AMONG THE RUSSIANS.

A very funny and interesting piece by Edward Docx about a visit to Tolstoy’s estate for the awarding of the Yasnaya Polyana literary prizes; I’ll quote the bit where he makes the mistake of mentioning that the chair of the judges for the Man Booker “is Dame Stella Rimington and that she is an ex-head of the security services in Britain”:

And—bam!—that’s it: now everyone is laughing. Oh, the west, they guffaw. Oh, England, they chortle. Oh, hypocrisy. Oh, MI5. Oh, MI6. Even the FSB would not dare! You mean, they splutter, that the winner of your most famous literary prize is judged by the security services? It seems I could not have told them a more perfect Anglo-Russian joke if I tried.
I try to explain that they are mistaken, that Dame Rimington is retired and is a now an author herself. Yes, someone cackles, like Putin is retired from the KGB!

The Yasnaya Polyana prizes are not tied to the year they are awarded; one is for a novel written in the 20th century, and the second is for “the most significant book written after 2000.” An interesting set-up. (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. Thank you, Languagehat, that was a thoroughly enjoyable piece!

  2. This more-here-than-meets-the-eye assumption reminded me at once of Adam Gopnik’s discussion of fact checkers and theory checkers, marvelously framed by Mark Liberman.

  3. To be fair to the Russians, I think that the suspicion – that anyone who’s been in that line of work is never really out of it – is pretty widespread among the British too.

  4. Great story, LH — thoroughly enjoyed it (and forwarded to my mom, who, as you know, will enjoy it even more); great link, also, John Cowan, though thus far it lacks the distinction of having been forwarded to my mom. Maybe my uncle…

  5. I love the theory checkers idea. Unemployed bankers could retrain for this. You could rent them by the hour or by the theory.
    For the record, it should be Dame Stella not “Dame Rimington”.

  6. Strange that the Russians are so surprised by the idea of the security services getting involved in judging literature. It’s been par for the course in Russia since 1917. Ask Pasternak.

  7. To be fair to the Russians, I think that the suspicion – that anyone who’s been in that line of work is never really out of it – is pretty widespread among the British too.
    And it’s probably true, but the point is that the Russians assumed (or pretended to assume) that the security work is directly connected to the literary judging rather than being an embarrassing but essentially irrelevant fact.
    Strange that the Russians are so surprised by the idea of the security services getting involved in judging literature. It’s been par for the course in Russia since 1917. Ask Pasternak.
    Huh? They weren’t “surprised” at all; they took it as par for the course. I don’t think Russians need any lessons in their own history.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    The Russians had always been told by Westerners that the West was democratic, open-minded, impartial, etc, unlike their own regimes, and now they were finding out that the British were totally hypocritical in making such claims while they had a security official (even a former one) involved as a judge in a literary competition, who presumably would be favouring the writers who toed the current British “party line”.

  9. What this discussion made me realize is that cynicism of this type is closely related to fanaticism. In both cases, there is no evidence that will make the cynic/fanatic change their mind; everything can be explained away. The only difference is that the cynic is mockingly angry whereas the fanatic is openly so, both very distant from the open-minded and humorous viewpoint which I myself always espouse — of course!

  10. a judge in a literary competition, who presumably would be favouring the writers who toed the current British “party line”.
    I don’t think Stella Rimington would have toed the “British party line”, whatever that is, in judging the Booker Prize. A better question is whether postwar heads of MI5 and MI6 have pursued the same agenda as the government.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    Surely a more important and prestigious UK-based novelistic competition that the shadowy figures behind the throne ought to wish to manipulate is the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award?

  12. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: I don’t think Stella Rimington would have toed the “British party line”, whatever that is, in judging the Booker Prize
    Oh, I don’t either! I am just trying to imagine the rationale for the Russians’ reaction, based on their own experience of some of the practices in their own country. That’s why I put “party line” in quotation marks: it is true that Russian writers had to “toe the line”, not British ones, but Dame Stella’s background made them think that British writers too were subject to political pressures, even if they claimed they were not.
    I am not competent to hazard an answer to your “better question”, which I was not thinking of.

