Sunday, March 30, 2008

Today’s “Times”: Pushkin (x2), Women’s Vodka, and Prague

Did you ever dump a date for not knowing about Pushkin? Rachel Donadio’s essay, “It’s Not You, It’s Your Books” addresses this and other sensitive questions of literary taste in today’s New York Times Book Review. The Times added a blog entry from Donadio, “Literary Dealbreakers,” which already has 124 comments about the (un)importance of books in relationships. 

Meanwhile, nobody can accuse Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky of not knowing Pushkin: he sings Pushkin’s words in Eugene Onegin and recently recorded an album of music with Pushkin texts. The article: “The Power of Russian Birthright

As for the vodka. The Style section included a piece called “Russian Vodka With a Feminine Kick” about, yes, vodka for women. The ad pictured in the Times features the phrase “между нами, девочками” (between us girls), a common phrase I particularly enjoy hearing from men. When I searched the brand, Дамская водка (Ladies’ vodka), the first Google result was an article called (in my translation) “’Ladies’’ Vodka Worries Doctors.” The first line: “A new drink especially for representatives of the weak sex appeared in Russia at the beginning of the year.” I just report this stuff.

Finally, it’s not about Russia, but this Travel section article on Milan Kundera’s Prague is Slavic and literary in theme. Franz Kafka even makes a cameo appearance.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Orlando Figes’s “Natasha’s Dance”: Mosh Pit or Mazurka?

Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia attempts, as Russians say, to embrace the unembraceable. Is it possible to reduce Russia’s cultural history and identity to 587 pages? Not really, so Figes reins in his material by embracing only selected topics, including the Decembrists, religion, Eastern influences, and Russians in emigration. He covers literature, fine art, and music, bookending the bulk of his narrative with Peter the Great’s selection of a site for St. Petersburg in 1703 and Igor Stravinskii’s 1962 trip to the USSR.

Natasha’s Dance enjoys enormous popularity, largely because it presupposes no familiarity with Russian history. Figes broadens its appeal by choosing some favorite figures for extended coverage. Some, such as serf singer Praskovia Sheremeteva and exiled Decembrist Sergei Volkonskii, don’t receive much attention among nonspecialists. Other profiles cover more familiar ground: writers Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Nabokov, and composer Dmitrii Shostakovich.

Trying to cover so many people and art forms in so few pages can create writing dilemmas, and Natasha’s Dance ends up a chaotic piece of prose, a mosh pit of Russian culture. The book and I aren’t a close match, tastewise, particularly since I prefer chronological history and felt whipsawed when Figes shifted from century to century to fit his accounts into thematic silos.

The regrettably brief plot summary of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet-era Master and Margarita, for example, lands not with its contemporaries in the “Russia Through the Soviet Lens” chapter, but toward the end of the “Moscow! Moscow!” chapter because “M&M” is based in Moscow. The next section after “Moscow! Moscow!” is the beginning of a new chapter, “The Peasant Marriage,” which goes back to 1874 to look at народники, or populists.

I also sometimes had the feeling Figes left out crucial material to avoid complicating his theses. The “Descendants of Genghis Khan” chapter, for example, begins with Vasilii Kandinskii’s (Vasily Kandinsky) 1889 anthropological research into paganism in the Komi region. Figes then drops back in time to Mongol horsemen of 1237. He ends the chapter by considering horses in Kandinskii’s paintings as dual shaman and religious symbols and draws in other examples of horses as symbols of Russia’s Asiatic legacy. Fine, but, oddly, Figes doesn’t mention Kandinskii’s depictions of horsemen of the apocalypse, and he ignores much of Kandinskii’s broader significance: his symbolist beliefs about colors and the fluid boundaries between painting and music, expressed in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

These and other structural and informational peculiarities are frustrating, as are some of Figes’s grand statements, most of which add only superfluous drama. On page 228, for example: “Like an unsolved riddle, the peasant remained unknown and perhaps unknowable.” There are also rhetorical “burning” questions, like these regarding Russian identity, on page 366, “Were they Europeans or Asians? Were they the subjects of the Tsar or descendants of Genghis Khan?”

This portentous style contrasts sharply with the admirably measured tone of Figes’s The Whisperers, and Natasha’s Dance suffers, perhaps unfairly, because I read The Whisperers first. In The Whisperers Figes writes with restraint and respect as he addresses one aspect of Soviet history, the Stalin-era repression. His neutral tone allows voices from oral history to carry the book, showing the human impact of Joseph Stalin’s excesses against the Soviet population. (My review of The Whisperers.)

On the positive side, the breadth of material in Natasha’s Dance means there should be something new or interesting for most general readers or unmethodical specialists. I found some passages, such as the brief history of early Soviet cinema, entertaining, and I appreciated Figes’s examination of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a novel about how Decembrism grew out of the War of 1812. Although I thought the summaries of many novels became tedious because they lacked context and/or analysis, I hope they will inspire new readers.

