Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bits and Pieces of Good Writing, DONALD RAY POLLOCK, "KNOCKEMSTIFF"

Collection of Short Stories, Donald Ray Pollock, KNOCKEMSTIFF (NY: Doubleday, 2008)
With this, his first publication, Donald Ray Pollock, native of Knockemstiff, Ohio, has perfected the genre known as “hillbilly sleaze.” 

The first story in the collection, “Real Life,” is typical in that it features the kind of characters who populate all of the stories. The description of a friend whom Vernon encounters in the rest room is typical of Knockemstiff denizens in general: “a porky guy with sawdust combed through his greasy black hair. A purple stain shaped like a wedge of pie covered the belly of his dirty shirt.”

The first line: “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.”

Full of hard-scrabble rednecks, the stories, as this one, sometimes feature a narrator of sensibility. In “Real Life” this is the boy narrator, nervous Bobby, whose life with his alcoholic father has him in the habit of “chewing the skin off my fingers.”

A typical male representative of the metropolis of Knockemstiff, the father, Vernon, is tough as nails, a man who hates movies and make-believe. As he puts it, “What the hell’s wrong with real life?”

The story describes a scene that Vernon creates in “real life,” when, drunk in the restroom of the drive-in and mouthing obscenities, he is accosted by another man. A big irony is that the men in the rest room enjoy the ensuing fight much more than Godzilla on the big screen outside.

Both men have their sons with them in the rest room. The other man, as large as a giant, doesn’t like Vern swearing in front of his son. After appearing to back down from a confrontation, Vern sucker punches the giant in the head. Then, after the giant is on the floor he kicks his ribs and punches his face “until a tooth popped through one meaty cheek.” Other men have to pull him off the fallen giant before he kills him.

At this point the giant’s son attacks Bobby, and the old man forces him to fight: “You back down I’ll blister your ass.” As it turns out, Bobby bloodies the nose of the bigger boy and wins the fight.

While others call for an ambulance, Vernon and Bobby jump back in their car with Bobby’s mother and flee the drive-in. For the old man, who constantly complains about his son’s lack of toughness, “This is the best night of my fucking life.” When his wife objects to his drunken shenanigans the old man cracks her in the face with a forearm.

The story ends up being about a way of coming of age in the trailer-trash world of Knockemstiff. The meek Bobby has something of an epiphany in blood.  “Real Life” ends with him in bed, contemplating his victory in the fight, which, apparently for the first time ever, has earned him the approval of his father. Interesting developments for Bobby’s future are suggested by the final lines.

“…I lapped the [other boy’s] blood off my knuckles. The dried flakes dissolved in my mouth, turning my spit to syrup. Even after I’d swallowed all the blood, I kept licking my hands. I tore at the skin with my teeth. I wanted more. I would always want more.”

This tale of a gentle character’s baptism in violence reminds me of a story by the great Russian short-story writer, Isaac Babel: “My First Goose.”

Friday, March 25, 2016

Nikolai Gogol's Favorite Prayer (Dead Souls)

Nikolai Gogol’s favorite verse from the Eastern Orthodox prayer book:

Господи, Ты сказал в Святом Евангелии, что мертвые услышат глас Сына Божия и оживут. Так ныне сотвори, чтобы мертвые души наши услышали глас Твой и ожили бы в радости.

Lord, Thou saith in the Holy Gospels that the dead would hear the voice of the Son of God and would come back to life. So that this day grant that our own dead souls might hear Thy voice and might live once more in joy.

Last line of the prayer titled Молитвенные прошения преп. Силуана Афонского

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Russian Attitudes toward Humor and Irony: NIKOLAI GOGOL

Gogol in 1834

 This article originally published in JRL (“Johnson’s Russian List”), June 2, 2009

Russian Attitudes Toward Humor and Irony
(“Russian Mindsets Series,” No. 2)

                                Man Discovers He’s Afflicted with Comic Genius; Man Dies of It
                                                (The Case of Nikolai Gogol, 1809-1852)

“DEAD SOULS was the cenobitic cell where Gogol the monk floundered around, suffering travail and torment, until, finally, he was dragged, lifeless, out of that cell.”
                                                                                    P. V. Annenkov

What better proof is there than the life of Nikolai Gogol of the age-old Russian bias against laughter, especially against the laughter that criticizes, satirizes, or (horror of horrors) gets ironic? Who among Russian writers could, still can, make us laugh like Gogol does? Nobody. Who among Russian writers so invested his best creative fiction with the pure light play of humor? Nobody. Well, maybe the great Aleksandr Pushkin, but Pushkin did his best work in poetry, not prose.

Recently (spring, 2008) St. Petersburg unveiled a new monument to the Nose, central character of the Gogol story, about a nose that escapes from a man’s face and goes off on its own. Prior to this there was an unofficial nose monument, at the crossroads of Voznesensky Prospekt and Rimsky-Korsakov Street, but, true to the rambunctious carnival spirit that the nose story embodies, pranksters repeatedly absconded with that Nose. Do Russians have a sense of humor, do they love to laugh? You bet. But deep in their guts and their national culture they have powerful restrictions against laughter as well.[i]

What Russia once had and what it has long since lost is best described by M.M. Bakhtin in his book about Rabelais and the folk laughter of the Middle Ages. The implications of this book go far beyond Gogol, but we may restrict ourselves, for the time being, to him. Bakhtin’s major points are as follows: (1) Carnival laughter laughs at everything about life. Nothing is sacred. It transcends mere satire, which is didactic and, ultimately, sullen. (2) Gogol’s “positive,”  “bright,” and “elevated” laughter “arose on the basis of the folk culture of laughter.” (3) Deep in the soul of his artistic self the writer-genius Gogol understood the “universal nature of his laughter,” but he was fated to live at a time when somber readers and critics demanded that artistic literature reflect the social problems of the times.[ii]

For Russians the central problem of laughter (the unbridled laughter of freedom) is this: nothing is off limits. This kind of laughter laughs at everything, holds every human being and every human institution up to mockery. Now, even when you do not have a paranoiac thug like Stalin in power, such an attitude, to put it mildly, is dangerous. Of course, when you DO have a Stalin in power, he will slam his dictatorial fist down hard on laughter. The Stalins are not so much non-laughers; they just will not tolerate laughter aimed at themselves. Stalin had a wonderful sense of humor. He enjoyed laughing heartily while outwitting a political opponent, while having people tormented or killed.  

During the entire period of Gogol’s life as a writer another brute was in power: Tsar Nicholas I. Did he want anybody laughing at him or his institutions? Hardly. It is said that Gogol’s comedy, REVIZOR (THE INSPECTOR GENERAL) passed the censorship through the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas. Maybe. Dictators sometimes like to appear magnanimous. So the story goes, Nicholas attended a performance of the play, laughed throughout it, then declared upon departing the theater: “Well, we all took it on the chin tonight, and me most of all.” Such a story is probably apocryphal. One can imagine Nicholas (or Stalin) attending such a play, then signing an order for the writer’s arrest and torture.[iii]

But the Russian imperative not to laugh is predicated not only on the fact that despots control the country (true, they frequently do). It is predicated, as well, on the whole history of Russian mentalities. It is also an established principle in the thousand-year history of Russian Orthodoxy. For the church, a grave and humorless institution that venerates, e.g., the “gift of tears,” laughter is associated with Russia’s long and formidable history of paganism. Pagans laugh; Christians don’t.

