Friday, December 18, 2015


За последний год я напечатал 4 произведения худ. прозы (over the past year I’ve published four works of creative literary fiction):

(1)    Nov., 2014: Anyway, Anyways, a collection of short stories (А все-таки, собрание коротких рассказов).
(2)    Mar., 2015: Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes (Дисамбигуации: три повести на русские темы).
(3)    May, 2015: Own: the Sad and Like-Wike Weepy Tale of Wittle Elkie Selph (Оун: грустнейший и блин-да печальненький сказ молодого Элькина Сельфа.
(4)    Nov., 2015: The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (a novel) (Повествование сафлора красильного, роман).

Monday, October 26, 2015

Something in the Way of a Parricide (on Dostoevsky)

Dobuzhinsky Illustration to "White Nights"

This semi-fictional piece on Dostoevsky is included in my forthcoming book: 
Gogoldegookery: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc. 

Something in the Way of a Parricide
(June, 1839)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (FMD) had not seen his father, Mikhail Andreevich, for two years. Much to the chagrin of the dour paterfamilias, his elder son Mikhail failed the entrance exams, but young Fyodor passed, and now he was enrolled in the Academy of Military Engineers in St. Petersburg. The school was housed in the Mikhailovsky Castle, built originally for the son of Catherine the Great, Tsar Paul. Still obsessed with his literary dreams, Fyodor did as little as possible in pursuit of the engineering career that his father foresaw for him. He read Romantic literature, wandered in a daze around the haunted building, where the ghost of the “mad tsar Paul,” murdered there in 1801, was still said to roam in the night hours.
            Meanwhile, Mikhail Andreevich had retired from his position as military doctor and moved to his small Darovoe estate in the country, one hundred fifty versts south of Moscow. Melancholic and irritable by nature, missing his late wife, who had always been his best support, MA turned to drink, took a peasant mistress, who bore him an illegitimate child in 1838. His housekeeper, Alyona Frolovna, later recalled how she used to hear him sitting alone, carrying on long conversations with his wife. Next comes the family folklore, and here is where the facts get hazy. MA is said to have begun debauching his peasant women and mistreating the men. One of his peasants recalled later (years later) that “the old man was a beast, a tyrant with a dark soul. He flogged his serfs for nothing.”
The human psyche loves a good story. The tale gets more and more interesting as it approaches its climax. As a younger brother, Andrey Dostoevsky, tells it in his memoir, “Father flew into a rage one day, began screaming, berating the peasants. One of them, Gerasim Tkach, dared to respond to the master, calling him by an unprintable epithet. Then, suddenly frightened that he had gone too far, the madcap Tkach incited the others to violence. ‘Come on, boys, we don’t have to take this. Let’s get him!’ With that all of fifteen serfs fell upon the master, belaboring him about the head and shoulders—beating him, beating him, until finally he lay still. Terrified at what they had done, the peasants quickly fled the scene. An hour later Alyona Frolovna, returning from the cow shed where she had been milking, found the master in the courtyard, already growing cold.”
Andrey was not an eyewitness to what he reports. He got his information from secondary sources, then embellished upon the tale. An even more unreliable witness, FMD’s unbalanced daughter Aimée (Любовь)—in a book published much, much later, in 1920—writes, “On a summer’s day he [MA] set off from Darovoe for his other small estate Chermashnja and never returned. . . .They found him half suffocated with a pillow from the carriage. The coachman had disappeared together with the horse.”
What the coachman had to do with this is anybody’s guess. The family itself, as we have just seen, perpetuated the story of the murder, relying upon secondhand or third-hand accounts. Apparently all of the doctor’s relatives, including his sons, really believed he had met a violent end. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Mikhail Dostoevsky, the eldest son, and dated June 30, 1839: “This week I received a letter from my brother Fyodor, in which he informed me of the misfortune that has come upon our family. . . .We are now left orphans, without a mother or father. . . .My God, what a horrible death it was for poor papa! Two days lying out in the fields. The rain and the dust were vying with each other, fighting it out over his mortal remains. Perchance he called out to us in his final moments, and we did not go to him to shut his wide-open eyes.”
So where did the firsthand account come from? Who first reported that Mikhail Andreevich had been murdered by his peasants? A neighboring landowner, a retired Major Khotyaintsev, and his wife. When MA’s mother-in-law arrived at Darovoe directly subsequent to the tragedy—to take the younger Dostoevsky children in hand and look after the family’s affairs—Khotyaintsev informed her that the old man “умер не своей смертью” (“had died not his own death,” i.e., not a natural death). The solicitous Khot, however, advised her that it would be in the best interests of the family if the murder were hushed up. Why? Because if fifteen serfs were convicted and sent to Siberia for murder, there would be no one left to work the already straightened Darovoe estate, and the Dostoevsky heirs would soon find themselves with a bankrupt property.
In his third-hand account Andrey Dostoevsky asserts that the murder was hushed up because the peasants got together a huge bribe and paid off the authorities. Whereupon the cause of death was officially listed as apoplectic stroke. But how and where did the Darovoe peasants, who were barely eking out a poverty-stricken existence, come up with the money for the bribe? Until the mid-twentieth century scholars and historians, it appears, all accepted the account of the doctor’s death as murder. But in 1975 a young literary researcher, Georgy Fyodorov, gained access to the archives of provincial court proceedings for the Darovoe district. It appears that a hearing was called after rumors of the murder were spread and one local landowner, Leybrekht, reported the rumor to local authorities.
Here is a partial transcript of the hearing on the death of M.A. Dostoevsky, held (July 10, 1837) by a provincial court.
--The court calls to be sworn Alyona Frolovna Krot.
She rose, a tall, middle-aged woman in worn clothing, with startlingly beautiful grey eyes. She approached the proscenium.
--State your name.
--Alyona Frolovna Krot.
--Do you swear to tell the truth?
--I do, your honor.
--Is it true that you were in the employ of the deceased landowner, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky?
--I was your honor. I was his housekeeper.
--It is true you were the first to discover his lifeless body?
--I was, your honor.
--Describe for the court where and how and under what circumstances you discovered the body.
--It was a hot day in early June. I had been out in the cow shed, doing the milking. I returned with a pail of fresh milk, entered the house, and told Parasha, the maid, to inform Mikhail Andreevich. Parasha entered the master’s study, where he often worked during the day. Soon she returned and said, “He’s sleeping, Alyona Frolovna, on the divan. I was afraid to disturb him.”
--Explain those words to the court. Why afraid?
