The next plunge into the work of Joseph Conrad is getting put off a little while, as I’m immersed in things Russian, and a wonderful 19th century Danish classic.
First, the Russia Thing. The House ofGovernment, a Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, has been my preoccupation for the last few weeks, on audio–after listening to all of it, I went back and just started listening again from the beginning. (It’s read, wonderfully, by Stephen Rudnicki, who also narrates Notes From a Dead House, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I’m also listening to).
I’m also immersed in audios of Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum, whose other books about Russian history I enjoyed very much, and am also engaged with Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, his second-to-last novel, which I’ve somehow overlooked until now (and according to the introduction, has been overlooked by a lot of Dostoevsky scholars.) That one I’m reading with my eyes, not my ears.
Back when I was in college, I took a course on Russian history, not because I was interested in it — I wasn’t, at the time — but because word amongst my fellow students was that one mustn’t miss the experience of a semester with Professor Peter Viereck, who was famous on campus for his eccentricity (his unstable genius?)*.
A few years later that I tried Tolstoy — who surprised me by being easy to read, sentence for sentence, and to understand, contrary to all expectations. I went on a tear and read all the Tolstoy I could, including the novel Resurrection, which I probably couldn’t read again now even if you paid me. I went on to Chekhov, and began an on-and-off again but ever-deepening fascination with Russia, in its capacity as Hot Mess and Hotbed of Great Literature, a place where humans are more-than-human in their over-the-top fucked up emotionality and hysteria, where reasonableness and logic somehow don’t apply, where terrible terrible terrible things happen every moment. Which led me, eventually, to want to know more about its history and society. At last I was able to come, after quite a few frustrating failures, to Dostoevsky, who I’d found impossible to read during my earlier happy forays into Tolstoy, for reasons which are now the very ones that make me love his work maybe even more than Tolstoy’s — i.e., A WHOLE LOT — and which originally made me, after reading 100 pages of The Idiot, just want to slam all the characters’ heads together. He was harder to learn to how to read; when I was younger I couldn’t settle down to his style, I missed his humor altogether, and I wasn’t able to let go of some misbelief at the overwrought emotions and behaviors of his characters.
So, back to The House of Government, a book of history that often reads like a novel, centered on the apartment building of the same name that housed many members of the Soviet government and was, at least when it went up in the 20s, the largest residential building in the world. (The view from my living room window as I write is of London Terrace (1931) which also claims to be the largest apartment building in the world, so that’s interesting. (Though unlike the House of Government in Moscow, London Terrace has never had its own theater, movie house, grocery store, internal surveillance apparatus on all tenants, 2 a.m. knocks on the door by secret police, et al. It does have its own pool.) Slezkine uses the extensive diaries and letters of various residents, all government officials and their families, to bring to life not just their individual stories — many of which end in hideous show trials and banishment to Siberia or execution, but the history of the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union. Among its many tangents and diversions, the book reveals everything from what the ideal Soviet vacation consisted of, to The Happy Soviet Childhood, to the to the importance of literature to the Bolsheviks, who while worshipping the classic writers of Russia’s past (Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, et al) were never, in the 20th century, able to let contemporary writers and artists alone with their integrity.
I’m also listening to the audio of Anne Applebaum’s most recent book of Russian history, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. I also have to hand a collection of Gogol’s tales and of Pushkin’s prose, which I hope to get to before I get distracted fromthis plunge into Russia by a sudden interest in something else.
Denmark comes in with a Penguin Classics edition of Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, which I bought because somewhere recently I saw or heard a fervid recommendation of it as being a masterpiece. It’s a coming of age story, a ‘the death of the heart, or at least of the fantastical imagination’ kind of thing, though my presumption that it’s going to end in heartbreak and disillusion is just a guess — but one based on having read a lot of books already. I’m reading it slowly, because it’s dense and lyrical, pleasurable but not really the kind of thing that pushes me to start the next chapter right after the chapter I’ve finished. (Unlike anything by Dostoevsky, whose books are difficult to put down.)
I subscribed to the TLS just before Christmas, and in order to justify this expenditure, am trying to read each issue pretty promptly. It’s lighter generally than the London Review of Books — at least, having read one and a half issues, that’s my impression. I’ve wished all my life to be a reader of the TLS but it’s very expensive. It’s also very fun, though a drawback is that I have to fight the urge to want all the books they review; even if I reserve them at the library, I’d never be able to read them all. And alas, NYPL only has one copy of Country House Libraries, and it doesn’t circulate.
*As a naive undergraduate in the pre-Google times, what I thought I knew about Viereck before taking the class was that he’d been shot down as a fighter pilot in WWII, was a POW, was consequently given to carrying random pieces of food around in his coat pockets, was a poet of renown, and was “not all there”. What I remember, or think I do, from class meetings was that they consisted of him talking the entire time and not taking questions, and that at the first class he put out a packet of Social T biscuits which he invited the students to partake of and which no one dared go near. The topics covered were mostly about the 15-18th centuries, and the books were thick and intense. When I came to sit the final exam, on which depended the entire grade for the course, I couldn’t answer most of the set questions, and just filled my blue book with everything I DID know, having spent the prior week frantically reading. A year or so later, one of my friends who lived in another dorm saw him come for dinner with some students (we had in-dorm family style meals at the time and were encouraged, for “Gracious”, to invite our teachers), and afterwards go upstairs. She was still up at 2 in the morning, painting some scenery in the dorm living room, when she saw him shambling down the stairs. He always looked a bit like a scarecrow, or a bum, imperfectly shaven, in a large flapping overcoat. “Good night, young lady,” he said, and went on out the door. Her conclusion, with which I concur, was that during after supper conversation with the students in someone’s room, he’d dozed off and they hadn’t had the heart to wake him.