Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Life’s a Birch and Then You Die

Reading Daniel Rancour-Laferriere’s The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering sounds like an inherently masochistic act: Can one slim book make a scholarly psychoanalysis of an entire nation and its history and culture? The short answer is Yes. Diagnosis: moral masochism.

Fear not, tender readers. This scholarly book is entertaining, enlightening, and fully accessible to readers without degrees in Freudian analysis or Russian studies. It can also be frustrating, but take off that hair shirt, toss out the hemlock, and settle into a comfortable chair. Rancour-Laferriere’s monograph has lots of relevance to literature, and he includes evidence from folk tales, religion, novels, philosophy, and history to show how and why Russians find ways to abuse themselves, physically and emotionally.

That The Slave Soul of Russia reads easily is its best and worst trait because, at times, the book’s logic is surprisingly thin (see below). I began reading as a convert to Rancour-Laferriere’s thesis that Russians are masochistic. Actually, I think most human beings are masochistic in their own ways, as evidenced by the popularity of expressions like “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Then again, “Life Is Good” has become a popular brand, so it seems the key to happiness involves balancing knowledge of unavoidable realities – e.g. paying taxes and dying – with enough healthy denial to enjoy a book, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep. But enough advice.

Who might enjoy Rancour-Laferriere’s book? Readers of Russian literature should like chapters mentioning masochists in Russian books, including Pasternak’s Lara, Pushkin’s Tatiana, and Dostoevsky’s Dmitrii Karamazov. Anthropologists may relish analysis of old Russian sayings and the symbolism of the Russian banya, or bathhouse. Chapters on mothers and male-female relationships should be of interest to gender studiers. And so on… Rancour-Laferriere scours Russian cultural history and finds masochism everywhere, from birth to death.

The range of sources is so broad that it’s inevitable no reader will agree with everything Rancour-Laferriere writes. But it’s tough for me to disagree with his thesis, given the wealth of analogous situations and reasoning I’ve heard expressed in conversations or through contemporary and classic literature, movies, and TV shows.

Still, banya history is one thing, but I’m not sure all Rancour-Laferriere’s evidence trickles down to the modern-day banya. In my experience, sitting, having a day off with friends, and drinking something, be it tea or vodka, is more important than being hit on the back with a birch switch. Not that I ever found the extreme heat or switching painful, though maybe my friends lacked sadistic tendencies or went easy on me because I was a foreigner.

In other spots, Rancour-Laferriere’s lines of reasoning feel incomplete or reductive. I’ve always thought swaddling babies sounded cruel so was glad he covered that topic, but his reason for including a quotation from Tolstoy, writing as if he were a swaddled baby, was weak for a scholarly book: Tolstoy’s tremendous characterizations of adults do not mean we can assume he can accurately describe an infant’s feelings.

I also think Rancour-Laferriere takes his analysis of birches a bit too far. Yes, the birch is called “mother,” but he provides no direct evidence – songs, sayings, or otherwise -- for speculation that certain rituals among maidens that involve chopping or burning birch are sadistic toward the mother or masochistic toward themselves. That said, he admits the meanings of the birch rituals are not always clear and makes sure to use words like “seems” and “possibly.”

So, did I enjoy the book or was it a masochistic experience? I recommend it. There should be something to pique the interest and curiosity -- or ire -- of most readers, and that’s a good thing, given the importance and broadness of the topic. Keep in mind, too, that The Slave Soul of Russia was written in the ‘90s and is a monograph with inherently limited scope. It never purports to explain Russian history or make a broad-reaching definition of the elusive “Russian soul,” only to provide evidence of masochistic tendencies within Russian culture.

Rancour-Laferriere includes personal thoughts on Russian masochism in his conclusion. Mentioning Berdiaev’s writing on Dostoevsky, Rancour-Laferriere confesses he finds it “exhilarating” to observe -- from afar -- Russian hunger for self-destruction and the danger of intoxication with ruin. He follows this admission with one more paragraph:

For me, masochism is part of the very attractiveness and beauty of Russian culture. Where would Tatiana Larina or Dmitrii Karamazov or Anna Karenina be without their masochism? To “cure” them of their masochism would detract considerably from their aesthetic appeal. The beauty of masochism, however, like all beauty, resides in the mind of the beholder.

Finally, I should add that Rancour-Laferriere cites Russian opinion about masochistic tendencies, which I think lends strength to his ideas. I found a recent example of Russian ideas on masochism just last week, in a roundtable discussion from the November 2007 issue of Искусство кино. It contains some very strong statements about Russian attitudes toward Stalin’s Great Terror.

