Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Voinovich’

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.

On humour

July 25, 2015

I love anything that will make me smile or laugh; that means I’ve read a good deal of humorous writing in my time, and I have come to appreciate how hard it is to do well, and also how what people find funny has changed and developed over time. It’s hard to describe and classify humour, and it’s also clear that to be humorous can, at times, be dangerous for the humorist. Increasingly I’ve also noticed that there are considerable differences between what women and men find funny. This post is inevitably written from a male perspective.

I studied Francois Rabelais at university: in Gargantua and Pantagruel he satirised the religious and intellectual abuses of his time and was inevitably obscenely humorous while he was about it; you realise that scatology has always been part of humour as you read of the experiments to find what is the best thing to wipe your backside with, how the prostitutes of Paris defended their city, or the astonishing lists of books in various (imaginary) libraries. The far-fetched and the absurd are important aspects of the humorous. Whatever people laugh at today has been used before…

I’ve loved Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – the longest shaggy dog story in the world – ever since I had to read it, again as a student. It’s full of funny characters, humorous incidents, witty observations.

I’ve laughed loud and long at what must be the relatively mild Victorian humour of writers like Jerome K JeromeThree Men in a Boat – and George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.

Some of my former students will be aware of my love of Jaroslav Hasek, anarchist author of The Good Soldier Svejk (and his adventures in the Great War). Satire again, on the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian army through the adventures of a congenital idiot and the chaos he causes as he strives to do his duty: none of this can possibly be as insane or absurd as the war itself… and the illustrations are marvellous, too.

The Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich managed a similar kind of satire in rather more dangerous times with The Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin, with his eponymous hero’s adventures taking place during the Great Patriotic War, and causing just as much amusement and anarchy among the Soviets.

For sheer rolling around on the floor laughter, it’s hard to better John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, uproarious and obscene in equal measure. Much milder is Garrison Keillor’s laconic Lake Wobegon Days and other related titles (and the accompanying radio series The Prairie Home Companion). And then there’s the total bonkers-ness of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories, some of which have been wonderfully televised.

As a child I loved funny books, too, and probably my most treasured memories are of the Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter: at sleepovers we would drive each other into hysterics as we tried to read these stories aloud to each other…

I’m aware that I haven’t, despite racking my brains, mentioned a single female writer or character above, and would dearly like a nudge, prompt or hint if anyone can offer any. And when it comes to trying to explain what makes me laugh, or what exactly is funny about any of the books I’ve mentioned above, I’m hard-pressed. Absurdity makes me laugh, taking the normal and ordinary over the edge into the realms of the ridiculous, anything which brings chaos to what should be a tidy and boring and ordered world. I have also found myself wondering how much humour is a trait of our younger days, and whether, as I grow inevitably older, I laugh less and find less to laugh at or about….

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.

Slawomir Mrozek: The Elephant

February 15, 2014

9780141193045After my recent complaint about short stories, I’ve just read this slim volume of forty-two of them… as Walt Whitman once said (I paraphrase) I see no virtue in being consistent. The stories were all very short, and I really enjoyed them, laughing aloud quite frequently. Why did they work, for me? Each plays with a single idea, taken to absurd extremes, purely to mock something; there is no plot, no character, merely an idea to play with.

Although these stories are described as satirical, and I suppose they are, the absurdist angle struck me more forcefully. Mrozek wrote during the times of the Polish People’s Republic, and he mocks the bureaucracy of the times, the leaders and their pretensions, and the cravenness of their followers, the strange behaviours people often adopted in order to live and stay out of trouble. It was a strange world, one that has begun to pass into history, its absurdities now only in the memories of the older generations. I cannot forget the weirdness of once going into what was called a supermarket, and finding every shelf stacked with pasta, pasta of every kind and shape, but almost no other food of any kind on offer. Or of setting off with a cousin to visit another city and being asked by some one to look out for paint, and to buy some if any were available.

Mrozek’s stories are frivolous, light-hearted, very different from the moodier writings of Czech authors such as Kundera or Skvorecky, or the much more detailed satires of Russians such as Voinovich (The Adventures of Ivan Chonkin) or Zinoviev (The Yawning Heights). It’s as if the regime was so ridiculous that it could not be taken seriously, and in many ways this was true. Poland by and large had a more ‘liberal’ communist regime than any other Eastern European country during that period, and opposition made itself much more noticeable, perhaps because of the strength of the Catholic Church.

I have always found Eastern European literature from this period fascinating. Oppression seems to have stimulated creativity: writers strove to find ways to make their points in covert ways to elude censorship, and often succeeded. Their concerns seemed to have a vitality and an urgency which I found missing in western writers (sweeping statement, I know), but there was the impression that the regimes knew writers were important, could challenge, needed close supervision, that the written word had Power, whereas in the west writers could safely be allowed to write whatever they liked – a safety valve – because no-one really took them seriously and they would never pose a real threat to the system…

%d bloggers like this: