Monday, September 29, 2008

The Literary Express, Pelevin, and Russian History

1. My favorite Russian news item for today is about a train, not financial markets or politics. The “Литературный экспресс” (“Literary Express”) train set off from Moscow for Vladivostok today carrying a bunch of writers. Forty writers will travel in groups of 10, covering four itineraries and holding over 200 meetings. Writers include Zakhar Prilepin, Aleksei Varlamov, Viktor Erofeev, Polina Dashkova, and Sergei Luk’ianenko of Night Watch fame.

The goal of “Literary Express” is, in my translation, “propaganda and promotion of contemporary domestic literature and popularization of reading in the Russian regions.”

2. Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review included “Demonic Muse,” Liesl Schillinger’s enthusiastic assessment The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Andrew Bromfield’s translation of Victor Pelevin's Священная книга оборотня. Pelevin isn’t a favorite of mine but, as my father might say, those who like him speak highly of him.

3. I’m a little late posting about this article from The New Republic… Leon Aron’s “The Problematic Pages” describes the context of and some of the material in a new Russian teacher’s handbook called Новейшая история России, 1945-2006 (The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006) by A.V. Filippov. I’d already read this Russian article about the book, which quotes passages that rationalize Stalin’s great terror. The fact that the book exists is not surprising, considering Vladimir Putin’s policies and statements about history. Even knowing that, these articles make for very bleak reading.

Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: A Novel on Amazon

Monday, September 22, 2008

Prilepin's "Sin" Is Not Ugly

It’s hard to explain the effect of Zakhar Prilepin’s book called Грех (Sin), which won this year’s National Bestseller prize. The book describes itself as a novel in short stories – not quite accurate, since there is also a section of poetry – and each piece about a young man named Zakhar establishes its own mood. All the stories, though, combine threads of tenderness, rage, and тоска (toska), an untranslatable Russian word that represents a sort of soulful yearning and worry.

That combination results in stories that range from merely sad to heartbreaking to absolutely deflating. “Белый квадрат” (“White Square”), for example, reaches a shocking end that feels unexpected… until the reader returns to a few bits of dialogue strewn through the story. A lighter piece, “Карлсон” (“Karlsson”) is named for an Astrid Lindgren character but is, put briefly, a tale of how Zakhar and a friend drink a lot outside and sometimes visit bookstores. Still, Zakhar begins “Karlsson” by explaining that he’d felt such “нежность к миру” (“tenderness for the world”) that he’d decided to try joining the Foreign Legion at a strange age when it’s still easy to die.

There are also stories involving love and lost puppies, work as a gravedigger, serving in Chechnia, family responsibilities, a stay in the country with nubile cousins, and what sounds like an exceptionally rough night as a bouncer. Zakhar himself, usually as a first-person narrator, links the stories. They are presented out of chronological order. Prilepin’s motivations for using his own pseudonym for a character’s name interest me far less than the result: an almost ironic genericness and a sense that “Zakhar” is, somehow, an archetypical figure from contemporary Russia.

The settings and situations in Sin often add to that tone because they feel universal – many of the seven deadly sins make appearances – yet still uniquely Russian because of characters’ choices. Prilepin mentions only small details, like a signpost, references to a transitional time, and, of course, the Chechen War, to place the book in a concrete place and time.

I admire Prilepin’s simple language and story structures, which reflect the everydayness of what he writes. Though at first they seem unremarkable, these stories become a disjointed and oddly beautiful portrait of a young life. Best of all, Prilepin, unlike his soldiers in “Сержант” (“The Sergeant”), is not afraid of expressing his feelings. There is an honesty to the stories that is disarming and frightening, particularly because the balance of anger and sweetness is so precarious.

Although not everything Prilepin writes is exactly subtle, he rarely becomes precious (with puppies) or brutal (as a bouncer) for long. Even when he does, Zakhar still feels painfully real. His emotional rawness was, for me, so distinctive and overpowering in a positive way that it was easy to overlook small technical aspects – an extra plot element in one story or a bit too much action in another – that sometimes made me, a reader with a bias toward minimalism in short stories, wish he’d trimmed a bit.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is in “Ничего не будет” (“There Will Be Nothing”). Zakhar, now the father of two boys, describes family life with his beloved (любимая) but needs to travel out of town after his grandmother dies. He drives at night on desolate roads:
“Несколько раз меня обгоняли, и я поддавал газку, чтобы ехать в компании с кем-то, ненавязчиво держась метров в ста.”
“A few cars passed me, and I hit the gas in order to drive together with someone, unobtrusively hanging back about 100 metres.”
The other cars eventually turn off the road, leaving Zakhar alone again.

I wish more writers had the courage to write passages, stories, and novels that rely on such simple metaphors, basic language, and true emotions. Prilepin is quoted in this article as saying that Sin looks at “how to ‘indulge in happiness while not sacrificing one’s soul and drowning in sin.’” I find in Sin an edgy happiness and joy for life that cohabitate with a recognition of death and loneliness. It’s only fitting that Zakhar is described, in “The Sergeant,” as a man who has felt several times in life “a strange nakedness, as if he’d shed his skin.” 

