Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Kingdom of Agamemnon: In Memory of Vladimir Sharov

Vladimir Sharov 1952-2018

"I am very glad", wrote Vladimir Sharov, who died after a long illness yesterday on 17 August 2018, "that my novel The Kingdom of Agamemnon has been first published in Znamya, a journal which has been important to me in every way and practically my family home.  The novel, part of which (about 150 pages of typescript) appears below, I finished under extremely difficult personal circumstances, but now I feel that this was all to the good for Agamemnon. Difficulty in one's private life readily colludes with the story one is writing; the two find a common language from the first syllable. With this conviction in mind I wrote the final section of the novel and corrected the proofs."

And the novel opens:

I'll begin from the finale, which transformed this story into farce. I might even say, into a shameful farce. The last point has become particularly offensive for me, since the terror ended. Now I think more and more often that what I was involved with, what occupied me for so many years, deserved a different outcome. However, who knows? In the past, in 2015 - I had just returned from an expedition - a friend, deciding that I would be intrigued by it, emailed me a long article from the English magazine Esquire. The article is about one of our spies, active in Argentina from 1968 to 1990. [....] The grandson of Grand Prince Mikhail Romanov, Evgenii, was possibly a bastard - Prince Michael had no lawful offspring; however it is even more likely that Evgenii was just a typical pretender - fled in 1967 from Soviet Hungary to Argentina.

The narrator continues with the exotic adventures of Evgenii in Argentina (first backtracking to describe his birth, his early years in Russia, his mother's grief when he disappeared). By page five I was hooked. But according to the novel's back cover, The Kingdom of Agamemnon is about the life story of another character entirely, and in any case (the blurb promises) this book is vintage Sharov: "unrestrained fantasy and leaps through time, unexpected historical parallels and profound religio-philosophical analyses, large-scale group scenes and the most subtle psychology". Reading a Vladimir Sharov novel is like making your way through the whorls of a sea-shell: once lost in the tunnels, you lose all sense of direction, but the sound of the sea pulls you onwards...

  This post was originally to have been called "Rehearsals in Bloomsbury", to mark a fascinating talk at London's Pushkin House in April 2018 by Oliver Ready, Sharov's English translator, about both The Rehearsals (then just out) and Before and During (discussed here on this blog).  I had just finished reading The Rehearsals in Russian and was full of admiration for Oliver's nimble, ingenious, and very naturally styled translation. Both novels, written in the final decade of the twentieth century, are readily comparable, but as Oliver explained that evening, all of Sharov's books are interlinked. Ever since the 1970s, Sharov has been single-mindedly researching his books (just as some of his characters research family secrets), producing one every four or five years, working in national archives and in his Moscow flat. Each book is, in a sense, a rehearsal of the next: Oliver quoted Sharov's description of his own plots as "loving satire", a lovingly satirical work-in-progress to understand Russian mentality and Russian pain. Sharov's father was also a writer; the writer's childhood imagination was shaped by overheard conversations about the Gulags and other Soviet repression between his parents and family friends. Like another contemporary writer I greatly admire, Evgenii Vodolazkin, Sharov still reads Gulag survivors' testimonies. While Before and During explores the cultural currents that led up to the Revolution of 1917, The Rehearsals traces the self-destructive urges in Russian society all the way back to the mid-seventeenth-century Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, when the Patriarch Nikon forced through radical changes in text and ritual against the will of many, including his former mentor Archpriest Avvakum. Sharov develops Nikon as a brooding, complex, deeply religious and profoundly dangerous character, who all but kidnaps a travelling Breton player, De Sertan, commissioning him to direct and produce a religious mystery play at Nikon's New Jerusalem monastery. But before the "first night" takes place, Nikon is arrested and De Sertan and his Russian players sent into Siberian exile, where they form a unique sectarian community. Not only do they continue rehearsing their mystery play about the birth of Christ for centuries, they live permanently, and pass on to their children and grandchildren, the roles they act - so the community divides into "Christians", "Jews", "Romans", and others. The role of Christ is never cast - Nikon's hope, and the community's unspoken conviction, is that the day the rehearsals are finally complete, Christ will appear and the world will end.

