Wednesday, 23 July 2014

After Before and During

A man crosses snowy Moscow to reach a psychiatric hospital. Bouts of amnesia have been gradually erasing his personality, funneling his future into the black hole of early dementia. To fortify his ebbing consciousness, he starts compiling a Memorial Book (Sinodik), originally, in the Orthodox tradition, a list of the dead to be prayed over. But despite the narrator's Christian faith, his Memorial Book's direct inspiration is not religion but a gruesome childhood obsession: the ominous Book of the Disgraced (Sinodik opal'nykh) in which Ivan the Terrible inscribed the catalogue of his own cruelties. As the historian S.B. Veselovsky wrote, Ivan's 'extreme measures' had been deliberately intended to '[strike] the soul for all eternity'; victims were destroyed before they could repent their sins, not only refused Christian burial but physically extirpated, corpses fed to dogs, entire families killed; 'in order to deprive the person of hope for the salvation of his soul, he was deprived of memorialization'.* The Book of the Disgraced was Ivan's late-career policy reversal, an attempt to salvage these lost souls and, perhaps, with theirs, his own. This Sinodik is now the only record of many thousands of victims and historians' best source on the Oprichnina, Ivan's reign by terror. For the man in the Moscow asylum, menaced imminently by oblivion, his own Memorial Book is in no way a light-hearted, or sentimental, or even an individual record. First and foremost he dedicated it to 'people who [...] died before their time, leaving nothing behind except in my memory'. This Book is not P.S. I Love You. It is a project for collective resurrection, for the rebirth of generations  scythed down, if not by tyrants, by time itself.

Russian novels, eh? All of the above develops in the first nineteen pages of Vladimir Sharov's Before and During (Do i vo vremia, 1991), now translated into English for the first time by Oliver Ready. Already Sharov (an old Dinosaur acquaintance) has melded madness, faith, politics, historical and personal tragedy. Even his narrator's career - as a children's writer in the late Soviet period - dimly echoes that of Daniil Kharms, the brilliant satirist who starved to death in a mental ward in 1942. Before and During is a darkly brilliant book which sometimes ironizes, sometimes genuinely challenges conceits woven through modern Russian history and culture: fleshly resurrection, holy foolishness, erotic utopia and the sexualization of terror. As his Memorial Book grows, the narrator finds himself transcribing the life stories of every inmate in the hospital. Senile Party apparatchiks and institutionalized geniuses queue up patiently to be recorded, never interrupting each other's stories, understanding 'that the life of one man is just a tiny piece, that to survive, to be saved, they had to become one whole'. Sharov has a great deal of restrained, culturally specific fun by materializing this sacred trope of collective unity in grotesque sexual incidents. Stalin, half-drowned, copulates transcendently with his birth mother. A Georgian ex-bandit conceives a son (not coincidentally, Stalin's father) in his final paroxysm on the scaffold. Vladimir Solovyev promised his followers eternal life if they had the right kind of sex; Nikolai Fyodorov and Lev Tolstoy promised their followers eternal life if they had no sex at all; naturally, all three are recurring characters. Madame de Staël has sex with everyone and twice gives birth to herself. De Staël, whom I  always thought of as an influentially incidental historical figure (remember her working a room in Pushkin's unfinished Roslavlev: 'The guests' attention was divided between the sturgeon and M-me de Staël'), here takes centre stage. Not only does she use opium to drug and technically rape an illegitimate half-wit, Nikolai Fyodorov, exploiting his romantic obsession with her (she subsequently bears him three idiot sons); in a later incarnation, she abuses her special relationship with Stalin to manipulate him into ordering the Great Purges. At the novel's end, she and Fyodorov both inhabit the narrator's ward, still deadlocked between desire and consummation, passion and betrayal. History is retold as a sexual act: Scriabin explains to Lenin that 'Russia [...] is already pregnant with the Revolution', a seductive transsexual siren who transfixes its victims with the phallic principle of terror. I couldn't find a flaw in Oliver Ready's translation; he copes well with Sharov's rolling alternation of sonority and absurdity. Personally, I wouldn't translate Stalin's coital murmurs of 'Mama... mamochka' as 'Mummy, mummy'. But a jarring endearment was hardly the most grotesque aspect of that particular scene.

