Russian Memories

Short fiction by Gogol, Chekhov and other 19th century Russian writers occupies a distinguished shelf in any collection of traditional literature by Russian authors from before the Bolshevik Revolution. Less well known are many stories by those who left the country following 1917 and continued to write and publish as exiles in Europe. Newspapers and periodicals in Russian flourished in Berlin and Paris, printing short stories not only by famous authors such as Bunin and Nabokov, but also from a multitude of lesser known writers.

Penguin Classics recently published Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, an anthology of over 400 pages of English translations by Bryan Karetnik and others of 35 examples of this little-known literature. The stories themselves are preceded by a detailed chronology of events 1914 — 1940, a sixteen page introduction to the world of exile experienced by the authors, suggestions for further reading, and followed by a list of Russian émigré newspapers and periodicals, author biographies, & detailed footnotes to the stories.

The lengthy introduction notes “…by 1921 over 130 Russian newspapers had been established worldwide, as well as journals filled with poetry, short stories and excerpts from novels and reviews, as well as political, social and philosophical essays and criticism.”

This flourishing was brief however, for with the rise of fascism and then the second world war the hothouse culture of Russian writing withered and was mostly forgotten. Exceptionally, Ivan Bunin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1933, and is represented with four stories in this collection.

The early work of Vladimir Nabokov only became resurrected and translated after he became famous as a writer in English, starting with the notorious Lolita (1955). His Borgesian story The Visit to the Museum (1939) was first published in English in Esquire in 1963.

Other émigré Russian writers such as Teffi, Lukash, and Gazdanov reveal the sensibility of the exile, creating visions in one’s first language while surrounded by an alien culture.
A sense of nostalgia seasoned by regretfulness and at times horror creates a powerful mood, associated with a sense of loss, the disappearance of not only a vanished past now embedded in an alien culture. The new availability of these texts reveals to the English reader a lesser known chapter of world literature.

Summing up, the editor writes, “. . . these works represent some of the most talented Russian writing of the last century, and moreover a unique confluence of European and Russian literary traditions. Their primary vehicle, born of necessity, was the short story, and it is for this reason that we present them here, with the aim of giving them a new lease of life, a new journey under foreign skies, in a new language.”

January 15, 2019

Hope

A protestant clergyman friend with whom I shared lunch recently asked about hope, a topic ordinarily not arising in social conversation. His question remained latent after returning home, and not being a Christian, I consulted the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (ed. P. J. Achtmeier) to see what was written on the subject in Scripture. Hope was defined therein as “The expectation of a favourable future under God’s direction.”

In the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) the concept is non-eschatological, and words meaning “to wait or expect” (kawah), and “to be full of confidence, to trust” (batah) are commonly employed to convey a similar meaning.

In the New Testament, in the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, the Greek verb meaning “to expect” is employed in the common laic sense, but in the Pauline Letters the concept refers to eschatological belief in final things, including eternal spiritual existence after death for those who are “saved” by virtue of their belief in Jesus Christ.

A secular definition necessarily omits any mention of a deity, but retains the meaning of hope being a quality or attitude of optimistic expectation. But one may ask, expectation of what? If not a blissful afterlife, we could suggest the desire sought: the gambler seeks a monetary gain, the prisoner freedom, the narcissist recognition. The common thread among them would appear to be an unpredictable pursuit of happiness.

Despair is described as the antonym of hope, though the absence of hope does not necessarily imply the presence of despair. A Stoic resignation, more characteristic of Eastern than Christian thought, suggests a neutral state without either hope or hopelessness.

Excessive preoccupation with these concerns tends to be non-productive, fostering morbid ideation, and leading to nights of insomnia and days of useless rehashing of ideas, such as writing bloggery about the Larger Issues that bedevil us. I personally find a combination of physical exercise and peer socialization accompanied by a sense of humour is a protective approach to persistence of these vexing issues.

Driving across southern British Columbia to Vancouver for the first time in the late 1960s with my colleague Arthur Bartsch, as we left the coastal range of mountains we passed through the soggy town of Hope. I asked my companion (who grew up nearby) about the origin of the name.

Art dryly explained it was that they hoped it would stop raining some day.

Rather than being overly preoccupied with the vicissitudes of life, the collapse of civilization or even the third law of thermodynamics, it undeniably seems healthier to sometimes hope instead that it will stop raining some day, even though we choose to dwell in a rain forest.

January 10, 2019

A Bedtime Story: Murder, Then Sleep

When at home during the day I usually read literary journals or non fiction. In the evenings after supper I read mostly memoirs or fiction like short stories, until it’s time to do my ablutions and retire, usually before ten o’clock. But then I turn to crime fiction to read in bed before falling asleep. Oddly enough, fictional mayhem and bloody murder can be a relaxing change from the incessant daily global accounts about what is really going on.

