Wednesday, 30 December 2015

‘The Blizzard,’ by Vladimir ­Sorokin

Russians have been trying, and failing, to make their way through blizzards for as long as they can remember, or at least as long as they have been writing. The perilous-voyage-through-the-snow novella might be the Russian corollary to the American road novel. Vladimir ­Sorokin, Russia’s most inventive contemporary author, has written one too, and called it “The Blizzard.” His book alludes to every Russian literary portrayal of snow-­threatened travel, from Alexander Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” to Alexander Blok, who wrote dozens of poems starring blizzards, to the rock group Nol (“Zero”), which in 1991 sang heartbreakingly of a man and his cat waiting for a doctor struggling through the snow to bring them healing white powder.

The protagonist of Sorokin’s “The Blizzard” is also a doctor, 42 years old, a pince-nez-wearing divorcé, unhappy, flawed, self-absorbed, well intentioned and ready for self-sacrifice in all the classic ways of the Russian intelligentsia, or its male representative as depicted in the Russian novel. The doctor must get to a village that has been struck by a deadly epidemic. Deadly in this case means that the virus turns its victims into zombies; it is transmitted, naturally, through human, which is to say zombie, bites. The accursed village is not remote — in good weather. But there is a blizzard. Only the doctor has the vaccine. So he ventures, recklessly, into the snow.

Sorokin, whose larger works, “Day of the Oprichnik” and “Ice Trilogy,” were published in English translations in 2011, and whose earlier novella, “The Norm,” was printed in the journal n+1 (it was translated by my brother, Keith Gessen), is known for his political satires and, later, dystopias. When “The Blizzard” came out in Russia, however, some readers saw in it only a baroque exercise. The critic for the then-highbrow daily Kommersant asked, “What’s the point?” Six years later, with the English translation just published, it is clear that this novella is in fact a satire and a dystopian tale rolled into one.

The doctor will travel by sled. This information, arriving in the first few pages of the book, comes as no surprise: Sorokin’s choice of vocabulary and style has already placed the reader in the 19th century. This poses some formidable challenges for the translator. In one breathless sentence describing the driver getting ready for the journey, Sorokin uses eight nouns, seven of which are strongly marked, for the reader of the original, as “dewy-eyed Russian writer describing rural life.” The translator, Jamey Gambrell, has no such words at her disposal and so translates the sentence straightforwardly. Knowing when to pick one’s battles is the mark of a great translator, and Gambrell is one. Her translation is as elegant, playful and layered as the original — and never appears labored.

On closer inspection, the vehicle that will carry the doctor is not a sled but a sled­mobile, a 50-horse-powered one. Meaning, it will be pulled by 50 little ­horses (similar terms are italicized in the book), each one no bigger than a partridge. With this description, on Page 14, Sorokin breaks with Russian rural hyperrealism: The world he is describing is not exactly the past.

Soon enough, the book makes it clear that it is set in the 21st century, a near future in which Russia has been plunged into darkness. People use oil lamps, wood stoves and samovars. There is gasoline, but it is prohibitively expensive and the vehicles it powers are exceedingly rare. The exchange rate appears to be one canister of low-octane fuel to one young colt to two dresses plus two suit jackets. These are sewn by hand, for there is clearly no industry. But everywhere there are remnants of a technological past: There are “radios” that project holographic images of the news — on three mind-dumbingly boring channels, just like in the Soviet Union; there are eternally illuminated picture frames and small cigarette lighters with a strong blue flame. The phones, however, do not work in the winter. The doctor may be carrying a vaccine that is effective against the zombie plague, but the rest of his kit seems to be decidedly last century. Toward the end of this short book, Sorokin narrows his time frame: The characters had great-grandfathers nostalgic for the Soviet era. This dark future that is the past is, it would appear, Russia’s present.

But then there is zoogenous material. The masters of this universe are the Vitaminders, an Asiatic tribe who build their yurts instantly from felt that is sprayed from a tube and set by a “Dead Water.” They make their fortunes from drugs, which they invent and manufacture. Their creations cause trips so vivid and awful that when the user crashes he is actually getting high — on life, from the sheer relief of emerging from the nightmare. When the exhilaration wears off, it is time for another trip. These hallucinogens are just one of the temptations to which the doctor surrenders despite his commitment to his noble journey.

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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

