Monday, July 28, 2008

Russian Reading Challenge 2: Platonov's “Foundation Pit”

Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit) was a perfect Russian Reading Challenge selection: I read the first 30 pages several years ago but got stuck. I’m glad I stuck with it this time because, though I still found it quite difficult, this short novel is very rewarding.

The Foundation Pit, written in 1929-1930, is an allegory of the era of collectivization: workers digging a pit for a foundation also find themselves digging, in effect, a collective grave. They take part in the collectivization campaign, too, banishing kulaks by sending them away by raft.

Form and content are inseparable in The Foundation Pit, and Platonov draws on language and themes found in divergent genres, mixing elements of folk tales, carnival, existentialism, and socialist realism to create a dystopia so painful and surreal that I feel almost as if I’ve lived there.

Despite the inherent tragedy of The Foundation Pit, some passages were laugh-out-loud absurd – the behavior of collectivized horses stands out – but I thought others plodded, perhaps because they were so familiar and reminiscent of “real” socialist realism. Other chunks of text jarred to good effect: an orphaned girl taken in by the workers speaks in violent, revolutionary terms, demanding death of kulaks.

What sets The Foundation Pit apart from other dystopian novels – and most other fiction – is Platonov’s creativity with the Russian language. Language is the foundation upon which the book is built, with Platonov’s diversity of linguistic registers reflecting changes in society. The Foundation Pit depicts on every level – from words to characters’ actions – untenable visions of a socialist future in a place where truth and rationality are losing their meaning.

Joseph Brodsky says in this (Russian) piece, which evidently appears as an afterward to an English-language edition of The Foundation Pit, that the book is untranslatable. (I find a lot of irony there!) He cites as one reason Platonov’s depiction of a nation that effectively becomes a victim of its own language. Obviously not all of Platonov’s words in The Foundation Pit have equivalents in a language like English – the content of “энтузиаст,” for example, differs tremendously on a cultural level from our “enthusiast.”

But I think Brodsky may underestimate the talents of translators, readers, and Platonov himself. Many of Platonov’s unique phrases translate elegantly enough into English to read well. Robert Chandler and Geoffrey Smith’s translation beautifully captures the mood and meanings of the novella’s unique first paragraph. Much later in the book, as I translate it, a bear “sang a song with his jaw.” Even culturally laden phrases that don’t translate this easily into English can still display Platonov’s ability to use repetition or word combinations that force the reader to (re)consider meaning.

Even if I don’t quite agree with Brodsky about translating Platonov – particularly after reading Robert Chandler’s crackling versions of Platonov in The New Yorker and the paragraph cited above – I think his definition of surrealism sums up The Foundation Pit very neatly. He calls Platonov the first surrealist, arguing that surrealism is not an aesthetic category but rather (as I translate it) “a form of philosophical rage, a product of the psychology of dead end.”

In the end (whether it’s dead or not) what I find most interesting about The Foundation Pit is that, to be blunt, I didn’t often enjoy reading it… but I can’t stop thinking about it. I even have thoughts of rereading it. I’ve enjoyed Platonov’s short stories much more because they feel peculiar and, perhaps even alienated, without conveying utter desolation. But I love a literary puzzle, and that’s what The Foundation Pit feels like. I may be back in a few years.

Summary: The Foundation Pit is one of the most difficult books I’ve read in recent years, but it’s worth the effort if you enjoy dystopia or writing that depends on both form and content to convey its messages. Platonov layers the book with far more themes than I’ve mentioned here: I felt like I barely touched on their significance in this, my first reading. I should add that my first attempt at reading The Foundation Pit was my introduction to Platonov. Reading several short stories between then and now helped me feel more comfortable with his style.

Cross-posted at Russian Reading Challenge

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tolstoy (x2), Gorky, Pristavkin, Shklovsky (x2), and Wood

A few hasty Monday evening notes…

1. The July 30, 2008, issue of The New Republic included Alexander Nemser’s review of Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences: Key Writings by and about Maxim Gorky, translated by Donald Fanger.

