30 September 2007

Andrew Meier - Black Earth

Andrew Meier was Moscow correspondent for Time for 5 years until 2001, and this book is collected from his experiences in the former Soviet Union. Each chapter is set in a different location, and with a different theme - organised crime in St Petersburg, oligarch power in Moscow, the gulags of Siberia, the war in Chechnya, and the new oil wealth in Sakhalin.

The book is a mixture of reportage and social history. One early chapter deals with a massacre in Chechnya that Meier himself exposed, going into Grozny at great risk to himself to investigate an army atrocity.

Meier, thanks to the status of his employer, has access to senior figures in Russia, from oligarchs to ex-Politburo members. This gives his account the credibility of highly-placed primary sources, so his comments on the power of the Kremlin, for example, are particularly well-informed.

Many of the chapters have an elegaic feel to them, examining the troubled past (Communism, gulags) and present (Chechnya, oligarchs), and there's little optimism felt. Maybe this is an accurate reflection of the state of Russia today. It's certainly fascinating material, and Meier is a very good writer, able to immerse himself in the culture, and present it in an engaging way.


Benjamin Markovits - Imposture

Markovits's slim volume is the story of Polidori, Byron's doctor, most famous for writing The Vampyre at the same gathering that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein. It's very tightly written, sensitive to the nuances of Polidori's emotions, and those of Eliza, a woman who mistakes him for Byron, and falls in love with him.

The imposture of the title is manifold. Polidori's story is passed off by his publisher as by Byron, which creates huge sales, but because of that Polidori cannot make a proper claim on the income from it. Polidori doesn't disabuse Eliza of her mistaken identification, although he intends to. The novelty of having a woman pursue him, having been intimidated by witnessing Byron's conquests, makes him hesitate, and allow the self-seduction. Polidori also passes himself off as a doctor - although trained as one, he's plainly not competent. The whole book is imbued with failure - Polidori has been too close to one so great, and measured himself by comparison, he's a poor doctor, lover, gambler, and even his literary success is stolen from him.

A friend who has a specific interest in Byron and his set got fed up with the inaccuracies of the book, but it is a fiction, just as Byron created fictions about himself. Perhaps such books are better for not knowing the facts behind them.


22 September 2007

Richard Overy - Russia's War

I bought this when in St Petersburg as I wanted to know more about the siege of Leningrad, and the most recent edition about that was too expensive. This has only a short chapter on the siege, but it is a fascinating book by a very good historian.

Overy provides a quick background to Russia before the war, notably the rise of Stalin, and the oppression of the 1930s. This establishes the political environment, and the relationship between Stalin and the Soviet people. Overy is good on the psychology of the dictator, notably his belief that he could read Hitler's intentions, which he posits is the reason for Stalin's infamous breakdown upon the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

There's plenty in here I didn't know - I was very sketchy on the Eastern Front, which is why I was so interested in the book - and the biggest revelation was how badly the British, and French, fucked up a potential alliance with Russia in 1939. Invited by Molotov to send delegations to discuss an arrangement similar to WWI to intimidate Hitler from his expansionist ambitions, both countries sent envoys without sufficient authority to negotiate. This lack of commitment, and disrespect, frustrated Molotov, who responded promptly when Ribbentrop offered a non-aggression pact. Ribbentrop himself went to Moscow, the agreement was worked on in a couple of days, and almost immediately both Germany and Russia swept into Poland. Stalin was happy to have bought some time to rearm - he knew that Russia's military was no match for Germany's at that point, and indeed it still wasn't in 1941, when Germany unexpectedly broke the pact and invaded.

Overy is very good on the psychology of Stalin, although his attempts to understand his subject border on sympathy. He certainly represents Stalin's relationship with Churchill from the perspective of the Russian, who trusted Roosevelt far more. The battle descriptions are overviews, by necessity - there's plenty of other literature on Stalingrad, Moscow, Berlin, Kursk and Leningrad, and this is a summary narrative. The link throughout is Stalin, just as in Germany it was Hitler, but Overy doesn't overdo comparisons between the two.

The huge numbers involved on the Eastern Front are hard to appreciate. Overy talks of 500,000 men lost in a battle, or 3 million Germans captured - bear in mind that Britain had only 250,000 deaths in the whole war. The imbalance of the war is explicit - the Allies had relatively little action between 1940 and 1944, while Russia took the main burden. That they were able to do so, despite being technically outclassed for most of that time, was down to the huge manpower at their disposal, the brutal attitude towards the deployment of these men, but also to the tactics of some very able generals, notably Zhukov. The relationship between Zhukov and Stalin is a key one - the general was one of the few people who could contradict the dictator, and he has the same weight in this story as Kutuzov does in War and Peace. Both men saved Moscow, and therefore the country. Zhukov also saved Leningrad, and devised the plan to save Stalingrad. But when Stalin heard that Zhukov was claiming, after the fall of Berlin, to have won the war, he had him demoted - Stalin needed to be seen as the sole saviour of the country, although he was a poor military tactician.

Reading this has also been preparation for reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, which I have since started.


20 September 2007

Malcolm Bradbury - To the Hermitage

This was Bradbury's last novel - he died the year it was published, in 2000. It has a double narrative - the narrator, travelling to St Petersburg on a cruise from Stockholm as part of an undefined 'Diderot Project', and the story of Diderot's trip to the same city in 1773 at the request of Catherine the Great, who had bought his library, but let him use it in his lifetime.

I'm quite fond of Diderot, the little I've read of him (mostly Jacques le Fataliste), and Bradbury's enthusiasm for the wittiest of the Enlightenment philosophers was the genesis of the novel. The Diderot Project is a real group that Bradbury was involved with, inspiring the story, and he has a little fun with stock types, the academic satire he's best known for. That element of the story is the weakest, and the pay-off - that each member of the seemingly unconnected group represents one facet of Diderot's versatile career - is predictable.

More interesting is Bradbury's imagining of Diderot's character and interaction with Catherine. Diderot has notions of an ideal society, but as that involves the absence of monarchs, and the devolution of power, they're not well received. The conclusion, that instead of creating a new Russia he's responsible for the new America, emphasises the great influence of an underrated philosopher - less read than Voltaire or Rousseau, but probably more significant, due to the Encyclopedie, which disseminated the Enlightenment ideas and methods of enquiry.

I started To the Hermitage while in St Petersburg, although I didn't get to the parts set there before I left the city. The city was built as an ideal, in the way that few European cities have been, but many in America have. Peter the Great wanted a new Amsterdam, hence the canals cutting through marshy land, and both he and Catherine sponsored learning and culture - Peter founded the Academy of Sciences, and Catherine the Hermitage, which she filled with art partly bought for her by Diderot. Catherine's tribute to Peter, the famous Bronze Horseman, was built by a sculptor recommended by Diderot - his influence pervades the city, but is now forgotten.

The book is pretty funny - not, according to Auberon Waugh, the funniest book ever written, but Bradbury is an experienced comic writer, and his ironies and wordplay are very entertaining. But it's the depth of the book, the suggestion that Diderot is the founder of the modern world, that stays with the reader.


5 September 2007

Nikolai Gogol - Diary of a Madman and other stories/The Squabble

I'm sure I don't fully appreciate Gogol. He comes with such a weighty reputation - Dostoevsky's famous quote about all Russian writers emerging from under Gogol's Overcoat, Nabokov claiming that he was the greatest ever Russian artist - but his stories are deceptively simple.

There are seven stories in these two collections, including The Overcoat, The Nose and The Diary of a Madman, his most famous. They are variously highly amusing, absurd, tragic and poignant. He anticipates, and influenced, other writers who created a distorted world, semi-real, certainly disturbing - Kafka is the easy example.

Gogol distances himself from his narratives in subtle ways - claiming to have heard the story third-hand, or dismissing its veracity at the end, creating illusions of reality and fiction. Yet the stories are told in a very spare, simple style. The Nose, the most absurd story in the collections, could be a dream - a man wakes up to find his nose is missing, discovers it leading its own life as a civil servant, then on another day wakes up to find his nose restored. Yet the person who cut the nose off, a barber, is outside the potential framing of the dream, so we enter into 'reality' with the loss of the nose prior to the victim's waking up and discovery of his loss.

