Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

May 15, 2012

Book bloggers are at their best when generating enthusiasm and discussion about a book that, otherwise, has gotten little press or attention. Whether it is John Self at the Asylum generating, via his esteemed and laudatory opinion, sales for Hugo Wilcken’s Colony or Reading Matters’ “Australian Literature Month” or Kevin From Canada (and his fellow Shadow jurors) raising the profile of the Giller Prize (inspiring many, well-executed imitators), book bloggers are becoming more and more instrumental in the process of helping readers locate worthwhile books with which they will connect.

Skylark is a good example of the power of blogs to promote novel deserving a wider audience. I only read this book because of the high praise it has received from other readers:

The Mookse and The Gripes

His Futile Preoccupations…

Sasha and the Silver Fish

Pechorin’s Journal

My Porch

Coverage did get a little kick from mainstream outlets:

Deborah Eisenberg in the New York Review of Books (who also published this book)

However, only with the boost from the trusted bloggers noted above did Kosztolanyi’s novel break out of my “to be purchased” list to my TBR, and, finally, to my “read and loved” list.

Originally published in Hungary in 1924 (preceding the Hungarian masterpiece Embers by a couple decades), Skylark is a very quiet novel focused on the painfully real Vajkay family. Father and Mother live with their adult daughter, Skylark. Skylark runs the household in lieu of employment or a social life outside the family. Her parents love her, but theirs is tinged emotion:

Skylark was a good girl, Akos would often say, to himself as much as anyone else. A very good girl, his only pride and joy.

He knew she was not pretty, poor thing, and for a long time this had cut him to the quick. Later he began to see her less clearly, her image gradually blurring in a dull and numbing fog. Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly……

He ambled along in his mouse-grey suit until they reached Szechenyi Square, the only square, the only agora, in Sarszeg, where instinctively he strode a couple of paces ahead, so as not to have to walk beside her.

Skylark is a disappointment, an embarrassment. Her parents are unsure how to deal with her in public. The few suitors she has had no longer show any interest in her. The facts indicate she will remain unmarried for the foreseeable future. The Vajkays view this is as mostly tragedy with, perhaps, a silver lining in the time Skylark spends with them as a result, the meals she cooks, and the order she brings to their lives.

Skylark, too, is disappointed in her lack of marriage prospects, but similarly takes some consolation in the help she provides to her parents.

There is a building sense, though, the love they feel is, if not forced, at least strained. Father has dreams in which terrible things are done to Skylark.

He could still see before him the figures from his dream, whom he had encountered so many times before. But even now it staggered him that his precious daughter, who, poor thing, lived such a quiet life, could be the focus of such a horrific and dramatic dream.

After these nightmares he would love Skylark still more dearly.

The lives of this small, unhappy family would likely continue indefinitely in the melancholy existence to which they have become accustomed but for an invitation to Skylark to visit some relatives. Father and Mother are hopeful that Skylark may find a potential mate while she is away, though they dread her absence. Skylark, too, anticipates a refreshing change of scenery and society. The parting at the railway is awkward, none of the three is eager for change, even if for only a week.

The dynamics of the Vajkay family are forever altered by the week apart. They discover things about themselves, the lives they had been living, and the lives they could be living that alter their perceptions of each other and the world. The way in which Kosztolanyi carefully builds the initial state of things and the internal changes of the characters reminded me of The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. From some perspectives, nothing at all has changed.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Ethan Hawley makes a decision that, ultimately, alters nothing in the external world or in the perceptions of those around him, but it completely shatters his prior self, the narrative of his life. The Vajkays are similarly altered by a week that is, externally, uneventful. Whether the family will be propelled into externally observable change is doutful, but we know that the family relationships and the way the Vajkays view themselves have been irrevocably twisted into a new, more painful shape. Just as Ethan Hawley will never be able to see the same man in the mirror, neither will the Vajkays recognize their former selves or each other after Skylark’s week away.


Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos

March 27, 2011

John Dos Passos was a prominent member of “The Lost Generation”, rivaling Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner for literary preeminence. That many know nothing of him and many more have never read his work suggests a decline in his reputation. The suggestion is not false. He certainly is rarely included as high on lists of great works as either of those other three authors. This has little to do with the beauty of his early works or with his originality as an artist. Rather, it has mostly to do, I think, with his politics.

