Posts Tagged ‘russian’

That poor old steeplechase horse.

What do I say about this book? Just be brief: ‘I hated it’? Simply state the facts: ‘This book contains 13 short stories’? Attempt to entertain instead of just being grumpy by exaggerating my response: ‘I was so bored while reading this book that I started to wonder if it would be okay to return it to the person I borrowed it from with “I want those hours of my life back, Vladimir” written in eyeliner on the front cover’? Just ask rhetorical questions instead of actually writing something of substance? Hokay, then.

Trying to formulate a compelling comment about a book I disliked so much feels like being in the chair of a halitosic dentist after having eaten nothing but sweets for seven years. I’ve read Lolita, of course, a long time ago, and remember being enthusiastic in no minor way about it. Nabokov’s faculty for witty and beautiful language is an absolute treat in that book. His familiar/formal tone perfectly made present the strangeness of child-lover Humbert Humbert. Just think upon this little excerpt:

Finally, on a Californian beach, perverse privacy in a kind of cave whence you could hear the separate part of the beach, behind rotting trees; but the fog was like a wet blanket, and the sand was gritty and clammy, and Lo was all gooseflesh and grit, and for the first time in my life I had as little desire for her as for a manatee.

Just look at that sentence structure, all elegant echoes; and the way Humbert seems fussy, while the language itself is not. I picked this sentence out pretty well at random, but it’s a juicy one: clean and balanced and alliterative; a tensile string prettily plucked at its end.

The problem in Nabokov’s Dozen (and who on earth picked that title?) isn’t the language. It’s a collection from which an interested random-excerpter could easily isolate many sweetly flavoured phrases of incomparable virtuosity and verve. I love this, from the end of ‘Signs and Symbols’:

His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.

I mean, you can’t fault this writing. And there is a lot of the real breathtaking, high-wire stuff in here, too: there are model firmaments and teetotums gyrating and things get a bit violaceous. A reader’s attention can be well fed by writing like this for a little while. But there’s only so much this reader could take before she began to feel herself giving less and less of a shit about what happens. Sentences like these are fabulous on their own, but they aren’t put to much use in Nabokov’s Dozen. Instead, they have the brave, panicky sense of having been shoved up against each other like prize pooches at an animal show that’s particularly short on space.

Part of why this book failed to fully charm me can be characterised as a tendency towards over-the-top drama. Two of the stories have similar plosive endings, even though the characters and the situations are quite different. Just use your imagination a little bit, Vlad. However, these two stories were the ones I probably enjoyed the most in the collection, seeing as they actually had some drama in them. One was ‘Spring in Fialta’, a lovely but distant chase through a man’s memories of a woman, Nina, whom he loved but never managed to properly hold on to. The other, ‘The Aurelian’, tells the story of Paul Pilgram, a seller of butterflies, whose life is unexpectedly enlivened by the arrival of a customer with great enthusiasm for Pilgram’s colourful specimens. It’s a gorgeous story that depicts with pathos the inevitable decline of dreams, which is made more cruel by the exotic, unattainable nature of the insects Pilgram loves so much. Bonus points: Nabokov was a real-life butterfly enthusiast.

But there are some stories that lacked drama, or even any narrative drive. The final story, ‘Lance’, is like an overworded version of The Little Prince, with gerbils. I gave up on trying to understand what was happening — and I think only a couple of lines really served the ‘plot’ — and tried not to get a headache from all the florid prose. A couple of the stories are based loosely on people from Nabokov’s past; his childhood French instructor gets a look in (‘Mademoiselle O’) and his first beloved, as well (‘First Love’). Non-climactic and strongly sentimental, these are more like personal essays than stories per se. I don’t know why he bothered to fictionalise them; they might even have been more interesting as actual essays.

So, I don’t think I will be reading this. I might have to re-read Lolita soon, though. I really like stories with strong narrative arcs and finely judged moral or character tension. Good luck finding much of that in Nabokov’s Dozen. The writing’s nice, though.

