Friday, June 13, 2008

Artists feeding artists (Books - Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel & How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

One of the many tales in Sasa Stanisic's new book How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone concerns the 'three-dot-ellipsis man,' so called because this old Rabbi is robbed of the 'breath for saying long sentences' after being tortured for his Judaism. It's a vivid segment, made all the more touching this evening by Stanisic's own reading of it this evening at McNally Robinson Bookstore. Stanisic explained that he sought to reveal some parallels between the Second World War and his own native country's 1992 civil war. (Did any of my New York area readers take me up on my exhortation to attend this reading? If not, you really missed out). Not only does Stanisic do a good job of giving context to the segments he has chosen, his reading style is engaging, exuberant, and warm and his manner full of humor. I really enjoyed some of the creative process nuggets he shared - like that fact that his inspiration for this segment came from Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. Although I know who Babel is, I have never read him and didn't know anything about this set of short essays - part reportage, part literary fiction - that chronicle the Soviet Army's 1920 sally into Poland to spread the Soviet love. Good things readings are held in bookstores. I went to McNally Robinson's well stocked shelves and found the book and bought it immediately. Some of the essays are written from the point of view of a Cossack, others from the point of view of a Jewish journalist who goes under cover with one of the units to witness and report the devastation of his country and his people. I find the whole notion chilling - the importance of being a witness and recording these acts crossed with the horror of watching the murder of your own people while never revealing who you are so that you may do so - never stopping the carnage (I know one person couldn't, but the whole notion makes me choke). But I can see why he felt he served best in this role - the writing is exquisite:

...Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is leaving, heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowery hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hops. The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our head. The stench of yesterday's blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. The blackened Zbrucz roars and twists the foaming knots of its rapid. The bridges are destroyed, and we wade across the rive. The majestic moon lies on the waves. The water comes up to the horses' backs. purling streams trickle between hundreds of horses' legs. Someone sinks, and loudly curses the Mother of God. The river is littered with the black squares of the carts and filled with humming, whistling, and singing that thunders above the glistening hollows and the snaking moon.

Prose so sumptuous it should be set to music and sung by a baritone. The writing tingles the eye, the ear, tongue - it is impossible to be left without a sensory experience of the scene:

Eliza, the Jesuit's housekeeper. She gave me a cup of amber tea and some sponge cake. Her sponge cakes had the aroma of the crucifixion. Within them was the sap of slyness and the fragrant frenzy of the Vatican.

I can't believe I have never read Babel before. I can't believe I was 'this close' to not going to this reading because I have to pack for my trip and I'm feeling kind of crappy. I would never have heard about this book, which is now an addition to my Russian Reading Challenge and is coming with me on my vacation. Thank you, Sasha! I have mentioned before that I am a creative-process freak. One of my pleasures of reading about or listening to other artists talk about how they make work, is learning how they feed themselves. I can understand why this book fed this particular writer and it's very satisfying to have left the reading with a new book recommendation from a writer I admire.

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