A great story marred by little things

(This review of Anna Karenina is edited down from the 2,224-word post I wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

My translation: 4 stars

Overall rating: 4.5 stars

Translation issues, summed up:

The Louise and Aylmer Maude translation is dreadful. They “translate” names, refuse to use superdiminutives like Katyenka and Dolyenka, use inaccurate transliteration (e.g., Alesha instead of Alyosha), use Russian measurements without properly explaining their conversions in footnotes, and employ outdated language like “to-morrow.”

Particularly goofy is when Levin starts calling Kitty “Kate” after he realises she’s a full, mature woman. Did the Maudes think the nickname Katya were too foreign and confusing for Anglophone readers?!

Tolstoy’s actual material:

This book is for the most part very well-written, but there are parts I could’ve done without—Levin diddering about on his estate, shooting birds, mowing grass, planting crops, pontificating about agriculture, philosophy, and religion; Vronskiy’s horse race; the voting; and the death of Levin’s profligate brother.

Anna and Vronskiy are very draw to one another since meeting, dance all night at a ball, and have engrossing private conversations, but we’re given no motivation for their feelings and illicit affair.

Their so-called love story is rather unconvincing, since it doesn’t delve into their motivations or feelings for one another on a deep level. For two people having an affair, we don’t get any insight into their hearts and minds!

I was disgusted Levin is 32 to Kitty’s 18 when the book starts. Kitty’s also in love with 30-year-old Vronskiy, though he doesn’t realise it and breaks her heart by leaving town. However, Kitty and Levin really did seem to be in love later on and trying to make a happy family.

We know Levin loves Kitty and why, but we don’t get any motivation into why she loves him and accepts his second marriage proposal. I don’t buy a teen girl being head over heels for a guy in his thirties.

Levin talks it over with her dad, and decides to show her his diaries before the marriage so she’ll know all of him. In spite of her religiosity, she doesn’t mind he’s an agnostic, but finding out he’s not a virgin makes her weep. Come on, he’s 33 or 34. It’s hard to believe anyone that old would be a virgin.

Kitty’s family and Levin try to set Kitty’s 20-year-old friend Varyenka up with Levin’s 40-year-old halfbrother Sergey. I was supremely glad when Sergey decided against it, wanting to stay true to the memory of a tragic romance.

The title character only occupies about half the book. Levin’s story is an interesting subplot, but I expect a book carrying a character’s name to be mostly about her. Levin is boring when he’s musing about agriculture, religion, philosophy, and politics. He also starts obsessing about how it’d be better if he were dead.

He’d rather live like a peasant than a rich man. At the beginning of the book, he’s resigned from his seat on his local Zemstvo because he’s sick of politics.

Anna goes mad and becomes depressed. She’s shunned and avoided; spoken of as a vile, terrible woman; left hanging by her jerk husband over whether he’ll grant her a divorce; and legally denied rights to her son. Her husband is legally considered the father of the baby she had with Vronskiy, which means he can take her if anything happens to Anna.

Vronskiy is rather insensitive to the entire situation. He isn’t treated like a pariah. He gets to keep all of his old friends and hangouts. People don’t slander him in the streets or run away from him. He doesn’t seem to grasp what all this is doing to her. He thinks she’s selfish and unreasonable to demand he spend more time with her and be considerate of her feelings.

The famous scene with the train only ends Part Seven, not the entire book. For the next fifty pages, Anna’s barely mentioned. We barely gauge anyone’s reactions to what she did.

The ending was a complete cop-out and very disappointing. It’s supposed to tie up Levin and Kitty’s story, with him struggling to overcome his aversion to making a family life over his morbid musings about death and his boring ones about agriculture. However, I don’t buy Levin suddenly having an epiphany and getting religious faith, after spending the entire book as an agnostic.

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Kolyma vs. Archipelago

(This formed the long middle section of my old Angelfire review of Kolyma Tales. It examines in-depth the differences between Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov and Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s depictions of GULAG.)

