Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Literature’

On refugees and writers

January 30, 2017

Lots of talk about refugees and migrants everywhere at the moment has had me thinking about writers who have had to leave their countries. People flee their countries because their lives are endangered, or they move voluntarily because they hope for a better quality of life elsewhere. These reasons are very different and it would be helpful if people and politicians differentiated.

I cast my eyes over my bookshelves. I know my library is a personal collection, and therefore not representative, but the first thing that struck me was that all the writers I recognised as exiles were twentieth century ones. That says something about our times, I feel.

James Joyce didn’t need to leave Ireland, but he found his native land so restrictive and suffocating mentally and creatively that he left, for good. The closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show us Stephen Dedalus coming to this decision. Similarly Witold Gombrowicz’ life in inter-war Poland was not in danger, yet he also found it restricting and oppressive, and took himself off to Argentina – luckily for him, just before the start of the Second World War. Both Hitler and Stalin set out to eliminate Polish culture and intellectual life, and made considerable progress.

The Soviet Union had rather longer to attempt to regiment cultural and literary life than the Third Reich, and most of the writers I noted in my examination of my bookshelves came from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most important one to mention, at least in the sense that he became a cause celebre in the 1970s. A political thaw allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in the Soviet Union and it was a sell-out. But that was it; important novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward circulated internally as samizdat publications, and when smuggled out to the West and published openly, caused serious problems for the writer; after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history and chronicle of Stalin’s labour camps, he was branded an anti-Soviet writer and eventually forced into exile. He ended up in the US and gradually faded into obscurity, cut off from his homeland. And he was an anti-Soviet writer, which is why the US welcomed him. The Russians wouldn’t have killed him, but his life would have been endangered by a prison sentence.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia saw Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky eventually leave, the former for Paris, the latter for Canada. So strict was the repression under Gustav Husak that many artists ended up in menial jobs, and some in jail; again, no death sentences because the West was watching, but death sentences as writers. The same was true of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who served the communist regime for a number of years before fleeing to the West. Writers in Eastern Europe increasingly wrote ‘for the desk drawer’ – as in, wrote and put away what they wrote, knowing it would never be printed – or took the risk of reprisals by smuggling their work out to be published in the West.

What I draw from this is that the question of migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers is a very complex one: very often it’s a quest for freedom. Clearly, some people are in danger of death if they don’t leave; many are not. A lot are seeking a better life in Europe. One thing does seem blindingly obvious to me though: if we in the West weren’t so quick to attack/ bomb/ invade/ colonise other countries, then their inhabitants might well be rather happier staying at home. Which is what quite a lot of the hoo-hah is about, isn’t it?


Andrei Bitov: Pushkin House

December 15, 2015

51LvwcASCmL._AA160_This is apparently a Soviet post-modern novel. It’s extremely hard work, and I can see why the Soviets wouldn’t publish it. It’s chaotic, in a Joycean or Shandian sense, and parts of it recall the weirder bits of Ulysses; because it’s about literature and responses to it, it’s presented almost as an academic work, with sections and subsections and appendices and notes and footnotes…

The author is forever interfering, or deliberately intervening in his own narrative, sometimes interacting with his hero, offering variants of particular episodes, alternate endings and the like, so attempting to track a linear narrative is not really allowed or possible. The power of the author is obvious – he can do as he likes, and we are allowed at times to assume there is a direct identification between author and hero, and at other times not. He can also write himself into a corner with his hero’s mad antics, and then magic him out of it again.

Ultimately the plot isn’t sufficiently interesting to sustain this reader’s interest; it’s no doubt clever in its convolutedness and self-reference, but it doesn’t draw one along like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses do. Partly, I think, this is because so much of the detail and reference is Russian-specific; even my reasonable acquaintance with nineteenth century Russian literature didn’t help me wade through the mire of mentions of authors and quotations from their works, plus details of their biographies… and a novel that requires complex notes and glosses ceases to be a novel – though perhaps this is part of Bitov’s intention.

The one thing which did stand out as a consummate achievement was an astonishing drinking binge involving eight bottles of vodka being consumed by five people over a night or so; the weird states, hallucinations and outlandish behaviour are every bit as insane as the drug-fuelled ramblings of the late Hunter S Thompson, or the craziest section of Joyce’s Ulysses. Only Russians are capable of drinking like this, and if you do want to read a novel about epic drinking, then you should probably go for Benedikt Erofeev‘s Moscow Circles rather than this one, I suggest.

In the end, I’m afraid it wasn’t quite worth the eyeball time.

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.

Eastern European Literature

July 9, 2014

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on Soviet literature, perhaps it’s opportune to look at the rest of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe or however one might now describe it. The countries concerned were under Soviet domination after the Second World War, although in different ways. For instance, Yugoslavia rejected Soviet tutelage and went its own way, Albania moved its allegiance from the Soviet to the Chinese camp before striking out on its own; certain countries such as Bulgaria and the DDR were seen as much more hardline in their discipline and allegiance to the USSR, and others such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with more liberal attitudes from time to time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by Warsaw Pact troops…

Many of the issues which governed the lives of writers in all those countries were the same as those which obtained in the USSR. Prior censorship was the rule; there were non-subjects and non-persons. I think the most glaring example of this was the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the KGB at Stalin’s orders in 1940; the Nazis discovered the crime and Soviet guilt was rapidly and clearly established, but the Soviets blamed the Nazis and so that was the official line…  Similarly, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was a taboo subject for all sorts of reasons. And don’t even mention the ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the term hadn’t been invented yet) that went on all over Eastern Europe after the end of the war…

So, onto literature: the DDR was pretty repressive, as far as I remember; Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf pushed at the boundaries and wrote some interesting novels; I know nothing about what was written in Bulgaria during the period; a Romanian teaching colleague introduced me to the bizarre novels of Agota Kristov (available in French, but I’m not sure about English) and Ismail Kadare left Albania and went into exile in Paris and published many interesting novels, coded, allegorical, covering the weird political goings-on in his native land. Broken April, and The Pyramid are a couple I would recommend very highly. I haven’t really explored Hungarian or Polish literature from those times, largely because not an awful lot got translated (I rant about this in various other posts!).  Polish writers’ memoirs and essays have fared rather better; Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz both wrote openly from exile.

It’s the literature and writers of Czechoslovakia that I have particularly enjoyed. I have found them the most lively, varied and outspoken. I think Josef Skvorecky is probably my favourite. After the events of 1968 he went into exile in Canada, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career as well as being able to write openly about the wartime and postwar events in his homeland, exploring minds and attitudes, how people made compromises with various regimes in order to survive or not. I’d strongly recommend The Engineer of Human Souls (this was Stalin’s description of his ideal writer) as well as his excellent series of detective stories involving his depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka. Milan Kundera also went into exile, to Paris, and has probably been the best-known of the Czech emigre writers.

I do find myself increasingly wondering how much of all this is going to be remembered at all; looking back at what I’ve written, I’m struck by the number of non-existent countries I’ve mentioned; the weirdness of the events and daily life in all those places is now history – it’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent end of all those regimes. Because we are apparently ‘free’ to do and say what we will, it requires an enormous effort of the imagination to begin to understand those times, and most readers younger than me will now need notes and a glossary to be able fully to appreciate some of the writers I’ve mentioned. And they should try: it’s important those times are not forgotten…

Soviet Literature

July 8, 2014

Or maybe I actually mean anti-Soviet literature… literature written during Soviet times, anyway. I’m continuing some of the ideas I developed in an earlier post here.

If you read the history of Soviet times, you quickly realise that the first few years were, in many ways, a time of revolution and bold experimentation, especially in the world of the arts and literature; eventually, as the 1920s develop, the lid closes, the dead hand of Stalinism closes things down. There’s a further crackdown in the 1950s, a brief liberalisation at the end of the 60s/ in the early 70s and then it’s crackdown time again. Authority was clearly afraid; authority in the West is often afraid too, but has different and rather less obvious ways of crushing dissent and opposition.

So, what was there to be feared? Truth, in the end: there was much violence as the Soviet Union was built, collectivisation, repression of the kulaks, famine in Ukraine, political purges, show trials, people turned into unpersons, the gulag; religion was off-limits, as was any admiration of the West. If you take all these aspects of life, apparent to most people who had their eyes open, then there wasn’t much to write about, and it’s the writers who pushed the system to its limits and challenged it, often at great risk, that are still read and remembered, not the creators of the wooden socialist realism that was the official literature. What did Bulgakov mean, by having the devil rampage through Moscow in The Master and Margarita, with its sympathetic portrayal of both Christ and Pilate? And why did the KGB tell Vassily Grossman that his astonishing epic Life and Fate could not possibly be published for at least two centuries? Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy, which explored the darkest times of the Stalinist purges and show trials, only saw the light of day with perestroika. Solzhenitsyn explored dark times, and exposed some of the truths about the gulag, and ended up persecuted and then exiled; Varlam Shalamov‘s Kolyma Tales is even more shocking. Vladimir Voinovich got into trouble for humour and satire, and The Private Life of Ivan Chonkin is as funny (and biting) as Hasek‘s Svejk any day.

These are some of the best books of the last century in my opinion, created at the authors’ peril, mirrors of the sad failure of the experiment that came off the rails so quickly. The writers have real questions: how can one be free, how can one tell the truth, how can one resist oppression? Sometimes they wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ ie, put their manuscript away, knowing it could not be published, sometimes they took the risk – as did Solzhenitsyn – of samizdat (self) publication, typescript copies circulated in secret, sometimes smuggled to the West for publication.

And yet, culture in the Soviet Union was for all and readily accessible. Books (officially approved) were published in vast editions at giveaway prices, cinema and theatre cost next to nothing to attend; I wish that were the case over here, in the free West… not everything said, written or done in the Soviet Union was evil, yet I would not have wanted to live there.

Soviet Literature (2) Chingiz Aitmatov

August 27, 2013

51pIdTDltfL._AA160_Reflections in the previous post were prompted by my re-reading of Chingiz Aitmatov‘s The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, after half a lifetime. I’d hung on to the tatty paperback, knowing I’d want to read it again, eventually, but having completely forgotten why. And, as last time, I suspect, it disturbed me greatly.

Aitmatov was a Kazakh writer, who was published in the Soviet Union. He had to change the original title for this novel. I know I initially bought it because of references to science fiction and alien contact and I had recently completed a master’s thesis on science fiction. Aitmatov weaves several plots together quite skilfully: a joint Soviet-American space station makes contact with, and then visits an intelligent alien race; the superpowers are completely thrown and their hegemony threatened by events taken out of their hands and refuse to have anything to do with the aliens…

This plot unfolds against the background of a small community isolated on the Kazakh steppes next to a major railway line. The difficulty of their existence, and their history and myths are explored, and characters created and developed so that we come to understand them and their motivation. One of them is occupied with the need to arrange the proper (according to tradition and religion) burial of a revered older member of the community. And, as the past history of the community is revealed, so are the tentacles of the Stalinist police state and its ability to go even into the desert wastes and devastate lives.

There is, of course, an allegorical dimension, with the history of the mankurt, a slave robbed of his mind and personality during the dark days of the Mongol invasions, a man who has no past, no personality, no future, and who would kill his mother if ordered to… how that got past the censors beats me, but then I have read many accounts of how intellectually limited censors often were.

Aitmatov makes the reader think, and this has always been my touchstone for an author worth reading. Would the human race really reject contact with other, alien, races because of a possible threat to the status quo? What happens to people when they are separated from their past, their traditions, their roots? Aitmatov’s answers are pessimistic, rooted in the Cold War era (the novel was first published in 1980), but I don’t see any different conclusion in our ‘free’ age. How much we are in fact mindless slaves to a greater power is open to discussion. A good novel from the days of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Literature (1)

August 27, 2013

One thing I have read a great deal of is literature written in the Soviet Union or during its existence, in other countries that were known as the Soviet bloc. Literature written during a dictatorship is a very different beast from that produced in ‘free’ countries. As far as I’m aware, there was not much literature written or published in Nazi Germany: most writers fled the country and carried on in exile. But the Soviet Union lasted much longer, and not all writers went into exile.

I’m also aware that, in the nearly quarter century since the revolutions in Eastern Europe which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new generation has grown up, which know astonishingly little of those times generally, and the literature in particular. And this concerns me, because so much powerful literature was written during those times. Some of it was translated into English and published here, but a lot of it was not; is it all going to vanish into history?

There are several kinds of writer from those times: those who knew that what they were writing could not, or would not, be published, and so wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ (as it was called) or who took the enormous risk of smuggling their manuscripts abroad for publication. So, for example, Vassily Grossmann was told by the KGB that Life and Fate (his epic novel centring on the battle for Stalingrad, that has justly been called a War and Peace for the twentieth century) could not be published for two hundred years, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was eventually driven into exile because novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward were published in the West. And then there are those who wrote, and whose novels were allowed to be published, with or without alterations, but always after having gone through censorship. An enormous number of these were undoubtedly hackwork, but by no means all of them: in other words, some decent literature came out of a totalitarian state.

Another thing that isn’t widely known is the huge number of books published in the Soviet bloc countries – turgid political tracts by the million, certainly, but also quality literature (safe works like the classics of the past) at very cheap prices because culture generally was intended to be available to everyone. I’m reminded of this when I see the cheaply produced books sold for ridiculously high prices here in the ‘free world’.

So, what were the constraints on authors? Various topics were completely off-limits, particular recent history, politics and religion. Others had to be handled very carefully if there was to be a chance of publication. I haven’t really formed the impression that writers’ expression was thereby limited; writing was often more symbolic or allegorical in order to avoid censorship, but most of the themes, tropes and topics that have always been explored in good literature are there, if treated and explored in different ways.

It’s when I come on to making comparisons (inevitably subjective, I know) that I feel on rather shakier ground. Somehow, it has often seemed to me, because of the restrictions placed on them, writers from Eastern Europe managed to write better (?) deeper (?) more meaningful or provoking novels than their ‘free’ counterparts, who were often being incredibly narrow, self-indulgent and experimental for the sake of it; similarly, I often feel that novels addressing the key issues of life, its meaning and our future, are often not being written in Europe or the Unites States, and certainly not in English: the energy and dynamism of really good literature has long been elsewhere…

I realise that much of what I’ve written is subjective and provocative; no apologies for that, as it comes from a lifetime of reading, but I hope that I shall be able to provide some evidence and justification in future posts.

To be continued…

Children of the Arbat: Anatoly Rybakov

March 22, 2013

31F2JGC8WTL._AA160_This novel – first of a trilogy – was a sensation when it was first published in the early days of glasnost and perestroika. But then it was overtaken by events – the end of the Soviet Union – and it took five years before the second volume was translated, and the third appeared a few years later, but only in the USA, as far as I’m aware.

I had never read the third volume, so there was an excuse to revisit all three. Rybakov paints a detailed, convincing and frightening picture of the gradual unfolding of the Stalinist purges and show trials of the nineteen-thirties, against a backdrop of the youthful enthusiasm of its main characters for the construction of a new and better society, which was warped and destroyed by the tyrant.

This enthusiasm is genuine and reminds us that there are other ways of building our world, that socialism has never really had a fair trial, and to beware of leaders. There may be a touching naivete – with hindsight – about the students and Komsomol members – but they want their world to be different and are committed.  And not all the older people are cynics and manipulators.

Children of the Arbat begins in 1934 with the hero in trouble and eventually exiled as the atmosphere of the times becomes ever more paranoid and menacing; he is probably saved by being sent to the depths of Siberia. In Fear, the second volume, the real madness of the times is brilliantly developed as Rybakov dares to create a convincing picture of Stalin through internal monologues; we see the increasingly twisted mind plot the destruction of rivals, potential rivals and anyone who has crossed him; we see the evil that is the NKVD grow in power and eventually consume its own, and we also see how Stalin is weakening his own country in the face of the growing Nazi threat, by destroying his best military talent.

In Dust and Ashes, Stalin struggles to face the Nazi double-cross, and the nation pulls together in the face of evil. The story of our hero works towards an inevitable tragic conclusion, and I was interested that a critic had referred to it as a Soviet Romeo and Juliet.

The trilogy is as long as War and Peace, and just as gripping in its own way. It’s a creation of its times which deserves to survive as more generations grow who never knew the Soviet Union, Stalin and the Cold War and only come across them now as headings in a history textbook. It’s ambitious and convincing in its sweep, and makes an effective contrast with the much narrower and more concentrated focus of Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

One of the tests of ‘good’ literature’ is whether it survives to be read by subsequent generations, and picking out those texts which will endure is not easy. At some point in the future, theses will be written on the creature that was Soviet Literature. The dross that was soviet realist hackwork will be forgotten, but the works produced by those times, which had to wait to be published, or be published abroad, deserve to be preserved for the future, to remind us about both dreams and tyrants.

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