Moskva-Petushki.

My reading copy is one of the smallest books I have; it’s no larger than my hand and fits easily into a pocket. When I first bought and read it, in March 1998, I carried it with me on my travels around New York (north to south, east to west, from end to end) and it never got damaged — it’s well-made, for all its cheap appearance and occasional misprints. I bought it at the instigation of a Russian woman I flew to Prague to hang out with and thought for a while I loved (I owe her a great deal — she also pointed me in the direction of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, and Sasha Sokolov, and in general got me back into Russian literature). I was so enthralled with the book that I wound up buying two other copies, an annotated edition (a hundred pages of text, almost 450 of commentary) and a large, gorgeously illustrated one I simply couldn’t resist. I’ve been reading it in tandem with the superb biography (by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky) Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The outsider; see this post of Lizok’s), which I’ll be reporting on as soon as I’ve finished it — my wife, who’s used to seeing me shuttle between two books, felt compelled to ask why I had four in front of me, and I had to explain about the bio, the reading copy, and the annotated edition (the fourth, of course, was my faithful, beat-up Oxford dictionary). Now that I’ve finished it, I’m going to try to organize my thoughts; there will be plenty of spoilers, so if you want to read the book with your mind a blank slate (though plot is not really the point), you may wish to read no further.

First off, what is the thing? It’s conventionally called a novel, but Erofeev labeled it a поэма [poèma] ‘long/epic poem’ (reputedly after being pestered by the friends he first shared it with to tell them what category it fit into). While pondering that, I had an insight that I find illuminating, though it may not do much for anyone else. The other famous Russian prose work called a poèma is Gogol’s Мертвые души [Dead Souls], and I had never understood that use either; then I thought about what the two had in common: they practically demanded to be read out loud, and I tended to pick them up and read bits for pleasure without worrying how they fit into the whole. Those things both help make the label work for me.

It’s understandable that the first readers were confused about what to call it, because it’s not like anything else that had existed in Russian literature — certainly not anything that Soviet citizens circa 1970 had ever been exposed to. It starts with what has become one of the most famous opening lines in Russian: “Все говорят Кремль, Кремль. Ото всех я слышу про него, а сам ни разу не видел.” A literal translation would be “Everyone says ‘Kremlin, Kremlin.’ I hear about it from everyone, but I’ve never once seen it myself,” but that’s clunky. J.R. Dorrell renders it “Everyone talks about the Kremlin. I have heard about it from many people, but I have never seen it myself,” which is too flat and reportorial (“I have heard about it from many people” sounds robotic) — certainly not the voice of a chatty drunk. I might try “They’re always saying ‘Kremlin, Kremlin.’ I hear about it from everybody, but me, I’ve never seen it once.” At any rate, it leads immediately into a discussion of what the narrator, Venichka, has been drinking, and where and when he drank it, a discussion in which the narrator involves the reader/listener: “Вы, конечно, спросите: а дальше, Веничка, а дальше — что ты пил?” [Of course you’ll be asking: and then, Venichka, and then what did you drink?] As the biography says, the books chronotope (to use Bakhtin’s term) is alcoholic:

Стихия пьянства в «Москве — Петушках» поистине вездесуща. Она может обернуться любым означающим или означаемым на любом уровне текста — и приемом, и мотивировкой, и метафорой, и мифом, и религиозно-философской идеей. Но главное — спиртное в ерофеевской поэме становится «принципом композиционной организации», тем «стержнем, на который нанизан сюжет»; а это значит, что биографические вехи Венички отмериваются граммами и градусами.

The element of drunkenness in Moskva-Petushki is truly omnipresent. It can turn into any signifier or signified at any level of the text — it can be a device, a motivation, a metaphor, a myth, and a religious-philosophical idea. But the main thing is that alcohol in Erofeev’s poèma becomes a “principle of compositional organization” [Sedakova], the “core on which the plot is strung” [Lipovetsky]; this means that Venichka’s biographical landmarks are measured in grams and degrees [of alcohol].

