Monday, April 7, 2014

Proust's Search for lost Time: Pt. I

I've managed to get through the first part (entitled Swann's Way) of French author Marcel Proust's (1871-1922)  7-part epic In Search of Lost Time. Published between 1913 and 1927, The Search has since been cited as among the best works of literature of the 20th Century. Nabokov, on whom Proust had an undeniable influence, placed the first half of Lost Time along side Joyce's, Bely's and Kafka's best. It was also one of the subjects of Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. This is not at all surprising, given the immense beauty and profundity of the work.

Nabokov famously described The Search in his Lectures as, "The transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotions such as desire, jealousy and artistic euphoria -- this is the material of the enormous and yet singularly light and translucid work." Which I probably agree with. The text as a whole does have a certain lightness despite its length and rather "heavy" subject matter.

Delauze, moreover, in his rather brilliant Proust & Signs (1972) curiously characterized Lost Time as, "a prophesy about the sexes, a political warning that reaches us from the depths of the Dreyfus Affair and the First World War, a cryptogram that decodes and recodes all our social, diplomatic, strategic, erotic, and aesthetic languages… a metaphysical treatise, a delirium of signs or of jealousy, an exercise in training the faculties."

For Deleaze, Lost Time was essentially an experimentation in the interpretation, through the complex mechanism of memory (in all its various permutations, see for example involuntary memory), of signs -- that is, gestures, sensations, loves, works of art -- which are released by the various objects of the novel.

We note that for Deleaze the genius of The Search is not only its ability to appropriate meaning to a specific object in a particularly original or profound way, but that its author invites the reader to take part in this process themselves. That is, of deciphering meaning, interpreting signs, uncovering truth. In the words of Deleaze, the text, taking on the form of a 'literary machine', is productive, self-sufficient.

Yes, Deleaze's ideas are as always very "curious," but his Signs have served as a useful guide for The Search, at least for me. For a more textual, formalistic approach to Proust (for example his use of the double metaphor) see Nabokov's Lectures.

Thematically if not also ascetically then we are faced broadly speaking with the interaction of time and memory in the search of truth, meaning, essence.

Which leads us to briefly to account for the narrative: divided into three unequal parts, the middle -- a love affair between a stylish, monocle-wearing aristocratic named M Swann and a somewhat devious yet 'well- kept' ex-courtesan called Odette (the future Mme Swann) -- takes up the bulk. The beginning and end retrace the narrator's childhood in a Parisian suburb called Combray, where the narrator's anticipation of his Mother's good-night kiss famously torments him (a foreglimpse of Swann's desperate affair with Odette) and he is introduced to one of his future love interests, the Swanns' daughter Gilberte, among other things.

Note: 'Swann's Way' (a.k.a. the 'Meseglise Way'), besides being the title of the novel, is an allusion to one of two routes, the other being the 'Guermantes Way,' which the narrator and his family take during their walks in the idyllic Parisian countryside, where the narrator first comes into contact with Gilberte.

Suffice it to say that, despite its rather slow start, long, rambling sentences, obscure metaphors and sentimentality bordering on over-the-top, Swann's Way lives up to its lofty expectation. It's fantastically written, rich in metaphors and flows expertly -- one might say geniusly even -- between narrative, dialogue and authorial asides on the nature of art and meaning of life.
It's also exceedingly (Post)modern in its preoccupation with pluralities, multiplicities, fragmentations (reality is fantastically sliced and diced by the author) and its exploration of the problem of part and whole, making up some of the most alluring passages of the novel:

For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity...

Moreover, the jelousy-filled love affair between Swann and Odette provides enough suspense and intrigue to keep the reader engaged. In short, Swann's Way is probably the richest, artistically satisfying and philosophically deep novels I've read since Anna Karenina. And despite being only a part, and a rather insignificant one at that, in a series, certainly stands on its own. Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: Beckett's Trilogy

Between 1950 and '53 Irish, avant-guarde novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-'89) published three novels, first in French and then in English, which have since come to be regarded, even celebrated, at least in academia, as serious and important works of mid-20th Century prose and the philosophy of language. Beckett thus combined a masterful command of English with a preoccupation with the problem of language -- the disjointed nature of the 'Trilogy's' narratives, lending naturally it would seem to a postmodernist interpretation of the work, appear to reflect this problem.