  13. Russians are not the only ones to doubt Dame Stella’s credentials: Daily Mail rumour page

  14. The only difference is that the cynic is mockingly angry whereas the fanatic is openly so, both very distant from the open-minded and humorous viewpoint which I myself always espouse — of course!
    Gosh, there are so many ways to combine those dispositions. One dear to me, of course, is the open-mindedly mocking and humorously angry viewpoint. I wouldn’t espouse it, though – I’m not the marrying kind.
    Strange that the Russians are so surprised by the idea of the security services getting involved in judging literature.
    Stella Rimington is not “the security services”, and she is no longer heading them. The Russians in question are rather old-fashioned, in that they seem unable or unwilling to distinguish profession, person and ability from each other. They must have had hissy fits when Reagan was elected.

  15. The Russians in question are rather old-fashioned, in that they seem unable or unwilling to distinguish profession, person and ability from each other.
    Sure, but we’ve all at one time or another argued with a whole group of people who all so cheerfully shared the same misconceptions that we found it impossible to articulate important nuances in face of so much mocking laughter. Sometimes, if we like the group — and don’t take ourselves too seriously — it isn’t even unpleasant. I appreciated the article for bringing such a scene to life.

  16. The ability to make that distinction is an essential aspect of “modern” societies, that is functionally differentiated ones. These developed out of societies based on class, caste and tradition. I was merely commenting on a general point, in an indirect way – I don’t doubt that the individuals in question are great fun to talk with.

  17. The Russians in question are rather old-fashioned, in that they seem unable or unwilling to distinguish profession, person and ability from each other.
    I think they were basically having jolly fun and not expressing a carefully considered ontology or phenomenology or whatever the hell it is.
    They must have had hissy fits when Reagan was elected.
    So did I; does that make me old-fashioned?

  18. This reminds me of something I read years ago, I’ve forgotten where. Supposedly when Eisenhower was elected a lot of sophisticated European intellectuals living in New York packed their bags to head back to Europe. They knew what it meant when a general was elected, or perhaps “elected”.

  19. They must have had hissy fits when Reagan was elected
    I actually peed myself soon after his reelection, but I was doing that a lot back then.

  20. Hat: So did I; does that make me old-fashioned?
    I suppose your objections to him were due to his political views, not to the fact that he had once been an actor. Many of us have had very different jobs over the years. This “works” only when, at the very least, we and others have learned to distinguish between the person and the professions/jobs he/she may have had and his/her qualifications for new ones.

  21. In Germany, for instance, employers and even trade unions are loathe to hire people, particularly older ones, for a job in an area they have not worked in for all their lives, starting with the Gesellenbrief – even when those people can demonstrate compentence. If you don’t have a certificate or diploma, you’re at a considerable disadvantage. America is very different in that respect, or used to be.

  22. I have the impression that the word “qualification” or “qualified” is a case of separated by a common language.
    A Brit may say
    “he is qualified for the job, but does he really know how to do it?”
    while a USian might say, with the same meaning,
    “he has the certificate, but is he really qualified for the job?”

  23. It was an fun link, but after days of discussions I still couldn’t get what’s all the bazaar about cavemen attitudes of those Russians (Americans, Germans, Brits…). To be a professor, anywhere, one pretty much needs school, apprenticeship, diploma. To be an electrician, one needs school, apprenticeship, diploma.
    Sure, not all trades retain the rules of medieval guilds, but almost all of them still require resumes, which is all about the same making conjectures from what an applicant was doing earlier in life. If you wrote on your resume that you used to direct an intelligence agency, wouldn’t it be seriously pondered by most employers who have open positions to hire?

  24. If you wrote on your resume that you used to direct an intelligence agency, wouldn’t it be seriously pondered by most employers who have open positions to hire?
    It would be seriously considered if the available position was in management – say the chair of a book-prize jury, as in the present case. It would not be seriously considered if the available position was merely membership of that jury – because the management experience would be irrelevant. Only a certain literary experience would count.
    I see no incongruity of any kind in being head of security services, and then chairing a book-prize jury. Since the woman apparently knows how to manage people, what is there to joke or be outraged about ?