And it continues with no hint of a plot beyond his desire to get something to drink and then take the train to Petushki. Basically, it’s one long, increasingly phantasmagorical rant; I guess the closest thing to it in classical literature is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, but of course Dostoevsky wasn’t exactly required reading in the USSR. But it’s not at all random; one of the things I learned from the excellent discussion in the biography is how carefully the novel is structured. Venichka himself points this out when he discovers his precious “little suitcase” with the remaining booze is missing and decides to find out who took it:

Черт знает, в каком жанре я доеду до Петушков… От самой Москвы все были философские эссе и мемуары, все были стихотворения в прозе, как у Ивана Тургенева… Теперь начинается детективная повесть…

Who the hell knows in what genre I’ll arrive in Petushki… All the way from Moscow it’s been philosophical essays and memoirs, prose poems like Ivan Turgenev’s… Now it’s turning into a detective story…

And the closer he gets to his imagined destination, the darker these genres become, winding up in an apocalyptic descent based on both Dante’s Inferno and the Book of Revelation. That brings us to the other major factor that unites the book: literary allusions. When I first read it, I recognized the Biblical references, but now that I’ve worked through the annotated edition I realize how much more there is. A great deal is taken from Dostoevsky, especially Crime and Punishment but also The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov; there’s also lots of Pushkin, Chekhov, Mayakovsky, Esenin, and Erofeev’s favorite Igor Severyanin (whom he may have liked partly because he’s so often dismissed as a self-promoting ham). Like Nabokov’s The Gift and other great novels, it’s in part a love letter to Russian literature. And one thing I noticed, that I haven’t seen anyone else refer to, is that the final approach to death is the same kind of “vortex time” that sends Anna Karenina to her suicide, with every experience seen by the viewpoint character as a sign of doom (see this post).

The biography has sensible approaches to some of the cruxes that have occasioned impassioned arguments. What happens after the stop at Orekhovo-Zuevo, when he seems to be heading back to Moscow instead of on to Petushki? Some say he gets pushed into the train heading in the opposite direction by the crowd that shoves him out of his compartment; some say he falls asleep and continues on to the end of the line, then wakes up on the return trip; some say the whole trip takes place in his mind. Lekmanov et al. say there’s no point trying to provide a rational explanation — the novel becomes phantasmagorical, and it’s a category error to try to analyze it rationally. Who are the four men who kill him at the end? Some say the legionaries from the Crucifixion, others Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin; the biographers say it’s both, just as Joyce’s characters in Finnegans Wake don’t just have a single definition. And the letter ю [yu] that Venichka sees in his last moments? They say it’s both a reference to his little boy (who he’s so proud of for learning the letter) and the next-to-last letter in the alphabet, hence it represents all that is small, marginal, despised. The ultimate message, insofar as there is one, is that the most important thing in life is to help the helpless and defend the defenseless.

I strongly recommend the novel, obviously. It’s been translated by H. William Tjalsma as Moscow to the End of the Line, by J.R. Dorrell as Moscow Circles, and by Stephen Mulrine as Moscow Stations; I have only the Dorrell, which is too stiff (and British) for my taste, but whichever you can find will give you an idea of it. It shouldn’t be missed.

Comments

  1. Learned something new today. I never knew “Стихия” had the meaning of element. Always encountered it as “destructive, uncontrollable force of nature”.

  2. Owlmirror says:

    The vortex of drunkenness?

    I certainly sounds like the protagonist is circling the drain, in ever-tightening circles.

  3. Exactly!

  4. I never knew “Стихия” had the meaning of element.

    Yup, it’s borrowed from Greek στοιχεῖον ‘one of a series, a component part, an element.’

  5. >>it’s borrowed from Greek στοιχεῖον

    Ah, as in “Stoichiometry”. Flashbacks to high school chemistry 🙂

  6. Ha, me too! I have no idea how the word is normally pronounced in English, because I hear it in the heavily accented voice of my chem teacher (this was in Argentina): “stoi-kee-OH-meh-tree” (with alveolar tap for r).

  7. What an exciting description of this “novel” or whatever it is.

  8. I’m glad I conveyed something of the excitement of the thing.

  9. Me in 2005:
    I like people who date their drunken periods by LH posts.

  10. Wikipedia writes that one of the first official publications in the Soviet Union was in the magazine Abstinence and Culture (Трезвость и Культура). I would love to know the story behind this.

