Monday, 10 September 2012

Drunk on Cake with Andrei Bitov

Andrei Bitov is very proud of the discreet brothel in the courtyard of his St Petersburg flat ("там публичный дом - только скрытый"). It was one of the dostoprimechatel'nosti (local sights) he pointed out as soon as I arrived, still in shock from the telephone summons that had interrupted my post-library coffee. What sort of present does one bring a famous Russian writer when unexpectedly invited v gosti? I had a feeling that nothing short of alcohol would do, but I was in a cake shop. Life is compromise: I bought the most liquor-sodden cake in the place, a decadent chocolate creation called 'Drunken Cherry' (Пьяная вишня), had it wrapped in a white box with a pink ribbon, and beetled off down Nevsky Prospect towards the Moscow Station end.

As Bitov and his daughter Anna Andreevna plied me with rich Turkish coffee and praised the Drunken Cherry, I extemporized two respectable if stodgy questions to justify my visit. First, what advice would Bitov give to my students, exploring Russian literature for the first time? Looking pleased, he said they should consider themselves privileged that the classics of the Golden Age were, relatively speaking, short and compact. The best of Pushkin fits in a slim volume; the best of Lermontov is a novel and a few poems; Griboedov is remembered for one play. While I was still processing this reversal of the usual aphorism (ars brevis...), Bitov went off on a tangent: the best writing in any culture, he argued (referring generously to Irish literature), emerges from under an oppressive imperial shadow, self-challenged to catch up with the rest of the world. Pushkin and his peers were catching up with Western Europe; today, the best late- and post-Soviet writers are vanquishing the ethnic invisibility imposed by Russian hegemony. He listed the Ossetian Gaito Gazdanov, the Kirghiz novelist Chingiz Aitmatov, the Armenian Grant Matevosian, and the Kazakh poet (akyn) Dzhambul Dzhabaev as great writers interpreting a post-imperial legacy. "I like to promote other authors; I've managed to reach the world stage (мировое пространство)", said Andrei Georgievich modestly, "but not everyone who deserves to can do that." He rejoices in his own (distant) Circassian forebears.
Second question: what advice would Bitov give to a novice novelist (me)? This nonplussed him slightly. When he learned I was planning a historical novel (what else would a dinosaur write?), he offered one piece of advice: make the facts read like fiction, and the fiction like reality. "In Russia, and especially in Petersburg, we have a natural advantage with that," he smiled wryly, and was off again on his historical hobbyhorse: we should never forget the small moments, the unsignposted junctions, that change destinies. Apparently, the idea of importing a Dagestani boulder to Pirogov in order to simultaneously commemorate Tolstoy's inspiration for Hadji Murat and the life of the eponymous warrior had been Bitov's: nor was this his first off-beat memorial. If I made it to Pushkin's estate at Mikhailovskoe, he told me, I'd see a small statue of a hare beside the road, marking another sally into quixotic historicism. If a hare hadn't startled Pushkin's horse in 1825 and convinced the mercurial poet to turn back from the Moscow road, Pushkin might have been implicated in the Decembrist revolt - and, at the very least, exiled to Siberia for the rest of his natural life. 
I found Bitov to be a courteous and irrepressibly charming man. He kindly remembered me from our brief introduction in Yasnaya Polyana the previous month. Moreover, his invitation came at a sad time in his life: his first wife, who had owned the flat where we met, had died two weeks ago. He was newly returned from the funeral in her native Karelian village. Still more courteously, when he asked me the question I'd been dreading ("So have you read my Pushkin House?") he didn't condemn my laboured excuse - although I own it twice over in two languages, I lack time to read it in Russian. I added that while I might not have read his book, I had been working daily for the past two weeks in a third-floor office of the real Pushkin House, amidst conditions that could kindly be described as bardak (mess). Andrei Georgievich was delighted. "So you've seen the bardak!" he exulted. "You've seen what it's really like! Let me tell you, when I wrote my book, I'd never once been inside the place - and I first made it there ten years ago to present a copy to their archive". Suddenly I was an honourable fellow fraudster, and before I left, he presented me with a signed copy of the annotated edition (well worth acquiring for Stanislav Savitskii's deadpan essay on Pushkin House's pre-publication history, with reprints of the many rejection letters and reviewers' reports it garnered between 1971 and 1978, when Carl Proffer's Ardis Press brought out the first Russian edition - an English translation eventually followed ten years later. Mainstream Soviet publishing houses Sovetskii pisatel', Novyi mir and Druzhba narodov all rejected the manuscript with varying notes of polite regret; while in 1979 New York's Alfred A. Knopf turned it down on the basis that 'the novel is too long and relentlessly opaque, especially for a translation in the US, where most readers would not have the advantage of familiarity with all the Russian literary works Bitov is mentioning. Essentially, we think that Bitov is a talented writer, but THE PUSHKIN HOUSE is not an impressive book').
As I hurried out through that extraordinary courtyard with its tiny church and incognito brothel ("all modern Russian life is here", Bitov had said), I was half-alert for some symbolic encounter: Tolstoy's thistle, Pushkin's hare, drunken cherries. But I met no-one apart from a young man sawing a table in two and my landlady, who was convinced I'd been kidnapped and skinned by Singaporean handbag manufacturers. "That's right," I told her, "make your reality like fiction" - and went to bed to start reading Pushkin House.
*Image of Bitov courtesy of Russian Esquire []

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Joy of Tolstoy, or At the Sign of Hadji Murat's Head

Me with Vanya the driver on the Tolstoy bus
The International Tolstoy Conference at Yasnaya Polyana is a jewel among scholarly events. Its location is idyllic, its organisation heroic, and its participants are among the friendliest academics you could hope to meet - at least for the five charmed days of the workshop. This year's conference was enhanced by benevolent weather, making strolls in Tolstoy's usad'ba (the parkland around the main house) an enticing prospect. Tolstoy's grounds formally close in the evening, but several delegates knew the location of a gap in the fence. All we had to do was follow a winding path for little over a kilometre from our hotel through trees and shrubs, past farm buildings, over the odd rolling hill, through trees and hayfields, and then - after a small scramble - the entire Tolstoy estate was ours. We climbed the wooden watchtower where Tolstoy's mother, as a child, used to wait vigilantly for her father to ride home; walked through plantations of firs and pines to find a modern copy of the birch seat Tolstoy built with his own hands; and reverently visited Tolstoy's markedly unmarked grave. One American colleague from a hat-friendly Southern university was even tempted by the mild August weather to venture a swim in the same pool where, after reading her husband's inadequate farewell letter, Sofia Andreevna tried to drown herself on October 29, 1910. Apparently the water is quite cold.
An after-hours visit to the Tolstoy estate

