Tuesday, April 29, 2014

business as usual

Today is the feast day of St Catherine of Siena, who is more or less the patron saint of my novel Go Home, Miss America. I had no plans to write about St Catherine or Go Home, Miss America. I was going to write a post about Benito Perez Galdos' novel My Friend Manso (starts strong, continues as a great novel, begins to dissolve a bit toward the end, but the final chapter is excellent; maybe I'll write something more useful than that in the coming days), and I was thinking I'd write about how Ralph Waldo Emerson is known in America as a sort of kindly grandfather figure in love with the splendor of nature but if you read his essays (I'm reading The Portable Emerson now) you discover that he was just another of those 19th-century Will to Power guys, who privileged himself and his own needs above those of everyone else, a guy who hated the idea of charity ("Why should I feed the poor? Are they my poor?") and set the tone for an America which feels free to act on the global stage with no regard for any other nation. In other words, a lunatic. You should read the bit in "Self-Sufficiency" (by which he means something more like "self-regard" or "self-worship" than anything about paying one's own way) where he gives God a job description. Koo-koo-ca-choo, as we say at my house. The Thompson Gale Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes all of this as Emerson's "torturous metaphysical hallucination." I laughed out loud when I read that. But I'm not posting about Grampa Emerson, not today. Today I'm posting to say that I continue to query literary agents regarding my novel Go Home, Miss America. I'm also revising a book called Mona in the Desert which seems pretty good, and I'm tinkering with the first chapter or so of a book called The Transcendental Detective before I send it off to a publisher for possible rejection. We'll see. Anyway, business as usual, I guess. The detective novel has a lot about Immanuel Kant as a crime-fighter. There's a sequel in which the detective comments on the moral bankruptcy of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics when she's not interrogating circus animals.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Today, more or less I suppose and why not, I'm celebrating the hundredth birthday of my violin, pictured above. Back when I acquired it on this day in 2007, Mighty Reader gave the instrument the nickname "Czech Hussy" because not only was it built (sometime in 1914) by a Czech luthier, this violin also alienated my affections from the serviceable Chinese violin I owned at the time. The Czech Hussy is a fine violin, not a world-class concert-quality instrument maybe, but certainly a pretty good fiddle. With the exception of the house, it's the most expensive object I own. I don't know if the man who carved all those bits of wood, glued them all together and varnished them in the shape of a violin had any idea his handiwork would still be in use a century later. I am happy that it is.

Violin shop, Saska Street, Prague, October 2013. Photo by Mighty Reader

I have a fondness for handmade objects that are both useful and beautiful. Mighty Reader can tell you about my obsession with small boxes; I have rarely met a small, handmade box that I did not covet. A small handmade box that also makes music is a pretty impressive thing. About twenty-three years ago I had the chance to buy a 3-octave clavichord from a guy on the street on Capitol Hill here in Seattle. He wanted about a hundred bucks for it but unfortunately I did not buy the thing. It had a nice tone, strung with brass. The guy had built it himself and really needed money. I remember the keys were mahogany and ebony, very lovely. The case was unfinished and made of maple, I think. I hope someone owns that clavichord, and plays it regularly.

Me and Josef Haydn's fortepiano, Vienna, October 2013. Photo by Mighty Reader

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"one of the least important things about the book"

Mel at The Reading Life has for some reason posted an interview with me here. Mel is a cool guy. As usual, I come across as pushy and arrogant. Now why could that be? No idea, really.

That's all I got. It's raining again. The ospreys are back at the nest on Harbor Island.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Not Wandering Lonely As A Cloud

Poetry on sale! I was reading William Wordsworth's poetry this weekend, as it happens. You won't find any Wordsworth at Phoenicia Publishing, but you will find the Homeric, supercharged post-apocalyptic Thaliad by Marly Youmans, as well as works from many other contemporary poets who believe in form, beauty, line and meaning. Don't be scared! Go buy something.

And here's a bit of that Wordsworth I was reading, one of his shorter poems:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.
"Surprised by Joy" is even better, but you already know that. I have begun to really enjoy his longer poems, too. This is all digression, though: you should go buy a copy of Thaliad. I believe the book is on its second printing, which is a big deal in the poetry world.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The air is filled with invisible ideas

I've read a couple of brilliant short books lately: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West and Ghosts by Cesar Aira. They are nothing alike, these books, but they have things in common. How's that work? you might ask. I will tell you.

No, I won't. I will abandon the--I can't remember the word; I have the flu, you know; conceit is the word I want--I will abandon the conceit of claiming to write about these two short novels as if they are related. I just happened to read them one after the other, and happened to be happily impressed by both of them, and I just happened to notice that

1) Each writer crams a lot of ideas into a short book, and

2) Each writer does something interesting with images and multiple meanings, but not necessarily in a straightforward symbolic or metaphorical way.