The deranged, disabled, antisocial protagonists who populate the pages of Beckett's 'Trilogy' serve not only to vivify the author's own rather perverse ideas about the nature of humanity, but also as a device for his deep skepticism of language as a conveyer of how we perceive the world in and around us. Such skepticism was influenced by what would later be referred to as the poststructuralist/postmodernist movement, to which Beckett was exposed during his university years in Dublin and his travels throughout Europe.

Beckett was also influenced by the work of Joyce, with whom he was close friends, as well as Proust.

The first book of the 'Trilogy' is called Molloy. It is composed in two very different parts in terms of style and content, yet nevertheless intertwined. Malloy Pt. I recounts the wanderings of a mad, handicapped drifter, Molloy, who is ostensibly in search of his mother. Malloy Pt. II tells the story of a pedantic, overbearing detective, Moran, who is commissioned to track down Malloy and comes to strangely resemble him in the process.

Malone Dies is the title of the second book of the 'Trilogy'. Like Malloy I it is written as a rambling monologue with scant use of paragraphs. In Malone Dies, the disabled protagonist, Malone, lays 'decomposing' in bed in a home for the sick, waiting for his inevitable demise. To take up the time he sets himself the task of composing an 'inventory' of all his possessions and tells a story, which may or may not be autobiographical, about an inept man called Sapo (later referred to as Macmann), as well as a rather perverse love affair Macmann had with his ex-caretaker, Mol, who was later replaced by the man who would eventually kill him (though we don't exactly know who "him" is) at the end of the book, Lemuel.

The Unnamable, the last book of Beckett's 'Trilogy', is an internal monologue composed of two characters, one called Mahood, who rather unprecedentedly takes the form of a head in a glass jar, and the other -- Worm. Between the two, the narrator attempts (hopelessly in his view) to give meaning to his existence within the confines of language, which according to him is completely alien to his being. A struggle for a kind of 'silence', that is, a space free from the multiplicity of 'voices', which force themselves upon the narrator, thus ensues, dominating the latter half of the narrative.

Beckett's 'Trilogy' naturally eludes interpretation. There is very little consensus as to Beckett's overarching theme among writers on the topic. The most successful interpretations seem to view Beckett's characters through the prism of what Gilles Deleuze, a foremost practitioner of postmodernism and admirer of Beckett, called the 'deterritorialization' of the self or the 'decomposition' of the "I". That is, his characters' disassemblage of the various components, which make up their personhood: their name, their residence, their memories, their physicality, even their sexuality. In this, they find a kind of liberation from the constraints placed on them by those multiplicities of voices the narrator spoke of in The Unnamable. This process seems to be largely facilitated semantically, in what Deleuze termed the 'exhaustion' of language. But by now we're getting into vast, uncharted waters.

Suffice it to say that Beckett's 'Trilogy' is bleak, unprecedentedly absurd (at times even grotesquely so) and deeply skeptical of anything ascertainable: Malloy desperately seeks the best possible order in which to disperse his 'sucking stones' between his pockets to maximize the chances of picking out a fresh one; Malloy glides in the forest on his belly like a reptile in search of his mother; Moran's insistence on his son's knocking before entering his bedroom are predicated less on his zeal for decor than his fear of being caught masturbating 'with yawning fly and starting eyes, toiling to scatter on the ground his joyless seed'; Malone's (or was it Macmann's?) love-making with his decrepit lover, Mol, is graphically detailed.

Beckett is after all very quotable. A few of my own favorites:

'…a thin red mouth that looked as if it was raw from trying to shit its tongue' (Molloy).

'Nothing is more real than nothing' (Molloy).

'The end of life is alway vivifying' (Malone Dies).

