Thursday, August 23, 2018

Translation into English of Two Poems by IGOR CHINNOV, Each Beginning With the Lines, "Каждый сгниет, и гниеньем очистится"


Igor Chinnov


From Pastorali (Paris: Rifma Publishers, 1976), p.86 (originally published in Linii, 1960)

Каждый сгниёт (и гниеньем очистится)…
Тем и закончится злая бессмыслица –

Хлопоты, горести, почести, прибыли,
Крик перед смертью, что денежки стибрили.

Вот вам гармония, вот Провидение:
«Смерть несомненна» (чего несомненнее).

Странно, что все же могу утешаться я,
Глядя, как вновь зацветает акация,

Глядя, как бабочка треплется, мечется –
Тоже, пожалуй, сестра человечества.

Each of us rots (and through rotting is cleansed),
That’s how the vile absurdity ends.

Troubles and honors, profits and woe,
A last deathbed plaint: they done ripped off my dough!

The message of Providence, heaven’s Azure:
“Death is a sure thing” (nothing more sure).

Strange how, regardless, I still can find succor,
Gazing anew at the rose-petal pucker, 

Watching a butterfly’s flit-by and glister;
That showoff, you see, is humanity’s sister.


Каждый сгниет (и гниеньем очистится)...
Тем и закончится злая бессмыслица –

Где уж гармония, где провидение.
Всюду страдания, когти и тернии.

И не хочу, не могу утешаться я
Тем, что опять зацветает акация,

Что на убитых, больных и грабителей
Падает луч бесполезно-пленительный,

Что на газету, где смерть и безумие,
Бабочка села – лазури лазурнее…

Бабочка в комнате кружится, мечется –
Странно живет на земле человечество.

Each of us rots (and through rotting is cleansed),
That’s how the vile absurdity ends.

Where’s all your harmony, where’s providence?
Thorns block our way and the claws are immense.

No more do I want, nor can I find the succor
In flowers that bloom, in a rose-petal pucker,

In a light ray that shines with the same useless splendor
On sick folks and dead folks and cutthroat offender,

In newspapers reeking with death and sheer lunacy,
Where butterflies perch azure-bluely, pellucidly…

Through our world flits that butterfly, flaunting her glister.
Cast adrift, all alone, we're not anyone's sister. 

Translations from the Russian by U.R. Bowie

Curriculum Vitae of Igor Chinnov, Student in Riga, 1938

Autograph in Front Matter of "Antiteza (Antithesis)" Seventh Book of Verses by Igor Chinnov (Editor John Glad, Birchbark Press, 1979). Translation: "To my dear Bowie.  Very sincerely. Igor Chinnov"

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Book Review Article, Penelope Fitzgerald, THE BEGINNING OF SPRING

Spring Scene by Isaac Levitan. Evening. Path. 1882

Book Review Article

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring, originally published in England by Collins, 1988; republished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, a Mariner Books paperback edition, 2015, 246 pp.

Set in Russia in 1913, this is an astounding book. Seldom does a novel so astound me. My first question is “How did Penelope Fitzgerald do it?” In an article on the writer Julian Barnes mentions that everyone asked this same question about her last four novels, all set in foreign locales. Andrew Miller asks it again in his introduction to the paperback edition: “how on earth can someone living in England in the second half of the twentieth century know so much about the minutiae of day to day life in Moscow in 1913?”

In answer to the question we have only a few hints. In the front matter of the book the writer thanks Harvey Pitcher for allowing her to use details from his book, The Smiths of Moscow (Swallow House, 1984). From published material about her life we also learn that Penelope Fitzgerald had an intense interest in Russian literature, that starting in the 1960s she took Russian language courses. That in 1975 she and her daughter Maria went on a two-week package tour to Moscow, which included a visit to the Tolstoy Museum (the author’s house in the Khamovniki District) and a dacha in a birch forest. In the early 1970s she became friends with a Swiss art curator who had been brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia; and whose family had had a greenhouse business in Moscow since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Even all this seems far too little to explain how Fitzgerald went imaginatively into the Russia of 1913 and described it with such authenticity. Unlike so many other writers who have tried pulling this off. I have recently discussed this issue in a note about foreign writers who have made countless little missteps in the fictional Russia they chose to depict—see the posting on this blog, and on Dactyl Review, “When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia.”

The main protagonist of the book, Frank Reid, is an Englishman born in Russia. His parents owned several businesses there and, at the time the novel is set, in March, 1913, Frank continues to run a small printing shop. Another matter of amazement is how much Fitzgerald seems to know about the printing business in 1913, but that is not my expertise, so I’ll have nothing to say about it here.

All crammed into only one month, the action begins when Frank’s wife Nellie suddenly leaves him. She disappears on page one, returning by train to England, and only reappears on the very last page, so we never see much of her, though her absence throws a pall over the rest of the characters—including the couple’s three children, Dolly/Darya (ten years old), Ben (8), and Annie or Annushka (2). The names Fitzgerald selects for the female children appear to be a nod to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina, which features three characters with the name Anna (the lead character, her maid, and her daughter by Vronsky), and one character named Darya/Dolly (Anna’s sister-in-law, Stiva’s wife).

Tolstoy, in fact, who died in 1910, only three years before the action of the book, is a behind-the-scenes presence throughout the novel. Not only is he the inspiration for the pacifism and simple life chosen by one of the main characters, Selwyn Crane. He also sticks his head into several scenes, attending a concert—during which Selwyn sings at the lunatic asylum beside Tolstoy’s Moscow house—and dressing as a performing bear for a New Year’s celebration. His third big novel, Resurrection, is mentioned near the end of the book. Frank Reid’s house is in the Khamovniki District, very close to the Tolstoy house, now a museum.

Upon leaving, Nellie has taken the children with her, but then, only a few railway stops from Moscow, she—fortunately for us, the readers—abandons them, and they return to their father. Why fortunately? Because Penelope Fitzgerald is a master psychologist in many ways, but she has a special aptitude for portraying a certain bright and independent-minded child.

As for Nellie and Frank, both of them are rather ordinary, practical-minded people. Nellie appears only in a few scenes describing how she and Frank met in her provincial home of Norbury. Most of what we learn of her is not very positive, and she gives the impression of a rather dull person. Her brilliant, intellectually curious children seem not all that bothered by her departure. Apparently she did not have much rapport with her children.

Frank Reid is presented as an efficient, honorable man, who is rather unimaginative; he is also often a straight man for the author’s wry, understated British humor. Everyone in Moscow, it appears, learns immediately that his wife has left him, and no one—neither Russian characters, nor British ones—can resist constantly reminding him of his misfortune and giving him unsolicited advice.

Of course, when Frank hires a beautiful young woman, Lisa Ivanovna [first name and patronymic; no surname ever given] to live in his house caring for his children, the whole of Moscow also immediately learns of this, and the gossip mill runs nonstop. Everything in this novel happens fast. With Lisa a resident in his household less than a month, and with his wife Nellie only recently departed, Frank discovers that he is in love with Lisa.


