a race problem surpassing that of the US, he should come observe German-Polish competition in the borderlands.
I don’t know what Du Bois thought of the Nazis, but given the prophecy of “The African Roots of War,” I doubt he was surprised that the defeated imperial power, stripped of its colonies and shut out of the race for more, tried to colonize Europe itself. Du Bois may have even thought what Mazower quotes the Martinican poet and theorist of Négritude Aimé Césaire as thinking—that Europeans had tolerated “Nazism before it was inflicted on them…they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.” The Nazis certainly ruled Eastern Europe confident in colonial precedent. Hitler frequently referred to the peoples in the way of Lebensraum as “redskins,” “Red Indians.” In 1942 one official wrote that the methods being used by Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel in his round-ups of slave labor for the Reich’s war plants “probably have their origin in the blackest periods of the slave trade.” Reichskommissar Ukraine Ernst Koch referred to his subjects as “niggers,” and “that nigger people.” Koch’s deputy, Generalkommissar Frauenfeld, said his chief’s policies comprised “points of view and methods used in past centuries against colored slave peoples.” When the army high command recognized the need to cultivate Ukrainian nationalists as allies against the Soviets, the generals agreed “to take ‘no nigger attitude’ [Nicht Negerstandpunkt] towards the Ukrainians.” On the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Mussolini complained to the tiremaker Pirelli: “It is not possible to treat European countries like colonies.” “But this is just what the Germans intended to do.”
Hitler’s Empire is the perfect book to have read on the heels of Lieven’s Empire, in which Hitler’s regime is called “a product of modern pathology, not of traditional imperial thinking”—a regime that “combined all the worst aspects of European colonial empire since its inception, turned them into a policy, and carried them to their logical extreme.” Mazower’s book fleshes out Hitler’s imperial thinking—first and last “a violent fantasy of racial mastery.” Hitler was only half-right. The successful empires he envied had more to teach than “whites up, browns down.” Hitler always dismissed warnings of overreach by invoking British rule of India. That the British were able to control a subcontinent with a modest outlay of men and resources indicated to Hitler that their handful of colonial administrators were of such resplendent whiteness that the mottled masses of Asia could do naught but bow and obey. And so the Slavic Untermensch before the German Herrenvolk or Master Race. Hitler ignored or never learned about India’s co-opted princes, or the native civil service, English-speaking and assimilated, that ran the country day-to-day. The conquest of the American West was another misread precedent. Hitler pointed his generals to Karl May’s Wild West pulp novels for strategic wisdom, referred to the Slavs as “Red Indians,” and rode around Europe in an armored train christened “Amerika”. He mistakenly believed that the US had totally exterminated the Native Americans, and never seems to have seriously considered if any Germans actually wanted to leave their homes and go as pioneers to Ukrainian farmsteads, or to have ever wondered if conquering and ruling the Polish, Czech and Russian nation-states might pose more complex, or even simply different, challenges than those America faced in subduing nomadic tribes of hunger-gatherers. Hitler emerges from Mazower’s pages as the quintessential crackpot pseudointellectual—proud in the discovery of seeming parallels, oblivious to subtle distinctions, and engaged in an alchemiac quest to divine immutable historical laws.
Hitler seems to have read just enough to apply real place-names to his apocalyptic futurology; his comic book grandeurs date from when America was Land of the Future. He thought his empire would rewind history, drawing back to Germany the descendants of those who had immigrated to North and South America in the previous century. He wanted Berlin’s new railway station to be larger than Grand Central Station, the new Elbe bridge modeled on San Francisco’s Golden Gate, but totally, like, bigger and stuff. Hamburg’s regional party headquarters would be housed in a skyscraper—expressly dwarfing the Empire State Building—“that would be visible for miles, with a huge neon swastika to guide shipping.” And with the Allies bombing from above and battering the gates, Hitler continued to mumble about the “wonder weapons” whose deployment would shatter his foes. Hitler is MF Doom’s “Lego-megalomaniac,” giddy over scale models of his sci-fi Berlin, his monumental metropolis, and crouching to gaze a bleary eye down its small triumphal avenues. Bolaño makes science fiction one of the major genres of Nazi Literature in the Americas:
Gustavo Borda was just over five feet tall; he had a swarthy complexion, thick black hair, and enormous very white teeth. His characters, by contrast, are tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed. The spaceships that appear in his novels have German names. Their crews are German too. The colonies in space are called New Berlin, New Hamburg, New Frankfurt, and New Koenigsberg. His cosmic police dress like SS officers who have somehow managed to survive into the twenty-second century.
