Tag Archives: Russian Literature

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx

Book Cover

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Lately in the interest of preserving my mental health I’ve avoided reading any SF that seemed the least bit apocalyptic or dystopian. Which these days is pretty much all of it. But this is another old half-written review I’ve just now finished, so The Slynx slipped in last year. Anyway, it’s the kind of post-apocalypse E. C. Segar might have invented for Popeye to sort out: a world of mangled language, kinetic brawling, and ubiquitous foolishness. This book is too colorful to depress.

Generations after “the Blast,” the world is divided between the ignored minority of Oldeners–people alive during the Blast, who stopped aging in that moment and remember the world before–and the Golubchiks, born after the Blast. The Golubchiks act like feral toddlers on a sugar high. They steal and brawl and only half pay attention; anything the Oldeners tell them comes back garbled. A Golubchik’s idea of a fun game is “smothers”: “you stuff a pillow in someone’s face and smother him, and he flails and sputters and when he gets away, he’s all red and sweaty, and his hair’s sticking out like a harpy’s.”

The Slynx’s voice is as far as you can get from the flat, monotonous prose that oftens seems standard in science fiction:

Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet.[1]

It’s unusual for an SF novel written in third person to have a narrator with a personality. Readers aren’t encouraged to think of third person prose as having a narrator at all. A story is being told, but not told by anyone. But all fiction has a voice; modern fiction just hides it behind a curtain. (So we never wonder what hidden assumptions that hidden voice might bring to the story… but that’s another argument.)

Reading The Slynx it is like meeting a weird but charismatic and funny storyteller and getting so engrossed in conversation that hours pass and you don’t notice. The Slynx is written in the rhythm of voice. The narrator slips into second person (“If you wander into the forest…”) as people do when talking. The Slynx speaks in a voice from out of the world it’s created, a storyteller with an eccentric worldview and a vocabulary of malapropisms. That voice is the main tool The Slynx uses to create its world.

The Slynx tells the story of Benedikt, a scribe in a village near what used to be Moscow. Benedikt copies out the poetry and philosophy of the local ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe. Most of it’s plagiarized from once-famous Russian authors. When Fyodor Kuzmich resorts to his own words they’re drivel.

Like the work of another Russian author published by NYRB Classics, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Slynx is preoccupied with text and ideas. But what matters in Benedikt’s world aren’t the ideas themselves so much as how they’re perceived.

B. Kliban once drew a cartoon of a king standing on a balcony telling his subjects “I’m the king, and you have to do what I say or I won’t be king anymore.” If The Slynx followed the standard clichés of the post-apocalyptic genre it would have set the Oldeners up as an ossified elite for a fresh-thinking hero to knock down. That’s not what we have here–the Oldeners are marginalized. As stewards of civilization they’re ineffectual, and not because they fell from some earlier height. The survivors of the blast were perfectly ordinary. Their children just never paid them attention.

The saying goes that knowledge is power, but in Benedikt’s world what’s powerful is what people can be convinced to respect as knowledge. The Golubchiks scorn the Oldners’ ideas, but they’re impressed by what they see as culture. Fyodor Kuzmich is head of the village because as long as the Pushkin holds out he sounds wise and literate.

Pre-blast books are treasure, albeit treasure with an aura of danger: for years after the Blast, the surviving books were radioactive, which is the official reason they’re confiscated by officials called Saniturions. Unofficially, the Saniturions just don’t think the Golubchiks can take care of them. They might read them with dirty hands, or use them as pot lids! When Benedikt rises in the world and gains access to the Saniturions’ library he’s impressed by the pristine, unread books. The worn, well-read books, he thinks, must not have been important enough to take care of.

Benedikt isn’t a careful reader. Neither is The Slynx’s narrator, who thinks like Benedikt and often gets inside his head. Nor are the Saniturions who, for all the books they’ve collected, don’t understand them better than any other Golubchik. They take stories literally. They filter them through their worldview and culture without understanding that other ways of thinking and living exist. No need for a Slynx; Benedikt lets his reason run away by itself. Near the end of the novel Benedikt thinks he sees the Slynx in someone else’s face; in reply he’s told to look at his own reflection.

