Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir

TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Leo Tolstoy in 1879. First, he had mostly given up on fiction, having published his two titanic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter book exhausted him physically and morally: not long after its appearance, he termed his saga of adultery “an abomination.” He found novel writing to be a poor substitute for confronting religious issues and his existential lot. Second, because of his early literary acclaim and the immoral lifestyle it had spawned and enabled, he was miserable. He was so ashamed of himself that post-Karenina his ambivalent atheism collapsed and he sought a new relationship to the “truth.” He abdicated the throne of novelist and took up the mantle of religious critic — on the side of Christianity and against it.

Raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy lost his religion at 18. After a life of debauchery, in his early 50s, he wanted religion — or some source of intellectual security — back. In 1882, he published his Confession, a retrospective analysis of the previous five years in which his midlife crisis of faith unbalanced his literary and philosophical bearing. It is among the oddest of Christian tell-alls, a treatise searching for its own focal truth. Throughout, he hungers for spiritual fortitude: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” Readers note that the title has no “a” or “the” attached. (There are no articles in Russian, but this particular absence in English is meaningful.) The singular noun by itself emphasizes its currency.

Early on in the book, he asserts, in defiance, that “Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one’s relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one’s own life.” He pegs believers as “stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.” He tags unbelievers as the finest people he knows: they have “[i]ntelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality.” He renounces religion in favor of “reading and thinking” — in essence, reason — and recalls that five years prior “my only real faith […] was a faith in self-perfection.”

Of course, reason means progress, and progress, for an egoist like Tolstoy, entails an unchecked liberality in one’s behaviors. At this, the young Tolstoy, an aristocrat and braggart, more than excelled. Here’s part of his resume:
I killed people in war, I challenged people to duels in order to kill them, I lost at cards, I consumed the labor of peasants, I punished them, I fornicated, I deceived. Lies, theft, adultery of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder. … There was no crime I did not commit, and for all this my contemporaries praised me and thought me a relatively moral man, as they still do.
But the hyper-observant and self-obsessed Tolstoy suffers, despite his ego, a debilitating paranoia. He believes that people ridicule him because of his alcoholic, adulterous, and arrogant excesses. He has often imagined he’s dying: the darkness is drawing close, and he must find a purpose, because soon, for him, “nothing will remain but stink and worms.” (The death-obsessed Russian lived another 30 years after Confession.) At times, despair clings to his words like a rose vine: “You can only live as long as you’re drunk with life; but when you sober up, you can’t help but see that all this is just a fraud, and a stupid fraud. Precisely that: there’s nothing even amusing or witty about it; it’s simply cruel and stupid.” He says he doesn’t know why the universe exists. He is tortured by the question. He wants it answered; he can’t bear living in an untended and unintended cosmos.

By mid-book, Tolstoy’s searching starts to change — not just his focus but his sensibility. To unburden his longing, he quotes Bible passages, an Indian sage, and nuggets from the saints and the martyrs, honoring what he said earlier were useless “teachings of faith.” He wonders if to feel secure all we need is the wisdom of the ancients. These teachings have, he argues, lasted this long. His disclosures work him into a lather, and he declares that a pure belief in reason, without room for God as ultimate mystery, leads to insanity and suicide. A worrywart, Tolstoy plunges on with the tone of a querulous depressive. Moreover, he shifts, as it suits his gain, the blame for who should tow his anguish: from pagan nihilists to scientific rationalists to Orthodox dogmatists to jurisprudent bureaucrats — these last, the Ivan Ilyiches of the world. The only blameless one, he decides, is he who lives as Jesus lived. And yet, he counters, who can? It’s impossible.