The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s novella ostensibly about young lovers caught up in Pugachev’s peasant-Cossack revolt against Catherine the Great, boThe Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s novella ostensibly about young lovers caught up in Pugachev’s peasant-Cossack revolt against Catherine the Great, bored me to tears in college; but I wanted to reacquaint myself with it in order to read “Pushkin and Pugachev,” Marina Tsvetaeva’s critical essay, and companion to her astounding memoir "My Pushkin." Now, that may be putting the critical cart before the creative horse, but Tsvetaeva is a great poet, too, and “criticism” a poor word for her ecstatic communion with Pushkin, for the hallucinatory intensity of imagery that even in translation made me slightly dizzy. (Joseph Brodsky said that while Tsvetaeva may have written prose, she never stooped to the prosaic.) I nodded vigorously when Tsvetaeva declared that, for her, The Captain’s Daughter has no captain, and he has no daughter—nodded not because I have the same measure of exalted contempt for the conventional romance and sitcom-like spousal comedy that frames or distracts from what she sees as the prophetic demonism, the sacred spell, of Pushkin’s Pugachev—
Oh, how thoroughly is that classical book—magical. How thoroughly—hypnotic (for Pugachev, all of him, in spite of our reason and conscience, is forced upon us by Pushkin—breathed into us: we don’t want to, but we see him; we don’t want to, but we love him), so much is that book like sleep, like dreaming. All [Grinyov’s] encounters with Pugachev are from that same region of his dream about the killing and loving peasant. A dream prolonged and brought to life. It is because of that, perhaps, that we do give ourselves over to Pugachev, because it is a dream, that is, we are in the complete captivity and complete freedom of a dream. The commandant, Vasilisa Egorovna, Shvabrin, Catherine—all that is bright day and we, reading, remain of sane mind and memory. But as soon as Pugachev enters the scene—all that is over: it is black night. Not the heroic commandant, nor Vasilisa Egorovna who loves him, nor Grinyov’s love affair no one and nothing can over come in us Pugachev. Pushkin has brought Pugachev on us…the way you bring on sleep, a fever, a spell…
—but simply because conventional romance and sitcom-like spousal comedy are boring, while “a Russian rebellion, senseless and merciless,” is exciting. That’s how prosaic I am; mystic lucubration on Russia’s Destiny is less important to me. The first half of the novella, in which the young officer Grinyov falls in love with Masha, the eponymous daughter, fights a duel with her former suitor, and eludes the counsels of his manservant, a C-3PO of fretful prudence, is the snooze I remember; but once the revolt starts—oh yeah! One minute you’re experiencing the genial torpor of garrison life, listening to the captain and his wife bicker around the hearth and thinking, man, Gogol does this so much better…and the next, villages are on fire, prisoners swing from gibbets, and you’re cowering at the boots of a rebel chieftain. "Pugachev gave a sign and I was instantly untied and set free. 'Our father has pardoned you,' they said." In one very powerful scene, Grinyov’s superiors at Fort Belogorsk capture a Bashkir they think is spying for Pugachev. They start to torture him for information, but stop, chastened, when they realize that the man had his tongue cut out as punishment for participation in a previous uprising. “It’s plain to see you’re an old wolf who’s been in our traps.”
Readying myself for Tsvetaeva I should have also read Pushkin’s The History of the Pugachev Revolt, the history he wrote a few years before The Captain’s Daughter, as historiographer to the Czar, with a key to the Imperial archives. The contrast of Pushkin’s two Pugachevs—the historical personage and the fictional symbol; the low killer in the documents and the complex, great-hearted bandit in the fable—inspires Tsvetaeva’s usual brilliant reflections on documentary versus imaginative truth, poetic “rightness” versus accuracy. She knows that our need of mythic symmetry is as true, as undeniable and inevitable, as life’s inchoate squalor. And I really respond to her obsession with the potency of symbols and fairy tales. The Captain’s Daughter was considered a childrens' book, at least in Tsvetaeva’s girlhood, and she first read it at age 7. The Pugachev of The Captain’s Daughter is a source of sublime or childish terror, fearsome but incapable of inflicting suffering.
In The Captain’s Daughter Pushkin-the-historiographer is vanquished by Pushkin-the-poet, and the last word about Pugachev in us remains forever with the poet.
Pushkin showed us the Pugachev of the Pugachev Revolt, he infused us with Pugachev of The Captain’s Daughter. And no matter how much we may have studied, no matter how often we may have re-read The History of the Pugachev Revolt, as soon as the unknown thing looms black in the snowstorm of The Captain’s Daughter—we forget everything, all our bad experiences with Pugachev and with history, exactly the same as in love—all our bad experiences with love.
For the spell is older than experience. For the tale is older than the record. Older in the life of the earth’s sphere and older too in the life of a human being.
…the infallible feeling of the poet for…well allright, maybe not what was, but what might have been. What ought to have been…
It can be said that The Captain’s Daughter was being written within him simultaneously with The History of the Pugachev Revolt, was co-written with it, that it grew out of every line of the latter, outgrew every line, was being written above the page, formed an order above it, an order, a structure in itself, freely and lawfully, as a living refutation created here by the poet’s hand: of the untruth of the facts—the work wrote itself.
“A deception that elevates us is dearer than a host of low facts.”
Tsvetaeva reworks T.S. Eliot's line "mankind cannot bear much reality" as if to say: Russians cannot bear a Pugachev who tears out peoples' eyeballs or shoots children. "The fate of Kamitsky [strangled and thrown into the Volga] is the potential fate of Grinyov himself: here is what would have happened to Grinyov if he had met up with Pugachev not in the pages of The Captain's Daughter, but in the pages of The History of the Pugachev Revolt."
One reaches the end of this idiosyncratic travelogue to find Mayakovsky straightfacedly declaring that the aim of the foregoing sketches “is to induceOne reaches the end of this idiosyncratic travelogue to find Mayakovsky straightfacedly declaring that the aim of the foregoing sketches “is to induce study of America’s weaknesses and strengths, in anticipation of the prolonged struggle ahead.” Huh? My Discovery of America (1925) has its Communistic boilerplate (some of it very funny), and on a jaunt out to Coney Island Mayakovsky plays the glum Comrade—
On my way out, I decided that it was not the thing to leave Luna Park without even trying a single amusement. They were all the same to me, and I began a melancholy slinging of rings at the twirling figures of dolls.
—but the idea that this book—a sensibility on tour, full of the poet’s peculiar lyric wit and comic braggadocio—could function as some sort of strategic fact-finding report is just ridiculous. Mayakovsky’s attempts to serve the state with art, to league the artistic and political avant-gardes, tended to backfire. He completely alienated Lenin with his verse epic 150,000,000 (1921), which attacked Anglo-American meddling in the Russian Civil War. Lenin was repulsed by the poem’s bizarre climax, in which a superman peasant named Ivan, who has 150,000,000 heads (the population of the USSR about 1920) wades across the Atlantic to grapple, Godzilla vs. Ghidorah-like, with an equally colossal Woodrow Wilson, whose top hat (the cartoon iconography of capitalism!) is the size of the Eiffel Tower.