A regular source these days is one of a series of novellas chronicling the exploits of Jules Maigret of the Parisian Police Judiciaire. A street plan of Paris and a road map of France are at the bedside, allowing me to visualize Maigret’s travels around the capital and elsewhere as he investigates the social and interpersonal circumstances necessary to understand what led to the crime. These are not your run-of-the-mill whodunits, but carefully crafted psychological portraits of individuals and families, caught up in curious and convoluted relationships, that culminate in murder. The author has been compared to Chekhov in his nuanced powers of description. Penguin is currently republishing all 70 stories, one every month; so far I have 53.

The Jack Reacher series of thrillers set in the US by the English author Lee Child is completely different. Not police procedurals, they relate the contemporary adventures of the improbable knight-errant Reacher, a retired military policeman having no fixed address or relationship, who travels around the country hitchhiking or by bus. He invariably becomes involved in situations helping others at risk and untangling sinister plots of criminal gangs, corrupted policemen, greedy businessmen and politicians. There is plenty of physical violence, bloodshed and killing, but in the end virtue prevails. Having sorted things out he leaves town, resuming his restless wandering. Like Simenon, Childs’s powers of description are impressive and his plots are intricately constructed, but he is no Chekhov and psychological subtlety is not prominent. He churns out one novel every year with the same format. Initially ignored, after reading positive critiques in a variety of publications such as the London Review of Books and The New Yorker, I am currently working my way through the series of 23 novels from the beginning.

Apart from Simenon and Childs I read other fiction in this genre, like the Ian Rankin novels set in Edinburgh with Inspector Rebus, the North Yorkshire police procedurals of Peter Robinson featuring Detective Superintendent Alan Banks, and translations of European, Asian, and other crime fiction. A good source of reviews may be found in the blog Mrs Peabody Investigates.

Not a violent person myself, i have always avoided physical conflict in real life situations, and will walk away from any possible involvement. But like other basically pacific people, I must admit to a certain fascination with this subject, probably reflecting a common human trait and not just a sad characteristic of the age in which we live. After all, the bloodiest and most violent of all these stories was the Iliad, dating from c. 750 BCE.

January 6, 2019

Hell

As a psychiatrist, when interviewing a new referral, I always inquired about religious belief as part of the initial assessment. Reading an essay about Hell by Joseph Farrell in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, I thought of one patient who described himself as being “in recovery” from Roman Catholicism, and adding, “It takes more than 12 steps.”

Farrell’s essay describes the effect in later life of being taught as a child about Hell as a place of post mortem retribution by God, as eternal punishment for sins committed during life, characteristic of Calvinist and Roman Catholic education. Among small children, the concept of Hell in this sense was intended to be literal, as described in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

Morbid depictions of the suffering of the damned in Hell were displayed in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and other old masters.

St. Thomas Aquinas was said to have wondered, “if the joys of the blessed in heaven would be heightened by the spectacle of the damned getting what they deserved.”

Part one of Dante’s Divine Comedy describes detailed tortures inflicted upon varied sinners appropriate to their individual sins, as in W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics in The Mikado,” Let the punishment fit the crime.”

The intermediate locations of purgatory and limbo are fascinating imaginary in-between states, where the departed may reside before admission to heaven, like waiting rooms for souls. The RC Church used to sell first class seats guaranteeing shorter waits in purgatory, but that was cancelled following the objections of Martin Luther and others. Limbo is another matter, I first thought it was a genre of an athletic Brazilian dance.

Beyond its literal meaning, the idea of Hell is also employed in a metaphorical manner. André Gide once cynically commented, “L’enfer, c’est les autres”, i.e. “Hell is other people.” More realistically, the cruelties of warfare and genocide are often characterized as hellish, these extreme situations meriting extreme terminology.

Less intensively, we can all imagine particular situations as “personal hells” that vary among individuals: one of mine might be of being trapped in a deafeningly loud rock concert, with no means of escape. (Others might feel the same way if subjected to an interminable Bruckner symphony in a closed concert hall, and with no possibility of leaving.)

But Farrell’s essay focuses on the literal meaning of Hell as a place of divine retribution, and touches on the situation of those who had been educated in Roman Catholic schools, but as adults had lost their faith. He notes that “a lapsed Catholic is someone who cannot altogether shake off a consciousness, if not quite a fear, of Hell and who, knowing they are at death’s door, would call a priest, as an insurance policy.”

January 4, 2019

ON READING

Having no TV, I do not watch television programmes, and rarely go to the cinema. I do not listen to “podcasts” or radio programmes. I avoid video clips, and only rarely listen to or watch recommended material sent from others.

I read.

Occasionally on public transit one may see a person engaged in reading a book, usually surrounded by zombies with earbuds connected to their little electronic “devices”.

When visiting the home of a friend or acquaintance I always like to examine the bookshelves to understand the interests of my host. This can be an instructive exercise, but sometimes reveals but crass pretension. A pleasant fellow I know has a bookcase displaying sets of works by famed writers beautifully bound in matching bindings, but apparently never having been opened; it is more gratifying to find someone’s bookshelves overflowing with well-thumbed works, particularly when displaying worn bindings and other signs of use.