Shalámov’s wood-cutting partner Garkunov is murdered for his good white sweater in a game of cards, and his only reaction is “Oh well, guess I’ll have to get a new wood-cutting partner.” Compared to how A.I. was very upset when Borís Gammerov and Zhora Ingal, his friends whom he arrived at his first camp with, died soon after their arrival. He even wanted to mark their graves with some of the poetry they had composed during their too-short lifetimes instead of just moving on to find new friends or work partners.

There’s a cat wandering about the hospital in One Day; all the animals in Shalámov’s Hell are eventually killed for their meat and fur. They don’t care that the dog or cat was being friendly with them moments before; they murder these poor defenceless creatures to have meat and warm mittens.

Some things are questionable, though. Shalámov tries to prove, in story after story, that the Medical Section were guardian angels, and were truly looking out for these unfortunates. Granted, his life was saved twice by the Medical Section, but it’s well-known that a lot of camp doctors and medical personnel were first-rate [scumbags] who sent plenty of people to their deaths, through signing death sentences or sending them back out to work in the cold while deathly ill. Just because he had two great life-saving experiences doesn’t mean the majority of camp doctors were these wonderfully beneficent people. Evidence shows they weren’t.

Very questionable is the claim that most women were prostitutes. Women in Kolyma were rare, and you’re telling me that of that small minority, the majority were hookers? Yes, prostitution was declared a crime, and women who were caught were sent to prison and camps, but that doesn’t mean the majority of zechki were hookers! The great majority of the prisoner were “politicals,” convicted under the infamous Article 58, not career criminals or thieves.

It’s true that when women arrived, the trusties looked them over and propositioned their favourites. If the woman knew what was good for her, she agreed to it for better living conditions and treatment. But not all women decided to sleep with the trusties. They weren’t forced to do anything. I have no doubt that a lot of the real criminals did have mistresses, but Shalámov claims they were prostitutes, and were often traded off to new criminal owners. He claims that a criminal could sleep with any woman, but a female criminal (of which there weren’t very many) would be shunned if she slept with a non-criminal.

There were a lot of camp romances and even “camp spouses,” but that was voluntary. The criminals were complete [scumbags] and very sadistic, but I don’t think they treated women the way Shalámov describes. Since women were so rare in Kolyma, they were usually raped, so I don’t doubt his assertion that rapes and gang-rapes were common. It was in Kolyma, in fact, that the term “streetcar” to describe gang-rape originated.

It’s probably true that most of the career criminals wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps, but is it really true that they wanted their daughters to be prostitutes, and if they wouldn’t be, they shunned or beat them? In Archipelago, A.I. barely mentions homosexual activity. Some of the thieves did keep young boys for the purposes of pederasty, but I doubt it was that widespread as Shalámov claims, nor that the thieves also would rape little girls, sometimes as young as three.

Lesbianism also arose among the zechki, when they were in a female-only camp and were very lonely and hungry for love. That’s about the only times homosexuality gets mentioned there, and even then not much space is devoted to mentioning these occasional instances. Shalámov claims most of the criminals were gay, and that they went by girly nicknames without shame and had feminine voices to boot.

In his long chapter on the thieves, A.I. never even mentions what Shalámov claims was widespread, that the criminals had sex with one another and gave everyone venereal diseases. There were some camps with many cases of venereal diseases, but that doesn’t mean every single camp was that way. I have no doubt that he did experience this, but you can’t honestly take some isolated incidents in certain camps and then claim it was like that all over the Kolyma! Oh yeah, and if these guys were such flaming fruits, then why were they “married” to women and enjoying such healthy sex lives with them!?

Top Ten Tuesday—Intro to Russian Lit and Historical Fiction

If you’re observing Tisha B’Av, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Books I’d Give To Readers Who Have Never Read X (examples: New Adult novels, historical fiction, a certain author, books about a certain topic, etc). My two great literary loves are Russian literature and historical fiction, so I’m doing a half and half list.