--Mikhail Andreevich was a good man, your honor, but his nerves were weak, and he was prone to lose his temper. All of the servants and peasants were afraid of him. He drank, you see.
--Proceed with your testimony, witness.
--So we decided to let him sleep, your honor, although it was rare for him to take a nap in the early hours of the afternoon. Time passed and I went on with my duties. By six p.m. it occurred to me that he should have been awake long ago. I decided to go into his study and check on him. I knocked. No reply. I went in the door, walked up to the divan. Mikhail Andreevich had a strange look on his face. I whispered his name. There was no response. The room was somehow too quiet, too still. I reached out a hand and touched the skin of his arm, and then I jumped back horrified. He was dead, you see, already cold to the touch.
--So what knowledge do you have in regard to the allegation that Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky, the decedent landowner, was murdered by his peasants?
--None, your honor.
--Did you have occasion to see any of his male serfs in the vicinity of that divan in his study that day?
--No, your honor. None.
--Please step down and return to your seat. The court calls to give testimony one Gerasim Tkach, peasant.
Eyes wandering from side to side, clearly terrified, the peasant Tkach slowly made his way to the proscenium. He was gaunt-thin, almost emaciated, wearing rags, with a scraggly unkempt beard on his dirty face, clutching a crumpled workingman’s cap in one hand.
--State your name, peasant.
--(voice trembling with fear) Gerashka Tkach.
--State your full name, including patronymic.
--Your middle name, also known as father-name.
--(shaking all over) Ain’t got nary.
--Can’t rightly say who my father was, your honor.
--Right. Peasant Tkach, do you swear to tell the truth?
--Do you swear to tell the truth?
--(calming down a bit) You see, we was all just Tkaches. All of us once upon a time. Didn’t not nobody even have a first name. Just Tkach, and sometimes Son of Tkach (for them as had a father). Then somebody, I do not recollect exactly who, started calling me Gerasim, or sometimes Gerashka. So that's who I is.
--Enough! Do you swear you will not lie to us?
--No, sir, I mean to say. I won’t lie, swear on my mother’s grave.
--Peasant Tkach, were you involved in the murder of landowner, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky?
--Did you kill your master?
--No, sir, I mean to say. Ain’t killed nobody.
--Did your fellow peasant workers on the landed estate of M.A. Dostoevsky murder said M.A. Dostoevsky.
--Answer the question!
--Wellsir. . . .I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
--Stand down, peasant Tkach, and make yourself scarce.
Quick as a flash Gerashka Tkach rushed out of that courtroom and into the oblivion of history, where most of us rush. But he was saved from total oblivion by his having once been thought culpable in the murder of the father of a great writer—a murder that most likely never took place.
--The court calls Vadim Volfovich Fritz, doctor of medicine.
Dressed in a worn frockcoat, wearing spats on his shoes, tall and lanky Dr. Fritz made his way to the proscenium.
--(State your name, get sworn in, etc., etc. etc. Hereinafter omitted)
--Vadim Volfovich, did you treat the aforementioned landowner, M.A. Dostoevsky, for any ailment directly antecedent to the time of his decedence?
--No, sir.
--To your knowledge was the aforementioned ill in late May or early June of the year of our Lord 1837?
--Not to my knowledge. But I wasn’t treating him.
--Were you called to the Dostoevsky estate at any time, to treat the patient?
--I was, your honor. They sent for me on June 5, 1837, but when I arrived at the estate the aforementioned was already deceased.
--Did you exam the decedent?
--I did, your honor.
--Did you perceive upon the body any signs of a violent struggle? Any scratches on the face, any bruises? Any teeth knocked out?
--None, your honor.
--What, in your estimation, was the cause of death?
--Apoplectic stroke, your honor.
--Thank you, Vadim Volfovich. You may stand down. The court calls Ivan Frantsovich Blitzer, doctor of medicine.
Ivan Frantsovich was a small gray-haired man who walked with a limp and spoke with a slight stammer.
--(Are you so and so, do you swear such and such, etc., etc.)
--Yes, your honor.
--(Did you treat the aforementioned so on and so forth, etc.)
--I did, your honor. I had occasion to treat Mikhail Andreevich on a regular basis.
--And what would you say was his general state of health?
--None too sparkling, your honor. MA was a heavy drinker, a melancholic-choleric personality who frequently flew into rages. He often complained of pains in his heart. I advised him to take up breathing exercises, to cut down on the drinking. I also advised a trip abroad, to the spas of Germany, where he could take the waters and, perhaps, recover his health. But I don’t think he had the money for such a trip. The crops were bad that year, as well as the year before, and his peasants were practically starving.
--What can you tell us about events on the day of June 5, 1837?
--A peasant came for me riding bareback on a piebald mare. The cross-eyed one who just testified.
--Yes, your honor. He said I was urgently needed at the estate. I left immediately, but when I arrived the patient was no longer among the living.
--Were you there at the estate at the same time that Dr. Vadim Volfovich Fritz was there?
--No, your honor. Dr. Fritz had already departed prior to my arrival.
--So that you and Dr. Fritz did not consult as to the cause of death?
--No, your honor.
--Did you perceive bruises and scratches on the body or face of the decedent?
--No, your honor.
--Any signs of a violent struggle?
--No, your honor.
--What, in your estimation, was the cause of death?
--Apoplectic stroke, your honor.
--Thank you, Ivan Frantsovich. You may step down. The court calls the landowner, Major Anatoly Borisovich Khotyaintsev.
A tall gray-haired man with a military bearing rose and approached the proscenium. He was well-dressed, walking erectly, shoulders squared, head held high.
--(are you, etc. , swearing in, etc.)
--Anatoly Borisovich, where did you hear of the ostensible murder by peasants of the aforementioned Dr. M.A. Dostoevsky?
--I don’t recall exactly when or where I first heard it, your honor. The rumor was circulating; it was in the air, so to speak.
--Do you, as master of the largest neighboring estate of the decedent, believe that M.A. Dostoevsky was murdered by his peasants?
--I can’t say one way or the other, your honor. All I know is there was a rumor going around. People will talk, you know?
--Thank you. You may step down, Anatoly Borisovich. The court calls landowner Gennady Eustafovich Leybrekht.
Leybrekht, who was neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin, was middle-aged, short of stature, with bright blue eyes and hair the color of newly mown wheat.
--(etc., etc., etc.)
--Gennady Eustafovich, given the testimony independently by two physicians that the decedent, M.A. Dostoevsky, died of apoplexy, do you still believe the rumor that his peasants murdered him?
--No, your honor.
--Then why did you spread that rumor?
--I didn’t spread it, your honor. I merely reported it to local authorities. I wanted justice done.
--Where did you hear the rumor in the first place?
--From my neighbor, Anatoly Borisovich.
--Major Khotyainstev. He asked me to tell everyone I saw.
--He asked you to spread the rumor?
--Yes, your honor.
(from the galleries, Major Khotyaintsev): Did not.
(Ley): Did too.
(from the galleries): Did not.
--Did too.
(judge): --Order in the court.
[end of partial transcript of court proceedings]

