Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Nothing but spiders: Bobok in the bathhouse

Russian culture has no shortage of spooks – and I don’t mean Stirlitz. It’s that time of year when we creep into the cobwebby bathhouse with Pushkin’s Tatyana, organize a BYOB barbecue for the local skeletons (Pushkin again – Belkin Tales), or daringly defy vampires (Tolstoy – not the cranky one, but Aleksei Konstantinovich). If you really want to make music with the children of the night, you can hardly do better than reading Dostoevsky: FMD is reliably Gothic and ghastly, if not always ghostly. Never forget that there are actual ghosts in Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov, not a man to stint himself, has two. Both perished in extremely suspicious circumstances: Filka, his manservant, and Marfa Petrovna, his wealthy but querulous wife. My favourite is Filka: ‘“We’d only just buried him and I yelled, absent-mindedly, ‘Filka, my pipe!’ and in he came and walked straight over to the cabinet where I keep my pipes. I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘He’s come to get his own back,' because we’d had an almighty row shortly before he died. ‘How dare you,’ I say, ‘come in here with holes out at your elbows? Get out, you rascal!’ He turned, walked out and never came back.”’
As for ghoulish reflections on the ‘life to come’, Svidrigailov nails it: ‘“What if there’s nothing but spiders there or something like that? […] We’re forever imagining eternity as an idea beyond our understanding, something vast, vast. But why must it be vast? Just imagine what if, instead of all that, there’ll just be some little room, some sooty bath-hut, say, with spiders in every corner, and that’s it, that’s eternity?”’*

It’s always a little difficult to move the conversation on from a question like that, so I propose a sideways dash… into the cemetery, where all is not as you might expect. What happens if the dead, instead of going quietly into that good topsoil, treat the afterlife like a Senior Common Room after the college servants have fetched the port – or, even worse, like a Saturday night outside the kebab shop off the High Street? Dostoevsky’s strange 1873 short story Bobok (which, like most of his late-career shorter work, first appeared in his Diary of a Writer column in the newspaper The Citizen) pictures precisely this scenario: a freelance translator, tired after helping to heft a stranger’s coffin at a funeral, overhears corpses chatting in a graveyard. Their conversation is, to say the least, unedifying: although puzzled by their additional lease of life, they make no bones (ahem) about returning to their mortal preoccupations of lustfulness, gambling, and moral turpitude.

“Tell me first of all how it is we can talk? I've been wondering ever since yesterday. We are dead and yet we are talking and seem to be moving—and yet we are not talking and not moving. What jugglery is this?”
“[…] when we were living on the surface we mistakenly thought that death there was death. The body revives, as it were, here, the remains of life are concentrated, but only in consciousness. I don't know how to express it, but life goes on, as it were, by inertia. […] everything is concentrated somewhere in consciousness and goes on for two or three months ... sometimes even for half a year.... There is one here, for instance, who is almost completely decomposed, but once every six weeks he suddenly utters one word, quite senseless of course, about some bobok, 'Bobok, bobok,' but you see that an imperceptible speck of life is still warm within him."
"It's rather stupid. Well, and how is it I have no sense of smell and yet I feel there's a stench?"
"That ... he-he.... Well, on that point our philosopher is a bit foggy. […] the stench one perceives here is, so to speak, moral—he-he! It's the stench of the soul, he says, that in these two or three months it may have time to recover itself ... and this is, so to speak, the last mercy.... Only, I think, Baron, that these are mystic ravings very excusable in his position...."
"Enough; all the rest of it, I am sure, is nonsense. The great thing is that we have two or three months more of life and then—bobok! I propose to spend these two months as agreeably as possible […]. Gentlemen! I propose to cast aside all shame." [translation by Constance Garnett]

Stranger yet, however, is a widely acclaimed modernist novel by Irish writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay, 1949), which is narrated almost wholly from the perspective of recently buried corpses in a small Connemara graveyard. Episodes of conversation – exposing village scandals, and the cupidity and arrogance of chief mournee Caitríona Pháidín in particular – are interrupted by soliloquies from the mysterious Last Trump (not Donald).

