Hanging out in Russia

Without faith in a Christ as god-man, and the life after death Christianity promises, Dostoevsky believed, humanity is doomed to squalid, cruel disorder.  No other intellectual system based on atheism, however well-functioning in practice, even in a sort of utopia where everyone is enthusiastic about wanting to help everyone else be happy and good, can possibly succeed; without the prospect of Heaven, and judgment, humankind inevitably breaks down to debasement.  DostoevskyHe saw this all around him in mid-19th century Russia, in the government, the rulers, the behavior and mores of the aristocracy,  dissolution of the family (as he perceived it), and the desire to turn away from Russian-ness and emulate the culture of Western Europe.

At the same time he seemed to feel that none of the disorder in Russia was ever going to  be reparable.  That the the peasants (recently freed serfs, after the 1860s) were always going to be a somehow incomprehensible other, even as they supposedly possessed the purest highest form the the Russian soul.

I’ve been delving into Dostoevsky for a few years now on and off, reading and then listening to audios of the major novels; I’ve gone from not being able to read him at all in my younger days, to finding him as absorbing and rereadable as Henry James or  Tolstoy.   I had to discover how to read him, and retune myself to the higher emotional pitch he demands — not even Tolstoy prepared me for the high hysteria of a Dostoyevsky character.  His people start out at 11.

But it was just this past couple of weeks that I read his big novel The Adolescent (or A Raw Youth as an earlier English translation calls it), which was his next to last — written between Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.  According to the introduction, it was not well received at the time of publication and tended to be overlooked since.

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There was a lot to it that made it a tough read — some flatness to characters, a ridiculously melodramatic plot turning on possession and purloining of a compromising letter.  (Does the word ‘purloin’ ever get used anymore except with the word ‘letter’ in the same sentence–and barely even then.) But from it I got what seems to be my clearest understanding yet of what Dostoevsky was on about, and in a way that connected more directly than before with my own moral preoccupations, uncertainties and dreads.

This post has been in draft form for well over a week, and I’ve kind of lost track of it, because I was working on a short story with my writers group–trying a form I’m very unaccustomed to attempting, and especially after a year when any creative impulses I might have had were buried against the onslaught of my elderly parents’ emergency.

I’m now stuck into George Steiner’s first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, An Essay in Contrast,51xvLF-3MwL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ (the title always makes me think The Beatles or The Stones, why do we have to pick?), as well as an audio of The Double.

 

 

 

 

 

24631264.jpgAlso just finished Peter Pomerentsev’s nonfiction book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. which contains nothing that would contradict any of Dostoevsky’s points about Russia and humanity, each chapter setting out a story of frightening dangerous absurdity,  Pomerentsev’s parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to London, and he went back as an adult to work in television, wanting to make documentary films about the post-Soviet social upheavals.  Through interviews with various players, both Russians and foreigners who worked in Russia during those years, he shows us, from the point of view of suicidal models, crusading lawyers, shameless oligarchs, unsuspecting entrepreneurs, and brash social climbers, a perspective on the decades following the fall of the SU that’s fascinating in it’s horror and horrible in its fascination.

Once in a while I think about picking up a different sort of book and taking a break from dwelling on Russia, my obsession with it sometimes feeling like a half-open scab I keep picking picking picking.  There’s a weird pain-into-pleasure I experience as I read Russian literature or books about Russian life and history.  Nothing else feels as inviting to me now, anyway. It’s not that I need to “get to the bottom of it” but this immersion is filling some kind of need in me for the squalor, ugliness, human cruelty, occasionally leavened by a spiritual light that I myself don’t believe in, delivered in a beautiful and meaningful package of prose fiction.  The way everything in all these books not just goes up to 11, but seems to start there and go up into ever more shrill, sublime human places that seem otherwise invisible to fictive worlds of other languages and cultures, just keeps pulling me.  The other day I even listened to some Mussorgsky.

And rewatched the 2012 film version of Anna Karenina, which is now on Netflix, and which has always struck me as being a great adaptation, and a visual treasure with a well-chosen cast, look, and feel.

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky

I especially admire how the film is staged, literally, on a stage–and behind the stage, to illustrate how performative is the society from which Anna tries to rebel.


					

From my own shelves: A & B, + more Russia

My project to read books I already own, starting with A authors and ending in a year with Z, is going well so far.  There was Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, and Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At the Wedding.

