What I most remember about this book is how it came out just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and showed, by going through the Soviet Union's books,What I most remember about this book is how it came out just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and showed, by going through the Soviet Union's books, that the empire was vastly underfunded and on the brink of collapse. President Reagan's role in all this was to dramatically increase the U.S. defense budget knowing full well the Soviets could not match him. Shortly before the crash, I remember the truest sign of that Empire's dissolution showing itself in the form of a coup d'état—supposedly in reaction to Gorbachev's reforms while he was on vacation in Crimea. It was led, if we can use that word, by small group of elderly, white-haired Red Army generals sitting at a table. A pathetic display. But author Shelton saw it all coming, making this volume one of the few bits of journalistic clairvoyance it has ever been my pleasure to come across. Before you knew, it was 1991 and the USSR was belly up. May we never see its like again....more
Here's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; anHere's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; and three, now let's review what I've just told you. Every point is handled thus. The tedium! Nevertheless, it's D so I forced myself to read most of it. In the end the book fell heavily from my hands and I woke....more
D.M. Thomas's translations are surprisingly lyrical. There is the sense, so deftly is the prosody handled, that some of these were written in English.D.M. Thomas's translations are surprisingly lyrical. There is the sense, so deftly is the prosody handled, that some of these were written in English. One is filled with awe at times. How can these poems be so mesmerizingly lyrical? It's the earlier poems I prefer to the later serious ones, which tend to be be a slog. I think this volume, which contains the stirring "Requiem," is an excellent place for those curious about Akhmatova's poetry to start. Highly recommended....more
An elegant literary thriller. It’s 1937 and D is an operative in the Soviet security services who, along with Nadine, his lover and fellow agent, is sAn elegant literary thriller. It’s 1937 and D is an operative in the Soviet security services who, along with Nadine, his lover and fellow agent, is stationed in Paris. D, who poses as an antiques dealer, is appalled by the slaughter of his friends during Stalin’s show trials (see Robert Conquest's The Great Terror). He sends his letter of resignation prematurely to his superior, and then he and Nadine must run. In a drab hotel on Paris’s outskirts they keep Brownings on the bedside tables covered with silk handkerchiefs, ready for use. The nosy concierge, Gobfin, is an effete stool pigeon right out of Simenon who scares the living piss out of our heroes, who continue to run. There can be little question that Serge’s model for the first section--entitled “The Secret Agent”--is Conrad's The Secret Agent. There are touches of Simenon’s influence, too.
The second part, “The Flame Beneath the Snow,” focuses on the story of Daria, another of D’s Paris operatives. She’s just back from bleakest Kazakstan where she has been made to pay for her blameless association with D by years of work with impoverished Muslims. It’s 1943-44. We join Daria in the dead of winter descending into besieged Leningrad aboard a flak-riddled transport plane. Daria strikes us at first as a hypocrite, mouthing the absurd Soviet platitudes. In fact, although I always try to maintain objectivity, I’m afraid I weakened here and began to hate her a little. That’s how good the writing is. She composes journals so heavily self-censored that they’re little more than descriptions of the rain. For no names, no specifics about her many clandestine missions can ever be set to paper. But she’s a different person in private. After D and Paris her heart is no longer in the revolution. Once in Leningrad (one million Red Army soldiers and 643,000 civilians killed) she sleeps — how can she not! — with the athletically slim young Klimentii, a decorated soldier. Daria is assigned a desk job under Captain Potapov, whose long Dostoyevskian speech is a wonder of tortuous ratiocination.
So we find ourselves at a disadvantage, half beaten, yet doubly invincible since we cannot be beaten further without succumbing, and it is absolutely impossible for us to succumb.... ❡My guess is that the enemy deliberately put off the conquest of this position [Leningrad], when he could quite easily have taken it. He wanted to choose his moment, ensure his dominance over a hinterland, seize a great and serviceable port and not an isolated city, requiring to be fed, however little... It was a sensible decision but that moment has passed, never to return. In strategy as in life, lost opportunities are lost for good. The single factor of action with an overwhelming probability of disobedience is time, which is an admirable factor of inaction... (p. 132)
A lovely taste of the 19th century Russian novel here, I thought. Of course, Hitler’s plan all along was to destroy Leningrad, to leave no inhabitant alive for the very reason Potapov cites. Then Daria is assigned to work with six soldiers ordered to crawl across the frozen Neva, behind enemy lines, and capture one or more Germans for questioning.
Part three — “Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs” — is set in early April 1945 in flattened Berlin. The Allies are perhaps a week away from occupying the city. We begin in an air-raid shelter. Here is Brigitte, reduced to a tragic existence on the edge of madness, and Minus Two, a street-wise, prosthesis-adorned veteran. There are descriptions of Berlin streetscapes here that will curl your hair, or straighten it, depending. The overwhelming sense of loss, of destitution I can only hint at. This is the section of insanity. Many buildings have fallen on civilians which now reek of their contents. Every night the streets are destroyed but in the morning women and youngsters come out with their crude brooms to sweep up a semblance of the street grid. When the writing dips into the thoughts of Brigitte we are adrift, unmoored, grasping at figments.