I'll begin with the Rebecca West. I'm not going to bother talking about what these books are about. Or at least I hope not; despite my best efforts, I always find myself falling into the trap of interpretation, which is never where I intend to go when I write about books. We'll see how well I do. Where was I? Oh, Rebecca West. This book is filled with details, finely-observed details of landscape, architecture and dress. Here is an example:
It was the first lavish day of spring, and the sunlight was pouring through the tall arched windows and the flowered curtains so brightly that in the old days a fat fist would certainly have been raised to point out the new translucent glories of the rose-buds; it was lying in great pools on the blue cork floor and the soft rugs, patterned with strange beasts; and it threw dancing beams, that should have been gravely watched for hours, on the white paint and the blue distempered walls. It fell on the rocking-horse which had been Chris' idea of an appropriate present for his year-old son and showed what a fine fellow he was and how tremendously dappled; it picked out Mary and her little lamb on the chintz ottoman. And along the mantelpiece, under the loved print of the snarling tiger, in attitudes that were at once angular and relaxed--as though they were ready for play at their master's pleasure but found it hard to keep from drowsing in this warm weather--sat the Teddy Bear and the chimpanzee and the woolly white dog and the black cat with the eyes that roll. Everything was there, except Oliver. I turned away so that I might not spy on Kitty revisiting her dead.
That's how West lets the reader know that Kitty and Chris have lost a child and have left the boy's room unchanged since his death. There are also finely-observed details of human nature. Here is a wonderful passage:
She held in her arms her Chinese sleeve dog, a once prized pet that had fallen from favor and now was only to be met whining upward for a little love at every passer in the corridors, and it sprawled leaf-brown across her white frock, wriggling for joy at the unaccustomed embrace. That she should at last have stooped to lift the lonely little dog was a sign of her deep unhappiness.
That's the stuff. That's what I hope to find when I open up a book. I could give a fig for world-building or plot twists. I want poetry and empathy. Here's one last little bit:
Margaret smiled at that and turned to me, "Yes, take me to the nursery, please." Yet as I walked beside her up the stairs I knew this compliance was not the indication of any melting of this new steely sternness. The very breathing that I heard as I knelt beside her at the nursery door and fitted the key in the lock, seemed to come from a different and a harsher body than had been hers before. I did not wonder that she was feeling bleak, since in a few moments she was to go out and say the words that would destroy all the gifts her generosity had so difficultly amassed. Well, that is the kind of thing one has to do in this life.
I don't have time to even bring up the layers upon layers of irony West has worked through this story. It's a perfect piece, and it's aged quite well after nearly a century.

But I want more, too. I want ideas and musing. In Cesar Aira's Ghosts there is a long section in the middle of the book about architecture, and the relationships between humans and the spaces they inhabit, be those spaces physical or imaginary, earthbound or mythical. It's a tour de force, if I'm spelling that correctly. Even if I'm not. Here's a brief excerpt, though the digression is wide-ranging:
There are societies in which the unbuilt dominates almost entirely: for example, among the Australian Aborigines, those "provincial spinsters" in the words of Levi-Strauss. Instead of building, the Australians concentrate on thinking and dreaming the landscape in which they live, until by multiplying their stories they transform it into a complete and significant "construction." The process is not as exotic as it seems. It happens every day in the western world: it's the same as the "mental city," Joyce's Dublin, for instance. Which leads one to wonder whether unbuilt architecture might not, in fact, be literature.
And so on, all very cool and surprising, especially in the center of a story about a Chilean night watchman and his family who live atop a luxury condominium that is in the process of being built, a construction site haunted by dozens or scores of naked male ghosts, who are visible to members of the lower classes but not to anyone else. The ghosts are able to pass through the floors and walls of the rising condominium, and they frequently laugh raucously at the workmen and the architect. For the ghosts, the edifice is imaginary. The workmen build tables and benches from scrap lumber every day during lunch break. Much of the watchman's house high up on the seventh floor is also provisional, and he will take his family to a new worksite when the luxury condo is complete. Ideas of space and occupancy recur throughout the book, as well as ideas about time and the dividing line between past and future. One character crosses that line in a deliberate manner, and as a result Aira is able to give us one of the finest, most beautiful passages I've read. I cannot quote it for you without spoiling a great deal of the plottiness of the book, and I know some readers read for plots and endings. I'm not one of those readers. I also can't quote it for you (I had done, but I've deleted it) because so much of the effect of the passage requires your having read the second half of the novel. So go do that. Read the first half of the novel first. Aira does something magical at the end, a simple trick with directions of travel that changes a tragedy into a sort of miracle. Beautiful, is what it is.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Down and Out in the Garden of Eden, or Last Thoughts on "What Is To Be Done?"

