Sunday, June 07, 2009

Books Read over the Past Few Months The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes. When I picked up this doorstopper, I feared it would be an academic litany of sheer misery, important to read perhaps, but difficult. And yet I couldn't put it down for a week--it was so compelling. My feelings towards Stalin have always been ordinary--shock and condemnation. But reading this book actually made me hate him. It made his crimes so personal. Figes gives us a history of Stalinism told by its victims and its low-level collaborators (who were occasionally one and the same). We start with the first wave of arrests of class enemies under Lenin, but then the horror of the first five year plan, in which farms were collectivized and the "kulaks" were sent to the newly established gulag in huge numbers. Figes argues convincing that the famine that followed, which killed something like 6 million, was not intentional but the result of a serious miscalculation. He also argues that the gulags and slave labor projects were economic in nature. Indeed, the kulaks, who were portrayed as class enemies, "rich peasants," were simply numbers--each area had to arrest a certain quota of kulaks. In some villages, the kulaks to be arrested were chosen by lot. But in general, the kulaks were the hardest-working, most ambitious farmers--whose removal doomed the process of collectivization to failure. Their stories are the heart of the book, because the stain of "kulak" affected generations of Russians. The kulaks served their 7 year terms only to be rearrested in the Great Purge of 1937-39.
Figes shows how each purge, far from being arbitrary, had a certain perverse logic. The kulaks were arrested to become the slaves needed to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union (specifically to mine the metals and fell the timber needed from remote Arctic locations, where free labor would not go). The Great Purge came from Stalin's fear of German and Japanese fascism--he feared simultaneous invasion (and even fought the Japanese briefly in Mongolia). He felt that former Kulaks and national minorities like Poles, Finns, Volga Germans, and others, might side with the invaders. His purges of the "old bolsheviks" was purely to sweep away rivals and put his own men in. Only the purge of "rootless cosmopolitans" (Jews) and doctors made no sense--by that time, it was clear that Stalin was losing his mind, but that his minions still feared him too much to resist.
This book is told in a series of personal stories. Threading through the book are the complex stories of the Golovina family, "kulaks" who were not able to really shake the weight of Stalinism until the mid-1990s, and Konstantin Simonov, a great Soviet journalist, novelist and poet, who was implicated in the Stalinist ruling structure, but whose position was deeply ambiguous and changed over time. Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff. Canadian Liberal Party leader, regretful Iraq War supporter, and wishy-washy torture semi-apologist Michael Ignatieff is also a pretty good writer. His biography of Isaiah Berlin is readable and interesting. Berlin certainly seems to be a godfather for liberal interventionists like Ignatieff, even though Berlin was pretty ambiguous about Vietnam. Berlin was an interesting thinker, and his realization that Enlightment ideas of liberty had to be mixed with Romantic ideas about freedom in in order to get a really workable framework for a free society is quite interesting and something I want to follow up on. But his main battle--fighting Marxism--seems absurd today. I guess that's because he so decisively won. Ignatieff manages to make me want to read some of Berlin's work, but even more so, made me all the more interested in reading about Anna Akhmatova, whom Berlin sought out and had a moving encounter with just after World War II. (As you will see below, I did follow up on Akhmatova.) Berlin's influence on the liberal interventionists needs to be examined though. How do we progress from the humane Berlin to the war-mongering Ignatieff (and others)? To the Hermitage by Malcom Bradbury. Malcolm Bradbury is one of those English novelists who came to prominence in the early 60s, seems to have been involved in the academic scene, and became intrigued with post-structuralism, but in a very down-to-earth common-sense self-deprecating English way. This novel is really two novels in one. The contemporary novel has an English novelist/academic roped into something called The Diderot Project, which is primarily about a trip to Russia with other academics (and an opera singer and a few other misfits) to study the great Enlightenment philosophe. This part is very David Lodge-like, amusing but with an emotional core. The protagonist's meeting with Galina, the librarian from the Hermitage responsible for the papers of Voltaire and Diderot, is lengthy and memorable--the heart of this part of the novel. She is mistrustful at first and continually feels him out. But then they connect--this old librarian who was a misfit in Soviet times and a relic today, and this slightly younger English novelist. I wonder if Bradbury was deliberately trying to echo the famous meeting between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akmatova. The "other" novel is an account of Diderot's trip to Russia to serve in Catherine the Great's court. Bradbury imitates several of Diderot's own works in this part, and has Diderot going around and poking his nose into the operation of the Russian Empire (making everyone think he's a spy in the process), and meeting with Catherine, gently encouraging her to reform her kingdom. He fails, but later in Paris, he gives the papers to Thomas Jefferson as a potential model for the new American Republic. It's an interesting conceit. Both novels are good, but I don't know why Bradbury put them in one book really. The Best of LCD: The Art and Writings of WFMU. A pretty amazing collection of work from radio station WFMU, the college radio station that was so powerful, it survived when the college it was associated with, Upsala College, actually closed down! They published a magazine called LCD (it seems to have evolved into a blog, I believe) that was amazingly entertaining. The articles, on famous DJs of history, French covers of American pop hits, Rodd Keith, Jack Ruby, Doc Pomus, and many others are pretty excellent. But for alternative comics fans, the treat is that the thing is packed with strips and illustrations by the cream of 80s and 90s alternative comix. And unless you picked up every copy of LCD (a magazine that I only saw sporadically), you have probably not seen all of these pieces. For example, there is a strip by great 80s alternative cartoonist Michael Dougan (whatever happened to him?) about encountering Dizzy Gillespie at a Gap store, and doing a simultaneous headstand with the bebop legend. Can this have really happened? It seems too odd just to have been made up! Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. Very informative and even moving. The first few chapters describe the various cultural streams that flow into Russian art--Europe and Saint Petersburg, Moscow and the old Russian soul, the peasants, the church and religious life, the east and the Turkic/Mongol heritage--in separate chapters. As such, these parts of the book are rather jumpy--you can be reading about Mussorgsky's last opera at one point and then read about his origins as a compser in a later chapter. Still it was interesting for me, someone who knows next to nothing about Russian history, to read about the Decembrists, the effect of the Napolean's invasion, the liberation of the serfs, the seeming alternation between good tsar and bad tsar, and the effects of all of these on Russian culture. Figes makes many provocative statements--for instance, he suggests that the alienation and almost total separation of the Euro-phile Saint Petersburg nobility and the new rich Moscow bourgeoisie, composed often of former serfs or the sons of serfs, made it impossible for a really vigorous bourgeoisie/ruling class to evolve, making it relatively easy for the Communists to take over.
The final two chapters on the Soviet Union and emigre culture are the most moving. Of course, it is hard not to be moved by the plight of artists under Stalin. Even though Lenin had no feeling for modern art, it flourished while he was alive, and amazing things were done. Perhaps because of this, the emigre artists were rather reactionary (aesthetically speaking) with a few exceptions--Stravinsky and Prokoviev and Nabokov, for example. But while Stravinsky and Prokoviev spoke a universal language, Nabokov was fundamentally forced to write in English to find a readership.
The stories of Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Shostakovich, Eisenstein, etc., are fairly well-known and well-related here, along with many other artists, writers, and composers who wrestled with Soviet restrictions. But Figes barely mentions more officially approved artists. For instance, Figes discusses how soldiers in World War II memorized poems by Akhmatova and Pasternak, but he doesn't mention one of the most popular poets of the war, Konstantin Simonov, whose poem "Wait For Me" was memorized by many many soldiers, and whose war correspondence and novels are highly regarded. Simonov, however, was an official writer who (at least initially) worshiped Stalin. It's hard for us to imagine anything good coming from a writer who willingly wears that straight-jacket, and that perhaps is why those sorts of writers and artists got so little mention. Figes seems to have thought better of it, devoting a substantial part of his next book, The Whisperers, to Simonov. Spy: The Funny Years by Kurt Anderson, Graydon Carter, and George Kalogerakis. The design was kind of odd--a disappointment after the innovative design of the actual magazine. It literally reproduces bits from the magazine (seriously, they look as if they were shot from the pages of the magazine). These are interspersed with a history of the magazine. It certainly says something about the 80s--a fabulous horrible decade. Spy's great innovation was to make humor factual. Instead of the parodies and satires of Mad and National Lampoon (as excellent as they often were), Spy was full of actual funny reportage. The sections on fact-checking and liability are pretty astonishing. They invented a style of humor that is now ubiquitous on the web. Websites like Gawker and Wonkette are simply electronic Spy. If you like this type of ridiculing of the rich, powerful, and famous, then you should definitely check out this book. (Of course, the biggest irony is that Graydon Carter, one of the two editors, went from slashing these people to ass-kissing as editor of Vanity Fair). Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova by Elaine Feinstein. A very interesting biography of the poet considered one of the best in Russia during the 20th century. Her career started prior to the revolution, and it didn't take long for her work to fall out of official favor. Her life is full of ups and (mostly) downs, although she avoids death during the Great Purge, the invasion of Russia, etc... She had many lovers, and as with Goethe, it probably helps to know which lover or ex to whom she is referring in her poems. Feinstein gives us a look at much of the literary scene in 20s and 30s Russia, where the top authors were all acquainted (lovers, enemies, rivals, friends, etc.) The Great Purge more or less ended that, but when writers and artists were evacuated to Tashkent during the war (for some reason, Stalin didn't want them killed by the Nazis--even writers he hated like Akhmatova), there was a brief recreation of the literary scene, incongruously in a distant windswept desert town. Then another spasm of terror from Stalin, then he died. Akhmatova's life in the late 50s and 60s, as her health declined, nonetheless improved. Her work began to be published again, she was allowed to travel abroad, she was given a modest dacha, younger poets flocked to her side, including Joseph Brodsky.
This book is relatively short and even handed. The author makes few judgments not backed up by mutli-sourced witnesses. So she will report many of the reported romances, but often warn the reader that the source may not be reliable. She is a humble biographer.
