Monday, May 30, 2011

Memories of making art in Stalinist Russia (Books - Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay)

When the Ragazzo and I were up in Kent,Connecticut to get married, we came across a little bookstore (fancy that). The woman behind the counter recommended Daphne Kalotay's new novel Russian Winter. I'm a sucker for personal recommendations in indy bookstores if they seem honest and, I must admit, I probably would not have read this heartfelt debut novel otherwise.

Russian Winter
is set alternately in post-World War II Russia and contemporary Boston and is structured around the auction of the jewelry of a now-retired prima ballerina of Russia's Bolshoi ballet, Nina Revskaya. A description of the featured jewels and their price, as might appear in an auction catalog, head each chapter. Of particular interest is a set of amber jewels. Although Nina offers what she believes is a complete set, an anonymous donor donates a last piece, not so much because he wishes to be generous but because he knows that the origin of these jewels holds the secret of his parentage, of which he is ignorant. Unfortunately, this story is so painful Nina, that she refuses to meet him. The plot of Russian Winter is the uncovering of this secret, and in doing so offers an historical novel of Stalin's Russia, a touching story about family origins and love, and a mystery whose solution I thought I had, but the complete details were a surprise to me.

This is a lot to take on in a debut novel and occasionally the seams show. The details around dance rehearsals and performance sometime read like a well researched list of technical terms, I couldn't smell that mixture of rosin, old sprung wood floors, and sweat. I felt that Kalotay lived inside the details of what it was like to be an artist in Stalinist USSR much more completely. The lack of privacy in shared living quarters, the summer dacha and banya, what people ate, what they wore, what it was like to tour. One of the novel's most vivid sections is when three dancers on tour in East Berlin looking for makeup and tights in accidentally cross to the West.
They emerge from the subway to a bustling street, oddly bright though the sky is as gray and cold as before. Shop windows glow with neon signs, and above them, big and clean, are billboards such as Nina has never seen, colorful and spotlit even though it is daytime. People everywhere; even their coats and hats look brighter, somehow. "That's why everyone had to get off." Nina says it even though it is clear from Polina's and Vera's faces that they too understand.

"We're not supposed to be here," Polina says.

"We didn't know," Vera whispers, eyes wide as she takes in the scene before them, the people walking at an easy clip, unworried, and the buildings that, while still somewhat derelict, are cleaner and free of rubble, with lights illuminating their windows...

In front of them is a vegetable kiosk. And there, heaped at the end, like something out of a fairy tale, is a stack of bright yellow bananas.

Polina and Vera too stare, as Nina allows herself to fully take in the scene around her...
I love the sense Kalotay went after of Dorothy emerging into colorful Oz following the drab sepia of Kansas, but the bananas are her "money shot." Unfortunately, Kalotay sometimes relies on explaining a little more than she needs to. I wish she had had a few more bananas.

Another strength of this novel is its marvelously detailed secondary characters. Nina's mother-in-law, a member of the defunct aristocracy, embittered by her decline in status, with whom Nina must live once she is married. Fellow dancer, Polina, whose conflict about being a good friend or a good citizen by informing on her colleagues so torments her that she breaks on in a horrible skin rash. These characters really inhabited flesh.

The sub-plot of Gershstein (Gersh), a soviet composer, who is hounded and eventually imprisoned because of Stalin's paranoid anti-Semitism, and his wife, Zoya whose desperate optimism keeps her trying to be the model party member throughout his imprisonment, was particularly engrossing. It integrates factual historical research, with a sense of living in a summer dacha, and all the while Gersh and Viktor, Nina's husband and a successful poet, debate for whom the artists works in Stalinist Russia.
"You sound like Zoya!" Gersh says, as Viktor surely expects him to. He can mention her today, because Vera has gone off one one of her long walks, gathering mushrooms. By the gate, her hand resting on the iron fence, Nina moves through her daily barre exercises. She hasn't skipped a day of training. Even a week of missed practice could mean bruised toes and aching limbs when her muscles are forced to work again.

