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Book Reviews: It is Sufficient to Collect Sunbeams in a Glass of Water
by Woody Brown
Russian Romantic Prose: An Anthology
Edited by Carl Proffer
My Half Century: Selected Prose
By Anna Akhmatova, edited and translated by Ronald Meyer
Mahogany & Other Stories
By Boris Pilnyak, translated by Vera T. Reck and Michael Green
By Lev Razgon, translated by John Crowfoot
(Ardis Publishers, Inc.)
Four books full of Russian writers
“I am simply of the opinion that the life of a peasant is no less valuable than that of an emperor. At times, indeed, it proves to be more intriguing.”
So writes Lev Emmanuilovich Razgon in the preface to True Stories, his frank, lucid memoir about life during Stalin’s Great Purge. And that sentiment—that the stories of peasants and commoners, townspeople and laymen are worth telling and reading—is a theme common to all four of the books Ardis Publishers released the week before the New Year. All of which, by the way, every reader, whether a scholar of Russian literature and history or a high school student with a gift card to Talking Leaves, would do well to read.
These four titles are the first half of the batch of eight books Ardis will be releasing this winter. (My review of the remaining titles, one of which is a wonderful new translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s rarely anthologized story “The Crocodile,” will be published in the coming weeks.) These works are mostly by Soviet writers (Akhmatova, Pilnyak, Razgon), with the exception of the pieces collected in Russian Romantic Prose, all of which were written in the period 1825-1845, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. (Did you know that the word “tsar” is derived from “Caesar”?) The only text that might prove difficult for a reader with little or no knowledge of Russian history is Razgon’s True Stories, much of the power of which is derived from the author’s astounding firsthand accounts of the sometimes criminal, sometimes heroic actions of various Soviet dignitaries. It’s not that Razgon’s stories will mean nothing if you do not know who, say, Alexander Alexandrovich Vishnevsky is; it’s just that the uninitiated should be aware that conducting some research about the Soviet pantheon (which can now be done using only a cellphone) will make the process of reading Razgon’s memoir less alienating and more educational.
The best book of the lot is Russian Romantic Prose: An Anthology, edited by Carl Proffer, who also wrote the preface and introductions to five of the seven authors anthologized. Among the writers whose work is included are Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Vladimir Odoevsky, along with names that are less familiar to a Western audience, including Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky and Orest Somov. I don’t particularly love Romanticism—the term makes me think of Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Blake, and then I get hung up on thoughts about how little I care for Thoreau and Emerson. But even as I write this I remember Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads that he wrote with Coleridge, Blake’s “Tam O’Shanter,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” early Yeats, Beethoven’s Heroic period, Rachmaninov and Hawthorne and the landscapes of Ivan Aivazovsky and everything Keats ever wrote.
In any case, Romanticism in Russia does not look like the regularly scheduled pastoral musings you might’ve come to expect. One of the things I find most interesting about Russian literature is that it often anticipates formal and ideological trends that would only become popular in the West 50 or 60 years later. Hence Odoevsky’s “Princess Mimi,” with its zany third person omniscient narrator (in Russian the name for this inflected narration is skaz), its metafictional commentary, and the ostensibly prefatory intrusion from the author at the story’s midpoint. In Russia, Romanticism can look a lot like postmodernism, and for that and the peerless quality of the stories in Russian Romantic Prose you are more than justified in buying the book.
Onward, though—to Stalin’s stifling censorship and the irreducible courage and creativity of Soviet writers, to the political turmoil and the harshly imposed political tranquility of Russia in the 20th century. Enter Anna Akhmatova, the acclaimed Modernist poet, a member of the group of poets who occupied the Stray Dog, a cabaret in St. Petersburg that Catherine Ciepiela, in her introduction to The Stray Dog Cabaret, the collection of Paul Schmidt’s translations that she edited along with Honor Moore, calls “a gathering place for artistic bohemia,” where “Akhmatova posed with queenly majesty.” My Half Century, translated and edited by Ronald Meyer, is a sizeable unfinished collection of the poetess’s prose, which collection she worked on until her death in 1966. It is a stunning text, one that makes obvious the intelligence, wit, and deeply sympathetic poetic sensibility of the remarkably resilient poet whom the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union condemned as “half-nun, half-harlot” in a 1946 resolution.
All of the writers we’ve discussed so far either lived full lives before the Revolution of 1917, the ensuing civil war, and the subsequent creation of the Soviet Union, or lived to see Stalin’s death and Krushchev’s de-Stalinization and denunciation of the Great Purge. It is on a sad note, then, that we end with Boris Pilnyak, a fascinating writer who composed many of his stories, e.g. “Chinese Story” and the novel The Naked Year, with semi-fictional information about his travels abroad and with “a strong predilection for quotations from documents, newspapers, public notices, and popular songs, for new industrial terminology and exotic words.” His work displays an unerring fidelity to the poetry he heard in languages he didn’t know, in the silence signified by an ellipsis, in the escalating murmurs of the repressed. The stories in Mahogany & Other Stories confront frankly and deftly then-unspeakable aspects of everything from politics to human sexuality, and always with a conscientious ear for the poetic possibilities of the prose sentence. Soviet authorities arrested Pilnyak on charges of spying and terrorism resulting in part from his story “The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon,” in 1937. In 1938 he was tried and, after a trial that lasted 15 minutes, convicted and sentenced to be shot. Shortly afterward, a small yellow piece of paper was appended to his file that read, “Sentence carried out.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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