A friend, knowing I was a bibliophile, once offered to buy me an electronic reading device, on which one could upload a variety of texts to read whatever and wherever one wished, but I declined the offer, finding it tiresome to read on backlit screens. Moreover, I enjoy the sensual pleasure of holding a book in my hands, feeling the texture of the printed sheets, and the odour of the pages, whether newly printed, crisp and fresh, or the musty stale scent of a well-used edition.

Annotations are often noted, and on the back flyleaf I note the page number with a brief comment for easy future retrieval. I sometimes underline text, particularly if the subject is either amusing or considered worthy of recall, usually only one significant phrase or sentence of a more densely argued paragraph.

For gifts on special occasions I’ll seldom purchase a book these days but instead choose a book from my shelves that I’d like to share with the recipient.

Rereading is often rewarding, of both fiction and nonfiction. Speed reading however serves only for the superficial transfer of information, not for deep appreciation of the writing itself. Choice of vocabulary, word order, sound, and grammatical structures are characteristics of a text quite apart from the information content. To speed read a short story by Nabokov or Borges would be like walking through a museum without stopping to look at the exhibits, or playing Beethoven quartets as background music, ignoring the structure of the music.

Prose is at times poetic, and capable of being savoured by the reader like a tasty morsel of food by a gourmand. Poetry can be a subtle conveyor of emotions, not just information transfer.

January 1, 2019

Faust

I bought my copy of Goethe’s Faust in 1952 when I was an undergraduate student of literature and philosophy at the University of Minnesota. It is a mid-XX century translation by C. F. MacIntyre with the original German text displayed on the opposite page for convenient reference. it is the earliest book purchase I still possess, and it has been carried it along with me throughout my long life. I thought of it today while rereading an essay I wrote at age 20 in 1954 as a summing up of my thinking, when I received my BA degree in Humanities.

Since then, I have studied philosophy, astronomy, medicine and, alas, psychiatry. Like Faust I feel no wiser now than I was before, and realize that we are all basically ignorant.

My essay proclaimed the dawn of a world-outlook, and one may compare  what I thought 65 years ago with what I now believe.

Scientific knowledge then as now was celebrated as the sole means of understanding the structure of the universe, with intersubjective testability as the criterion for assessing the truth of a proposition about the natural world. The role of language was considered  fundamental for this understanding, and my view of that remains strong.

Ethical values and social concerns also remain much the same now as then, and aesthetic interests while broader, continue as before. I didn’t like jazz or broccoli then and I still don’t.

My early thoughts about philosophy reflected a feeling of sterility about logical empiricism, useful in dealing with science and epistemology, but of limited benefit in examining value judgments and moral issues. I now incline more towards existentialism.

In a closing statement from 1954, I wrote “It would be nobler for mankind if the universe had no preconceived plan, because then we ourselves might endow it with a purpose. For what is man but a very small and yet complex chunk of the universe come alive and conscious? We are the universe, and what goals we set for ourselves we set for it also.” That remains my credo.

A lifelong theme has been a wide range of interests and not becoming a narrow specialist. Like Faust, I don’t presume to be an expert in anything, though learning has always been a source of fulfillment. I’ve tried to become at least a competent amateur in some areas, respecting the advice of Aristotle who wrote, “A man should be able to play the flute—but not too well.”

Finally, as a physician, I’ve tried to do no harm and hopefully have done some good for others. A sense of humour has been helpful in dealing with the vicissitudes of illness and advanced age.

After a lifetime studying history, science, literature, and psychology, the collapse of civilization looks inevitable, and the only certainty is the second law of thermodynamics. Applied reason and competition have enabled the human race to survive and achieve mastery over nature, but are destroying us. Compelled by our inborn traits and poisoned by our technology, the Eternal Masculine drags us down.

Freud wins over Goethe.

Kingsnorth: Epilogue

In an epilogue Kingsnorth sums up his thinking, starting with a trenchant quotation by American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

Kingsnorth elaborates on the fragility of civilization and foresees its fall, identifying as an underlying cause the myth of ‘progress’ leading to unlimited economic growth at the expense of the natural world. “Our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”

Denial is rampant. We are poised at the edge of a massive change, an ecocide we have wrought upon the planet, and there is a reluctance to accept the undeniable truth that the culprit is civilization itself. This is the last taboo. As a writer, he advances our need to admit it and to detach ourselves from it, employing what he calls the Eight Principles of Uncivilisation:

1. We live in a time of social economic and ecological unraveling. All around us are signs that our whole way of  living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.

2. We reject the faith that holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories that underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’.

4. We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention we will re-engage with the non-human world.

6. We will celebrate writing and art that is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.

7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we shall find the hope beyond hope, the paths that lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

Whether one agrees with his arguments or not, they are relevant and merit discussion.