The provincial court concluded its hearing by declaring that it found no evidence of foul play in the death of M.A. Dostoevsky. Keep in mind that the way the Russian court system worked (and still works today) the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is seldom at the forefront of judicial proceedings. If there were even the least suspicion that peasants had killed a landowner, they would have been dealt with unmercifully. Always quick to anticipate another peasant uprising, such as the Pugachev revolt under Catherine the Great, always fearful of the oppressed masses, the autocratic Russian government was swift and harsh in its judgments.
So what really happened in the case of the “murder” of Dr. Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky? He probably died of apoplexy (a stroke). Most likely the landowner, retired military officer Khotyainstev, intent on implicating the good doctor’s peasants in the murder, started a rumor. Why? Because, just as he had with such solicitous care explained to MA’s mother-in-law, he knew that if the peasants were convicted and sent to Siberia, no one would be left to work the pitiful and squalid little Darovoe estate. Consequently, he, Khot, a wealthy landowner with five hundred of his own souls, could acquire the neighboring property and whatever bedraggled serfs remained for a song.
But in terms of the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, what mattered was not that the story of the murder was spurious. What mattered was that he, along with the whole rest of the family, accepted the rumor as truth. He actually believed that his father was murdered, and although he seldom spoke of his father at all in subsequent years, he probably was affected in his moral equilibrium and even psychological balance by feelings of guilt. He had not loved his father enough, he had made too many demands on him. In the last letter ever written to his second son in St. Petersburg before his death, MA had wailed out a cri de coeur. The situation (he explained) on his impoverished estate was so bad the year before that the straw roofs of the peasant huts had to be used for fodder. This year things were even worse—the heat and drought were relentless, not a drop of water. “What threatens us is not only ruin, but total starvation. After this can you continue to grumble at your father for not sending money?”
The letter was written on May 27, 1839. A week or two later, in early June, Mikhail Andreevich was, at least in the mind of his son, “murdered.” According to Freud, his “murder” marked the occasion of Fyodor’s first epileptic seizure. Freud was wrong about this, as he was wrong about so many of his “facts”—in the famous/infamous article titled “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” The epilepsy came along much later in Dostoevsky’s life, but, given his hyper-nervous nature, his impressionability, the “murder” certainly must have been a blow to his psyche.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Aleksandr Blok and the Sythians

This article originally posted on Johnson's Russia List, 2008

                                                The Coming of the Sythians

This is a response to the article by Mark Medish, "Russia's Road Rage," reprinted in JRL-2008, Special Issue, 2008, Item No. 21

When I saw the title of Mr. Medish's article, I immediately assumed that the subject would be Russia's hideous drivers: the way they won't wear seat belts as a matter of puerile pride, the way they operate automobiles in ways that are destructive to themselves or others, the way they'll speed up if they see a pedestrian crossing the road up ahead, the way they'll moderate their driving habits not one iota when roads are icy. As a result of these driving habits, Russia has horrendous road fatality rates, both for drivers and pedestrians.

Of course, the driving (and the drinking) habits say important things about how Russians view the world, both at home and abroad. The basic message is the POFIGISM ("Mne po figu"=I just don't give a damn), which is the most widespread and most deleterious cultural attitude in all of Russia. This attitude has resonance with the major theme of Mr. Medish's article, his contention that Russians will assert their national pride, even in ways that may be self-destructive, or destructive to the world as a whole.