Gorky has never been a favorite of mine, but Nemser’s backgound included a detail that almost endeared Gorky to me: Gorky was “an obsessive corrector” who blue penciled almost everything he read, including a threatening note that he received with a noose. I hope my compulsive editing will never be tested that way!

Nemser summarizes the contradictions of Gorky’s life and actions, noting his relationship with Lev Tolstoy, his role as a prophet of the revolution, and his acting, in the words of Viktor Shklovsky, as “Noah of the Russian intelligentsia” by providing writers with work and housing.

Shklovsky’s defamiliarization (ostranenie, остранение) often brings readers to this blog, but that’s not why he earned another mention in this issue of TNR. Shklovsky is cited as an influence on literary critic James Wood. Frank Kermode’s review of Wood’s How Fiction Works wonders why Wood mentions few details of Shklovsky in the book: “It is true that some of Wood’s critical procedures somewhat resemble Shklovsky’s, and his largely unexplained interest in the Russian author may result from that similarity.”

NB: If you can’t access the TNR articles, e-mail me, and I’ll try e-mailing them to you.

Addition (18 August ’08): Walter Kirn’s review of How Fiction Works, in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Strange, but the caricature of Wood looks to me like Putin... with more hair on his head.

2. Yesterday’s New York Times included an obituary of Anatolii Pristavkin, a Russian writer who died on July 11, 2008. Even if you’re not interested in Pristavkin as a writer, it’s worth reading the obituary to learn about his work on the Russian pardons commission, which Vladimir Putin abolished in 2001.

3. Readers who enjoy War and Peace might also like Tat’iana Kuz’minskaia’s memoir, Моя жизнь дома и в Ясной Поляне (Tolstoy as I Knew Him). Tolstoy used Kuz’minskaia, his sister-in-law, as the model for Natasha Rostova. I don’t read much nonfiction but I liked Kuz’minskaia’s book for its picture of everyday life in 19th century Russia plus her accounts of taking dictation for Tolstoy after he broke his arm after being thrown by a horse, and early reactions of Tolstoy’s friends to War and Peace.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Crowded "On the Sunny Side of the Street"

Dina Rubina’s На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street) is the work of a literary magpie: the novel combines a comfortable nest of a story with shiny devices and descriptive passages that attract attention and embellish. Fortunately, the story underlying all the decoration is engrossing, thanks to the situations and city, Tashkent, in which Rubina places her characters.

On the Sunny Side of the Street is, at its simplest, some form of melodrama, the story of a girl, Katya, who survives the blockade of Leningrad and is evacuated to Tashkent. She becomes a criminal and a mother, and her daughter, the difficult Vera, grows up to be an esteemed artist. The two have a difficult relationship that doesn’t improve when Katya tries to kill her own lover, a kindly man whom Vera takes in while her mother is away. Vera finds “Uncle Misha” drunk on the street and brings him home, where he treats her better than Katya ever has.

My favorite passages in On the Sunny Side of the Street involve Katya and Uncle Misha, probably because they bring Rubina further away from characters I’ve already met in her fiction: artists and herself. Many of the dozens of secondary characters – particularly Vera’s father and a woman from the market who takes Katya in – are interesting, too. Rubina also gives a wonderful feel for the multicultural Tashkent, where she grew up.

Sometimes, though, it feels as if Rubina doesn’t trust herself to simply tell a good story. Instead she piles on imagery, exclamation marks, endless ellipses, and first-person metafiction tangents that detract from and even repeat her storytelling. Other techniques, like the novel’s timeline zigzags, distract less, and many motifs, such as classical music and watches, add to the book’s themes. Sometimes I wonder if Rubina tries too hard to use all her memories and ideas as soon as possible, lest she forget them.

Although I can rationalize in several ways the purpose of this fragmentation – to establish commonalities of childhood experiences in Tashkent or creative alter egos – I think a simpler narrative structure could have accomplished at least as much. More important, it also would have felt less as if Rubina, the writer, was trying to seize attention from her own fictional figures. Some of the metafiction passages she includes in On the Sunny Side of the Street feel a bit cheap, particularly a twist of the epilogue that I won’t detail here.