'Great calm is an exaggeration' (Malone Dies).

'Confusion is better avoided, pending the great confounding' (The Unnamable).

I would not recommend the Beckett 'Trilogy' for casual readers, but it might prove worthwhile to those who are interested in and familiar with postmodernism in literature, as Beckett's 'Trilogy' is generally acknowledged as an important precursor. For those interested yet still unacquainted with Beckett the best place to start would probably be his play Waiting for Godot (1953). The Beckett 'Trilogy' is fairly heavy-handed, at times rather frustrating, bordering on unreadable, given its rambling, fragmented, contradictory structure, especially in The Unnamable. Nevertheless, Beckett's 'Trilogy' is an original, even unprecedented, work of fiction that demands further study.

Friday, July 26, 2013

MGIMO: Second semester

Second semester course load: Russian Civil Law (3 hrs per week), Constitutional Law of Russia (3 hrs per week), Administrative Law (3 hrs per week), History of Political and Legal Thinkers (3 hrs per week), Philosophy of Law (1.5 hrs per week), Methodology of Law (1.5 hrs per week.

Although the course load was heavier this semester compared to the last, things generally went much smoother; this being a a result of the combination of the increase in my familiarity with the subject matter and language as well as the ability to work around the system.

The most fascinating subjects from an academic point of view were Constitutional Law of Russia (for which I wrote a course paper) and History of Political and Legal Thinkers. The former gave me what I think is a very nuanced understanding of Russian federalism; see, for example, an excerpt from my course paper below (translated from Russian):

After the fall of the USSR, Russia became a federation not only in name, but also in fact. Russia’s over 20 multinational republics were incorporated into a federal system of governance, along with its almost 70 other territorial units, and delegated a significant degree of regional as well as national (in the case of its republics) autonomy. Moreover, in order to accommodate the diverse national and regional interests of Russia’s almost 90 territorial units during a period of widespread political instability and chaos, a series of so-called bilateral treaties were signed between the federal government and the regions, asymmetrically delineating the separate spheres of legal authority between the two. Yet such treaties were passed largely outside of constitutional norms and independent of judicial oversight, posing a serious threat not only to the development of the rule of law, but also the sovereignty of the federal government.  
The following study questions the above assertion, which is widely held among Russian as well as English writers on the topic, in the hope of showing that despite the alleged erosion of constitutionalism and sovereignty of the federal government effected by the passage of bilateral treaties, such treaties were nevertheless the only reliable mechanism for the realization of the diverse national and regional interests of Russia’s subjects; and that with the eventual nullification of the bilateral treaties by the federal government, and corresponding consolidation of federal control over the regions, a new federalism was borne that provided no reliable institutional checks on the expansion of the center, risking a return to a Soviet-style unitary state.

History of Political and Legal Thinkers mostly rehashed ideas I familiarized myself with in university, but which were (and still are) nevertheless very interesting. I read some very high-quality summaries on the political and legal thought of Plato, Aristotle, More, Machiavelli, Grotius and Hobbes, by one of the giants of 19th-Century Russian jurisprudence B. N. Chicherin, who was himself one of the topics of the course. I will refer to him later down the road once I get around to getting to grips with Hegelian conceptions of law (also a course topic).

Administrative Law, although at times a bit dry, especially discussion about administrative procedural norms and the seemingly endless array of normative legal acts, compounded my understanding of one salient feature of Russia's political system: control of Russia's administrative system is split between the President, who controls the so-called 'power structures' -- defense, justice, international affairs, etc -- and the Prime Minister, who controls the rest: finance, health education, etc.