From translator to novelist and activist - Boris Akunin

In 1970, a geography teacher in a Moscow school was distributing countries among his students for an assignment. The assignment was quite simple: The students had to collect newspaper clippings about specific countries. One of the students got Tunisia, Ecuador and Japan. Soviet newspapers regularly wrote about the first two, mostly about the heroic struggle of the local working class against capitalist exploitation. But they wrote virtually nothing about Japan, until one day the student came across the news that a Japanese writer had attempted a coup. And that’s how Grigory Chkhartishvili became interested in Japan. Or at least it’s how he explains his fascination with the country.
Since then, Chkhartishvili has undergone several major metamorphoses. At first, his life looked like that of a typical Soviet intellectual in the humanities: he studied languages at Moscow State University in the Institute of Asian and African Countries and later worked as a translator. He translated from Japanese and English, and, ironically, his most famous translations were of the work of Yukio Mishima, the very writer whose failed coup attempt had such an impact on him. In the 1980s and 1990s, Russia saw a boom of Japanomania, largely thanks to the efforts of Chkhartishvili and other Japanese studies experts. And that’s when it happened.
“I wanted to change my life. I suddenly felt that I was tired of everything I had at that time. I had to find an occupation that better corresponded to my inner self. I had reached the ceiling with my translations. I realized that I would never break through it, and to keep working for 50 more years at the same level was clearly not for me,” Chkhartishvili said in an interview with “Russky Reporter” magazine. And the famous translator transformed himself into an astonishingly popular fiction writer.
In 1998, he began writing historical novels under the penname B. Akunin. Readers later dubbed him “Boris.”
Chkhartishvili took a scientific approach to his transformation from translator to writer. He attributes his success to a few elements that appear in all his work: a charismatic protagonist, a serial narrative, and, finally, a kind of literary game with the reader.
Chkhartishvili’s protagonist is Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a Russian Sherlock Holmes with German roots, an intellectual and athlete who is infinitely noble and honest. Chkhartishvili has written 14 books about Fandorin so far, and from novel to novel readers can see evolution. Fandorin is haunted by shadows of the past, and the aftermath of actions from earlier books is always seen in later novels. The Fandorin series is filled with literary games and allusions and the result is a multi-layered book. Readers can follow it as an adventure novel, or you can try to guess the classic Russian novels from which Chkhartishvili borrowed particular episodes. This makes the books both popular fiction and something intellectuals aren’t ashamed to read on their commute.
The Fandorin series was originally the domain of intellectuals. “These detective stories are written by a Japanese-Russian translator. He is one of us; you can read these books. I wouldn’t read a detective story written by just anyone,” said one reader, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Spin-off series then appeared. In addition to the Fandorin books, there is an Extracurricular Reading series about Fandorin’s ancestors and descendants. Then there is the separate Sister Pelagia series, about a nun detective.  Chkhartishvili is also supposed to be the author of two more literary projects, but the writer himself seems to be interested in something completely different. Now he has indicated that he wants to move on from novels, as he moved on from translating.
Since late last year, Chkhartishvili has been writing a LiveJournal blog in which he focuses on historical topics. He cites fun facts that he discovered while working on his books, posts unusual pictures and photos, and quotes stories, diaries and parables. In late 2011, his blog was published as a book, and prior to that, Chkhartishvili released a collection of his readers’ photo-haikus about their families.
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Sunday, 27 December 2015