Mayakovsky embarks at Le Havre. Various Spanish ports, then Cuba. While the ship is coaling at Havana, he wanders the docks, and during a sudden downpour shelters in a warehouse stocked ceiling-high with British whiskey awaiting secret shipment to the dry States (he also mentions that during Prohibition international liners were forbidden to serve alcohol while in US territorial waters). Landing at Vera Cruz, Mexico, he’s shocked to learn that the majestic literary Indians of James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Mayne Reid are downtrodden coolies. Diego and Frida show him samples of pre-Columbian art. He marvels at Mexico City’s chaotic traffic, recreational gunplay, incessant revolution and yearly, monthly presidents. He crosses the border at Laredo, Texas. Stops in St. Louis and Philadelphia don’t fully prepare him for the “technological fantasyland” of New York City, the Metropolis-cityscape of electrified skyscrapers, elevated trains, and façades whose “evenly chiseled windows are like a stenciled advertizing poster.”
I like this jerky, variegated Vertov-like reel of New York works and days:
Up until one o’clock, typewriters chatter, jacketless people sweat, columns of figures lengthen on paper.
At one o’clock comes a break: an hour for the office workers, and fifteen minutes for the laborers.
Everyone’s lunch is dependent on the weekly wage. The fifteen-dollar people buy a dry snack in a paper bag for a nickel and munch away with the full zest of youth.
The thirty-five-a-week lot go to a huge mechanized eating point. Having shoved in their five cents, they press a knob, and an exactly measured quantity of coffee splashes out into a cup. And for another two or three nickels they can open one of the little glass doors to the sandwiches on the huge shelves piled with comestibles.
The sixty-dollar types eat gray pancakes with golden syrup and eggs in the countless Childses-Rockefeller cafés—as white as any bathroom.
The hundred-dollar-and-plus people go to restaurants of all the nationalities—Chinese, Russian, Assyrian, French, Hindu—anywhere except the tasteless American ones which guarantee you gastritis with Armour tinned meat that’s been lying around almost since the War of Independence.
After New York he trains back into the heartland. In Chicago he tours slaughterhouses amid “squealing, mooing and bleating” “the like of which will not be heard again until the end of the world, when people and livestock get squashed between merging rock faces.” Like Nabokov two decades later, he’s horrified by the gaudily hand painted neckties—“of a color like a cross between a canary, a fire and the Black Sea.” In Detroit he considers the absurdities of driving and parking; the inadequacy of newsreels to represent the Ford assembly line; the workers financing bourgeois amenities with credit; the provisional, “bivouac structure” of American architecture, in which each building “looks contrived, hastily converted from whatever it might have been, and due for demolition upon the rapid completion of its moment of indispensability.” On the voyage back, a group of footloose young Americans consumes the ship’s entire store of champagne.
A stand-apart Russian edition I didn’t read. But Tsvetaeva’s hallucinatory-recollective essay—or, the forty pages of ploddingly end-noted, sometimes cA stand-apart Russian edition I didn’t read. But Tsvetaeva’s hallucinatory-recollective essay—or, the forty pages of ploddingly end-noted, sometimes clunky translatorese I’ll probably always know it in—deserves its own consideration.
The first thing I learned about Pushkin is that they killed him. Pushkin was my first poet and my first poet was killed.
That which is eternal, under the rain and under the snow—oh, how I can see those shoulders loaded down with snow, the African shoulders loaded down and overwhelmed with Russian snows!—it stands, shoulders into the sunset sky or into the snowstorm, whether I am coming or going, running away or running up to it, it stands with the eternal hat in the hand, it is called “The Pushkin Monument.”
The Pushkin Monument was the goal and limit of a walk: from the Pushkin Monument—to the Pushkin Monument. The Pushkin Monument was also the goal of a race: who can run faster up to the Pushkin Monument. Except that Asya’s nurse in her simplicity sometimes shortened it: “And we’ll sit a bit—by Pushkin”; which unfailingly provoked my pedantic correction: “Not Pushkin by Pushkin—by the Pushkin Monument.”
The forbidden cabinet. The forbidden fruit. That fruit is—a volume, a huge blue-lilac volume with a gold inscription slantwise: Collected Works of A.S. Pushkin. I read the fat Pushkin in the cabinet with my nose in the book and on the shelf, almost in darkness and almost right up against it and even a little bit suffocated by his weight that came right into the throat, and almost blinded by the nearness of the tiny letters. I read Pushkin right into the chest and right into the brain.