Russia is a so-called 'civil law' country, which basically means civil relations are centralized under a single system, which is applied throughout the entire country, in the form of a civil code. Our first course on Russian civil law was introductory and therefore very general. The topics included: natural persons, legal persons, intellectual rights, contracts, etc. The course was lecture-based with intermittent seminars, which involved attempting to solve by way of the Russian civil code various civil disputes. Unfortunately, this was not a very effective method, at least for me, as Russia's civil code follows its own logic, making it very difficult to interpret and subsequently apply its over 1000 articles. I think it would have been more worthwhile to interpret various decisions by the Russian Supreme Court, which certainly wasn't beyond my power to do individually had it not been for time constraints.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: Andrei Bely's Petersburg

A child of the intelligentsia, Andrei Bely (1880-1934) sought not only through scholarship, but also poetry and prose, to expound new artistic ideals based on the Russian Symbolist movement, which touted a return to an ostensible yet eternal past in the face of a decaying Western culture; rejected the narrow logic of materialism and utilitarianism; dabbled in Russian Orthodox-ism and cultural messianism; and foretold a coming apocalypse. Themes which are all touched on in Petersburg.

Aesthetically, Russian Symbolism emphasized the emotional effect symbols, not just as a metaphor for something else, but also the subconscious link they have with the reader: 'Symbolism is the poetry of suggestion, designed to create a mood and awaken a response by means of coded references to exotic subjects and associative thinking', wrote Valery Bryusov, an early practitioner of Russian Symbolism.

Symbolism thus positioned itself as a wholly new and independent literary movement -- that is, an avant garde one -- in so far as it presented an encompassing philosophy and worldview and was experimental in form.

Published in 1916, Bely's Petersburg, was largely written off by the Russian literary establishment for its restless, disjointed plot structure and obscure references; for these same reasons, it subsequently garnered much attention and praise in academia. Nabokov, moreover, put it on par with the best Joyce, Kafka and Proust had to offer, helping cement its status as a 20th Century prose masterpiece.

Petersburg is largely inaccessible to the casual reader, though. There is also the problem of translation, given Bely's propensity for wordplay. I got hold of the latest translation of the novel by John Elsworth, and while it is mostly readable, there are many passages that are completely lost. One involves a fascinating discussion on the absence of the Russian "ы" sound (that is roughly speaking "ее", as in "feet"; though no exact English equivalent exists) in the phonology of the 'civilized' nations of Europe.

Despite its complexity however, there are a few interpretive approaches that might help anchor the reader as they make their way through an admittedly arduous text. One is viewing it within the context of Russia's place between West and East. Bely presents Russia as an inherently Asiatic culture that was artificially Europeanized, for which the city of Petersburg stands as a monumental symbol.

Another way of understanding the novel is as a play on consciousness. The interplay, merging even, of physical reality, consciousness and subconsciousness in and between the various characters make up some of the most alluring passages in the novel, forming the aesthetic plane over which the plot meticulously unfolds. For Bely, thoughts think themselves, consciousness 'expands, ехpands, expands', dreams represent an astral journey.

Lastly, we might view Bely's novel within the larger context of Russian lit. Bely begins each chapter by quoting Pushkin; his characters are absurd to Gogolian proportions; the setting itself, Petersburg, has a surreal quality, in keeping with the mythology of the old capital. We might add to the list the sense of Russia's impending collapse at the hands of orientals that was popular in the literature of the period; the metaphor of the Mongol invasion of Russia is prevalent throughout Petersburg.

Those searching for political and/or social commentary will be somewhat disappointed, though the ideology of political terrorism is curiously summarized at one point in the text:
the era of historically outlived humanism was at an end, and all cultural history stood before us now like an eroded ruin: a period of healthy bestialism was beginning (hooliganism, the riotous behavior of the apaches)… [they] advocated the burning of libraries, universities, and museums [and] the summoning of the Mongols. 
Despite the fact that the plot revolves around a brainy social misfit's attempt at killing his father, a high-ranking government official, with a bomb given to him by a terrorist group, and its setting is a Petersburg amidst political revolution, the novel is mostly apolitical. In fact, you'll find just as much if not more attention paid to the complexities and tumults of familial relations. The novel's most touching and beautiful passage involves a poetic description of the faint cry of cranes flying over Petersburg as a metaphor for recalling one's childhood.