Russian Lit:

1. We, by Yevgeniy Ivanovich ZamyatinNot only is this a criminally underrated dystopia (a real dystopia, as in utopian society gone creepily wrong), but it’s also the most un-Russian Russian novel I can think of. It’s extremely short, able to be read in a day, and barely has any hints it’s set in Russia. There’s a bust of Pushkin in the Ancient House and a babushka-like old woman. Other than that, this book could really be set anywhere. I did a paper for my Modern Russian Lit class my junior year of university, comparing and contrasting We and Brave New World.

2. Just about any collection of stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. My first Chekhov story was “The Ninny,” in my seventh grade English class, but I didn’t read him again till January 1996, when I was sixteen. I totally wolfed down the story collection I found on my parents’ shelves, and have wolfed down every single story collection of his I’ve read ever since. He was a master of the short form, though a few stories, like “The Duel,” are novella-length.

3. A Sportsman’s Sketches, by Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev. This fine short story collection gained him wide recognition and acclaim, and is a great example of his talent at the short form. His stories and novels, like Chekhov’s, often have depressing ends, but he wouldn’t be the same writer if he’d written mostly happy endings. Turgenev had such a sensitive, poetic soul.

4. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Afanasiyevich Bulgakov. This story is so fun, witty, satirical, and irreverent. It’s not for the easily-offended, but the political and religious commentary are part of the overall story, not just put in to be shocking or offensive. Avoid the Michael Glenny translation like the plague. He was a horrible translator.

5. The First Circle, by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, of blessèd memory. This was my introduction to my favouritest writer, since the more popular One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich wasn’t at the library. I wolfed it down, and have continued to wolf down everything he’s ever written. It’s amazing to think about how he kept this book, and many other novels, stories, and plays, memorised in his head for so many years in the camps, before he was finally at relative liberty to write them down.

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Historical fiction:

6. Maisie Mosco’s 5-book family saga, starting with Almonds and Raisins. I found these books in my original shul’s library at age 19-20, and wolfed them down (though it really pissed me off how Sarah interfered in her children’s love lives!). The best are the first three, Almonds and Raisins, Scattered Seed, and Children’s Children. I didn’t read the fourth book, Out of the Ashes, but I thought the final book, New Beginnings, wasn’t quite as compelling or epic. It starts in 1905 and focuses on the Russian Sandberg family and the Austrian Moritz family, immigrants in Manchester, England.

7. Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell. Shameless plug for just about the only historical novel (or novel period) about Slovaks. I’m a quarter Slovak, my real surname is Slovak, being part Slovak is a big part of who I am. (FYI: Czechs and Slovaks are not one and the same, just as Russians and Ukrainians or Chinese and Japanese aren’t one and the same!) It emotionally gutted me to read about how my not so distant ancestors were treated when they came to the U.S. I am so grateful my great-grandparents’ generation got out of that furnace and enabled a better life for future generations.

8. Narcissus and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse. This is really more of a literary novel than a historical, but it’s still set in Medieval Germany. It might be a good introduction for people feeling overwhelmed by traditional historicals with their hundreds of pages, myriads of storylines, and huge ensemble casts. Art also plays a big part in this book.

9. The Ausländer, by Paul Dowswell. I’ve totally raved about this book numerous times before. This is YA historical done right, with the history more than just a minor backdrop to a teen’s story. Mr. Dowswell did an awesome job at researching his setting, and even though it’s under 300 pages, it doesn’t feel short, rushed, or insubstantial at all. There are also not too many WWII books about ordinary Germans.

10. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel. It’s based on a real-life incident about a group of brave Armenians who fought back against the Turkish genocide committed against their people in 1915. Many people aren’t familiar with the Armenian Genocide, let alone historicals set in this part of the world or featuring Armenians. (If anyone reading this denies the Armenian Genocide, you can go screw yourself. This is established historical fact, not “Armenian allegations” or Turk-bashing.)

The Trial Begins

(This review was originally written for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

4 stars

This 126-paged novel (billed as a true story) was published in 1959 with the essay “On Socialist Realism.” They were written by Andréy Sinyavskiy (who died in February of ’97) under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. In 1965 he was discovered to be the author of these and other works challenging the regime, and was arrested along with fellow writer Yuliy Daniel. Sinyavskiy got seven years in a forced-labour camp, getting off much worse than a dissident like the late great Iósif Bródskiy, who “only” got shipped away to a mental hospital.

This novel takes place in the last year of Stálin’s life, focusing on the Doctors’ Plot, Stálin’s last planned purge before his death. Most of the doctors accused of the trumped-up charges were Jewish, demonstrating how anti-Semitic Soviet culture had become. According to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn,  in Volume I of Archipelago, the Great One was planning to intervene at the last moment (“and Stálin’s character can be divined here”), as they were being marched into Red Square to be publicly hanged, shipping them off to Siberia instead. Luckily, though, The Great Evil One died before this purge could be fully realised, and most of the charged doctors got off very lightly. “Cosmopolitan,” in Soviet lingo of the time, is a not-so-secret way of referring to a Jewish person.

Vladímir Globov is a very important public Prosecutor, pursuing the case against a Dr. Rabinovich for illegally performing an abortion. Large families were extremely encouraged, with medals given to women with over seven children; the most important medal went to women with over ten children.

The Soviets weren’t against abortion on religious or moral grounds, but because they felt it was murdering future Soviet citizen. And as it turns out, Globov’s second wife, Marína, tells him she’s had an abortion on the child he’d hoped they’d have together, whom he’d hoped would be a girl. It’s never said if Marína is the woman on whom Rabinovich performed his abortion.

Globov’s marriage is in trouble not only over this matter, but also because of his wife’s intense, intimate friendship with the attorney Yuriy Karlínskiy. They go out alone often, to the movies, art museums, the planetarium, restaurants, but don’t sleep together for a long time. This is more an intellectual affair of the heart and soul, not of the body and sexual organs. Globov considers it unseemly that his wife is carrying on so intimately with another man, even dancing with him (and other male guests) at her thirtieth birthday.

Marína is a liberated, educated woman, and quite beautiful and fresh-looking for a 30-year-old. She isn’t disfigured from excessive childbearing or work on a kolkhoz or in a factory like too many other Soviet women her age, and she wants to keep it that way. The men around her, particularly her husband, don’t grasp that she and a growing number of women want to take charge of their own reproductive destiny by limiting their number of children, or not having any children at all.

Globov’s son Seryozha is also giving him a major headache. Together with his friend Kátya, Seryozha has formulated some nonconformist theories about the State, Stálin, and how best to bring the Revolution to the rest of the world. We don’t get much insight into exactly what they believe or what they’ve written and said other than vague generalities, but we do know the people around them think it’s a load of “Trótskiyite” rubbish and reeking of bourgeois theories.

Seryozha doesn’t want to overthrow the State, and is very committed to Marxism and Communism, just not the way The Evil One has brainwashed his minions into practising it. Kátya realises the error of their ways and tries to destroy Seryozha’s notebook, after she shows it to Karlínskiy in the hope that he might be able to save Seryozha. But it’s already too late, and the trial begins.

The novel ends with the death of Stálin and the terrifying stampede by his brainwashed followers to see his body. I have a very vivid picture of this massive crush, which trampled over a thousand people, on their way “to get a final glimpse of their Master,” because of the chilling end of the film The Inner Circle. It’s like the stampede that killed the Cincinnati Eleven times a million. The final line of this book is just as chilling as the poignant and chilling end of that movie.

The Epilogue features the narrator, Rabinovich, and Seryozha in a Kolyma GULAG. The camps have become rather empty since Stálin died, because of the amnesty issued to many of the zeki upon that moment, but it’s still pretty brutal. And six years later, the narrator really was off in the GULAG.

The storyline was interesting, but the characters and the plot could’ve been developed more deeply. I would’ve liked more explanation into what exactly was so offensive about Seryozha’s beliefs, other than vague generalities. It’s more about ideas and a trial, but more character development could’ve really helped things along. It also might not be as appealing to a Westerner as other classic Russian fiction because a lot of the references and events would only be understood by someone who really knows the history.

The translator, Max Hayward, also made some errors in the page explaining some of the references to Russian historical figures or other Russian things. The pages supposedly referring to these things are not accurate, but are several pages after the references. There are also some transliteration errors.

Snapshots from Hell

(This review of Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov’s classic work Kolyma Tales was taken from the much-longer review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

Translation: 2.5 stars

Overall material: 4.5 stars

These stories are great, despite being largely devoid of emotion, but the John Glad translation sucks rocks. I’ve read that it cuts out about 15% of the original Russian. The transliteration is all over the place, and contains THE WORST transliterations I’ve ever seen, even worse than Michael Glenny. I’m sure “Glad” this fellow wasn’t my professor!

It also leaves out all the great GULAG slang and special terminology, such as zek, zechka, dokhodyaga, tenner, fiver, Black Maríya, and Stolypin car. Saying “prisoner” doesn’t convey what the GULAG experience was all about; the traditional Russian word for prisoner is not zek/zechka. To just say “goner” doesn’t convey the same thing as dokhodyaga, the same way that the Lager word (in Nazi death camps) Muskelmann conveyed something terrifying and tragic, more than just calling someone an emaciated prisoner ever could.

Varlám Tikhonovich Shalámov was arrested in 1929 and given three years; in 1937 he was rearrested and given a fiver, but in 1942 his sentence was extended to the end of the War. The year afterward it increased even more when he praised the effectiveness of the German army and called Nobel Laureate Iván Búnin a classic Russian writer.

Aleksándr Isáyevich admitted humbly and respectfully that Shalámov spent a lot longer in the GULAG than he did, and that it was his responsibility to tell the world about the deepest depths of Hell. He actually asked him to co-author Archipelago, but Shalámov declined, since he was old and sick.

I wrote a paper in my Modern Russian Lit course on the differences between them, and it’s obvious that Shalámov is more bitter. He doesn’t have time to delve into people’s lives and personalities, and his zeki have lost all hope. They don’t have time to sit around discussing Marx, Luther, Yesenin, Prince Ígor, and their future plans. These men are often worked to death within days or even hours.

Shalámov’s wood-cutting partner Garkunov is murdered for his good white sweater in a game of cards, and his only reaction is “Oh well, guess I’ll have to get a new wood-cutting partner.” The dead have no respect in this world; in one of the first stories, two zeki go off to lift the rocks from a fresh corpse, a fairly new arrival judging by his weight, so they can have his nice warm clothing. That they’re digging up a corpse and wearing a dead man’s clothes doesn’t even faze them.

The zeki in this cruel barbaric world don’t have the time nor interest to go making political statements or indictments against the man who put them there; who cares about condemning Stálin when you’re being slowly worked to death and only have enough time and energy to plan one day ahead at a time? It’s true that in prison you were freer than in the outside world, since now you were in no danger of being informed on and sent to prison, but the zeki in Shalámov’s world don’t even see themselves as free. They’re slaves, cutting down wood and working to death in mines. They have no concept of hope, love, loyalty, kindness, friendship, freedom, nothing.

The images may be emotionless, but they’re sure unforgettable. Who needs to be emotionally involved in the personal lives of a host of multifaceted characters when you’re getting graphic images of sweaters moving all by themselves because of a massive infestation of lice, or a presumed dead man getting his hands cut off so he can be identified by fingerprints, then returning, confusedly holding his bloody stumps next to his chest? Or the men who deliberately blow their own hands and fingers off to get out of slave labour? They reinfected or worsened wounds just to stay in hospital and not have to work in sixty degrees below zero.

It took awhile to really get into the book, because of the lack of human feeling and emotion, as well as the bad translation job, but these are really incredible portraits of Hell. To survive one must lose all human emotions; emotions are meaningless when you don’t know if you’ll live to the next day or get your daily ration of food after sixteen hours of fruitlessly mining for gold in eighty degrees below zero. Anyone would become bitter after seventeen years in Hell, and despite the questionable claims about the Medical Sections, the thieves, and the women, this is searing writing that is so affecting precisely because it’s so detached and emotionless.