One of the most useful aspects of the book is its end matter: notes, a chronology, and a detailed “Guide to Further Reading.” Figes’s bibliography includes two books that I read in college courses and recommend highly: Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia and James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. I particularly enjoyed the Billington book, which looks at cultural and intellectual history beginning with Kievan Rus’ and ending with a contemplative section on “The Irony of Russian History.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Natasha’s Dance provoked a literary row in Great Britain when Rachel Polonsky published what was evidently a scathing review in the Times Literary Supplement in 2002. I haven’t read it because I couldn’t find it online, but The Complete Review posted an accounting of the matter in 2002. The fuss continued into this week (!) when The Guardian paid damages to Polonsky “after publishing defamatory allegations that her review of a book was motivated by some grudge or professional envy.” (Article.)

Summary: Although I don’t share the enthusiasm of many other readers for Natasha’s Dance, I think it is worth reading as an introduction to selected topics in Russian cultural history. Many figures in Figes’s peripheral vision receive short shrift in a book that, understandably, makes no attempt at balance or comprehensiveness. I can’t blame Figes for wanting to write about what he enjoys – that’s what I do, too – but Natasha’s Dance may disappoint readers looking for chronology or completeness.

Books mentioned in this posting:

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
Natashas Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
The Icon and the Axe : An Interpretive History of Russian Culture
A History of Russia: Combined Volume

Thursday, March 13, 2008

News Notes: "Zeek" and the Russian Jewish Diaspora, the Abzats Antiawards

A couple of literary news notes for today. Serious first:

1. Languor Management reports:

Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture has devoted a special print issue to the Russian Jewish Diaspora. The Spring '08 issue presents work engaged with identity, history, language and culture, and features contributors from around the world.

Zeek’s site includes information about Russian-related events in Boston and New York.

2. I know you’ve all been waiting for results of today’s Абзац” (“Absats”) literary antiaward ceremony, so without further delay, here is a list of the antiwinners, as reported on

-Lena Lenina took the grand prize, the “Polnyi abzats” (more on what that means in a minute…) with Sexual, или Как соблазнить любого мужчину (Sexual or How to Seduce Any Man). According to the article, Lenina’s book contains “borrowings” from the Russian translation of Leil Lowndes’s How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You.

-Worst editing job went to publisher AST for subpar work on Oksana Robski’s Casual 2. Anyone who read my earlier comments on the first Casual can probably guess that I never touched the sequel.

-Worst translation went to Iuliia Moiseenko for her poor efforts on William Gibson’s Spook Country.

Now, about the name of the antiawards, “Абзац.” In standard Russian, the word relates to writing: “indentation” or “paragraph.” But as slang, абзац – pronounced as ahbZAHTS – is often used in reaction to big problems. I worked with a guy who described hopeless or very messy situations as “полный абзац” (complete abzats). These are the very same words used to describe this contest’s biggest antihonor, and they sure sound like a euphemism.

When I looked for good ways to translate абзац for you, I found some typical slang definitions that fit nicely with what I heard so often, basically “the end of something,” something peculiar, or a sort of intensifier that expresses emotion. This pretty much sums up my coworker’s uses of the word. Russian Internet searches turned up other alleged slang uses of абзац: to denote three puffs/tokes or some sort of 220 millimeter missile.

The Russian literary journal Книжное обозрение awards the Абзац prizes, which do not appear to carry any cash award. Last year’s “Complete Abzats” antiwinner was none other than Sergei Minaev, for Духless (Soulless) and Media Sapiens. No other books were nominated, and the journal cited Minaev’s combination of pathos and low writing quality. End of posting. End of абзац.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Back to Classics: "The Overcoat"

Igor Grabar's cover from the 1890s.
At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships. – Vladimir Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol on “The Overcoat”
The Story: Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), about a clerk who needs a new winter coat.

The Writer:
Nikolai Gogol’

Dates: First published in 1842. Gogol’ began writing “The Overcoat” during summer 1839; he finished in spring 1841.

Why it’s important: Dostoevsky acknowledged Gogol’s influence by saying, “We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’” Gogolesque absurdity and a combination of motifs from low and high genres (see below) continue to pop up in Russian fiction. Two post-Soviet examples from my recent reading: Petr Aleshkovskii’s Skunk [sic! He’s Ferret in Russian] and, to a lesser extent, Aleksei Slapovskii’s Phoenix Syndrome.

My favorite criticism: Formalist Boris Eikhenbaum’s Как сделанаШинельГоголя (“How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made”) and the chapter “The Apotheosis of a Mask” from Vladimir Nabokov’s book of notes, Nikolai Gogol. On Gogol in general, Gary Saul Morson's “Absolute Nonsense,” from The New Criterion.