Like Hemingway, Dos Passos was an ambulance driver during World War I. He and Heminway developed a friendship and bonded over their left-leaning politics. Dos Passos’s views were driven by his dismay at the split of America, as he saw it, between the wealthy and the poor. These opinions are evident in his works mostly as a compassionately realistic rendering of his working class characters. These two most lauded of his novels (the trilogy and Manhattan Transfer) are not polemical, however, at least not in putting forth a particular political agenda. What seethes beneath is not a political agenda, but a frustration with the indignities industrial capitalism foists on ordinary people. There is the feeling in both Manhattan Transfer and his U.S.A. Trilogy that everyone, whether rich or poor, is ground down by American capitalism and the pursuit of money.

His politics shifted rightward over the years, beginning with the nomination of FDR as the Democratic nominee. Dos Passos was disappointed with the nomination. Soon thereafter, he attacked communist political theory which, of course, upset many of his fellow writers who were themselves communists and alienated many of his American and European readers. His literary status dimmed. Eventually, his anti-communist views hardened until he became at least a tentative supporter of Joseph McCarthy. This did not endear him to the artistic and literary communities. Further, though I have not read any of his writings after his shift to the right, my understanding is that his later works declined in literary quality.

All of which is to say, Hemingway and Faulkner managed to eclipse Dos Passos not through a rigorous comparison of their highest aesthetic achievements, but because Dos Passos made himself a political outcast and faltered artistically later in life. I have noted on this blog before my admiration for his U.S.A. Trilogy, so I will only say here that I thought it was a phenomenal work of astounding scope and accomplishment.

I picked up Manhattan Transfer with the trepidation typical of a return to one’s former paradise. Will it be the same? Will things seem smaller, dirtier, duller? I can say that, while this is not quite as powerful as U.S.A., I was pleasantly relieved with what I discovered.

There are too many characters and too many of them “primary” to sketch out a summarizing plot. The story is that of New York rather than any specific individuals who inhabit it, yet individuals do populate the pages and vividly. The individuals do not represent anything or any, but lead complicated lives trying to make it in New York.

One storyline begins with young attorney George Balwin reading the newspaper in his office. Having no clients, a story about a milkman seriously injured in an accident (a milkman previously introduced to the reader) provokes him:

He ought to sue the railroad. By gum I ought to get hold of that man and make him sue the railroad. . . . Not yet recovered consciousness. . . . Maybe he’s dead. Then his wife can sue them all the more. . . . I’ll go to the hospital this very afternoon. . . . Get in ahead of any of these shysters. He took a determined bite of bread and chewed it vigorously. Of course not; I’ll go to the house and see if there isn’t a wife or mother or something: Forgive me Mrs. McNiel if I intrude upon your deep affliction, but I am engaged in an investigation at this moment. . . . Yes, retained by prominent interests. . . . He drank up the last of the coffee and paid the bill.

With that, his career begins.

Emile and Congo Jake are seamen trying to decide whether to give New York life a go or to ship out. Jimmy Herf is a momma’s boy who grows up to be a journalist. Ellen Thatcher is a daddy’s girl and grows up to be many things, including a leading actress. The lives of these and many other characters are elaborately braided together to form a picture of New York society nearly from top to bottom. The picture of the African American community and other “non-whites” exists, if at all, mostly as blank space. They exist only as doormen, maids, and others whose personalities, hopes, dreams, fears, and lives are given little more attention than the automobiles or furniture in the room.

Bud, a young man who came to the city from upstate New York, first finds work as a dishwasher. The description of his first day on the job is both impressive in the manner Dos Passos conveys the drudgery and shocking in the way racial attitudes are presented.

Plates slip endlessly through Bud’s greasy fingers. Smell of swill and hot soapsuds. Twice round with the little mop, dip, rinse and pile in the rack for the longnosed Jewish boy to wipe. Knees wet from spillings, grease creeping up his forearms, elbows cramped.

“Hell this aint no job for a white man.”

“I dont care so long as I eat,” said the Jewish boy above the rattle of the dishes and the clatter and seething of the range where three sweating cooks fried eggs and ham and hamburger steak and browned potatoes and cornedbeef hash.

“Sure I et all right,” said Bud and ran his tongue round his teeth dislodging a sliver of salt meat that he mashed against his palate with his tongue. Twice round the little mop, dip, rinse and pile in the rack for the longnosed Jewish boy to wipe. There was a lull. The Jewish boy handed Bud a cigarette. They stood leaning against the sink.