I have no idea what book the original readers of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel What is to be Done? thought they were reading. When I learn about the reception of the novel among Russian revolutionaries, I am baffled. I suppose we all read into books what we hope to find, and the revolutionaires of the latter 19th century saw a call to action, a spur to overthrow rather than to reform. Perhaps it's just the distance of 152 years that makes Chernyshevsky's concerns seem naive and rather quaint instead of urgent and something upon which a sweeping social change could be built. Vladimir Lenin claimed that What is to be Done? "ploughed him up." I just can't see it, kids. Certainly the novel (which, I am led to believe, only made it past the tsar's censors with some luck and possibly ironic help from the state itself) calls for changes, most especially for the liberation of women from the patriarchal limits of traditional society. Certainly Chernyshevsky alludes to the problem of the serfs, tying that question to the question of American slavery (this novel was written just before the outbreak of the Civil War but after some fierce battles had already been fought in the American Midwest about the geographic limits of slave-holding territory), and certainly Chernyshevsky mentions Uncle Tom's Cabin in the last section of the novel, implying that serfdom is as morally reprehensible as Negro slavery is, and also implying that the repression of women is slavery. And there's more political speech squirming along all through the book. But in my reading, this is not really a political book.

I cannot help but feel that What is to be Done? is primarily wish-fulfillment fantasy, a novel in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky (a frustrated and socially awkward young intellectual whose dreams of teaching at the university level have been quashed because of his politics, a married man whose wife is unconcerned with social issues and wants primarily to be furnished with a comfortable bourgeois life, an essayist and editor of a literary magazine who finds himself imprisoned on trumped-up charges) attempts to create a fictional world in which he personally would be happy. Chernyshevsky is obviously in love with Vera, the liberated woman. The book is written so that Vera can be liberated. Chernyshevsky wants to liberate his real-life wife Olga, but apparently Olga had no real wish to be liberated, educated, empowered and employed in meaningful work. Chernyshevsky's male intellectual radical characters are also clearly stand-ins for the author, and the author makes sure that all of these characters have happy endings.

That happy ending is so false, so clumsy. The important work all takes place around page 300, when Vera is given her freedom by her first husband, Dmitry. After that, Chernyshevsky has no real idea where to go with his novel. He spends a lot of energy (and a lot of pages) explaining how important it is that Vera has been freed, though society does not yet allow her full freedom (as evidenced when agents of the tsar take Vera's new husband aside and warn him that Vera's dress shop has been given a name that the tsar would not like, a name that references French revolutionary literature, and Vera bows to the pressure and changes the shop's name). Vera has an involved dream showing the historical process by which woman will be freed and given compass to act in her own interests, though as Tom pointed out last week, Vera will likely have a lot more dreams before that ultimate and complete freedom is granted. So Chernyshevsky gives us a Vera/Olga who could conceivably lead a useful and productive and liberated life in 1863 if she so desired, and then he's stuck. What next? What next? A new character is introduced, Katya, daughter of a wealthy man who wants to do something with her life. She starts a sewing collective patterned upon Vera's work. Vera's first husband comes back into the book, equipped with a Dickensian false identity, gets a job running a factory and marries Katya. He and Katya settle down next door to Vera and Vera's second husband. Vera is now a medical doctor. The two couples entertain lots of young intellectual radicals, have a swell time. Everyone is smart and educated and considerate and working toward the ultimate social good (which is where all Russia is a land in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky would be happy and comfortable). All of this action is essentially more explanation of the importance of Vera's emancipation. What next? What next? None of this is leading anywhere new, for scores of pages. Finally, Vera and Katya and their husbands host a winter party, complete with sleigh rides. On one sleigh is a young woman dressed all in black. It is Olga, Olga Chernyshevsky. She wears mourning because her beloved husband is in prison, writing the novel she now inhabits. Olga is happy to share the company of intellectual radicals and she sings songs predicting the ultimate liberation of all people. Finally, her husband, the Nikolai Chernyshevsky who is writing the novel he now fully inhabits, walks into the final chapter, kisses his Olga, predicts a revolution will take place in 1865, and blows the audience a kiss. Curtain, bows, applause, flowers.

The last quarter of the novel is a mess, is what I'm saying. It reveals itself to be the author's personal fantasy, a fantasy that becomes a tragedy for the modern reader who is able to learn that Chernyshevsky is not freed from prison after all. He's sentenced to 18 years hard labor. He only serves seven years of the sentence before he is exiled to southern Russia where he lives out his life in poverty, only seeing his beloved materialistic Olga once in all this time. The 1865 revolution doesn't come. Nikolai Chernyshevsky dies in exile, aged 61, in 1889. Somehow his novel, the only novel he wrote and the last significant literary work to come from his pen, becomes a rallying point for the radicals of Russia, who do rise up and paint the east red. Like I say, I am not at all sure what book they thought they were reading. But somehow, desperate shy defeated Nikolai Chernyshevsky became a hero, an influential novelist, a man who went down in history.