This is a very funny book. A lot of comedy is generated by the male characters: Frank the straight man, Selwyn Crane the meddler and recommender, and Uncle Charlie the bungler from abroad. Charlie is Nellie’s brother, who comes to visit Frank, apparently hoping to console him for his loss, but ends up simply getting in his way. While Charlie and Frank are visiting with the chaplain’s wife, Mrs. Graham, she tosses out one of her usual catty remarks in Frank’s direction, and the very next paragraph reads as follows: “Mrs. Graham struck Charlie as a gracious, friendly woman, who seemed to have a kind word for everyone.”

A central character in the novel, Selwyn Crane, 52, who works as accountant at Frank’s printing company, is a pacifist do-gooder vegetarian, follower of the teachings of Tolstoy. He also writes poetry about birch trees and snow, and a good deal of fun is milked from the publication of his first book of poems, Birch Tree Thoughts. Here is the only sample quoted from that chapbook:

‘Dost feel the cold, sister birch?’
                ‘No, Brother Snow.
I feel it not.’ ‘What? Not?’ ‘No, not!’

Described early on as “not quite sane looking,” Selwyn is a man who brings a smile to people’s faces whenever his name is mentioned. The Russians all love him for his impractical ways, seeing him as a cloud in trousers and “a man of God.” Mrs. Graham, the sharp-tongued and cynical wife of the Anglican chaplain in Moscow, calls Selwyn “the great recommender,” since he is always trying to help people by recommending them to others for employment.

Selwyn would seem an unlikely candidate for a prime mover of the novel’s action, but he is precisely that, for it is he who makes almost everything happen. Ironically, most of his impulses are aimed at doing good, but his altruism ends up creating tremendous problems. We find out only near the end of the book, when he confesses to Frank, that he had been gently nudging Nellie past her down-to-earth pragmatism, hoping that she, like him, would learn to commune with Mother Nature and Holy Impractical Russia. He didn’t count on her falling in love with him.

As he explains to Frank, “Nellie was turning towards the spiritual. Unfortunately, she couldn’t, as yet, distinguish it from the romantic, which casts a false glow over everything it touches.” In a word, Nellie decides to run off with Selwyn, who gets cold feet at the last minute. As he tells Frank, “I failed the tryst.” He does not meet her at the railway station agreed upon. Whereupon, Nellie abandons her children, sending them back to Moscow, while she herself travels on to England.

Selwyn is also responsible for Frank’s bringing of Lisa Ivanovna into his household as governess, leading to the many complications near the end of the book. As usual, Selwyn appears to believe that he is only helping an unfortunate, a young woman of peasant background who works at the department store Muir and Merrilees. But Lisa, with her quiet and gentle ways, is too attractive and too much of a temptation for Frank. If that were not bad enough, Lisa apparently has nebulous connections with student revolutionaries. Near the end of the book Frank receives a letter from the Ministry of Defense, suggesting rather strongly that he might wish to sell his business and leave Russia at his earliest convenience. This is the logical end result of Selwyn’s well-meaning maneuverings and meddling.


Now a bit about the details that so authenticate the action of the book, making us feel as if we really were in the Russia of 1913. Frank Reid was born in Russia, speaks perfect Russian, as do his children, and all of them are perfectly attuned to the way things work. There are countless examples of this. On his way to the train station in the morning to pick up his abandoned children, Frank reasons that he must find a horse-drawn cab with a cabman who is starting work in the morning, not one who is ending his shift of night work. Why? Because the driver getting off will always be drunk. After he finds a cab the driver immediately begins taking him the long way around, so as to increase the fare, and Frank calmly tells him where to turn, so as to drive directly to the station.

Frank keeps vodka in his office at the printing company, expressly for the visits of the police. Among the many things you needed to know if you wanted to do business in Russia, “you had to have a good digestion, a good head for drink, particularly spirits, a good circulation and an instinct for how much in the way of bribes would be appropriate for the uniformed and for the political police, the clerks from the Ministry of Direct Import, Commerce and Industry, and the technical and sanitary inspectors.” All of this would be familiar to anyone trying to do business in the New Russia of the post-Soviet Era.

Frank’s bright-eyed children are more like Russian children than English. Dolly takes her bungling Uncle Charlie to the outdoor market to buy souvenirs. Not Russian speaking and totally out of his element, Charlie is lost at the market, but Dolly knows all its ins and outs: “Taking pity on him, she turned left at the crossing point of the next glass corridors, and they bought a number of small birchwood objects and a cigar-case. She counted his change and recovered, without argument, another thirty kopeks” (my emphasis).

There it is, one of the many little details that you would not expect an English writer to know, but she slips it into the sentence so matter of factly. Back then, and still today, in a Russian outdoor market you must expect to be short-changed; you will always be short-changed. You are not expected to be offended by this; it is simply the way things are done. You must always count your change, confront the short-changer with his/her mistake, but not in anger, simply as a matter of course. The short-changer, in turn, will not usually defend her/his self, but will, equally without rancor, return the change to you. That’s the way it is done, but how did Penelope Fitzgerald know that? And this is just one of scads of authentic details that sprinkle the pages of the book.

Perhaps most amazing of all is how the merchant Arkady Kuriatin is portrayed. Frank knows exactly all the divagations of Kuriatin’s mind, and, consequently, Fitzgerald must know as well. Everything about Kuriatin rings true: his swagger, his drunken bravado, his way of openly lying in business dealings, while aware that his fellow businessman knows that he is lying. Best of all is the way that Kuriatin is sometimes under the sway of contradictory impulses, which inhabit his devious brain simultaneously.

Now that his wife is gone Frank wonders who will care for the children when they are not at school. He assumes that he can leave them temporarily under the care of the Kuriatin household. But he soon sees the error of his ways when the Kuriatin children run wild, show off in front of the English children by tormenting a pet bear cub and feeding it vodka. The bear runs wild, smashing things up in the dining room, and Frank later goes by to apologize to Kuriatin, whose reaction is to be magnanimous—poo-pooing the whole incident and playing up his wealth.

“An unfortunate incident? The children left to themselves? Damage? Broken china, pissed carpet, fire, destruction, twenty-three and a half bottles of the best vodka? Did Frank think his credit wasn’t good enough to bear a little loss, a little trifle? Did he think there was some shortage of tablecloths?”

What this is is a kind of potlatch behavior: see how rich and carefree I am? Give me more precious material objects—I’ll throw them into the fire to prove how little they mean to me, how far above the mere material I am. This is also very typically Russian behavior. Shortly after this response to Frank’s apology Kuriatin invites him to stay for an evening meal. Frank knows that the invitation is not made to be accepted; it is more empty bravura. If he decided to stay all sorts of preparations would have to be made, and he would cause as much trouble as the bear had.

Kuriatin escorts Frank to the door, and Frank asks him why he doesn’t do something about the weak spots in the stairway, and why he doesn’t let his clerks have a telephone. Whereupon Kuriatin, resenting the implied criticism, throws an insult after him: “’Why don’t you get your wife to come back to you?’ shouted Kuriatin, exploding with laughter, as the doorman came out of his cupboard-like room and ushered them, deeply bowing, into the street. For Kuriatin life, like business, was a game, but not a gambling game. On the contrary, it was one in which he had arranged to win, although the rules were peculiar to himself. Knowing that the children had been put at risk in his half-savage household, he had felt Frank’s visit as a reproach. But by insulting Frank—of whom he was genuinely fond—he had restored himself to a superior position. It almost compensated him for the loss of his tablecloth, glass and china, to which he had been insanely attached.” Exactly.

These games of pecking order, who is superior, who is inferior, are perpetually revolving in the Russian psyche. Later, in the presence of naïve Uncle Charlie, Kuriatin offers to adopt the Reid children, and Charlie calls him “the soul of hospitality.” Frank knows otherwise. “He doesn’t really want to adopt my children. It’s just a general expression of good-will, or more likely, the opposite” (my emphasis). 

Once again we get the Russian propensity for holding two contradictory impulses in the psyche at the same time. In the generosity of his heart—and Kuriatin half believes it to be real generosity—he makes the offer to adopt the children, while aware somewhere else in his psyche that he is being magnanimous only in an effort to make himself look good, and make Frank look bad. As if to say, “Look at this sorry spectacle; a man who can’t even take care of his own children!”

One more thing about Kuriatin. He was resident in the Russia before the Soviet Era, but Kuriatins by the scores still walked the streets of the U.S.S.R., behaving exactly as this Kuriatin does. And now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of the New Russia in the new millennium, are the Kuriatins all gone? By no means. As long as there is a Russia there will be Kuriatins.

More details. The mention of a Russian lullaby, featuring sleep, who walks along the benches, saying, “I’m sleepy,” and drowsiness saying “I’m drowsy.” Here’s how it looks in Russian:
Сон ходит по лавке,
Дремота по избе,
Сон-то говорит:
--Я спать хочу!
Дремота говорит:
--Я дремати хочу!

(“Snooze is walking along the bench,/Drowse along the hut,/Snooze says:/I’m sleepy!/Drowse says:/I’m drowsy.”)

Ходит сон по лавке,
А дремота по избе,
Ищет-поищет деточку мою,
Где найдет, тут и спать укладет.

(“Snooze is walking along the bench,/And Drowse along the hut,/Looking for, searching for my little kiddikins,/Wherever may they find him/her, there they put her/him straight to bed.”)
Don’t know where Penelope Fitzgerald came up with that bit of Russian folklore. I found it in the “Lullabies” section of Мудрость народная: жизнь человека в русском фольклоре (Folk Wisdom: the Life of Man in Russian Folklore, Book One, Infancy and Childhood, Moscow, 1991, p. 41).


A big issue for a reader of The Beginning of Spring is that reader’s foreknowledge, and what might be termed reading beyond the bounds of the book. The novel was first published in 1988, and the Western reader of that time would probably have been caught up in “Gorbymania”—perestroika and glasnost’—expecting big changes out of the Soviet Union. A close reading of the book in those heady times would suggest, however, that Mother Russia, who had nearly weathered the storm of seventy years of Communism, was not one to become suddenly a twin of the Western democracies.

The book is set in 1913, and the reader of 1988 is aware of many things soon to come—things that the characters cannot know. The Great War is to begin in only a year, 1914, and its horrors will set the stage for the Russian revolutions of 1917. The second of those revolutions being that of Lenin, who is biding his time in Western Europe. With the connivance of the Germans—who want to make mischief in Russia, so that Russia will withdraw from the war—he will be sent in a sealed train back to Petrograd. Departing Zurich in April of 1917, Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries will ride that German-sponsored train through Berlin, then on through Sweden and Finland and home. It is no accident that Fitzgerald selects Berlin as the original destination of her two traveling female characters: Nellie, and then Lisa Ivanovna.

Unlike the characters in 1913, the reader of 1988 will know about the upheavals of the early twentieth century: two revolutions in Russia, followed by a Civil War, which led to Lenin’s triumph and the establishment of a “peasants’ and workers’” U.S.S.R., a utopian attempt to transfigure Mother Russia—making it into an atheist nation-state and obliterating all the accouterments of Orthodox Christianity, which are so predominantly displayed in The Beginning of Spring. The reader of 1988 also knows about the terrible depredations of WWII in Russia and the many victims of Stalinist terror.

At one point Selwyn mentions the holiday for the name day of the Tsarina, adding “poor woman, poor woman.” He alludes here presumably to the Tsarina’s problems with Rasputin (also mentioned once) and the affliction of her only son (hemophilia). Poor woman indeed. The reader of 1988 will be aware that Tsar Nicholas II and his wife—in a mere five years, July, 1918—are to be murdered, with all of the children as well, by the Bolsheviks in a gruesome act of butchery.

But the reader of 2018 knows even more. He/she knows about the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of that Utopian Project that may have done some good, but also succeeded in murdering millions of innocent people. Only eighteen years into the future of 1913, the monumental Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (mentioned on p. 89)—constructed from 1839 to 1883—will be razed, destroyed by Stalin in a deliberate act of blasphemy and desecration (in 1931). On its site an outdoor swimming pool will be built. The reader of 1988 knows that, but the reader of 2018 also knows that after the fall of the U.S.S.R. the Russians will build that structure back from scratch. That today it stands once more in all its glory, and Vladimir Putin goes there to worship on Easter and Christmas.

Same goes for the revered Chapel of the Iverskaia (Iveron) Mother of God, located at the entrance to Red Square and mentioned by Fitzgerald on p. 212 (misspelled here twice—a superfluous letter n is inserted). Here Fyodor Dostoevsky (age 16) and his brother Mikhail came to pray in May, 1837, asking for guidance and succor from the Virgin, before setting out on their journey to Petersburg, where they would be enrolled in the Academy for Military Engineers. This chapel too was destroyed by evil Joe Stalin, but, once again, Holy Russia turned the tables on him. The Iverskaia has also been rebuilt from scratch, and in 1996 a copy of the wonderworking Iverskaia Icon of the Mother of God was brought from Mount Athos and installed in the chapel. By a strange quirk of fate, the reader of 1988 can only imagine what the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the Iverskaia Chapel looked like. The reader of 2018 can go to Moscow and see them.

What the reader of 2018 knows best, compared to the reader of 1988, is that the Communist Era was just a blip in time, compared to the thousand-year history of Mother Russia, and that Mother Russia—having sloughed off Communism and spit in disgust—would build back her holy structures and go right back to being what She was before: with all the positives and negatives of Orthodox Christianity, the same God-haunted place with the same slow pace, the same corruption, bribery, the same blend of gross cruelty and magnanimous kindness: “the whole unwieldly administration of All the Russias, which kept working if only just” (146). Yes, by some miracle Fitzgerald has captured this spirit.

So much for Gorbymania and the deluded hopes of naïve Americans, that the Russia of the New Millennium would be just a carbon copy of the U.S.A. If you want to really know what the Russia of the New Millennium most resembles, read Fitzgerald’s novel about the Russia of 1913. Sure, Moscow looks different now, it’s a modern Western city, and its denizens have adapted to Western ways. But deep down, in Moscow and all over the country, Russians are still going about their lives being Russians.

Penelope Fitzgerald likes to keep some of her characters in the shadows. In fact, we never learn much about the two main female characters, Nellie and Lisa Ivanovna. Nellie is absent for the whole book, so mostly what we get about her is a kind of hearsay. Only about twenty years old, Lisa at her first appearance is described as having “the pale, broad, patient, dreaming Russian face.” Later she is consistently described as being somehow in her thoughts not entirely present, part of her somewhere off in the clouds. Always calm and self-assured, “She had the gift of quiet.” This personality seems to captivate males by the boatload.

Much is left to the reader to intuit about Lisa, but this leaving of much to the reader seems to be Fitzgerald’s preference. Why did Selwyn once find Lisa reduced to tears behind the counter at Muir and Merrilees? We don’t know. What does Lisa think about her employer Frank, who is in love with her? We don’t know. On page 219 there is a blank space left in the text for the only sex scene in the novel, when Frank goes to Lisa’s room. I have no objection to a writer’s leaving out explicit descriptions of sex, but the reader is left here wishing for more—for at least a lengthy dialogue between two of the book’s main characters. The next morning, with nary a fare thee well, Lisa leaves with the children for the dacha. Frank’s last words to her—probably the last words he will ever speak to her—are these: “For God’s sake, stay with me Lisa.” No reply. “There was no way of telling whether she had heard him.”

The birch tree is the national tree of Russia, probably the most beloved tree of all in a country of tree lovers. Throughout pagan Russia the birch played a role in rituals welcoming back spring, and a residue of such goings on still hangs over modern Russia. Fitzgerald runs the birch leitmotif through the whole novel, and near the end she spends three pages (224-226) in a lengthy, fascinating description of the smells, the, look, the feel, the very voices of the birch trees as they progress through the seasons. This wonderful passage, which any Russian would read with utter delight, is too long to quote, but here is a short sample.

“When the heavy autumn rains began the trees gave out a new juicy scent of stewed tea, like the scent of the bundles of birch twigs in the steam-room of a public bath house [those thrashers are called веники], which the customers used to beat themselves, leaving stray damp leaves on the tingling skin.”

Then comes the ghostly scene at the dacha in the middle of the night, something that could have been taken from a Fellini film. Accompanied by Dolly, who wakes up when she hears a door open, Lisa goes out into the birch grove. The scene is written from Dolly’s point of view.

“The leaf scent pressed in on her. There was nothing else to breathe. They had turned to the left, and walked perhaps almost as far as they had come along the first path from the dacha. Then Dolly began to see on each side of her among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.

‘Lisa,’ she called out, ‘I can see hands.’

Lisa stood still again. They were in a clearing into which the moon shone. Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree . . . . . .

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’”

So speaks mysterious Lisa the final words she will speak in the novel. After which, she turns, and, “in her usual serene and collected manner,” she walks with Dolly through the trees and back to the dacha. So what is this scene all about? We, the readers, are left to decide. It could be the playing out of some pagan spring ritual, a “rite of spring” complete with tree huggers and birches, as is suggested by the mention of Igor Stravinsky only a few pages later. But, more likely, it is a gathering of student revolutionaries, with whom Lisa is allied.

Earlier on, wishing apparently to ingratiate himself with Lisa Ivanovna, Frank has given her back her internal passport, which by law he is required to keep while she is employed by him. Without this passport a Russian was not allowed to travel more than fifteen miles from his place of birth. Without it you certainly could not leave the country. But having her passport in hand enables Lisa to flee abroad, to Berlin, abandoning the children—their second abandonment of the book. What awaits her in Berlin? We don’t know, but given the Russian authorities’ sudden change in attitude toward Frank—the letter from the Ministry of Defense, in which it is strongly suggested that he leave Russia—we can only assume that Lisa is involved with Russian revolutionaries abroad, and that she leaves the country to join them.

Nellie’s return on the final page of the novel is, as Andrew Miller writes, “a sort of faux-resolution, a moment that seems to offer the possibility of a return to good order, but which in fact promises the exact opposite.” Spring and hope are in the air, and we have the lovely scene of an annual ritual—opening the sealed windows of the house, to let Spring in. But there is a mixed message here. Traditionally in Russian households, when there was a death in the house all the windows were thrown wide open, to let the spirit of the deceased escape. There is no physical death in the novel, but Frank’s new spring love turns out to be short-lived—is in fact stillborn. And even such an unflappable person as Dolly has lost her self-confidence, shaken by the second abandonment.

Given everything that has happened in this one short month of their separation, Frank and Nellie are hardly likely to reconcile quickly, if at all. The children (at least Dolly) are thoroughly discombobulated by the events of March, 1913, and given that they seem to have related better to Lisa Ivanovna than to their own mother, Nellie’s return will probably not bring them much cheer.

Soon to come are tumultuous political upheavals, which the Reid family may not be in Russia to see. But then, a return to England is not a happy prospect for them either. After all, Frank was born in Russia and has lived there most of his life. The children know nothing of the world beyond Russia, are in effect Russian children who love the country. In England they will be something like political émigrés, having lost their native land.


“Life makes its own corrections,” says the Russian cabman to Frank early on, and the characters of the novel are alive at the end, waiting for the next set of corrections. As for the writer, Penelope Fitzgerald,  corrections of her few mistakes would have improved the novel, but apparently there was no Russian fact checker at the time the book was published. A few examples.

For the most part she is good on the name/patronymic thing, which often presents problems for foreign readers and writers. She bungles this only once, with the appearance of the student in love with Lisa (and probably a potential revolutionary) Vladimir Semyonich Grigoriev. This is his real name, but he lies to Frank upon their first encounter, calling himself “Volodya Vasilych.” Not possible. You cannot use a nickname (Volodya, a nickname for Vladimir) with a patronymic. What he should have said: Vladimir Vasilych.

On p. 141 “the almond trees would be in flower” in Moscow. Hmm. If so, that’s the first I’ve heard of almond trees growing in Moscow, or anywhere else in the northern part of Russia. Here is how the making of the sign of the cross is described (153): “As they faced the icon they crossed themselves, striking the forehead, each shoulder in turn, then the breast.” Nope. As any believer in Eastern Orthodoxy worldwide can tell you—in Greece, in Syria, in Russia—your pursed fingers touch the forehead first, then the breast or abdomen, then the right shoulder, and finally the left.

Kuriatin takes Uncle Charlie on a jaunt outside Moscow, to visit “the Merchants’ Church, between Kursk and Ryazan, about twelve miles out of Moscow” (p. 180). Huh? Don’t know what happened here. Kursk is a provincial city some 500 km. south of Moscow; Ryazan is another, some 200 km. south of Moscow.

