Saturday, April 22, 2023

Potpourri 1: Andrew D. Kaufman on Dostoevsky & Mariengof on Cynics

Now that tax season and a multitude of other annoyances are out of the way, it’s time to get to that book backlog I mentioned in my last post. I’m not quite sure how to start clearing it away, though I suspect words like “messily” and/or “inelegantly” might be appropriate, particularly since I finished these two books many months ago. I think I’ve written before, though, that I enjoy writing about books long after reading them because it’s always interesting to find out  to see what stays with me. And so…

Andrew D. Kaufman’s The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoevsky, a book where the subtitle is so descriptive that this post almost feels superfluous, was part of my evening reading last autumn. Odd though it may sound, Kaufman’s writing about Dostoevsky’s gambling probably made the strongest, most harrowing, impression on me. After The Gambler Wife, fictional accounts of gambling (most notably in Balzac’s Lost Illusions) that might otherwise have seemed over-the-top felt utterly believable. I even wrote “Awful!!” at the start of a section that begins a month after the newlywed Dostoevskys arrive in Baden-Baden: Fyodor Mikhailovich (FMD) gambles (Kaufman mentions his “destructive mania”), and Anna Grigoryevna (AGD) hikes as an escape, since she’s also faced with, in her (translated) words, “grizzling heat, squalling children all around us, the smithy’s unbrearable hammering.”

Though I certainly wouldn’t say I think Kaufman’s book is mistitled, of course it’s as much about FMD as AGD, offering a historical, literary, and psychological introduction to FMD’s life and work, and showing AGD’s very crucial role in supporting FMD’s life and work. AGD eventually even published his books. The once-upon-a-time beginning to their marriage came when FMD was seeking a stenographer. AGD’s work began, appropriately, with The Gambler, which is, by the way, one of my favorite Dostoevsky novel(la)s. FMD’s ongoing relevance and reputation are topics of discussion as well, with Kaufman mentioning sensitive subjects, including that “Dostoevsky was deeply influenced by Slavophile ideas.” In a later chapter Kaufman notes “contradictions of Dostoevsky’s art and thought,” including xenophobia as well as, to use Gary Saul Morson’s term, “’morally reprehensible’ anti-Semitic motifs” in FMD’s work.

Kaufman’s primary focus, however, is AGD’s many roles as FMD’s partner, and he provides lots of telling primary-source information. AGD, for example, told her sister that FMD always seemed to be “sucking me into himself,” adding that he required a wife willing to “devote herself entirely, entirely to him.” (I’ll now never stop thinking of FMD as an energy vampire…) Later in the book, Kaufman writes that “…there were others [writers] who considered Anna an enabler, a woman who failed to set boundaries for her husband and gave up her own identity in service of his needs.” Given what I read, the concept feels completely correct here even if the word “enabler” feels like presentism to me. (Thank you to Languagehat for telling me the word “presentism” exists!) Nits of that sort certainly didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of The Gambler Wife, which is a compact and very readable work of narrative nonfiction, ideal for someone like me, who is emphatically not a Dostoevsky specialist but wants to read a basic account of his life, books, and marriage. The words Kaufman uses for his title, by the way, were uttered by FMD after what Kaufman calls AGD’s “flirtation with roulette” in Baden-Baden.

On a completely different note, Anatoly Mariengof’s Циники (Cynics) is one the most stylistically and thematically interesting books I’ve read in the last couple years. It’s also not an easy book to write about or even describe. Set in 1918-1924 Moscow, during the Civil War and the New Economic Policy, it’s very much a book of its time, with references to hunger, cannibalism, war, sleazy NEPmen, hunger again, war again, and cocaine use. Thinking more generally, it’s also both a novel of a fractured country and culture, and a novel about romantic entanglements with geometry larger than triangles. It’s a book about very physiological things, too: I had not been expecting early enema references (in one case, connected with love) that felt both very mundane in terms of content but, well, rather unusual for literature.

Languagehat and I corresponded about Cynics, too, so I sought out his blog post, which sums up my favorite aspect of the novel beautifully:

The genius of the book is that all this is laid out not in sweeping Tolstoyan exposition or anguished Dostoevskian self-revelation but in short bursts of dialogue or event, interspersed with even briefer accounts of what’s going on in the country at large, usually snippets from newspapers about battles, decrees, or starvation.

One of my favorite examples of this – I began thinking of those snippets as “the crawl” – comes in 1922, where section 33 (the crawl) mentions the arrest of two cannibalistic women and their victims, and then section 34 (the main story) returns to our characters in a luxe setting with music, tuxedoes, blini (food!)… Mariengof’s juxtapositions are wonderfully evocative and jarring, perfect for the time.

Cynics is one of those wondrous books (most of which, come to think of it, seem to be “about everything”) that I seem to soak up rather simply reading, making my reading more emotional than analytical. I’ll end on that note, with a link to Languagheat’s post about Cynics, which includes a plot summary far better than I could have come up with.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of The Gambler Wife from Riverhead Books, thank you very much!

Up Next: More backlog.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Shalamov and Shklovsky

I wrote my last alphabet post (it’s here!) a little over two years ago, covering the letter Ч (Ch), which was productive but not rich with writers I considered real, true favorites. Today I present to you the letter Ш (Sh), which is highly productive in terms of the sheer number of writers whose surnames begin in Sh… though there aren’t many I yet consider serious favorites.

I’ll start with Varlam Shalamov since he’s probably the Sh writer I (hm, what word to choose?) revere the most, thanks to the beautiful and spare prose of his Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales), which document experiences in Soviet-era prison camp. Some years ago I took some good advice and read one Shalamov story each evening. I read him that way for several weeks; dozens of short stories in my nine-hundred-page book await me. Here’s a previous post (about cold and snow) where I mentioned that reading. I highly recommend Shalamov to all readers.