But The Slynx is not one of those dystopian novels in which the author spends 200 pages ranting that everyone else is stupid.[2] The Golubchiks aren’t what this book considers civilized, but it’s not sour or angry and it lets the Golubchiks tell their own story. We laugh with them as much as at. And The Slynx is a book in love with books, and an argument that books are worth loving. Whether he understands them or not, Benedikt is amazed at how books bring voices and images and experiences into his head. He’s distraught when he discovers he’s finally read the whole library.

And in its final chapter The Slynx suggests that no matter how long stupidity holds power, or how scorched-earth their rule, the spirit of civilization survives to, eventually, rise again. What’s great is, despite everything, how uncynical this book is. That’s something recent science fiction hasn’t given me enough of. I’ve sworn off reading about apocalypses, but for The Slynx I’ll make an exception.

  1. For some reason the excerpt on the Powell’s Books website doesn’t have apostrophes. The book itself has all its punctuation.  ↩

  2. Hello, Brave New World!  ↩

My Best of 2010, Part Two

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country

A short novel about a First World War veteran who recovers from PTSD and a broken marriage as he restores a fresco by an unknown medieval artist in a village church. If you have much experience with a certain determinedly whimsical subgenre of story, you may think you know what kind of story this is: over several small, gentle adventures, a menagerie of eccentric locals bond with our hero and bring him out of his shell (shock). There is some of this, yes. But the narrator’s closest relationship is with the anonymous medieval artist: we never learn the man’s name, but by the end of the book the narrator has deduced the outline of his life from his art. A Month in the Country is about the healing power of professionalism and love of a craft, and about how we connect to long-vanished people through the work they leave behind.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

We live in a society where the cream of Wall Street can crash the economy and be rewarded with six-figure bonuses, and the idea of looking into possible crimes in high places is dismissed as looking backwards. So Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, about a student who kills a pawnbroker because he thinks he’s too extraordinary to be held to the same rules as us peons, is as relevant as it’s ever been. Russian novels have a reputation as bleak and heavy stuff, so it might surprise you to learn that Crime and Punishment is also as unbearably suspenseful as any good Hitchcock movie, and at times very funny.

Dry high school English classes (which often expose us to books before we’re ready to enjoy them) train us to think of The Classics as medicinal: dreary, bitter, but good for you. In fact, more often than you’d expect, classics become classics by entertaining the hell out of people.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

The alphabet arbitrarily put The True Deceiver next to Crime and Punishment, but seeing them together made a new connection in my head: both novels attack an Ayn Randish philosophy which has way too much influence in 21st-century America. Crime and Punishment argues against the impulse to divide the human race into a mass of commoners and a special super-creative producer class. The True Deceiver ridicules the mindset that thinks the world is a Social Darwinist tooth-and-claw struggle, selfishness is a virtue, and other people are marks to be exploited for one’s own gain; and that believes thinking this way means one is clear-eyed, realistic, and tough-minded.

The True Deceiver is about two women, Katri Kling and Anna Amelin, whose characters are expressed by their names. Katri is a struggling shop assistant who lives with a huge wolfish dog; Anna a wealthy but financially naive artist who seems as mild as the rabbits she paints for her children’s books. Katri intends to insinuate herself into Anna’s confidence and take over the older woman’s affairs, house, and money. It doesn’t go as she expects. This is a little two-paragraph review, not an analytical essay, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but I’ll say that Anna unknowingly derails Katri with a kind of moral judo throw, and that real strength isn’t what or where Katri believed it was. Everyone comes out ahead in a way that utterly dismantles Katri’s worldview.