Which ultimately make Petersburg such a frustrating read -- none of the novel's themes are developed to the extent as to unite it under a single idea, philosophy, worldview, things which in Petersburg are always fleeting or contradictory. For some it wouldn't be going too far out on a limb to say that this was taken into account by Bely; that the text's fragmented structure is a reflection of the divided, multiplicitous nature of our existence, which take on many different forms in Petersburg (here we see yet another interpretive fold). But not for me.

Nevertheless, Petersburg is probably a worthwhile read for most interested in all things Russian, especially those with post-modern tastes.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Back to school: MGIMO

Symbol of University and
"International Law Faculty"
written below
You learn a lot about a culture by experiencing its educational system -- in my case, it's system of higher education --

Uni: Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)
Faculty: International Law
Program: Masters in International Law (3yrs)
First semester classes (Sept-Dec): Roman Law (3hrs per week), History of Russian State and Law (3hrs per week), History of State and Law of Foreign Countries (3hrs per week), Theory of State and Law (3hrs per week)

First, a bit about the University. I originally looked in to going to Moscow State University (MGU), the biggest, most well-known university in the country, whose campus occupies the Stalinist skyscraper sitting atop Sparrow Hills overlooking Moscow, but an acquaintance of mine directed me toward MGIMO upon hearing my plans. MGIMO is smaller and more focused than MGU, from which it broke off in the years leading up to the end of WWII to train specialists in foreign affairs. To this effect, it was used as a kind of feeder program to the KGB. Today, it's prestige has wained -- more a result, I suppose, of the general decline of the educational system in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, than anything else. Nevertheless, despite it's lack of international recognition (it's ranked in the 400s) -- and which, to its defense, is mainly due to the fact a big majority of the university's publications are in Russian, not English -- there are many in the country, who regard it "the best" in Russia, at least as far as international studies are concerned.

Main entrance to MGIMO campus on Prospekt Vernadskogo
For me, it makes sense because it's in Moscow, where I live and work, it's cheaper than American law schools, MUCH CHEAPER, and should open up some interesting opportunities here in Moscow, where I want to continue to live and work, IF I manage to meet the requirements of the Program. Plus, believe it or not, Russian government and law is a field I'm more or less interested in.

I'll spare the reader a detailed description of the application process, which was done within a 3-month period last summer. Shortly speaking, it was relatively easy and involved submission of my transcripts and an english test, which was obviously waived in my case. The only hurdle I met was getting my American diploma confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Education, involving a lot of paperwork and translating. Suffice to say, the program accepted about 20 students, 17 of which were young women.

Me in class
Classes started in the middle of September --  for me Monday and Wednesday from 4:00pm to 10pm, though the other students had an extra 6hrs a week of legal english on Tuesday and Thursday. Classes were lecture-based with intermittent seminars and only recommended supplementary literature, no assigned readings, meaning taking notes was of foremost importance. This was difficult for me, given my level of Russian, and the first half of the semester I understood very little of what was said by the professor, especially in Roman Law and History of State and Law of Russia. But my comprehension skills eventually improved and by the end of the course I understood almost everything, but was still unable to take notes effectively in class. Thankfully, my classmates sent me their own upon request, and it didn't end up being a big problem.

Unfortunately, the class structure was poorly organized compared to American universities, where the syllabus and in most cases lecture notes are posted online by the professor. Professors were also relatively inaccessible outside of lectures -- office hours and in most cases even contact info were not made known to the students. Indeed, we were only told our schedule and exactly which courses we were taking a week or so before the start of the course! However, while the university lacks organization compared to American universities, the general quality and professionalism of the professors was very high, especially my professors for Roman Law, Alexander Kopylov, and History of Russian State and Law, Konstantin Karpenko. It's also worth noting that the staff of the faculty are also very helpful.

The classes were also generally quite interesting. Roman Law was extremely interesting,  as well as History of State and Law of Russa, covering the whole of Russian history from Kievan Rus' to the Soviet Union --  learning old Russian legal terms was fun in a bookish sort of way. I also got a lot out of my term paper -- a 30-pager in Russian -- on Russian Federalism, which is a fascinating, truly complex and challenging topic. I hope to rewrite it in English, as the Russian version is of admittedly of poor quality, given the time constraint and language barrier, and subsequently submit it to a few academic journals.