“Aint no way to make money dishwashing.” The cigarette wabbled on the Jewish boy’s heavy lip as he spoke.

“Aint no job for a white man nohow,” said Bud. “Waitin’s better, they’s the tips.”

This offhanded racism is, while not prevalent, at least significant in this work (as it was in U.S.A.). The racism is that of the characters and is likely an accurate depiction of the common attitude. The scorn is not restricted to African Americans but also to Italians (“wops”), Irish, Indians, and others who were considered categorically different somehow:

Imagine living down here among low Irish and foreigners, the scum of the universe.

As someone else has noted, these scense are uncomfortable because they are so casually tossed off. There is about them no sense of awareness on the part of the author (either as opposing or promoting the views) of the ugliness. Given Dos Passos’s considerable interest in the plight of the downtrodden, his apparent obliviousness to racial and ethnic injustices is at least puzzling. It cannot be swept away with the recognition that politics are often treated in a similarly nonjudgmental way because, ultimately, both Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. do make powerful statements about the political state of the city and nation, respectively. I have neither a sufficiently broad nor sufficiently deep knowledge of his work to go any further in what could certainly be a dissertation on the depiction of race in Dos Passos. It exists as it did exist, it is ugly as it was ugly.

I think Dos Passos manages more with respect to gender. He recognizes the inequality. In the following, Ed Thatcher has struck up a conversation with old man down on his luck. His daughter Ellen is uncomfortable.

”Daddy let’s go away. I dont like this man,” whispered Ellen tremulously in her father’s ear.

“All right we’ll go and take a look at the sealions. . . . Good day.”

“You couldn’t fahnd me the price of a cup o coffee could you now sir? I’m fair foundered.” Thatcher put a dime in the grimy knobbed hand.

“But daddy, mummy said never to let people speak to you in the street an to call a policeman if they did an to run away as fast as you could on account of those horrible kidnappers.”

“No danger of their kidnapping me Ellie. That’s just for little girls.”

“When I grow up will I be able to talk to people on the street like that?”

“No deary you certainly will not.”

“If I’d been a boy could I?”

“I guess you could.”

As with the racial epithets, no further attention is drawn to the scene, but the feeling is different. This exchange seems important precisely because of the gender issues inherent in both the daughter’s and father’s reactions. The impression that Dos Passos’s concerns go deeper as the women in his novel struggle against convention, traditional roles, and the peculiar perils of sex for them. Their reputations with respect to sexual virtue matter whereas, with the men, it does not. Further, the facts of unwanted pregnancies, illegitimacy, and abortion are starkly presented. Also, one character is homosexual and his difficulties, both socially and psychologically, are dealt with in a sympathetic and convincing way. The character is neither caricatured nor condemned. Rather, the difficulties of being a homosexual in early 1900s New York is explored in a surprisingly modern way. Dos Passos can engage interestingly in such social issues without resorting to either preachiness or stereotype.

The main show, however, is the struggle to survive and to “get ahead.” The fortunes of characters rise and fall, sometimes expectedly and sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes they stagnate, as with Jimmy Herf, the momma’s boy:

”The trouble with me is I cant decide what I want most, so my motion is circular, helpless and confoundedly discouraging.”

Dos Passos sometimes powerfully evokes the emotion of the moment, as when Jimmy seems possibly to have lost a woman for whom he has fallen.

Jimmy Herf stood stockstill at the foot of the brownstone steps. His temples throbbed. He wanted to break the door down after her. He dropped on his knees and kissed the step where she had stood. The fog swirled and flickered with colors in confetti about him. Then the trumpet feeling ebbed and he was falling through a black manhole. He stood stockstill. A policeman’s ballbearing eyes searched his face as he passed, a stout blue column waving a nightstick. Then suddenly he clenched his fists and walked off. “O God everything is hellish,” he said aloud. He wiped the grit off his lips with his coatsleeve.

The fact that the woman will never see him kiss the ground conveys the depth and truth of his feeling and the futility of it. And, then, he seems to shake his desperate love, at least for a moment. The grit on his lips, though, is the masterful touch. Dos Passos can write.

I am long overdue posting this for the Classics Circuit, so I will stop somewhat abruptly here. I highly recommend Dos Passos though I suggest starting with U.S.A.. The techniques he uses here are more polished and refined in that work. That also means U.S.A. is slightly less accessible, which cuts against my advice. Dos Passos is well-worthy of exploration, wherever you start.