"This utilitarian view of art makes my insides squirm," Gersh says. "You know that, of course."

"Why do you put up with her, anyway?" Nina calls.



"She makes me look good, don't you think?" Gersh says in his teasing voice. In a lisping imitation, he adds, "Upright citizen. Party spirit and all that. Perfectly commendable, actually."

Nina doesn't laugh; even in his mocking, Gersh seems uncomfortable. Perhaps Zoya really does feel to him like some kind of badge of approval. There has been more anti-Semetic commentary: editorials in the press, even another swipe at Gersh himself by one particularly belligerent critic whom Viktor has nicknamed "the Rottweiler." More than once Nina has glimpsed the slogan "Down with the Cosmopolites!" Maybe Gersh really does see Zoya as a protector of sorts.

"I'm not joking," Viktor says. "I mean what I said. About reaching the people. There's a reason front-row seats cost only three rubles at your theater, Nina. Life is hard, people are tired. You bring them beauty. You make them proud. You remind us of all we're capable of - that we ourselves are a work in progress, creating a great new society. Why do you think our Iosef Vissarionovich himself prefers the biggest, most colorful productions? He knows it's the monumental stuff - the most colorful scenery, the brightest costumes - that has the strongest impact."

"Exactly," Gersh says, "this is exactly the problem! There's no room for complexity, for sensitivity, for anything the slightest bit challenging. Instead we're supposed to pander to the audience. When, really, how are they every going to learn to appreciate anything truly profound? Everything always has to be exaggerated. And you know why: because people need to be cued. They need to be told what they're supposed to think.
What Kalotay does beautifully here in terms of setting is capture that breadth of life that Chekhov's plays or Mikhailkov's films capture - everyone is going about their lives and simultaneously talking. However, although the subject of the debate is perfect, it does not seem a part of the character's larger lives. It reads to me like an explanation for the reader of a key argument of the time which Kalotay researched. A composer and a poet who live and work in the mileu of other artists would talk about their own or other's specific works, an artistic problem they are solving, what someone did or did not do in the rehearsal, such and such a painting, they would be unlikely to have a discussion about "pandering to the audience" and "reaching the people" in this general and illustrative way. This aspect of Russian Winter was not entirely satisfying for me.

Luckily Kalotay is passionate about her subject matter, her interest clearly comes from some personal place. I was fascinated by the setting, and after any quibbles I might have about living in the details, the plotting was excellent and kept me reading with genuine interest. Kalotay also writes two poems in the voice of Viktor that I found lovely and convincing. Russian Winter's multiple layers of memory create a wholeness that enveloped me.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

All for love of a 'good' novel (Books - A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé)

I used to be good about writing down where I heard about a book so that when I wrote about it here, I could give credit where credit was due. Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore never made it to the list, ah well, thank you whomever it was - I enjoyed it!

A Novel Bookstore - the title alone would win over this booklover's heart. Set in France and concerns the passionate founding of a bookstore in Paris which only sells 'Good Novels.' These are selected by a panel of eight writers, all given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. It is underwritten by Francesca, a wealthy lover of good writing, and Ivan, a wandering unambitious soul, who has worked most of his adult life in bookshops. They open to considerable fanfare and develop a strong following, and then, mysteriously, attacks begin in the newspapers. 'Elitism,' they cry. 'Don't read what's good for you, read for pleasure!' (As if those two must be mutually exclusive.) When that doesn't ruin them, the eight committee members begin to be physically attacked - nearly murdered. So Francesca engages her nephew, Heffner, in the police force, to investigate the crimes discreetly.

