Showing posts from 2018

Zoshchenko, satirist of the Soviet Union

AS ANYONE who has tried (and failed) to crack a joke in a foreign language knows, humour is the marker of linguistic mastery. The only thing harder than cracking jokes may be translating them. Perhaps this is why Mikhail Zoshchenko remains a lesser-known Russian writer among English-language readers, despite being one of the Soviet Union’s most beloved humorists, a satirist in the best traditions of Gogol. Boris Dralyuk’s new translation of “Sentimental Tales”, a collection of Zoshchenko’s stories from the 1920s, is a delight that brings the author’s wit to life.

Zoshchenko’s writing career began in the wake of the Russian revolution, following stints in the army during the first world war and on the side of the Red Army in the Russian civil war. He became popular during the 1920s for tales that tackled the contradictions of everyday life during the short-lived liberalism of the New Economic Policy. As Mr Dralyuk notes in his introduction, Zoshchenko “hid behind so many masks that it w…

“The Idiot” savant - On Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Idiot.

Just 150 years ago, Dostoevsky sent his publisher the first chapters of what was to become his strangest novel. As countless puzzled critics have observed, The Idiot violates every critical norm and yet somehow manages to achieve real greatness. Joseph Frank, the author of the definitive biography of Dostoevsky and one of his most astute critics, observed that it is easy enough to enumerate shortcomings but “more difficult to explain why the novel triumphs so effortlessly over all the inconsistencies and awkwardnesses of its structure.” The Idiot brings to mind the old saw about how, according to the laws of physics, bumblebees should be unable to fly, but bumblebees, not knowing physics, go on flying anyway.

Picture Dostoevsky in 1867. With his bride, Anna Grigorievna, he resided abroad, not for pleasure but to escape—just barely— being thrown into debtors’ prison. To pay his fare, Dostoevsky procured an advance from his publisher Katkov for a novel to be serialized in Katkov’s influe…

The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams

Dreams are boring. On the list of tedious conversation topics, they fall somewhere between the five-day forecast and golf. As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” I can remember when I accepted that my own unconscious was not a fount of fascination—I’d dreamed, at length and in detail, of owning an iPhone that charged really, really fast.

How unfair it is, then, that Vladimir Nabokov can show up, decades after his death, with a store of dreams more lush and enthralling than many waking lives. In 1964, living in opulence at Switzerland’s Montreux Palace Hotel, Nabokov began to keep a dream diary of a sort, dutifully inscribing his memories on index cards at his bedside in rubber-banded stacks. These cards, and Nabokov’s efforts to parse them, are the foundation of “Insomniac Dreams,” a recently published chronicle of the author’s oneiric experiments, edited by Gennady Barabtarlo, a profes…

The Horror, the Horror - Isaac Babel

On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved the sentences of 346 prominent people, including the dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, the former NKVD (secret police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the writer Isaac Babel. All were shot. Babel had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in the middle of the night, and, the story goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer: “So, I guess you don’t get much sleep, do you?”

Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He is best known for a cycle of short stories entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack regiment during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel to the English-speaking world, recognized these stories as the masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some of Babel’s other stories, especially his Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling and have remained favorites. They offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish community, with its rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, impr…

Léon Bakst and the Writer: of the Russian Silver Age

A prominent artist of the Silver Age of Russian culture, Léon (Lev Samoilovich) Bakst was also a notable figure in the literary community of his time. He was acquainted with, or a friend of many writers and poets whose portraits he painted and whose books he illustrated.

Lev Samoilovich was familiar not only with the classics but with the latest literary works, too. He explained his literary tastes in a 1903 letter to his fiancee Lyubov Grishchenko, daughter of the collector and patron of the arts Pavel Tretyakov: “I hate Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy; I love Gogol, Pushkin, A. [Alexei] Tolstoy, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Verlain[e], Musset, Balzac, Baudelaire, Dickens, Bret Hart, Daudet...”[1] Bakst wrote about his first meeting with Anton Chekhov: “Once, as I dropped in on A. Kanaev, in his dimly-lit study on Troitskaya Street, I saw him talking with a fair-haired man of medium height, whom I took for a student by virtue of his costume and the unruly mop of hair over his forehead. I…

Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

If Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, the same holds true for its most famous living citizen, Mikhail Gorbachev. From March 1985 to December 1991 he was under an unrelenting national and international spotlight as the Soviet Union’s leader. He wrote several autobiographical books while in power and has written more since retirement. At least a dozen associates have published memoirs in which he features prominently. Yet in spite of all this scrutiny, key questions about the man who did more than any other to change Europe and the world in the last half of the 20th century remain without clear answers.

How did a secret reformist get chosen by deeply conservative elders to be their country’s next leader? Gorbachev felt his country needed fundamental change, so why did he not quickly develop a programme of political and economic action once he had secured the top job? Why did he fail to foresee the rise of nationalist unrest that eventually led to the Soviet Union’s…