  25. …Oh, England, they chortle. Oh, hypocrisy. Oh, MI5. Oh, MI6…
    I am afraid to suspect the author’s new Russian friends were pulling his leg ever so slightly. I am afraid, because I could have missed a turn in what he wrote; if so then, well, the joke is on me.
    Also, describing such things puts a real strain on my writing skills. I hope the extra confusion – or extra explaining – that I might bring to this discussion would not be atogether unpleasant.
    My own reading of the situation would be like “oh, yes, everybody knows the way things are here, so let’s pretend we are shocked – shocked! – by the way the British situation can be construed… Looks like the Briton feels uneasy and starts explaining things – we’ll do something polite about it when we are done laughing and get up from the floor. Everybody knows the – shameful, or so, we are sure, everybody thinks – way things were and are here, so let’s pretend this is a serious, earnest joke: if we can’t change things, let’s make them a fact of art, a comic plot, a hyperbole that mocks itself out of our mind – in short, if we can’t change it, let’s pretend it’s a game and all the world is playing along”…
    To me, the real Russian flavour is not that everyone is idealistic, it is that everyone seems to assume the outsiders know and care; well, some surely do, but one or the other is wrong, as a rule, and they don’t think of us all the time and don’t remember our darn complications fast enough to get an occasional joke.
    The article, by the way, is – to me – enjoyable and sympathetic, full of warm feeling, but also full of generalizations I can’t solidarize with; just imagine that all and every remark that has moved the author could have been made in jest, and that they say the opposite of that from time to time. Not that they were mocking him, no, but just trying to forget the ever-present underside of things; being idealistic as in “a weary cynic taking a holiday”.

  26. I think you’ve got it exactly right, Maxim. The Russian were just taking on stereotypical attitudes to make a joke; I doubt anyone there would have had trouble articulating shades of grey in another setting. I’ll bet the author doubts it too — that’s why I enjoyed the piece.
    I also don’t think Grumbly doubts it; he was just using their joke to make a separate point, as the jester were using known attitudes to make their joke.

  27. I agree with jamessal; I just assumed your interpretation was a given, but I guess a very naive person might take the reactions literally. Thanks for spelling it out for such as might be reading.

  28. Oh, I took them quite literally. Color me naive.

  29. The advocates of “politically correct” language have achieved something which is rarely discussed openly as a goal of their advocacy, and may not be even be intended as such in all cases, although I consider it a Good Thing On The Whole. That achievement is to deter the deployment of stock generalizations about races, genders, bodily conditions and so on, out of fear of offending someone’s feelings, losing your job, incurring a suit for discrimination.
    It doesn’t make much difference whether one year you are supposed to say “blacks”, and a few years later “Afro-Americans”, to refer to X. The main thing is to keep everyone guessing and full of uncertainty when they are in the mood to air their prejudices. That goal has been achieved – unfortunately, though, at the cost of never knowing what people really think.

  30. Oops, wrong comment thread.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: at the cost of never knowing what people really think
    On paper, perhaps, but words are not the only clue to a person’s meaning: intonation, looks, pauses, etc can make someone’s actual attitude crystal clear even if they contradict the meaning of their words. Of course, this is not limited to PC vocabulary.

  32. @John Cowan: Me, too. I’m glad that was clarified; it gives the whole thing a very different flavor.

  33. I agree with Maxim about the article (just read it in full). There seems to be more air and colour, but he manages to capture the substance too. And the subtly put doubt about whether the Russian ‘professionals’ are better judges of good literature than English ‘amateurs’ is worth a think.
    In defence of Stella Rimington I can say that I am quite impressed with her writing and tv programmes. One very touching programme I saw was a tribute to the workers’ clubs of England, some still with red banners and portraits of Marx and Lenin, presumably the objects of her special attention in the past employ.

  34. I was interested to read something by Edward Docx. I enjoyed it very much, he’s a quite well-known British writer & critic I hadn’t heard of. It must be said that at least part of the reason he’s well-known seems to be because of his great talent for self-promotion. He’s also extraordinarily vain, judging from the number of so-called “press photos” he’s got of himself on his website.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    He was called Edward Doc at his old office.

  36. The Russian were just taking on stereotypical attitudes to make a joke; I doubt anyone there would have had trouble articulating shades of grey in another setting.
    Although I’m still quite certain of the second part of my sentence — the clarifying reiteration, as I’d initially intended it — I’m now rethinking the first part (before the semicolon), or at least my formulation. I think my “just” in particular oversimplifies. It’s a complicated matter, assuming poses, for the sake of a joke or anything else; and at the risk of generalizing crudely — a risk the author of the piece managed with his great tone — I’d say it’s less the poses we assume than the manners in which we assume them that indicate a person’s character or, more appositely, a people’s character: for wasn’t it precisely the passion of the Russian people — the full-blooded manner in which they made their joke, heedless of seeming unsophisticated — that the author was trying to convey? Maybe “reanimate” would be better — “that the author was trying to reanimate” — since the passion of the Russians is, of course, a cliche. And since reanimation, making it new, etc., is always tougher than mere description of something itself new and interesting, then the author’s success is all the greater. Maybe I’ve gotten away with myself. Stu’s a bigot.

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