The academic side of the conference was almost as exciting: virtually every paper was in Russian, which challenged Western scholars and induced heights of linguistic generosity in the Russians. There were splendid papers on translating Tolstoy - Pevear/Volkhonsky versus Garnett - from Carol Apollonio, on the Don Juan theme in Anna Karenina from Alexander Burry, on the concept of honour in Tolstoy's novels from West Point colonel Rick McPeak, and on Dostoevsky's rigid self-punishment versus Tolstoy's open endings from Eric Naiman. Russian scholars included Olga Slivitskaia (on Tolstoy's use of вдруг! in such narrative moments as unexpected decisions or reversals; her talk ended rather abruptly), Elena Tolstaya (A.N. Tolstoy's granddaughter) on the critic Akim Volynskii, and Tatyana Kravchenko on Tolstoyan motifs in Gazdanov, Nabokov, and Varshavskii. Few aspects of Tolstoy's creativity escaped discussion; on the very last day, I thought I heard a paper about Tolstoy and flying saucers, but perhaps I spent too long on the estate the night before. Nor was intellectual spoiling all we had to enjoy. On the conference's penultimate day, Andrei Bitov somewhat unexpectedly appeared and gave a talk about the importance of literary study in making the world a better place, and of taking a holistic rather than a narrowly scholastic approach. (According to Bitov, the most important word in War and Peace is the letter и (=and); this sounded convincing at the time). A local artist who lives on one of the Tolstoy family's outlying estates, Pirogov, then invited everyone to view a stone commemorating the death of Hadji Murat. He had brought this substantial boulder by truck from Hadji Murat's actual place of death in Dagestan; his dearest wish is to have the warrior's head, apparently still preserved in a St Petersburg medical institution, interred under this rock as a symbol of Russian-Islamic harmony and peace (were this England, as fortunately it isn't, I could foresee a great inn sign). This goal remains unfulfilled for now, but those who went to Pirogov were able to view a descendant of the original thistle that inspired Tolstoy's Hadji Murat.
Making friends with Andrei Bitov

On the conference's final day, we took the bus back to Moscow (although some delegates have covered the distance in more traditional ways) for a visit to Tolstoy's townhouse in Khamovniki; I was most charmed by the few belongings of the Tolstoys' last son, Vanya, whom the writer considered the most gifted and 'Tolstoyan' of all his children but who died tragically young, and by the skin of the bear that happened on Lev Nikolaevich during a hunting expedition in 1858. (Impossible to tell who was more startled, the bear or Tolstoy). I seized an opportunity to pump the conference's Russian co-organizer about Elif Batuman, whose infamous article in Harper's (reprinted in her book The Possessed) poked fun at this same conference and its regulars. "Oh, I remember Elif," she said. "A nice girl. A little strange." I had to admire such a Tolstoyan attitude - Hadji Murat would not have been so forgiving.
Hard as it seems to wait two years for the next conference, at least I'll have time to come up with some truly original ideas for my paper. "Tolstoy and the Later Palaeozoic.... Jurassic Tolstoy... The Symbolism of Reptiles in Anna Karenina". It needs a little work. But so did War and Peace.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Chasing Nabokov in Estes Park

I spent part of July in America catching up with old friends - a couple of them like to hang out in Chicago's Field Museum - and also fleeing the Slavic side of my life, or so I persuaded myself, in Estes Park, Colorado. I approve of Colorado - it actually has a town called Dinosaur - which, I'm assured, boasts street names like Brontosaurus Boulevard, Stegosaurus Freeway, and Triceratops Terrace.
However, after settling down in Estes Park, I experienced a suspicious feeling of deja vu - and an unfamiliar longing to lumber after local lepidoptera. When I looked at the landscape, I wanted to say things like, 'In the distance, fleeting cloud shadows dappled the dull green of slopes above timber line, and the gray and white of Longs Peak'; and I had the oddest idea that I could fly on a magic carpet to the marshland around Vyra, near St Petersburg.
Longs Peak - 14259 ft
Finally, it clicked. Far from escaping Slavonic studies, I had merely succeeded in trailing Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitrii Nabokov on their 1947 holiday to Estes Park, where they stayed at Columbine Lodge - just inside the boundary of the Rocky Mountain National Park - a place where Nabokov could imagine it was possible to fold time and space like a magic carpet and, pursuing a fritillary through the Russian marshes in 1910, somehow find himself in the Midwest forty years later. The Nabokovs' holiday was funded by the publisher's fee for Bend Sinister, and it abounded in both entomological enthusiasm and more literary 'rushes of excitement', as Brian Boyd describes them. Here fourteen-year-old Dmitrii climbed mountains (including Longs Peak), while Nabokov chased butterflies and worked simultaneously on two books: the memoir that would become Conclusive Evidence (and later, Speak, Memory) and The Kingdom By The Sea - which he would describe in a letter to Edmund Wilson as a 'short novel about a man who liked little girls'. He also learned how American collectors kill butterflies (I'll let you find out for yourselves). The summer of 1947 immediately preceded a turning-point in Nabokov's career: shortly after returning to the East Coast to resume teaching at Wellesley, he would be headhunted by Cornell as their next Professor of Russian Literature, replacing the Tolstoy scholar Ernest Simmons. Overall, the three-month holiday in the Rockies was so stimulating that three years later Nabokov would return to The Kingdom By The Sea - soon to become Lolita - in the hope of funding a second trip there. (For an illustrated timeline of Nabokov's American road trips, see here).
In my next international adventure, I'll be pursuing not Nabokovian butterflies but Tolstoyan birches - all the way to Yasnaya Polyana. The Tolstoy bus leaves Moscow on Saturday morning this week. So far I have learned that the bus is blue and that the driver's name is Vanya. What more could any dedicated Russophile wish to know? As that great Tolstoyan, Jim Morrison, crooned,
The blue bus is callin' us...
C'mon baby take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus...
which is almost certainly a free adaptation of Lev Nikolaevich's proposal to Sofia Andreevna Behrs in 1862, and practically identical with the small print at the bottom of my conference timetable.

This post is heavily indebted to Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Vintage: London, 1991), esp. pp. 120-1. The Longs Peak citation and magic carpet reference in paragraph 2 are from Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 109.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Hitch-Hiker's Guide to Siberia: The Road Is Always Right

I approached Off The Beaten Track: Stories by Russian Hitchhikers (Glas, 2012) with a jaundiced eye. Hitch-hiking has never given me a spiritual thrill; at college, I was never the kind who thumbed from Killorglin to Casablanca and back for charity in Rag Week. Where I grew up, hitching was an uninspired thing you did if you didn't have a car, a bicycle, or a blood relative to give you a lift. Now hiking without the hitching is a vastly different matter, and I'm with Frodo Baggins on the romantic appeal of the open road:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began...

But I digress. Off The Beaten Track collects two novellas by Igor Savelev and Irina Bogatyreva, plus a travelogue by Tatiana Mazepina, all rendered in English by different translators and all sharing a remarkably similar travellers' ethos. In Bogatyreva's words:
'We are footloose and fancy-free wayfarers on roads without end, friends of long-distance truckers and drivers, their amulets, talismans, their guardian angels. Even the cops leave us alone. [...] We are legion, dots scattered along the road, romantic followers of our guru Jack Kerouac, members of the same mendicant order, and the motto on our crest could read In via veritas or, more simply, "The Road Is Always Right"' (p. 78, trans. Arch Tait).
By the end of this paragraph, I was wondering whether Russia is doomed forever to seize upon Western cultural trends several decades after they've fizzled to ironic extinction, and whether Kerouac's fuzzy philosophy ages as well as Romanticism or, say, Fourierism. Nor was I reconciled as I followed Bogatyreva through her autobiographical odyssey: from an overcrowded commune in Moscow, past the industrial cities of the Urals and the sunny roadsides of the South, to a mystical rendezvous with some highly self-regarding but rather dull individuals in a Siberian forest. And back to Moscow. But Bogatyreva isn't trying to win over her audience. She gives a penetratingly vivid picture of the frustrations of late-night hitching on the capital's ring road, the discomfort of days without a wash or a proper meal, the tensions and mismatched copulations that flourish in the apartment benevolently overseen by her Rastafarian landlord, Roma Jah. She exposes both her own naivety and her determination to realize her dreams, fully aware of their bathos: whether by discovering a lake in the mountains, chanting an invocation to a magical, half-feral raven, or not quite falling in love with dreamy-eyed backpacker gurus (such as Grand, her long-distance travel mentor). Arch Tait has coped admirably with trendy slang (I loved his translation of Bogatyreva's nickname, Melkaia, as 'Titch') to capture her unsparingly honest directness. Nonetheless, I found her short story Pristup (The Seizure), which I read in the original Russian here, much more convincing in terms of both style and narrative. The theme and setting (thumbing a lift) were identical with Off The Beaten Track, yet her tone had gained maturity and depth (the female narrator pretends to be a witch to discourage an over-affectionate trucker, but her successful impersonation frightens him into a heart attack). I loved her insight that the truck driver would rapidly forget the entire incident, despite the intensity of his terror: 'I sensed that everything that happened the previous evening had slid from him like water off a duck's back. It was difficult for his sturdy, working-man's brain to accommodate changes. I let slip the reins I had seized the day before, comforting myself that there wasn't much further to go' (my trans.). This sort of casual but meaningful emotional commentary is missing from Off the Beaten Track, where all the actions and personalities are served up raw.
You can read Off the Beaten Track (in Russian, Avtostop) here.
Lizok of Bookshelf fame has reviewed Bogatyreva's other fiction appreciatively (and also met her several times). I too met Bogatyreva briefly this year during her world tour as a Debut Prizewinner, and we established that we knew each other vaguely from student days in Moscow's Gorky Literary Institute... although, back then, she never invited me to hitch to Siberia. I suppose I didn't look the type.

Meanwhile, shorn of philosophy, Igor Savelev's 'The Pale City' trails four young people to an accidental meeting in a shabby apartment in Ufa. Three hitch-hikers, one soon-to-be conscript, a beautiful girl with a troubled past, a lightning love affair, and a broken nose - all of late adolescent life is here, especially one character's reflections on how adulthood means no longer going commando. In Tatiana Mazepina's 'Traveling to Paradise', hitch-hiking becomes a deliberately spiritual strategy, a way of expressing trust in the divine plan while experiencing new cultures to the full (none of Bogatyreva's diffuse neo-paganism here). On her month-long journey through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, Mazepina encounters numerous Orthodox communities and benefits repeatedly from the kindness of strangers. Occasionally, I found her determined enthusiasm grating (at dinner with a Turkish Muslim family: 'the conversation itself was the main dish, a delicacy that we cannot get enough of', p. 234), but when she manages to resist naive metaphors, Mazepina's sense of wonder becomes infectious. In the Holy Lands, drivers don't just give you a lift, they take you home, introduce you to their families, feed you, give you a bed for the night, and even continue to send you anxious text messages for the rest of your travels. The scenes from Syria were, in view of current events there, especially bittersweet. 
With thanks to Natasha Perova of Glas Publishing for sending me a review copy.

Russian Dinosaur is taking a few weeks' vacation, but expect my next post to report on August's International Tolstoy Conference at Yasnaya Polyana... provided OVIR agree that extinct reptiles need visas too.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Don Juan in Nottingham

Earlier this year, during the Easter holiday, I was persuaded to attend the one-day Annual Conference of the Newstead Byron Society at Nottingham Trent University, dedicated to Byron's narrative poem  Don Juan (1818-1824). It's difficult to overstate the charm of a conference which promises that all panels will take place 'in Ada Byron King (immediately in front of George Eliot)'. Having oriented myself by both ladies (actually the names of modern buildings on the campus), and having gobbled the first three cantos of Don Juan on the train, I settled down to enjoy other academics' performances without the slightest fear of encroachment or challenge to my own Slavonic specialization. Alas! I'd arranged a busman's holiday - but I never suspected until too late that I hadn't even got off my own coach. The Newstead Byron society was, with some allowance for hyperbole, thoroughly overrun by Russianists. Not only were several authentic Russians in attendance, including Natalia Solovyeva of MGU's magisterially named paper on "Don Juan and Russia", there was an entire panel on Byron's Russianism and various Russophone or Russophile sympathisers in the audience, including Hugh Barnes, freelance journalist and author of the only English-language biography of Pushkin's African ancestor (its lacklustre British title, Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg is amply redeemed by the American version, namely The Stolen Prince: Gannibal, Adopted Son of Peter the Great, Great-Grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, and Europe's First Black Intellectual). The panels, overseen by the omnipresent and endlessly knowledgeable Cambridge Byronist Peter Cochran,  stimulated lively discussions which continued in the hotel bar over many, many pints of local ale.