To make some sense of Sharov, I find it helpful to think about Tolstoy. Here is a writer whose bafflement with erotic love shaped both his life and his most famous works of fiction.. In Before and During, Sharov suggests that Tolstoy's estrangement from his wife intensified when the children she bore failed to grow into mini-philosophers, perfected copies of their father: 'Tolstoy was waiting for [...] his wife to give birth to followers. But she didn't know how to give birth to disciples, only children, so then he walked out on his own family'. In so doing, he failed to realize that his eldest son Lev Lvovich was actually his own twin, a perfect copy of himself: 'Lev Nikolayevich had the good fortune to be resurrected without dying, to be given two lives, both very long - but he failed to appreciate this gift'. Because they don't acknowledge their shared identity, both Levs die unfulfilled, equally if differently baffled. Another such failed resurrection in Before and During affects Fyodorov, in the novel, De Staël's great love. Historically, he is credited with a utopian theory that sons will achieve the material resurrection of their fathers and forefathers, provided they abstain from procreation and other bodily lapses. Fate punishes the fictional Fyodorov for his hypocritical (albeit unconscious) sexual liaison with De Staël by making their three sons both illegitimate and witless: 'The task, the mission of the sons was the resurrection of the fathers, but Fyodorov's sons, who'd never seen him and knew nothing about him, would never be able to resurrect him'. In his last major novel, the aptly named Resurrection (1889-99), Tolstoy attacked Eros once again, switching between male and female perspectives to tell the story of a nobleman, Dmitrii Nekhliudov who seduces and abandons his aunts' ward, ultimately causing her to become a prostitute. Ten years later he accidentally causes her to be condemned for a crime she did not commit, then seeks redemption by following her into Siberian exile.

Although Resurrection contains some of Tolstoy's most lyrical evocations of sexual love (Nekhliudov's yearning for Katiusha while the ice breaks on the river! Pregnant Katiusha chasing Nekhliudov's carriage - what is it about Tolstoy, women and trains?), most of the book attacks Russia's political, legal and social structure, not forgetting some criticism of agricultural economy, with an occasional broadside against Orthodoxy. (The book's raison d'être as a fundraiser for the Dukhobors' flight to Canada has been well-publicized.) These rodomontades are oppressive, occasionally tendentious, but sincere. Idealistic, mercurial Nekhliudov reflects Tolstoy's perception of his own spiritual evolution from self-indulgent rake to penitent philosopher. And yet it would be disingenuous to suggest that Resurrection was written wholly, or even primarily, as social critique. This is a novel about a man's love for a woman: the insolence of office and the law's delay are merely tropes for the frustrations and failures of passion. The Song of Solomon famously uses erotic metaphors to represent religious faith; Tolstoy's blasts against Church, political and legal forms veil his preoccupation with physical, erotic bodies.

Nekhliudov consummates his relationship with Katiusha very early in the novel, but when he meets her again he discovers that spiritual unity with the woman she has become is much harder to achieve, even when he offers marriage. As he criss-crosses Russia, lobbying on her behalf and following her convoy into Siberia, he simultaneously pursues possession of the woman he loves, body and soul: a quest that is hopelessly impeded by their previous sexual connection. Similarly, in Sharov's novel De Staël and Fyodorov begin their relationship with a tumultuous affair (unconsciously, on one side), followed by a long estrangement. Their ultimate reunion falls short of reconciliation: Fyodorov will not compromise his chastity, nor will De Staël renounce her sexuality. Admittedly Sharov reverses the polarities in their relationship, making De Staël the socially powerful pursuer. But Sharov's Fyodorov and Tolstoy's Nekhliudov share other personality traits, including their notorious holy-foolishness. Nekhliudov even worries that his rapacious brother-in-law will cite his eccentricities as grounds to have him sectioned and administer his estate. (Ah, the asylum looms again). Like the unworldly, ranting Fyodorov, Nekhliudov is a conversation killer. In Resurrection, when everyone is conventionally lamenting the tragic outcome of a duel between two drunken officers during which one (an only son!) is fatally wounded, Nekhliudov points out the double standard. An officer gets slapped on the wrist for committing manslaughter in the name of his regiment, but a peasant, although provoked to murder by poverty and injustice, can expect exile for life under brutal conditions. 'He spoke what was in his mind. At first Countess Katerina Ivanovna tried to agree with her nephew, but then she fell silent. So did everyone else, and Nekhliudov had the feeling that by telling this tale he had committed something verging on an indelicacy' (Part II, Chapter 17).  Resurrection  recounts many indelicacies and awkward silences left in Dmitrii Nekhliudov's wake. And yet - despite the tendentiousness shared by novel and hero - both confront the psychological gap between sexual knowledge and spiritual intimacy. So do the characters in Sharov's Before and During. Neither Sharov's novel nor Tolstoy's offer a cure for this rift, this shortfall between souls, but both find tentative faith in the collective - not only by memorializing extinct lives but by choosing love (for Tolstoy's Nekhliudov, in a strictly philanthropic sense).

Despite Tolstoy's political crusades and Sharov's grotesque invented histories, both novels are really about the same thing: the ineffable despair latent in human love. Our destiny is to despair of love, and to love, despairing. At least, in Russian novels...

*S.B. Veselovsky cited by Alexander Yanov in The Origins of Autocracy: Ivan the Terrible in Russian History (University of California Press, 1981), p. 253.
Illustrations by Alexander Smirnov are from the 2009 edition of Do i vo vremia (Arsis, 2009).