Dostoevsky’s carnival - Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a Russian scholar, has recently found translators, expounders, and admirers in the West. In the introduction to a collection of Bakhtin’s posthumous essays, The Dialogic Imagination(Austin, Texas, 1981), Michael Holquist proclaimed him “one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century.” Bakhtin was indeed an immensely erudite, perceptive, and acute literary scholar. His first book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work (1929), was known in the Thirties and after to every student of Dostoevsky who could read Russian. Just after the publication of that book, Bakhtin was arrested and banished to a small town in northern Kazakhstan, where he was made to work as a bookkeeper. Even after he was allowed to return to central Russia and resume his studies, his dissertation on Rabelais was rejected. At last, in 1936, he was appointed to the faculty of a teacher’s college (later made a university) in Saransk, in the remote Mordvinian Republic. Only after his retirement, in 1963, was a new, expanded, and revised edition of his first book, renamed Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, published. This was followed, in 1965, by a book on Rabelais. In 1975, the year of Bakhtin’s death, a collection of early essays, some dating back to the Twenties, appeared as Questions of Literature and Aesthetics. Another miscellany of articles, Aesthetics of Literary Creation, came out in 1979.
Bakhtin’s work was first noticed in France. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian scholar living in France, wrote an article on him in 1967, and the Dostoevsky and Rabelais books appeared in French translations in 1970. An English translation of Rabelais and His World was published by the MIT Press in 1968 and in 1973 Ardis Publishers brought out Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, translated by R W. Rotsel. Caryl Emerson’s new translation improves greatly on the earlier one: it is fluent and accurate, though Emerson is given to using unlovely abstract nouns such as “unfinalizability,” “dialogicality,” and “addressivity,” presumably in an attempt to reproduce Bakhtin’s clumsy style.
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics should appeal to every student of Dostoevsky, since it was one of the first Russian books to consider him “first and foremost an artist and not a philosopher or a publicist.” Though Bakhtin claims Dostoevsky to be “one of the greatest innovators in the realm of artistic form,” his study is not at all formalist, if we understand formalism to refer to the doctrines of the Russian formalist group. Indeed, Bakhtin sharply rejected those doctrines as “materialist,” that is, as too preoccupied with the linguistic material of poetry. Neither is Bakhtin’s study a Marxist book, which would see Dostoevsky as a chronicler of the evils of nineteenth-century Russia and as a propagandist for a reactionary politics and traditional religion. Rather, Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky’s novels are “polyphonic”; they present us with a chorus of independent voices that are fully equal and do not serve the ideological position of the author.
Dostoevsky, no doubt, has the gift of entering the mind of his characters, of putting into their mouths ideas and feelings that might be totally alien or even repulsive to him personally. One can argue that he deliberately allows some of his most objectionable characters to expound his favorite ideas and, vice versa, his most sympathetic characters to voice the most perverse opinions. Bakhtin, however, pushes this insight to the extreme when he says that Dostoevsky “retains for himself, that is for his exclusive field of vision, not a single essential definition, not a single trait, not the smallest feature of the hero.” Polyphony is, after all, merely a metaphor, first used, as far as I know, sometime before 1865 by Otto Ludwig, the German playwright, in his reflections on the novel. Applied to the novel, polyphony can only mean the same as “counterpoint,” or “many voices,” or “dramaticity.” Dostoevsky’s works, as the successful dramatizations of his novels by the Stanislavsky troupe show, are built around a series of scenes that often explode in angry quarrels or even in physical violence. He belonged to the strand of the modern novel that proclaimed the ideal of “objectivity,” though he was—in contrast to Flaubert or Henry James—far from dogmatically committed to it. The long narrative expositions and comments of the “chronicler” testify to that. But this power of evoking the most contradictory feelings and ideas does not obscure Dostoevsky’s definite and clearly articulated angle of vision.
Bakhtin’s appeal to relativism, his comparison of Dostoevsky’s world with the Einsteinian universe, is totally unwarranted. Dostoevsky’s ample notebooks and drafts show on every page that he reflected at length on what to say and what to withhold from his characters and that he preserved hill control over them. In a review of a play he expressly asserts that “it is too little to display all the given qualities of a character; rather one should resolutely illuminate it by one’s own artistic point of view. An artist must not remain on the same level with the characters he depicts.”
Bakhtin depicts the Dostoevsky hero as a disembodied consciousness or soul. He says that the hero is “a pure voice, we do not see him, we hear him.” But this is an exaggeration if we think of the Adam’s apple of Fyodor Karamazov, or the curves of Grushenka, or of Myshkin in the railroad carriage, or of many other occasions. Bakhtin is right in saying that Dostoevsky is less interested in the physical world and nature than many other novelists, but to say that in Dostoevsky “there is no objective representation of the environment, of everyday life, of nature, of objects” is again to go too far. We need only think of the images of Petersburg that emerge from his writings (and these images are not only in the minds of his dreamers or of Raskolnikov), or the house of Rogozhin, or of the pictures by Claude Lorrain, Holbein, Raphael, and others described by his narrators, sometimes in minute detail. Similarly, the statement that Dostoevsky’s hero is a “man of the idea; not a character, not a temperament, not a social or psychological type” is refuted by many exceptions. We are told by Dostoevsky that the Underground Man “is one of the representatives of a generation still living.” In The Possessed, Stefan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is characterized as an old-time sentimental liberal in contrast to his son Peter, the nihilist, a representative of the new generation. Both the Raw Youth and his father, Versilov, are presented as social types. Dostoevsky even held an elaborate theory of literary typology. Nor is it true that in the novels of Dostoevsky “there is no causality, no genesis, no explanations based on the past, on the influences of the environment or of upbringing.” It is sufficient to point to the carefully worked out chronology of The Possessed, or to the accounts of the childhood of the Karamazov brothers, or to the early life of the Raw Youth to see that this is not always so. One need not be an adherent of a simpleminded concept of art as “reflection of reality” to see that Dostoevsky is deeply involved in his place and time, however far he transcended them as an artist of universal appeal, and that his novels were meant to serve very concrete purposes, such as the polemic against nihilism.
One could suspect Bakhtin of embracing this theory in order to make Dostoevsky more acceptable to the authorities in power. And indeed, Anatoli Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Education just before Bakhtin’s book appeared, praised the first edition; he saw Dostoevsky’s supposed “inability to take a definite ideological stand” as a symptom of an early stage of capitalism. Still, Bakhtin’s view could not have been merely opportunistic. It is based on his commitment to the ideal of objectivity. “If the umbilical cord uniting the hero to his creator is not cut, then what we have is not a work of art but a personal document.” And yet Proust’s great series, most lyrical poetry, and the novels of Sterne, Mann, or even Tolstoy do not cut the umbilical cord, and they cannot be condemned by this criterion. Nor can I see why drama is more controlled by the author and thus “especially monolithic,” as Bakhtin states. Isn’t Shakespeare at least as “polyphonic” as Dostoevsky? We still argue about Shakespeare’s world view, while there cannot be any doubt about Dostoevsky’s, at least in its outlines.
For Bakhtin, the genres are divided by insuperable barriers, and the novel in particular is in a privileged position. It is the only genre that uses what he calls the “double-voiced” word, a discourse that overtly or implicitly addresses “the other.” One of Bakhtin’s main assumptions is that in the novel in general, and in Dostoevsky’s novels in particular, there is a dialogic relationship that may be contained even within a single utterance, inside an individual word. Dostoevsky’s discourse thus refers not only to the referential object but to another’s discourse, to someone else’s speech. In chapters commenting on many works of Dostoevsky, particularly The Double and Notes from the Underground, Bakhtin shows that in Dostoevsky “almost no word is without its intense glance at somebody else’s word.” Some of his examples are passages that can be described as parody, stylization, or what is today called “intertextuality”; some are addresses to imaginary audiences, such as the Underground Man’s irritated speech. All are sensitively analyzed by Bakhtin in order to argue that “the thinking human consciousness and the dialogic sphere in which this consciousness exists” cannot be reached through a monologic artistic approach. Bakhtin criticizes linguistic stylistics for being incapable of coping with the question of dialogue. He calls his method “meta-linguistics,” a misleading term since it implies a metaphysics of human community. Bakhtin alludes to Martin Buber’s “I and thou” he could also have appealed to Schopenhauer’s “I am you.” Bakhtin’s participation in a religious group was apparently one of the reasons why he was persecuted.
In the 1963 edition of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin’s claim for Dostoevsky’s uniqueness is buttressed by an argument absent from the first edition. In studying Rabelais, Bakhtin discovered the rich world of medieval folk humor and the role of the carnival in medieval life. Their importance was the main theme of his book on Rabelais, which minimized Rabelais’s humanism and scholasticism. The study of medieval popular forms sent Bakhtin back to antiquity, to the so-called “Menippean satire,” the Socratic dialogue, and other genres outside the canon of the drama and heroic epic. Bakhtin calls this entire tradition—which embraces many miscellaneous forms—“menippea” and he emphasizes the impact of “carnivalization,” one of its aspects, on the development of the novel. (This genre concept is very similar to what Northrop Frye calls “Anatomy,” one of his four basic genres of literature.) Bakhtin traces this tradition through its decay in the Enlightenment and claims that Dostoevsky belongs to it. He analyzes two short sketches: Bobok (1873), a macabre dialogue of the dead, and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877), a Utopian vision. He claims them to be “menippeas.” Indeed, “all Dostoevsky’s work has elements of menippea: the Socratic dialogue, the diatribe, the soliloquy, the confession.” Raskolnikov’s first visit to Sonya is “an almost perfect christianized menippea.” The dream of Svidrigailov before his suicide, Ippolit’s confession, Stavrogin’s visit to Tikhon—all are menippeas. The famous conversation between Ivan and Alyosha in the tavern and “the Legend of the Great Inquisitor” are “remarkable menippeas.” The term becomes so all-inclusive that it allows Bakhtin to describe almost every prominent novelist as “carnivalesque”: Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire, Diderot, Sterne, Goethe, E. T. A. Hoffmann—finally, even Balzac, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. And of course Bakhtin finds the carnivalesque all over Dostoevsky: in every scandal scene and in every mass scene, such as the feast in The Possessed or the orgy of Dmitri Karamazov in Mokroe before his arrest.
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Leo Tolstoy: Papa Panov's Special Christmas