On the eve of Palm Sunday the servants in the Reid household go around the house, and then to the neighbors, asking forgiveness for any sins they may have committed, knowingly or unknowingly, over the past year—sins of commission and omission (203). Actually, that is done not on the eve of Palm Sunday, but on Forgiveness Sunday, the last day before Lent.

Then there is the problem of the Russian Orthodox saints. St. Modestus, we are told, is the patron saint of printers. His saint’s day in Russia is commemorated on March 27 (Old Style, old Julian calendar). We are even shown a very convincing scene, in which the priest comes to Frank’s establishment to commemorate the holiday, bless the icons and honor the saint. But I can’t find any such St. Modestus anywhere in the Orthodox calendar, and I have checked all the saints’ days in the months of March and April, even in Cyrillic (Russian) script. There is a Modestus of Jerusalem, whose saint’s day is May 17 (New Style; modern Gregorian calendar); he is the patron of domestic animals.

Oddly enough, although much is made of the celebration of Modestus the Printer’s day, nothing is said in the book about a much, much bigger holiday in March, Благовещение (Annunciation Day), which falls on March 25 Old Style (now celebrated in Russia on April 7). Mention is also made of the Feast of St. Benjamin, commemorated on March 18 (p.160), but alas, I cannot find Ben either in the church calendars. 

There is a martyr Benjamin the Deacon, whose day is October 13 (NS). In the Catholic Church he is commemorated on March 31, so maybe Fitzgerald is conflating Roman Catholic saints with Eastern Orthodox saints. I don’t know. It will take somebody with much more insight into Orthodoxy than me to figure out what is going on with the saints in The Beginning of Spring.

In correcting, or trying to correct the mistakes of the author, am I finding fault with her? By no means. I still remain astounded by the brilliance of her book. It’s worth the price of the book just to read her description of how people in Russia stand on bridges in springtime, watching the amazing spectacle of the ice breaking up in the water below. If you’ve never done this, I would highly recommend it. Get on a bridge in Russia at the end of March or early April. Pick a sunny day. Watch. Free of charge too.

                                                       Isaac Levitan, "Birch Grove," 1878

Sunday, August 19, 2018


When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia

Some time back I wrote a review of The Conductor, by a writer from New Zealand, Sarah Quigley—the review is available here on this blog, and on the site of Dactyl Review. Set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege of WW II, the book details the life of a rather unassuming and humble musician, who gets his chance to conduct Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the besieged city. 

Quigley’s novel is good, especially sparking for its insights into classical music and its depictions of Shostakovich, but it is full of details that produce unintentional comic effects. These details are indicative of a writer who knows little about Russian life and culture, speaks no Russian, and may not have ever set foot in the city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). 

In one of the biggest howlers in the book, The Bronze Horseman—that statue of Peter the Great in Petersburg and the most famous monument in the whole country—is described as waving a sword in one hand. The fertile imagination of the author conjures up that sword and describes it in some detail: “His sword had a greenish hue towards the hilt, but its tip was bright from the touch of many hands.” Nice sword, except that on the actual statue it does not exist.

I’ve recently read two other novels set in Russia: (1) David Benioff, City of Thieves (Viking Penguin, 2008) and (2) Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016). Both books have been well received, attracting favorable reviews and scads of readers. And with good reason, since they both have appealing characters and fascinating plots.

But, for a variety of reasons, in reading these novels I cannot take them entirely seriously. Neither of them gives me the feeling that I am exactly in the Soviet Union, where they are set. In City of Thieves Benioff avoids the many mistakes that writers unfamiliar with Russian culture often make. As is the grandfather of the book, Benioff’s own grandfather is Russian, and maybe it was he who steered him past the many cultural shoals.

The action of the book is a kind of fairy tale. During the German siege of Leningrad, a young man sets out tramping on foot out of the city and behind German lines, in search of a dozen eggs. With a total lack of concern for verisimilitude the author has him and his intrepid friends finding those dozen eggs—while, against all odds, killing a bunch of nasty Nazis in the bargain—and bringing the eggs back with him to Leningrad. Here we have the typical structure of the folk tale of magical adventure: departure, initiation, return triumphant, bearing a boon.

Benioff does a wonderful job of telling that folk tale. Of course, his grandfather forgot to inform him about one important fact: in Russia eggs are sold by the ten, not by the dozen, so that in Russia the very idea of going out in search of a dozen eggs won’t work. The concept of eggs by the dozen comes originally out of British custom and corresponds to British units of currency. With twelve pennies to the shilling it once made sense to sell one egg for a penny and a dozen eggs for a shilling. 

The British now deal in metrics, and there are no more pennies and shillings, but I assume that they still “spend a penny” (euphemism for go to a public toilet) and sell eggs by the dozen. We in the U.S. buy and sell our eggs the same way, having borrowed this piece of culture from England, although few Americans could explain how this all started, and nobody could come up with a good reason why it has to be this way.

This business with the eggs is the only cultural misstep that I noticed in Benioff’s book, but Towles’ A Gentleman from Moscow is overladen with such missteps—despite several inferences that the narrator of the book is Russian. See the footnote to p. 100: “We Russians like to make use of honorifics, patronymics, and an array of diminutives.” 

Towles’ hero, Russian Count Alexander Rostov is a character out of the aristocracy of the nineteenth century, and the author appears to have a wonderful feeling for the ways of the European aristocracy. The action of the novel centers upon the vagaries and vicissitudes of Count Rostov’s life in the new, far-from-aristocratic Soviet Union.

As in City of Thieves, the author here asks much indulgence on the part of the reader, in terms of overlooking the lack of verisimilitude. Unlike most other counts, who were either shot in Soviet times or fled abroad, Count Rostov—thought to be the author of some left-leaning poem—is allowed to live on. But he is placed under a kind of house arrest, confined to living in one of the grandest hotels in Moscow, the Metropol. The plot of the novel involves his many adventures over a period of thirty years (1922-1954), while living in that hotel.

Towles, who obviously has never spent any time in a Soviet hotel, asks us to believe a lot of things about the Hotel Metropol that are just not believable. He assumes that after the imposition of the Soviet State this grand hotel in the European tradition could go on, largely as before, maintaining its grandeur, at least to some extent, and maintaining its restaurants serving high-level French cuisine.
Towles has extensive knowledge of what high-class people eat in high-class establishments. The book is full of food, but, unfortunately, much of it is French food, which Count Rostov, accustomed to the high life of a gourmand in the old days, feasts upon. I think that the first mention of any Russian food in this book full of food comes on p. 380, when kasha shows up.

In the Soviet Era I spent a good deal of time in Soviet hotels, and I know for a fact that no hotel, even the Metropol, maintained its high standards in cuisine. It just was not possible. At one point one of the characters remarks that he picked up a pineapple from the fruit bowl in the lobby. Not possible. No Soviet hotel served the French cuisine of a four-star restaurant in the West, and most Russians in Soviet times, in hotels or anywhere else, never laid eyes on a pineapple.

Another example. A hotel guest is described once as standing in front of his door, “patting his pocket for his key.” Not likely. You didn’t keep your key in your pocket. It had a huge fob on one end, which guaranteed that you turn it in when you left the hotel—either at the front desk or, more likely, to the floor lady, that redoubtable enforcer of order and decorum on each floor. This lady was there to keep an eye on things, and such persons were ubiquitous all over everywhere in the U.S.S.R., people there to watch other people. In Towles’ Metropol they are nowhere to be seen.

In addition to the many just not correct things about the way a Soviet hotel is described, the book commits  lots of other little cultural faux pas. Take this: “Midnight had just arrived, and the bells of Ascension had begun to swing, their chimes cascading over the frozen land in holy canticle.” Nice description, but in Russia bells do not swing; they are stationary while the clapper inside them moves to ring them.

Or this. Much is made over the count’s friend Misha’s attempt to publish an authoritative edition of Chekhov’s letters, and how chagrined he is when the stodgy Soviet editor forces him to take out one short passage, “a matter of a few sentences, fifty words.” But no. In the era of the U.S.S.R. Chekhov’s letters were published with massive cuts. Whole letters fell by the wayside, and not only because Chekhov might have mentioned something overtly political. His letters to this publisher Suvorin were rife with descriptions that prudish Soviet bureaucrats saw as indelicate, even almost obscene. In one letter, for example, which made its way to the light of day only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chekhov describes in great detail his consorting with a Japanese prostitute in the Asian city of Blagoveshchensk.

There are plenty more examples of this sort of thing, and there are also bits of writing that would make any Russian, or anyone familiar with Russia and the Soviet Union, groan in dismay or, perhaps, laugh with derision. Here is a passage set in 1938, in which the count’s protégé Nina describes the arrest of her husband. My interpolations are in brackets.

“’Please, Alexander Ilyich [Count Rostov]. I don’t have much time. Two weeks ago we were recalled from Ivanovo to attend a conference on the future of agricultural planning. On the first day of the meeting Leo was arrested. After some effort, I tracked him to the Lubyanka, but they wouldn’t let me see him. Naturally I began to fear the worst. [No, no no. In the first place, when they arrested someone and took him to the notorious prison of the secret police, there was no way to find out where they had taken him. No way. If they didn’t want to tell you, you would not find out. Then again, you didn’t go down to the Lubyanka and ask to get in. That would be simply ludicrous.] 

"But yesterday I received word that he has been sentenced to five years of corrective labor. They are putting him on a train tonight for Sevvostlag. [Once again, everything here is totally impossible. In the first place, when they took people to Lubyanka in 1938 these unfortunates did not get a quick trial. Months could be spent torturing and interrogating them, forcing them to sign false accusations. Only after that might they be sentenced to a labor camp, or if not that, quite often shot. In the second place, people who went into Lubyanka became, for the most part, nonpersons. No one, not even their closest relatives was notified about what became of them, whether they were shot or sent East. They simply disappeared, and no one knew if they were alive or dead.]

“I am going to follow him there. What I need is for someone to watch over Sofia while I get myself settled.” [More impossibilities here. The wives of the Decembrists back in the nineteenth century followed their husbands to labor camps in Siberia, but that was the nineteenth century. Such a thing in Soviet times was unheard of. If a wife did, by some miracle, learn where in Siberia or the frozen north her loved one had been sent in 1938, she could undertake a trip there, and would certainly be arrested upon arrival and probably herself end up in a labor camp].

So there is a whole paragraph that will have Russians who read it squirming around and, ultimately, laughing in disbelief. Next, Count Rostov is allowed to unofficially adopt Nina’s daughter Sofia—who stays with him in the hotel for the duration of the novel. This also could not possibly have happened in Soviet times. Of course, the way the novel ends, with the count’s escape from the hotel and return to his now obliterated landed estate, without papers or internal passports, to join his old love—in a word, the happy ending—is also totally unbelievable.

Am I saying that A Gentleman in Moscow is a bad novel, and that all of its fans are utterly deluded? No. I can understand how plenty of people will enjoy this fairy tale about a Russia that in so many ways is at variance with the real thing. I’m also saying that almost any Russian, or anyone who really knows much about Russia, cannot appreciate this book. Maybe the best way of looking at both the Benioff and the Towles books is to make a distinction between fiction as light entertainment and serious literary fiction. A book of light entertainment can do without the genuine underpinnings of verisimilitude; a work of literary fiction, which aspires to be Art, cannot.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


                                                               Book Review Article

The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.

Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh.

That urggh added on there belongs to me, and I amplified upon it in a long jeremiad published here on my blog, and also on Dactyl Review: “The New Yorker Short Stories (“The Great Boondoggle of the American Short Story”). Anyone interested can read the whole thing, but I will sum up its main point here: the MFA racket and the creative writing swindle in American universities have cheapened the value of the American short story, so that what are supposed to be the best American literary journals now publish huge numbers of weak stories in the gruesome genre of “domestic literary fiction.”

With some trepidation (do I really want to do this?) I approached a reading of the latest anthology of Best American Short Stories. Would this year’s batch of prize-winning stories be any better? Would they be as bad as ever? Are we still mired in the same depressing boondoggle? Well, the answer is that we are. What I call “the standard MFA story” is still ascendant, all over the U.S.A., but at least I found a few good stories in the collection.

If you go to the “Contributors’ Notes” at the back of the book you will be struck by how successful the writers in this volume are. They have been widely published, often in the most prestigious of literary journals; they are praised abundantly, they are winners of vast numbers of literary prizes. So shouldn’t you assume that winners of prizes are good writers? Alas, no, since a reading of prize-winning stories in any journal often leaves you with mouth agape and jaw dangling: that story won a prize?

The saddest thing of all to report is that the majority of stories in this latest volume fit into the category of what I call “standard MFA.” That kind of story features usually middle-class or upper-middle class heroes or heroines. At its worst the story is written in a mostly bland style of literary realism and tends to meander. Again at its worst, the story is unconcerned with issues of structure, has apparently never heard of narrative arcs, doesn’t go anywhere. The characters are often—far too often—awash in angst, over their neurotic middle-class problems—see Batuman’s mention of struggles with kleptomania, deviant siblings, etc. Worst of all: there are no good sentences in the worst of the MFA stuff, and what is a story worth without good sentences? To have value as creative literary fiction a story must be WRITTEN.

To begin with the good news, there are a few stories in this anthology that are WRITTEN. And for this virtue we can forgive them even for being in the genre of the domestic American story. Take T.C. Boyle’s “Are We Not Men?” which features standard American middle-class characters but places them in a near future time when manipulation of genetics is a part of daily life. The story begins by presenting a “dog the color of a maraschino cherry.” Later described as “a cherry-red hairless freak with the armored skull and bulging musculature of a pit bull,” this canine turns out to be a genetically cloned “Cherry Pit.”