Tolstoy decides that no faith is truer than the Christian peasant’s, whose “irrational knowledge” paves the road to happiness. Irrational knowledge is faith, he posits. Peasants should know. They are (though he aspires to join up, Tolstoy is definitely not one of them) the “great mass of people, the whole of mankind” — the nonindividuated mass, whom he lauds but who also rise, in his characterization, no higher than type. Uniformly, he writes in Chapter VIII, they believe God is “one and three,” father, son, spirit, “creation in six days, devils and angels and everything I couldn’t accept as long as I didn’t go mad.” That odd admission, with its tortuous grammar and emphatic final clause — as long as I didn’t go mad — is a performative leap away from his natural inclinations. He needs to believe something that transcends his inherent, incessant self-questioning, and he decides to do so. For him, peasant certainty is true because he, the great literary arbiter of truth, has arrived at it, not because Christianity has told him to accept it.

Thus, with a thunderclap, Tolstoy’s short and intensely self-defensive polemic turns into a classic Christian conversion story, worthy of Augustine’s tale of tribulation. After weighing all the possibilities, mad or not, Tolstoy drapes the crucifix around his neck. As one of his best biographers, Martine de Courcel, writes, he has, rather Christianly, “admitted his sins and proclaimed his faith.” Saved, he declares that his actions from now on will embody his intentions — he will attend church, participate in sacraments, live frugally, leave his bourgeois habits, love God and peasant equally. But wait. Opening faith’s creaking door hardly calms his restlessness. Though Tolstoy says he erred “not so much because I thought wrongly as because I lived badly,” the insight is not enough. He cannot settle his thoughts. Try as he might, Tolstoy, a self-cleansing fanatic, cannot rid himself of his deviant past or his disputatious nature. He can neither forgive himself nor stop analyzing the demands of Christian belief. As long as he keeps writing pages, he’s not sure about Christ as savior or about divine intervention. His belief demands more and more tuning.

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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog still bites

Mikhail Bulgakov was 33 years old, a former doctor and an up-and-coming playwright and short-story writer when he invited a group of people to a reading of his new novella, The Heart of a Dog. He had held a similar soiree the previous year to launch another novella, The Fatal Eggs, and though the earlier reading had gone well, it had made him anxious enough to muse in his diary: “Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? … I’m afraid that I might be hauled off … for all these heroic feats.”

His premonition proved right. Among the 50 or so people who gathered in the Moscow apartment in March 1925 to be introduced to Sharik, the humanoid dog, and the arrogant surgeon who created him, was an informer who took violent exception to his send-up of Soviet society. Bulgakov’s flat was searched and the manuscript seized. Though it was returned to him four years later, and was widely read in samizdat, it would not be officially published in Russian until 1987, nearly half a century after Bulgakov had died.

Sharik makes his first appearance as a mangy mongrel, cringing in a blizzard after being douched with boiling water by a cook. Out of a brightly lit shop walks a man (“definitely a citizen, not a comrade, or perhaps even – most likely – a gentleman”) with a nasty smell of hospital and cigars. Philip Philipovich also smells of the sausage he has just bought to lure Sharik back to his apartment, a seven-room suite in a building that has been requisitioned by a committee of zealous young revolutionaries.

This opening scene conveys so much about the early Soviet Union as Bulgakov saw it: the State Food Store selling cheap horsemeat sausage, the middle-aged professional “gentleman” hanging on to his privileges in an edifice that has been turned over to a proletarian command and which struggles to keep the boilers working and the galoshes from being stolen from the communal hallway.

Into the middle of it all bounds the cat-hating Sharik, who literally shatters the glass between the two orders of society before being hauled on to an operating table and subjected to Philip Philipovich’s latest experiment, described in gruesome medical detail: to see what happens when a dog is implanted with the testicles and pituitary glands of a human.

The creature that emerges from the operation walks on two legs, drinks, smokes, and is “familiar with every known Russian swearword”. Issued with identity papers in the name of Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, he is placed “in charge of the Moscow Cleansing Department responsible for eliminating vagrant quadrupeds (cats, etc)”, but not before he has stolen from gentlemen and comrades alike, brought vagrants in from the street and attempted to have his wicked way with the women of the house while they slept.

A year before the fateful reading of The Heart of a Dog, Trotsky published an essay collection, Literature and Revolution, which argued for a people’s art capable of creating “a higher social biologic type, or … superman”.