Participant Denis Dragunskii goes so far as to say that some victims of Stalinism may have, subconsciously or mentally, wanted to die. Though he adds that people did not think of themselves as one “megavictim,” they wanted violence for themselves, and he concludes that some people are masochists and that the Russian people (in the singular, as “народ”) can be called a masochist.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Six Finalists for Russian “National Bestseller” Awards

This year’s list of finalists for the Russian “National Bestseller” book awards is yet more proof that the contest’s name is something of a misnomer: Though some of the writers are familiar, don’t let the contest’s label let you think these writers sell truckloads of genre books like Ekaterina Vil'mont or Dar’ia Dontsova. The finalists:

Zakhar Prilepin for Грех (Sin), a collection of linked short stories. Prilepin’s blog entry about the nominations mentions that he’s been a “Natsbest” shortlistee three times. He’s been nominated for numerous other prizes, too, and Sin led voting for the Natsbest short list.

Prilepin’s Natsbest favorite is Anna Kozlova’s novel Люди с чистой совестью (People with a Clean Conscience), which he says he is crazy about after a nocturnal reading session in a café.

Andrei Turgenev (a.k.a. critic Viacheslav Kuritsyn) was nominated for Спать и верить: блокадный роман (To Sleep and Believe: A Blockade Novel (or perhaps A Blockade Romance… the title is ambiguous)), about Leningrad during World War 2.

Critic Lev Danilkin’s biography of Aleksandr Prokhanov, Человек с яйцом (Man with an Egg… I suspect a pun on “egg” here, since яйцо has also meant “testicle” since at least Pushkin’s era.), was also nominated. Prokhanov is a nationalist and novelist whose Господин Гексоген (Mr. Hexogen) won the National Bestseller award in 2002, though not without controversy.

Iurii Brigadir’s Мезенцефалон (Mesencephalon) was first published in a journal together with work by Evgenii Grishkovets, Dmitrii Bykov, and others.

Aleksandr Sekatsii’s novel about Chinese Medieval culture, Два ларца: бирюзовый и нефритовый (Two Boxes: Turquoise and Jade), rounds out the list.

Thanks to an Olympic athlete, the jury that will help determine the winner of Natsbest’s $10,000 prize may be better known to the general public than most of the nominees. Jury members: Igor Boiashov (last year’s winner), Marat Gel’man (art and political expert), Galina Dursthoff (literary agent), Emiliia Spivak (actress), Boris Fedorov (financier), Aleksei Yagudin (figure skater), and Il’ia Shtemler (writer). Rank-and-file readers can also vote for their favorites by SMS beginning on May 5, 2008.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Vera Panova’s “Seryozha”: A Child’s View of Post-War Russia

A novella about a preschooler’s life in the post-War USSR might not sound like much fun, but Vera Panova’s gentle Серёжа (translated as Seryozha and Time Walked and A Summer to Remember) skillfully balances a child’s observations of joy and worry. Panova composes her novella of linked vignettes about Seryozha’s adventures – emotional, physical, and social – providing insights into the psychology of a child and his Soviet adults. The most constant thread in the stories is Seryozha’s relationship with his new stepfather, who works at the local collective farm.

Panova uses остранение (ostranenie, defamiliarization) frequently in Seryhozha, showing situations and objects from Seryozha’s childish perspective. Non-Russian readers in the 21st century may also feel almost like children as they witness everyday aspects of Soviet life: tight living conditions, a funeral, and the consequences of World War 2 for families. Much of the child psychology feels universal, though, including Seryozha’s mother telling him he gets on her nerves. Or children teasing one another with “жадина-говядина,” (zhadina-goviadina), a rhyming phrase that means (sort of) greedy-beef.

Panova’s portrayals of people and their settings feel honest, whether she looks at Seryozha’s lack of memory for his biological father or children’s curiosity about a body covered with tattoos. The combination of humor and pathos also feels true – particularly in the scenes where the children tattoo themselves – as do Seryozha’s thoughts and tantrums.

Seryozha is dated 1955, placing it, historically, toward the beginning of the Khrushchev Thaw. Panova was vilified a year earlier for lacking party spirit in a previous book, and Seryozha not only lacks party spirit – despite Seryozha’s stepfather’s job at the collective farm – but also includes small mentions of religion.

I found the chapter on a newly freed prisoner particularly interesting: Panova portrays with sympathy a man who claims to be innocent of the thievery for which he was jailed. Panova looks, through Seryozha’s eyes, at other questions of morality, including hypocrisy. When Seryozha calls an adult a fool (дурак) for playing a trick on him with an empty candy wrapper, he believes his mother won’t object, but she instead asks him to apologize. Seryozha begins to bond with his stepfather after overhearing him say that the boy is already far more mature than the foolish man.

The simple prose of Seryozha reads beautifully as a story of a child’s experiences, but it also resonates as a symbolic portrayal of its time: the first years after the death of Stalin, when the Soviet Union was adjusting to life under a new leader. Panova’s own life experience included the arrest and death of her second husband’s in the 1930s for alleged involvement in the Leningrad opposition after the death of Kirov.