Things start to get much foggier after Shalamov so I’ll start with Viktor Shklovsky, whom I read in grad school, but have (unjustly) pretty much ignored for decades. I think I (probably?) read him first for literary theory – most likely “Искусство как приём” (here it is in English! “Art as Technique”) – and, since I enjoy literary theory, I’ve pecked away at his theoretical writings over the years. I even have a nice edition of Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, translated by Shushan Avagyan for Dalkey Archive Press, who gave me a copy of the book at BookExpo America. I should read it in full one of these days/years. I read Shklovsky’s Сентиментальное путешествие (Sentimental Journey) in full decades ago, though I’d be lying if I said I remember much beyond a quick summary: it contains his recollections about the Russian Revolution and Civil War. I’ve recently had thoughts of rereading it. I have much more work to do on Shklovsky! Particularly since I have yet to read Зоо, или Письма не о любви (Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, which Jennifer Wilson discusses here, in The New York Times), an embarrassing gap in my reading since I vowed to read it after finishing Alisa Ganieva’s dishy (as I put it) page-turner of a biography of Lily Brik… I wrote of the Shklovsky connection here. I’ll end by adding that I nearly forgot to mention that Shklovsky coined the term остранение,” a word usually translated as “defamiliarization.” I love the word and what it describes.

And now to start on my stack of contemporary Sh writers’ books… Mikhail Shishkin has impressed me most in recent years with essays, both about Russia’s politics and invasion of Ukraine, and about writers. His lengthy piece called Бегун и корабль (The Runner and the Ship), about Vladimir Sharov, is particularly good – written about a beloved friend and his books – but I also loved reading his essay about Robert Walser, who is somehow terra incognita for me. As yet. Sharov is, of course, a Sh writer as well… and, as I’ve mentioned many times, he’s difficult for me to read, in large part because, sadly, I’m so biblically illiterate. (Foisting Sunday school on me was utterly counterproductive because I don’t like singing or memorizing. Reading the Bible itself during sermons on weeks when there was no Sunday school, however, was fun because I could read freely.) I’m still committed to putting lots more time into Sharov because I so enjoyed knowing him and still, despite not having known him very well, mourn his death because (as I’ve also written many times, including here) he was so otherworldly. Odd though it sounds, I still feel as if he simply couldn’t die, even physically. My strategy is still to restart my Sharov reading with his Будьте как дети (Be As Children), which I read and enjoyed nearly half of before I had to sample his other books to prepare for moderating an event… This article – “How Sharov’s Novels Are Made: The Rehearsals and Before & During – written by my friend and colleague Oliver Ready, who has translated several of Sharov’s novels, looks like it will provide some of the hints (and pushing) that I need. Perhaps it will help others, too. Before & During, by the way, is the only Sharov novel I’ve finished as yet. I wrote about it here after Sharov won the Russian Booker in 2014 for Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). I read the novel in Oliver’s translation, which Dedalus Books kindly sent to me; Dedalus has also sent copies of Oliver’s translations of Be As Children and The Rehearsals.

Vasily Shukshin, one of the most prominent (and, best, to my taste) “Village Prose” writers, is also in the Sh pile. I read his long and short stories every now and then and always seem to enjoy them, even when they’re sad as hell, like his Калина красная (The Red Snowball Tree), a novella that Shukshin didn’t just write. He also directed a film adaptation… and starred as the main character, a thief who’s been released from jail. On another note, yes, there are also a few women writers with Sh surnames. One of them, Ekaterina Sherga, wrote Подземный корабль (The Underground Ship), which I praised highly in 2013 (previous post). I believe Ship is Sherga’s only novel. There’s also Marietta Shaginyan, whose Месс-Менд (Mess-Mend) I read in 2005, finding it especially interesting as a 1920s period piece but a bit messy as a detective novel with nasty capitalists.

So! I still have plenty of reading ahead from letter-Ш writers like Shklovsky, Sharov, Shukshin, and Shalamov. I’d love to hope for more Sherga, too… I also have some unread Sh authors on the shelves: Ivan Shmelev, whose Солнце мертвых (The Sun of the Dead) Languagehat read last year (and called “grimly powerful”). It’s set in Crimea during wartime, in 1921. There’s also Roman Shmarakov’s Алкиной (Alcinous), which was a 2021 NOSE finalist – why not try a Russian novel set in the Roman Empire during the fourth century? And then there’s Vyacheslav Shishkov’s Угрюм-река, which Victor Terras, in A History of Russian Literature, calls Grim River, writing that it’s “about the colonization of Siberia.” The index of Terras’s book lists other Sh writers, including (of course) Mikhail Sholokhov, who didn’t endear himself to me much with Quiet Flows the Don decades ago… I’ll stop there and watch for thoughts on other letter-Ш writers!

Up Next: I have lots of catching up! Some of you have written to me in recent months, asking when/if I’ll ever post regularly again. I think (hope?) this is my start. I’m very grateful for readers’ kind notes, gentle questions, and tact. I’m especially grateful to one of you for writing to me last week, asking just the right questions at just the right time. Edit, March 13: After receiving a note from a worried friend, I want to add that I am fine. Blogging takes a fair bit of time; more than anything, I needed to spend more time on other things (particularly reading since I’ve had a lot of “required reading” of late) in recent months.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual for knowing some of the contemporary writers (and their translators and publishers!) whom I’ve mentioned above. Thank you again to Dedalus for sending Oliver’s meticulous translations of Sharov’s novels, which I like reading along with the Russian originals.