It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the shops and houses of the little Russian village, for the short winter day was nearly over. Excited children scurried indoors and now only muffled sounds of chatter and laughter escaped from closed shutters.
Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone.
His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.

Papa Panov did not often read, but tonight he pulled down the big old family Bible and, slowly tracing the lines with one forefinger, he read again the Christmas story. He read how Mary and Joseph, tired by their journey to Bethlehem, found no room for them at the inn, so that Mary's little baby was born in the cowshed.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear!" exclaimed Papa Panov, "if only they had come here! I would have given them my bed and I could have covered the baby with my patchwork quilt to keep him warm."

He read on about the wise men who had come to see the baby Jesus, bringing him splendid gifts.
Papa Panov's face fell. "I have no gift that I could give him," he thought sadly.

Then his face brightened. He put down the Bible, got up and stretched his long arms t the shelf high up in his little room. He took down a small, dusty box and opened it. Inside was a perfect pair of tiny leather shoes. 
Papa Panov smiled with satisfaction. Yes, they were as good as he had remembered- the best shoes he had ever made. "I should give him those," he decided, as he gently put them away and sat down again.

He was feeling tired now, and the further he read the sleeper he became. The print began to dance before his eyes so that he closed them, just for a minute. In no time at all Papa Panov was fast asleep.

And as he slept he dreamed. He dreamed that someone was in his room and he know at once, as one does in dreams, who the person was. It was Jesus.

"You have been wishing that you could see me, Papa Panov." he said kindly, "then look for me tomorrow. It will be Christmas Day and I will visit you. But look carefully, for I shall not tell you who I am."

When at last Papa Panov awoke, the bells were ringing out and a thin light was filtering through the shutters. "Bless my soul!" said Papa Panov. "It's Christmas Day!"

He stood up and stretched himself for he was rather stiff. Then his face filled with happiness as he remembered his dream. This would be a very special Christmas after all, for Jesus was coming to visit him. How would he look? Would he be a little baby, as at that first Christmas? Would he be a grown man, a carpenter- or the great King that he is, God's Son? He must watch carefully the whole day through so that he recognized him however he came.

Papa Panov put on a special pot of coffee for his Christmas breakfast, took down the shutters and looked out of the window. The street was deserted, no one was stirring yet. No one except the road sweeper. He looked as miserable and dirty as ever, and well he might! Whoever wanted to work on Christmas Day - and in the raw cold and bitter freezing mist of such a morning?