After the secret blue-lilac Pushkin, another Pushkin appeared in my possession, this time not stolen, but given, not secret, but open, not flatly-blue, but thinly-blue—the disarmed, pacified Pushkin of the edition of municipal schools with a Negro boy propping up one cheekbone with a fist.
In that Pushkin I loved only the Negro boy. Incidentally, I consider this juvenile Negro portrait to this day the best of the portraits of Pushkin, a portrait of his distant African soul and the still sleeping poetic soul. A portrait in two distances: far back and far ahead; a portrait of his blood and of his imminent genius.
In “My Pushkin,” Tsvetaeva is never older than ten. The site of tradition’s reception is the child of the girl of the woman who would become a great poet:
The compiler of the anthology obviously had his doubts about the accessibility to a young age group of the concepts of longing, forebodings, cares, oppressive thoughts, and the repetition of hours. I would not have understood, but I would have filled it out. And stored it up. Looking back, I see now that Pushkin’s poems…were for me at pre-seven and at seven a series of enigmatic pictures, enigmatic only because of mother’s questions, for in poems, as in feelings, only a question engenders noncomprehension by withdrawing phenomena from the status of basic data. When mother didn’t ask questions I understood very well, that is, I didn’t even think of understanding, but simply—saw.
There are passages—passages built too intimately-allusively around poems I haven’t read, passages in which the translator tried to render Russian paronomasia—that remain enigmatic; but I “filled it out,” and can feel the grandeur of Tsvetaeva's avowal of poetry, of the spell, of The Word—words that before they deliver a message already have a meaning...words of the animal’s, the child’s dream language.
Judging by the 1846 portrait reproduced in this fascinating little book, Custine was much more handsome and vigorous than the cadaverous old queen whoJudging by the 1846 portrait reproduced in this fascinating little book, Custine was much more handsome and vigorous than the cadaverous old queen who plays him in Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). Perhaps Sokurov’s casting choices represent a defensive demonization, of a piece with the long tradition of ambivalence about the man who so luridly exposed Russian despotism, and who in so doing denied the efficacy of Russian liberalism by implicating all the intellectuals who half-willingly, self-tormentedly wore the Czar’s livery. As Pushkin said, “I despise my country from head to toe, but I am angry when a foreigner shares my feeling.”
Custine made his journey to Russia—a journey Kennan thinks inspired by Tocqueville’s prediction, made at the close of vol. 1 of Democracy in America, that America and Russia would dominate the world in the twentieth century—with the encouragement of, with letters of introduction from and to, the intelligentsia of Pushkin’s generation: embittered idealists, almost-Decemberists afflicted with survivors’ guilt and characterized, in Kennan’s words, by
the defensive edginess of previously liberal figures who had survived the Decemberist affair and had lived to experience the severe strains which the Polish uprising placed upon their faith in their own country and their fading idealism.
Custine’s relations and circumstances of contact with these men are mysterious and difficult to disentangle. Kennan relates an intriguing possibility that they hoped Custine would be a mouthpiece of their brand of embattled liberalism:
M. Michel Cadot has mentioned, in his treatise, interesting possibility that Turgenev, Kozlovski, Chaadayev, and probably others as well, seized the occasion of Custine’s visit to get before the European public a picture of the state of affairs in Russia which none of them was in a position to paint, but which they all wanted to see made known. If so, they must have been frightened by the results of their efforts; for the picture came out in colors obviously more lurid and dangerous than anything they had intended.
Kennan says that Custine’s La Russie en 1839 was not a very good book about Russia in 1839; but, disturbingly, it “was an excellent book, probably the best of books, about the Russia of Joseph Stalin.” Spooky! This is so because, Kennan says, of the three main currents in nineteenth century Russian politics—the autocracy, the liberals, the revolutionaries—Custine was cognizant only of the first and third, of Russia at its most xenophobic, secretive, cynical and messianic. La Russie en 1839 was ignored for much of the later nineteenth century because Russian liberalism (abolition of serfdom, relaxation of censorship, erection of the rule of law) was then in the ascendant; but the book became deeply relevant when Russian liberalism was killed off and the autocratic and revolutionary spirits joined to make the Soviet state and revive all the “archaic traits of the Russian political personality” that Custine had seized on during his short glimpsing visit. No wonder Russian liberals hated Custine! His book must have read like a nightmare dystopia—Russia in 1939!—whose prophecy was the extinction of all their hopes.