IMHO: So many readers and critics have written so much over the years about “The Overcoat,” often using social, Freudian, and other analytical prisms, that fresh insights are tough to find. Much of the debate concerns themes Nabokov eschews: class differences and big messages. Nabokov believes “The Overcoat” requires creativity from readers and even advises that readers stay away from Gogol’ if they are looking for ideas, facts, or messages.

I (mostly!) agree with Nabokov because “The Overcoat” is so nuanced that it must be felt. As Nabokov notes, the story’s setting is absurd, which he defines not as funny but as pathetic and representative of the human condition in a “nightmarish, irresponsible world.” Nabokov believes Gogol’ wrote best when he avoided treating rational ideas in a logical way. With “The Overcoat,” writes Nabokov, Gogol’ “really let himself go and pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss.”

Grasping Gogol’s ability to retain his balance is, I think, a key to coming to terms with “The Overcoat.” What struck me most in a recent reading of “The Overcoat” is Gogol’s combination of registers and genres, particularly oral storytelling and lives of saints.

Storytelling first: the narrator of “The Overcoat” makes informal asides, clearly delights in verbal play, and repeatedly compromises his reliability. Eikhenbaum’s formalistic analysis of the story refers to what I might call “sound gags,” citing Gogol’s use of names and words that generate puns. The name Akakii Akakevich sounds odd to Russian ears partly because, as my Russian-born literature teacher noted, it sounds like “kaka.”

But Gogol’ is sneaky: “Akakii” can also refer to Saint Acacius. And my Russian dictionary of personal names lists the meaning of the name as (in my translation) “not doing harm, forgiving.” This description fits Akakii Akakevich: he suffers like a saint, fasting to save for his coat, serving with love at work, and asking only that co-workers not offend him. “I am your brother,” the monk-like scribe tells them. Gogol’ uses “brother” in other passages, too. Some readers believe Akakii Akakevich returns from the dead at the end of “The Overcoat,” though, to me, that passage feels more like storytelling than religious mysticism.
Gogol’s blend of oral tradition and religious motifs is artistically risky, but his successful balancing act results in paradoxes that leave this reader feeling unsettled and a bit confused, yet oddly satisfied after repeated readings. The ambiguity fits because it reminds me of двоеверие, the “dual belief” combination of pagan and Orthodox traditions within Russian and Ukrainian culture that Gogol’ includes in many earlier stories.
I’ll leave you with a fitting line from Eikhenbaum’s article on “The Overcoat” that addresses paradoxes and literary devices:
“A grotesque resulted in which the mimicry of laughter alternates with the mimicry of sorrow, and both the one and the other have the appearance of a game, with a controlled alternation of gestures and intonations.”
P.S. This posting is the first of a regular series on Russian classics. Most pieces will coincide with the reading list of the Yahoo Russian Lit Reading Group.

P.P.S. For more on “The Overcoat” and its themes, visit Wuthering Expectations for this piece, which includes some nicely selected brief excerpts that give a good feel for the story. If you’re on a Gogol’ kick, be sure to check the same blog to read about “The Portrait.”

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Big List for "Big Book"

The site for the Russian “Big Book” awards posted news today on nominations for the 2008 season:

-371 works, totaling over 5,000 pages, were nominated

-30 percent of the nominees are from the Moscow area; 41 Russian regions and 11 other countries are also represented

-25 percent of the nominations are in manuscript form

The Big Book site includes this teaser (in my translation): “The organizers promise that the prize could present considerable surprises this season since the works of many well-known authors were nominated in manuscript form.”

The award accepts novels, story and novella collections, plus documentary prose and memoirs. The 2008 nominees include a “significant” number of “documentary-biographical” works.

Big Book’s list of 2008 nominees includes a few writers known to readers in translation:

Vladimir Voinovich, author of the “Private Chonkin” books

Vladimir Makanin, author of Escape Hatch and The Long Road Ahead

Liudmila Petrushevskaya, author of The Time: Night and Immortal Love

Others notable nominees include:

Zakhar Prilepin, known for both his writing – he’s been shortlisted for the Russian Booker and his membership in Edward Limonov’s Nationalist Bolshevik party. (For more on Limonov’s writing and political activity, see yesterday’s “New York Times Magazine.”)

Renata Litvinova, an actress and screenwriter who seems to be everywhere, including the screen adaptation of Viktor Pelevin’s Generation P.

Viktoriia Tokareva, a novelist also known for her screenplays, including the Soviet-era Джентельмены удачи (“Gentlemen of Fortune”).

Big Book’s panel of experts will now sit down to read and read and read for a few months. A list of finalists will be announced in late May, and winners will be named in November.

All Lizok’s postings on the Big Book Awards.