Papa Panov opened the shop door, letting in a thin stream of cold air. "Come in!" he shouted across the street cheerily. "Come in and have some hot coffee to keep out the cold!"

The sweeper looked up, scarcely able to believe his ears. He was only too glad to put down his broom and come into the warm room. His old clothes steamed gently in the heat of the stove and he clasped both red hands round the comforting warm mug as he drank.

Papa Panov watched him with satisfaction, but every now and them his eyes strayed to the window. It would never do to miss his special visitor.
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Saturday, 26 December 2015

Has any author's reputation fallen further or faster than Dostoevsky's?

My favourite Russian author is Dostoevsky, whose best books are not just profound examinations of the human soul etc, but also nasty, violent, ironic, caustic, and (at times) extremely funny. Recently I picked up Henri Troyat's Firebrand which is an old-fashioned, novelistic account of FD's life. It's a great read, so much so that I decided to ride the wave of pleasure and seize the moment to simultaneously plough through some of the heavier Dostoevsky tomes sitting on my shelves, including the selected letters and the joyless prose of Konstantin Mochulsky's critical biography. (I'm saving Joseph Frank's five-volume epic for later).

It's fascinating to observe how both the racy volume and dryly critical work were constructed from the same source materials. Meanwhile I have been reminded of Dostoevsky's dramatic life story: his father's murder; his mock execution and exile; his gambling madness; and his calamitous debut on the St Petersburg literary scene. For those who don't know the story, Dostoevsky's first novel Poor Folk was passed before publication to a legendary critic/blowhard called Vissarion Belinsky who promptly declared that Dostoevsky was the heir to Gogol. This was nonsense: Poor Folk is a mawkish tale that would have been forgotten had the same author not also written Crime and Punishment et al. Still, the 24-year-old Fedya D was suddenly feted everywhere as the new literary genius of St Petersburg. It went to his head and he soon became insufferable, alienating all his new literary "friends", who revenged themselves when he published his second novel, The Double. Not merely trashed, the book was denounced. Dostoevsky became a bad joke.

What I didn't know until now was the length of time between his moment of glory and terrible downfall. Authors then wrote much more quickly than they do today, and some of those impossibly fat 19th-century mega-books were composed in a quarter of the time it takes Milan Kundera to crank out a boring late novella. Bearing that in mind, take a guess: how long did Fedya D last as a cause celebre? A year? Nine months? Six? Three?

The correct answer is: 15 days. That's right. Poor Folk was published on 15 January 1846; The Double followed on 30 January. Cue the reputation apocalypse.

Now that has to be some kind of record. Thirteen years later he did emerge from exile to score a comeback with his novel-memoir House of the Dead, but according to Mochulsky, Dostoevsky never recovered his confidence. Even as he was writing some of the greatest books in world literature he remained consumed with anxiety that he had not yet "established his reputation".

Anyway, this led me to wonder: has anybody else ever suffered such a calamitous decline in popularity as Dostoevsky did in January 1846? (Nobody has experienced such a resurrection, that's for sure). The first author to pop into my head was Martin Amis. Critics loved his early books, but giving his recent efforts a vigorous kicking has become a national sport. But it took decades for Amis to reach that point, and he's pompous enough to believe he will be vindicated by posterity.

Plenty of authors suffer a precipitous decline after they die, of course: Somerset Maugham was once ubiquitous; now he isn't. Back in the 70s, 80s and even 90s you could rely on encountering Anthony Powell in the pages of your Sunday paper on an almost weekly basis. Since he went to meet the worms, total reputational collapse has not yet occurred but increasingly few people care about him. Were it not for the enduring cult popularity of A Clockwork Orange, much the same could be said about another once-celebrated Anthony.

Then I thought about all those winsome fauns and beardless youths, the teenage writing sensations cruelly hyped by publishers only to be dropped as soon as they emerge from the chrysalis of puberty. There have been so many of these literary zygotes I have lost count. I see them on the Waterstone's table and shed a tiny tear for the stars that burn so briefly before blinking out. Lord knows I don't remember their names. Well, Irina Denezhkina I do. Her Give Me was published by Simon & Schuster and then completely forgotten, although she still plies her trade in her native Russia. Or what about that chap wot wrote The Drowning People? He's still about, but now he's no longer 18 or 20 or whatever, media folk are far less excited.

Indeed, surveying the Somme-like charnel-fields of butchered reputations laid out before us, the closest thing I can find to Dostoevsky's experience is that of Gautam Malkani, author of Londonstani. Massive hype, a £380,000 advance – and hardly any sales. He didn't even get round to writing a second book before people started pissing on him. His website has not been updated since May 2007. Like most people I haven't read the book so I can't comment on whether Malkani's fate is fair (whose is?) but he seems like a (willing) victim of impossible expectations, and an attempt by slavishly unoriginal publishing/media tossers to create a new Brick Lane/White Teeth sensation by throwing a lot of dosh at a book about multicultural London. It's not his fault they were idiots.

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Friday, 25 December 2015

Shostakovich's Leningrad: The symphony that brought a city back to life

On the evening of Sunday August 9 1942, the German artillery guns that had been laying siege to Leningrad for a year were temporarily silenced by a Soviet barrage.