[Update: And, I meant to add this above, there is further discussion of this particular work at Pechorins Journal. I highly recommend checking that blog out generally and specifically with reference to this work.]


The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

December 14, 2010

Edith has been, quite rightly, popular around the literature-loving blogosphere this year. The Classics Circuit featured the works of Wharton in January. While not technically part of the Wharton Classics Circuit, Kevin from Canada re-read Custom of the County that same month and loved it all over again. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that it made his “10 Best” for 2010. In May, The Mookse and the Gripes reviewed Wharton’s Ethan Frome which turned out to be one of his Ten Twelve Best. A Rat in the Book Pile also read Ethan Frome and drew out in her post interesting observations and quotes regarding the narrator. Where KfC opened the year with Wharton, Kevin from Interpolations (KfI? K2D2?) closed it out (November, close enough) with that same Wharton, Custom of the County. He has also read in 2010: Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

Who doesn’t want to read what all the cool kids are reading? And, yes, if these bloggers jumped off a literary bridge, I would follow. But I have my own reasons for reading Wharton. Ethan Frome is one of my favorite novellas of all time. I first read it at university roughly twenty years ago. I have re-read it since, but, frankly, have been a little frightened to pick up another Wharton for fear another of her works would not live up to the genius of Ethan Frome. I cannot say I will have the same love for Age of Innocence, but it is an outstanding work of literature and a pleasure to read.

I highly recommend A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Meyers has posted a “reconsideration” of the novel which is a more insightful and thorough review than I could manage, so I direct you there in lieu of an attempted review here. This year, (2010, the year of Wharton), he also used The Age of Innocence to illustrate his hypothesis regarding the function of plotting in novels. I highly recommend that post too.

Spoilers ahead.

Wharton is brilliant as any of the above reviews/posts will confirm. She has incredible insight into human motivations and the sorts of psychological foibles that so often tether her characters to tragedy. D. G. Meyers does a great job of discussing how The Age of Innocence is a response to and refutation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I have not actually read The Portrait of a Lady, so cannot comment on the comparison other than to say Meyers makes a convincing case. In Meyers’ capsule summary of that work, he says:

“Isabel Archer consciously decides against rising above her daily level and agrees to be buried alive in marriage to a moral monster, sacrificing the long windings of her own destiny to the duty of protecting her stepdaughter.”

This interplay of concern for others and feminine strength is also present in The Age of Innocence, though Newland Archer does not see it until the end. Like James’ Isabel Archer, Newland believes that he is the one calling the shots, making the moral choices. Whether Isabel is correct, and it seems perhaps not, Newland definitely is mistaken. He is condescendingly concerned with women’s lack of freedom:

[Newland Archer’s] exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of argument – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

This superiority of attitude extends, of course, to his fiancee May who has “been carefully trained not to possess” “freedom of judgment”. He is pleased that he is not so clueless as May because, if he were, “they would have been no more fit to find their way about than Babes in the Wood”. And, yet, by the end, it becomes obvious that May and Ellen have been playing the game of life at a level so much deeper that his own that he managed not to be much more than a pawn in their game. They are the ones who contrived to allow Newland his freedom, but he was too arrogantly thick-headed to see the choices he was given. One of the beauties of this early Twentieth Century novel is how devastatingly it undermines the masculine notions of superiority of intellect and wordly understanding.

Newland is too hemmed in by convention and unwilling to deviate from custom to realize when May offers him freedom. He laments Ellen’s lack of freedom even though, history proves, she is the one that ultimately achieved it and lived it. For Newland, women are weak and imprisoned by societal rules while good men are wise and protective. Wharton brilliantly subverts these prejudices by demonstrating the depths of delusion upon which they depend. The reader is sucked into Newland’s mindset which makes the final revelations so devastatingly pleasurable.

If I read another Wharton, I will expect a twist in the tail of the story that turns everything that has gone before on its head. Just as Ethan Frome was about the tragedy of romance, rather than the seeming conflict between true love and marital duty, The Age of Innocence is about the power of women and the cluelessness of men rather than the tragedy of women’s subjugation.

Wharton is delightful. 2011 should be the year of Wharton too.