Instead of moving right away to C, I chose another A to complete in January, one of the oldest of the volumes in my collection (alas not a completist one) of Virago Modern Classics, The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1953).

9780860682424-us-300Set on the Caribbean island of Dominica in the 1920s-30s, it’s the story of a white colonial family fallen into decadence, told, mostly, from the point of view of their black servant Lally, a loyal, devoted retainer of the kind who from today’s perspective, comes across as a bit sickening, a bit incredible.  The story centers on the family’s three daughters, and the choices they make as young adults, inevitably leaving the island and then just as inevitably, returning.

The decadence is best represented by the men of the story, who, unlike Lally and the three daughters she worships, Stella, Joan and Nathalie, are not characters so much as symptoms.  The father, traumatized by his WWI experience, is a drug-addicted recluse; Andrew, the cousin whom each girl grew up loving and wanting, has succumbed to TB and a the shadow-life of living in sin with a woman of color (who is also, of course, a cousin–as in a story of the American south, the island is populated by offspring, both white and black, of certain white men whose ancestors were the original colonizers.

The whole thing has a powerful aroma of nostalgia, as the characters struggle between the old natural beauty  of the island, which is woven into the very fiber of their privilege, and the outcomes of each daughter’s rushing out to meet modernity and the larger world, and wanting to bring something of that back to the old home place, to try to cure it, or use it as an escape.  Lally’s expectations for the return of these little girls she nursed and brought up are immense; she knows them but in many ways she doesn’t understand their adult selves, and her hopes for what they’ll do are lit with a romantic glow that the sisters themselves can no longer really obtain.

As if to show that the past can’t be recaptured, the girls’ returns to Dominica are staggered; first comes Stella, the eldest, with her little son; she’s made a foolish marriage and is now fleeing a hardscrabble New England farm life with a man she doesn’t really know.  When Joan arrives, Stella leaves, and Lally turns her hopes to her, even as she dreads seeing her involve herself in local politics, agitating for the impoverished black islanders and bringing on the ire of the church and the white establishment.  Nathalie, the youngest, a rich widow who seems to live for partying and every frivolity — but without whose financial support the family home would collapse entirely — it’s she who can summon the realism, and the resources, to force activity out her family’s indolence.

Shand Allfrey is telling a version of her own life story — she, like Jean Rhys, whom she knew slightly, grew up on Domenica; unlike Rhys she never really left it.  (Rhys was supposed to write a forward to the reissue of the book in 1979, but died before she could do so  Like the middle daughter in her story, Joan, Shand Allfrey married in England, involved herself in left-wing politics, and ultimately returned to live in Dominica and work there for social reform.  This delightful book was her only novel.

The B in the title to this post is represented by Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum, a reissue of the 1929 German novel by NYRB.  I’ve never seen the famous movie version, so am coming at it fresh, and not very far in; will write about it in a future post.

On audio, I just finished  Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine and have moved on to content.jpg The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars51Ib21mQT4L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgwhich is adding context to the audio of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From a Dead House, which I’ve also got going, as part of my ongoing All Things Russian reading project.   This one goes into great detail about the Decembrists, bringing me a vague sense of what that was to a much sharper understanding of who these early Russian political rebels were and what their punishment and the afterlife of their cause entailed.  The book also explains how Siberia came to be a scene of penal banishment in the first place, another of those things you think you know about until you realize you really don’t. The one drawback to listening to these books as opposed to reading them, is that the names just go by me in a whoosh, whereas on the page I’d sound them out and remember them better.

MV5BNTljNDI1ZWMtMDE1ZS00Y2QyLWE1ZWEtMjk4MGE3N2Y3ZDcxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDMxMjQwMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,782,1000_AL_.jpgTCM showed the 1958 movie version of The Brothers Karamazov the other evening, which turned out to be a more credible adaptation than I thought when I sat down

MV5BM2EyMzRlZTgtNDdmZS00MDdjLTk3MjItMzdjZjQyYWI5YjI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjY0NzAxOTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1328,1000_AL_.jpgto watch it; a lot left out, of course, but what was there really kept my eye and interest, and the whole thing looked right — the cast, costumes, sets, etc.  Though I had to laugh at William Shatner as Alyosha, the youngest brother who wants to go into a monastery.  (He was sure pretty, though.)