The timing was deliberate. Through loudspeakers that had been hastily rigged up across the city’s frontline, a strange sound could be heard, a classical concert being broadcast live.

It was the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, and it was being performed by a ragtag orchestra made up of musicians who were half dead from starvation. It was an extraordinary act of defiance, given that Hitler’s forces had encircled the city and were intent on starving the population to death.

The previous winter, when temperatures had dropped to -31F (-35C), people had eaten soup made from boiled leather belts, that and “siege meat” which included not only cats and dogs but also human flesh taken from corpses lying frozen in the streets.

The siege would continue for another two years and would claim the lives of close to a million civilians. But after the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.

Never before had a piece of music become such a powerful symbol of resistance, such an effective tool of psychological warfare. Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler, a new BBC documentary, tells the story of that historic concert through archive footage and first-hand testimony.

One eyewitness recalls that spectators were moved to tears when the musicians arrived for the performance in their shabby concert clothes, skeletal figures in dinner jackets and gowns. Three members of the orchestra died of starvation before the premiere even took place.

As no films, photographs or recordings of the concert exist, the filmmakers asked the conductor Maxim Shostakovich, Dmitri Shostakovich’s son, to conduct a special performance of The Leningrad by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in the exact location where the original concert took place — the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall.

The 77-year-old conductor had travelled to London from his home in St Petersburg for a screening of the documentary. When asked what it felt like to conduct The Leningrad at the place where his father had written it during the siege, he says: “Whenever I perform my father’s music it is like hearing his voice. I had a feeling that he was standing right beside me. I was nervous about making mistakes, getting the emotions wrong.”