The Twelve Chairs by Ilf & Petrov

June 18, 2010

Several years ago, I took a trip to Ukraine and, along the way, met a young veterinarian, Misha. We struck up a friendship and exchanged e-mail addresses. We e-mailed sporadically, sometimes in a flurry and sometimes a month or more would pass between messages. After a particularly long pause, Misha sent an e-mail indicating that he had arrived in the United States. I had not known he had any definite plans to come. He had found a job in the United States and had moved to within an hour’s drive of my childhood hometown (where most of my immediate family still live). It was quite a pleasant coincidence, because now I can see him fairly regularly and I have had the opportunity to show him where I grew up.

On one of my visits, we discussed literature (my Ukrainian is actually very, very poor Russian, but his English is good). We talked about Bulgakov, Nabokov, and some other authors. I asked Misha for a book recommendation. He suggested “The Twelve Chairs” by Ilya Ilf Fainzilberg (Ilya Ilf) and Evgeny Petrovich Kataev (Evgeny Petrov). He told me it was extremely funny, that I would certainly enjoy it. I promptly ordered it.

When I showed it to him (before I had read it), he looked at the back. The very first line of the publisher’s description is:

Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Russia.

Misha gave a small snort of derision. Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Ukraine, you see. Ukrainians dislike their country being called “The Ukraine” (instead of the accurate “Ukraine”) and they also dislike being confused with Russia. The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen Soviet republics, one of which was the Russian SFSR and another of which was the Ukrainian SSR. Westerners, in my experience, have tended to make little to no distinction between the Soviet Union and Russia, which is as baffling as it is annoying to Ukrainians (and, I presume, citizens of other former Soviet states). Anyway, American publishers (Northwestern University Press, in this case) are writing for Americans and, unfortunately, gloss over distinctions of Soviet geography that are on a Texas/Oklahoma scale.

But what a book. Northwestern University Press published The Twelve Chairs as part of their “European Classics” series. The series itself is outstanding. The entire thing is on my wish list, both the known and the (to me) obscure. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one as an entry point.

As The Twelve Chairs begins, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov is going through an ordinary day in the “regional center of N.” “Life in N. was extremely quiet.” Ippolit lives unhappily with his mother-in-law, Claudia Ivanovna. Before the revolution, Ippolit and Claudia were wealthy aristocrats. She rues her relative downfall in life and how poorly her son-in-law turned out. In the opening pages, she has a dream of ill portent. Ippolit waves it off as the superstition of an old woman. He carries on as usual.

Unless I begin quoting liberally, I cannot convey the humor of this first chapter in which the proprietors of the rival funeral homes “Do Us the Honor” and the “Nymph” play an amusing role and Ippolit goes to his job as the clerk in charge of registering births, marriages, and deaths. Trust me, the skewering of Soviet life is delicious and translates perfectly well. We (in America) do have the DMV, after all.

Claudia Ivanovna has an attack of some sort, prompting Ippolit Matveyevich to dutifully rush to her bedside. He is rewarded when Claudia tells him a secret she has been keeping. Before her property was confiscated by the state, she sewed her family jewels into the seat of one of Ippolit’s twelve dining room chairs. She did not have time to retrieve them before they had to flee and Ippolit’s chairs were taken as well. Ippolit spends the remainder of the novel trying to find the chair with the jewels sewn into it.

His task is complicated at every step. To begin, Claudia also made a deathbed confession to Father Fyodor Vostrikov in which she disclosed the story of the jewels in the chair. Father Fyodor sees his opportunity to finally realize his “cherished…dream of possessing his own candle factory.” He only went into the priesthood to avoid conscription and, so, still covets material things. He is “tormented by the vision of thick ropes of wax being wound onto the factory drums.” Father Fyodor becomes determinedly fixated on locating those jewels to sate his thirst for a candle factory.

Father Fyodor walked up and down the room for half an hour, frightening his wife by the change in his expresssion and telling her all sorts of rubbish. Mother could understand only one thing – for no apparent reason Father Fyodor had cut his hair, intended to go off somewhere, and was leaving her for good.

“I’m not leaving you,” he kept saying. “I’m not. I’ll be back in a week. A man can have a job to do, after all. Can he or can’t he?”

“No, he can’t,” said his wife.

Father Fyodor even had to strike the table with his fist, although he was normally a mild person in his treatment of his near ones. He did so cautiously, since he had never done it before, and, greatly alarmed, his wife threw a kerchief around her head and ran to fetch the civilian clothing [for Father Fyodor] from her brother.