Boyle’s story also features a girl of eleven, six feet four with violet eyes, and a tragically murdered micropig, purchased originally from Recombicorp Corporation. Genetic engineering has made all things possible. The best thing about the story—written in the vein of the popular TV series “Black Mirror”—is how much sheer fun Boyle has in telling this tale of the near future. He takes the sad story of the pig’s murder by the Cherry Pit and envelops it in hilarity. The owner of the pig, Allison, is one of these persons who thinks all animals are exactly like humans. At a dinner party “Allison had kept the pig in her lap throughout the whole meal, feeding it from her plate, and afterward, while we sat around the living room cradling brandies and Benedictine, she propped the thing up at the piano, where it picked out, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ with its modified hooves.”

Boyle greatly enjoys his characters, who, wallowing in this new world of semi-science fiction, are made to look foolish, but still sympathetic. Wit is something they don’t teach in creative writing courses. The worst of the MFA stories are dead serious, devoid of humor and stylistic panache. Here, in a story underpinned with much food for thought, we have light and frothy humor, similar to the writings of George Saunders—who is probably the best short story writer alive in the U.S. today.

I was shocked to read what Boyle says about his story in the appendix. “In my long career and even longer life on this earth, I have come to one conclusion: things always get worse.” After bewailing the ascendancy of genetic engineering and the despoilment of nature—“the seas are rising and the polar bears paddling toward a distant horizon that will suck them down into the void of extinction any day now”—Boyle concludes by saying, “I am a satirist. I am a wise guy. I am a nudger and winker. In the face of the horror, what else is left to us but to laugh?”

A totally different person wrote those comments in the appendix from the person—the witty reveler and boisterous joker—who wrote the story. In “Are We Not Men?” the narrator is not a satirist. He is an ironist. What’s the difference? The satirist makes dire predictions, shouts out his rage; his laughs are loud and raucous, but not very funny. The satirist wants to make sure that the reader gets his point: things are bad and getting worse. The ironist has a lot of good light fun, titters gently, whispers in your ear. The ironist makes jokes about pet micropigs and crowparrots that flap about over your head, screech/cawing, “Fuck you.”

Boyle writes under two different names: sometimes, as in this collection, he is T.C. Boyle; sometimes, elsewhere, he is T. Coraghessan Boyle. Maybe one of these Boyles (the one who wrote the story) is the ironist, and the other one—the guy pissing and moaning the blues in the appendix—is the satirist. Anyway, after reading something with such a nice light ludic touch, I’m left figuring that the polar bears might have a chance after all.

Another not bad story in the MFA mode is “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” by Danielle Evans. Here we have another writer with a good sense of humor, describing a wedding with the theme of Noah’s Ark and the rainbow that embodied God’s promise. The bridesmaids each dress in one of the colors of the rainbow. The groom ends up fleeing the whole business in the early morning hours before the ceremony. Then the bride, taking in tow one of her friends—the narrator, who she suspects has once slept with the groom—dashes off in mad pursuit of the groom. Much wacko fun is had, but the story also has some heft, and is written by someone who has a grip on her sentences.

Why the title? I don’t know. Am I supposed to be able to figure this out? Maybe it’s the title of a popular song, and I don’t get it because I last listened to pop music some time in the sixties? Or does the reader have to do research on Richard of York? . . .  Aha, thank God for the internet! I just googled it and discovered that the phrase is a mnemonic aid for remembering the colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—good title, great title, my bad, my bad! For the whole rest of my life I will never forget the colors of the rainbow. Thank you, Danielle Evans!

Other stories with problematic titles in this anthology are (1) “Tally,” in which the title appears to have been randomly picked out of a line in the second paragraph: “It was my job to pour and to tally, to feed a coin now and then into the jukebox”—huh?; and (2) “Gabe Dove,” a story whose main heroine is not named Gabe Dove, who is a secondary character, rather a pathetic sort, so why give him the title of the story? But then again, the heroine and narrator is even more pathetic.

Searching, largely in vain, for stories that break completely and totally the MFA mold, I come across “Telemachus,” by Jim Shepard, set on a British submarine during WWII. There is so much authentic detail in this story that I first imagined Mr. Shepard to have served on a submarine himself. But no, as he informs us in the appendix, he is much interested in British military history, but has done only desultory, “nerdy reading” on the subject of submarines. The details, by the way, while extensive, work always for the good of the narrative, rather than impeding, or overwhelming the action—as details sometimes do in a research-monger of a writer such as Annie Proulx.

“Telemachus” teems with lovely passages. Try this one: “Off Little Andaman Island we pass a jungle of chattering monkeys that cascades right down to the shore. For safety we stay close to the coast in the darkness, and the oily-looking water is filled with sea snakes and jellyfish, so that when we surface at nightfall horrid things get stuck in our conning tower gratings and crunch and slide underfoot.”

Or this: “After two weeks in the Bay of Bengal everyone is feeling lethargic and suffering from headaches. Some of the crew haven’t shaved during the entire patrol and resemble figures from another century. Running on the surface at night we slip past sleepy whales bobbing like waterlogged hulks.”

In its maritime lyricism the story sometimes recalls Melville’s great lyric poem, Moby-Dick. Here’s how it ends: “On a rough day near a reef in a breaking sea we found the spectacle of porpoises on our track above us, leaping through the avalanches of foam and froth six or seven at a time, maneuvering within our field of vision and then surging clean out of the water and reentering smoothly with trailing plumes of white bubbles, all of them flowing together, each a celebration of what the others could be, until finally it seemed as if hundreds had passed us, and in their kinship and coordination had then vanished into the impenetrable green beyond our reach.”

This final piece of poetry, by the way, is a valediction, not only to the story we read, but also to the submariners and their loved ones back home, and to life itself on earth and at sea, since in the paragraphs directly preceding this, the sub—in an act of sheer suicide—has launched torpedoes at a convoy and will now be hunted to the death by three sub-killer vessels that are part of that convoy.

A common thing in the world of American publishing today is the short story written in English by a writer from another culture. You would think such stories would have a certain verve in their very exotic nature, but alas, most of the ones I come across are written as if the author went through an MFA program in an American university. Sometimes she/he has. Such is a story set in Cuba, “Campoamor,” which begins like this: “Natasha is my girlfriend. Sometimes I love her. Sometimes I don’t think of her at all. When I met her she had a broken leg. I was visiting my friend Abel, who sells mobile phone minutes and lives down the hall from her in a building behind the Capitolio.”

Now, that beginning is what I call a big “UH-OH beginning.” Don’t know about anybody else, but those initial sentences are enough to convince me that I’m not interested in meeting Natasha, or the narrator, or Abel who deals in phone minutes. This story, furthermore, is written in the style of “MFA amble.” Meaning that it wanders around for quite a while, never really gets anywhere and then peters out. The narrator has another girlfriend, a married woman named Lily. Here is how they talk to each other.

“‘Lily,’ I tell her, ‘you are an amazing woman. Your husband is a lucky man.’

‘What about your Natasha? Do you fuck her the way you fuck me?’

‘She won’t let me [he lied].’

But Lily never asks if I love Natasha. Not even tonight.”