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree

I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write “I suppose,” though I know for a fact that I have made it up, but yet I keep fancying that it must have happened on Christmas Eve in some great town in a time of terrible frost.
I have a vision of a boy, a little boy, six years old or even younger. This boy woke up that morning in a cold damp cellar. He was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold. There was a cloud of white steam from his breath, and sitting on a box in the corner, he blew the steam out of his mouth and amused himself in his dullness watching it float away. But he was terribly hungry. Several times that morning he went up to the plank bed where his sick mother was lying on a mattress as thin as a pancake, with some sort of bundle under her head for a pillow. How had she come here? She must have come with her boy from some other town and suddenly fallen ill. The landlady who let the “concerns” had been taken two days before the police station, the lodgers were out and about as the holiday was so near, and the only one left had been lying for the last twenty-four hours dead drunk, not having waited for Christmas. In another corner of the room a wretched old woman of eighty, who had once been a children’s nurse but was now left to die friendless, was moaning and groaning with rheumatism, scolding and grumbling at the boy so that he was afraid to go near her corner. He had got a drink of water in the outer room, but could not find a crust anywhere, and had been on the point of waking his mother a dozen times. He felt frightened at last in the darkness: it had long been dusk, but no light was kindled. Touching his mother’s face, he was surprised that she did not move at all, and that she was as cold as the wall. “It is very cold here,” he thought. He stood a little, unconsciously letting his hands rest on the dead woman’s shoulders, then he breathed on his fingers to warm them, and then quietly fumbling for his cap on the bed, he went out of the cellar. He would have gone earlier, but was afraid of the big dog which had been howling all day at the neighbor’s door at the top of the stairs. But the dog was not there now, and he went out into the street.
Mercy on us, what a town! He had never seen anything like it before. In the town from he had come, it was always such black darkness at night. There was one lamp for the whole street, the little, low-pitched, wooden houses were closed up with shutters, there was no one to be seen in the street after dusk, all the people shut themselves up in their houses, and there was nothing but the howling all night. But there it was so warm and he was given food, while here—oh, dear, if he only had something to eat! And what a noise and rattle here, what light and what people, horses and carriages, and what a frost! The frozen steam hung in clouds over the horses, over their warmly breathing mouths; their hoofs clanged against the stones through the powdery snow, and everyone pushed so, and—oh, dear, how he longed for some morsel to eat, and how wretched he suddenly felt. A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.
There was another street—oh, what a wide one, here he would be run over for certain; how everyone was shouting, racing and driving along, and the light, the light! And what was this? A huge glass window, and through the window a tree reaching up to the ceiling; it was a fir tree, and on it were ever so many lights, gold papers and apples and little dolls and horses; and there were children clean and dressed in their best running about the room, laughing and playing and eating and drinking something. And then a little girl began dancing with one of the boys, what a pretty little girl! And he could hear the music through the window. The boy looked and wondered and laughed, though his toes were aching with the cold and his fingers were red and stiff so that it hurt him to move them. And all at once the boy remembered how his toes and fingers hurt him, and began crying, and ran on; and again through another window-pane he saw another Christmas tree, and on a table cakes of all sorts—almond cakes, red cakes and yellow cakes, and three grand young ladies were sitting there, and they gave the cakes to any one who went up to them, and the door kept opening, lots of gentlemen and ladies went in from the street. The boy crept up, suddenly opened the door and went in. oh, how they shouted at him and waved him back! One lady went up to him hurriedly and slipped a kopeck into his hand, and with her own hands opened the door into the street for him! How frightened he was. And the kopeck rolled away and clinked upon the steps; he could not bend his red fingers to hold it right. the boy ran away and went on, where he did not know. He was ready to cry again but he was afraid, and ran on and on and blew his fingers. And he was miserable because he felt suddenly so lonely and terrified, and all at once, mercy on us! What was this again? People were standing in a crowd admiring. Behind a glass window there were three little dolls, dressed in red and green dresses, and exactly, exactly as though they were alive. Once was a little old man sitting and playing a big violin, the two others were standing close by and playing little violins, and nodding in time, and looking at one another, and their lips moved, they were speaking, actually speaking, only one couldn’t hear through the glass. And at first the boy thought they were alive, and when he grasped that they were dolls he laughed. He had never seen such dolls before, and had no idea there were such dolls! All at once he fancied that some one caught at his smock behind: a wicked big boy was standing beside him and suddenly hit him on the head, snatched off his cap and tripped him up. The boy fell down on the ground, at once there was s shout, he was numb with fright, he jumped up and ran away. He ran, and not knowing where he was going, ran in at the gate of some one’s courtyard, and sat down behind a stack of wood: “They won’t find me here, besides it’s dark!”
He sat huddled up and was breathless from fright, and all at once, quite suddenly, he felt so happy: his hands and feet suddenly left off aching and grew so warm, as warm as though he were on a stove; then he shivered all over, then he gave a start, why, he must have been asleep. How nice to have a sleep here! “I’ll sit here a little and go and look at the dolls again,” said the boy, and smiled thinking of them. “Just as though they were alive! …” and suddenly he heard his mother singing over him. “Mammy, I am asleep; how nice it is to sleep here!”
“Come to my Christmas tree, little one,” a soft voice suddenly whispered over his head.
He thought that this was still his mother, but no, it was not she. Who it was calling him, he could not see, but someone bent over to him, and … and all at once—oh, what a bright light! Oh, what a Christmas tree! And yet it was not a fir tree, he had never seen a tree like that! Where was he now? Everything was bright and shining, and all around him were dolls; but no, they were not dolls, they were little boys and girls, only so bright and shining. They all came flying round him, they all kissed him, took him and carried him along with them, and he was flying himself, and he saw that his mother was looking at him and laughing joyfully. “Mammy, Mammy; oh, how nice it is here, Mammy!” and again he kissed the children and wanted to tell them at once of those dolls in the shop windows.
“Who are you, boys” who are you, girls?” he asked, laughing and admiring them.
“This is Christ’s Christmas tree,” they answered. “Christ always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own …” and he found out that all these little boys and girls were children just like himself; that some had been frozen in the baskets in which they had as babies been laid on the doorsteps of well-to-do Petersburg people, others had been boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling and had been suffocated, others had died at their starved mothers’ breasts (in the Samara famine), others had died in the third-class railway carriages from the foul air; and yet they were all here, they were all like angels about Christmas, and He was in the midst of them and held out His hands to them and blessed them and their sinful mothers. … and the mothers of these children stood on one side weeping; each one knew her boy or girl, and the children flew up to them and kissed them and wiped away their tears with their little hands, and begged them not to weep because they were so happy.
And down below in the morning the porter found the little dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack; they sought out his mother too. … she had died before him. They met before the Lord God in heaven.
Why have I made up such a story, so out of keeping with an ordinary diary, and a writer’s above all? And I promised two stories dealing with real events! But that is just it, I keep fancying that all this may have happened really—that is, what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack; but as for Christ’s Christmas tree, I cannot tell you whether that could have happened or not.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Velimir Khlebnikov: There is that smell of honey-clover flowers

There is that smell of honey-clover flowers
Among the forget-me-nots
In which I am
My distracted strict intelligence
The square root of negative one
Melts the division’s dots
Relating that which was
Toward what will be.
At stake.
Early 1922

Thursday, 10 December 2015

'He speaks to us': why Shostakovich was a great communicator

Recently, in a little book by Colm Tóibín about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, I was struck by phrases that rang a bell: “The music or the power was in what was left out … words in which the emotion seems to be hidden, seems to lurk mysteriously in the space between … Nothing would be said but everything suggested...”

Back in the mid-1980s, I remembered, this was the kind of thing my friends in Moscow used to say about Shostakovich. Of course, such things have been said before and about many different artists. But something in the way Tóibín puts it brought the old song back.

I heard another version of the same idea in a small room in London, during an encounter between two composers who had not met before: Russia-born Alfred Schnittke and Englishman Peter Maxwell Davies.

Schnittke was describing his first visit to the west as an adult – I think in 1979 – when he attended a performance in Vienna of a Shostakovich symphony led by the famous conductor Kyril Kondrashin, who had defected from the Soviet Union a year or so earlier.

“The same piece,” said Schnittke, “and the same conductor. But it sounded completely different.” Davies asked him whether he could be more specific.

“I think it was because the Viennese musicians played the notes on the page … beautifully and correctly. But our Soviet musicians played the spaces between the notes. Especially the string players.”