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Am I alive or am I dead? Are these here alive or dead? They’re all giving out as much as they did above ground! I thought that once i was laid in the grave, free from chores and household cares and fear of wind or weather, there’d be some peace in store for me… but why all this squabbling in the graveyard clay?...”
“Who are you? Are you long here? Do you hear me? Don’t be shy. Feel as free here as you would at home. I’m Muraed Phroinsias.”
“For god’s sake! Muraed Proinsias who lived next door to me all my life. I’m Caitríona. Caitríona Pháidín. Do you remember me, Muraed, or do you lose all memory of life here? […]”
“[..] Life’s the same here, Caítriona, as it was in the ‘ould country’, except that all we see is the grave we’re in and we can’t leave the coffin. You won’t hear the living either, or know what’s happening to them, apart from what the newly buried dead will tell you. But we’re neighbours once again, Caitríona.”

Fittingly for such a polyphonic novel, Cré na Cille can be enjoyed in either or both of two recent translations (from Irish; the one quoted above is by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson). Did Ó Cadhain crib the plot of his best-known work directly from Dostoevsky? Some degree of influence is probable, as Ó Cadhain was a reader of Russian literature and even a scholar of the language; but he claimed that he was inspired with the idea for Cré na Cille when digging up an actual graveyard during his internment in the 1940s. The plot, or indeed crypt, thickens  even further when we get to the publication of Aleksandr Sharov’s The Death and Resurrection of A.M. Butov (1984). Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the name of Vladimir Sharov, the late and great historian and novelist. Skilled and insightful as he was, Vladimir Sharov no doubt owed his Soviet-intellectual pass to the fact that he was the son of Aleksandr Sharov, born Asher Israelievich Nurenberg (1909-1984), a bibulous but none the less brilliant writer and journalist. Much of Sharov père’s works belong to the genres of children’s literature or popular science (he was, briefly, a student of the geneticist Nikolai Kol’tsov, who was reimagined as a kind of Russian Dr Frankenstein in Bulgakov’s 1925 novella Heart of a Dog), but this late novel – completed in the year of the author’s death – is a serious study of the consequences of dying, but not going away. Effectively extinct, but still conscious, Butov revisits his typical Soviet life – and its moral and emotional consequences.

Butov was lying in the newly opened Second Municipal Cemetery of the town of T, which was then simply known as “The New Cemetery”. There were still very few deceased there, and there was no-one at all near Butov’s plot. This plot of his had been temporarily marked out with a string draped between four slender poles.
The plot was square and fairly spacious […]. Farther off, on all sides, were more squares of the same sort, all marked out with string and poles. Only one of them boasted a tall black cross erected on a stone plinth. Beyond lay more flat ground, narrow little paths between the plots, which were half-swamped in water, with a greyish-brown plank fence on the horizon. It was an unattractive place – no doubt why it had been selected as a cemetery.
“And rightly so,” he thought, feebly.
His thoughts revolved dully, heavily, as they do in the gap between swallowing a sleeping pill and falling asleep. He had been in this condition steadily and unchangingly since the awful pain in his heart had suddenly broken off and Butov had thought at first, “Well, that’s good!”, but he had not felt glad and, in the absence of gladness – and of sorrow too – he guessed:
“Well, I’ve died, met my Maker, as they say.”
[…]The damp was not seeping into his coffin. The well-fitted planks smelled dryly of resin. […] All the time, he was thinking about one thing or another, without the slightest gap, but differently, than before; if a cheerful thought entered his head, he felt no cheer; if something sorrowful, the sorrow stayed away. Thinking like this was unusual and exhausting. “It’s all because I’ve died,” Butov reasoned. “I wonder, how long will this go on? For eternity? How terrifying, if it lasts for eternity.”
[my translation; Смерть и воскрешение А. М. Бутова is available on Amazon Kindle in Russian].

I’ll let you know what happens next, as I haven’t finished reading Aleksandr Sharov’s novel; suffice it to say that while I’m sure Sharov Sr had read Bobok, he definitely wasn’t plagiarizing Cré na Cille, all superficial similarities aside. Now that would be spooky.