So much for Cuba. No good sentences in that whole story, only creative writing program sentences. A story written by a writer from India, Jai Chakrabarti, “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness,” does have a bit of exoticism. It begins like this: ‘From his balcony, Nikhil waited and watched the street as hyacinth braiders tied floral knots, rum sellers hauled bags of ice, and the row of elderly typists, who’d seemed elderly to him since he had been a boy, struck the last notes of their daily work.”

People who braid hyacinths for a living! Now that’s interesting. The small sacrifice of the title refers to Nikhil’s [odd name, Nikhil, very close to the Latin word for Nothing] willingness to impregnate the wife of his male lover Sharma—despite Nikhil’s repugnance at even the smell of a woman. But, so he tells Sharma, “I desire to have a child with you.”

The story is unusual, in that India is still a highly conservative culture, and being homosexual there can be dangerous. “They had learned about a schoolteacher and a postal clerk who had secretly made a life together. Unfashionably attired and chubby cheeked, they seemed too dull for the news. A few months ago locals threw acid on their faces.” While strictly MFA in style and plot, “A Small Sacrifice” has a lot of nice touches. I especially liked the description of the evening meal at Sharma’s place—with only he and his wife in attendance—a scene full of domestic “grace and precision,” all of this viewed from outside by jealous Nikhil, and all of it presaging not only no child for the two male lovers, but also probably the end of their days together.

A story dear to my heart is “Novostroika (Новостройка)” by Maria Reva, a native of Ukraine. Here is how it begins: “Daniil Ivanovich Blinov climbed the crumbling steps of the city council. The statue of Grandfather Lenin towered over the building, squinting into the smoggy distance. The winter’s first snowflakes settled on the statue’s shoulders like dandruff. Daniil avoided Grandfather’s iron gaze, but sensed it on the back of his head, burning through his fur-flap hat.”

There is a slight logistical problem here in the first paragraph. The Lenin statues next to or in front of government buildings in the Soviet Union always face forward, onto the city square, one arm raised, pointing into the glorious Socialist future awaiting all of humankind. This one does too, but Veliky Ilich (Lenin) must turn his head around as Blinov passes. Otherwise how could the character feel that gaze burning on the back of his fur cap?

By the way, there is another logistical problem in the beginning of the story “Famous Actor.” While standing with a group of people at a party, having a conversation, the title character is said to be casually “elbow-fucking” the narrator. He is facing in another direction, as this detail tells us: “he stopped elbow-fucking me and turned so that we were face to face.” But I don’t get it. Where exactly is he putting his elbow? To be doing this in the region of the anus or crotch he would have to bend way down, but the context implies that he is standing up having a conversation. Is he elbow-fucking the back of her neck? Her shoulder blades? Or is he only four feet tall? My problem here probably comes of never having elbow-fucked, and never having been elbow-fucked.

“Novostroika” is a Russian story, top to bottom and back to front, and I like it so much because I get all the inside jokes. Full disclosure: I taught Russian language and literature for thirty years in a university and have spent a lot of time in the country. The first joke is in the surname of the protagonist Blinov. It comes from the word блин (blin), which means pancake but also is, or at least used to be, the “like” word in Russian: “And he like (blin) goes, Whatever, and I like (blin) go, What about whatever? and he like (blin) goes, etc.”

Other things any Russian or Soviet would relate to in this story: the girl singing the popular song, “May there always be sunshine”; the mention of vobla, the inedible, disgusting dried fish product so beloved of Russian beer drinkers; pensioners sitting out on benches, disparaging everything and everyone, while cracking sunflower seeds in their teeth; the way you gather up your life savings to buy a space heater—which in this story is miraculously available for sale. Most of the time the way it worked in the Soviet Union was you took your life savings to the store, and the bored girl behind the counter—with that ever-present expression of repugnance on her face—said, “What planet are you from to think we still have space heaters on sale?”

“Novostroika” is, of course, a tale very much in the tradition of Gogol, the age-old story of Mother Russia (including Ukraine): life is absurd, and we are all living in an ontology that has very shaky grounds. In the story the apartment building, where Blinov lives with his many relatives and their chickens, has not been registered at the city council, so it officially does not exist. A logical extension of this is that the residents themselves are equally nonexistent.

Despite the confusion over “elbow-fucking,” Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor” shows talent and is well written. The main character and female narrator is witty and charming, while quite mixed up. The actor—chain-smoking, perpetually picking a piece of tobacco off his tongue, or pretending to—is also confused in an entertaining, even sympathetic way. For some reason I see him in my mind’s eye as Owen Wilson. “Famous Actor” has some very good touches: “First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon. There was one point where he was over me, his eyes closed, head back, weight on his arms like he was doing a pushup, and it was kind of weird—like, Oh, hey, look, Terrific Todd is boning someone. Oh wait, it’s me.” The story is about acting, about how professional actors have acted so much that they have lost touch with what’s real and what’s acting. But, so the narrative implies, we’re all of us really actors like that.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies” also has nice bits of humor and irony. Eric Puchner’s “Last Day on Earth” is well structured and touching. The best things here are the epiphany of the mother’s act—she shows her son how she can walk on her hands—and the dogs, Shorty and Ranger, apparently on Death Row—they are on their way to the dog pound and euthanasia—but still making the best of what life they have left, running and sniffing on the beach.

Of the stories I have not discussed in this review, the rest are all basically MFA mode, some better than others. Two or three—I will mercifully mention no names—are barely worth publishing, and certainly not worthy of a prize. A famous writer of fiction—I forget who—was once asked why she wrote, and her answer was this: I write because I’m in love with words. This is the very best answer I can think of, but I suspect that it would not be well-received by purveyors of MFA, or by many writers included in this anthology. Some of the writers here anthologized admit, in the appendix, to setting out writing stories in order to air out sociological issues. In MFA programs I assume that they are encouraged to do so, just as the touchy-feely profs encourage them to be politically correct.

But as any genuine writer of literary fiction should be aware, political correctness has no place in creative writing; the genuine writer should never be concerned about offending anyone, nor does emphasis primarily on sociological matters make for good fiction. Once again, let me emphasize that I am speaking of genuine literature as Art. As I have stated elsewhere, if the writers of “domestic literary fiction” would only leave the word “literary” out I would not be nearly as aghast at what they write. Same goes for so-called “literary journals.” If they want to call themselves that, they should publish Literature, not Sociology. And they should find editors who can tell the difference between Literature and Crap.

In the contents to the anthology I would like to have put, in capital letters next to “Telemachus,” NOT AN MFA STORY. THIS ONE IS DIFFERENT. NOT BORING. We could have similar messages next to the other good stories in the collection.

And to the future editors and selectors of the so-called best stories of the year, I would like to send this note: PLEASE, PLEASE, PICK MORE STORIES LIKE THIS, STORIES THAT ARE NOT IN THE MFA STANDARD MODE. PLEASE DEVELOP SOME HIGH STANDARDS ABOUT WHAT GOOD LITERARY WRITING IS.

Oh, one other thing: let’s abolish all creative writing programs in all American universities. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?