George Gordon Byron in 1818
My mistake had been to overlook the extent of Byron's fascination and sympathy with and for Russia and Russianists. It's impossible to read Pushkin or Lermontov without realizing how seminal Byron's narrative poems were for the evolution of certain styles and archetypes in Russian literature; yet the admiration was mutual. Byron not only researched existing literature thoroughly for his lyricization of Suvorov's defeat of the Turkish army at the 1790 Battle of Ismail episode in Cantos 7-8 of Don Juan, he also sought out and befriended visiting Russians, whose names and personalities sometimes reappeared, unsubtly mocked, in his poems (Koklofty, Chokenoff, Strongenoff, etc.). Natalia Solovyeva cited a passage from a letter Byron sent to his confidante Lady Melbourne in 1813: 'Your friend Kolfkovsky was with me yesterday-complaining of the English husbands & the restrictions upon their wives - with whom he appears to have made little progress - but lay it all upon the husbands - I was obliged to comfort him with the assurance that the fault was all his own -& that husbands & wives are much the same here as elsewhere- it was  impossible to hear them so traduced with patience'. Valeria Vallucci's excellent paper on "Byron, Italy, and New Russia"' argued that Byron acquired much of his practical knowledge of Russian mores and culture from Italy, where political resentment of Russian's enemy Austria-Hungary bred sympathy for the former. Don Juan's adventures with the Russian army (many of which, such as the rescue of a Turkish girl from marauding Cossacks, are transposed from the memoirs of the Duc de Richelieu), including his dispatch to Petersburg to report on the battle to Catherine II (a mission actually performed by Count Osterman-Tolstoy), are all extracted - and evolved - from Byron's preoccupation with Russian affairs. (With his friend John Hobhouse, he even made an abortive plan to visit Petersburg himself - a trip completed with brio and predictable romantic gusto by the poet's avatar Don Juan in Canto 9). His attitude to Catherine herself and her successors is unapologetically expressed in Don Juan, causing this and other poems to be banned in Russia: 'For me, I deem an absolute Autocrat/Not a barbarian - but much worse than that-', professing his 'plain sworn downright detestation/of every Despotism in every Nation.-' Byron saw through Voltaire's politically naive praise of Catherine's liberalism, identifying the Russian capital - perhaps presciently - as a den of 'polished boors/Who still have shown themselves more brave than witty'.
Byron does, however, deliver a backhanded compliment to the Russian armed forces in Canto 8. The joke is in bad taste, but neither Pushkin, Byron, nor the Newstead Byron Society are wont to oppress humour with political correctness. Here are the infamous stanzas 128 and 129: 

In one thing, ne’ertheless, ’tis fit to praise
The Russian army upon this occasion,
A Virtue much in fashion nowadays,
And therefore worthy of commemoration –
The topic’s tender, so shall be my phrase –
Perhaps the Season’s chill, and their long Station
In winter’s depth, in want of rest and victual,
Had made them chaste – they ravished very little.

Much did they slay, more plunder, and no less
Might here and there occur some violation
In the other line; but not to such excess
As when the French, that dissipated nation,
Take towns by storm; no causes can I guess
Except cold weather and commiseration;
But all the ladies, save some twenty score,
Were almost as much Virgins as before.

Next post: a hitchhiker's guide to Siberia. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

Night Roads: Translating Gaito Gazdanov

Guest post by Justin Doherty (Lecturer in Russian, Trinity College Dublin)

Parisian taxi c. 1927. Copyright info.
Some years ago I read somewhere about a Russian émigré writer who had lived in Paris between the wars and worked as a taxi-driver at night, and had written a novel based on his experiences: this writer’s name was Gaito Gazdanov. The name rang a vague bell, and, intrigued, I managed to get hold of a Russian publication containing a few of Gazdanov’s novels (An Evening with Claire, The Story of a Journey and Night Roads, plus a few short stories) and started reading – beginning with Ночные дороги. Something about the circumstances of this book, as well as the subject-matter and setting, had a special kind of appeal. I had studied French literature along with Russian as a student, and Paris had exercised a particular kind of fascination – not just the real city that I knew, if superficially, but the mythical world of the poètes maudits with its doomed romantic allure. I had loved the novels of Sartre and Camus and Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline, and now here was a Russian writer who not only described the dark, nocturnal side of this mythical city but did so in a way that seemed to be in tune with the existential writers I knew from my student days – indeed, if Gazdanov had (anachronistically) quoted from Sartre in an epigraph (la vie commence de l’autre côté du désespoir), it would have come as no surprise. What was more, you could trace a line straight back to Dostoevsky in many of Gazdanov’s themes and preoccupations – the wise drunk (Marmeladov), the theme of prostitution (Sonia Marmeladova) as metaphor for all the selling of oneself that the capitalist world requires of us (after all, a prostitute tells Gazdanov’s taxi-driver narrator, their two professions are essentially one and the same), the false allure of wealth (The Youth), insane self-delusion and suicide (plenty of examples of these), and many others – in just the same way that you can see Dostoevsky in the background in Camus and Céline. And then there was Gazdanov’s literary style – the rambling, ‘Proustian’ sentences and seemingly haphazard jumps between episodes and characters that thematize the randomness of experience and apparent lack of meaningful connectedness in our everyday interaction with the world and with others (or at least, for those of us susceptible to the rather nihilistic outlook of La Nausée). This was the kind of Russian I would have written myself, I thought, if I had happened to have been a Russian writer living (or existing) in 1930s Paris – or the Russian equivalent of, well, a kind of more expansive Samuel Beckett, another predilection looming in the background, another Parisian and nihilistic doubter of everything. 
By coincidence (which is the other side of the coin of the randomness of things, if you like), I was finding myself increasingly drawn to translating at that very time (by way of an experiment, I had recently done a translation of the fullest – if one can say that – expression of Russian émigré nihilism of that time, Georgii Ivanov’s Disintegration of the Atom), and Night Roads came along at exactly the right moment – a book that seemed to me to deserve to be called a major Russian novel by an important, if neglected, émigré writer, and yet no one had translated it (at least into English – it had appeared already in a few other languages).

Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971)
It’s a work that presents a good number of challenges to the translator, two of which I think are particularly worth commenting on. First, there is a certain linguistic hybridity in this work that is maybe less apparent in most of Gazdanov’s other works – in Night Roads the great majority of the characters we meet are French, so most of the dialogue in the work (and there is a lot, though it alternates with lengthy passages of introspective philosophizing and reminiscence) is notionally happening in French (and in fact, more than notionally in Gazdanov’s original draft of the novel, where the dialogues were written not just in French but often in Parisian ‘argot’). Does one translate these dialogues into a kind of ‘franglais’? – well, obviously not in any crude way, but I think one does have to try to capture in a more or less nuanced way the flavour of French that can be detected in some of Gazdanov’s Russian. Then, second, there is the problem of Gazdanov’s rambly long sentences: what is at stake here is the thematic and even philosophical importance of the sentence in this work, as Gazdanov’s narrator gropes around for meaning and ways of connecting his experiences of the world and responses to them into some kind of sense. You have to keep in mind as well that these sentences are not actually modeled on the elegant and elusive style cultivated by Marcel Proust, rather they stretch and almost break syntactic tolerance and threaten a complete loss of control (maybe the influence of surrealism is what one should be looking for here, rather than Proust). My feeling as translator is that one has to follow Gazdanov as best one can: you are of course inviting criticism for being too eager to imitate Russian sentence-structure and abuse of the norms of English literary style, but this decision is the opposite of intellectual laziness – indeed, nothing is more tempting for the translator than to sort ‘bad’ sentences out and put them into some kind of proper, elegant and stylish order, but, to reference Sartre once again, this would be ‘bad faith’ on the part of the translator and what was lost would be infinitely greater than anything that might be gained.
I would like to finish by thanking Russian Dinosaur for the opportunity to share these existential ramblings with the wider world, and hope that a few more readers may feel the inclination to join Gazdanov’s taxi-driver on his journey to the end of the night, ideally in the original Russian, failing that in my English translation beautifully produced by Northwestern U.P. I remember being surprised at how interested Russian Dinosaur generally seemed in my Russian avant-garde classes, as the Irish say, ‘back in the day’, and I’m delighted to see his interest in Russian literature still very much in evidence in his splendid blog.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Free PhD

I must apologize to regular readers for this blog's recent irregularity - caused by a mad dash to finish my academic monograph, and also by self-indulgent visits to some rather eclectic conferences - including a Byron Society conference in Nottingham where so many Russianists spoke that I shall try to review their papers here in a future post, and where my name was prominently misspelled in two brand-new and original ways (although I admit Trisseratopz is hard to write). Nabokov would sympathise with my plight, since he admitted that his own surname 'is often misspelt, because the eye tends to regard the "a" of the first syllable as a misprint and then tries to restore the symmetrical sequence by triplicating the "o"- filling up the row of circles, so to speak, as in a game of crosses and naughts. No-bow-cough. How ugly, how wrong' (from Strong Opinions).

But now to the substance of this post - my free PhD offer. Not a BOGOF, no terms and conditions, and no obligation to supply your social security number, your grandmother's maiden name or the ISBN of the last book you read. This PhD is free to take home - but only the topic, not the degree. Consider the passage below:

'I am standing by a slippery mound of sticky earth and looking into the pit wherein they have thrown the coffin of my father. At the bottom there is a quantity of water, and there are also frogs, two of which have even jumped onto the yellow lid of the coffin. [...] The gravediggers, bending nearly double, began to fling the lumps of earth on the coffin rapidly, striking the frogs, which were leaping against the sides of the pit, down to the bottom.'

Which Russian writer does this frog resemble?
The four-year-old Maxim Gorky - not yet the 'formidable mediocrity' that Nabokov would call him - is famously more concerned with the fate of the drowning frogs than with the funeral of his own father. As he is brought away, he asks his grandmother anxiously, "Will those frogs ever get out?", thus showing even as an infant the keen, instinctive empathy with underfrogs that would determine his long career and eventually see him become Soviet Russia's Prince of Proletarian Poetics. (In fact, the American cartoonist William Steig - better known for creating Shrek - actually wrote and illustrated a children's book, Gorky Rises, about a frog called Gorky, but that's beside the point.)  And Gorky's My Childhood is only one example of the key symbolic role of frogs in Russian literature. At the recent conference of the British Society for Literature and Science, I gave a paper called 'Faith in Frogs' which reflected (slightly gruesomely) on how amphibian vivisection became a key trope for describing Russian fictional scientists who pose any kind of threat to social norms: namely, Bazarov from Ivan Turgenev's 1852 Fathers and Sons and Professor Persikov from Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 novella The Fatal Eggs. Vivisection as a trope used to flag nasty customers is also found in British fiction (most famously in Eliot's Middlemarch, where Dr Lydgate prefers slicing up animals (a logical process) to developing illogical love relationships with the opposite sex), and please don't deprive yourself of Mrs Leo Hunter's Ode to an Expiring Frog from Dickens's Pickwick Papers. In Russian literature, however, vivisection appears to be almost inevitably associated with amphibians. In Turgenev's novel, for example, Bazarov is rarely mentioned without some reference to his frog collection. For instance, he settles down at the Kirsanovs' estate, Marino, with ‘his frogs, his infusoria, and his chemical experiments’; and before he leaves Marino for the last time, he frees all his experimental subjects – insects, birds, and, naturally, frogs. And his final, disastrous and wasteful death – when he accidentally infects himself with typhus – results from carelessly treating himself like one of his frogs, as another experimental subject. It is Pavel Kirsanov who declares that Bazarov 'doesn't have faith in principles, but he has faith in frogs'; and it is this overriding faith in frogs - that is, in pure scientific observation and analysis - that offers a convenient tagline for the nihilistic, unromantic social vision that Bazarov represents. While Bazarov's frogs are seen from several perspectives - those of Arkadii and Pavel Kirsanov, for example, and of the peasant boys on the estate - we don't really get a frog's-eye view of narrative until Bulgakov's Fatal Eggs. As they did for Bazarov, frogs here provide a leitmotif to the character of Professor Persikov, an ingenious but obsessive biologist. We learn that Persikov’s first wife abandoned him for an opera singer, leaving a note: ‘Your frogs instil in me feelings of unbearable revulsion. Because of them my life will always be a misery’. The vicissitudes of his personal life and his career are expressed in terms of the presence, absence, or relative health of his collections of frogs and toads. He can only conceptualize the atrocities accompanying the revolution and its aftermath relative to the consequences for his frogs; for example, the death of the Surinam toad in his vivarium causes him to remark, “People are shot for less!” – apparently unaware of the multiple ironies of this comment. The death of the Institute’s custodian is, for Persikov, simply a footnote to the death of his specimens. His first major post-revolutionary scientific publication is entitled ‘The Embryology of Frogs’. And Persikov's major discovery, the Ray of Life, is prefaced by a prolonged examination of a dying amphibian:

“Vladimir Ipatych, I have opened up the frog’s mesentery. Would you like to see?”
Abandoning his microscope, Persikov eagerly climbed down from his stool and went into his assistant’s office, slowly twirling his cigarette in his hand. There, on the glass table, stretched out on a cork base, lay a frog in a semi-asphyxiated state, half dead from pain and fear. Its transparent, slimy entrails had tumbled out from under the microscope.
“Excellent!” exclaimed Persikov, looking through the eyepiece of the microscope.
The frog’s intestines were clearly revealing something of unusual interest; corpuscles of blood were flowing swiftly along the vessels. Persikov forgot about his amoebas and, for the next hour and a half, he and Ivanov took turns looking through the eyepiece, the two of them all the time engaged in animated conversation, using vocabulary that would be incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.
Finally Persikov sat back from the microscope.
“The blood is congealing”, he announced. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
The frog slowly moved its head, its dying eyes clearly enunciating the words: “You absolute swine, you…”

It's not easy being... metonymous for so many important things
The martyrdom experienced by this frog, however, foreshadows Persikov's own demise at the hands of a frustrated mob - who also torture and trample his beloved amphibians and reptiles. So although the frogs in both novels suffer at the hands of scientists, they should not be interpreted as direct symbols of the proletariat. What, in fact, do they symbolize? But that's the topic of today's special  PhD offer... frogs in Russian literature. Horses have been done; I'm working on dogs already. But that's no reason to neglect amphibians. A reviewer once almost scuttled one of my (unrelated) articles by commenting, 'one can do a Google tour of almost anything nowadays and pull out enough references to write an article. I have just googled "Russian literature" and "cows" and found enough to write a quite interesting article'. Perhaps (s)he was right, but the role of search engines in their discovery is no reason to reject striking resonances. Shortly afterwards, Robert Bird's article 'The Poetics of Peat in Soviet Literary and Visual Culture, 1918-1959' came out in Slavic Review 70:3: clearly the product of a truly worrying Google addiction. Here's to apparently random connections with underlying significance... and continuing the froggy theme shortly with a trip to inter-war Paris, the next post will be a guest piece on translating Gaito Gazdanov, by Justin Doherty of Trinity College Dublin, the translator of Gazdanov's acclaimed novel Night Roads.

  1. Citation from Gorky's My Childhood, 1915 edition, translator unknown, digitized here.
  2. All Turgenev citations from Constance Garnett's translation.
  3. All Bulgakov citations from Roger Cockrell's new translation of The Fatal Eggs (Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2011).
  4. For my comments on vivisection in Eliot's Middlemarch, I am indebted to George Menke, ‘Fiction as Vivisection: G. H. Lewes and George Eliot’, ELH, 67: 2 (2000), pp. 617-653.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Dinosaurs Aren't Aunts, or P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad

A Small Pterodactyl fluttered into the Dinosaurs' Club and squawked disconsolately for a gin and bitters. His nibbled-looking crest and raffishly cocked beak told experienced observers that, although not extinct, he was not precisely tinct, either.
A kindly Stegosaurus/Triceratops cross glanced at the newcomer from his easy chair. "You appear cheesed off with the earthly stint, my son", the elder reptile remarked benevolently.
"Exactly!" exclaimed the Pterodactyl stormily. "No-one appreciates my sense of humour! No-one shares my literary pursuits! I pitched a scenario to a fur-bearing mammal today, and he accused me of being," he hurled a well-picked coelacanth skeleton across the room in rage, "past my sell-by date!"
There was a collective intake of breath in the the Club. Only the Stegosaurus/Triceratops failed to flinch at the distasteful insult.
"I knew a mammal once," began a Lesser Diplodocus.
"I can offer you the cheering example of one of my younger relatives," the elder dinosaur replied smoothly as if no-one had spoken, "who was confounded in life by not one but two old-fashioned interests: he admired Russian literature and the stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Imagine his happiness when, one day, he opened a book called The Clicking of Cuthbert and realized that the two were, as you might say, one. And this is what he told me..."

Whether P.G. Wodehouse was a serious reader of Russian literature, I doubt. It's difficult to imagine Plum reading Dostoevsky in Paris or sitting spellbound through Three Sisters. However, he knew enough about Tolstoy's prose to summarize an entire imaginary novella: "Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty” (from Jill the Reckless). And in The Clicking of Cuthbert, otherwise a rather weak effort from 1922, a young, enthusiastic, and decidely un-bookish golfer (a sort of Pierre Bezukhov to the other's moody Bolkonsky) pits the niblick against the pen in a contest for the heart of a beautiful girl against a moody literary aesthete called Raymond Devine. Cuthbert fights his battle not on the golf course, his natural sphere, but in his opponent's court: the suburban London Literary Society run by Mrs Willoughby Smethurst where Devine is worshipped as a genius. As the narrator remarks,

"I do not know if you have had any experience of suburban literary societies, but the one that flourished under the eye of Mrs. Willoughby Smethurst at Wood Hills was rather more so than the average. With my feeble powers of narrative, I cannot hope to make clear to you all that Cuthbert Banks endured in the next few weeks. And, even if I could, I doubt if I should do so. It is all very well to excite pity and terror, as Aristotle recommends, but there are limits."