Today I'm recovering from the flu, and I've spent a good chunk of time not thinking about Mr Chernyshevsky, instead reading Rebecca West's 1918 novella The Return of the Soldier. It's a small masterpiece, is that book.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"He behaved quite admirably once the suffering began." The madness of Chernyshevsky

There is a big scene about 75% of the way through What is to be Done? It's the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortess prison and began the book. This is the scene that launched What is to be Done? into its place as the most influential Russian novel of the 19th century. There are a couple of things going on in this scene, or possibly I should say this section, as it's actually made up of several scenes and a great deal of backstory. Wait, let's just map it out:

The novel opens in Moscow, where an unidentified man checks into a hotel, has a meal and then walks to the middle of a bridge and apparently kills himself with a revolver. This action is presented out of chronological order, as it depicts events that occur about six years or so into the story. Chernyshevsky--almost but not quite apologetically--uses this narrative cliche to hook the reader and then tells the story of Vera, Dmitry and Alexander up to that opening scene, at which point he interrupts the narrative to introduce a new character, Rakhmetov (or, as we call him at my house, Saint Rocky Socialist Christ). Rakhmetov is given a detailed, twenty-page biography including a geneology going back many generations. He's a sort of revolutionary superhero, an uberman, a lunatic, an aesthete, a machine in the shape of a bodybuilder with a pile of inherited money in the bank. He's so many things, in fact, that there is no critical agreement about who or what he really is, or how Chernyshevsky felt about him. Either Saint Rocky Socialist Christ is a holy fool, or he's the coming soviet hero (as Lenin thought), or he's a very bad idea and an example of the kind of guilt-ridden nobleman with no real ideals that Chernyshevsky despised in real life. Opinion is quite mixed. See Drozd, Verhoeven and Kharkhordin for details. Verhoeven points out, for example, that Rakhmetov might never come back to Russia for the revolution; he might disappear into America after his tour of Europe. We have no way of knowing, because in What is to be Done?, after Rakhmetov's long and detailed history, he shows up at Vera Palovna's house to lecture her for a couple of hours, delivering a couple of letters and The Theme Speech which allows her and the reader to go forth and be fully and completely liberated. And then, Saint Rocky disappears from the novel forever. After all this action, Chernyshevsky lectures the reader (especially the "perspicacious" reader) for a couple of pages, chiding the reader's stupidity, and explaining the dramatic/artistic purpose of the Rakhmetov character, some or all of which claims may be lies. Chernyshevsky has already written himself into a previous scene with Rakhmetov wherein the author admits that he is lying about something. We do not learn what that something is, unless (as I suspect) Chernyshevsky is lying about Rakhmetov. It's hard to say, because the arguments point in all sorts of directions.

The craziness of the novel has reached a fever pitch here. The pages following the lecture to the perspicacious reader include letters that attempt to further explain The Theme Speech, and then some flashbacks to further explain the further explanations. I won't quote any of that here, because it won't help. Chernyshevsky sits in his cell at Peter and Paul Fortess, squirming on the edge of his uncomfortable wooden chair, pulling on his beard and wondering what on earth he could write next, what more can he say to demonstrate the importance of Vera's absolute liberation. Oh, he has ideas, and he will write them all down (I almost typed "writhe them all down," which is nearly accurate, I think), and the lunacy and desperation of What is to be Done? ratchets into higher gear. I can't wait to see what the last 50 pages hold as Chernyshevsky launches these characters and his imaginary self into the imaginary future of Russia. I think I should find something to hang onto.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Character, setting, metaphor: What's not being done in Chernyshevsky

Nikolai Chernyshevsky was not a brilliant novelist, which he admits many times in the text of his 1863 novel What is to be Done? Yes, Chernyshevsky's novel is lacking in a lot of the devices and techniques one expects to find in a 19th-century novel. If I was to compare Chernyshevsky with Dickens, say, or Tolstoy, there would be nothing left of Nikolai; his best passages are barely equal to Dickens' worst. Hell, they are not that good.

Yet I pause to repeat what I said in my last post: I am actually enjoying What is to be Done? For the last two days or so I've been trying to figure out why that is. It's not the prose, certainly. This is a mostly flat narrative, a sort of matter-of-fact faux journalism, like the majority of what's called long-form nonfiction these days. There is generally a single tone to the writing, one of enthusiasm for a job well done, a sort of middle-management happiness at a good quarterly report. But I can't wait to get back to the book. Maybe I should take a closer look at the formal elements of the novel and try to figure out just what I'm enjoying here.

Character. Chernyshevsky does a lot of what's called telling in the novelist's trade. "What kind of woman was Marya? I will tell you..." and then he does, you know. At some length. At some clumsy repetitive length. A length of time will be spent clumsily expositing upon Marya's character. You will learn about Marya, who is similar, in many ways, to the landlady's mother. Et cetera. Very little of this has any life to it, any kick, but to our great relief Chernyshevsky sometimes enlivens these otherwise bland characterizations with a bit of action, with short scenes wherein his characters interact with the evils of the oppressive society. I wish there was more of this kind of stuff:
What sort of man was Lopukhov? Here's what sort. One day he was out walking along Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt in his well-worn uniform (returning home from a lesson...). From the other direction heading toward him was a portly gentleman, out on a constitutional. The portly gent headed straight for him, not about to give way. Now at the time Lopukhov had a rule never to yield to anyone except a woman. They bumped shoulders. The gentleman, turning slightly toward Lopukhov, said, "What sort of swine are you, you pig!" He was about to continue this edifying speech when Lopukhov turned to face him, seized the gentleman in a bear hug, and deposited him in the gutter, very carefully. He stood over him and said, "Don't move or I'll drag you out there where the mud is deeper."
I laughed aloud when I read that one. I can't wait to re-read Notes from Underground. There is, as I say, no spark of life in Chernyshevsky's characters. It's up to the reader to supply the humanity here, to extend our empathy and pretend that What is to be Done? concerns itself with real life people whose hearts beat in their breasts and whose lungs draw air. Our author isn't going to do that for us. Maybe he's just playing on our sympathy, our sentimentality. Dickens, after all, does the same thing when he expects a reader to care about one of his featureless, deadly dull saintly protagonists. One of the many notes I've scrawled in the margins of my copy of this novel is "A romance with no romantic feelings." Maybe that should be "a human-interest story with no humans." More clever readers will find a more clever construction.