By documenting the evolution of this sect between the 1660s and the 1960s, Sharov models the emergence of dictatorship and dogmatism in this microcosm of Russian society: the community accepts De Sertan's script as literal, divine Truth, but they periodically despair of summoning Christ through rehearsals alone and fall upon each other in cycles of mutual destruction. (I read The Rehearsals at the same time as Jonathan Safran Foer's 2016 novel Here I Am and I was duly baffled by the unintended parallel in their first lines. Safran Foer writes: "When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish home." The Rehearsals begins (well, its second paragraph begins): "In 1939, Ivan Trofimovich Kobylin ceased being a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of whom he was the last, ended with him [my translation]." Both books presuppose a post-Jewish world, from very different perspectives.) I won't go into detail here on the extraordinary arcs of upside-down-thinking engaged in on both sides to provoke and justify internecine slaughter, but clearly Sharov has a gift for exploring the pain of a nation often torn by antisemitic and interreligious persecution. He leads the reader to empathize with entire groups (for example, with the "Jews" who persecute "Christians" in order to invite the process of revenge persecution and extirpation which will supposedly expedite the Second Coming) even more than with individuals, although the plot unwinds through a labyrinth of interconnected lives. Like Before and During, where a cast of fantastic survivals commit mass murder in firm expectation of an apocalyptic flood (which never happens), The Rehearsals ends (and begins) on an aporic note. The "Jewish nation" has died out, but Christ has yet to appear to those Chosen.

Sharov loves to thematize translation, as Oliver noted: De Sertan's diary is translated from Breton into Russian; it is destroyed, memorized, and re-copied; the words of the Bible is translated into daily ritual, and history is translated into different conceptions. Oliver described the difficulties of translating Sharov's long, rambling, never quite disorganized sentences into English, often sending questions to the writer (relayed by Sharov's wife, Oliver Dunaevskaya, as the former preferred to avoid email) to clarify religious or stylistic nuances. On one occasion they even visited the site of Nikon's New Jerusalem monastery together, which must have been an intriguing experience (ah, to have been a pterosaur on the wall). Oliver is not only Sharov's translator but a literary scholar who has written illuminatingly about Before and During as a '(failed) experiment in "literary therapy"' and 'the outstanding Russian "madhouse" novel of the 1990s' in his monograph Persisting in Folly: Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963-2013.

I was privileged to meet Vladimir Sharov when he visited Cambridge a few years ago. He was undoubtedly a profound and talented writer, but he was also a modest and approachable human being, with a twinkle in his eye. We will keep reading and re-reading his books - and treasuring the twinkle.

You can read a Russian-language extract (cited above) from The Kingdom of Agamemnon here, and extracts from two of Sharov's other novels here. Светлая память!

Friday, 12 January 2018

The Silence of the Oligarchs: Why James Norton's Keeping Mum

For a man who consistently refuses to speak the language, actor James Norton can't leave Russia alone. He made a fetching, if not exactly voluble (and, like the other actors, exclusively Anglophone) Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the BBC's notorious 2016 adaptation of War and Peace. Already in the home-grown Yorkshire police drama Happy Valley (2014), where Norton plays a homicidal psychopath, we note which book his character grabs in order to pass for a soft, fuzzy, studenty type: War and Peace. A subtle in-joke? A heads-up to viewers?

Happy Valley - spot the psychopath

(In a previous post, I've discussed how the BBC cunningly deploys Russian classics as clues to the real identity of baddies. This is an ever-growing list).

In the 2018 oligarch drama McMafia, a high-profile co-production between the BBC and AMC, Norton plays Alex Godman, the 'handsome, rich, and eligible' (in his girlfriend's words) only son of a minor Russian oligarch, now living in exile in London.