Cuthbert's agony of inadequacy is exacerbated by the Society's constant chat about famous Russian novelists, especially Vladimir Brusiloff, currently touring England, who 'specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide'. Despite his stamina as a golfer, Cuthbert might not have stood firm 'had it not been for the daily reports in the papers of the internecine strife which was proceeding so briskly in Russia. Cuthbert was an optimist at heart, and it seemed to him that, at the rate at which the inhabitants of that interesting country were murdering one another, the supply of Russian novelists must eventually give out'. Before it does, however, Brusiloff is inveigled into attending the Smethurst salon, where two astonishing things happen. The first is the fall and utter ruin of Raymond Devine, who is unwise enough to mention that other great novelist, Sovietski, in Brusiloff's presence. Brusiloff, although 'not a man who prattled readily', is moved to pithily denounce his rival: 

'"Sovietski no good!"
He paused for a moment, set the machinery working again, and delivered five more at the pithead.
"I spit me of Sovietski!"
There was a painful sensation. [...] Raymond Parsloe Devine was plainly shaken, but he made an adroit attempt to recover his lost prestige.
"When I say I have been influenced by Sovietski, I mean, of course, that I was once under his spell. A young writer commits many follies. I have long since passed through that phase. The false glamour of Sovietski has ceased to dazzle me. I now belong whole-heartedly to the school of Nastikoff."'
But this transparent act of ingratiation also founders:
'"Nastikoff no good," said Vladimir Brusiloff, coldly. He paused, listening to the machinery.
"Nastikoff worse than Sovietski."
He paused again.
"I spit me of Nastikoff!" he said.[...]
Vladimir Brusiloff proceeded to sum up.
"No novelists any good except me. Sovietski--yah! Nastikoff--bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me."'

The second astonishing event is that Brusiloff reveals himself as a passionate golfer and a personal fan of Cuthbert's; at which point the young lady transfers her affections from the false idol Devine to the suddenly redeemed Cuthbert. Brusiloff barely notices, as he is too busy telling a highly spurious anecdote about Lenin and Trotsky playing golf in Nizhnii Novgorod ('someone in the crowd he tries to assassinate Lenin with a rewolwer--you know that is our great national sport, trying to assassinate Lenin with rewolwers--and the bang puts Trotsky off his stroke and he goes five yards past the hole, and then Lenin, who is rather shaken, you understand, he misses again... ').

Despite Plum's unorthodox grasp of Russian history and politics (one of his great comic contemporaries, Richmal Crompton, makes her hero Just William [an eternal superfluous schoolboy, or лишный лицеец] founder-member of the Junior Branch of the Society of Reformed Bolshevists, with the credo 'All gotter be equal. All gotter 'ave lots of money. All 'uman beings. That's sense, isn't it?' as expressed in The Weak Spot), his stories enjoy great popularity in Russia, as the success of the Russian Wodehouse society shows; and its foundress, Natalya Trauberg, daughter of director Leonid Trauberg, relates a wonderful story about how her parents met. The young director, who would have just finished making his version of The Overcoat at this time, 'read with great fervour the books of Wodehouse. True, they were hastily translated, abriged and vulgarized, but all those "young men in spats" lived the very life that their unfortunate Soviet counterpoints were dreaming about. To that I can testify, for I was growing up among them. The year of 1927 saw especially large number of those little books, and my mother, pregnant with me, was reading them. About three years before she was renting a room from a rather avant-garde artist, Valentina Khodasevitch. It was then and there that my mother (her christian name is Vera) heard two young men laughing and one of them, Leonid Trauberg, told her that they were waiting for the landlady and reading an excellent author named Wodehouse. It was the first meeting of my parents." You can read more here; additionally, I think Plum would have appreciated her brief site bio, which remarks delightfully 'She lived in Lithuania for many years and was an example of Christian with two lungs.' Perhaps Brusiloff wrote it.

"You see," intoned the Stegosaurus/Triceratops cross impressively, "my nephew's tale shows that there is no need to despair of niche, irrelevant, antiquated hobbies. There will always be someone else to share your interests!"
"That reminds me of a story about an Allosaurus I used to know," began the Diplodocus, unabashed.
But no-one was listening...

The full text of The Clicking of Cuthbert can be found online here.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Kukryniksy, or Let's Defeat and Annihilate The Enemy!

I have a soft spot for Russian caricaturists (I'm a big fan of P.M. Boklevskii, for example, and I wish I'd been less stingy when I once had a chance to buy a pack of Boklevskii postcards), and the Kukryniksy - once I resigned myself to the difficulty of spelling their ludicrous name - are among my favourites. Here they are in respectable middle age: Mikhail Kupriianov (far left), known in youth for his round classes, bushy hair, and Left Bank swagger; diminutive Porfirii Krylov (middle), who always looked like a grocer's apprentice, and the latecomer Nikolai Sokolov (seated right) with the round-eyed, faraway stare of a saint. The trio met in the early 1920s at VKhUTEMAS, the newly founded Moscow art college where Ekster, Popova, and Rodchenko were all then teaching, and by 1924 they had merged their three names into a quadrisyllabic byline that sounds like a barnyard cackle: KU-KRY-NIK(olai)+S(okolov)+ Y for plural: literally, the Kukrynikses. Who didn't they caricature? Hitler, Mussolini, each other, national stereotypes, Gorky, Meyerholdt, Marshak... Who didn't they illustrate? Most famously, Chekhov's collected short stories, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Gorky's Mother and Klim Sangin.

They could render sentimental or stirring scenes, as well as lyrical landscapes, but their unique gift for the darkly and self-mockingly grotesque gleams through the grimy chiaroscuro of their illustrations for collected editions of Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin. Then heads would roll...

Their enduring success brought them wealth and trips abroad (working individually, they produced an extraordinary number of delicate and chocolate-boxy views of French and Italian cities) after the war, but they earned this Elysian security by the unimpeachable verve of their propaganda drawings, much used to spur on the Russian war effort. From this sort of thing (a mocking look at Kerensky climbing into his disguise prior to fleeing the Winter Palace in October 1917) to this shortly-to-be-bayoneted Adolf, above right (with the wonderful slogan, Let's Mercilessly Defeat and Annihilate the Enemy).

Some of their work is oddly politically relevant today (like this Iranian oil-goat), and some of it is still deliciously irreverent (like this mockery of Dali).

"Working collectively greatly strengthened our friendship," wrote the Kukryniksy in a (predictably) collectively authored article in the 1975 commemorative volume Kukryniksy: Vtroem [The Kukryniksy: Band of Three]. "Each of the three of us takes care of his own development, but none of us, working alone, could outshine what we create collectively. In our collective, besides Kupriianov, Krylov, and Sokolov, there's a fourth artist, the one we care about most: Kukryniksy. We know that's he's just as essential to us as we are to him. And that's our good fortune."