But if Bulgakov the political commentator was sending up Soviet theories of human perfectibility though communism, Bulgakov the former physician was also poking fun at the western Europeans who were flocking to Paris-based celebrity quack Serge Voronoff in the belief that he could restore virility with an injection of monkey glands. These are the crumple-necked ladies, the men with green hair or heads as bald as dinner plates who Sharik woozily observes stripping off in Philipovich’s consulting room in the hope that their old money will buy them new vigour.

In Bulgakov’s own formulation, his novella is both satire and provocative gesture. Its genius is that its sights are multi-directional, so 92 years and many regime changes later it still seems freshly defiant.

It is also a riotous science-fiction comedy that anticipates the current vogue for political dystopias. It also harnesses the archetype of the overreaching scientist to the task of lampooning vanities that are too easily recognised in the age of cosmetic surgery and cryonics.

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Thursday, 29 December 2016

'Crime and Punishment' 150 years on

In August 1865, Gerasim Chistov, a merchant’s son and schismatic, was accused of killing two old women in order to rob their mistress. The apartment was strewn with items, and gold jewelry had been stolen from an iron chest. Both victims were killed with the same weapon: an axe. Many critics believe this true story inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.

Hermann Hesse said that in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky had managed to capture a whole period in world history, while Albert Camus said that reading the Russian writer’s novels had been a “soul-shaking experience” that informed all his own work. The contemporary Russian author Boris Akunin has written a novel called FM (in reference to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky), which presents Raskolnikov’s story as a crime thriller, with the main character being the investigator Porfiry Petrovitch.

Since its first movie adaptation in the Russian Empire in 1909, the novel has been adapted for screen dozens of times, including the renowned 1969 production by Soviet director Lev Kulidzhanov. Many modern movies also pay homage to the book, with Woody Allen being known for his admiration of Dostoevsky. His films Match Point (2005) and Irrational Man (2015) show clear parallels to the work.

Crime and Punishment has also greatly influenced the world of theater, too. Stage plays based on the novel were held all over Europe in the 19th century, with Paul Ginisty’s 1888 production at the Paris Odeon theater being among the most memorable. In 2016, the musical “Crime and Punishment” was staged in Moscow, while in London the novel was transformed into a rock musical.

Dostoevsky spent four years in a hard labor camp in Siberia (1850 to 1854) for disseminating a banned letter by the critic and commentator Vissarion Belinsky. He described the horrors of that period in the novel The House of the Dead. The years he spent in Siberian exile had a profound influence on the writer. Dostoevsky felt the ills of the time – widespread poverty, rising crime, heavy drinking – very keenly and wanted to shed light on them in his works.

However, he was constantly prevented from actually setting to work on his idea. He was chronically short of money and was stuck in a cycle of producing work to very short deadlines for a pittance. Finally, in 1865, the writer suggested to Andrei Krayevsky, the editor of the influential literary magazine Otechestvennye Zapiski, the idea of publishing a novella: “a psychological study of a crime.”

Gradually, the novella grew into a full-scale novel. Dostoevsky gave up all other work and spent 1866 writing the novel, which was serialized in the Russky Vestnik literary journal. By his own admission, Dostoevsky worked on Crime and Punishment “like a convict in a labor camp,” without going out or meeting anyone at all. The book swiftly became a literary sensation.

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Thursday, 22 December 2016

How literature was used to 'temper' Soviet people

Nikolai Ostrovsky, who wrote the cult novel How the Steel Was Tempered and died at 32, overcame much in his short life. He survived a difficult childhood, adolescent involvement in underground political groups, combat military service, work as a party functionary and a serious illness at 25 that left him writer bedridden and gradually blinded him. In another era, this biography could have served as a wonderful foundation for a romantic myth. But in Russia in the early 20th century, it became something much bigger. Instead of a story of an individual whose willpower and talent overcame the painful blows of fate, Ostrovsky’s life story was remade by the Soviets into a tale about how a "new man" could be forged from heterogeneous and often worthless "human material." This new man was a participant and co-creator of the new socialist society.