Setting. This book takes place in Imperial Petersburg, in the 1850s. There is no flavor of the city at all in this novel. There are no views, there is no texture, there is nothing at all except for a few place names and the above-mentioned gutter. It could be set anywhere, which I don't think is intentional on Chernyshevsky's part. His world is a fog, an unseen place, a place he mostly ignores. Again, it's up to the reader to imagine a city, to summon up the Neva, the bridges, the islands, the parks and curving streets and the palace to the east, etc. Chernyshevsky wastes less effort on setting than he does on character. He either assumes his reader already knows the city or, more likely, he just doesn't care. It doesn't occur to him that his story needs a place to stand. He ignores every possible opportunity to stretch out and describe our surroundings:
People find nature so pleasant that they enjoy even the pitiful, miserable scenery around Petersburg, which cost millions and tens of millions of rubles.
That's it. Seriously, Chernyshevsky just walks away from that one. Anyone else would've lingered there, given us something solid and visual. Chernyshevsky is not a visual sort of writer. Which is why there is very little

Figurative language. Don't make me laugh, you. There's one onrunning metaphor, which Chernyshevsky flogs for all he is worth, of a field of grain. The field is Russia. The grain is the Russian people. Some of the land is polluted or in need of drainage (which is revolution, you see?). This is the metaphor in What is to be Done? The only metaphor, I think. Everything else is a colorless literal description, if it's described at all. Which it's generally not. Lopukhov and Kirsanov are medical students (and then doctors). Is that a symbol? No, it is not. Vera starts a sewing collective, a dressmaking company. Is that a symbol? No, it is not. Fifty young socialist utopians have a picnic on one of the islands, rowing out in six boats and playing tag after lunch. Is that a symbol? No, it is not. Young utopian socialists used to get together and have picnics and argue about politics. What is to be Done? has no use for symbols, except the coded symbols of revolutionary activity that were being used in the literature of the 1860s. None of these coded symbols are the least bit interesting except to the historian. They're also pretty blatant, at least at this historical distance.

I'm being very hard on Nikolai Chernyshevsky; I'm making this book sound really dull, and I swear to you that it's not. Some sections are not interesting, a great deal of it is in flat, academic prose, but I keep reading it and I want to keep reading it. Not that I'm making any sort of claim that this is a Russian Moby-Dick or anything like that. Somehow, despite all it lacks, it's a good novel.

So what's good in this novel that I'm enjoying? I find this book to be strangely charming. And what's most charming, I think, is the human element, which I think I earlier denied. This is a shallow, shallow book, where the inner lives and emotions of characters are barely examined except where they intersect with utopian politics, but I tell you that Chernyshevsky has a very good grasp of the subtleties of the human heart and his observations of that heart keep creeping into the novel, maybe despite his best efforts. Because while Chernyshevsky makes fun of the romance elements of his novel, this turns out to be a love story, or a collection of love stories. There are many good observations in this book about love, that respectable authors wouldn't be ashamed to have written.
His previous love was only a result of a his youthful desire to love someone, anyone at all...Indeed, his grief at losing her faded away very quickly; but even after the grief had disappeared, he imagined that he was still preoccupied with it. When he noticed that he no longer felt any grief but merely recalled it, he saw that he'd become quite involved with Vera Plavlovna and that he'd come upon a great misfortune.
That's good stuff. The observation, not the prose, I mean. Here is the absolute best passage I've come across in the book so far, on page 234. (The second best passage is in the prologue, where Dmitri is grieved at his wife's command that he leave her: He couldn't find his hat for the longest time. That's an excellent detail, a very good moment observed.) But here's the bit from page 234, where Kirsanov convinces himself that he must flee from his friendship with Vera, whom he loves:
My position is like this: I love wine. Before me stands a glass containing some very good wine, but I suspect that the glass has been poisoned. I can't determine whether my suspicion is well founded or not. Should I drink the glass or spill it out so that it no longer tempts me? I mustn't call my decision honorable or even honest--these words are too grand. I'll call it merely calculated and sensible. I spill out the glass. In doing so I deprive myself of some pleasure and cause myself some displeasure, but I protect my health, that is, the possibility of drinking much more wine for a very long time--wine that I'll know for sure hasn't been poisoned. I'm not behaving foolishly; and that's all the praise I deserve.
Chernyshevsky's "rational man" reasons it all out, even though he knows he's just rationalizing his decision. He pretends not to take Vera into consideration at all.

