The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1926)

Finish The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel (1925). A Vintage paperback but a bit of a swizz, just a recovered edition of Michael Glenny’s 1967 translation without any introduction or the detailed notes which it’s crying out for.

The novel covers just a few days at the end of 1918 in the lives of the Turbin family and friends in Kiev as the occupying Germans abruptly leave the city (one of the terms of the November Armistice) along with the civilian nationalist government, leaving the citizens exposed to the advance of the Bolsheviks under Simon Petliura.

The generally conservative citizens who had acquiesced in the German occupation and the right-wing nationalist government suddenly find themselves being rounded up in the streets, shot on sight, hunted through back alleys. Betrayal, fear, panic, weeping women, murder, robbery, shootings and beheadings follow, but also Bulgakov’s trademark grotesque and fantasy. I find Bulgakov’s sense of the absurd and comic far more attractive than Pasternak’s high-minded and rather dim spirituality. Not many jokes in Dr Zhivago. God doesn’t do funny. But Bulgakov’s Devil is full of wicked, black humour.

The eldest son is in the White cadets, and the description of his puny squad of underarmed soldiers being routed by the overwhelming numbers of Red cavalry, and then his panic-stricken flight through the back streets and alleys of Kiev is one of the most thrilling things I’ve read. This is really a brilliant novel which everyone should read.

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Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)

30 December 2011

Half way through reading Dr Zhivago in the Hayward and Harari translation (1958), in a lovely yellow-spined old Flamingo imprint. (Ann Pasternak Slater wrote a Guardian article comparing this translation with the newer one by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear).

  1. DZ is divided into short numbered sections, often only a page long, like snapshots. In fact it could be compared to a photo album, a collection of key moments in the lives of the protagonists.
  2. There are more protagonists than in the film, and their relationships are more complex. It fills me with admiration for the screenwriter, Robert Bolt, who reduced the complex novel to the essential elements of the love story and brought its disparate elements into balance.
  3. I’m dismayed by the casual violence the characters display. Whether it’s the children fighting in the lily pond, or the iron master beating his apprentice, or Komarovsky beating his dog, a high level of verbal and physical violence seemed to be acceptable at all levels of the Russian society that Pasternak portrays. In tandem, there is little or no humour, no understatement or irony. People seem to tell each other exactly what’s on their minds and it’s always primal and immediate. There’s no detachment. The anger, verbal aggression and low-level violence of the pre-revolution prepares you and, arguably, prepared the Russian people, for the sickening violence of the revolution and civil war.

Tales from the Don (1924)

December 21, 2011

On the Tube read the first story in Mikhail Sholokov’s Tales from the Don, ‘The Birthmark’ (1924) and was so shocked and upset I couldn’t read the next one. Reminded me of the early Hemingway short stories in that it’s about taciturn men in extremis, and short and brutal; but the actual style is much more descriptive and adjectival. 284 pages of brutal Russian civil war stories.

Picked it up in a second hand book shop, and it looks like this volume of stories and Sholokov’s famous novels, And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home To the Sea are all out of print. Sholokov won the Nobel Prize in 1965. In the coming weeks I guess I’ll discover why he’s slipped so comprehensively off the map…

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (1996)

18 December 2011

Rereading Orlando Figes’s ‘A People’s Tragedy’ (1996), a long exhausting history of the Russian Revolution. Like wading through blood. Like the people of the time you slowly become desensitised to violence until you read about whole areas being put to the torch, peasants massacred, all the women raped, the village elders systematically tortured, without blinking, since this is the thousandth time it’s happened.

What horror! Not sure what to read next, ‘The Whisperers’ looks like a kind of sequel…

‘A People’s Tragedy’ on Amazon

Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel (1926)

Red Cavalry is a collection of 35 short stories written by Russian-Jewish author Isaac Babel. It’s based on his experiences with General Budenny’s First Cavalry Army during its ill-fated attempt to invade Poland and spread the Bolshevik Revolution West into Europe in the summer of 1920.

The stories are very short and sometimes very brutal and characterised by unexpected phrases and imagery. But this summary doesn’t quite capture the complexity of his affects. In my opinion these are created because the texts operate like collages or cubism, by harshly juxtaposing widely contrasting styles, perspectives, voices and attitudes.

These include:

  • descriptions of the ancient Jewish communities he comes across in Poland, their poverty and superstitions
  • his inner voice, entranced by childhood memories of Talmuds and Jewish scholarly lore
  • the disdainful scepticism of an urban, rational, revolutionary, post-religious Jew
  • his need, as a speccy four-eyes intellectual, to be accepted as one of them by the brute, animal Cossacks
  • his unillusioned descriptions of extreme violence, murder, rape, evisceration
  • the rapturous imagery of his dreams, and his lyrical descriptions of night, twilight, the stars and moon
  • his apparent devotion to the Revolution, evinced by his enthusiasm for Lenin and Trotsky’s speeches
  • contrasted with the actual stories which show, as the old Jew Gidali points out, no difference at all between the terrorism of the Revolution and the terrorism of the counter-Revolution

In very short spaces, different styles, voices and attitudes clash and interweave, often shockingly. It feels great, truly great.

Morality has no jurisdiction over revolution. On the contrary, revolution has jurisdiction over ethics. (V. Veshnev)

Babel as a pagan; all flesh is real; the world is real; the world is all that is the case. There is no Christian hankering after another world which is better than this one.

Making Babel a Lawrentian. Certainly in line with the ‘around-1914’ revolt against Victorian didacticism, moralising, Christianity, or the limp-wristed decadence of the 1890s. Babel is part of the move towards a full-blooded, violent paganism.

The brutality of Babel’s stories includes a Nietzschean thread which despises petit bourgeois morality. This appealed to Bolshevik critics. Babel’s amorality, his unflinching depiction of brutalities, reflected the Nietzschean rising-above servile Christian morality – the new Overman of the Revolution.

Babel exults in his protagonists being Beyond Good and Evil. They just are, forces of Nature, humanity in all its inhumanity.

Babel’s amorality amounts to a taking-life-as-it-is. Authors can give opinions about their stories by explicit comment, tone of voice, or plot (e.g. baddies get their comeuppance).

Babel uses a very modernist technique of inconsequentialisation i.e. making what would have been a major event in a bourgeois 19th century story, deliberately peripheral or inconsequential. For example, the Jew having his throat cut might have been the centre of a 19th century short story, but for Babel is an inconsequential detail in a story dedicated to his wandering up to the old castle.

Although to you or me, living in a peaceful age, this might just look as if the Russians are brutal and cruel by nature.


Edition

The old Penguin edition contains stories translated by Walter Morison with an introduction by Lionel Trilling.

The new Penguin edition is translated by David McDuff.

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Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

A short, sharp parable on early Soviet life. A stray Moscow dog, Sharik, is adopted by a maverick scientist, Professor Preobrazhensky, who transplants into it the pituitary gland and testes of a proletarian killed in a brawl.

The satire is not only against the bolsheviks but also the professor who runs a dodgy ‘rejuvenation clinic’ i.e. injecting rich old men and women with glands to reactivate their sex lives, a symbol of the clapped-out way of life of the ‘former classes’.

The fact that the transfer recipient is a rough, drunk worker is important because the dog slowly mutates into a semi-man, with the worst combination of chav manners and dog habits, to the horror of the scientist and his bourgeois household.

Redolent of an H.G. Wells short story in its amateurishness: a scientist develops world-beating procedure in his dining room!

But all flavoured with the alien habits and speech patterns of Russia, a culture, I have always fouind to be deceptively similar but in reality profoundly different from ours – AND with an extra layer of strangeness because the whole thing is a satire on the apparent failure of the Bolshevik experiment to create the new ‘Soviet’ man – an experiment, Bulgakov’s fable implies, which is doomed to a crude and violent failure.

The movie adaptation

A 1988 Soviet movie, Sobachye Serdtse, was made (in sepia) by Vladimir Bortko. A number of sequences were shot from an unusually low dog’s point of view.


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Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 – The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis

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