Ostrovsky was not the only writer who helped build the socialist future. In the beginning, radical Russian avant-garde artists Velimir Khlebnikov, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky were ardent supporters of the Communist Revolution. Not without reason, they saw in the Bolsheviks the same leftist ideals they embraced.

"To accept or not to accept? For me (and other Moscow futurists) this question did not exist. My revolution. I went to the Smolny. I worked. I did everything I had to," wrote Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote in his 1928 autobiography.

Soviet literature from the Stalinist period is full of stories in which people are likened to pieces of iron out of which Communism, like a hammer, forges new people. The theme is evident even in the titles of works from the period. Alexander Serafimovich's The Iron Flood (1924) is a novel about the Tamask Army's campaign in the summer of 1918 during the Russian Civil War, in which the disconnected and demoralized soldiers transform into a united super-being; Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered (1932) is a story of a talented yet undisciplined youth who turns into an impeccable "party soldier" — a typical Soviet existence; Mikhail Sholokhov's Virgin Soil Upturned (1932, 1959) uses the same metaphor of something wild turning into something civilized, but in a village rather than on the battlefield; Boris Polevoy's Story of a Real Man (1946), based on a true story, tells the tale of a pilot who despite his broken legs crawls for many days (in the winter, in the snow) to the front lines and is able to return to combat despite having both legs amputated below the knees.

Polevoy’s hero buckles his prostheses to the pedals of his airplane with special spring-loaded clamps that help him feel their movement — the man has literally turned into a machine. Obviously, Polevoy didn't intend this to be the message of the book. He sincerely admired the pilot's courage, but the matrix of socialist realism dominant in art at the time led him to present the story that way. The same transformation can be seen in Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother (1906) in which descriptions of the most intimate human relations, relations between a mother and son, are substituted by descriptions of how a simple "ignorant" woman turns into a "new person," a fighter and a revolutionary.

Alexei Tolstoy was not so naïve when he consciously reworked The Adventures of Pinocchio into his novel Golden Key (1936). Mindful of the times, Tolstoy transformed this moralistic tale into an allegory bubbling with wit. In the modern work, the fairytale protagonists are transformed into bohemians from pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and expatriate Berlin. And in the character of Pinocchio himself, the wooden boy who, thanks to his innate courage, fast reflexes and incredible purposefulness becomes the leader of his community and the star of the puppet theater, readers recognize a new person who crawls on unbending legs towards a radiant future.

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - Ballet in two acts (HD 1080p)

From the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, December 2012
Valery Gergiev - conductor
Vasily Vainonen - choreography

Friday, 16 December 2016

Vladimir Sorokin and the Russian Novel's Identity Crisis

Vast, grand, breathtaking—English-language readers typically associate such words with the 19th-century Russian novel. Bleak, brave, subversive—those go with 20th-century Russian fiction. If it’s epic or dissident, we know how to make sense of it.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, however, Russian novels became harder to categorize. If a work wasn’t protest literature, what exactly could it be? This wasn’t a question only for readers of English translations. The collapse posed an identity crisis even for writers who had long avoided protest. Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be Russia’s leading novelist, was among those whose writing seemed to be stalled during the Yeltsin period. To find his way forward as a novelist, he had to recreate a relationship to Russia’s new society, to abandon austere detachment and explore the possibility of allegiance to the public. Sorokin’s torturous sense of citizenship, which has reached a fascinating impasse in his latest novel, The Blizzard, is the key to one of the most transfixing bodies of work in world literature.