Sometimes I think of this book as a D.H. Lawrence novel as penned by a writer of encyclopedia articles. It's all there, though: the conflicted selfish men and women, lying to themselves and talking about poverty and higher meaning in life, the unhappy support characters, the dysfunctional families and the lists of what everyone's reading, just without the attention a Lawrence would give to the men and women, the focus on all the wrong parts of the narrative. And all the erotic subtext, of course. Even the story of the consumptive prostitute-turned-seamstress is chaste and practical in Chernyshevsky's hands. There are men and women of low morals in this novel, but there's nothing sexy about them.

My imaginary Chernyshevsky, whose eyes shine with true belief, whose mind races along the tide of history and whose pen flies across the page, attempts to write only that which is necessary and laughs at the idea that he could be creating some frivolous romance. And yes, he's writing a romance. Maybe that's what's charming: that love story, that dishwater gray love story of repressed passion channeled into something other than embraces, is the best that Chernyshevsky can do, the only love story he can write that he will respect himself for having written. I am reading my imaginary author, not his novel. But it's a good time anyway. I enjoyed the four page history of the organization of the sewing collective, too.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Confessions and footnotes in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?

I'm about halfway through Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done?, and because I've recently re-read the Confessions of St Augustine, I'll start this post with a couple of confessions. First, one from Chernyshevsky:
Yes, the first pages of my story reveal that I have a very poor opinion of my public. I employed the conventional ruse of a novelist: I began my tale with some striking scenes taken from the middle or the end, and I shrouded them with mystery. You, the public, are kind, very kind indeed, and therefore undiscriminating and slow-witted. You can't be relied upon to know from the first few pages whether or not a book is worth reading. You have poor instincts that are in need of assistance...I was obliged to bait my hook with striking scenes. Don't condemn me for it: you deserve all the blame...No mysteries lie ahead: you will always know the outcome of every situation at least twenty pages in advance. And, to begin with, I shall even tell you the outcome of the entire novel: it will end happily, amidst wine and song.
And now one from me: At least so far, I am enjoying this book, but that's because I'm reading it as a comedy, which is not, I'm sure, how Chernyshevsky intended the novel to be read. But the thing is, it's almost a pretty good novel despite the fact that it's not really a novel at all; it's actually a persuasive essay in the vague form of a romance. An essay about materialism, feminism, and utopian socialism. I also confess that I'm having a hard time structuring this little essay about the book, because the book is actually a few separate forces lashed together, all pulling in different directions:
  • The argument for a utopian state, which is an argument against then-current socioeconomic conditions in Russia,
  • The surface structure of a romantic novel, the story of Vera and Dmitri who fall in love and marry and go on to attempt to live as utopians,
  • Chernyshevsky's postmodern assault on the form of the novel itself, presented under the guise of his being a novice novelist, and
  • [Bonus literary element] A possible response to Ivan Turgenev's portrayal of young intellectuals in the novel Fathers and Sons.
The argumentative essay is alleged to be the most important aspect of this book, so we'll dispense with that. I now elucidate for you the author's primary concerns during the first 150 or so pages: Money, especially the unequal distribution thereof. Middle-class values. Class awareness and the inherent hypocrisies arising therefrom. The acquisition of wealth via deceit and other inhumane behavior. The commodification of people, including one's children. Patriarchy. Chernyshevsky is wise enough to leave out a discussion of hereditary nobility and the right to rule, though kings (yes, French kings) are mocked and a strong vein of anarchism trots along with the story.

There are lectures from characters (and many directly from the constantly-intruding author) on human greed, history, materialism and utopian socialism, that last for pages and pages. I assume this sort of thing will only increase as the novel progresses, which might make for some heavy going. But at this point, as I say, I'm enjoying What is to be Done? The story of Vera and Dmitri is a pretty good story. Yes, there's actually a love story.

The romantic heroine is Vera Pavlova, daughter of a low-level government clerk/apartment manager named Pavel Rozalsky and his wife Marya. Vera has had "an ordinary upbringing," by which Chernyshevsky means that Vera has been surrounded by dishonest, greedy people her whole life so far (19 years). The foremost dishonest characters in Vera's life are of course her parents. Pavel and Marya have each managed to put by tens of thousands of rubles between them, some of Pavel's got by cheating the landlord for whom he works, but most of their savings were got by lending money at usurous rates or acting as pawnbrokers. These clever characters don't, however, limit their gainful activities to loansharking and pawnbrokering when they hear opportunity knocking. At one point Marya allows a woman to use a spare room for a few weeks, possibly during her final confinement and the birth of an illegitimate child. It's unclear, but something illegal, immoral, and probably downright evil was going on for a few days under Marya's direction.