In other news: while sights like this one
still terrify me, Halloween has lost its horror since Brexit was postponed yet again. In fact, instead of trick-or-treating, I’ll be speaking about Alisa Ganieva and Guzel’ Yakhina and their brilliant translators Carol Apollonio and Lisa C. Hayden (respectively) at the Institute for Modern Languages Research-funded conference Translating Women: Breaking Borders and Building Bridges in the English-Language Book Industry” in London on 31st October and November 1st. I recently joined Twitter (twitterati can follow me at @RussianLitDino) and I hope to live-tweet part of the conference (#TWconf19, #WIT). Do tune in for a prehistoric perspective on trending translations.

*Both quotations are from Oliver Ready’s 2015 Penguin Classics translation of Crime and Punishment.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Oblivion and Immortality

Preserved from the passage of time, unaware of changing epochs, facing traumatic re-entry into a profoundly altered world - no, it's not the story of my life as an extinct vertebrate, it's a trope of post-Communist culture. The book that inspired this post, Olga Slavnikova's 2001 Bessmertnyi (or The Immortal), was released this year in Columbia University Press' Russian Library series as The Man Who Couldn't Die, translated by Marian Schwartz.

The Man Who Couldn't Die begins as the story of a decorated World War II veteran, Alexei Kharitonov, now ancient, speechless and almost completely paralyzed, whose pension is all that keeps his family above the poverty line in post-Soviet Russia. His lonely wife and ambitious stepdaughter (a TV journalist) connive to maintain an artificial "Red Corner" in their apartment to delude the sick man that the Soviet era never ended, complete down to a framed picture of Brezhnev on the wall; for fourteen years, they read aloud to him from heavily edited newspapers and present doctored videos as real-time television news. Only the doctor and the "benefits rep", an energetically dreadful woman whose job it is to check that invalids and pensioners are still eligible for government payments, ever visit the Kharitonovs' flat, so the illusion survives indefinitely. Until one afternoon, Kharitonov's wife discovers that her husband, who in wartime expertly deployed a silken noose to kill fascists, is now indefatigably, stubbornly using his one mobile hand to steal and stockpile strings, ties, belts and anything else he can filch, hide, and gradually twitch and knot into a noose to throttle himself.

"It turned out that Alexei Afanasievich had always been the creator and center of Soviet reality, which he'd managed to hold onto a little longer; and now this reality, squeezed to the size of their standard-issue living space, retained its permanence, inasmuch as its pillar had not disappeared; on the contrary, it was trapped along with all its medals glowing in their boxes [...]. Now, though, the veteran, who had turned into a body, into the horizontal content if a high trophy bed, had suddenly declared war on his own immortality."

Alexei's wife respects him even more for the dignity and fixity of purpose he brings to his sustained, if ineffectual, suicide attempts; after all, he has no idea that in killing himself, he would also destroy his family's only reliable source of income. The Man Who Couldn't Die is intense, claustrophobic, bitterly funny, and of course ironic: the bodily claustrophobia of Alexei's existence is echoed most closely not by the Soviet era or its afterlife in the family's Red Corner, but by the corruption and chaos of New Russia - which eventually spills over into the Kharitonovs' apartment.

The conceit of an elderly person trapped in an artificial chronotope (like Alexei Kharitonov surrounded by his medals) reminds most people of the film Goodbye, Lenin (2003), where a sick woman's children try to protect her from a potentially fatal shock by pretending that the Berlin Wall never came down. Indeed, according to Mark Lipovetsky's Introduction to The Man Who Couldn't Die, Slavnikova felt that the makers of the film had plagiarized her idea. Another post-Communist author to use a similar trope is José Eduardo Agualusa, whose 2013 novel about an Angolan woman who walls herself up on the roof of an apartment building was published in Daniel Hahn's translation (from the Portuguese) in 2015 as A General Theory of Oblivion. (The book famously won the 2017 Dublin IMPAC prize, at the time the most lucrative award in literary translation).  Having bricked herself up on the roof terrace at the first sign of civil unrest, Portuguese expat Ludo survives for twenty-eight years on a diet of tinned food, captured birds, and frankly inappropriate substances, overlooking civil war and family tragedy in Angola's capital - until an orphan boy discovers her refuge and gradually brings her back to the world, and her surviving family. The story has a surprisingly happy ending - even if The Man Who Couldn't Die has the edge on catharsis. Can any of my readers recommend similar books on individuals brought back to real life after a long period of trance, delusion, or hibernation? No Jurassic Park jokes, please.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Dostoevsky: a ridiculous thing