If anyone had seemed poised to flourish in a postmodern Russia, it would have been Sorokin, born in 1955 and stirring up interest by the time he was 30. Influenced by the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and ’80s, he adopted that group’s vision of artistic creations as wholly autonomous constructs, and in his early work, these constructs aren’t cause for any particular veneration. “Aren’t those just letters on a piece of paper?” he said of his work at the time. His violent, scatalogical, and distinctly unheroic fictions ran jaggedly across the epic and dissident veins of Russian literature. The Queue, first published in Paris in 1985 and composed entirely of dialogue, is set in just that, a queue: one of the long Soviet-era lines of citizens waiting for hours to receive goods—what goods, no one knows. Its satirical take on Soviet dysfunction is probably why it saw English translation in 1988. But The Queue is mostly of a piece with Sorokin’s conceptual mission: His characters standing in line are simply lined up characters on a page.

Perhaps the chaotic Russia of the ’90s—old ideals smashed, no new order emerging—too vividly incarnated Sorokin’s aesthetic. The period evidently thwarted, rather than nourished, his fiction. “There is not always a time for dreams,” he told The New Yorker in 1994, somewhat evasively accounting for a gap in his output that ended up lasting from 1991-’99. He returned to fiction with Blue Lard, a novel that caused him considerable difficulties as Russia began its authoritarian relapse. The novel contains a scene in which a clone of Krushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin, and several years after publication, it was singled out by Moving Together, a youth group associated with Vladimir Putin, which accused Sorokin of peddling pornography. For the first time, he found himself at the center of a concerted censorship campaign. In 2002, the group picketed the Bolshoi, which had commissioned Sorokin to produce a libretto. Its leaders showed up with a massive mock toilet bowl, into which demonstrators were encouraged to throw copies of his “latrinature.” The protests prompted state prosecutors to open a case against him.

Those charges were dropped, but the episode seems to have thrust a sense of citizenship upon Sorokin. Certainly it discredited the notion that his writing was just letters on paper. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” he told The New York Times in 2011. At the same time, the resurrection of Russia’s monarchical and authoritarian political traditions in the Putin era gave new relevance to the previous centuries’ literary traditions. With Ice Trilogy (2002-2005), Sorokin advanced his fiction by swerving away from his early work. Rather than rejecting his country's literary legacy, or rearranging its tropes into conceptual art, he adapted the epic and the dissident strains to his own purposes.

Ice Trilogy offers a parallel, science-fiction inflected history of Russia’s 20th century, in which 23,000 blonde and blue-eyed humans are actually rays of “the Primordial Light.” Once the 23,000 have their hearts awakened—by being hammered in the chest with chunks of meteoric ice—they will return to eternity, and the world of humans will end. The trilogy ranges over decades, includes an enormous cast, and amounts to a searching exploration of cult power and the pitilessness of the elite. Although Ice Trilogy was far too esoteric for mass appeal in America, it betrayed signs of a more accessible vision. Nearing the age of 50, Sorokin suddenly sided with humanity—the “meat machines” disdained and enslaved by the Primordial Light—an oddly tender gesture for a writer used to killing off characters as if swatting flies. His own heart was being awakened to a sense of commitment to the people: “The citizen in me has come to life,” he told Der Spiegel in 2007.

2008’s Day of the Oprichnik marks the apotheosis of Sorokin as social critic, and unsurprisingly, it was his first novel to find a mainstream American publisher. Billed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis,” Day of the Oprichnik envisions Russia in 2028, when the social codes of Ivan the Terrible have been resurrected. Following a day in the life of a henchman to the czar, the novel is a cascade of torture, rape, and murder, punctuated by nauseating scenes of luxury among the uppermost class.

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Thursday, 15 December 2016

Fools and Wise in Russia - Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky

Why did the calf butt the oak? No doubt, for a few very special calves, it is in their nature, and thank goodness for the rest of us in the herd that it should be so. Solzhenitsyn is not only a very great writer, but a man whose stand against the regime is unique in the history of great writers anywhere, particularly in Russia. Solzhenitsyn has always been very attached to Russian proverbs, and in The Oak and the Calf gives us a good many of them, such as ‘If trouble comes make use of it too’. That he has certainly done. And kept an account of the trouble in the minutest detail. As a record it is of the highest importance, but for the common reader the perusal is often fatiguing. The reason is partly the provenance of the book, which was written from day to day, under the table, in the years before Solzhenitsyn’s exile from Russia, with the KGB breathing down his neck and with no safe place for papers.

