Saturday, January 31, 2009

“War and Peace,” Part I: It’s the Little Things

A synopsis of Part I of Война и мир (War and Peace): three parties, two partings.

What better than a party to introduce readers and characters? Tolstoy’s descriptions of interactions between characters give the scenes at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée (previous post), Pierre’s drinking party, and the Rostov name day party an almost voyeuristic immediacy.

Though 200 years have passed since the true and fictional events in the book (sort of) took place, and over 100 have elapsed since Tolstoy wrote, the textures of life haven’t changed much: marriages still strain, drinking games still exist, and children still ask improper questions at meals.

The combination of specifics from an era, the universality of the book’s themes, Tolstoy’s perspective looking back, and interactions between real people (e.g. General Kutuzov) and fictional characters, give me an almost pleasant feeling of vertigo. Even if Tolstoy’s narrative voice makes my head spin a little -- now hovering like a fly over characters as it describes faces, now pulling back to describe Big History -- I love the tension between truth and lies in the book because it applies to the text of the novel itself, too. But I digress… back to the parties…

Warning: The rest of this post refers to specific events in Part I of War and Peace.

Tying a sentry to a bear and tossing them into a canal is, thankfully, not be a common diversion, but it’s a vivid, unexpected bit of “exotica,” the kind of trouble that could happen that creates opportunities for showing how fictional characters could respond. Pierre Bezukhov is sent to Moscow for his participation, and his friend Dolokhov (who resurfaces in the first section of Part II), is demoted. Most telling, Pierre’s involvement with the bear caper wins him admiration from Count Rostov, who laughs at the story and calls it a “славная шутка” (“splendid joke”).

Count Rostov’s reaction typifies his personality: he’s a jolly man who enjoys dancing the Daniel Cooper and is rumored to be a gambler. (For kicks, here is the version of the Daniel Cooper danced at the Russian Nobility Ball in 2008.) The Rostovs’ name day dinner is an example of the importance of spontaneity and emotion in their household. Entrance into the dining room and seating are highly regimented, but Natasha, on a dare from her little brother, stands up to ask what’s for dessert. Natasha, who is affectionately called a Cossack by a friend of the family, asks and asks until she learns it will be pineapple ice cream.

I probably wouldn’t disagree that Natasha is bratty but, as the student called настоящая дочка Евы (“a true daughter of Eve”) in Russian class for being too curious, I’ve always admired her willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. She is also a loyal and emotional friend, as Tolstoy shows when she comforts Sonia, crying along with her after Sonia’s beloved Nikolai spends too much time with Julie Kuragina.

I also like watching Pierre eat. He speaks little, looks around, and tries absolutely everything, not sure which glasses to use for his drinks. Pierre is, of course, something of an outsider. Not only is he physically awkward, he’s also “незаконный” (literally, “illegal,” but used as “illegitimate”) (a related languagehat post), and unfamiliar with how he should behave in society. He wears glasses. Even as he eats and drinks at the Rostovs’, his father is dying. Undertakers are gathering outside the house. How’s that for parallel events that show both sides of the Dionysian?

Pierre sleeps in the carriage on the way home then, clueless (or perhaps still sleepy?) about how to react to his father’s dying, follows instructions from Anna Mikhailovna (mother of Natasha’s beloved Boris), a distant relative. Though Pierre knows his father’s room well, he is confused by a religious ceremony and decides everything that happens is “необходимо нужно” (roughly “necessarily needed”). Pierre’s father is referred to as “больной” (“the sick person” or “the patient”), giving even more feel of остранение (defamiliarization), as Pierre sees his father (and death) in a new, unfamiliar way. There is also an unseemly fight over Pierre’s father’s will.

When Anna Mikhailovna returns to the Rostovs’, she describes the deathbed scene as “трогательно” (“touching”) and says Bezukhov died as she would wish to die. This paragraph is one of many in the book where characters, as storytellers, produce very different accounts of events than does Tolstoy, our seemingly trustworthy narrator.

The other parting in Part I involves gloomy Prince Andrei, our soirée acquaintance who is about to go off to war, his father, the orderly Prince Nikolai Bolkonskii (a.k.a. The King of Prussia), and Andrei’s sister, heavy-stepped Princess Mar’ia. Prince Nikolai, first forced into exile, now remaining there voluntarily, is introduced as something of a tyrant, a lover of geometry who forces Mar’ia to follow a strict schedule.