Ippolit’s biggest obstacle, however, is not his rivalry with the mildly ruthless Father Fyodor, it is his ally. Ostap Bender is a con artist and quickly convinces Ippolit to share Claudia’s secret. Ostap immediately requests a sixty percent share and manages to negotiate to an even split of the proceeds. The numerous renegotiations throughout the novel are a running joke as the new split is always to Ostap’s advantage.

Ostap Bender does have the necessary shadiness of character and intelligence to make progress on their quest. At first, it seems things will be easy as they are able to find a record of the twelve chairs which all were sent to the same place. Through missteps on Ippolit’s part, they lose the opportunity to purchase the whole lot, the chairs are sold individually, and end up spread all over the Soviet Union.

[T]here cannot be less than twenty-six and a half million chairs in the country. To make the figure truer we will take off another six and a half million. The twenty million left is the minimum possible number.

Amid this sea of chairs made of walnut, oak, ash, rosewood, mahogany, and Karelian birch, amid chairs made of fir and pinewood, the heros of this novel are to find one Hambs walnut chair with curved legs, containing Madam Petukhova’s treasure inside its chintz-upholstered belly.

The heros persist, locating and searching the chairs one by one. Ostap must continually devise new plans to raise proceeds for the quest, from charging tourists to view a landscape to marrying a woman. Ippolit helps out in ways always inept and sometimes degrading.

Aside from nicely rendered comic set pieces, the novel has excellent references to both high and low culture from all over the world. For instance, Ostap makes a reference to O’Henry’s stories about Jeff Peters and Andy Tucker and Ippolit tries to disguise himself with “Titanic” hair dye which, of course, ends disastrously. Hilariously, a Soviet debutante (Ellochka) has a rivalry, in her own mind, with “the daughter of the American billionaire, Vanderbilt” after seeing the latter’s picture in a magazine.

A dog skin made to look like muskrat was bought with a loan and added the finishing touch to the evening dress….

The dog-trimmed dress was the first well-aimed blow at Miss Vanderbilt. The snooty American girl was then dealt three more in succession. Ellochka bought a chinchilla tippet (Russian rabbit caught in Tula Province) from Fimka Sobak, a private furrier, acquired a hat made of dove-grey Argentine felt, and converted her husband’s new jacket into a stylish tunic. The billionaire’s daughter was shaken, but the affectionate Daddy Vanderbilt had evidently come to the rescue.

The latest number of the magazine contained a portrait of the cursed rival in four different styles…

Ilf and Petrov get laughs not only from Ellochka’s rivalry with Miss Vanderbilt, but, after pointing out William Shakespeare’s “estimated” vocabulary of twelve thousand words, also from her ability to “manage[] easily and fluently on thirty.”

Another comic set piece brings to mind Monty Python’s dead parrot skit and yet another, involving an argument over whether Tolstoy ate sausages while writing War and Peace seems a precursor to Seinfeld’s Tolstoy reference (“War, what is it good for.”). The novel is a belly shaker.

I will only quote one more passage, this one on official Soviet humor:

Iznurenkov manged to be funny about fields of activity in which you would not have thought it was possible to say anything funny. From the arid desert of excessive increases in the cost of production Iznurenkov managed to extract a hundred or so masterpieces of wit. Heine would have given up in despair had he been asked to say something funny and at the same time socially useful about the unfair tariff rates on slow-delivery freight consignments; Mark Twain would have fled from the subject, but Iznurenkov remained at his post.

Fortunately, the comedic duo of Ilf and Petrov remained at their post for one more novel which, Misha assures me, is better than this one. I strongly urge you to snag a copy of this quick and enjoyable read if any of the above has made you smile.

If you need a literary reason, the Complete Review gives it an A-.

If you like movie tie-ins, Mel Brooks made a film version.

If you want to make the earth a better place for our children, the 1960s introduction will assure you that, by reading this book, you are doing your part to mend “strains in Russo-American relations”.

Promote world peace, read The Twelve Chairs.


The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

July 7, 2009

A Kiev museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov lies just off of St. Andrew’s Descent, a cobblestone street passing from St. Sophia’s cathedral down to the Dneiper, in House Number 13. Bulgakov and his family lived in House Number 13 during the Ukrainian civil war and Boleshevik Revolution. The novel is set in that time and revolves around the lives of the Turbin family in the midst of this upheaval. While THE WHITE GUARD is not as widely known as THE MASTER AND MARGARITA (which Salman Rushdie drew upon heavily for MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN), it is an excellent entry point into Bulgakov’s work.