  11. Owlmirror says:

    Is there any connection between στοιχεῖον and τύχη?

    (I’m probably being led astray by Modern Greek vowels)

    Venichka’s vortex could also be a vortex of fate/(mis)fortune.

  12. i like that way of thinking about what makes a prose поэма… i’ll have to keep my eye out for yiddish פּאָעמען in prose – i’m not sure i’ve met one, but i’m sure they’re out there.

  13. PlasticPaddy says:

    @rozele
    Are פּאָעמען more “serious” than לידער?

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I’m probably being led astray by Modern Greek vowels

    Definitely.

  15. It starts with what has become one of the most famous opening lines in Russian: “Все говорят Кремль, Кремль. Ото всех я слышу про него, а сам ни разу не видел.” A literal translation would be “Everyone says ‘Kremlin, Kremlin.’ I hear about it from everyone, but I’ve never once seen it myself,” but that’s clunky. J.R. Dorrell renders it “Everyone talks about the Kremlin. I have heard about it from many people, but I have never seen it myself,” which is too flat and reportorial (“I have heard about it from many people” sounds robotic) — certainly not the voice of a chatty drunk.

    I thought I’d see how the other English translators did it.

    Tjalsma in 1994 has «Everyone says “The Kremlin, the Kremlin.” I hear about it from everybody, but I’ve never seen it myself.»

    I can’t find a preview of Mulrine’s 1997 translation which actually gets as far as the beginning of the translated text, but he also adapted it as a one-man play in 1993, and the 2013 revised reprint of that opens «VENYA: Everybody says “The Kremlin, the Kremlin.” They all go on about it, but I’ve never seen it.»

  16. PlasticPaddy says:

    re “Trezvost’ i Kul’tura”
    Could this be a joke in wikipedia? I believe this magazine was published as part of the Anti-Alcohol campaign of 1929.and would not publish this, even if the magazine still existed in the 1960’s.

  17. Tim May: Thanks! I highly approve of that Mulrine version.

    Could this be a joke in wikipedia?

    Definitely not; that is a notoriously hilarious fact about its first Soviet publication. When I get to that point in the bio (probably today), I’ll report back on how it came about.

  18. I ran across this on Facebook and decided Kharms is another possible source for Erofeev’s off-kilter style:

    A Sonnet

    An amazing thing happened to me today, I suddenly forgot what comes first – 7 or 8.
    I went to my neighbors and asked them about their opinion on this matter.
    Great was their and my amazement, when they suddenly discovered, that they couldn’t recall the counting order. They remembered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, but forgot what comes next.
    We all went to a commercial grocery store, the one that’s on the corner of Znamenskaya and Basseinaya streets, to consult a cashier on our predicament. The cashier gave us a sad smile, took a small hammer out of her mouth, and moving her nose slightly back and forth, she said:
    – In my opinion, a seven comes after an eight, only if an eight comes after a seven.
    We thanked the cashier and ran cheerfully out of the store. But there, thinking carefully about cashier’s words, we got sad again because her words were void of any meaning.
    What were we supposed to do? We went to the Summer Garden and started counting trees. But reaching a six in count, we stopped and started arguing: In the opinion of some, a 7 went next; but in opinion of others an 8 did.
    We were arguing for a long time, when by some sheer luck, a child fell off a bench and broke both of his jaws. That distracted us from our argument.
    And then we all went home.

    Daniil Kharms
    Trans by Matvei Yankelevich

  19. Reminds me of this skit.

  20. When I get to that point in the bio (probably today), I’ll report back on how it came about.

    Just got to it:

    Erofeev’s debut in the Soviet press seemed almost comical — Moskva-Petushki appeared in four issues of the magazine Abstinence and Culture with substantial cuts, served with the sauce of an exposé of the horrors of alcoholism. “Erofeev, of course, took pleasure in such a paradox,” wrote the publisher Aleksandr Davydov. “Really, it was funny.” […]