James Norton, expressionless hedge fund manager
The elder Godman, played by Alexei Serebryakov, intrepidly drinks vodka from an Evian bottle, especially when driving; behaves inappropriately with everyone (including the ducks in the park); and switches between just two emotional settings: melancholy sentimentality and raging grief. (This role is essentially a reprise of his part in Leviathan, even down to both men's real estate woes - in each plot, Serebryakov's character has been pushed out of his home by a bigger player). Rather than regretting the loss of a bricks-and-mortar property, Serebryakov's McMafia character mourns for all Russia, which he can never re-enter on pain of assassination. To compensate, he insists on speaking exclusively in Russian to his adult children. Young Alex, on the other hand, is an ethical banker with his own fund, which he refuses to invest in Russian interests in order to retain his reputation for probity. He never responds in Russian to his dad, usually citing the presence of his monolingual English-rose girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) as an excuse for using English only. His father, unable to object, mutters that Alex speaks Russian like a six-year-old child - the age at which his son left Russia.
James Norton, milking that perfect blankness

Both Godman Sr's slur, and Alex's determined silence, contradict current research. Heritage speakers of Russian (like the Alex Godman character) do lose language-specific morphosyntactic structures in the L1 (here, Russian), but evidence shows that these tend to be minor vocabulary errors rather than incorrect grammar, particularly when the L1 has been used consistently at home.* Odds are, therefore, that instead of doing a Tyutchev, so to speak, Alex and his sister should be well away with the cúpla focal.

Moreover, the BBC is very proud of its decision to use Russian actors (speaking Russian with English subtitles) in McMafia, thus saving the world from cod Slavic accents yet again. (I was slightly disappointed that the Mumbai drug runners spoke the Queen's English instead of Marathi, but I suppose one can't have everything at once). This is why Serebryakov, Maria Shukshina, and others have been hired. Even Alex's preferred martial art is the intimidating Russian Sistema. So why is the man so tongue-tied? In all of episodes 1 and 2, he manages one word in Russian: "Da". At the end of Episode 3, he really goes for it, with two words: "Nichego, Papa." How a man who braves death threats while buying milk can be afraid of speaking Putin's Russian is beyond me. In any case, it will be fun to watch the BBC negotiate the challenges of bilingual filming as the series progresses.
The Platonov Puzzle - a new Ludlum title perhaps?
Will Alex speak THREE Russian words in a row? Will the English subtitles continue to be amusingly inaccurate? Why does Alex's dad have a Platonov anthology stashed in his bedside drawer next to love letters from his mistress?

Where are you taking my girlfriend's passport?
My own suspicion is that James Norton's silence, in character, is simply the logical continuation of a new acting style characterized by extended, awkward reticence and by facial expressions finely calibrated between quizzicality, blankness, and constipation. Ryan Gosling and Tom Hiddleston (the star of another BBC series, 2016's The Night Manager, with which McMafia is readily compared) are both trend leaders. In this series, James Norton spends most of his screen time not saying what we certainly hope he's thinking (Stop sitting on my uncle! Where are you taking my girlfriend's passport? What bloody man is this? Take your hand off my nose, etc) and instead, working truly hard on looking completely blank. It's exhausting just watching him show no expression at all.

Or perhaps he's just really, really keen on Tyutchev.

Молчи, скрывайся и таи
И чувства и мечты свои –
Пускай в душевной глубине
Встают и заходят оне
Безмолвно, как звезды в ночи, –
Любуйся ими – и молчи.

(Nabokov's translation of Silentium can be found here).

James Norton looking faintly quizzical in the buff
*See Eva G. Bar-Shalom and Elena Zaretsky, “Selective attrition in Russian-English bilingual children: Preservation of grammatical aspect”, International Journal of Bilingualism, Vol 12, Issue 4, pp. 281 - 302,; or Olga Kagan and Kathleen Dillon, “Russian Heritage Learners: So What Happens Now?”, The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1, Special Anniversary Issue (Spring, 2006), pp. 83-96,