My fellow (non-saurian) blogger Languagehat wrote an interesting but critical post about Dostoevsky's The Adolescent (1875) earlier this week. Here he calls it 'one of the most annoying novels I’ve ever read', drawing attention to its 'unreliable narrator' and 'ridiculous' adolescent style, including 'endless coincidences, overhearings, [and] surprise encounters'.
One of my avatars has penned a much more sympathetic review of Dora O'Brien's recent translation of The Adolescent which, if you are a TLS subscriber, you can read here. (If you're not, you can be tantalized by the first paragraph). Clearly, Languagehat and I have divergent views on the book that I call 'understandably, if undeservedly, the least read of Dostoevsky's mature novels'. His blog post concludes meditatively, 'I can’t help but wonder what Dostoevsky’s reputation would have been if he had died just after publishing this, never having written the Writer’s Diary or The Brothers Karamazov — I suspect he’d be remembered as a very fine writer like Turgenev rather than Tolstoy’s equal and rival. Fortunately, he survived and triumphed.'
This notion of the incomplete obituary – what we might say about great writers if they had died before writing their legacy works – returned to my mind the following day when I opened a volume of the Argentine author Ernesto Sabato’s essays. I was chasing a particular essay by Sabato, “La Resistencia” (“Resistance”), which is quoted by contemporary novelist Julian Fuks as the epigram to his novel Resistance, which in turn, as a narrative of troubled metafictional fraternity, can be traced back to Dostoevsky through Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and The Brothers Karamazov. I couldn’t find Sabato’s “Resistance” but I did find, in a charming anthology of tiny essays from 1971 called El Escritor i sus fantasmas, a piece called “Dostoievsky juzgado por contemporaneous” (“Dostoevsky judged by his contemporaries”). Here, Sabato picks up Dostoevsky’s career in the late 1840s, around the time of publication of The Double. Having briefly been the toast of St Petersburg literary society for Poor Folk, Dostoevsky's star has fallen. His peers mock his appearance, his style, his pride. Turgenev and Nekrasov cruelly co-write a stinging stanza, which I give in Sabato’s witty Spanish version (the original knight, after all, was also Spanish):

Caballero de la triste figura
Dostoievsky, mi querido fanfarrón,
Sobre la nariz de la literatura,
No eres más que una leve erupción.
Sabato goes on:
'The addressee of these lines lost confidence in his genius; many of the pages of The Double, which he was writing, seemed to him ridiculous, superficial, useless. He was living in a kind of hell (un infierno). He had lost the euphoria of that time so near and so far away when Belinsky had lauded him to the skies. He heard laughter all around him; he mistrusted the smiles of his circle (capilla). Three years after the memorable night when Belinsky and Nekrasov had wept at the reading of Poor Folk, he was a broken man (un hombre terminado). He was saved from either madness or suicide by (paradoxically) prison. Buried alive (Enterrado en vida), he found the opportunity to reflect on the vanity of all things. While he was still sealed up in Siberia, forgotten, one of the individuals who had been part of his circle, a certain Panaev, remarked: “We were on the point of being besotted with one of the little idols of the day. We showed him off in the streets of the capital, we trumpeted his glory everywhere. Eventually he lost his way. He was immediately abandoned by all of us. Poor man! We destroyed him (Lo hemos aniquilado), we turned him into a ridiculous thing.'"

Imagine if Dostoevsky really had stopped with Poor Folk and The Double, stifled by Siberia, suicide, or both. Would we remember him today as a footnote to Gogol, a minor literary figure (like Ivan Panaev himself), a “ridiculous thing”?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky returned and rebuilt his life and reputation, writing The Adolescent… and one or two other novels.