    “The party and government for some reason decided to struggle for abstinence by means of culture,” remembers Sergei Chuprinin, who wrote the preface to the first publication of Moskva-Petushki. “They even started a new publication with that name, Abstinence and Culture. So in the summer of 1988 they called me and asked for an introductory article. Need I say that such a suggestion can’t be refused? At that time I knew the Erofeev poèma, still unpublished in our country, almost by heart, so in the article I didn’t hide my delight and placed the text on a level with the highest achievements of Russian literature of the 20th century. I don’t know whether Erofeev liked what I wrote, which still seems to me not devoid of value — he was probably used to praise by then — but I’ve heard that he reacted to the publication (Dec. 1988, Jan.-Mar. 1989) with disdain. And quite rightly; not only was the magazine’s name a joke, but the sober publishers kept cutting out the tastiest bits from this classic text — some in the galleys, some in the page proofs, some even in the final proofs. Several months later the almanac Vest′ published it properly, and then there came a flood of separate editions, so that, alas for me, nobody remembered the publication with my preface.”

    The original:

    Дебют Ерофеева в советской печати смотрелся почти комически — в четырех номерах журнала «Трезвость и культура» была с большими купюрами помещена поэма «Москва — Петушки», сервированная под соусом разоблачения ужасов алкоголизма. «Ерофеев, разумеется, наслаждался подобным парадоксом, — пишет издатель Александр Давыдов. — Действительно, смешно». […]

    «Воевать за трезвость партия и правительство решили почему-то культурой, — вспоминает Сергей Чупринин, написавший предисловие к первой публикации „Москвы — Петушков“. — Даже новый журнал появился, который так и назывался — „Трезвость и культура“. Вот оттуда летом 1988 года мне и позвонили — с просьбой написать вступительную статью к „Москве — Петушкам“ Венедикта Ерофеева. Надо ли говорить, что от таких предложений не отказываются? Я в ту пору ерофеевскую поэму, на родине еще не публиковавшуюся, знал едва ли не наизусть, поэтому и статью написал, не скрывая своего восхищения и ставя этот текст в один ряд с вершинными достижениями русской литературы XX века. Понравилось ли Венедикту Васильевичу мое сочинение, мне самому и теперь кажущееся не пустым, не знаю, он, поди, к похвалам давно уже привык, но вот о том, что к само́й публикации (1988, № 12; 1989, № 1, 2, 3) классик отнесся через губу, я наслышан. Да оно и правильно — мало того, что журнал этот так потешно назывался, так еще и из хрестоматийного текста трезвые публикаторы ступенчато понавырезали самые лакомые места — что-то в гранках, что-то в верстке, а что-то уже и в сверке. Несколькими месяцами позже появился альманах „Весть“, где поэма была напечатана уже как до́лжно, тут же лавиной пошли отдельные издания, так что, увы мне, о публикации с моим предисловием никто уже и не вспомнил».

  21. @PP:
    Are פּאָעמען more “serious” than לידער?

    absolutely! לידער can be very high-culture too, but a פּאָעמע pretty much has to be, as well as being long and usually in more than one part. but there’s also an element of modern-ness to being a פּאָעמע (in a 19th century way as much as a Modernist 20th century one), so they don’t tend to be very “epic” in a folkshtimlekh sense (though often in a Treating Big Themes or a Multi-Part Narrative sense).

    for everyone’s delectation, here are two samples with translations, both from In Geveb:

    i think this is all of avrom sutskever’s “sibir”.

    and these are excerpts from perets markish’s “der fertsikyeriker man” (in a translation i don’t particularly like).

  22. Boy, that Sutzkever is amazing — it reminds me a bit of Blaise Cendrars’ Prose du Transsibérien (which I posted about way back in 2003). I didn’t like the translation; it’s way too free-verse for me. I realize it’s impossible to keep strict equivalence of rhyme and meter, but a translator should provide at least a loose, baggy equivalent (according to my ethos). I wish I knew enough Yiddish to try it myself, and I envy you being able to read it easily in the original.

    Mandatory evacuations during World War I forced Sutzkever’s family to leave his birthplace, Smorgon (today Smarhon, Belarus), in 1915, when he was just two years old. He spent the next five years in a small city 2,000 miles to the east, called Omsk, in southwestern Siberia.

    Fancy running into Smorgon again!