The Bolkonskii family dinner on the eve of Prince Andrei’s departure shows, among other things, Prince Nikolai laughing with only his mouth, not his eyes, and then countering his son’s professional respect for Napoleon by listing Napoleon’s mistakes. This introduces a theme – the role of error in life and war – that pops up again in the first section of Part II.

I particularly like the episode when Prince Nikolai hugs his son, tells him he will be pained if Andrei dies at war, but ashamed if Andrei does not behave like the son of Nikolai Bolkonskii. A few paragraphs later, their eyes meet, and the lower part of the father’s face quivers. Having shown, involuntarily, his feelings, he then shouts, “Простились... ступай!” (Roughly: “We’ve said goodbye… out!”). Ah, families!

For me, characters’ involuntary physical motions – a quivering jaw, (un)smiling eyes, a barely perceptible smile – give War and Peace much of its immediacy. I know some readers find them irritating, and I wonder if that’s because they feel so real: we all know people whose muscles make similar moves that betray their feelings.

I’m curious about other readers’ opinions: Do you think Natasha’s impetuousness is positive or negative? Is Prince Nikolai kind at heart, just not very demonstrative? And what do you think of Pierre? 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yet More Russian Literary Awards

Two days. Three announcements about Russian literary awards. I’ll take them in order:

Olga Slavnikova, the 2006 Booker Prize winner, won the Kazakov prize for the short story “Сёстры Черепановы.” Slavnikova’s 2017, which won the Booker, has already been translated into English, according to translator Marian Schwartz’s Web site, but is “not yet under contract.” In the meantime, Schwartz’s English translation of an excerpt from Slavnikova’s Бессмертный (The Man Who Wouldn’t Die), a book with themes similar to those in Goodbye, Lenin!, is available on Words Without Borders.

Next up: Daniil Granin won the St. Andrei Pervozvannyi Order. According to, Granin turned 90 on January 1, 2009, and the award is one of the highest given by the Russian government. I’ve only read a bit of Granin so can’t recommend anything, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several of his books have been translated into English and German.

Finally, today, I noticed an announcement listing six nominees for the Belkin Prize. They include Margarita Khemlin, who was nominated for the Big Book Award last year; Marina Palei, who is also no stranger to literary short lists; and actor Sergei Iurskii (Yursky), whom I have seen on stage and screen (he’s quite a presence!) but never read. This post on contains the list of nominees plus links to most of the nominated works.

And one slightly off-topic note. also reported the death of John Updike. I thank him for many memorable and enjoyable hours of reading. I associate Russia and Updike because he’s so well-known there… I borrowed the Rabbit trilogy from a Russian friend when I lived in Moscow. And another Russian friend loves The Centaur so much that I asked Updike to sign a copy for her when I went to a reading in Boston. 

Daniil Granin on Amazon
John Updike on Amazon

Sunday, January 25, 2009

“War and Peace”: The Soirée

I’d never truly enjoyed the first 20 or so pages of Lev Tolstoy’s Война и мир (War and Peace) until this, my fourth, reading. With its mix of French and Russian, introductions to many characters, and numerous references to French history, the beginning of the book can feel pretty overwhelming.

One strategy for handling the first pages is to choose a thread or two to follow. If French history is your thing, focus on those references. If you prefer character development and relationships, watch those. And don’t panic if you don’t love the soirée scenes: I never have, either, but I’ve always engaged with the book quite nicely after the party breaks up.

That said, I found myself enjoying the soirée this time around, perhaps because I focused on many of the themes Tolstoy weaves into the book. They include:

Naturalness and Artificiality – Throughout the novel, Tolstoy contrasts stage-like and natural behaviors. In the first chapter he presents a nervous, party-managing hostess, Anna Pavlovna, with the awkward, outspoken Pierre. Smiles tell a lot about the people: the lovely Ellen, for example, never stops smiling but Pierre alone, making his debut in society, has a genuine smile that is childlike and kind.

Making and Interpreting History – Anna Pavlovna speaks in the first section of the book about Russia’s potential as a savior of Europe. Tolstoy writes a great deal in War and Peace about history, its participants, and its interpretations. The book includes essays on history, and War and Peace’s fictional chapters echo many of the essays’ themes, particularly the roles of generals, soldiers, and chance. One telling little episode related to history: in Part I, section V, Pierre plops himself on a couch at Prince Andrei’s, takes Caesar’s Commentaries off a shelf, and begins reading the book in the middle.