Akhmatova had a relationship with Modigliani around 1910. It's worth it to go to google images and type in the words "Akhmatova" "Modogliani" "nude" to see his astonishingly beautiful drawings of her, like this one:
Nude (Anna Akhmatova) by Amadeo Modigliani, 1911 Moonfall by Jack McDevitt. This is his worst, most shameless book. A good science fiction writer, this book seems like something written for Hollywood, in the Armageddon-Deep Impact mode, with shades of Independence Day mixed in. The whole thing is just a string of stupid cliches. The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God by Peter F. Hamilton. Pretty good. Space opera in the sense that there are all kinds of swashbuckling space-farers, and among the many political systems present are monarchies. But it is much more modern than that, and there has been an attempt (always important I think) to imagine the economics of the future. Obviously one has to imagine non-scientific things like faster-than-light travel. But the one science error that really irked me was the disappearance of a planet (in the distant past). My knowledge of celestial mechanics barely exists, but my understanding is that planets of certain masses have to occupy certain orbits or the system as a whole will become unstable. Even asteroid belts play a part--they exist in places where the tidal forces of nearby planets (like Jupiter) prevent planet formation, but their mass is still needed in that orbit for the system as a whole to remain stable. Or so I understand. So a planet that just disappears seems to violate this basic rule. Sorry, that bugged me. This book was too long as well--at times, I just wanted Hamilton to get on with it. All this said, it was pretty entertaining, which ultimately is what I require from this kind of book.

There are so many different story strands here that it can get a bit confusing. But only a bit--Hamilton keeps them pretty separate. Like much modern science fiction, Hamilton acknowledges economics in a relatively realistic, non-idealistic way. In the first volume, we saw how a company would value a colonized planet. Hamilton's implication was that there would be a positive NPV only if you projected the cash-flows out two centuries or so. In volume 2, the economic question is, how do you create a medium of exchange (a currency) between ordinary people and people who can create most things (but not food or high tech electronics) by magic? These are minor aspects of the series, but economic questions underlie the trilogy as a whole.

This enormous trilogy's conclusion is completely appropriate and satisfactory. This is one of those giant books where the sum is precisely equal to the parts. It is far too pulp to exceed the sum of its parts, but it's enjoyable enough. Again, economics underlies the conclusion--an explanation of the economy of Earth, and a big change that will suddenly change the economics of the 800-planet Confederation, leaving it much richer on the whole (along with the usual questions about what to do with those riches). Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957 - 1968 by Lars Nittve. A little too broad to be entirely useful as a portrait of the L.A. art scene of the early to mid 60s, it still is very interesting and features some of my favorite artists--Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin. In a way, this approach has advantages over shows that show the works of a school or style of art. In L.A., especially at that time, artists knew what other artists were doing--even if they fundamentally opposed it. So you get the grunge of Kienholz opposed to the angelic light of Irwin--it is powerful and interesting to know that these guys were colleagues who knew each other. The catalog is very well-produced, the essays have a minimum of artspeak, and the artwork is very well reproduced. Years of Friendship, 1944-1956: The Correspondence of Lyonel Feininger and Mark Tobey. It's quite interesting to learn that these two great, somewhat overlooked artists became good friends. Feininger definitely was one of those present are the dawn of modernism in Paris in the first decade fo the last century, and Tobey is generally lumped in with the abstract expressionists, who emerged in the 1940s. But they met in New York through a gallery where both exhibited and discovered they liked each other's work--and each other--very much. Tobey moved back to Seattle (he had a long relationship with the Cornish school there), and carried on a correspondence with Feininger and his wife, Julia, that lasted until Feininger died in 1956.
The problem with this book is the correspondence is not that fascinating. Feininger is a bit more playful than the serious Tobey, although some of the seems to rub off on Tobey eventually, especially as he attempts to practice his terrible French on Feininger in their letters. Tobey is a bit better at describing art and what he likes about a piece. Feininger is likely to agree with Tobey, although has less harsh opinions on artists he doesn't like than Tobey, who seems genuinely pained by bad work. You get a hint of Tobey's unbecoming jealously whenever a contemporary achieves success--he is vicious to fellow Seattle artist Morris Graves (whose work Feininger seems to like a lot) and to Jackson Pollock.
One thing that might have brought Tobey and Feininger together is that they were both so old compared to their artistic contemporaries. Tobey was born in 1890 (compare to Pollock in 1912, Philip Guston in 1913, Robert Motherwell in 1915, Franz Kline in 1910, Willem De Kooning in 1904). Feininger was born in 1871 (Picasso in 1881, Georges Braque in 1882, Andre Derain in 1880, Juan Gris in 1887, Fernand Leger in 1881--only Matisse was born at about the same time as Feininger). Tobey seemed so old that once he was mistaken for Feininger's father when they hanging out in Stockbridge, MA, where the Feiningers had a summer house (Feininger was a friend of Norman Rockwell, weirdly enough). That became a running joke with them.
While not much was revealed in their letters, they do add another layer to our knowledge of these two great artists.

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