There’s lots more I could write about Sin and Prilepin himself, but I’ll end by adding that I don’t believe any of Prilepin’s writing has been translated into English. For those of you who read Russian, I’ve included below a link to a Russian page that contains links to some of Prilepin’s stories. The first five items are stories from Sin; the first story in the link called “рассказы” is “Белый квадрат.” The last link leads to the title story of Prilepin’s latest book.

Prilepin Books on Amazon

Photo: Jazza, via stock.xchang

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Back to Classics: Turgenev and the Generation Gap

The Writer: Ivan Turgenev

Works and Dates: Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) (1861)

Why it’s important: Fathers and Sons depicts, with considerable irony, differences between middle-aged romantic idealists and progressive young materialists from the generation that came of age during the 1860s in Russia.

Criticism and commentary: Criticism of the book was so strong that Turgenev considered retiring from writing. With its irony and equal treatment of all sides, the book turned into an equal-opportunity offender. One critic who praised it was Dmitrii Pisarev. A brief summary.

IMHO: Fathers and Sons feels like the quintessential Russian novel thanks to family strife, politics, long-term houseguests, love, people hiding in bushes, class differences, and, of course, a duel. It is elegantly but simply written, and, weighing in at 200 pages and roughly 10 characters, felt like a homey ensemble piece after reading Vasilii Grossman’s epic Life and Fate.

The primary character is one Evgenii Bazarov, a nihilist who enjoys dissecting frogs. His views and philosophies at the beginning of the novel come close to “down with everything!” He has a tendency toward boorishness and invents quotes from Pushkin. What is important to Bazarov? That two times two equals four. This theme echoes throughout Russian literature, most notably in Dostoevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground.

We meet Bazarov, whose name is rooted in the Russian word for bazaar, as he arrives with his friend Arkadii Kirsanov for a visit at Arkadii’s family estate. Trouble, of course ensues, as Bazarov mixes it up verbally with Arkadii’s foppish Uncle Pavel, who enjoys sprinkling his speech with French words.

I won’t outline the book’s plot – which includes plenty of travel for Arkadii and Bazarov – because excellent summaries are available on Wikipedia (here) and in novelist Gary Shteyngart’s “You Must Read This” installment for NPR (here). Besides, the fun of the novel comes in its light humor, accompanied by, to steal a bit from Shteyngart, Turgenev’s compassion and lack of derision.

Many episodes in the book are a bit absurd, but none more than Bazarov’s duel with Arkadii’s Uncle Pavel. Pavel proposes the duel in exceedingly polite terms, and Bazarov decides to accept the challenge “in a gentlemanly way.” The two amicably decide to skip the formality of a reason. Lacking patience for each other is enough, and Pavel avoids mentioning the slightly scandalous scene he witnessed, from behind a lilac bush, that triggered the challenge. When Bazarov injures Pavel, Bazarov bandages him up, and Pavel tells his brother he challenged Bazarov because of a political conversation about Sir Robert Peel.

To me, the real irony of the duel is that Pavel looks almost like a nihilist, willing to give his life up for no formal reason other than dislike, and Bazarov looks almost like a traditionalist by agreeing to a duel to defend his honor. Bazarov has, however, already abandoned many of his principles and even fallen in love at least once, notably with a frosty woman named Odintsova, whose name begins with the Russian word один, “one.”

(Please don’t read the next one paragraph if you don’t want to know how the novel ends.)

To cap things off, when Bazarov succumbs to death -- the ultimate negation that cannot be denied – his parents have a priest perform last rites. I found the deathbed scenes very sad, probably because Bazarov came to feel so human with his contradictions and because his parents, who live far more modestly than the Kirsanovs, loved him so much and had great hopes for his medical career. The book ends at Bazarov’s grave, where his passionate, rebellious, sinful heart hides. The flowers growing on his grave speak of eternal tranquility and life. Even in death, Bazarov, his corpse helping the flowers grow, embodies a bazaar of ideas.

Fathers and Sons also includes a bazaar of relationships. There are literal fathers and sons – Bazarov and his healer father – and there are metaphorical father and sons – Bazarov and Arkadii, his follower. Odintsova watches over her younger sister, and Arkadii’s father has a complicated relationship with his servant Fenechka, who is, of course, not his social equal, but who eventually becomes his wife after bearing his son.

I enjoyed watching these connections develop because Turgenev treats his readers with compassion, too. He shows us conversations and gestures that characterize his people, and his brief descriptive passages are memorable because he fills them with distinctive objects that establish atmosphere and their owners’ personalities. Turgenev’s combination of social significance, characters who feel just usual and odd enough to be real, and spare literary techniques make Fathers and Sons an exceedingly pleasant book to read when you’d like to consider how people relate to each other and their ideas.

Summary: Fathers and Sons is a cleanly structured short novel that combines a snapshot of a historical time with gentle humor and irony. I certainly misunderstood the book in college when I called it a “period piece,” provoking my professor to, rightly, accuse me of not understanding the novel. Though duels and horse-drawn carriages seem to have gone out of fashion, the book’s larger questions about generations and mentors, philosophies and ideals, feel surprisingly fresh in the contentious election year 2008. Besides, students, nihilist or not, still dissect frogs.

Turgenev Books on Amazon