Patrick Leigh Fermor relied on a Rhine barge, the odd lorry lift and his own two legs to carry him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia aPatrick Leigh Fermor relied on a Rhine barge, the odd lorry lift and his own two legs to carry him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Northern Hungary. Now, he’s crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback:
Whenever he got the chance, Malek broke into a canter, and one of these bursts turned into a long twilight gallop...
Back in Budapest, Leigh Fermor had fallen in with a “noctambulistic” smart set (cellar nightclubs, scotch-and-soda, American jazz) whose country-housed, horse-lending cousinage extended deep into Hungary and Romania, along the still-twitching nerves of the old empire. With these connections, much of the eight months of 1934 recollected in Between the Woods and the Water (1986) pass in summery sojourn among the old Hapsburg nobility, our erudite wanderer pausing for weeks at a time to sample the “learning, munificence, and douceur de vivre” of that soon-to-be-swept-away class. Suddenly, the crushing hike described in this book and its predecessor, A Time of Gifts, seems doable when each stretch is recouped with picnics, tournaments of bicycle polo, and undisturbed hours in manorial libraries in which the lore and languages of the dominions just crossed can be learned from the lord’s own incunables and troves of ancient parchment.
Leigh Fermor makes all kinds of friends (gold-panning Gypsies, bawdy village crones, sun-brown reapers, a Transylvanian shepherd, even an impenetrably reserved Orthodox rabbi), but it’s his reports from within the “manor houses harbouring over-civilised boyars up to their ears in Proust and Mallarmé” that define this book. Marooned on reduced estates, strapped for cash, the Hapsburg grandees regale Leigh Fermor with memories of the Parisian belle époque, of Edwardian regattas out of Portsmouth, and bemoan the provinciality of the new nations in which they find themselves—all in “fluent and marvelously antiquated English.” Leigh Fermor is not an explicit imperial nostalgist like Joseph Roth, but encountering his long view of the movements of people and customs across geography, of the migrations, exiles, conversions and conquests that compose Middle Europe—“[Turkish:] victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground”—one cannot help but feel the ridiculous imposture of nationalism, and the futility and pettiness of tribal purity as a pretension of statehood.
This rapport with the displaced was also a feature of A Time of Gifts. He carries into the marches of Transylvania a “beautiful little seventeenth-century duodecimo Horace from Amsterdam,” the gift of a Baltic grandee exiled to Germany:
It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather; the text had long s’s, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the giver’s bookplate and a skeleton-leaf from his Estonian woods.
Closing out the decade of the 1930s as the lover of a Moldavian princess, and residing with her “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning” family, Leigh Fermor was one of the rare Western Europeans appreciative of the Nabokovian political position—that is, he had equal contempt for the frank murderousness of Fascism and for the humanitarian pretentions of the Soviet Union:
From the end of these travels to the War, I lived, with a year’s interruption, in Eastern Europe, among friends I must call old-fashioned liberals. They hated Nazi Germany; but it was impossible to look eastwards for inspiration and hope, as their Western equivalents—peering from afar, and with the nightmare of only one kind of totalitarianism to vex them—felt able to do.
“Old fashioned liberals” is exactly the phrase Nabokov used to describe his family.
Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits include parachuting into Nazi-occupied Crete dressed as a shepherd. He hid out in the mountains, organized the resistance and, famously, coordinated the moonlight ambush, kidnapping and speedboat removal to Egypt of the island’s German commander.
He’s 95 now, living in Greece, in a house he designed and built (that casual English omni-competence! A brilliant prose stylist and daring commando, I bet he’s a great cook, too), and working busily on the third volume, which will take him through Bulgaria, Greece, and on to the goal of it all, Istanbul.