The NarratorWar and Peace’s narrator includes a few comments that look back in time, placing events within the context of history: Anna Pavlovna’s use of the word грипп (grippe) was new at the time, Prince Vasilii speaks in the French that наши деды (our grandfathers) spoke and thought in, and the lovely Ellen is dressed in accordance with the fashion of the time. The narrator’s voice will, of course, become particularly forceful in the essays on history.

Further Reading on War and Peace:

I’ll occasionally include a link or suggestion on other readings related to War and Peace. I’ll start with a link to a favorite blog, languagehat. Languagehat has been reading War and Peace in Russian and has written some excellent posts about vocabulary and Tolstoy’s use of language.

All languagehat posts with key term “war and peace”

My favorite of the posts (thus far!), about Tolstoy’s use of repetition

War and Peace on Amazon

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Selected Short Stories

I had a unusual and strange urge to read short stories last week… I probably needed to work something out of my system before reading War and Peace.

I began with some political stories by Iulii Daniel (a.k.a. Nikolai Arzhak), a dissident writer who, in 1966, was sentenced to five years of hard labor for publishing stories in the West. Daniel was tried together with Andrei Siniavskii (a.k.a. Abram Tertz). Few editions of Daniel’s writing seem to have been published in Russia since perestroika; I was lucky to find one when I lived in Mosow. Daniel’s work is available in English translation.

I began with a reread: Человек из МИНАПа” (“The Man from MINAP”). The story concerns a man who claims he can determine the gender of his children by thinking special thoughts (I won’t say what) whilst having sex. I have funny memories of reading the story 20 years ago because our teacher censored certain words. When I confronted her with that fact – and the expurgated words, which I found in a library book – in class, she told me I was too curious, “настоящая дочка Евы” (“a true daughter of Eve”). This time around, the story felt most interesting for its picture of how Soviet institutions handled the man’s talents.

Next up was the title story of Daniel/Arzhak’s collection, Говорит Москва” (“This Is Moscow Speaking”). The story is named for a line used by radio announcers. In this case, the announcer tells listeners about an upcoming “day of open murders,” a special day that the narrator says fits right along with Artillery Day and Day of Soviet Press. As the narrator says: “Транспорт работает, милицию трогать не велено – значит порядок будет.” (“Public transportation works, the police are ordered not to touch – that means there will be order.”) There are lots of funny lines in the story (“provincial Hamletism” sticks with me, too), though I thought Daniel was most effective in showing characters’ reactions to the “holiday” and the larger meaning of the fear it engendered.

Искупление” (“Atonement”) felt even more dangerous: a rakish narrator, Viktor, is accused of informing on an old acquaintance, resulting in his arrest and a sentence in prison camp. The acquaintance wants Viktor to suffer, too, so orders him to leave town and never marry. This story about guilt – both collective and individual – blends Soviet-era sociopolitical themes with love. The content makes “Atonement” politically treacherous but it also feels artistically risky, thanks to Daniel’s energetic writing style and a harsh ending. I think it succeeds.

For a change of era, I reread the first story in a collection of Anton Chekhov’s works: Ионыч” (“Ionych”). Though Chekhov’s simple, clear style feels as comfortable as old slippers, his characters made me even more uncomfortable and sad than Daniel’s. We know these people, particularly the title character, a porcine, money-hungry provincial doctor who becomes a “pagan god” whose only joy is a lost love.

Sigh. I love Chekhov’s clarity and clean writing but I’m ready for the happy chaos of War and Peace

Yuly Daniel on Amazon

Special Note to Subscribers -- Feed Change!

Dear Subscribers,

I plan to move my blog feed today from Feedburner to Google. Google is forcing this transition and claims feed transfers should be seamless... Theoretically, you won't notice anything. You should continue to receive my blog posts in your e-mail account or feed reader of choice. 

I hope so! 

This will be a busy weekend at the bookshelf, so it will be easy to know if anything goes amiss. I'll be posting later today about a few short stories, and my War and Peace series begins tomorrow. I'll add a note to this post later today, with new feed details so you can resubscribe, if anything gets lost. 

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Friday, January 23, 2009

"Oh, Shabbat!" Reads Well on Any Day of the Week

Gefilte fish. I can’t stop thinking about gefilte fish after reading Dina Kalinovskaia’s (Kalinovskaya) novella О суббота! (Oh, Shabbat!).

Oh, Shabbat! is a lovely, little-known book about a visit to Odessa from a prodigal, Grisha, who immigrated to the United States decades ago, leaving behind his family, falling out of touch, and causing some hard feelings. Kalinovskaia had a true ability to capture, in very few pages, the humor and sadness of life when she wrote about meetings and partings, both temporary and permanent.

My favorite scene in Oh, Shabbat! doesn’t sound like much... It takes place at a dinner in Grisha’s honor, a dinner for which a woman named Revekka has made gefilte fish. Revekka’s husband, Saul, is seated next to their grandson’s girlfriend. She doesn’t eat the gefilte fish or the crooked chicken neck she receives later, and Saul realizes the young woman is pregnant. First he tells her he loves bread and, yes, pickles, then he invites her to the kitchen, where he fries potatoes for her.

I could eat fried potatoes every night of the week, so it’s tempting to think that scene got me because of the food, but Saul’s sensitivity is far tastier. I love Kalinovskaia’s many accounts of loving, familial bickering: this is a “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” kind of book that shows great compassion for people and their shortcomings. This dense little book reads easily, so I already want to reread it, to absorb more of the humor, the Odessan setting and language, and the people themselves.

I am sorry to report that Oh, Shabbat! has not been translated into English. It was originally published in the Soviet journal Дружба народов (Friendship of Peoples) in 1980 and was not reprinted until 2007, in the “Prose of Jewish Life” series from a Moscow publisher, Текст (Text). 

Carp photo courtesy of onemhz, via stock.xchng

Gefilte fish recipes welcome. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Weight of “Heavy Sand”

Anatolii Rybakov’s Тяжёлый песок (Heavy Sand) is a Russian novel that reads almost like a triptych of novellas. The first third of the book is a pre-revolutionary love story about a Swiss man and a Ukrainian woman. The second segment shows how they raise a large family in a small Soviet-era city. The final portion details how World War 2 destroyed the family and most of the rest of the city’s Jewish population.

Characters and the consistent, homey narrative voice of Boris, one of the couple’s sons, link the three pieces of Heavy Sand. Boris tells their life stories, often interrupting himself to step forward or backward in time. He even occasionally addresses his readers, asking, for example, if we’ve remembered certain characters, are familiar with Jewish traditions, or know historical details about World War 2. Though the voice sometimes feels a little more folksy than I prefer, I was grateful that at least one writer has found a graceful way to gently remind me who is who!

Heavy Sand left me with a mixed impression. The cross-cultural love story felt fairly conventional, partly because the couple, headstrong Rakhil’ and steady Yakov, felt a little stereotypical. In the middle section, some characters appear and feel important, only to disappear after what turn out to be life-like cameo appearances. This piece of the book provides a “lite” version of Stalinist repression that enabled Heavy Sand to be published in a journal during the 1970s: prison camps are not mentioned and the justice system works. Heavy Sand’s picture of the Stalin era contrasts sharply with Rybakov’s later Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) trilogy, which even includes Stalin as a character.

Warnings of the war first sneak into Heavy Sand in the person of a Polish refugee who comes to Russia and works with Boris. Rybakov, through Boris, who survives the war through military service, is at his narrative best when he describes how most of the family dies under German occupation. Boris’s voice combines pride and anger, factualness and emotion, creating scenes of unforgettable cruelty. 

As I read the last chapters, I realized the power of the ordinariness of Rybakov’s characters: Boris shows us the remarkableness of good people, some children, some elderly. Though many of the characters seemed rather flat for most of the book, the vividness of their final decisions and actions and, ultimately, their deaths, made them feel very real.

With so much death and brutality, the last third of the book is quick-paced and very emotional. Boris often repeats “вечная память” (“eternal memory”) after eulogizing his family members and neighbors, giving the book’s final pages the feel of a prayer. This Novelguide page mentions several of the religious motifs from Heavy Sand. It also notes the final page, on which, after the war, a partisan asks Boris if the Russian and Hebrew lines on a memorial stone read the same. They do not, though Boris says they do, highlighting differing versions of official history. 

For further reading: 

"Soviet Jews in War: A Searing Account" -- New York Times PDF article (subscribers or paid download), December 26, 1978

Anatoly Rybakov on Amazon

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mythologizing in Chechnia with Makanin’s “Asan”

Ah, war stories! On the surface, Асан (Asan), Vladimir Makanin’s Big Book prize winner, is a stream-of-consciousness account of events in the life of the Russian manager of a military warehouse in Chechnia. Deeper down, Asan is less a book about Russia’s Chechen wars than an unsatisfying, twitchy novel showing how war forces participants and observers to piece together narratives that explain or justify actions.

Makanin’s narrator, major Aleksandr Sergeevich Zhilin, shares names with literary predecessors. His first name and patronymic are borrowed from Pushkin himself, and a major Zhilin is the main character of Lev Tolstoy’s short story “Кавказкий пленник” (“Prisoner of the Caucasus”). The name Asan becomes a nickname for Makanin’s Zhilin: Asan is, in the novel, the name of a Chechen deity a general discovers in his voracious reading about Chechnia’s history. Of course there’s more significance: the name Asan resembles certain Russian nicknames for Aleksandr and could even refer to Alexander the Great. As a Russian officer with ambiguous morality, Zhilin also becomes a dubious hero of his time, a 21st century descendent of Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin, the main character of Герой нашего времени (Hero of Our Time).

Zhilin tells stories about his life: selling Russian fuels on the side for personal profit, calls to his unnamed wife about building a house with illegal money, rescues of soldiers and deaths of comrades, a visit from his hard-drinking father, and the appearance of two shell-shocked soldiers. Some of these episodes show plot promise but few develop into much. For example, the visit from the elder Zhilin, who loves Anna Akhmatova’s poems, is touching but feels more like a disjointed attempt to give the younger Zhilin a past than a way to extend his character.

Of course this may be intentional: Asan patches together stories to form a rough novel about rough topics. The narrator’s perspective even shifts a couple of times between first and third person. As I read Asan, I missed the tautness of Makanin’s novellas. Makanin-Zhilin loops his stories over and over themselves, repeating and repeating, adding … and adding … and adding …, then ending sentence after sentence with !. At first this style felt a little exhilarating and even addictive… Something important might happen!... I’m almost breathless!... but after about 50 pages I was ready for a rest.

Fortunately, the shell-shocked soldiers bring a bit of continuity to the book. The soldiers give both Makanin and Zhilin a focus: the soldiers want to return to their unit, and Zhilin must find a convoy to take them away. I won’t reveal much about the false start to send them back but will say that it leads to casualties. The soldier blames “солнечные зайчики” (“sun bunnies,” a term used here for dappled sunlight that is also the name of a camouflage pattern) and a pile of ill-earned cash. Zhilin creates a series of changes in stories – lies – that he and the soldiers can use to explain what happened.

Of course war, as Makanin reminds readers on several of Asan’s pages, is an absurd venture. You can’t understand it, says Zhilin, and there’s no logic. In short, truth slips and myths gain strength as Zhilin attempts to make sense of events, his actions, and his life. Asan is not about the kinds of war truths we expect from newspapers. It’s about how people try to order chaos by transforming war’s realities, commodities as elusive as sun bunnies, into myth .

I would be lying if I were to write that I liked reading Asan or admire the book as an example of well-written literary fiction. I didn’t, and I don’t think it is. Even if Makanin intended the book to be messy instead of elegant, the novel feels unfinished and not particularly original. That’s unfortunate because its messages about money, truth, and war are important reflections of sociopolitical life in today’s Russia. I wonder if this, rather than artistic merit, was the source of the book’s appeal to the Big Book judges.

For further reading:

Асан (first half) (second half)

“The biggest book ever?” – Vladimir Kozlov’s Moscow Times summary of the 2008 Big Book calls the prize to Makanin a “life achievement” award.

«Асан» или Риторика Маканина – Nikolai Aleksandrov’s Russian-language review of Asan interested me more than most I found on the “Runet.” Two scathing reader comments typify many others I’ve seen, citing Makanin’s lack of experience in the Caucasus and war.

Makanin novellas (previous post)

Vladimir Makanin on Amazon

P.S. Makanin appeared on the “Книжное казино” program of the Echo of Moscow radio station on February 1, 2009. The interview wasn’t particularly scintillating but it did provide a few insights into how he sees the book as a sort of fable. (link