TheWhiteGuard Rushdie’s reference to Bulgakov should be acknowledgement enough of Bulgakov’s relevance and importance. If you have not already heard of Bulgakov, or if you have but have not yet read his work, I would point out that he is considered by many to be the greatest Soviet writer of the 20th century. I say Soviet, because he is not truly Russian, though he did spend many years in Moscow. He was first a Ukrainian, a fact in which Ukrainians take great pride. The fight over who may properly claim him as their own is further verification of his stature.

Bulgakov’s standing is well-deserved:

For many years before her death, in the house at No. 13 St. Alexei’s Hill, little Elena, Alexei the eldest and baby Nikolka had grown up in the warmth of the tiled stove that burned in the dining-room. How often they had followed the story of Peter the Great in Holland, ‘The Shipwright of Saardam’, portrayed on its glowing hot dutch tiles; how often the clock had played its gavotte; and always towards the end of December there had been a smell of pine-needles and candles burning on evergreen branches..…But clocks are fortunately quite immortal, as immortal as the Shipwright of Saardam, and however bad the times might be, the tiled Dutch stove, like a rock of wisdom, was always there to radiate life and warmth.

The tiled stove is nearly a character in its own right. The life it gives is not only comfort, but humor too:

Then printed [on the stove] in capitals, in Nikolka’s hand:
I herby forbid the scribbling of nonsense on this stove. Any comrade found guilty of doing so will be shot and deprived of civil rights. Signed: Abraham Goldblatt,
Ladies, Gentlemen’s and Women’s Tailor.
Commissar, Podol District Committee.
30th January 1918.

Bulgakov is a master of these slices of life. The intimacy Bulgakov achieves powers this work. There are many vivid scenes of life in House No. 13. The family is so deftly drawn by Bulgakov that they feel like one’s own neighbors by the end of the book. But the book is not limited to the home life of its characters, it has action too.

Major world events are taking place in the streets outside. Characters are shot, they are robbed; characters love, betray, and die. The politics of the time provide a roiling backdrop, though politics are not the point. The intersection of politics and daily life, particularly when political turmoil has brought war, is a fascinating topic and one that Bulgakov explores, but never in a heavy-handed manner. The political is always secondary to the personal.

In one scene, a character is injured, possibly mortally, during a skirmish in the city. Elena is distraught with worry. Bulgakov captures the essence of these moments of powerlessness beautifully:

The professor took her by the arm and whispered:
“‘Go now, Elena Vasilievna, we’ll do all there is to do.’
“Elena obeyed and went out. But the professor did not do anything more.”

In one short scene (of which I have excerpted only a portion to avoid spoilers), Bulgakov captures the desperate love Elena has for the wounded character, the difficulty of the situation, and the professor’s warm practicality.

Bulgakov brilliantly sketches even minor characters. Outside of house No. 13, a war is raging. Several family members are involved and, in this way, the reader is provided a view of the wider world and the characters that inhabit it. Perhaps my favorite is a troubling scene in which a janitor, drafted into service as coroner, is helping one of the Turbins find the body of a fallen comrade-in-arms among piles of dead. The floor is slippery with blood. The janitor, Fyodor, has to move the body of “a flat-chested, broad-hipped woman” off the corpse of the comrade.

“There was a cheap little comb in the hair at the back of her neck, glittering dully, like a fragment of glass. Without stopping what he was doing Fyodor deftly pulled it out, dropped it into the pocket of his apron and gripped [the comrade] under the armpits. As it was pulled out of the pile his head lolled back, his sharp, unshaven chin pointed upwards and one arm slipped from the janitor’s grasp.”

The novel is filled with efficient scenes like this that perfectly capture a moment in time, yet keep the narrative moving. This is that rare book that I would recommend to almost anyone.

THE WHITE GUARD is realist, unlike the much more fanciful THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. Bulgakov does, however, add a touch of the supernatural. And while the book was suppressed by Stalin, explicitly political questions are never really raised by the author, though the characters necessarily discuss the political situation. The questions Bulgakov poses pertain to the individual and, more so, to a family trying to survive a civil war. The primary loyalties are personal. In fact, the book reflects an ambivalence toward political loyalties that is borne of having lived through a revolution. The author, as surely as the characters, must have had little enthusiasm for revolutionary politics.

In the end, perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it would be difficult to read THE WHITE GUARD without becoming attached to the Turbin family. Perhaps, this, more than any overt politics, is why the novel was banned in the Stalinist Soviet Union.