John McCain, who solemnly declared, tears in his eyes, that "we are all Georgians," Bill Clinton, who began the process of pushing NATO up to the very borders of Russia (a process that has continued over the years of the Bush Administration}--these are politicians who know nothing about Russian cultural mores and Russian history. They rely on Russian "experts," such as Condoleeza Rice, who, despite her background in Soviet studies, does not seem to have learned very much either--she may know something about the Soviet political scene, but her spoken Russian is rudimentary, and if she has much insight into Russian literature, history, culture and folklore, she certainly has shown no evidence of this.

 Certainly the new President Obama needs to be informed that, in dealing with Russia, we are facing a country with its back to the wall, a country that may talk big, talk aggressively (this is Putin’s style, and Medvedev sometimes apes it), but that has poor military resources, an economy in trouble, huge demographic problems, a crumbling infrastructure, an apolitical population that can get volatile when the economy tanks. What does Russian possess, ultimately--what weapons to use in its defense against the outside world? It possesses, ultimately, nuclear weapons, and anyone who knows the essence of the Russian temperament (see the drivers above, see the maximalist views of Russian philosophers and writers discussed below) realizes that if pushed far enough, Russia will use these weapons.

As the Medish article demonstrates, it is dangerous to remain ignorant of traditional maximalist Russian stances. The poet cited, Alexander Blok (1880-1921) lived a life that constantly walked a thin line between the sane and the insane. Inspired by Vladimir Solov’yov (see below), he had visions of a new world, in which the human communes with the divine. As Russian intellectuals go, he was not that unusual in his time, and his poetry still has a lot of influence on the thinking of Russians. In reference to the revolutionary events taking place all around him, Blok once wrote that “cosmos is born out of chaos.” Well, as it turned out in the years of the Russian Civil War, chaos was what was born out of chaos.

In citing Blok's poem “The Sythians” in support of his point about the Russian propensity to assert itself, Mr. Medish misses the more salient theme of the Blok poem, a theme that demonstrates how prescient Blok's poetry was at the time he wrote it, and how prescient it remains today. "The Sythians"[i] begins with an epigraph from Vladimir Solov’yov (1853-1900), a Russian philosopher who was extremely popular in the years preceding the Russian Revolution. Somehow typically Russian in their grandiosity, Solov’yov’s ideas look to the Western rationalist like something off the wall. The philosopher had had visions of the “Divine Sophia,” a feminine entity associated with Hagia Sophia, embodying, ostensibly, God’s idea of the divine essence of the world.

Just because Solov’yov’s notions may seem eccentric and outré, this does not, however, diminish their influence on Russians or their importance.[ii] In fact, the only time that the two greatest Russian novelists who ever lived, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, were together in the same place was at a lecture by Solov’yov in 1878.[iii]

The Solov’yov epigraph to Blok’s “Sythians” is: "Panmongolism! Although the word sounds wild,// It somehow caresses my ears."

Here the philosopher expresses a notion that Blok, as well as intellectuals all over Russia, were obsessed with for years--the idea that the East was coming, with its Mongol cruelty, its joy in shedding blood. The first stanza, truncated by Medish in his article, reads like this:

There are millions of you. Of us there are untold numbers of dark hordes ("Nas--t'my, i t'my, i t'my.").
Give it a try; try fighting with us!
Yes, we are Sythians! Yes, we are Asiatic,
With our slanted, greedy eyes!

Ever since Russia had been defeated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05),[iv] Blok's poems were replete with allusions to the might of the Eastern powers, the threat to the West that would come from the East. Deep in their cultural bones, Russians have never forgotten the Mongol Yoke. In "The Sythians" the poet repeats the (unfounded) assertion that Russia had served as a shield, to protect Western Europe from the Tartar invaders in the 13th-14th centuries; then he goes on to say, "from here on, we won't be your shield any more."

Blok, who was neurotic to extremes and who welcomed the destructive force of the Russian Revolution (even though he knew that it meant an end to his noble class of the intelligentsia and an end to his personal existence), stresses in "The Sythians" his notion that the new Bolshevik Russia would somehow join the elemental forces of the Orient to crush the bourgeois West.

Like so many Russian intellectuals, Blok hated, above all, middle-class philistinism, and he welcomed the crudeness (and cruelty) of the Russian workers and peasants. He apparently embraced, as well, the thugs of Bolshevism, who, while merciless, would sweep the world clean of the bourgeois class. In exalting criminals and bandits (Stalin is a typical example of such a revolutionary)[v] Blok deluded himself and paid dearly for the delusion. But in reading this poem today, his prescience, a different prescience, is obvious.

For the foreseeable future the greatest threat to Russia will come from the East. Central Asia, poor in spirit and economic means, has, nonetheless, a higher birth rate than Russia. What's even more relevant, "untold numbers of dark hordes" are lurking right across the border of the Russian Far East--in China. The meager Russian population of this area has been decreasing in recent years, but even if all 142 million Russians were sent out to the borders of China, they would be small in numbers, in comparison to the population of Western China.

Russian leaders have often pointed out their affinities with the East; they have even expressed a desire to create a new world order based on Eastern alliances. But, simultaneously, they realize their precarious geopolitical situation with regard to China. No fools themselves, the Chinese leaders are willing to negotiate with Russia, e.g., on the issue of building new pipelines Eastward. Recent negotiations, however, collapsed when the Russians realized how much the Chinese, operating from what they see as a position of power, were demanding.

Most encouraging of all, while the Russian people have this strain of maximalism, this love of mysticism and the outré, the present Russian leadership seems to operate on totally pragmatic principles, which comes closer to American ways of doing things.