Vera wishes to escape from the corrupt home of her parents. Her options are all pretty bleak. She can marry the landlord (a cad who falsely claimed to his pals that he'd already made Vera his mistress) although she's refused his offers many times already. She can become a governess, but certainly not in one of the better families if she's running away from an engagement. She can throw herself out the window and end it all. Or, she can marry romantic hero Dmitri Lopukhov, a medical student who tutors Vera's young brother Fedya once a week. Dmitri is in love with Vera, just as Vera is in love with Dmitri, this love springing suddenly forth when they talk briefly about egalitarian utopianism at a dance. Yes, you feel the heat pulsing on the page in that scene, Reader. Later there is a Socratic dialogue about materialism that made my palms quite damp. Needless to say, Vera accepts Dmitri's proposal and they run off to be secretly wed. Vera moves into an apartment with Dmitri and he gets a job as a translator while Vera starts a sewing collective. That's the first half of the novel, more or less. All of this is pretty fast-paced, and much of it is wildly funny in that typical 19th-century Russian ironical manner.

Chernyshevsky manages to maintain this ironical comic tone when he's not earnestly editorializing or lecturing the reader. So it's easy to read What is to be Done? as comedy, but certainly I'm laughing at a lot of sections the author intended as portrayals of idealistic utopians or condemnation of greed and inhumanity. My favorite scene so far is the one where Vera visits Julie (a fallen Frenchwoman with connections to Petersburg's young fashionable rich persons) to drum up business for the sewing collective Vera has started:
But soon Lopukhov arrived. Julie was instantly transformed into a respectable society lady, endowed with the sternest tact. She didn't maintain this pose for long, however. After congratulating Lopukhov on having so beautiful a wife, she became excited again. "Yes," she cried, "we must celebrate your marriage." She ordered an impromptu breakfast, complete with champagne. Verochka had to drink half a glass to toast her marriage, half a glass to her new establishment, and half a glass to Julie's health. Her head started spinning. Then she and Julie began to shout, yell, and raise a rumpus. Julie pinched Verochka, jumped up, and began to run around, chased by Verochka. They ran through all the rooms, bouncing on chairs. Lopukhov sat and laughed. It came to an end when Julie decided to boast about her strength. "I can lift you into the air with one hand." "Oh, no, you can't." They started to struggle, but fell onto the sofa; they no longer tried to stand up, but merely continued to shout and giggle; soon they both fell asleep.
What, no pillow fight? Oh, girls. You know how they are: you can lead them to socialism but you can't make them into men. Lopukhov sat and laughed. Chernyshevsky intends an egalitarian, feminist propaganda with this book, but he can't help seeing women as sort of cute and frivolous. Lopukhov, Vera's husband and savior (though he has only the most pure materialistic reasons for saving Vera, reasons so selfish she can't help but admire them), is not going to appear in a scene that shows him acting like a clown or giggling with his pals. Lopukhov and his friends tend to lecture one another, or give joint lectures to the reader.

Because--as he repeatedly tells us--he's not really writing a roman, Chernyshevsky plays with the form of the novel: he takes the typical 19th-century romance as his model, and shoves a political/social discourse just under the skin of that romance, and crams it so full that the romance skin splits open and the pure polemics come tumbling out. But that's easy, a low degree of difficulty. More entertaining is how he maintains that he's giving the reader a true story, and so the narrative can't follow the typical rules of a novel, because we are reading an account of what really happened and no, it is not a romance, you:
I'm recounting this affair the way it happened, rather than the way needed to establish my artistic reputation. As a novelist I very much regret that I wrote several pages in which I stooped to the level of vaudeville>
Nobody believes either of those claims. Chernyshevsky does some clever spoiling while making fun of the romantic novel ("Dear reader, you know of course, well in advance that there will be a conversation between Verochka and Lopukhov which will clear up the misunderstanding between them and that they will fall in love. That goes without saying.") and meanwhile he wants you to know that What is to be Done? is serious business:
I'm forewarning the reader about everything...I'm not the sort of author whose every word hides some kind of surprise. I describe what people thought and what they did, and that's all. If some action, conversation or internal monologue is needed to characterize a person or situation, then I'll relate it, even if it should prove to have no influence on the future course of my novel.
I don't know if that's intended to be funny (I expect it isn't), but I laugh whenever I run across these sorts of passages (which is often in this book). If someone had edited out all of the lecturing and the propagandist asides, this would've been a good, second-tier Russian novel. As it is, I don't know what it is. Neither fish nor fowl, and clearly (even at only halfway along), not a success as a hybrid form. Yet it was possibly the most influential late 19th-century novel in Russia. Possibly it earned that place by its role as bibliography; book titles and names of authors who treat the "modern problems" and offer up utopian solutions fly out of What is to be Done? in every chapter. I am surprised that so many of the utopian socialist ideas come not from Russia but from Western Europe, especially from France. The footnotes in this edition make pretty great reading.

