Monday, March 30, 2015

NEW BOOK: U.R. Bowie, "Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes"


U.R. Bowie

U.R. Bowie holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature. The three tales included here are written in English, but make no mistake: they are firmly in the tradition of Russian literature. In fact, the great Nikolai Gogol, with what the critic Mirsky once called  “his volcano of imaginative creativeness,” blows through all three works, both in body and spirit.

The first novella, Exhumation, features Gogol in the flesh (and then out of it). Beginning with scenes from the writer’s life in the nineteenth century, it goes on to describe the macabre little festivities on the summer day in 1931 that Nikolai Gogol, along with some of his closest friends, was dug up at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. When they opened the coffin they discovered that the skull was missing. Nikolai Gogol’s head had been stolen.

The second novella, Disambiguation, is set in the United States, but the theme, once more, is Gogolian in its skewed intricacy. A man who may or may not be insane, who may or may not be Lee Harvey Oswald (still alive fifty years later) appears on a Philadelphia talk show, where he discusses the ambiguations and disambiguations of the spy world, and of the Russian mind— and, by extension, the labyrinthine thing that is anyone’s life on earth.

The longest, and most purely Russian of the three works is the last, The Leningrad Symphony. Set entirely in the city of St. Petersburg, on one day in October of 1999, it is structured something like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. While Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony (The Leningrad) plays in the background score, the reader listens to the music and follows a wide variety of characters about the city: a government official on his way to being murdered in a hit killing, his driver, his secretary, his bodyguard, a twelve-year-old boy skipping school that day, an elderly man who spends all his time researching a painting at the Russian Museum, a scatter-brained pilgrim woman, in town to visit the shrine of St. Petersburg’s most famous holy fool, and a variety of other characters.

The Leningrad Symphony is a hymn of praise to the resplendent city of St. Petersburg, to its Pushkinian harmonious brilliance and to its Dostoevskian bleakness and sleaze. But, then again, this whole collection sings of that glorious thing that is Russian culture. It even throws in for good measure bits and pieces of the Cyrillic alphabet. While acknowledging the complexity of a thousand bloody years of Russian history, while describing with confidence the Russian propensity to hold two contradictory positions at the same time, U.R. Bowie gives us a totally convincing, and even loving, look at the enigma inside a conundrum inside a puzzle that is Russia and the Russian mindset.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


During one of the darkest times of his life Fyodor Dostoevsky crossed paths with one of those bizarre examples of legend that seem so characteristic of Russia.

After the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 his youngest son Dmitry, heir to the throne, moved to the city of Uglich with his mother. On May 15, 1591 Dmitry, then eight years old, was found with his throat cut in an Uglich courtyard.

Boris Godunov took power as the new tsar, and he was widely assumed to have been behind the assassination. Incensed over the murder, the Uglichites rose up as a mob and killed two government officials. They had been summoned to revolt by the ringing of the tocsin by the Uglich bell.

Godunov ordered two hundred of the townspeople executed. Furthermore, the offending bell was given twelve lashes. It had an ear removed, was emasculated and sent into exile. As the Wikipedia article has it, "ему отрезали язык и ухо и сослали в Сибирь (they cut off its tongue and an ear and exiled it to Siberia)."

The bell was supposedly never to be rung again, but somehow, after it arrived in Tobolsk, it managed to get its clapper back (exactly when?). The Uglich Bell went back to ringing once more and enjoyed a place of honor in the city of Tobolsk.

On January 9, 1850, Dostoevsky arrived in Tobolsk as part of a penal convoy, on his way to the prison in Omsk, where he would serve four years under horrendous conditions. One of the first sights he saw in Tobolsk "was the town's most ancient and notorious exile, the famous Uglich bell, located just off the main road along which they were proceeding" (Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Years of Ordeal: 1850-1859, p.70-71).

With his dark and wicked sense of humor, Dostoevsky may have appreciated his encounter with the mythical bell who survived castration to ring another day, and yet another, and many more. But it is doubtful that at that particular juncture in the writer's life he was much in the mood for laughter.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


U.R. Bowie's new book is about to be published, SOON, SOON SOON.

Here are the blurbs from the back cover:


U.R. Bowie has a broad and deep grasp of Russian history, culture, the mindset of the Russian people. These stories plumb the vital, bloody landscapes of our sad, but ever fascinating and vital country, exploring the ineffables at the heart of Russia, yet seeking answers to questions universal to all humankind.

                                                                                                …Arkady Sinepuzov
                                                                                                    Leningrad District Herald

You read and reread these tales and you find yourself in that peculiar Russian frame of mind that lets you hold two contradictory positions simultaneously—the one fighting against the other!

                                                                                                …Lawrence Wolfson
                                                                                                    The Russian Revanchist

In these pages Russian people grapple with identity, try to understand the past and negotiate hope, faith, life. Why is this so hard to do? Because although the country is one thousand years old nobody has ever implemented any hard and fast rules for living. Or somebody is always changing the rules! They take away God from the people, they say God does not exist. Then, one fine sunny day, after Communism has evaporated into thin air, they make an announcement: “By the way, people, we’re giving God back to you today. Enjoy.”

                                                                                                …Slava Sanin
                                                                                                    Notes from a Russian Rathole

Throughout the third and longest novella in this collection, The Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich’s music plays in the background score. But the three novellas themselves are presented in the form of three movements of a musical piece. The opening movement (“Exhumation”) states the themes, the second movement (“Disambiguation”) explores the meaning and permutations of those themes, and the final movement (“The Leningrad Symphony”) recognizably returns to echo the first two movements, while, simultaneously, informed by all that has come before.
                                                                                                ...Gennady Aristov
                                                                                                    Myisamisusami Review

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


(19) "Anna Karenina" as The Open-Ended Novel

Someone once said that the best way to end a long novel is to kill off the main character. Then there can be no question as to what happens next in the hero's life. In "Anna Karenina" Tolstoy kills off his eponymous heroine, but the novel does not end.

In fact, the novel is two novels in one, detailing the fortunes of two main heroes, Anna and Konstantin Lyovin. These two personas know many of the novel's other principal characters, but they themselves meet only once, briefly. The novel is really "Anna Karenina and Konstantin Lyovin."

The ending of "AK" has certain similarities with the ending of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." In ends with Lyovin contemplating how he is to live out the rest of his life, with a new beginning--just as in "C and P" Raskolnikov contemplates new beginnings in his life.

In the final pages of the novel Konstantin Lyovin, far from reveling in his family happiness, is contemplating suicide and searching for some meaning in life. Much of the novel seems to assert that the best meaning lies in family life in communion with nature and land. But in the process of writing "AK" Tolstoy himself suffered deep depressions and disillusionment with family life.

Had he actually gone on to depict the rest of Lyovin's life, he may well have ended up refuting the idealization of family life that is at the heart of his two greatest novels: "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace."

Life goes on, and marriages go on; divorce was much less an option in Tolstoy's Russia than it is today. This is obvious from the difficulties Anna has trying to divorce her husband. Tolstoy's own marriage was all downhill for at least the final twenty years of it, and late in life he pubished "The Kreutzer Sonata," which is virulently misogynistic and which rejects marriage, family, and any sort of sex, even conjugal sex.

In terms of male-female relationships, maybe the best line in "AK" is Vronsky's remark to Anna in the midst of their troubles:

"'I don't understand,' he said, understanding her."

'Я не понимаю,' сказал он, понимая ее.