Lastly, a bit about the exams, a very nerve-wracking experience for me, as the format was entirely new to me. Exams in Russia involve a list of questions, in our case anywhere from 50-80, distributed to students a month or so before the exam. On exam day, which Russians call "session", students gather nervously around the auditorium and enter five or so at a time. Students subsequently draw "tickets", on which are written two questions. Students have about 30min to prepare answers, after which they are dictated ORALLY to the professor. After this, the professor asks additional questions, in many cases, questions completely unrelated to those written on the ticket. The oral part of the exam lasts about 5-10 minutes.

A test, not an exam; "don't copy" written on the board
I was surprised to discover that some Russian students invariably  copy their answers from their mobile devices during the preparation part of the exam, and in many cases, right in front of the professors! Moreover, this is often apparent to the professors, who as a result, ask more difficult questions and in some cases relate very rudely to the student. Nevertheless, this type of behavior is more or less accepted, by students and professors, alike. For example, a student who is passively detected copying by the professor, but answers the additional questions correctly (after dictating their copied ones) can expect a high score. On the other hand, a student who is assumed by the professor as not copying -- either out of laziness or in very rare cases, a sense of honesty, fairness and respect for themselves and their professor  -- can, at least in the latter case, expect a high score even without answering their prepared questions fully. The professor's overall impression of the student from classes and seminars also plays a role in this. In other words, it's all very subjective (but when isn't it?), and a few students invariably leave sessions with a profound sense of injustice and disillusionment (but when don't they?). This, fortunately, was not the case for me -- I more or less "deserved" every score I received from the professors. It's also worth noting that students have a right to one retake of their exam in cases of perceived "injustice" or failing to pass.

Second Semester Classes (Feb-May): Philosophy of Law, History of the Methodology of Legal Sciences, History of Political Studies, Civil Law, Administrative Law, Constitutional Law of Russia

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

From exile in Riga: a review of Part I of Gogol's Dead Souls

It has been claimed that among 19th-Century Russia's many major and minor literary accomplishments, three stand out above all: Pushkin's Evgeny Onegin ('25), Gogol's Dead Souls ('42) and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ('73). Gogol's is the only one of the troika I have not read until now.

I have come across an older English translation of Dead Souls by a Bostonian academic, Isabel F. Hapgood (1851-1928), though unfortunately not the latest Donald Rayfield version. To her credit, Hapgood wrote numerously and expansively on Russian lit and even took a trip to the country where she met Tolstoy, depicted in her otherwise rather trivial Russian Ramblings.

But what of Gogol (1809-1852) himself? Born and raised in Ukraine of the minor gentry, he moved to Saint Petersburg at the age of 19 in search of literary fame, achieving it shortly after, writing a collection of short stories on his homeland. There he met Pushkin, who gave him the premise for Dead Souls and was written about in the major literary journals before he left for Europe in 1836, where he lived in between short, cumbersome stays in Russia until 1848. During this period, Gogol published his most important works -- The Govt. Inspector ('36), Dead Souls and The Overcoat ('42) -- which cemented his status as champion of Russian prose and satirist of unmistakable insight and wit.

Some, perhaps mistakenly, have viewed Gogol's work generally and Dead Souls in particular, through the prism of the author's critique of the poshlost' (a kind of vulgar banalism) of Russian officialdom; and his artform as an important precursor to that giant Russian mid 19th-Century literary movement that occupies the title Realism. While this may be the case, these are not the most interesting things going on in Gogol land; instead, they are his demonic yet enchanting portrait of Russia and the absurd cast of caricatures and situations he employs.

The plot is simple enough: a middling chinovnik (civil servant) and aspiring pomeshchik (landowner), Chichikov, travels to a Russian town seeking to purchase dead serfs from its inhabitants, so that he can take out a mortgage against them (as they are, according to Russian custom, not immediately removed from the census postmortem and therefore still "legal" subjects). Through this, Chichikov, the very embodiment of poshlost', is confronted by a host of deranged landowners, as he goes about his business.

There is much in this alone for even the most superficial reader to gnaw on: from the Russian provincialisms -- aloof landlords and lazy serfs, traditional Russian cuisine detailed painstakingly, extravagant balls, self-assured bureaucrats -- to the author's own musings on Russianness as well as humanity itself. And this is not done without a sense of irony, either. Indeed, it is not for nothing Dead Souls has been described as the funniest Russian novel of the Century: "a large three-storey building of stone [that is, the provincial courthouse], and all white as chalk, in allusion, probably, to the purity of soul of the public offices which were lodged within it" [Hapgood translation].

Yet Gogol doesn't just present an indictment of Russia in Dead Souls, but also a skewed sort of celebration of it, elevated to poetic heights by the beauty and lyricism of his prose:
As he [Chichikov] drove up to the porch [of the Sobakavich Estate] he noticed two faces that appeared at the window almost at the same time: a woman's in a cap, thin, long, like a cucumber, and a man's, round, broad, like Moldavian pumpkins, called 'gorlyankami', from which they make Russian balalaikas, two-stringed, light balalaikas, the adornment and delight of a twenty year-old country fellow, playfully winking and whistling at white-chested white-necked gals, gathered round to hear the delicate twang of his string [my translation].
Out of nowhere, Gogol releases rather ecstatically this running metaphor, depicting not only the the obscene Sobakaviches, but also a glorious Russian provincial scene. This, moreover, is an example of what Nabokov described as, "the remarkable phenomenon [in Gogol] of mere forms of speech directly giving rise to live creatures". Such 'lyrical outbursts', as Nabokov called them, as well as the 'creatures' that punctuate them, give the text an eerie, otherworldly quality, which mirrors that of thоsе dead souls, whose presence is felt throughout, either through Chichikov's business dealings or in his contemplations on what kinds of lives they may have once led (which take up some of the most interesting moments of the novel).

But let's not spend too much time on Chichikov's dead souls, themselves, however fantastic a device through which they allow the author to develop his protagonist they may be. Because Gogol has also touched on one of those eternal aspects of the "Russian condition". That is, the repulsion, yet at the same time edification, that Russia seems to produce within her subjects. Of course, Chichikov, at least in Part I of Dead Souls, is an extreme example of the former.

Chichikov is not only a repulsive character himself, 'a hole in humanity', as Gogol put it, but also repulsed by his surroundings. Indeed, his Russia is drab, drunken and run-down, full of corruption and injustice. And he blames this, despite the hopelessness of his plan and the half-assed manor in which he carries it out, for his failures. Yet Chichikov seems also to be drawn, even enlivened, by his perverse existence:
Rus! Rus! I see you from my lovely enchanted remoteness I see you: a country of dinginess and bleakness and dispersal... nothing in you can charm and seduce the eye. So what is the incomprehensible secret force driving me towards you? Why do I constantly hear the echo of your mournful song as it is carried from sea to sea throughout your entire expanse? Tell me the secret of your song. What is this, calling and sobbing and plucking at my heart? What are these sounds that are both a stab and a kiss, why do they come rushing into my soul and fluttering about my heart? Rus! Tell me what you want of me! What is the strange bond secretly uniting us? Why do you look at me thus, and why has everything you contain turned upon me eyes full of expectancy [Nabokov translation]?
This, anyways, was where Gogol planned to take his protagonist in Part II of Dead Souls. That is, to redeem him according to peculiarly Russian notions of humanity, things we see only glimpses of in Part I. Gogol was plagued into his later years by this very question: how to produce revelation and ultimately redemption within a character where such things in the reality in which he lives are always fleeting, if not wholly illusory, confined and abstracted to those 'lyrical outbursts', Nabokov spoke of. And for this reason, Gogol was never able to meaningfully, much less artistically, reconcile his protagonist along these lines.