On balance, though, I was more than happy to follow the example of a Russian friend and just make peace with the way Rubina builds her fiction. Most of On the Sunny Side of the Street is an absorbing novel that examines the damage that history, biology, and human abuse heap on us. Rubina shows how we become artists and hoard our memories in various ways to preserve our versions of our pasts and the places where we grow up.

On the Sunny Side of the Street often kept me in my chair for lengthy reading sessions, despite Rubina’s autobiographical interruptions. Though the novel’s characters don’t feel particularly unusual, Rubina places them in extreme situations that test their emotional limits. This absorbing novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker and the Big Book prizes, offers plenty of room for highly personalized interpretations. Not yet translated into English.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Back to Classics: Lev Tolstoy and Abstinence

The Writer: Lev Tolstoy

Works and Dates: Крейцерова соната (The Kreutzer Sonata) (1889), Дьявол (The Devil) (1889, published posthumously), and Отец Сергий (Father Sergius) (1890-1898)

Why they’re important: As I read these three novellas, I came to think of them as Tolstoy’s “Abstinence Trilogy” – all three display his tortured relationship with women and his past.

Criticism and Commentary: Tolstoy himself wrote an epilogue to The Kreutzer Sonata. Theodore Roosevelt’s comments in a letter to Upton Sinclair about Kreutzer are interesting. I enjoyed D.S. Mirsky’s praise of The Devil in A History of Russian Literature.

IMHO: This trio of abstinence-related novellas about evils of the flesh make for dour summer reading: taking them to the beach could create a distinctly unsatisfying experience if you are surrounded by half-naked bodies. I read the three pieces in the order listed above and found them increasingly enjoyable. The most interesting aspect of reading one after the other was observing the varied methods Tolstoy uses to convey similar themes.

Kreutzer, Tolstoy uses a framing device: one passenger on a train tells another about how and why he killed his wife. In describing this crime of passion, the passenger, Pozdnyshev, speaks of hypocrisy and moral breakdowns, blaming beauty, music, social standards, and the devil more than himself for his woes.

Unfortunately, the novella reads more like a screed against sex and society than as a piece of literature. Pozdnyshev, with his randy past and extreme jealousy, didn’t quite feel real, which isn’t surprising: Tolstoy focuses with Kreutzer on making and repeating a moral point, not on creating settings or characters.

The Devil, by contrast, with its scenes of country life and temptation, feels almost gentle despite its harsh endings. Tolstoy wrote two conclusions for the story, neither of which leaves the reader with much hope. Still, this short novella about a landowner who cannot set aside his passion for a peasant woman despite his love for his wife, reads smoothly and has an almost fabular feel.

Despite the simplicity of the plot itself, The Devil is quite compelling, probably thanks to the sensation that I was watching a train wreck. Irtenev, the main character, seems quite human in trying to sort out the dualism of his relationships, though, like Pozdnyshev, he displayed an irritating and tragic lack of self-control.

Father Sergius is a much more complex piece that depicts a young man who gives up his fiancée and position in society to become a monk. I’ve already read Father Sergius several times and will certainly read it again. I enjoy the contrasts and comparisons that Tolstoy draws between society and the church, and the novella contains a rather gruesomely memorable scene that I will not detail.

What fascinates me most about Father Sergius is that, even as a person lacking religious beliefs, I relate well to Father Sergius’s struggles with his own pride and the church’s efforts to capitalize on his talents for healing. Each time the world invades Father Sergius’s privacy, I want him to be left alone.

Summary: With Father Sergius, Tolstoy creates far more full-blooded characters and situations than he writes in The Kreutzer Sonata or The Devil. All three contain religious motifs and cautionary tales about lust. If you only want to read one, I’d suggest reading The Kreutzer Sonata if you’re in the mood for a diatribe, The Devil if you want a deceptively simple and almost pastoral story of landowners, and Father Sergius if you’ve always wondered what monks think about.