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.