As it stands, however, the uncompromising and poetic Part I of Dead Souls, with its biting social satire and wit, colorful descriptions of Russian provincial life and аn abundance of Gogolian absurdities and quirks, is a monumental literary statement.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Summer Reading: Figes' Crimea

The Crimea has a facinating history dating back hundreds of years. Italian city-states sprinkled its shores in the 14th and 15th Centuries and before that the Greeks. The Mongols and Turks followed the Italians, until the Russians claimed it for themselves in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Today, it is the center of Ukraine's tourist industry, from which travellers return with tales of its high concentration of beautiful, long-legged blondes (more on that later in another post, I hope).

Sevastopol, sitting on the southernmost tip of the Crimea, is a "strategically important naval point", according to Wiki, and currently home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet (an area of current friction between Russia and Ukraine). It was also famously the site of the truly epic Siege of Sevastopol, in which Franco-Brit forces shelled the hell out of the city over the course of a year, beginning in Sept. 1854, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties and precipitating Russia's rather resounding defeat in the Crimean War, reshaping Europe (and Russia) for years to come -- the centerpiece of Englishman Orlando Figes' Crimea, published in 2010.

Figes, I might add, is a real peice of work; upon the release of Crimea he was caught anonomously bashing the work of his collegues on Amazon while praising his own.There's more  -- something about Figes having his wife take the blame for it, at least initially -- but let's stop there.

Pushing fifty years old, Figes is a first-rate historian of Russia, having written on numerous topics and employing a range of historical genres. He's versatile, respected within his field (at least his work), a decent writer (something rare in academia), and more or less well-known, at least by those with a passive interest in all things Russian -- in short, a popular historian of real pedigree. With Crimea, he builds on this reputation.

The most interesting thing to Figes about the Crimean war seems to be the influence mass media had on the conflict in especially Britain, but also France. He makes the point very convincingly that the media pressured Britain into taking more agressive action against the 'Russian menace' in support of the helpless, reform-minded Turks.

This being in stark contrast to Tsarist Russia, which was driven into the conflict, according to Figes, in support of its Orthodox subjects within the Turkish Empire, the author's other area of interest, and for which one can blame the somewhat midleading second part of the title: The Last Crusade.

For the Crimean War was not primarily a religious war but a strategic one. The Western powers both had interests in weakening the power of Russia in order to remove a barrier to progress in building reliable commercial and political ties in the East -- part of the greater politics of the Great Game. They also had an interest in undermining Russian influence in Europe, which coincided with (failed) plans to destroy its position in Poland and the Baltic Sea.

Russia on the other hand, would have greatly benefited from consolidating its position in the Black Sea and the Caucasus while crushing Turkey (a historical enemy) in the process. Figes is smart in avoiding the complicated politics of the Great Game however, and painting the war as a religious conflict, as to do otherwise would have bogged down the narrative.

And the vast bulk of the narrative deals with the campaign itself, starting with Russia's failed invasion of Turkish-controlled Romania, which was supported by British and French troops and flanked to the west by hostile Austrian troops in Serbia, in the Fall of 1853. After Russia's retreat in the Summer of 1854, it deals with the devestating allied offensive against Sevestopol later that Fall, in which hundreds of thousands were killed in battle and from disease over the course of a year.

While not a fan of military history myself, Figes paints a colorful picture of the various battles and especially the blunders in a relatively balanced manner. Though I much enjoyed McCullogh's tactical and logistical approach in describing the first year of America's campaign against Britain in 1776, Figes' focus on the experience of regulars in the British, French and Russian armies gives an interesting glimpse into the everyday life of the soldier. Social history is after all in fashion in history departments as well as bookstores across the English-speaking world and Figes' Crimea is no exception. 

I can't think of any serious criticism for Figes here. Sure, I would've preferred greater focus on the diplomatic aspects of the conflict. Perhaps more on the reaction to the war in Russian civil society as well. But on the whole, it is a well-rounded, informative, positioned and even facinating account, especially given the rather oblique subject-matter.