[Bonus literary element] What is to be Done? is alleged to be a rebuttal, I guess, against claims made by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons. The only possible reference I've seen to Turgenev comes on page 126:
...that was the way it used to be, gentlemen; not any more. That may be the way it still is, but not among the group of our young people who are now referred to as "modern youth." These young people, gentlemen, are somewhat strange.
It is evident from the context that "strange" here means "not corrupt like everyone else." I go out on a short limb here to say that maybe Chernyshevsky's argument contra nihilism might be the implication that the "new man" is not Turgenev's Bazarov; he is not actually a nihilist but is instead an anarchosocialist utopian, where Bazarov was more like the intellectual dilettante of every age who turns his back on all social customs, acting to no particular end, good or bad. Chernyshevsky's "modern youth" has a clear goal in mind, and is led there by "modern woman." Chernyshevsky might claim that Turgenev's characterization of young intellectuals is a false one, and that there are few if any true nihilists among the bright students/artists of the 1860s. Maybe.

There are some dream sequences coming up in the second half of the novel, I'm told, that smack of science fiction. So that'll be interesting. I have entirely failed to give you the feel of this book. It's preachy and digressive and the prose is not great, but the prose is not as bad as I'd heard it was. I'm actually having a pretty good time with it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What is to be done? Base camp, as it were.

'A good chemist is twenty times as useful as any poet,' broke in Bazarov.

'Oh, indeed,' commented Pavel Petrovitch, and, as though falling asleep, he faintly raised his eyebrows. 'You don't acknowledge art then, I suppose?'

'The art of making money or of advertising pills!' cried Bazarov, with a contemptuous laugh.

'Ah, ah. You are pleased to jest, I see. You reject all that, no doubt? Granted. Then you believe in science only?'

'I have already explained to you that I don't believe in anything; and what is science--science in the abstract? There are sciences, as there are trades and crafts; but abstract science doesn't exist at all.'

'Very good. Well, and in regard to the other traditions accepted in human conduct, do you maintain the same negative attitude?'

'What's this, an examination?' asked Bazarov.

Pavel Petrovitch turned slightly pale.... Nikolai Petrovitch thought it his duty to interpose in the conversation.

'We will converse on this subject with you more in detail some day, dear Yevgeny Vassilyitch; we will hear your views, and express our own. For my part, I am heartily glad you are studying the natural sciences. I have heard that Liebig has made some wonderful discoveries in the amelioration of soils. You can be of assistance to me in my agricultural labours; you can give me some useful advice.'

'I am at your service, Nikolai Petrovitch; but Liebig's miles over our heads! One has first to learn the a b c, and then begin to read, and we haven't set eyes on the alphabet yet.'

'You are certainly a nihilist, I see that,' thought Nikolai Petrovitch. 'Still, you will allow me to apply to you on occasion,' he added aloud. 'And now I fancy, brother, it's time for us to be going to have a talk with the bailiff.'

Pavel Petrovitch got up from his seat.

'Yes,' he said, without looking at any one; 'it's a misfortune to live five years in the country like this, far from mighty intellects! You turn into a fool directly. You may try not to forget what you've been taught, but--in a snap!--they'll prove all that's rubbish, and tell you that sensible men have nothing more to do with such foolishness, and that you, if you please, are an antiquated old fogey. What is to be done? Young people, of course, are cleverer than we are!'
This scene takes place early on in Ivan Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, in which nihilists, the "new men" of Russia, are beginning to appear and challenge the "antiquated old fogeys." In Turgenev, the nihilist Bazarov dies young, withering on the vine as it were. The old fogeys walk off into the sunset with children who share, more or less, their old fogey values. Other nihilists live shallow, ridiculous lives. End of story?

But no, the gauntlet has been thrown down by Turgenev (who may not have known he threw it), to be picked up in turn by many Russian authors. Novels and counter-novels were written. Speeches and counter-speeches were made. Polemics were published. Etc. Quite the uproar, as Russia (at least the intellectuals of Moscow and Petersburg) were divided over the question of what was to be done with Russia's future, and if that future belonged to the classic Russian aristocrat and his freed serfs, or if the future belonged to the nihilists, the new men. The throwing down of challenges and the fever pitch of the debate reminds me of that scene, late in "Richard II", where every lord in England is throwing down a glove and challenging some other lord to lethal combat, crying "liar!" and "rebel!" and "traitor!" What fun indeed. I digress.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky took up the gauntlet Turgenev unknowingly threw, and wrote a novel called What Is To Be Done? in--I think--direct response to the question asked by Pavel Petrovich in the above-quoted passage. I am currently reading that novel. Vladimir Lenin wrote an essay called What Is To Be Done?, also possibly in response to Turgenev. There may be other 19th-century Russian works entitled What Is To Be Done? that I don't know of yet. I also am not sure that the question, as written in Turgenev, is the same Russian phrase (Shto delat?) used by Chernyshevsky and Lenin. I could find out, I'd bet, but I am a lazy person. There is also the verse at Luke 3:10-14, and that Tolstoy book. Blah blah blah. Twenty-eight seconds on Wikipedia can likely get you all of this, and more. Anyway, I'm reading Nicky's novel, in the Michael Katz translation, as part of Amateur Reader's masochistic readalong. What larks!