Posts Tagged ‘Socialist Realism’

Ismail Kadare: Le Grand Hiver (The Great Winter)

May 3, 2017

51xrmj+pVjL._AC_US218_Ismail Kadare has been a prolific writer of fiction, although a good deal of it is still not available in English translation, and for a long while novels that did appear in English were actually translated from the French rather than the original Albanian. Some of the novels deal with late twentieth century Albanian politics – like the one I’m writing about here – whereas others are more allegorical, or deal with Albanian history and mythology.

The Great Winter (Le Grand Hiver) deals with the break between Albania and the rest of the socialist camp in the early 1960s, pitting Enver Hoxha against Nikita Khrushchev, the Stalinist against the de-bunker of Stalin. It’s a very long and detailed novel which in many places is much more like a drama-documentary than actual fiction: think recent televised reconstructions of historical events and you have the idea. The times, the people and the attitudes may feel like ancient history now, but the hopes and fears of the characters were very real at the time – the first split in the socialist camp, the isolation of one of its members, and the possibility of war.

In some ways, I suppose, it’s meant to be socialist realism: along with the main (fictional) character Besnik, a young translator and journalist who is deeply involved with the crucial meeting at which the rift finally comes into the open, and who is plagued by guilt that he may have mis-translated at a crucial point, thus precipitating events, there is a myriad of minor characters presented in thumbnail and more detailed sketches as a cross-section of Albanian society of the time. One gets quite a clear impression of the limitations and restrictions on life in a strictly-controlled state, with impressions of secret police lurking in the background; equally there is still a great deal of youthful enthusiasm for the construction of a socialist state, and national pride in being able to stand alone.

I kept being reminded of some of the epic Russian novels I have read, and certainly a list of all the characters and their part in the story to be able to refer to, would have been a help while reading; the careful and detailed end-notes clarifying the manoeuvres of politics at the time were useful.

In the end I found it a very depressing novel. Firstly, the hero gives up – initially through neglect and then later almost through deliberate choice – his fiancee and upcoming marriage because of the momentous importance of the events in which he has become involved: there is no time for the personal. He finds himself anew through political commitment at a time of crisis, in an existential manner. Secondly, it’s depressing because, of course, everything in terms of politics, socialism, enthusiasm for building a new world, has now completely vanished, almost as if it had never been – all that will and power and energy wasted. And this does not mean that I approve of all the evils of those times and hanker after Stalinism: I just wish that some of the bright hope and enthusiasm of those days had survived.

I have found myself wondering about Kadare’s attitude to Albania and its rulers at that time; into some of his more allegorical works – The Pyramid, for instance, or The Palace of Dreams – criticism of various aspects of totalitarianism and personality cults may be read, but this novel, and another similar one which I shall probably re-read soon, The Concert, appears quite fair and balanced in its approach. I wonder what a reader in a century’s time will make of such a novel and such a writer. And yet both are needed, to preserve the memory of what once was and how people once were…

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The myth of realism (1)

January 17, 2016

I’ve often found myself thinking about this idea or concept; it sometimes came up when I was teaching. It’s a very elusive term, which we often use without really thinking, vaguely, to mean that something is life-like, true to life, convincing. And then the discussion will move on, without really engaging with the idea at all.

What we might mean by realism has changed with time, too, particularly since the advent of photography, cinema and television: these visual media have shifted our imagination from the verbal and auditory: far fewer portraits are painted, and most art has shifted to experiment with being less representational (sweeping statement, yes, but sufficient for my purpose here); what we call realistic often means a true but superficial representation.

When I was studying literature, I was introduced to a more political definition of the term, which made some sense politically, though was also rather tortured, in a Marxist sense, to mean a work of art or literature that somehow truly represented the class structure and struggles of its time; this was later developed into the concept of socialist realism that deadened a lot of creativity in Soviet times…

Finally, the term becomes confused with naturalism which developed towards the end of the nineteenth century; superficial representation seemed to become even more important.

Writing and literature is my interest, so from now on I’m thinking and writing about realism as it relates to fiction. Here again, its meaning and intentions shift. At the start of the rise of the novel, with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), authors were very keen to convince their readers that what they were writing (which was obviously made up) was true fact, a kind of journalism, if you like (and Defoe was a journalist). So their books are supported with maps, diagrams and other apparatus which might convince the reader of that time that Robinson’s story was true. Defoe had based it on a real story. Similarly, Swift would convince us that Laputa, Brobdingnag and the other places Gulliver visits are actually out there in some unexplored part of the globe. And even nowadays, anyone reading Journal of the Plague Year is perhaps surprised to learn that the events related took place long before Defoe’s time; separating out the fact and fiction in this documentary novel is immensely difficult.

to be continued]

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

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