Seryozha is the second work by Panova that I have read and enjoyed. I also highly recommend her Спутники, (The Train), a slice-of-life novel about people who work on a hospital train during World War 2. The two pieces have a lot in common: simple language, characters who feel real, and an organic quality to mentions of patriotism and ideology. Though Panova’s writing may feel effortless, her messages are not simplistic.

For more on Panova's life: Вера Панова

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Back to Classics: "Doctor Zhivago"

Любовь к жизни, чуткость к её голосу, доверие к её неискаженным проявлениям – первейшая забота автора.
Love for life, sensitivity to its voice, trust in its undistorted manifestations – these are the author’s foremost concern.

–Evgenii Pasternak about his father’s Doctor Zhivago, in an introduction to a Russian edition of the novel.

The Book: Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago)

The Writer: Boris Pasternak

Dates: Written in the 1940s and 1950s; publication in the USSR was refused in 1958, the year Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature. (A previous, related post.)

Why it’s important: Doctor Zhivago looks at the life of the intelligentsia before, during, and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was banned in Russia until the Gorbachev era, primarily because the title character did not support the revolution.

Criticism: A Critical Companion by Edith W. Clowes. Letter to Boris Pasternak from the Editorial Board of Novy Mir (in Russian); this highly political letter is published in an appendix of Edward Crankshaw’s Khrushchev’s Russia. Writers in Russia 1917-1978, by Max Hayward, a co-translator of Zhivago, contains interesting observations about the book. Original New York Times book review by Marc Slonim (Sept. 7, 1958). (PDF, paid unless subscriber.)

IMVHO: I read Zhivago multiple times – six, seven? – in grad school, gathering references to light and darkness so I could write a paper. I loved the book as a literary puzzle: What was the significance of the rowan tree? How did mechanical and biological metaphors compare? How did Biblical references enhance Lara’s character? And then there were trains and the Apocalypse…

These and other motifs, along with the novel’s banning in the USSR, made the book feel important. Zhivago became a favorite because there was so much to analyze and discuss. Later, while living in Moscow during the ‘90s, I loved visiting the Pasternak dacha-museum, particularly for celebrations of Pasternak’s life on the anniversary of his death, which corresponds with my birthday.

Years later, to paraphrase a friend, the book hasn’t changed, but I have. I still enjoy thinking about Zhivago, but, after recommending the novel for years, I feel like something of a traitor to Pasternak and a bit of a jerk to my friends and students for writing the truth: I simply didn’t always enjoy reading the book this spring.

I recognize the novel’s place in literary history and respect its moral significance and authority, particularly among others who suffered during the Soviet era. I also admire the considerable beauty of certain passages. But reading Zhivago as a piece of fiction – and looking for a story to develop out of nuanced characters and relationships – highlighted narrative flaws.

Unfortunately, Zhivago feels almost as deterministic as socialist realism because Pasternak’s characters are rather flat for an epic. They felt, to me, more symbolic than real, often with names that both define and confine them: the orphan Zhivago’s name is rooted in “living,” the parasitic Komarovsky is based on “mosquito,” and the revolutionary Strel’nikov is derived from “shoot.”

One serious consequence of Zhivago’s undeveloped characters is that discussions of politics frequently feel like uncontextualized exhibitions of ideas, not organic thoughts. They often stalled my reading. I have no quarrel with lengthy dialogues about philosophy – I witnessed and even participated in similar talk when I lived in Russia – but, for this reader, pages of talk only become art with description of settings, faces, and gestures.

These and other technical weaknesses in Zhivago probably arise from Pasternak’s lifelong focus on poetry. Fortunately, Pasternak’s lyricism also produces the book’s best passages. My professor, Elliott Mossman, liked to say Pasternak “gave” his best poetry to Zhivago. I think Pasternak also gave the best prose of Zhivago to Zhivago, for his diary. Pasternak makes the diary device work by filling Zhivago’s ten pages with simply written notes that discuss family, and reference literature and nature. The writing feels more personal and natural than most of the rest of the book, where the language is sometimes so dense that even some Russians have told me they found it difficult to read.

Many of Pasternak’s beautifully drawn descriptions are highlights, too: the evil Komarovsky and his dog Jack, the spring thaw, and the use of drowned suicides in Zhivago’s med school classes are only three early examples. I enjoyed many other passages, including some of the conversations between Zhivago and Lara in Iuriatin, and Zhivago and Strel’nikov’s meeting at Varykino. These dialogues filled in details for the reader without feeling too contrived. For the record, I have no objections to Pasternak’s use of coincidences.

My reactions to other themes in Zhivago are more personal. As an eternal optimist writing in spring, I can appreciate lines like “Oh, how sweet it is to exist! How sweet to live on earth and love life!” As a science writer, I enjoyed following the theory of relativity through the novel. I can’t say I’m as thrilled about the tragic love theme or Zhivago’s treatment of the women in his life.