(More to come in part three”¦)

Memories of the Future

Cover Art

The best science fiction/fantasy collection of 2009 was a book of 80-year old stories: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. If anyone out there knows how to pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky,” leave a comment. I’m really curious.

Memories collects seven stories written in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s. (It might also have been published in 2006 as Seven Stories, which I haven’t seen. On the other hand, maybe those were seven different stories. Another story, “Yellow Coal,” is available on the web.)

Most of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are fantasies of the kind filed under “magic realism.” “Memories of the Future” is flat-out science fiction, written in reaction to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. All of them are way the hell better than anything American SF writers–I guess at the time they would have been “scientifiction writers”–came up with in the 1930s. Project Gutenberg has been digitizing early out-of-copyright issues of Astounding, and, let me tell you, trees should not have been reduced to pulp for that dreck. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to the SF genre if Krzhizhanovsky had slipped past the censors, if he’d been translated into English, if his stories had reached western SF writers and shook it awake a little. Could the New Wave have hit the shore thirty years early?

When SF fans talk about writing, someone usually shows up to promote “transparent prose.” “Transparent prose” is writing notable for its unwillingness to impinge on the readers consciousness. It’s a “window” onto the story; you read through it. I think this kind of prose is okay, if not exciting. It’s a good minimum standard.

But for readers who hate “literary” writing transparent prose is the only way to go. Writing is about communication, they say. And they’re right. Good writing communicates clearly. But prose that communicates clearly and beautifully communicates more than plain transparent-as-glass prose. It encodes more information. Here’s a small nonstandard use of a verb, from Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Branch Line”: “Under the conductor’s canting a red beard bubbled.” Can’t you just see that beard? In more detail than you might have seen “a curly red beard?”

One sign of great writing is the unexpected but perfect image: when it would never have occurred to you to describe something that way, but it’s exactly right. Great writing renews familiar things with surprise and estrangement. It kicks down your door and shouts “Hey, you think you’ve seen this before, but look again!” That’s Krzhizhanovsky’s specialty. On every page you’ll find at least one striking image, from the small to the significant (“We’re still immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others.”)

Great writing is always doing at least two things at once. On the surface Krzhizhanovsky tells stories; subconsciously, his style tells us how he felt living in the Soviet Union. Krzhizhanovsky frequently uses synecdoche when referring to people–“briefcases,” “the earflaps,” “a five-digit number that had promised to put in a word to the right people.” People seem reduced to objects, functions; we’re also reminded of fairy tales and parables of inanimate objects that act out human failings. Some stories progress through the abrupt shifts and transitions of dream logic. Krzhizhanovsky’s world, like Stalin’s, is ruled not by sense but by arbitrary fiat.

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories weren’t published until 1989. He couldn’t get them past the censors. He had to content himself by holding readings while working a day job as an encyclopedia editor. So it’s not surprising that Krzhizhanovsky is preoccupied with the difficulties of being a writer in the Soviet Union. The star of “The Bookmark” is a frustrated writer, a “theme-catcher” who spins stories from the smallest hints–a cat on a ledge, a wood shaving blowing by in the wind–but has no outlet for his stories beyond telling them to acquaintances and passers-by.

The theme-catcher goes to a Soviet publisher with a book called Stories for the Crossed-Out. “Are you one of the crossed-out or one of the crossers-out?” asks the editor. Someone “able to cross things out” would be more in line with the times. Another editor invites the theme-catcher to write something safe: a biographical sketch on “Bacon.” The theme-catcher asks which one. The editor, surprised, tells the theme-catcher to write about “The Brothers Bacon.” The theme-catcher points out that Roger and Francis Bacon lived three hundred years apart. The editor screams “You’re all of you alike!” and storms out of the office. I think this is autobiography. The way the editor covers his embarrassment with sudden, wild hostility has the ring of truth. In the Soviet Union, good Party members were rewarded with jobs they were totally unqualified for. It was a nation of Heckuvajob Brownies. I’ll bet Krzhizhanovsky dealt with these guys all the time.

The narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” meets another down-on-his-luck writer named Saul Straight who’s come up with a “theory of separation.” Lovers, says Saul, should be forcibly separated: weak, imitation love will fizzle; true love will grow stronger with distance. Saul has a lot of ideas like this. He’s provisioned with philosophical ramblings and not much else. When the narrator meets him, he’s trading aphorisms for food.

Saul also has theories about art. Art is our way of giving back to the world which provides us with so much: “the painter pays for the colors of things with the paints on his palette, the musician pays for the chaos of sounds produced by the organ of Corti with harmonies, the philosopher pays for the world with his worldview.” And it’s got to be good: “talent… is not a privilege and not a gift from on high, but the direct responsibility of anyone warmed and lighted by the sun, and only metaphysically dishonorable people–of which the earth is full–shirk their duty to be talented.”

The narrator is a writer himself. He’s probably been dealing with the same crap as the theme-catcher. He can’t pay what he owes to the world because politics is everything, the Soviets scrutinize every word, and his only option is to take the metaphysically dishonorable path and play along. He’s separated from himself: “And when your “I” is missing, when you’re just the binding from which the book has been ripped out…”

But the narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” isn’t the author. The narrator passed his story to another writer–presumably Krzhizhanovsky himself–who’s told the narrator’s story in the narrator’s voice. Now Krzhizhanovsky is faced with a problem: how can he gracefully transition back to his own voice? And writing within the limits imposed by authority, buried in someone else’s themes, how can he hold on to his own “I”?

These stories aren’t all about writers. “Red Snow” is about coming home to find a light in your apartment window. That might sound reassuringly homey. In the Soviet Union it was bad news. “Red Snow” is the most nightmarish and disorienting story in the collection.

“Quadraturin” is about the apartments themselves. In the early days of the Soviet Union masses of population moved from the country to the cities. Housing was scarce. The government turned people’s homes into communal apartments; people who’d lived in a place for years found themselves living in a couple of rooms while strangers were installed in other parts of the apartment. Sometimes entire families lived and slept in one room. According to the introduction, Krzhizhanovsky himself thought it worth noting in a letter when he discovered a way to stretch his legs while sitting at his desk. “Quadraturin” is a Moscow apartment-dweller’s fantasy–more room!–that goes horribly wrong.

“Quadraturin” is about space; “Memories of the Future” is about time. The USSR was a jam-tomorrow kind of place. Comfort, abundance, and luxury goods were waiting at the end of the five-year plan–all it would take was a little shock work. And then a little more. Somehow the good times remained out of reach. Soviet citizens lived in, and for, a purely theoretical future.

So, in a way, does Max Shterer, the mad scientist at the heart of “Memories”–which really is one of the great time travel stories, one that would have influenced the genre if life were fair. Max’s big ambition is to build a time machine. He’s born into a comfortable family around the end of the 19th century, sent away to school, drafted into the Great War, stuck in a German POW camp, and disinherited by the Revolution. Max barely registers any of this. He’s thinking about his time machine.

Eventually Max builds his machine, leaps forward, and finds… something. The climax of “Memories” is stunning, not despite but because we’re not entirely sure what Max sees. This is a time travel story written like a ghost story: what’s implied, what we imagine, is scarier than anything Krzhizhanovsky could have described outright. No wonder this story didn’t get the Soviet stamp of approval: the future feels less like a time and place than a Lovecraftian monster waiting to swallow the Russians who lived for it.

When Memories of the Future was reviewed in the New York Times the reviewer complained that Krzhizhanovsky’s “refusal to wake to the reality of his times can fog the clarity of his visions.” This is dumb. Krzhizhanovsky is engaged with the reality of his times; he engages it slantwise, through metaphor. And the times Krzhizhanovsky lived through were in many ways unreal. I can’t blame him for turning to the literary equivalent of lobster telephones and melting clocks. If he wanted to keep his grip on reality, surrealism might have been his best option.