Cossé's creation is, therefore, partly a mystery, but she weaves in a delicate love story, and much of the novel is devoted to an appreciation of 'good' French writing. But while A Novel Bookstore shows the world a facade of lite literary entertainment, and it is entertaining, I read the book as a comment on anti-elitism. Certain political factions use this rhetoric to create a frenzy in a sector of the public that takes refuge in being one of the pack. And the business world loves such homogeneity, because they can better predict the behavior of buyers, however, it is sheer hypocrisy, this anti-elitism, when it comes out of the mouth of, say, Yale graduates or people spending six figures on PR campaigns for themselves as, say, political candidates. These same people who claim to be so very salt-of-the-earth want the very 'best' person to run the armed forces. They want the very 'best' surgeon to operate on their children when they're in need of care. And they are completely elitist when it comes to the players they prize in sports that they enjoy. Dont' tell me all these famous anti-elitists refuse to watch the Olympics.

In any event, anti-elitism versus equal representation for all (good, common-place, and mediocre) is the subject of A Novel Bookstore. Cossé delivers her argument with delight for good reading and writerly skill at setting the stage and driving the reader's interest.
One could hardly say that Paul Néon's disappearance caused a stir in the canton of Biot, where he had apparently settled for good, nor in Les Crets, the scrawny village where he inhabited the very last house.

Paul collapsed on a thick bed of rotting leaves below the forestry road, along which he must have been staggering for some time already (ten days later, young Jules Reveriaz would find his scarf at the edge of the path, fifty feet from the place where he had fallen). Two or three dead branches cracked beneath his weight. When silence returned, there was a a brief moment of vibration...
Cossé creates that same atmosphere Hitchcock does, one that has you listening into the silence, sure something will pop out at any second. Cossé made one unfortunate choice in having much of the narrative presented as the events leading up to the crimes are verbally related to Heffner. This conceit is not followed through in the style of the writing, that is to say, it feels like writing not speech, so whenever she returns our attention to the fact that this is a dialogue with Heffner (mostly monologue, in fact) I found it jarring. Aside from this conceit, the book was engaging and it made me curious enough about many of the beloved authors of Francesca, Ivan, and their committee that I have ordered a few. Cossé also creates a sense of verisimilitude. Her plot is so plausible that I was sure that the the writers on the committee and the shop on the rue d'Odéon actually existed. Given that I'll be in Paris this summer, maybe I'll check it out, just to be sure.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Contrasting cultures - French and American (Books - The Chateau by William Maxwell)

It's been a couple of weeks since I have been able to either write here or make my usual rounds of friends in the blogosphere. I've been writing my last class paper. I'll now be writing papers for publication or (eventually) writing my dissertation, but the classwork is done! Yet, somehow in 15 minutes on the subway or 20 minutes before going to sleep, I managed to finish two books that had nothing to do with that paper, so I am looking forward to catching up with you here this weekend.

The Ragazzo and I will be going to France (and England) this summer. So I retrieved William Maxwell's The Chateau from my teetering TBR pile, not an easy task as it had worked its way down about a foot, and I finally read it. I remember our late book blogging friend Dewey telling me that she wasn't sure I would like The Chateau, but I cannot remember why. But I enjoyed both its pace, and Maxwell's focus on the inner lives of two Americans, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, as they travel in France in 1948, just after the war. Just a peek at the first description of Harold will give you an idea of the level of detail
Maxwell is interested in when it comes to character.
He was thin, flat-chested, narrow-faced, pale from lack of sleep, and tense in his movements. A whole generation of loud, confident Middle-Western voices saying: Harold, sit up straight...Harold hold your shoulders back...Harold, you need a haircut, you look like a violinist had had no effect whatever. Confidence had slipped through his fingers. Her had failed to be like other people.
Along with Harold's physical appearance we get his lineage and a detail of his inner life that is probably one of his most guarded secrets. Maxwell unfurls Harold in three confident sentences, the words seemingly plunked down on the page like change on the counter.

And when Maxwell introduces us to M. Carrere, a wealthy, elderly visitor convalescing at the chateau, not only is the description's content appropriately different to this character's details, Maxwell's more distinguished diction matches what he is describing.
He was not like anybody they had every seen before. Though he seemed a kind man, there was an authority in his manner that kind men do not usually have. His face was long and equine. His eyes were set deep in his head. His hands were extraordinary. You could imagine him playing the cello or praying in the desert. When he smiled he looked like an expert old circus clown. He did not appear to want the attention of everybody when he spoke, and yet he invariably had it, Harold noticed. If he was aware of the dreary fact that there are few people who are not ready to take advantage of natural kindness in the eminent and the well-to-do, it did not bother him. The overlapping folds of his eyelids made his expression permanently humorous, and his judicious statements issued from a wide sensual, shocking red mouth.
Is there anything else you want to know?

While Maxwell's book is, on one level, the soap opera of guest and host relationships, and the chronicle of visits to pastry shops and castles, the whole while the story is really one of contrasting cultures - French and American. Interesting in light of the current drama around Strauss-Kahn, hmm? In this book, French and American culture meets in the context of immediate post-war deprivation following the violent liberation of France from the Germans by the Americans. As Harold and Barbara come to know their hosts and fellow guests, they face a mixture of embarrassed gratefulness, envy, and resentment and, despite the long months they spend and even some basic French, this creates of each person a mystery. Harold and Barbara cannot penetrate the inner lives and the motivations of their actions remains inscrutable. This is the real subject of The Chateau. It's neither a travel book, nor a plot driven novel per se, though both those elements exist.
After they had scrambled down the steep sandbank to the water's edge, they saw some hikers and cyclists waiting a hundred yards upstream, at the exact spot where Mme Vienot had said the ferry would come. She and Harold began to help Mme Straus-Muguet up the bank again. The two girls took off their shoes and waded into the water. The sound of their voices and their laughter made him turn and look back. Alix tucked the hem of her skirt under her belt. Then the two girls waded in deeper and deeper, with their dresses pulled up and their white thighs showing.

There are certain scenes that (far more than artifacts dug up out of the ground or prehistoric cave paintings, which have a confusing freshness and newness) serve to remind us of how old the human race is, and of the beautiful, touching sameness of most human occasions. Anything that is not anonymous is all a dream. And who we are, and whether our parents embraced life or were disappointed by it, and what will become of our children couldn't be less important. Nobody asks the name of the athlete tying his sandal on the curved side of the Greek vase or whether the lonely traveler on the Chinese scroll arrived at the inn before dark.
Maxwell's book is like a dance between the perspective of mystery, in which Harold and Barbara cannot seem to know the people they have met, no matter how hard they try, and the broader perspective Harold glimpses in the moment just excerpted, in which what they share as human beings looms far larger.

The last forty pages of The Chateau is an epilogue in which Maxwell breaks the stately, more old fashioned chronicle of events format and explains all the mysteries in a question/answer dialogue format that feels like a magazine article. I found the need for this key inexplicable. It almost ruined the book for me. I felt pandered to by its ironic tone. I had preferred the encounters of the story complete with their mysteries but, when I look back on the novel with two week's hindsight, that story is all I remember.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writing to defeat the darkness (Books - The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon)

I really have no business being here, as I'm in the middle of writing a final paper on depression, hence the parade of cheerful books, however, I did find The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression written by Andrew Solomon in 2001 remarkably well-written. Like Styron's Darkness Visible it is a writer's memoir of the experience of depression, but where Styron's is a fleeting paean to the indescribable blackness, his white flag to the black dog, Solomon unleashes a flood of fellow sufferer's personal narratives, merciless descriptions of his defenseless self, a history of melancholia from the Greeks to Freud to the latest genetics research, as though the very acts of knowing and writing will vanquish his demon. They make for a bone-shaking, yet gripping account of suffering that, though it is 300 pages long, one can fly through.
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Medications and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, and that is why they work... In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.
It would be worth going on at length if I convince you to read Solomon's book, but I have to get back to convincing a professor that I've done some substantive reading on psychopathology. I'll close with a brief plug for Solomon's earlier book: The Irony Tower, which is also well worth a read. It follows a group of contemporary Moscow artists as they try to figure out what their art means and why they make it, as their country transitions from Soviet empire to whatever Russia is now - plutocracy? Capitalist anarchy? I found it fascinating.

Friday, May 6, 2011

It's bite is worse than its bark (Books - Darkness Visible by William Styron)

William Styron is best known as the author of the novels, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, books about moral responsibility. He suffered from episodes of major depression, once facing hospitalization for it. Darkness Visible is his memoir of that experience. It is as cuttingly brief and eloquent a literary description of the deep suffering of depression as you are likely to find. I found it interesting how frequently Styron made reference to the experience of depression as indescribable, while producing a volume on it - quoting many other writers on the themes of depression, suffering, and suicide - William James, Albert Camus, and Dante. The inadequacy is exemplified by his dissatisfaction of the fitness of the word itself - depression - a the descriptor our age is stuck with.
"Melancholia" would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness. It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated - the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer - had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering "depression" as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.

As one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to tell the tale, I would lobby for a truly arresting designation. "Brainstorm," for instance, has unfortunately been preempted to describe, somewhat jocularly, intellectual inspiration. But something along these lines is needed. Told that someone's mood disorder has evolved into a storm - a veritable howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else - even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction that "depression" evokes, something akin to "So what?" or "You'll pull out of it" of "We all have bad days." The phrase "nervous breakdown" seems to be on its way out, certainly deservedly so, owing to its insinuation of a vague spinelessness, but we still seem destined to be saddled with "depression" until a better, sturdier name is created.
Styron's literary evocation of being in the hole is relentless, and even while his discussion on medication and presumed mechanisms is dated, the way he captures being inside of it has not lost its bite. I'm beginning work on a paper on geriatric depression for school and although journal articles on psychological and neurobiological mechanisms is going to be its mainstay, literature seemed the place to start. I'm looking forward to reading Styron's Lie Down in Darkness this summer, once the term has ended, so taken was I with his voice. I found a copy on a curbside bookseller's table a few years back.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Four things...

Four things, courtesy of Thomas, his changes in red.

Four Jobs I Have Had in My Life
  1. Seller of typewriter ribbons and office supplies on the phone - yuck
  2. Charge box office at Lincoln Center
  3. Lab assistant to a parasitologist (feed and anesthetize the really)
  4. Teaching acting to opera singers
Four Books Movies I Would Read Have Seen Over and Over Again:
  1. A Room with a View
  2. Diner
  3. Fanny and Alexander
  4. Burnt by the Sun
Four Places (other than NY) I Have Lived:
  1. Waltham, Massachusetts
  2. Chicago, Illinois
  3. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  4. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Four Books from the Modern Library Top 100 List I Would Recommend:
  1. Angel of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  2. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  3. Howard's End by E. M. Forster
  4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Four Places I Have Been that are great to visit:
  1. Skagen, Denmark
  2. Amsterdam, Holland
  3. St. Paul de Vence, France (but anywhere in Provence, really)
  4. Berlin, Germany
Four of My Favorite Foods:
  1. Olives
  2. Cheese
  3. Sushi
  4. very dark and bitter chocolate
Four of My Favorite Drinks:
  1. Red wine from Bordeaux
  2. Really great black coffee
  3. Green tea
  4. Rivella (rot)
Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now
  1. In a garden in the Cotswolds after a hike and tea
  2. In a certain hotel room in Granada, Spain looking up from my book at the Alhambra any time I feel like it.
  3. In Engelberg, Switzerland, gazing at the mountains
  4. in a theatre

Four Things
That Are Very Special in My Life:
  1. The Ragazzo
  2. family
  3. friends
  4. that I'm getting a chance to go back to school after a whole career and do something different