There have been symbolic interpretations of the story, as with The Overcoat - 'nose' for 'penis' is the most obvious, the story as fear of impotence or castration - but such readings are not necessary, nor implicit.

I saw parallels in The Overcoat with Murnau's The Last Laugh, in which a head porter in a top city hotel loses his job, and his military-style uniform, and therefore his status and dignity. Akaky Akakeyevich, the 'hero' of The Overcoat has become a Russian type - a humble clerk who works hard and makes sacrifices in order to be able to afford an essential new overcoat - hardly a luxury in a Russian winter - and, gaining it, is enhanced in status, as the porter loses his when deprived of his coat. Akaky is then mugged for his coat, fails to find it despite appeals to the police and higher authorities. He dies of an illness caused by the cold, and comes back to haunt the city.

Supposedly many readers see Gogol's sympathy for lower social orders as the most significant aspect of the story, and that is a persistent Russian theme - although isn't it in most national literatures? But is Gogol's moral that one shouldn't strive for more than ones own station, to have an external appearance that belies ones status? Is it a salutary reminder that those things we strive so hard to obtain can be lost in a minute, that all life is fragile? It's the simplicity of the story, resonant and haunting, but the openness of the questions that make it so memorable.


3 September 2007

Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment

I started writing this before I went to St Petersburg, just after rereading the novel for the first time in 15 years. Since then I've seen several places where Dostoevsky lived, including his last house, now a museum, and the study where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, which was particularly moving. I've also seen the supposed locations of the action of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's flat, the Haymarket and the pawnbroker's flat, and Dostoevsky's grave.

None of that has particularly illuminated my appreciation of C&P, but given that many of the buildings in which Dostoevsky lived and set his stories still stand, it does provide a mental backdrop for the action. And imagining Dostoevsky himself, in relative poverty, feverishly scribbling his story against a deadline, describing Raskolnikov in his own fever, adds to that.

I first read this when I was about 22, a typical age for it, when the intensity of the prose and the complexity of the themes appeal to the post-adolescent mind. I had considered that maybe when I reread it I'd find that I'd outgrown it, or that perhaps it wasn't as good as I'd found then - as with the Idiot.

But I was wrong, it is a magnificent novel, of course. One of the most remarkable aspects is how Dostoevsky stretches time. The novel takes place over a few days, maybe a week, yet this is represented in 550 pages, seemingly entirely of action with very little digression or flashback.

The police procedural element is much less than I remembered it, and the confrontations between the investigator and Raskolnikov less plausible. But such is the heightened atmosphere of most of the novel, the tension at the interviews pervades the rest of the novel, as it does Raskolnokov's mind.

It's Raskolnikov's mind that's at the centre of the book, of course. Why does he commit the crimes? Is he insane? He compares himself to Napoleon, saying more than once that if the emperor, at the beginning of his career, had to murder one worthless old woman in order to achieve the greater good of ruling France and changing the world, he wouldn't hesitate to do it. That one life is insignificant in comparison to the many other lives that will be sacrificed in later wars.

It's not a naive philosophical point, but for most people it's a mind game, a moral dilemma that wouldn't need to be faced, and indeed Raskolnikov needn't put it to the test. He does so not for money - the little that he takes from the pawnbroker's flat he hides, and has no thought as to where she might keep her fortune - but to prove to himself that he is the 'great man' of his own dreams. He transgresses moral taboos, kills for no good reason, and sets himself outside society. From that point his dislocation is reflected in the urgent narrative.

However, Raskolnikov is not amoral, despite his compulsion to be so. He believes that, in order to be 'great', he has to stand 'above' the petty moral concerns of ordinary men, but he has neither the courage nor the strength to do so - he cowers in panic and paranoia after the event, and although his conscience isn't troubled by the killing, he's afraid of the consequences.

His continuing moral sense is manifested by his attitude to his sister, and to Sonya. His idealisation of Sonya, a simple girl forced into prostitution by the destitution of her family, is part of the same romantic attitude as his idolisation of Napoleon, and comes out of his need for emotional, then spiritual comfort. He protects his sister from a bad marriage to a cynical man.