But Zhivago probably couldn’t help himself: I still maintain, after 20 years and this seventh or eighth reading, that Zhivago is a descendant of the 19th-century superfluous man. I think it’s emblematic that his name, unlike the majority of Russian surnames, is indeclinable (doesn’t change depending on its function in a sentence), giving his name and character an inert feel. This carries especial irony about the fate of the intelligentsia in early 20th century in Soviet Russia: Zhivago (Живаго) means, roughly, “of the living one.”

Summary. I have contradictory feelings about Zhivago: my sentimental attachment to a book and ideas I’ve spent many weeks reading and discussing collides with my literary preference for plots that arise from character development. The combination of Pasternak’s cast of dozens with frequent Biblical and historical references results in a crowded novel that works best as a stimulus for discussion or research. The book contains some beautiful passages, but the experience of reading Zhivago is, for me, less enjoyable than the experience of contemplating it.

Links worth following. Russian-language recordings of Boris Pasternak reading full or excerpted poems from Doctor Zhivago.

"Fairy Tale"

Monday, April 7, 2008

Two Stories: Kuprin’s “Garnet Bracelet” and “Gambrinus”

Aleksandr Kuprin anyone? Despite enjoying significant popularity in early 20th century Russia, Kuprin’s name recognition among 21st century U.S. readers is pretty minimal. I’ll admit that I have trouble remembering if he’s Aleksei or Aleksandr, even after seeing his books on my nightstand for weeks!

I recently read two Kuprin stories. The longer story, Гранатовый браслет (“The Garnet Bracelet”), is one of Kuprin’s best known. The name of the shorter story “Гамбринус” (“Gambrinus”) may be familiar to habitués of certain bars and restaurants in Russia and Brighton Beach.

“The Garnet Bracelet” (1911) is suffused with dualism: sisters whose appearances display the differing heritages of their parents, a cliff, and a mix of old and new social conventions and literary devices. I most enjoyed the mystery of the garnet bracelet itself, the relationship between the sisters, and Kuprin’s use of nature as a symbol. The most prevalent aspect of “The Garnet Bracelet,” though, is the agony of unrequited love.

I can tell you without spoiling anything that one character in “The Garnet Bracelet” says (in my translation), “Love should be a tragedy. A great secret in the world! No lifely comforts, calculations, or compromises should touch it.” These lines stood out vividly because I’ve been reading Daniel Rancour-Laferriere’s controversial psychoanalysis of Russia, The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering. It includes this line from Chapter One (page 3): “The literary image of Russian self-abnegation can be wide-ranging, even flamboyant.” “The Garnet Bracelet” is only one minor contribution.

Music is a common link between “The Garnet Bracelet” and “Gambrinus.” Kuprin invokes the “largo appassionato” movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 2, opus 2, No. 2, twice in “The Garnet Bracelet” and sets the final words of the story to Beethoven’s music. Although melodramatic and sentimental, the overall effect of listening to the music and reading the passage strengthened the story because, for me, the music is more beautiful than Kuprin’s ending, which relies too heavily on coincidence for my taste.

“Gambrinus” (1907) features music through Sashka, a Jewish violinist who plays in a bar called Gambrinus. Little happens in the first half of the story, but Kuprin’s settings are again vivid as he describes sailors and the seamy side of a southern Russian port city. He later contrasts Sashka’s goodness with the “sneaky devil living in each person, who whispers in his ear ‘Go. It will all be unpunished…’”

“Gambrinus” also includes a passage that reminded me of Rancour-Laferriere’s book. When Sashka sees English sailors, he dutifully plays “Rule Britannia,” which includes a line “Britons never will be slaves.” Kuprin notes Russia’s eternal slavery (вечное рабство) as a contrast, and the story concludes not long after the 1905 revolution.

I won’t mention how the theme of servitude works into the end of the story, but I will say that “Gambrinus” morphs from an atmospheric piece into a profile of personal and national history and tragedy. Kuprin manages to cover a lot in 30 pages, and my only complaint about the story is that he sometimes lacks subtlety and lapses into sentimentality as he describes the bar and Sashka. This is, of course, a matter of taste, and these passages might feel very different in translation, but the slightly false notes felt unfortunate, as did tacking on a last line that sums up the story’s theme.

Kuprin may not be a first-tier Russian classic, but I enjoy his clear style and blends of themes and techniques enough that I’m looking forward to reading more of my thick compilation book: I’m especially looking forward to Поединок (The Duel). I’ll be writing more soon about Kuprin and his Яма (The Pit), a novel about prostitution. In the meantime, for detailed summaries of Kuprin’s fiction, visit Nicholas J.L. Luker’s monograph. (Note: there are spoilers.)