And with his trembling left hand (he had recently had a stroke), he imitated the perilous journey a violinist’s finger takes to travel millimetres along the fingerboard from one note to another.

Tóibín suggests that one of the great strengths of an elliptical way of putting words together is that it opens the possibility of tremendous effects of tone. Speaking not only of Elizabeth Bishop but of James Joyce, he observes: “When they allowed the tone of their work to soar, there was the feeling that they had earned the right to do so by holding so much back in the pages that came before … They could allow language to compensate and console, then rise above such petty urges and seem to redeem what had been lost, or redress much that they both cared about deeply.”

This seems to describe a quality I find vividly in Shostakovich, especially in the flood of chamber pieces the composer began in his late 20s and continuing to the end of his life: the 15 string quartets, works for strings and piano, and the solo piano music.

Tone can be a slippery and vapourish thing in a poem or a piece of prose, but perhaps even more in the non-verbal arts. How do we agree about the tone of voice in a painting? It has one; there are few human statements that can be made without some suggestion of tone. But what is it? You and I can easily find, when we attempt to describe what we experience, that we completely disagree.

In music, this disagreement – or so I seem to have found – can become even more acute because there is something about music, perhaps the obvious fact that it is apparently less representational and less concrete than all the other arts, that brings tone right to the front of most people’s experience of it. When we listen, tone is one of the first things that we notice, and one of the primary enablers by which we feel enobled, corrupted, seduced, charmed, moved, threatened ... or bored and irritated.

For my Soviet friends of 30 years ago, the question of tone in Shostakovich was naturally affected by their shared experience over previous decades of a society in which, to put it simply, freedom was curtailed. Shostakovich’s ability – and music’s ability – to create clouds of powerfully suggestive but unpindownable tone by exploiting those “spaces between the notes” was important to them.

I remember my first sense of that. After a blistering performance of the Second Piano Trio, a friend turned to me and said: “He speaks to us.”

Speaks about what, exactly?

I thought I knew. But now, when I look back, I find I naively overreacted to what she said. Or reacted, as the Russians say, “to the wrong address”. Or even underreacted. My immediate instinct, as a sentimental and inexperienced visitor to their culture, was to pin everything I imagined I heard in Shostakovich’s tone of voice to what I was learning about Soviet life and history.

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Blizzard: Chillingly dystopian in true Sorokin style

Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the weather, to find blizzards and snowstorms proliferating throughout Russian literature from Pushkin’s magic tales to Vladimir Sorokin’s mysterious 2010 novel, The Blizzard. Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, published in 1856 and based on his own experience, has clearly inspired the underlying premise of Sorokin’s novella: a man rides on a sledge through a plot-less snow storm with a fatalistic driver. They lose their way, tire out the horses and get side tracked by stream-of-consciousness reminiscences. The classic 19th-century setting is overlaid by Sorokin’s characteristically disturbing, dystopian vision. His protagonist, Doctor Garin, is carrying two bags of vital vaccines to a village infected by a mysterious epidemic that turns its victims into zombies.

In this atmospheric and perplexing work, soon to be available in Jamey Gambrell’s English translation, Vladimir Sorokin has pulled off another unlikely feat of generic fusion. His bizarre Ice trilogy (2002-2005) combined speculative fantasy with elements of ultra-violence and psychological thriller, into a sometimes-startling epic. The brutal 2006 fable, Day of the Oprichnik, fused medieval legend with sci-fi to powerful satirical effect.

In The Blizzard Sorokin hijacks tropes from 19th-century Russian literature and, like some modern-day Frankenstein, grafts on ill-fitting limbs torn from other kinds of fiction: fairy tales and horror films, Tolkeinesque adventure and Swiftian fantasy. There are ceramic stoves and patchwork quilts, shot glasses and sour cabbage. There are echoes of Chekhov’s memoir from Sakhalin Island or Gogol’s Chichikov, crossing huge distances to buy up dead souls.

Into this familiar setting, Sorokin inserts his own brands of alternative technology: the distinctly Russian retro-future to which his characters are condemned contains genetically-modified creatures, including human beings, holographic radios, hi-tech hallucinogens, and living felt that can create a toasty tent in minutes; and yet his protagonists travel through an isolated wilderness by horse-drawn sledge, forever at the mercy of snow-filled ravines and broken runners, and in danger of freezing to death.

The disease that Garin is hurrying through the blizzard to prevent is later identified as the Bolivian plague or the Bolivian Black. It is left to the befuddled reader to surmise whether this rumored, zombifying illness represents contemporary propaganda, global apathy, drug addiction, all of these, or more. The hint of movie macabre stops short of full-blown apocalypse since the doomed sled never reaches the village. The meandering journey, powered by bird-sized horses, seems to echo of Gogol’s famous question: “Russia, winged troika, whither do you fly?”

Garin’s frustrated journey is as deliberately pointless as the mud crawling of Samuel Beckett’s Pim. There are Kafkaesque elements, with characters are so obviously metaphorical as to undermine the incongruous realism of Garin’s buttock-clenching sex with the miller’s wife (an echo of Schubert’s song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin). What else but allegory can possibly explain the Müllerin’s ridiculous, Lilliputian husband, the same height as a vodka bottle?

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