 Much of this is a subject for a separate article, but suffice it to say the following for now: mocking laughter, for Russians, is scary. The kind of laughter that says, “We can deride anything, anybody,” undermines the (always shaky) political and cultural system. It militates against the one thing that Russians have been seeking for a thousand years of their history: stability, or to use the favorite Russian word: poryadok (order). If you don’t have order, what do you have? The most fearful thing of all: anarchy. “Give us anything,” say the Russian people. “Give us, above all, a father figure we can rely on [Peter the Great, a martinet-brute, Nicholas I, a martinet-brute, Stalin, etc., etc.]. Why do we need leaders like this, those whose stature automatically insures their immunity to laughter and mockery? Because they, and only they, can bring us ORDER.”

What is the essence of great art? A difficult question. Great art sometimes amounts to pure unrestricted play as creativity. Not always, but often. In his brilliant book on play in human life, the Dutch historian Huizinga notes that poetry “lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage and the seer belong, in the region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter.” Huizinga goes on to mention that the eighteen century, bathed in the spirit of the Enlightenment, was an age full of lightness and playfulness. Soon this spirit was repressed. “Never had an age [the nineteenth century] taken itself with more portentous seriousness.”

As a result, anyone dancing, laughing, or having raucous fun was equated to the jugglers, mummers, tumblers: low-class marketplace entertainers (and pagans). Of course, the despots like this sort of thing, as long as they are in control of it. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, e.g., had their blasphemous institutions, their court buffoons and entertainer-dwarfs. Stalin even had a double who looked exactly like him. The spirited dictator sometimes used this man to mortify and freak out his subordinates, while Uncle Joe watched from behind a curtain, chuckling merrily.

In terms of Gogol, more to the point is what Huizinga says about how the renowned artistic talents of the eighteenth century DID NOT TAKE THEMSELVES OR LIFE TOO SERIOUSLY: “Even Bach and Mozart could hardly have been aware that they were pursuing anything more than the noblest of pastimes. . . And was it not just this sublime naiveté that enabled them to soar to the heights of perfection?”[iv]

Here is the main point of my article: Gogol HAD that sublime naiveté, then suppressed it within himself and perished. What led him to suppress it? His psychic imprisonment in the cultural and religious oubliette called “Don’t Laugh.”

Russia, unfortunately, missed, for the most part, the sparkling, witty lightness of literary art that came out of eighteenth-century Western Europe.[v] The great Russian tradition of nineteenth century literature, the pride of Russian culture, is, largely, dead serious. The British critic D.J. Richards once made an attempt to classify all Russian writers as either “wits” or “worshippers.” The witty ones, of whom Russia has few representatives, are characterized by playfulness, a lightness of spirit, by elegance of style, and by exhibitionist self-assertion. Wit, says Richards, “went into a rapid decline, however, in the late thirties and early forties” of the nineteenth century, “as control of the Russian intellectual world passed from the French-educated upper class into the hands of the predominantly middle-class and plebeian types. . . The mainstream of Russian literature became committed to the ideals of either religious revival or social progress; moral concerns took predominance over esthetic considerations.” Everything had to be serious and “earnest in tone,” while “self-confident and elegant aristocratic individualism was no longer valued…”

Richards notes that “the wittiest Russian writers of any stature to emerge in the twentieth century were an aristocratic émigré, Nabokov, and two Soviet heretics, Zamyatin and Sinyavsky.” He also, tellingly, mentions “the firmly felt association between wit and apostasy,” and goes on to say that “wit, like the individualism from which it springs, is fundamentally uncongenial to the Russian spirit.”[vi] Richards does not mention another telling fact: that Nabokov is looked upon by many Russians as somehow alien and foreign. They think that he sold out to American literature (because he switched over to writing in English while living in the U.S.), but their major objection is his artistic stance—he is a wit who loves irony, and irony makes them uncomfortable.[vii]

The major point of Richards’ article is that Russians tend to be “worshippers” rather than wits, and that Russian literature usually reflects this attitude. The “worshipper” is dead serious about life, morality, politics, religion. Among the Russian writers who are, primarily, “worshippers” are some of the greats: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Akhmatov, Pasternak, and many others. Richards declares that the outstanding poets Pushkin and Lermontov are undeniably wits, but he has trouble coming up with any more good examples. Both of these poets, furthermore, died before the middle of the nineteenth century (Pushkin in 1837, Lermontov in 1841).

Of those who don’t take life (or themselves) too seriously, I would definitely include Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), a Russian writer who has a sense of measure about everything. Having a sense of measure is not usually characteristic of the Russian writer-“worshipper,” and probably of Russians in general! Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the most famous of all Russian writers, the greatest prose writers, have talent, genius--but who would claim that they have a sense of measure? As for Nikolai Gogol, Richards waffles on this puzzling figure, but what follows below is my take on Gogol, the writer and the man.
In the first place, of all Russian writers, Gogol may be the most mysterious. He kept his personal life secret, confiding in practically no one. Once, in a letter, he wrote, “Dushi moej nikto ne mozhet znat’” (“No one can ever know my soul”).[viii] His biographers, who have trouble discovering the usual things biographers discover, seem to agree on one point: that Gogol was a strange character. Furthermore, they imply, or even illustrate (by the letters he wrote) that in his final years he was practically insane. On the background and early years see, e.g., Setchkarev. He provides some details about Gogol’s strange mother, Maria Gogol, who reported that when her future husband was fourteen, the Mother of God appeared to him in a vision and pointed out his future wife (who was her, Maria, then a seven-month-old child). Setcharev also repeats a detailed story told by Gogol to Aleksandra Smirnova, a close friend, about how the future writer drowned a cat when he was five years old. In his creative but outré biography of Gogol, Vladimir Nabokov plays up this sort of thing, although he sometimes goes overboard in embellishing Gogol’s eccentricities.[ix]
Central in Gogol’s life, undoubtedly, was the Eastern Orthodox religion; ultimately, it was his religious mania that led to his premature death. In the early years of his life, however, at the time he was developing as a writer, his creative comic genius operated largely unhampered by his religious concerns. Influenced most saliently in his mature period by Aleksandr Pushkin, who was not only a Russian nationalist, but also a creature of the French Enlightenment, Gogol sometimes defended the comic side of his works. This is not to say that he ever comprehended the vast implications of folk laughter (as explicated later by Bakhtin), even though his early works are heavily dependent on the raucous spirit of Ukrainian folklore.

A Ukrainian by birth, Gogol is perhaps the most intuitive artistic genius in the history of Russian literature. By this I mean that he just wrote his fiction, not knowing exactly what he was doing and (at least early on in his career) not anticipating the reaction of his future readers.[x] He enjoyed writing rather odd supernatural tales. He enjoyed writing comedy, making people laugh. Especially after the uproar over his comic play, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, first staged in 1836, Gogol began to understand that comedy was a genre frequently denigrated, that a lot of people in Russia were offended by his play, and he began to fight back against his critics. In an article titled “After the Theatre” (1842), he asserts that “No one noticed the honest person who was in my play… this honest, noble person is laughter.” Later in the same article he goes on to say that “laughter is bright” and that his denigrators “do not hear the mighty force of such laughter. ‘That which is funny is base,’ says society. Only that pronounced in a severe and tense voice do they call elevated.”[xi]

In the body of his last, and perhaps greatest work of art, DEAD SOULS, Gogol includes a few more passages in defense of comedy and laughter. In one of them, e.g., he writes that “the judgment of contemporaneity does not acknowledge that lofty, rapturous laughter is worthy of taking its place beside the loftiest of lyrical exhalations, and that a huge abyss separates it from the grimacings of a marketplace entertainer!” (Chapter Seven).[xii] Gogol was adamant about calling his work not a novel, but a “poem” (poèma); on the title page of the first published edition “POEM” was the most prominent word.

Quite possibly most of the Russian reading public even today has that same condescending view of humor. Notwithstanding that, anyone who understands artistic literature realizes that beneath the laughing veneer of any great comic work there lies a firm foundation of seriousness, even profundity. Perhaps the best example of this in world literature is Gogol’s DEAD SOULS. Even such a socially-minded critic as Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848), the great Westernizer, who is sometimes criticized for failing to appreciate the aesthetics of literature, understood this. In his review of the novel right after it was published, Belinsky writes that such a work of depth requires a second reading. “It also bears repetition [Belinsky went on] that “humor is accessible only to the deep and highly developed soul; the crowd [rabble] neither understands nor appreciates it. . . The ‘comic’ and ‘humor’ are understood by the majority in Russia as clownish, as caricature. . . I will only say that Gogol was not joking when he called his novel a ‘poem,’ and that by this he does not mean a comic poem. . . One could not look more erroneously on DEAD SOULS or understand it more crudely than to see in it a satire.”[xiii]

Certainly Gogol the artistic genius understood that he was writing something other than mere satire, but Gogol the man, it is apparent, often did not have a clue. When, under the influence of Pushkin (who gave him the plot about buying up dead peasants), Gogol began writing DEAD SOULS in 1835, he had quite a different idea of what it was to become than later on, during its composition: “I was going to begin writing without setting myself any detailed plan. . . I simply thought that the humorous project that Chichikov undertakes[xiv] would in itself lead me to varied persons and characters and that the very desire to laugh, originating within me, would itself create a multitude of humorous phenomena, which I intended to blend with touching ones.”[xv] The first mention of his writing the novel was in a letter to Pushkin (1835). In this letter Gogol promises his literary mentor that the book will be “sil’no smeshon” (hilariously funny).[xvi]

But even in the earliest stages of composing DEAD SOULS, Gogol had already begun to suspect that laughter was simply not sufficient. In his “Author’s Confession” Gogol writes that “After ‘The Inspector General’ I felt more than ever before the need to write a complete work, which would contain not only that which deserves laughter” (cited in Gippius materials, Norton Critical Edition, p. 490). Then again, these assertions may not be entirely believable, because the so-called “Author’s Confession” was written after DEAD SOULS had been published, and Gogol was notorious for presenting simplistic explanations of his complex literary works ex post facto.[xvii] Sometimes such interpretations (such as his explications of the intricate INSPECTOR GENERAL) can vie in their banality with those of the most simplistic teachers of artistic literature.

I have no doubt that many high school teachers in Russia today are still ponderously informing their dozing pupils that Gogol’s DEAD SOULS is a satire, and a realistic portrayal of the lives of Russian landowners in the 1830s. At least they were quite recently. Some of my students at Novgorod University (where I taught as a Fulbright Scholar in 1999-2000) were shocked to learn that the novel (or ‘poem’) was anything other than straight realism. This despite generations of the best critics, Russian and foreign, who have published a multitude of articles and books about the aesthetic genius and complexity of the book.

Of course, it is easy to go to the other extreme (as has Nabokov in his book on Gogol), asserting that DEAD SOULS reflects in no way Russian realities and real Russian types. The real types are there, and characters such as the landowners Sobakevich and Nozdryov are still walking the streets of the Russian realm even today. In fact, when you read about the bribe-takers and swindlers of the novel, you cannot help drawing parallels with similar types in modern Russia. At its basic mode of functioning Russia today still works the same way that the Russia of Gogol’s novel worked. If you would like to be totally cynical about things, you could even make a case that the Chichikovian spirit has taken over the country since the fall of Communism. It sometimes seems that practically everybody (like Chichikov) is out to GET, TO ACQUIRE material wealth: to fulfill the Chichikovian dream of acquisition.

But, then again, this is true of modern America too, oh yes; take a look at what has happened in America quite recently. Maybe it’s true of the whole world? Like any work of literary art, DEAD SOULS has relevance for human beings all over the face of the earth. It is not only about Russians; it is about PEOPLE. That’s one reason the whole world should read it.

Furthermore, swindlers buying up “dead souls” (dead peasants still on the tax rolls) actually existed before the novel was ever written (see the Gippius book, p. 137).[xviii] So DEAD SOULS is realism, but it, ultimately, is much more than that. If it were not it would not be numbered among the greatest creative works in all of world literature.
The closest parallel to what Gogol created in DEAD SOULS is Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel in verse, EVGENY ONEGIN (written 1825-1832). It teems with sparkling wit, word play, irony; it indulges itself in digressions, direct address to the reader, and so on. These are the same kinds of devices that Gogol utilized in his gamboling, scintillating novel/poem, and there is little doubt that Pushkin had an enormous influence on Gogol’s longest creation.  

At the time of Pushkin’s death in 1837 Gogol probably was already beginning to lose his own creative bearings. Unlike Pushkin, most of Gogol’s other friends had much more than aesthetics in mind when they spoke of high art. The Aksakovs, for example (not so much father Sergei, but sons Konstantin and Ivan) were affiliated with the Slavophile movement, and they hoped that Gogol would reflect the views of the Slavophiles in his fiction. The greatest critic of the times, Belinsky, on the other hand, was a Westernizer, who championed fiction that expressed views antithetical to those of the Slavophile movement. Belinsky was adamantly opposed to Gogol’s religious bent, but then, even Sergei Aksakov balked at the bizarre sanctimony in the letters he received from Gogol. Himself a man of literary talent, and one who was in close contact with Gogol the whole time he was writing DEAD SOULS, Aksakov became ever more convinced that the writer (in the decade of the 1840s) was succumbing to religious mysticism.

The story of his writing of DEAD SOULS encompasses the last seventeen years of Gogol’s life (1835-1852). The novel’s history encompasses a grand total of twenty years (if we take into account that the fragments of the second part of the book were published only in 1855). Gogol, who died in his early forties, devoted a large portion of his life to his preoccupation with dead souls and DEAD SOULS. It is generally assumed that he perished of his failed attempt to animate dead souls, to make something living out of them. How and why he perished, however, is a complicated issue. To put it simply, Gogol was ruined by (1) the tenor of the times in Russian intellectual circles, the imperative that literature be serious and morally edifying (2) the prevailing interdiction of laughter in a thousand years of Russian history (3) his own strong personal belief in the devil.
By the time that Nikolai Gogol lived (and especially later on, in the second half of the nineteenth century) probably the majority of Russian writers, thinkers, intellectuals were secular in their views. They were not actively practicing Christians, as was Gogol, a man whose piousness went (eventually) to extremes. Furthermore, as pointed out repeatedly by critics, the devil played a special role in Gogol’s life. Two examples: (1) Edmund Wilson: “It was always the Devil who appeared to him, never the Savior he hoped for” (Wilson article in Norton Critical Edition of DEAD SOULS, p. 546) (2) Vladimir Nabokov: “the Devil, in whose existence. . . Gogol believed far more seriously than he did in that of God” (Nabokov, NIKOLAI GOGOL, p. 73). Practically all of Gogol’s works are rife with mention of the devil, invocations of the devil, even appearances of the devil.
In the early years of his writing career, Gogol found ways to make the devil comic, to laugh off his influence. Throughout most of his career he did things in his art that Pushkin would find risible, but that church authorities would frown upon. For example, in his famous short story “The Overcoat,” Gogol gives his hapless lead character the name of an obscure Orthodox martyr, Akakij, whose saint’s day is celebrated on May 20. What’s more significant, he names Akakij after Akakij’s father. The character, consequently, became “Akakij Akakievich,” a name that is ludicrous and funny, a name, what’s more, that has strong scatological overtones (“kaka” or “kakashka”, in Russian, means “crap”). The religious believer in Gogol would never sanction taking a saint’s name and making a mockery of it, but the writer of comic fiction reveled in this sort of thing.
At his best Gogol, like Pushkin, was an ironist, not a satirist. For satire in Russian literature read Saltykov-Shechdrin (1826-1889). What’s the difference between satire and irony? The main difference is that the satirist, sphincter muscles tightly clenched, goes about castigating evil doers and evil institutions in no uncertain terms. When you read a satirist, you can tell the good guys from the bad. The ironist (or, to use Richards’ formula, the wit) takes nothing seriously, holds up all truths to doubt, laughs lightly, tolerantly at human foibles.

Some readers of the 1840s denigrated Gogol’s greedy landowner types, as portrayed in DEAD SOULS. Some of them protested that the author had depicted only negative, venal types. They called for some positive characters. Such readers, unfortunately, have always been around, and I suppose they always will be. They are the readers with little of no sense of humor.

Is a personage such as the bear-like Sobakevich to be taken as an accurate portrayal of a real grasping and greedy Russian landowner of the times? Only to a limited extent. Do you feel like spitting in disgust in the presence of Sobakevich? Not really. The laughter gets in the way. Sobakevich is so FUNNY that the reader comes to appreciate him. Furthermore, in a totally unexpected move, Gogol makes Sobakevich into a kind of poet, who goes into poetic raptures when he describes (and by so doing resurrects) the dead peasants who once lived on his estate.

As mentioned above, the ironist is a threat to established institutions. He who gets people laughing at EVERYTHING is a potential apostate and troublemaker. Throughout a thousand years of Russian history laughter has always been closely associated with FEAR, and fear of his own talent overwhelmed Gogol in the latter years of his life. As Donald Fanger writes, the late Gogol “seems to have half agreed with the popular Russian assumption that derision bespeaks sinfulness (U nas smekh prinimajut za grekh, sledovatel’no, vsjakij nasmeshnik dolzhen byt’ velikij greshnik [With us laughter is taken to be sinful; consequently, he who sneers and gibes must be a great sinner].”[xix] Gogol’s main personal problem was this: GOD does not appreciate irony. At least most true believers believe that, and Gogol was a true believer.
In the early years of his writing career Gogol was blithely unaware of what Mann (p. 8) has called his “problema ‘veselosti’” (problem of ‘merriment’). But soon after the clamor resulting from the premier of THE INSPECTOR GENERAL (1836), Gogol fled abroad. He did not like controversy, and he wanted to be left alone, to commune with his odd characters and his eccentric art. For years he travelled incessantly throughout Europe, skipping from city to city, from country to country. This, apparently, was the time period when he began pondering deeply on the influence his works had had on the Russian reading or viewing public. In a letter (1836) to his friend and fellow writer Zhukovsky, the messianic tone of so many later letters is already there: “I swear that I’ll do something the ordinary person cannot do. I feel the strength of a lion in my soul. . .” (cited in Mann, p. 27).

The rest of Gogol’s life consisted of his frenetic travels, from one European locale to another, while writing DEAD SOULS and while sending his friends grandiloquent letters: about his holy mission, about how he was an instrument of God, about how the completion of the book (in three volumes) would “solve the riddle of my very existence.”
In other words, even before Vol I. (actually, the only extant volume) of Dead Souls was finished and published (1842), Gogol was dreaming grandiose dreams of what he would accomplish in its sequels. In late drafts of the first volume he added lyrical digressions, in which an author-narrator persona dreams lofty dreams about the future of Russia. In the text of the novel (“poem”) itself, he promised his reader that great things were to be accomplished in future volumes. In a word, it wasn’t just going to be about humor any more, and the characters were no longer going to be venal and funny (the only kind of characters that Gogol knew how to write). The lofty and portentous question posed at the end of Vol. I, “Russian, whither dost thou hasten” (“Rus’, kuda zh neseshsja ty?”) would be answered in volumes to come.

Gogol spent the rest of his life trying (failing) to write Vol. II, while making promises (to himself, to his friends, his readers, to everybody) about how great it would be, even transformative, when he finally got it done.

By this time Nikolai Gogol was no longer a mere writer in his own mind; he was God’s servitor, a kind of ascetic and monk, bent on fulfilling “khudozhnicheskij podvig” (an artistic feat of religious import—these are Mann’s words, p. 32). As for laughter, that light ironic laughter characteristic of his best writing, well, that just would not do any more. In his “Author’s Confession” Gogol writes, tellingly, “I saw that I was laughing in vain and to no purpose in my works, without knowing why myself. If one is to laugh, then it’s better to laugh powerfully, and at something that is really worthy of universal ridicule” (Cited in Norton Critical Edition, p. 482-83; the original Russian may be found in COLLECTED WORKS, Vol. 6, 442-43.)

In other words, “Let me be a satirist,” said Gogol (to himself). His comic genius, however, dug in its heels: “No! You’re an IRONIST.”

Even after the writer had firmly resolved to be a preacher of morality and a castigator of human depravity, the comic genius was still alive in him. Just read his description (in a letter to P.A. Pletnyov, Jan. 7, 1842) of the meeting of the Moscow censorship committee, whose members had come together to decide whether the first volume of DEAD SOULS could be printed (for the Russian, see Mann, p. 111-114; for the English, see Norton Critical Edition, p. 427-430). One censor declares that the manuscript must be prohibited because “the soul is immortal.” It cannot, consequently be “dead.” In selecting such a title for his book, the blasphemous author denies the religious truth of immortality. Another censor is certain that the book is an attempt to bring down the whole system of serfdom. A third censor fulminates that if we let this book be printed, why, people will get bad ideas: they’ll start going out and buying dead souls themselves [they already, by the way, were doing so! See above], while a fourth declares that the sum charged for dead souls in the book is minuscule; after all, these are human souls that once lived, existed! We depict people selling them for two and a half rubles, and after that not a single foreigner will ever want to visit our benighted country again!
Some critics suspect that such a meeting of the censors was never even held (see Mann, p. 114), and that Gogol let his comic genius run wild when describing that nonexistent meeting in his letter to Pletnyov. I believe it. This is just too good, too much like a scene out of  THE INSPECTOR GENERAL. Gogol made it all up in his febrile imagination.
Gogol’s last great work, DEAD SOULS (Vol. I) is a novel written while making promises about a still better novel, while already straining ahead, making notes and plotting out scenes for that BETTER novel, the one that would turn the whole universe up on its ear and would, as Gogol said, “solve the riddle of my existence.” The first volume was published in 1842. After that, Gogol spent years wandering around Europe again, trying to write a sequel. During this time it became obvious (probably even to Gogol himself, who was awash in delusions of grandeur) that he had made too many grandiose promises about where he would take his dead souls. Now he even began criticizing the only published volume of DEAD SOULS, declaring that he could have got the thing right, had he worked it over to his satisfaction.
As the impossibility of his religious mission became ever more apparent, Gogol’s health declined. No one has ever clearly diagnosed his ailments. He often complained of problems with his stomach, of hemorrhoids and digestive disorders. For years he acted like a hypochondriac. It seems obvious that some chronic nervous condition contributed to his physical illnesses. He could only feel well if his writing was going well, and, unfortunately, after the publication of Vol. I of his “poem,” the writing seldom went well. The nervous illness flared up in June, 1840, then again in the winter and spring of 1845. At that time, in the midst of another frantic flurry of travel around Europe, Gogol wrote (May, 1845) to I.I. Bazarov, the Father Superior of the Russian Orthodox Church in Germany, as follows: “Come to me and give me the sacrament; I’m dying.” Shortly after this he burned the manuscript for the second volume of his novel. There were several burnings, and each was associated with emotional problems (see, e.g., Mann, p. 85-86, 219-220).
Since May, 1842, Gogol had been writing his friends about his intention to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Holy Sepulcher of Jesus Christ. At first he thought he would put this off until he finished the second volume of DEAD SOULS. The pilgrimage would be the crowning event of his personal life, after the triumph of his life as a writer. Eventually he went anyway (early 1848), aware probably that he would never finish the “poem.” He derived little religious inspiration, however, from his visit to the Holy Land, and he returned to Russia disillusioned.

Gogol wrote a series of admonitory letters to friends in the last ten years of his life. Some of these were eventually published in SELECTED PASSAGES FROM LETTERS TO FRIENDS (1847). In reading many of these letters today, you sense an air of derangement. They manifest none of the Gogolian lightness of tone, none of the comic genius that shows up, almost automatically, in his best fiction. These are letters composed by a sort of monk, a writer who had come to believe that his own genius for comedy was of the devil.
The definitive act came on the night of Feb. 11, 1852, in Moscow. In the fireplace at his quarters (in the house of  Count A.P. Tolstoy, today a museum devoted to Gogol), the writer burned his whole manuscript for Vol. II of DEAD SOULS. Then, returning to his room, he crossed himself, lay on the sofa and burst into tears. By this time he was keeping the Orthodox fast periods religiously, eating no meat during the Lenten Fast, seldom eating fish. At some point he seems to have made the decision that if the poem could not be completed, then it was time to die. He stopped eating practically anything, and, in effect, he committed suicide by starving himself to death. Nikolai Gogol died on Feb. 21, 1852. He was just shy of forty-three years old.
What did he leave us, those who still read him two hundred years after the year of his birth? To enumerate just the high points: he left us the greatest play in the history of Russian literature and one of the greatest comic plays ever written anywhere: THE INSPECTOR GENERAL. He left us one of the greatest short stories of world literature, “The Overcoat.” Some consider this the greatest story in Russian literature. And then there is that one volume of what, eventually, was supposed to be three, the book within which he waged war with himself and (inevitably) lost that war: DEAD SOULS.
After the final burning in 1852, after his death, friends of Gogol found some drafts stuffed back in a cabinet. These chapters were eventually published as Part II of DEAD SOULS (in 1855). But it is a mistake to take drafts left behind and publish them as the genuine thing. All we really have of DEAD SOULS is Vol. I. We should call this (and only this) DEAD SOULS. The uncompleted drafts should be left for the lucubrations of literary scholars. The reader, even the most intelligent reader, will do better to concentrate only on DEAD SOULS.

Of course, Gogol failed in his effort to write a work of fiction that would explain the meaning of life. No work of fiction can do that. But DEAD SOULS (Vol. 1, the only volume) is not a failure; it is a creative masterpiece, the work of a comic genius. What makes it a masterpiece? Ah, there’s the rub. We cannot give a definitive answer to that question, because artistic literature resists being defined. Artistic literature expands out in all directions, opens itself up to a variety of interpretations. Here, however, are a few questions posed by hypothetical puzzled readers. My answers are based on the spirit of the book itself and on the opinions of various critics.


(1)     What is the plot of DEAD SOULS?

Well, it’s about this swindler, Chichikov, who is traveling around provincial Russian buying up the rights to dead peasants, and then he ends up driving into a certain town, where two “Russian muzhiks,” who are lollygagging outside a tavern, take note of the wheel on his chaise as he drives in. “You reckon that wheel, with a little bit of luck, would make it to Moscow?” says one of the peasants. “Yeah, I figure it would,” replies to other. “But, way I see it, it wouldn’t make Kazan,” said the first, and the other agreed: “Not Kazan, no way.” This scene has no relevance until hundreds of pages later, when Chichikov is in a panic to flee the town, and the chaise (including that bad wheel) is in no shape to travel. As for the provincial town itself, well, everybody who lives there (I mean everybody) is double-dealing, corrupt, vacuous. In the first chapters Chichikov makes a series of visits to local landowners, buying up their dead souls. One of them (Korobochka), by the way, had a blacksmith who died of spontaneous combustion, and then, much later, back in town, the public prosecutor, who is notable only for one beetling brow and a blinking eye, suddenly dies of fear (over all the wild crescendo of gossip generated by Chichikov’s interest in dead souls), and then we find out (for the first time) that the prosecutor himself had a soul (now that he has “given up the ghost”), since he certainly manifested no evidence of a soul before he died, plus which an old shameful episode, long swept under the rug, comes to light again, concerning some merchants from Solvychegodsk, who had come to town for a fair, then had thrown a party for some friends, merchants from Oostsysolsk, and, of course the whole thing ended up in a knock-down-drag-out brawl, and all the poor Oostsysolsk merchants ended up dead, but not before their outsized fists had inflicted enormous damage on the Solvychegodsk merchants (one of whom had his “kisser smashed all out of kilter),” etc., etc., etc.

So much for the plot. Gogol’s method sometimes recalls that of Sterne in his masterpiece of digression and irrelevant detail, TRISTRAM SHANDY. “Gogol’s prose seems ripe to bursting with too many other preoccupations to bother about plot.”[xx]

(2)     What is the theme of DEAD SOULS?

“The theme at its broadest is the amorphousness, characterlessness, purposelessness, senselessness, alternately ludicrous and ominious, of life—specifically Russian life in the first place—as material for a novelist.”[xxi]

(3)     Huh? You mean THAT’S what the book is about?

Well, the book is metafiction: a book about itself, “a book written about how it is written.”[xxii] The author gets in a brichka (traveling chaise) with his main character Chichikov, and they travel around Russia. The reader of the book tags along with them as well. Chichikov buys dead souls, while the author describes nature, gets into lofty moods, soars off into the ether in an attempt to escape the muck and mud puddles of Russian reality (but his character, Chichikov, keeps grabbing him by the leg and pulling him back down to earth), sentimentalizes over lost youth (or is this a parody of such sentimental passages?), exalts his country and its future (is he serious about this, in a book full of grotesquely negative characters and Russian sleaze, all presented in wildly comic prose?), talks about how he’s writing his book, while, simultaneously, promising his reader that the next volume, and the one after that, will be much better than the one he’s writing now. Then, at the end of the book, not knowing what else to do, the author and Chichikov rise up in the air in their troika (they leave room for the reader in that brichka too). They/we all fly like birds, out of the book, in a swirl of exalted rhetoric, while foreigners stand by open-mouthed and gape, flabbergasted, at whatever this is (the future glory of Russia?).

(4)     Yeah… Okay… But what does the title mean? What are dead souls?

The title is all-expansive, and dead souls are just about anything you may want to make them. One creative critic (Nabokov, p. 73) says that Chichikov is a traveling salesman from Hades. Satan employs him to journey around the Russian realm, buying up or collecting human souls. He takes both living souls and dead souls, but then, Gogol makes it clear that there’s no real way of distinguishing a living soul from a dead soul. In fact, the most ALIVE characters in the novel, the most vibrant, are the dead peasants (souls) that are reanimated in (first) Sobakevich’s imagination and (later) in Chichikov’s. Who’s dead and who’s alive? What’s really real and what is fictional about this life we live? God knows. After all, how can anybody claim that he/she has a grip on “life,” when we don’t know where we came from, and we don’t know where we’re going (and when), and we don’t really even have more than a tentative grasp on what we’re supposed to do while we’re here! And, speaking of God, YOU, reader, are a dead soul too, so it’s time to think about getting right with the Lord!

(5)     Why does Gogol insert the story about Captain Kopeikin? You know, the tale that the postmaster tells near the end? About this veteran of the fight against Napoleon? Who returns to Russia minus one arm and one leg and tries to get some kind of pension and then, when they refuse him his pension, he becomes a one-armed, one-legged highwayman, and who is, in the opinion of the postmaster, none other than Chichikov himself (until somebody mentions that Chichikov has two arms and two legs, and the postmaster slaps himself on the forehead and calls himself a goose). Others in the town, meanwhile, have decided that Chichikov is really Napoleon in disguise, or the Antichrist. Hoping to learn the truth about Chichikov, and nothing but the truth, the town officials finally decide to consult the most unreliable source around, the compulsive liar Nozdryov, who lies and does nothing but lie, for the sheer joy of fabrication.

Why Kopeikin? Well, I don’t know, but Gogol did insist on leaving this part in the book when the censors wanted it out; his artistic side knew that we couldn’t do without Kopeikin. I don’t think that Gogol himself knew why, though. Anyway, “The Tale of Captain Kopeikin” is wonderful!

This is enough to give those who have not read DEAD SOULS the incentive to begin. Among the readers who have NOT yet read DEAD SOULS, by the way, are most Russians, who have the book foisted upon them in school, where it is most often presented by unimaginative and deadly boring teachers of Russian literature. A good palliative to such pedagogues is provided by the best critics who have studied the intricate novel/poem. Many of them are mentioned in my endnotes, but I would like to make special mention of the great Yury Mann, who has spent over forty years writing articles and books on Gogol, and, as far as I know, is still at it.

For all that, however, you have to do it by yourself, reader. You have to get in there and engage with the Master, Nikolai Vasil’evich. Don’t worry if you can’t read Russian. True, Gogol’s skewed style is almost impossible to translate with exactitude, but enough of the skewiness, and the artistic genius, comes through in a good translation.[xxiii]

You’ll have to read slowly. Gogol’s style is not exactly modern or minimalist. Try reading Melville’s MOBY-DICK first; that would be good preparation. One last thing: don’t forget to laugh while you’re at it. Gogol, the real Gogol (the artistic genius) wanted his reader laughing as he/she rode through an imaginary Russia with the author/narrator and Chichikov in a brichka. Though he himself may not have been totally aware of this, Gogol (at least one side of him) even wanted his reader laughing the unbridled, soul-bracing folk laughter that Bakhtin has described.

[i] There is a picture of the new Nose Monument in Russian Life (Mar.-Apr., 2009); see contents page. This statue is located on the grounds of St. Petersburg University. As of this writing the original nose monument (a bas relief consisting of a pair of huge nostrils and labeled “Mayor Kovalyov’s Nose”) is still there on the street corner in St. Petersburg. It is, apparently, the work of V. Bukchaev, and was first stuck up on the façade of a building in 1994 or 1995.
[ii] Bakhtin’s book is TVORCHESTVO FRANCOIS RABELAIS i NARODNAJA KULTURA SREDNEVEKOV’JA i RENNESSANSA (Moscow, 1965). There is an English translation by Helene Iswolsky, RABELAIS AND HIS WORLD (M.I.T. Press, 1968 and Indiana University Press, 1965). I have quoted here from an excerpt, “Verbal Art and the Folk Culture of Laughter,” in Nikolai Gogol, DEAD SOULS (Norton Critical Edition, 1985), p. 569-577.
[iii] Another of Stalin’s favorite games was to leave a writer on tenterhooks. Instead of arresting him immediately, he played games with him, leaving him to sweat in the sleepless nights, never knowing when they were coming for him. Mikhail Bulgakov, one of whose plays Stalin liked, was such a writer.
[iv] Johan Huizinga, HOMO LUDENS: A STUDY OF THE PLAY ELEMENT IN CULTURE (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950), p. 119, 192, 189.
[v] Some of this spirit came into Russia by way of pictorial art and architecture, e.g., the Russian Baroque. A good example of lightness and irony in St. Petersburg architecture is the pseudo-Gothic Chesmenskaja tserkov’ (Çesme Church), a small airy structure built 1777-1780.
[vi] D.J. Richards, “Wit and Worship—Two Impulses in Modern Russian Literature,” Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 14 (Winter, 1976), p. 8, 10-11.
[vii] Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (1933), is very much (in Richards’ formulation) a “worshipper.” Bunin once called Nabokov, his younger émigré colleague, “the red-headed clown in the circus.” See Ivan Bunin, NIGHT OF DENIAL, translated by R. Bowie (Northwestern University Press, 2006), p. 682, 704.
[viii] Cited in Yu. Mann, V POISKAKH ZHIVOJ DUSHI: “MERTVYE DUSHI” [IN SEARCH OF A LIVING SOUL: “DEAD SOULS”] (Moscow: “Kniga,” 1984), p. 253.
[ix] Vsevolod Setchkarev, GOGOL: HIS LIFE AND WORKS, translated from the German by Robert Kramer (New York University, 1965), p. 5, 8. Vladimir Nabokov, NIKOLAI GOGOL (N.Y.: New Directions, 1944). On the way Nabokov purports to write a book about Gogol, while simultaneously espousing his own artistic principles, see Robert Bowie, “Nabokov’s Influence on Gogol,” JOURNAL OF MODERN LITERATURE, 13 (July, 1986), p. 251-66.
[x] When I say he was an intuitive writer, I am not implying that the words just flowed out on the page, from some magic spot in Gogol’s brain, and what flowed out was already art. Gogol the artist was a perfectionist; he wrote and rewrote his fictions over and over, altering, polishing, re-writing, polishing.
[xi] Cited in the Bakhtin excerpt, “Verbal Art and the Folk Culture of Laughter,” in Norton Critical Edition of DEAD SOULS, p. 572.
[xii] It is axiomatic in Russian literary criticism to point out the oddness (sometimes even incorrectness) of Gogol’s style. In the passage I cite here lofty laughter is compared to the actions of a medieval folk jester who is pulling silly faces. This is a stylistic solecism: comparing apples to oranges. Russian émigrés have often stressed the impossibility of translating Gogol’s skewed Russian. The above passage reads as follows in Russian: “ibo ne priznayot sovremmennyj sud, chto vysokyj vostorzhennyj smekh dostoin stat’ rjadom s vysokim liricheskim dvizhen’em i chto tselaja propast’ mezhdu nim i krivljan’em balagannogo skomorokha!” (from COLLECTED WORKS IN SEVEN VOLUMES, Vol. 5, Moscow, 1967, p. 157).
[xiii] V.G. Belinsky cited in Norton Critical Edition of DEAD SOULS, p. 455. For the Russian, see Mann, p. 156.
[xiv] For those who have not read the novel: the plot centers upon a kind of picaresque. The anti-hero Chichikov, a swindler, shows up in a provincial town. He is journeying around Russia, seeking to buy up the legal rights to peasants who still exist on paper (until the next census is taken), but who have died (who are dead peasants, called “dead souls”). He hopes to take out a mortgage on some property in a remote province, using the dead souls as collateral.
[xv] V.V. Gippius cited in Norton Critical Edition, p. 490. Vasilij Gippius is one of the most perceptive critics of Gogol. His book, GOGOL’, originally printed by the “Mysl’ Press (Leningrad, 1924) was reissued in the Brown University Slavic Reprint Series in 1963, 1966 (in Russian).
[xvi] Cited in Juryj Mann, V POISKAKH ZHIVOJ DUSHI, p. 7.
[xvii] “An Author’s Confession” (Avtorskaja ispoved’) is an arbitrary title for a document published posthumously (1855). The original manuscript was untitled. Gogol’ wrote these materials in May-June, 1847, at the time early comments on his SELECTED PASSAGES FROM CORRESPONDENCE WITH FRIENDS had begun appearing. See COLLECTED WORKS IN SEVEN VOLUMES, Vol. VI (Moscow, 1967), p. 588.
[xviii] Gippius is especially good at showing the novel as more than word play and scintillating wit. He discusses in some detail the satire and the topical themes. See, e.g., the Norton Critical Edition, p. 494, 506-07.
[xix] Donald Fanger, THE CREATION OF NIKOLAI GOGOL (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 231. The citation in Russian is from a letter that Gogol’s friend Zhukovsky wrote to Aleksandra Smirnova, January 4, 1845.
[xx] John Bayley, “Under the Overcoat,” NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, March 18, 1999, p. 24.
[xxii] Andrej Sinjavksij, V TENI GOGOL’JA [IN GOGOL’S SHADOW] (Paris: 1975).
[xxiii] The Norton Critical Edition of DEAD SOULS (edited by George Gibian, translation by George Reavey) is especially valuable for the reader of English, in that it includes background sources (among them, some of Gogol’s wackiest letters) and selections from many of the best critics.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Book Review: DAVID BEZMOZGIS, "The Betrayers"

David Bezmozgis, The Betrayers (NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

The book begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people” (3).

The author fails to explain that this mask of moroseness is the default look of any Russian walking any street, in Russia or elsewhere, and whether under immediate attack or not. And, as the rest of this book demonstrates, Russians—and Ukrainians, basically the same thing—have a thousand years of bloody and brutal history, during which time they have learned that adversity is always near at hand, which adversity must be kept at bay with that morose face. At one time I was innocent enough to believe this to be a Soviet face. Not so. It was there long before Lenin and his henchmen came along, and it remains the same now that the Great Experiment is dead and buried.

The main protagonist of the story, an Israeli, Baruch Kotler, knows Russia and Russian adversity well, since he was born in the Soviet Union under the name Boris Solomonovich Kotler. Almost all of the Russian Jews in this novel have new names now, in accord with their having attained to what at one time they thought of as the promised land of Zion (which, when they arrived, turned out to be not quite Zion after all). But that is one big message of the book: that there is no promised land. You can change your name, you can emigrate to another country, but the Russianness is still in your blood. Can you take that look off your face? Go to Israel and get on a bus. The look will be there in a seat or hanging from a strap, at least if there is one Russian Jew on the bus.

The novel’s title is especially appropriate, since the story line treats betrayals of various sorts. The reader is unware at the beginning, but by the end of the novel the author has made clear that even a person steeped in rectitude is hard put to get through life without betraying someone or something. Prominent is the story of Kotler and his betrayer, Vladimir Tankilevich—who now goes by “Chaim,” and who once was Vladimir Tarasov, courtesy of the KGB. Kotler lived in the USSR for years as a refusenik, denied permission to emigrate to Israel. His wife Miriam was allowed to emigrate, but he remained. Then his roommate Tankilevich, in an attempt to save his own scapegrace brother, gave in to KGB pressure and denounced Kotler as a traitor. He was arrested and spent thirteen years imprisoned, before finally being released. Greeted in Israel as a national hero, Kotler made a new life for himself there as a political operative, an famous politician. He and Miriam achieved the dream of having children who “dream their dreams in Hebrew” (190).

As the book begins, however, another betrayal is in the works. Kotler, now a bald, pot-bellied man in his sixties, has fallen for a young woman (once Lena, now Leora) and betrayed his wife. At the very moment that he is embroiled in a controversial political fight over withdrawing Israelis by force from the settlements—Kotler is opposed to giving these lands back to the Palestinians—politicians on the other side attempt to compromise him with photographs of Kotler in the company of Leora.

The more things change the more they stay the same. This is another theme of The Betrayers. The intelligence agent who meets with Kotler in an attempt to blackmail him, identified only as Amnon, uses pure KGB tactics (28-31). The political scene in Israel “at the best of times is no place for gentle souls” (27). Himself an ironist, Kotler is constantly aware of the irony implicit in his situation. As the book opens he and Leora, in an attempt to flee the personal scandal and the political turmoil, fly to Yalta for something of a vacation. Meanwhile (one more irony) Kotler’s son Benzion, doing his military service, is forced to evacuate the settlers, which puts him at odds with his conscience. Near the end of the novel he turns out to be one of the non-betrayers in the story, when he deliberately wounds himself to avoid herding out the settlers.

Upon their arrival in Yalta, Kotler and Leora walk into the biggest irony of all. By pure coincidence they take rooms in the house of the very man responsible (in a roundabout way) for their being together: Tankilevich the betrayer. At one point Tankilevich’s wife Svetlana—one of the few main characters who is not Jewish; she is an Orthodox believer—makes much of how God, possibly in answer to her prayers, has arranged for this meeting of the old antagonists. A believer in the Zionist dream (or at least once he was), Kotler is not much of a believer in God, and his present predicament rather suggests the old story about God’s nasty brother. Once in a while, so the tale goes, God needs a vacation, so he leaves things in control of his evil finagling brother while He is away.

That mean little brother, sometimes it appears that he is in charge nearly all the time, while the weary Lord perpetually vacations.  The brother laughs and grins his evil grin as he goes about his scheming, screwing things up right and left, both in the personal lives of people and in the political fortunes of countries. The biggest swindle of all depicted in The Betrayers is, in cosmological terms, what came out of the collapse of the Soviet Union: the new “free and democratic” Russia, the new “free and democratic” Ukraine, and so on fifteen times in all (for the fifteen “new, free and democratic” countries left over from the Soviet republics). As always in the broad scope of Russian history, a few swindlers are in like Flynn, but a huge percentage of the common people are screwed. “From one grand deception to another was their lot. First the Soviet sham, then the capitalist. For the ordinary citizen these are just two different varieties of poison. The current variety served in a nicer bottle” (97). But, of course, for Russians the Soviet sham was not the first. In the grand schema of Russian history there were a plethora of shams long before Communism came along.

The author’s description of Crimea could be the description of practically anywhere in post-Soviet provincial Russia or Ukraine: “cement bus shelters and the blank-eyed men who sat on their haunches beside them” (60). The only thing missing in this book is the alcohol, which, for some reason, Bezmozgis fails to feature. At least half of those blank-eyed men on their haunches (smoking, always smoking) will be drunk. The Russian reality: lots of things have changed in the past thousand years, but, essentially, nothing has changed. This revelation comes on page 4, but the whole rest of the book demonstrates its truth. Of course, the Russian Jews depicted in Yalta and Simferopol are no better off than the Russians or the Crimean Tartars there, but oppressed people are spiteful to extremes, so the oppressed Russians, naturally, hate the oppressed Jews and Tartars, who, naturally, hate the oppressed Russians and Jews, etc. Since this book was published Crimea has gone back to Russia, but you can bet that the people of the Crimean Peninsula are living with the same problems as always.

“What does a Jew do? A Jew gets by” (cited in Hebrew on p. 208). What does a Russian do? Same thing. The novel is full of fine descriptions of ordinary people, getting nowhere, pushing on with their lives. We have the Russians on vacation in Yalta, taking the sun and waters “with conviction and diligence” (179). Back in the day Kotler and his parents had been there sunbathing among those Russians in Yalta, standard citizens of Sovdepia. What does a human being do? Same thing. Kotler’s father, fast in his day, trains his son, who is hopelessly slow, as a sprinter, while sarcastic neighbors chant the age-old taunt: жид, жид, на веревочке бежит (to get the rhyme, something like, “Kike, Kike, riding on a bike” but the literal meaning is “Kike, kike, running on a string”).

A stick with two ends, палка о двух концах, the Russian expression for something that cuts two ways. Except that life, as this novel so amply expresses, cuts all different sorts of ways. Who is guilty and who is innocent? It depends. On a lot of things. Tankilevich the traitor is, perhaps, more to be pitied than reviled, given the circumstances of his betrayal, and given how egregiously he has had to pay for that act over a lifetime. At one point Leora herself, certainly aware of her guilt in betraying her friend, Kotler’s daughter, as well as the whole Kotler family, confesses that in similar circumstances she may not have been able to hold out any better than Tankilevich did.

“After all, guilt and innocence were not fixed marks. There were extenuating circumstances. Wasn’t this the governing logic of the times? That cause and effect could not be easily disambiguated? That all was up for revision and nobody durst speak of an absolute truth?”(170)

So make a choice, people, even when the alternatives may be equally bad. That’s what the KGB forces Tankilevich to do, and after he makes his choice he has a lifetime to live with it. Kotler chooses to betray his wife, later chooses to flee with his mistress. Bad choices. The choices of the Jews always seem to end with suitcases. This crosses Kotler’s mind as he and Leora, near the end of the book, “picked their way through the vacationers toward the Internet café” (180), pulling their suitcases behind them.

Tankilevich the compromiser is the last Jew in Crimea. “Capricious fate had cast him as the final link in the long chain of Crimean Jewry. A chain that stretched back more than a thousand years to the Khazars, the last Jewish warriors and emperors, if legend was to be believed. The Khazars, the Krymchaks, the Karaites. And, in the past century, the doomed farming colonists and Yiddish poets who had imagined a homeland in Crimea, a New Jerusalem to supplant the Old. Now it was coming to a close, like all Jewish stories came to a close, with suitcases.”

Today the suitcases are out again, e.g., in France, where, fearing for their lives in face of Islamic terror, the Jews are on the move again. Recently Vladimir Putin publicly commented on the sad state of affairs. “They can’t even walk the streets with a yarmulke on their heads. Let them come back home to us, we are prepared to receive them.” Duh.

The prominent message of The Betrayers is that things are always going to be more complicated than they seem, and every choice one makes in life is more complicated than it should be. Wins can end up losses and losses wins. God in his wisdom can often be a practical joker; either He or His brother, that is. But even if God is basically altruistic, a Good Lord, can we ever forgive him for that brother of his? Kotler is put on trial twice, the first time in the Soviet Union (accused, unjustly, of treason), the second time in Israel (accused, unjustly, by his own co-dissidents) of spying for the KGB. In the USSR he is convicted but comes away invigorated, the heroic refusenik, who basks in his glory upon reaching the home of the Jews. In Israel he is acquitted but comes away wounded, having somehow been deprived of his former heroic gloss. Nobody, so it seems, is a hero for long. The refusniks have their downside: “There were nearly as many deviations in their ranks as there had been among the Marxists at the time of the revolution. Not to mention the purely personal rivalries and antagonisms. . . . Dissidents were by nature contrary” (148). A stick with two ends.

Bezmozgis presents characters from several different cultures here: Israelis, Russian Jews, Ukrainians, Russians. He presents no Palestinians, but they are there, looming in the background of the action. At one point a Crimean Jewish character expresses a one-sided view, held by Jews all over (but not all Jews). The speaker is one Podolsky, who has lived in Israel but has mysteriously returned to Crimea.

“What do Arabs do? They throw rocks. They attack innocent women and children. They shoot rockets. If they pay a few shekels in tax, where does the money go? To their crooked Palestinian officials, who, if such a thing is possible, are more corrupt than our Ukrainian ones” (65). There is no spokesman for the Palestinians in the book, but the Palestinian problem, for Israel, is one more big stick with two ends. Jews, with their conscript soldiers (like Benzion), “more scholars than warriors” (182), are forced to be what they do not wish to be, what goes against their very nature as Jews: brutal oppressors. Fate forces them to choose violence, sometimes even violence against their own kind.

Bezmozgis astutely pinpoints the problem without ever mentioning Palestinians. “And it was all to do with land. A measure of earth under your feet that you could call your own. Was there a more primitive concept? But nobody lives in the ether. Man is a physical being who requires physical space. And his nature is a prejudicial nature of alike and unalike. That was the history of the world. How much earth can you claim with another’s consent? How long can you hold it if you haven’t consent? And is it possible to foster consent where none exists? Kotler didn’t know the answers to the first two questions, but the essential question was the last, and the answer to that was not favorable” (196-97).

You take land away from a whole people, the Palestinians, you drive them off their land in the name of a grand ideal. Then you are faced with the consequences. You sit on the land you have taken, trying to find a way to pacify those from whom you have taken it. They will not be pacified. Probably never. So sits Israel, not in Resplendent Zion, but in The Land of the Gray, on the stick with two ends.

What about America? Well, as most Americans know, we are the exceptional country, the place where dreams come true and no one is beaten by the stick with two ends. Except that, if we step back and take a good long look at our country, we will see that stick flailing away here as well. Near the end of the book Bezmozgis gently inserts a bit of criticism of the American way. On the plane out of Crimea back to Israel all varieties of Jews are passengers, including American Jews, “carefree, heedless, and a little dim, cushioned from history and entrusted with too much” (224). “A little dim.  Cushioned from history. Entrusted with too much.” This is a common European view of Americans; I’ve heard Russians express it many many times. We naïve Americans, who want to see the world in black and white terms, have not yet learned the sad sad tale of the Land of the Gray. And yet, then again, aren’t we naïve Americans lucky? To have done without the thousand years of blood and brutality that is Russian history—and Yugoslavian history, and the history of peoples all over the world, who have not made one iota of progress despite the rivers of blood in which they, and all their ancestors, have been forced to swim. Aren’t we lucky?

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which this Land of the Gray (both in personal terms and in terms of international politics) is better presented. David Bezmozgis is a real writer, a grasper and presenter of the ambiguities with which we all wrestle. His name is brainless (from the Russian bez, without, and mozg, brain), but having written this book full of insights into human nature, he deserves a better name. Maybe we should re-christen him “David Smozgami,” the man with brains.