These are the kind of facts that President Obama's Russian advisors should be presenting to him. Let them set aside their books on politics and economics temporarily. Let them read, say, the superb biography of Blok and his times by Avril Pyman (2 vol., in English), or the telling remarks about Russia's attitudes toward Asia in Orlando Figes' book on Russian culture: Natasha's Dance.

Such books might provide the insights required to convince Obama that American policies should change, that there is much that Russia needs from the West, that Russia would certainly be amenable to initiatives from the U.S. IF those initiatives make clear that the plan for missile systems in Poland will be postponed or abrogated, that the push to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO will be put way back on a back burner—which back burner, at some time in the future, will be quietly switched off.

[i]The Sythians were a nomadic warlike tribe that settled in the steppes around the Black Sea in the seventh-eighth centuries AD. Their remarkable artifacts may still be viewed today at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Blok uses this bellicose people as his metaphorical representation of all the elemental power of the Orient, which, as Blok sees it, is set to advance upon the West and destroy Western civilization.
[ii] Many of the great thinkers of the world (Freud, e.g., Nietzsche) often present ideas that, on their surface, seem preposterous, far-fetched. When viewed in all their profundity, however, these ideas offer at least the seeds of elementary truths.
[iii] The lecture that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attended was part of a series called Lectures on Godmanhood, which Solov’yov presented in St. Petersburg, in the winter and early spring of 1878. Although seated that day in the same lecture hall, the great novelists did not meet (nor did they ever meet each other in their lifetimes). See Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, the Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 386-87.
[iv] Even an apparently apolitical poem, the famous “A Girl Was Singing in the Church Choir” Aug., 1905), is replete with allusions to the Russian ships that were lost in the Battle of Tsushima (May, 1905). The Russian Baltic Fleet had circumnavigated the world to reach the Pacific battle site, where it was decimated by the Japanese.
[v] The best example of how Blok glorified the ignorance, cruelty and brutality of the working-class soldiers of the Red Army is his famous poem The Twelve (Jan., 1918), which, notoriously, concludes with an image of Jesus Christ, marching ahead of the pack of marauders.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Anna Karenina" SUMMING UP


I started out posting my lecture notes on Anna Karenina with an introductory posting on this blog on Dec. 6, 2014. Now we're already pushing into the end of 2015. Counting this final posting, I have put up a total of 32 bits and pieces on the novel, plus, in the middle of this, I have written a long review article on the latest translation into English, by Marian Schwartz.

We could go on indefinitely discussing "AK," since a novel this long and this great presents opportunities for almost endless discussion. A few things we haven't got around to: the meaning of the Biblical epigraph--"Vengeance is mine; I will repay" (the critic Boris Eikhenbaum, in his Tolstoy in the Seventies, devotes a whole chapter to the epigraph); the art theme (revolving around the painter in Italy, Mikhailov); the way that the two Alexeis (Karenin and Vronsky) have a lot in common; Tolstoy's use of irony and sarcasm; the theme of death (especially prominent in the passages describing the slow death of Lyovin's brother, Nikolay); humor and comedy in the novel; the ending of the novel.

About the ending. You sometimes think that Tolstoy might have done better to end the book with Anna's suicide. The final part (Part Eight) of AK meanders along, moralizing, philosophizing, describing, perhaps, as much Tolstoy's own personal problems as those of his alter ego Lyovin. A passage in Ch. 8--the last sentence in that chapter--describes Lyovin's dilemma but is also exactly descriptive of Tolstoy's own personal dilemma: "He was miserably at odds with his very self, and he strained all his spiritual resources to escape from that condition." The whole book is about reasoning one's way through to an acceptance of non-reasoning, but the round and round of this process in Part Eight gets tedious. Tolstoy was stricken with bouts of depression throughout the writing of this novel, but that situation is reflected most obviously in the last part.

Other things worthy of discussion: great prose often develops out of great poetry, and "AK" would not be what it is if not for the influence on Tolstoy of the poetry of Tyutchev and Fet; the three Annas--why are there three--Anna herself, her maid Annushka, and her daughter Annie--and to what extent are the lesser Annas (the maid and daughter) spectral counter-images of the main character? What else? The homosexual officers who make a brief appearance in Part Two, Ch. 19 (what is their role in the novel?); gestures and kinesics and facial expressions (why does Anna habitually narrow her eyes?).

Back when I was teaching Anna Karenina to students at Miami University I used to conclude my lectures with the following:

Anna Karenina is probably the greatest novel ever written. It is certainly the best ever written on the subject of marriage and family life. It reverberated through all of Russian literature during the remainder of the nineteen century and then all through the twentieth and now into the twenty-first. It was Chekhov's favorite novel, Bunin's favorite novel, Nabokov's favorite novel (not counting his own--but even such a consummate egoist as Nabokov was knew deep in his soul that he would never write anything as great as "AK.").

Chekhov's stories are full of subtle pokes at the Great Master, airings out of Tolstoy's marriage-family theme in new ways. Emerging out of Tolstoy as well, Bunin presented a fresh treatment of the love-death theme. In Nabokov's novel Pnin, we have characters reading and discussing "AK," interpreting it. There are even grounds for asserting that Nabokov's treatment of kinesics and the language of gesture in Pnin has its origins in the extensive attention paid to kinesics and gesture in "AK."

The list can go on and on. We find touches of "AK" in Sologub's Petty Demon, in Solzhenitsyn's One Day, in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Etc. Etc. Few pieces of Russian prose written after "AK" escape unblemished. The book has influenced almost all Russian writers.

In a word, it's a great novel. I love it and never get tired of reading it. Over and over. Each time I read it a find marvelous new things. Great art is inexhaustible. But some of you sitting out there in my audience today don't like the book. Others have never got around to reading it. My spies at the video stores downtown have provided me the names and photographs (taken with a hidden camera) of those of you who went to these stores in search of a tape of "AK," a movie.

For shame. We'll be posting those photographs out in the hallways of Irvin Hall, Mother Miami, in a sort of "gallery of shame." This is right in the Russian-Soviet tradition of self-criticism and shaming as a means of promoting moral rectitude.

But what about those of you who made the effort, who read and studied this long novel, who mulled over its many themes and characters and STILL DON'T LIKE THE NOVEL? Well, at this point it's time for me to stop trying to promote the book and give up. People have all different tastes, and although it's difficult for me to acknowledge the intelligence of anyone who does not appreciate "AK," I must, at least grudgingly, say, Okay, maybe even some intelligent people don't like Tolstoy.

In conclusion, let me quote from a great writer, and a man who, like some of you readers, worked over "AK," studied its themes and characters, deeply cogitating on anything and everything concerning the novel, and, in the end, found the book sorely lacking in redeeming social qualities.

"Concerning Karenina, I assure you that for me that abomination does not even exist, and it only annoys me to think there are people who place any value on the novel."

Of course, anyone who knows much about the ups and downs and changing of minds over the long lifetime of Lev Tolstoy can easily guess who is responsible for that quotation. It comes from a letter Tolstoy wrote late in his life (cited in Eichenbaum, Tolstoy in the Seventies, p. 162).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


(30) "Anna Karenina" Lapses in plot logic

Although Tolstoy usually does a masterful job at holding together the various plot lines and multitude of characters in his big novels, there are times when he forgets certain things or neglects to clarify others. Here are a few examples:

(1) Vronsky makes a horrible mistake while riding in the steeplechase (Part Two, Ch. 25). He shifts his weight in the saddle at the wrong time, causing his beloved mare Frou-Frou to fall. The horse has to be put down immediately after the fall. "The memory of this race lingered in his heart for a long time as the most difficult and agonizing memory in his life" (185, Schwartz trans., my emphasis URB). Tolstoy does not get around to describing Vronsky in events immediately subsequent to the steeplechase until several chapters into the next part (Part Three, Ch.20-22). Here is Vronsky at the beginning of Ch. 22, riding along in his carriage on the day after the steeplechase fiasco.

"His vague awareness of the clarity at which his affairs had arrived, his vague recollection of the friendship and flattery of Serpukhovskoi, who considered him a man who was needed, and, most of all, the anticipation of a rendezvous [with Anna]--all this combined to create the general impression of a joyous sense of life. This sense was so strong that he smiled in spite of himself. He lowered his feet, crossed one leg over the other knee, and grasping it with one hand, felt his resilient calf, which he had bruised yesterday in his fall [my emphasis, URB], and, leaning back, took several deep breaths, filling his chest.

"'Fine, very fine!' he told himself. Often before, too, he had experienced this joyous awareness of his own body, but never had he loved himself, his body, as he did now. He enjoyed feeling the mild pain in his strong leg [my emphasis, URB], enjoyed the muscular sensation of his chest moving when he took a breath" (287-88).

This description of how Vronsky delights in his very body and in life goes on for a whole long paragraph. Although Tolstoy reminds us of the steeplechase mishap twice, in references to the injured leg, the intervening chapters have, apparently, caused him to forget how devastated Vronsky was by the loss of Frou-Frou, and how guilty over his own role in that death. On the very next day he could simply not be exulting in life and in the strength of his body. Impossible.

(2) With his sense of propriety, with his feeling that his life and that of his wife must be kept within the bounds of proper Christian behavior, Alexei Karenin would be horrified to learn that his wife is pregnant by Vronsky. Anna informs Vronsky that she is pregnant on the day of the steeplechase. On that same day, in her distraught state after Vronsky's fall, she tells her husband, "I love him, I'm his lover, I can't stand you, I despise you," but she does not tell him that she is pregnant.In fact, never on the pages of the book do we see the moment when Karenin finds out. Therefore, we have no scene describing his horror at learning the news. In the confrontation between Anna and Karenin (Part Four, Ch. 4) on p. 335 we get the following dialogue:

"'You need Seryozha just to hurt me,' she said, looking up at him sullenly. 'You don't love him. Leave me Seryozha!'

"'Yes, I've even lost my love for my son because he is connected to my revulsion for you. But I will take him anyway. Good-bye!'

"He was about to leave, but she held him back.

'Alexei Alexandrovich, leave me Seryozha," she whispered again. 'I have nothing else to say. Leave me Seryozha until I. . . I'm going to give birth soon, leave him to me!'

"Alexei Alexandrovich flared up, and, tearing his hand away from her, he left the room without a word." That's the end of the chapter.

As far as the reader knows, this is the first time Karenin learns of the pregnancy, but the scene is written as if he had already known--no reaction to such dire news, just a brief flare-up and departure from the room. The scene when he first finds out about the pregnancy is missing from the book. A lapse in plot logic.

(3) In terms of plot logic the end of Part Four (399) is something of a muddle. Anna and Vronsky make a horrendous decision, to go abroad, to Italy, not to go ahead with the divorce just when Karenin offers them a divorce. Vronsky seals his future fate by turning down a transfer to Tashkent and resigning his commission, leaving him to maunder along as a civilian with nothing to do for the rest of the novel.

"'Stiva says he has agreed to everything, but I cannot accept his generosity,' she said, gazing pensively past Vronsky's face. 'I don't want a divorce. I don't care now. Only I don't know what he will decide about Seryozha.'"

A and V never recover from their refusal to act now as, later on in the novel, Karenin is not as amenable to allowing them a divorce. The decision not to proceed with the divorce seems, at first glance, totally illogical, but it makes sense if we recall that A and V are in terrible emotional and physical shape at this point, each of them having recently almost died--Anna in childbirth and Vronsky in a botched suicide. They just want to get away from the whole mess and recover abroad.

Here is the ending of Part Four:

"A month later Alexei Alexandrovich was left alone with his son in his apartments and Anna and Vronsky had gone abroad, not only without having obtained a divorce, but having resolutely refused one" (399).

Okay, so Anna, in her weak state, gives up on taking her beloved son Seryozha abroad. This is logical. Karenin has told her she can't have the boy. But what about the baby girl? Was there no dispute over who was to take her? After all, Annie is legally the daughter of Karenin, and he could assert his rights to her if he wished. Apparently she goes abroad with her mother and Vronsky, but she is not even mentioned in this final paragraph. This is ironic when we consider what happens later in the book--Karenin ends up with little Annie after Anna's suicide, and he dotes on the girl.

Monday, August 31, 2015


Anna with her son, illustration by K. Rudakov

(29) Secondary characters and significant details in "Anna Karenina"

One of Tolstoy's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to draw rounded characters. We could mention many examples of secondary characters in the novel who are fully delineated: Anna's son Seryozha, Dolly and Stiva, the animal characters Laska the dog and Pava the cow. But Tolstoy can also bring to life characters who step only briefly into the novel, sometimes for a page or two, sometimes for a paragraph, sometimes for only a sentence.

Take the director of the ballroom activities in Part One, Ch. 2: "the famous master of ceremonies, a married, handsome and stately man, Egorushka Korsunsky. Having just left Countess Banina, with who he had danced the first round of the waltz, surveying his realm, that is, the few pairs who had joined the dancing, he caught sight of Kitty entering and hurried up to her with that special, loose-jointed amble characteristic only of ball directors, bowed, and without even asking whether or not she wanted to, raised his arm in order to place it around her slender waist" (73, Schwartz trans.).

A page later another character, little more than a bald spot, but alive,pokes his nose into the novel: "There was the beauty Lydie, Korsunsky's wife, impossibly bared; there was the hostess; there was Krivin with the shiny bald spot who was always to be found wherever the cream of society was."

Two more examples:

(1) Lyovin and Kitty are staying in a provincial hotel, caring for Lyovin's dying brother. Embarrassed that Kitty is in the presence of his brother's companion, a prostitute, Lyovin speaks: "'Really, one can't discuss this in the hallway!' said Lyovin, looking around, vexed, at a gentleman who, with trembling legs, as if on business of his own, was just that moment walking down the hall" (Part V, Ch. 17). The gentleman limps his way down the corridor and out the door of Russian literature, never to return, and you wonder what his business was and why his legs were trembling.

(2) Part One, Ch. 31. Besotted with love for Anna, Vronsky is riding the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. "Vronsky did not even attempt to sleep that night. He sat up, either looking straight ahead or glancing at the people coming in and out, and if before he had amazed and upset people who did not know him with his look of unshakable calm, then now he seemed even prouder and more self-possessed. He looked at people as if they were things. A nervous young man, a clerk in a district court who was sitting across from him, hated him for that look. The young man even kept asking him for a light, and trying to start up a conversation, and even pushed against him to make him feel he was a person, not an object, but Vronsky kept looking at him as he would at a street lamp, and the young man grimaced, sensing he was losing his composure under the pressure of this refusal to recognize him as a man, and because of this he was unable to fall asleep" (97). Look at me, acknowledge my existence, for I too am a man. You might imagine the young clerk the next morning, dazed and grumpy from a sleepless night, on his way to work and still hating that supercilious officer in the train. His attitude would, however, be much changed, were he aware that the officer had just got himself involved with a married woman, and that that adulterous love would make of his life a misery, would, ultimately, destroy him.

There are so many great, telling little details in the book that you could go on and on listing them:

Anna and Kitty speaking just before the ball, where Anna is to meet the man Kitty loves, Vronsky, where the quick destruction of her marriage will begin:

"'Will you go to this ball?' asked Kitty.

'I don't think I can avoid it. Here, take this,' she told Tanya, who was pulling the loose-fitting [wedding] ring off her white, tapered finger" (69). [Ring on the way off, marriage on the way out].

Other examples:

(1) "In the intervals of utter quiet he could hear the rustle of last year's leaves, stirring with the earth thawing and the grass growing.

"Imagine that! I can hear and see the grass growing! Lyovin told himself, having noticed a wet aspen leaf the color of slate shifting under a blade of young grass" (Part Two, Ch. 15).

(2) "The crowd of relatives and friends, buzzing with talk and rustling their trains, advanced behind them. Someone bent over and straightened the bride's train. It became so quiet in the church that they could hear drops of wax fall [from the candles]" (Part V, Ch. 4, the scene of the wedding of Kitty and Lyovin)

(3) At the train station in Petersburg Vronsky sees for the first time the husband of the woman he has just fallen in love with:

"Seeing Alexei Aleksandrovich with his Petersburg-fresh face and sternly self-assured figure, wearing his round hat, and with his slightly hunched back, Vronsky did now believe in him and experienced an unpleasant sensation, similar to that which a man would experience who was tormented by thirst and had reached a spring but had found in this spring a dog, sheep or pig that had drunk and muddied the water. Alexei Aleksandrovich's gait, the way he swung his entire pelvis, and his flat feet especially offended Vronsky" (Part One, Ch. 31).

Note also that Anna, who gets off that same train enamored of Vronsky, now sees her husband only as a pair of ears. She had never noticed before the odd way that his ears stand out. "Ах, Боже мой! отчего у него стали такие уши? (My God! How did his ears get like that?)." On this detail, see a previous post, # 6, "Karenin's Ears."

Sunday, August 30, 2015


(28) Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Neurons

Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is full of passages in which "inner voices" speak with characters. Here is an example [all page numbers here from the Marian Schwartz translation, 2014]. Early in the novel (Part One, Ch.15) Kitty has just rejected Lyovin's proposal, thinking herself in love with Vronsky. "She vividly recalled that courageous, resolute face, the noble calm and the goodness toward everyone that illuminated everything; she recalled the love for her of the man she loved, and once again she felt joy in her heart, and with a smile of happiness she lay her head upon her pillow. 'It's too bad, it is, but what can I do? I'm not to blame,' she told herself, but an inner voice told her otherwise. Whether she regretted having misled Lyovin or having refused him she didn't know. But her happiness was poisoned by doubts" (52). Something inside Kitty knows something that she does not about Vronsky.

Another example is Koznyshev, who is trying and yet resisting proposing to Varenka (see an extended treatment of this scene in an earlier posting, #14 on Anna Karenina, "Love and Mushrooms"). "Quickly in his mind he repeated all the arguments in favor of his decision. He repeated to himself, too, the words with which he wanted to express his proposal; but instead of these words, a thought came to him unexpectedly, and he suddenly asked, 'What is the difference between the white and the brown [mushroom]?'

"Varenka's lips were trembling from agitation when she answered: 'In the cap there is almost no difference, but there is in the stem.'

"As soon as these words had been said, both he and she realized that it was over, that what ought to have been said would not be said, and their agitation, which before this had reached the highest degree, began to subside" (518).

So someone, or something, inside Koznyshev speaks words that establish there will be no marriage proposal. He himself is unaware of where the words come from, but something inside him has subtly worked to sabotage the proposal. Modern-day brain scientists would assume that one or some of the multitude of neurons deep within the human brain were opposed to the marriage, and it was they who created the sabotage. Only within the past 10-15 years neuroscientists have come up with amazing new discoveries about the extent to which we humans are controlled by neurons deep within our brains, how we are largely unaware of even important decisions relative to our lives that those anonymous neurons make. See, e.g., David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011), a recent study written for laymen.

Tolstoy, who of course never had a chance to read recent studies in neuroscience, was, nonetheless, amazing insightful in the ways that he intuited things about the workings of human psyches and brains. Here is another example. In Eagleman's book he mentions how eyewitness testimony is largely untrustworthy, since deep in our brains we see things and people that we, for all that, never get around to seeing on the conscious level. One neuron or other, so to speak, may not want us to see what we see.

In Part Three, Ch. 12 of AK Lyovin has spent the night in a haystack and is walking home in the early morning, when he sees a passing carriage harnessed to a team of four horses:

"Dozing in the corner of the carriage was an old woman, but by the window, evidently having only just awakened, sat a young girl holding the ribbons of her white cap with both hands. Fair and pensive, filled with an elegant and complex inner life alien to Lyovin, she was looking past him at the sunrise.

"The very instant this vision was disappearing, her truthful eyes looked at him. She recognized him, and astonished delight lit up her face.

"He could not be mistaken. There was only one pair of eyes in the world like that. There was only one being in the world capable of concentrating for him the entire light and meaning of life. It was Kitty. He realized that she was on her way to Ergushovo from the railway station, and all that had made Lyovin so restless that sleepless night, all the decisions he had made, all of that suddenly vanished. He recalled with disgust his dreams of marrying a peasant girl" (255).

Skip ahead a hundred pages and we have the scene in which Kitty and Lyovin meet again (Part Four, Ch. 11). Sitting together, they are "having their own conversation, not even a conversation, but a kind of mysterious communication that tied them closer and closer together by the minute and produced in both a sense of joyous terror before the unknown into which they were entering" (358). This scene is to culminate in the famous chalk writing business and the second (wordless) proposal of marriage a few pages later.

Here Lyovin remarks that he had seen her in her carriage last year, "told her how he had been walking back from the mowing down the highway and encountered her.

"'It was very early in the morning. You had probably only just awakened. Your maman was sleeping in her corner.It was a marvelous morning. I was walking along and wondering who that was in the carriage with the team of four. A glorious team of four with bells, and for an instant you flashed by, and I saw through the window--you were sitting like this and holding the ties or your bonnet with both hands and thinking terribly hard about something," he said, smiling. 'How I would have liked to know what you were thinking about then. Something important?'

"Wasn't I very untidy? she thought; but when she saw the ecstatic smile these details evoked in his recollection, she sensed that, on the contrary, the impression she had produced was good. She blushed and laughed delightedly.

'Truly, I don't recall" (358)

But wait a minute. Back on p. 255 Tolstoy told us that "she recognized him, and astonished delight lit up her face." Now she does not recall. Did she really see him or not? Or did one neuron see her future husband and light up her face with delight, while another neuron decided to keep this encounter hidden within her subconscious? You wonder what Tolstoy wants us to think here. You wonder if maybe he just made a mistake and forgot what he had written one hundred pages earlier. Given his obsessive re-writings of his texts, you doubt that this "seeing and not seeing" was not put there on purpose, to show us one more time how strange our psyches conceal some seeings from us and reveal others.

One other possibility: when he saw Kitty's face light up with delight at recognizing him, Lyovin, could be, was indulging himself in some wishful thinking. We'll never know, since all persons capable of answering our questions are no longer amidst the living. At any rate, Tolstoy is dead. As for Kitty and Lyovin, they will live forever on the pages of this great novel, but they cannot answer questions from our dimension.