Saturday, July 18, 2020

Mad Scientists & Talking Heads: Belyaev’s Professor Dowell’s Head

Alexander Belyaev’s Голова профессора Доуэля (known as Professor Dowell’s Head in Antonina W. Bouis’s English translation) made for some perfect retro – it was written in 1925 – reading during this bizarre pandemic summer. In my last post, I wrote in my “Up Next” section that my reading preference is “the odder the better right about now” so a book about live, talking heads separated from their bodies was just the thing.

Александр Беляев Голова профессора Доуэля russian book Alexander ...
And so. Professor Dowell’s Head focuses on two mad scientists. The mad scientist in the title, professor Dowell, is mad because he’s angry at his former colleague, professor Kern. Kern is a mad scientist who fits neatly into this wonderfully concise stock character definition on Wikipedia. Kern’s “unusual or unsettling personality traits” emerge right at the start of the novel, when he hires a young medical professional, Marie Laurent, to work in his Paris lab. He asks her if she can keep quiet. Kern then accuses beautiful women of having double the usual female deficiencies (like, oh, chattiness) and wants to know if Laurent’s nerves are in order.

It’s clear from the start that Marie will need strong nerves to work with Kern: she’s quickly shown a lab where a live human head is installed on a stand. That head belongs to none other than Dowell, who will soon tell Laurent how his head ended up in Kern’s lab. Professional, professorial jealousy, not to mention crime, comes into this, revealing some of Kern’s “unusual or unsettling personality traits” that fit with mad scientistdom. Laurent’s nerves do indeed suffer from what she learns, particularly since she’s far more sympathetic to mad-angry Dowell than mad-insane Kern. Kern will find and install two more heads in his lab, even attaching one to a body he finds at the morgue. Other characters (including professor Dowell’s son and one of his friends) enter the novel, too, though I’ll skip the details to prevent spoilage for future readers.

Professor Dowell’s Head combines science fiction and adventure, and is enough of a classic that it’s noted in A History of Russian Literature, which mentions that the book involves one of Belyaev’s “plots in which the human subject gains immortality and forfeits the body.” I certainly can’t argue with that and shudder a bit on a ninety-degree day as I confess that this is something I think about. Belyaev’s characters and plot turns are straightforward but he sets them up for maximum effect, establishing dualities – two scientists, mind and flesh, ethical and unethical behavior – so his characters can contemplate questions about what it means to be human.

Reading Professor Dowell’s Head during these pandemic months felt particularly striking. That’s likely because I’m so content with home-based social distancing, something some people apparently find about as appealing as preserving severed heads in a lab. I can’t say I’d want that fate myself, but I’m not at all bored at home, though of course all of me is still here. There are books to read, cats and humans to feed, vegetables to harvest, and hundreds of pages to translate. Dowell may not be especially happy in Kern’s lab but he’s far better off than the other two heads, who aren’t nearly as suited as Dowell to an existence that’s completely about the mind, not the body. Professor Dowell’s Head is relatively easy reading with a fairly quick-moving plot that’s appropriately peculiar for our odd times. Professor Dowell’s Head isn’t nearly as masterful as, say, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which is also dated 1925, also involves strange medical experimentation, and is (so far) my favorite Bulgakov. Even so, Professor Dowell’s Head is a solid page-turning novel that readers (including young adults) might enjoy discussing during this pandemic summer – both the novel and the pandemic raise plenty of questions about life and science.

Up next: Potpourri! Or maybe something else?

Disclaimers and disclosures: Only that translator Nina Bouis is a wonderful friend and colleague. I didn’t realize until writing this post that she translated the book!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Big Book 2: Buksha’s Heartfelt Churov and Churbanov

Ksenia Buksha’s Чуров и Чурбанов (Churov and Churbanov) is the first Russian book I’ve read and really, truly enjoyed on multiple levels during this whole bleak quarantine season. Churov and Churbanov captured me so much that I a) wanted to begin rereading as soon as I finished but b) don’t particularly feel like writing about it, lest I break the novel’s spell. I will tread lightly.

Churov and Churbanov is both comforting and disquieting, telling the story of two schoolmates who grow up in the 1990s and take (mostly) divergent paths in life. Churov becomes a cardiologist and a family man. Churbanov becomes, hm, a businessman. They live in St. Petersburg: the novel’s description refers to the “Petersburg atmosphere” and I must say that I cannot picture the book taking place anywhere else, perhaps because of certain slightly mystical, mysterious, and grotesque elements. Buksha works mentions of Santa Barbara, giant icicles, George Soros, and a grocery list with chicken hearts into her chapters. There is naturalism (the period’s crime) and there is empathy and love (family life).

She writes some beautiful scenes. In one, Churov videos his dog as they walk along railroad ties; he later shows the clip to juvenile patients to entice them to open their mouths at appointments. In another, after sustaining some injuries in a fight, Churbanov goes to the frozen Neva, sits on the snow, and drinks vodka and eats sausage as the sun sets and snow falls.

One of the elements that draws the book’s vignette-like chapters into a novel is the heart. There’s a bread factory (with a giant mixer!) that’s the heart of the city, there are those chicken hearts, and there’s a geography teacher who claims to remember students with her heart, though she confuses Churov and Churbanov. There is also the oddity that Churov and Churbanov, who are opposite in most respects, have synchronized hearts, a phenomenon that becomes a strange, almost utopian, fixation since it’s seen as having curative potential. Synchronization is banned because of instant simultaneous death of an entire synchronized group if one member dies.

The true miracle of Churov and Churbanov lies in Buksha’s telling. The pacing is perfect, she offers just the right level of detail, and the book has lots of heart and soul. As well as comfort and disquiet. The book’s formal success alone is refreshing but there’s something about the novel’s combination of light and dark – here I’m recalling scenes, like the bread factory’s constantly glowing windows and Churbanov’s sunset on the river as well as figurative, character- and plot-based light and dark – that appealed to both my head and my heart. It’s a very satisfying book.

Up next: Potpourri. Alexander Belyaev’s Professor Dowell’s Head, science fiction from 1925. The odder the better right about now.

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual. This is the second of this year’s Big Book finalists that I’ve read in full; I received an electronic copy but read a previously purchased printed copy.