Victor Nekipelov’s Institute of Fools is as much as The Oak and the Calf a scrupulous record, a witness to the truth in Soviet Russia – something that takes both books out of the ordinary class of literature. Since both writers are born novelists however, literature comes in again through the back door. The Oak and the Calf is, essentially, a character study of a man and his work – Tvardovsky and the magazine Novy Mir, and it becomes a kind of elegy for both. Nekipelov’s book’ is about the Serbsky Institute, the asylum in Moscow to which dissidents and criminals are sent to be certified, and it is a treasure-house of contemporary Soviet characters, of all kinds and drawn from every walk of life. Both books remind one of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, not so much because the title of Dostoevsky’s book about his Siberian prison, but because the characters he depicts have an extraordinary family resemblance to those encountered in Solzhenitsyn’s books, and in Nekipelov’s.

In The First Circle the student Muza observes:
Have you ever noticed what makes Russian literary heroes different from the heroes of Western novels? The heroes of western literature are always after careers, money, fame. The Russians can get along without food and drink. It’s justice and good they’re after. Right?
Right. Russian moral superiority is connected – rather exasperatingly at times – with the very fact that their institutions have always been so deplorable. The reasonable element of justice and good that we take for granted in society remains for them in a world of passionate idea and aspiration. But it is undoubtedly true that the human beings described by Solzhenitsyn and Nekipelov are more interesting, strange and various than their counterparts would be in a western novel today. Almost automatically, as it seems western fiction adopts a reductive line with its denizens, taking them at a zoological and biological level. Obligatory, for instance, to enter their sex lives and consciousnesses, and to construct these in words that seem both to gloat and to patronise. The Russian ‘convention’, equally with nonconformists and with party-line writers, is to ignore all that, assuming that the communion of language and speculation that books are all about has something better to do. Certainly the characters in these two books seem much more real than those in most western writing today, because they are seen as social beings and not at the infantile and solipsistic level which for us has come to seem the ‘real’ one.

Not that the basic humour, low cunning, and wish to deceive of human beings are in any way left out of this Russian literary perception. Nekipelov’s gallery of rogues and charlatans shows that. They quote poetry, play chess, and speculate about the human soul, while endeavouring to persuade the doctors and psychiatrists of the institute that they are not just murderers, thieves and conmen, but insane, and therefore entitled to the vastly preferential treatment which an asylum affords. In contrast to the Nazi regime, Soviet treatment of the criminally insane has a laborious air of old-fashioned humanitarianism which is surprising: but, as the author is at pains to point out, an essential part of this apparent humanity is that dissidents and independents are in the very nature of things to be judged and counted among the criminally insane. Krasnov’s study of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn has a special interest in relation to these aspects of Russian life and writing. He maintains that Solzhenitsyn writes his novels in the ‘polyphonic’ tradition of Dostoevsky rather than, as has usually been taken for granted, being a novelist in the tradition of Tolstoyan realism. The polyphonic novel is a phrase used by Mikhail Bakhtin, the great critic to whom the book is dedicated, and who in ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art’ argued the thesis that Dostoevsky never ‘makes up his mind’, that all his arguments are open-ended and his characters independent centres of discourse and persuasion. In what Bakhtin considered his essentially Christian world view pluralism and coexistence were taken for granted, positions guaranteed as it were, by the fundamental and non-utilitarian identity of the individual. One significance of Bakhtin’s book is that it was written in 1929, at a time when Soviet literary theory was becoming increasingly subordinate to the Communist world-view.
Any attempt to render this world as completed (he wrote) in the usual monological sense of this word, as subdued to one idea and one voice, is inevitably doomed to defeat. That was enough to doom Bakhtin: he was lucky to survive. As it was both his book and Dostoevsky’s writings in general were banned, and only rehabilitated at the time of de-Stalinization.
Bakhtin implied that Dostoevsky’s was the ‘freest’ voice in great Russian writing – freer than Tolstoy or Turgenev – and that this fluid, polyphonic way of expounding an imaginative situation was the proof of it. I think myself, from what is perhaps too European a point of view, that Bakhtin and the other formalists discount too much the unconscious elements in a great work of fiction; in Russian fiction too, no matter how naturally didactic and combative that fiction has been. Dostoevsky – most brilliantly intelligent of all the great Russian writers – was consciously polyphonic: he was far too brilliant to be ‘monological’. But as Shestov, the Russian Jewish religious philosopher, has so acutely demonstrated, Tolstoy himself is far from being a monolithic, one meaning writer, in terms of the way his art works. Even in War and Peace his ‘meanings’ are far more equivocal than he seems to intend them to be. Equivocation – nothing being exactly what it seems – is Gogol’s hallmark, and what Pushkin, not without a certain slyness, termed ‘a free novel’ was far more the rule than the exception in the spacious days of 19th century Russia. The most striking case would be Goncharov’s Oblomov, where the national inertia is supposed to be sternly taken to task, but is in fact lyricised and celebrated.