Friday, 17 February 2012

Ghostly Paradoxes

In 2009, the ingenious and prolific U Penn-based scholar Ilya Vinitsky published Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism. Few academic monographs take so much pleasure in their subject; few range so freely between dimensions. Vinitsky confronts his readers with two paradoxical cultural manifestations: firstly, how Russian scientists in the late nineteenth century treated Spiritualism as a material phenomenon; and secondly, how the realist novel of the same period unwittingly conjured reality into its own spectre. The first part colourfully surveys territory that several scholars have investigated (the work of Julia Mannherz springs to mind, or indeed of Helen Sword; besides this recent Modern Language Review article). Vinitsky argues that the Russian Spiritualist séance became, implicitly if not avowedly, a forum for discussing cultural and political problems, for synthesizing institutional solutions to the former, and even for parodying certain utopian goals. Chapter One revisits a theme already familiar to historians of Russian Spiritualism: the dogged insistence by scientists who should have known better, including the zoologist Nikolai Vagner and the chemist Aleksandr Butlerov (defying patient and meticulous opposition from Dmitry Mendeleev), to argue the genuineness of mediumistic phenomena; apparently, undeterred by the great writer's skepticism, Vagner even implored Dostoevsky's widow to let him summon her husband's shade (Anna Grigor'evna sensibly refused; her delightfully unflattering description of Vagner is cited on p. 89). Dostoevsky is a recurrent character throughout Ghostly Paradoxes: his attraction to the occult led him, along with the writers Leskov and Boborykin, to participate in a séance with an English medium organised by the Spiritualist Aleksandr Aksakov in 1876. The medium, Madame Claire, marked Dostoevsky out as the participant most attuned to 'unseen presences' (no surprise). The séance, however, concluded prematurely when Dostoevsky accused the medium of pulling on the other end of a handkerchief that was being mysteriously drawn away. Vinitsky writes: "'In his account of the séance, Boborykin discloses the nature of the misunderstanding. Dostoevsky had joked that he ‘refused to account for such a phenomenon as anything but the dexterity of the medium.’ Then, though ‘it was said in such a way that, if Madame Claire had understood Russian, she would only have laughed at this perfectly harmless joke,’ on hearing Dostoevsky’s words translated into English, she for some reason ‘instantly took offense, blushed (to whatever extent this was possible for her), her eyes began to flash,’ and Boborykin ‘quite clearly heard a violent phrase, in English, which plainly showed her anger’" (p. 33). This incident confirmed Dostoevsky's distrust of Spiritualist practitioners and informed several negative articles in Diary of a Writer. Other recurrent characters include Leskov himself, author of Spiritualist-themed fiction and a serial séance attendee; and Pushkin, whose posthumously prolific ghost possesses a whole chapter in the first section.

 Entertaining as this section was, I found the second part more intriguing, since it unpacks a question close to my own heart: is realist literature foredoomed, by its very nature, to spectralize reality? What Terry Castle, in The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, proposed for Enlightenment culture, Vinitsky argues for the Russian realist novel: that efforts to reconstruct human experience within rational categories inevitably create the opposite of rationality, namely 'a new human experience of strangeness, bafflement, anxiety, and intellectual impasse' (Castle, p. 8). This idea is so fundamentally postmodern that I was surprised by the paucity of critics Vinitsky cites in support; besides Castle, and a cameo from Barthes (the 'reality effect'), his primary source was George Levine's The Realistic Imagination, which explores the intrinsically uncanny quality of mimesis. Less abstractly, Vinitsky also contends that 'realist writers, either consciously or unconsciously, sought in various spiritualist doctrines of their time epistemological models that resonated with their literary practice and ideological intuition and that permitted them to express and explain repressed feelings of metaphysical uncertainty and hope’ (p. xi). He even suggests that realist teleology has an ‘inner kinship’ with spiritualism, since realist fiction aims to 'haunt' the reader through a series of psychological evolutions comparable to the purgatorial progress experienced by ghosts (in religious and Spiritualist doctrine).

Kukryniksy illustration to The Golovlyev Family
These ideas underlie later chapters on Saltykov-Shchedrin's 'realist spiritualism', Dostoevsky's 'ontological realism', and Tolstoy's 'artistic hypnotism'. All three chapters entertain (the discussion of Bobok, and of the Swedish mystic Swedenborg's influence on Dostoevsky's imagination, is engrossing); the discussion of Saltykov-Shchedrin is probably the most challenging. Returning to the reality paradox identified by Castle and Levine, Vinitsky argues that Shchedrin, although fervently opposed to all forms of Spiritualism (all the more so because his father-in-law was a prominent Spiritualist who had translated Allan Kardec into Russian), involuntarily infused his own fiction with spectrality precisely through its remorseless realism. 'Shchedrin’s realistic method led to the spectralization of reality, turning it into a phantom – one that frightened the writer himself. In this sense, Shchedrin’s realism was indicative of the inner conflict of the Russian realist imagination of the 1860s to 1880s, which created an image of Russia as a house haunted by numerous apparitions: nihilists and afflicted peasants; great historical figures and humble little men; the superfluous man and the heroic revolutionary. [...] The paradox of Shchedrin consists in the fact that reason generates nightmares when awake, not asleep' (pp. 107-8, p. 117). Vinitsky defines Shchedrin's phantasmagoria as a product of his characters' intensely lived dreams and visions, and his relentlessly realist depiction of their misery (as in The Golovlyov Family). Instead of evading the Gothic-fantastic, Vinitsky suggests, Shchedrin inaugurated a 'materialist Gothic' whose horrors were enacted within the phenomenal world; its grotesque apparitions and hallucinations had socioeconomic explanations, rather than scientific or mechanical causes (as in Radcliffe's novels). This is an odd argument, and not Vinitsky's strongest; Marxist Gothic scholars would argue that the genre has always belonged 'within, rather than outside, historical reality', just like Shchedrin's Gothic (p.114). Despite some confusion here and elsewhere in Ghostly Paradoxes, I welcome Vinitsky's key argument that dedicated realism creates its own ghosts (elsewhere, he points out that Belinsky borrowed the vocabulary of Gothic Romanticism to criticize its epigones; Socialist Realist critics would repeat Belinsky's trick less than a century later). It's a satisfyingly circular point, and, moreover, not a cheerful one for academic writers. You don't have to write about haunting, or even read Terry Castle, to realize that attempts to intellectualize reality - especially in the form of academic writing - frequently produce the reverse of rationality, or indeed of intelligence. As I sigh over my own manuscript revisions, I'd happily conjure a ghost or two instead. Preferably Pushkin's.

Picture credit for the Kukryniksy image: