Sunday, March 1, 2015

Whimsy in the face of chaos as Russian history repeats itself (Books & Opera - The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov, There Once Lived a Mother.... by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dmitri Shotakovch)

Today, as more than 50,000 Russians march to honor Boris Y. Nemtsov, the Putin critic who was assassinated a few days ago, it seems timely to consider some of the art made in the context of Soviet and Russian regimes, which may be different for the name they give their ruler but seem alike in their repression of opposing views.  While Putin is stripping off his shirt and getting into bed with the oligarchs, politically repressing homosexuals, and annexing Crimea as the Empress Catherine the Great did before him, I read The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, written by Gaito Gazdanov, a Russian living in Paris in the late 1940s, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's There Once Live a Mother Who Loved her Children, Until They Moved Back In, three novellas about Soviet Life written between 1988 and 2002, and I saw the 1934 Shotakovich opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera.

These three works plumb life's extremities, attempting the creation of some kind of meaning in the face of the suffering endured by the artist.  So we can thank repressive regimes for that literary construct we call the Russian soul.  Each of these works express deep longing for something better. 

Gaito Gazdanov's narrator begins:
Of all my memories, of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.  Ever since the moment it happened, I cannot remember one day passing when I haven't regretted it.  No punishment for it ever threatened me because it occurred in the most exceptional of circumstances and it was clear that I couldn't have acted otherwise.  Moreover, no one other than I knew about it...
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was recently translated by Bryan Karetnyk and reintroduced to English readers by Pushkin Press (2013) which is devoted to rediscovering lost European classics of literature.  Gazdanov struck me as the literary antecedent of Andrei Makine.  Both Paris-based Russians longing for a past.  Both write of the suffering inflicted by war, but whereas Makine rediscovers suffering through details that reach the senses, Gazdanov's narrative is a mystery that seeks to understand the power of a single act to drive the purpose of one man's existence.  In so doing, it examines the very nature of art, and how we create the narratives that drive our lives.

It took me a while to enter the vision of domestic Soviet hell Ludmilla Petrushevskaya serves up in There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved her Children, Until They Moved Back In (Penguin Books, 2014 trans. Anna Summers).  I thank Penguin for my copy and the chance to discover in this contemporary Russian voice - one of operatic intensity.  Petrushevskaya creates in Anna, the narrator of The Time is Night,  the 1988 novella that opens this volume, a voluble lyric voice.  Anna loves so ferociously and is so deeply wounded by her violent circumstances, that how can her tone turn anything other than comic?
Alena, Alena,  My farway daughter, where are you?  There is nothing more precious than love,  How I loved Alena!   How I loved Andrey! Infinitely, absolutely.  What have I done except love them both?
 My happiness, my little one.  So quiet at times.  A difficult, unhappy childhood you've had so far.  You smell of flowers.  When you were little I used to say that your potty smelled like a wild meadow, your unwashed hair of phlox.  After a bath a child's scent is impossible to describe.  Silky hair, silky skin.  I know nothing lovelier than a child.  Where I used to work, this one idiot used to say that baby cheeks would make a great handbag.  She absolutely adored her son and used to say that his bottom was so perfect she couldn't stop looking at it.  That perfect bottom is now serving in the army, his days of adoration long over. 
My children fought each other tooth and nail - another cute detail of our family life.  Only at night could I experience the joy of motherhood.  I'd creep over to their beds and listen to their breathing, inhale their scent, adore them in silence...Andrey played soccer and hockey; by ninth grade he had more scars than a feral cat.  Other boys would carry him home - unconscious...Andrey spouting blood all over the stairs (I later washed it off, with my tears)...
I had a difficult time when I began reading this volume to understand the juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty, the stabs of vicious sarcasm.  I recommend reading the translator's introduction if you are not well-steeped in Russian culture. It seemed to awful to laugh in the face of such suffering, but then I saw the Graham Vick production of Shotakovch's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera and understood that that was the intent.   The Shotakovich score combines folk melody, modern atonal crash, and the sound of the Russian church.  In this production, the principal cast were vocally strong, creating complex characters with interior lives, not just waving their arms with operatic bravado.  The Met chorus was lively and gave differentiated and idiosyncratic performances.  The physical production made the eclectic score breathe in its raucousness and filled the stage with the boredom and claustrophobia expressed in the story, but in a way that was neither boring nor restrained.  This was a contemporary, constructivist-influenced circus-like design with an atmosphere that, despite the Met's scale, felt irreverent like cabaret. This condemnation, beauty, and whimsy all wrapped up in one savage package allowed me to recognize the form Petrushevskaya's tales take and how to appreciate them.

The paradox of a supposed utopia that was actually a despot's absurdist fantasy finds expression of both its extremes simultaneously in this kind of art.  The 1934 production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was instantly a popular and critical success, but was banned after Stalin passed his verdict on it in 1936.  Now it seems Putin has returned to the great Soviet tradition of imprisoning politically critical art, like the rock group Pussy Riot.  Gay Russian's seek political asylum in the U.S.  Boris Nemtsov's opposing views are silenced and Putin, formerly of the Soviet KGB, will "supervise the investigation" personally.  Comforting, huh?  A a single man's whim again substitutes for the rule of law in Russia.  And in this context, Russian people struggle to earn a living, to put food on the table, grandmothers raise their children's children, In this chaos, Petrushevskaya's heroines commit acts of desperation to save those they love .  It is her wit that allows one to feel the absurdity of her characters' situations rather than be overwhelmed by a sense of futility.

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