None the less Bakhtin was right in taking Dostoevsky as the supreme example of the writer who could not be pinned down in his novels, even though Dostoevsky the commentator was all for such things as the drive to Constantinople and what Herzen ironically called ‘Russland Russland über alles.‘ The Soviet establishment could found their official realistic line on what could possibly be used to bring Dostoevsky to heel. And Krasnov is probably right in suggesting that Solzhenitsyn owes much to the polyphonic method, which he has deliberately adapted and expanded. His analysis of the structure of The First Circle and Cancer Ward is masterful and persuasive; and he brings out the full subtlety with which Solzhenitsyn deploys his symbolic patterns, animating them with an immense richness of naturalistic detail. There is a certain appropriateness in the fact that Dostoevsky, the most modern and most conscious of Russian novelists, should be the model here, for the days when the novel could say one thing and show another have probably gone by.

As it happens, The Oak and the Calf helps to prove Krasnov’s thesis, for the account in it of Tvardovsky, the martyred editor of Novy Mir, is full of Dostoevskian drama and sympathy. If Solzhenitsyn was Antigone, totally uncomprising, his editor was an lsmene figure, hoping to get by somehow, devoted to good literature and to the search for it, but also clinging to the good life which the regime had conferred on him. ‘I owe everything to it’ he said touchingly to Solzhenitsyn, who brings out with the utmost perception and sympathy the tragic division – the nadryv in Dostoevskian terms – which tormented his friend and editor.

A final and highly interesting chapter in Krasnov’s book – ‘August 1914 as an anti-Tolstoyan poem’ – puts forward the thesis that this novel has all the Dostoevskian hidden and polyphonic messages, though its appearance is that of a novel which takes its cue, in terms of research and diagnosis, from War and Peace. Tolstoy is frequently mentioned in August 1914 and even appears in person, taking a dim view of a young person’s desire to write poetry. Once again Krasnov proves his case, I think, but the novel is perhaps more ‘open’ than he allows. There is something wonderfully old fashioned about the way in which Solzhenitsyn can use the whole sweep of Russian culture and consciousness, referring to names, persons and points of view easily and freely in the course of his leisurely narration. To that extent August 1914 has much in common with Dr Zhivago, for both Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak depend, in the last resort, on joining their individual genius with that of the whole of pre-revolutionary Russian culture; thus they show, in the widest possible terms and quite apart from anything they say, where they belong and where the heart is. Krasnov ends with a short chapter on this theme – ‘Solzhenitsyn as synthesiser’. Merezhkovsky, the first Russian critic to contrast Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, did not consider them incompatible, and looked forward to ‘the new religious idea’ which, born of their union, should lead and revive Russia. Krasnov, in an apt phrase, calls this the ‘spiritual realism’ of Solzhenitsyn, and sees him (as he undoubtedly sees himself) as a religious leader and reviver of old values.

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