‘Count Robert,’ Koroviev whispered to Margarita. ‘An equally interesting character. Rather amusing, your majesty…he was the queen’s lover and poisoned his own wife.’
‘We are delighted, Count,’ cried Behemoth.
One after another three coffins bounced out of the fireplace, splitting and breaking open as they fell.

When the Devil comes to town, he doesn’t hold back. Don’t let the patronymics put you off–the wicked games of The Master and Margarita can be enjoyed on as many levels as Moscow contains arms and legs. In what may rightly be called his masterpiece (don’t ask me, it’s the only one I’ve read), Bulgakov puts plenty under the microscope, from the entitlement-as-desperation of the Russian middle class to the insularity of the literary establishment.

To begin, a strange outsider, Woland, engages two Russian gentlemen in a seemingly harmless Socratic dialogue. Not much later, one is dead and the other is headed for the asylum. It seems obvious that this diabolical dude is not who he says he is. Meanwhile, the Master is in the same asylum, a deflated but likeable man who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate. Excoriated by the press at the height of Russia’s enthused embrace of atheism, he has retreated from life and his lover, Margarita. Many tricks that are much more than tricks ensue.

Bulgakov plays with traditional ideas of the good/evil dichotomy. Devil Woland, with his anarchic tricks and playful entourage, resembles no-one more than the trickster god Loki. If Bulgakov reconstitutes the Devil as a trickster, he posits Jesus as a philosophical human, albeit one with the power to enchant for millenia. The Master’s novel forges an anastomosis between the eras of New Testament Jerusalem and Stalinist Moscow, as well as an accord between the forces of good and evil that is balanced yet ineffable. It is in the nature of good and evil that true understanding of them should be elusive, and so the most enduring impression left by this novel is its reverence for integrity in literature: as much as the hijinks and high historical drama are the dream of a repressive political regime, they are also the triumphant and enduring product of a writer exorcising his demons.

It really took me a long time to get into the Russians. I’m 24 now, and I’ve only read Crime and Punishment so far. Does Nabokov count? Well, I’ve read Lolita. But those are kind of the bare minimum, aren’t they? So I decided to get serious with Anton Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895. You know something is serious when it has a date range in the title. It means: whoa, this guy did good stuff in other years, too. I’ve already posted a review of Murder, one of the stories in the collection. The other stories offer plenty of insight into Chekhov’s life and interests. Chekhov was a doctor, and the story Ward No. 6 is set in a mental hospital; Chekhov loved gardening, hence The Black Monk’s protagonist Kovrin considers ‘A few Observations on Mr Z’s Remarks on Double-Trenching in New Gardens’ light reading.

What I really love about Chekhov’s stories arises from its genre, which I guess you could call Russian realism. Selecting a diverse range of characters to portray, Chekhov throws in observations spanning class and gender. From parsimony to prodigality, details and decisions are invoked to present a straightforward yet dramatic picture of 1800s Russia. The lightness of Chekhov’s touch belies the intrepidity with which he surveys the ingredients of the personal present, such as tricks of personality and situation entrapment.

Even more specifically than Russian realism, Chekhov is a master of the aesthetics of consequences. Stories like A Woman’s Kingdom, which details the life of Anna Akimovna, the heiress of a bustling industrial business, investigate the doubled-edged blessing and curse of belonging to the middle class. Anna’s business is heavily reliant on the poor treatment and management of its workers, a fact which both plagues and bores her. The institution of marriage is assiduously mined, too–The Two Volodyas has as its focus Sophia Lvovna who, married to one man, lusts after another. Sophia’s lack of self-restraint or understanding is her flaw, and though it is not fatal within the confines of the story, her leisurely floundering evokes pity and exhaustion.

Though Hemingway criticised Chekhov as an ‘amateur writer’, his stories are remarkable despite their deceptive simplicity. His slice-of-life style, which allows him to resist relying on resolution for meaning, sees him invest his characters with enough shovel, as it were, to dig their holes. And to immobilise without even taking out the rope, well that’s definitely something.