Brigitte’s eyes opened again, her hands sank to rest on her knees, her shoulders drooped forward as though with lassitude. A stealthy tremor was starting up at the base of her being, like the buzzing of malevolent insects in the gloom, like the approach of a solitary bomber in the sky. It was only the approach of the nameless terror, senseless, bottomless, lightless, lifeless and deathless, unspeakable, unendurable, ungraspable, imponderable; a wave rising from the very depths of darkness... Brigitte was tearing something to pieces, trying to rip the smallest shreds between sore fingers until her nails were tearing at one another. What more to destroy, how to sleep, where to disappear? She began reeling about the narrow room in short, crazed lunges. (p. 206)
Brigitte may make love to a Wehrmacht soldier, Günther, who brings her the surviving bits of her fiancé’s letters. It’s hard to know, since by this point everything has become so dreamlike. Minus Two combs the lethal streets at night — amid groups of armed rouges, official and otherwise — to see what he can scrounge, for much can be traded on the black market for food. Then the section shifts to a battlefield surgery behind the ever contracting German lines. Erna Laub’s career as a nurse is itemized by way of a dossier review. She’s not very good at what she does. In fact, she’s terrible at it.
In part four, "Journey's End," we return to Daria, now in flight. She is not entirely sure she is not followed. Much of what she goes through here smacks of PTSD. Daria takes ship, moves through American heartland, describing an arc from Brooklyn to the mid-west and south to Mexico. (Where Serge himself made his final home, where he wrote this novel and Comrade Tulayev as well as his revolutionary memoirs, knowing they would not be published in his lifetime. That, my friends, is commitment.) Daria joins D and Nadine hidden away in a backwater under aliases. There’s an overwrought, turgid quality to the writing in thIs part. Meaning often eluded me. I don’t blame the translator since he’s just given us 250 beautiful pages. I think the abstraction probably exists in the original French (I’d be delighted to hear from other GR friends with an opinion). Either Serge did not have time to revise this last section as much as he wanted to do, or he felt this was appropriate language for Daria’s state of mind. Needless to say, I believe it was the former. Even with this stylistic quibble, however, I give the novel five stars and ardently recommended it. (PS Unforgiving Years would make a fantastic movie.)...more
Second reading. A mock-memoir by the fictional Russian novelist Vadim Vadimovich, whose life is not dissimilar to Nabokov's own. As a mere strip of aSecond reading. A mock-memoir by the fictional Russian novelist Vadim Vadimovich, whose life is not dissimilar to Nabokov's own. As a mere strip of a lad VV flees the Bolsheviks leaving — unlike VN — a dead Red in his wake. Like VN too he first lives in Berlin, then Paris, and finally comes to America where he teaches European classics while continuing to write novels, though now in English. The tales of the VV's marriages here are hilarious. The first to a woman named Iris, whom he meets through a Cambridge friend, the gay Ivor Black; this is a love match and it's depiction is very rich and satisfying in VN's usual crystalline manner. Iris and VV have a villa on the Cote d'Azur to which they escape every summer, and the depiction of that seaside wonderland is magnificent. VV's second marriage is to a prude by the name of Annette for whom sex is an act of degradation. This is the inauspicious note on which that marriage begins. It ends with her idiotic if not quixotic turn to Sovietism, which is like a knife to the heart of our dissident narrator. Quite funny. His third wife, Louise, is an international nymphomaniac, who humiliates daughter Bel, the surprise product of the chaste second marriage. The novel's a lot of fun, especially if you've read VN's other novels and can pick out the many parallels between his work and the fictional oeuvre of Vadim Vadimovich. For example, VV's Kingdom by the Sea is clearly — in both the way it affects the author's life and in its controversial content — a parallel universe version of Lolita. Look at the Harlequins was published three years before Nabokov's death in 1977 and it shows his narrative vigor undiminished by time. If you love VN's work, as I do, you must read it. It's rich and deeply satisfying. I thought its start a little bumpy, like lifting off from a short though pocked and pitted runway. But the reader is soon aloft and enjoying the slight positive-negative G forces — the frisson that great writing always provides....more
In the Berlin of 1925 a Russian emigré, one Smurov, accosted and humiliated by a jealous husband, goes home and shoots himself. What follows is the stIn the Berlin of 1925 a Russian emigré, one Smurov, accosted and humiliated by a jealous husband, goes home and shoots himself. What follows is the story of his bifurcated, pseudo-afterlife. As if he weren't mixed up enough, in his dissociative state he has the ill luck to fall in love. Breathtaking narrative patterning here, beautiful in a way simple crystalline forms are beautiful. A marvel that can be read in a single sitting. My second reading, I've upgraded it to 5 stars....more
2nd reading. It's the late 1940s, in the fictional northeastern American town of Ramsdale, when a mentally unstable Swiss pedophile, Humbert Humbert,2nd reading. It's the late 1940s, in the fictional northeastern American town of Ramsdale, when a mentally unstable Swiss pedophile, Humbert Humbert, sets his sexual sights on twelve-year old Dolores Haze. He marries her mother, who conveniently dies in a road accident, then, as Lolita's "father," sets out on a cross country road trip/sexual spree during which he corrupts her utterly. The writing is extraordinary. There's nothing else like Lolita. The prose often works along a knife edge between creepy paean — to Lolita's beauty, to HH's cleverness, to the magnificence of his sexual idyll, etc. — and its own verbal brilliance. That's a large part of the achievement here: to write with extraordinary precision and beauty about a rebarbative subject. How often are we on the cusp of closing the book and at just that moment find ourselves drawn back in by the writing? Do read it, if you haven't already, or re-read it. Martin Amis, who supplies the introduction to this edition, says he's read it eight times, and that each time new levels of meaning open up. VN himself, somewhere, I think it was in an interview reprinted in Strong Opinions, spoke of coming across his father's copy of Madame Bovary and finding a note inside: "the unsurpassed pearl..." That's my assessment of Lolita....more