  23. i agree with you about the translation – i also prefer a bit more of the form to come through.

    and sutskever’s one of the writers i most envy cradle-tongue readers about – his portmanteau words and incidental coinages are so tasty, and i wish i didn’t have to chew on them so much…

    and i was so busy adding omsk to vilne, i forgot to think of smorgon!

  24. Owlmirror says:

    avrom sutskever’s “sibir”.

    Does “Sutzkever” have something to do with a grave?

    I noticed a couple of lines because one word was left untranslated and transliterated:

    צאַפּלט דער אירטיש אין האַלבער וואָר.
    the Irtysh quivers, half real.

    Could “אירטיש” be an approximate of “tableau”? Ur-tisch? Something like that?

    EDIT: *facepalm* It’s an actual river.

    WikiP:

    The Irtysh (Old Turkic: 𐰼𐱅𐰾:𐰇𐰏𐰕𐰏‎, romanized: Ertis ügüzüg,[1] Mongolian: Эрчис мөрөн, Erchis mörön,[2] “erchleh”, “twirl”; Russian: Иртыш; Kazakh: Ертіс, Ertis, ه‌رتىس‎; Chinese: 额尔齐斯河, pinyin: É’ěrqísī hé, Xiao’erjing: عَعَرٿِسِ حْ; Uyghur: إيرتيش‎‎, Әртиш, Ertish; Tatar: Cyrillic Иртеш, Latin İrteş, Arabic ﻴﺋرتئش, Siberian Tatar: Эйәртеш, Eya’rtes’) is a river in Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. It is the chief tributary of the Ob and is also the longest tributary river in the world.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    i think this is all of avrom sutskever’s “sibir”.

    The part titled “Snowman” is particularly interesting for me, because Schneemensch is exclusively the Abominable Snowman!

  26. i’ve always parsed “sutskever” as ‘from sutskov’ – wherever that is – which seems the most likely source. from the not-that-much i’ve read, there are very few yiddish jewish surnames that are from loshn-koydesh roots, and many of the ones that are supposed to be don’t hold up under scrutiny…

    (but now that hidden קבֿר is going to jump out at me every time!)

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Суцков is a surname, and apparently that’s all it is. Google finds one page of mentions of a village Суцково-Цары, apparently in Belarus, but searching for “суцкава” gets me nothing.

  28. It was apparently a village a few miles from where Sutskever was born

  29. http://berkovich-zametki.com/AStarina/Nomer10/Haesh1.htm

    Putting Cyrillic into comments makes them go away. But you can search for Sutzkovo in the link ^^

  30. Thanks for the information on the Abstinence and Culture publication, languagehat!

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Ah! Let’s see if I can include enough filler text to make the spam filter happy (funnily enough):

    Дорога от Сморгони [37]

    […] В деревне Суцково (6-7 верст от Сморгони) крестьяне избивали беженцев дубинами.

    And the village is just where it should be, too!

  32. крестьяне избивали беженцев дубинами.

    ‘The villagers beat the refugees unmercifully with clubs’: A large part of history in a nutshell.

  33. It’s a pretty fascinating document. The much better treatment of the Jews by the Germans as compared to the Russian Army was, I think, one of the reasons why so many Jews stayed behind when the Germans invaded in 1939. My great grandfather in Kiev was looking forward to the Germans coming – he said he remembered them well from 1919.

  34. John Cowan says:

    The first sentences make me think (perhaps quite wrongly) that ‘Kremlin’ in this connection is not the building complex, but the metro stop. A difficulty now presents itself: there is no metro stop named “Kremlin”! Which suggests in turn that the protagonist is in fact riding Metro-2.

    ======

    Epic works, says Frye, are distinct from lyric and dramatic works and a fourth form that he calls fiction faute de mieux, by the radical form of their presentation. In epic, the poet (meaning by that any author of imaginative literature) stands before the audience and tells the story. In lyric, the poet has his back to the audience, who as it were looks over the poet’s shoulder (it is this kind of poetry that is “not heard but overheard”). In drama, the poet remains hidden and the characters appear directly to the audience. In fiction, the poet and the audience are both hidden and the poet communicates with each member through a private channel, historically a book but now sometimes not. Of course plays can be read, lyrics can be recited, and so on, which is why Frye speaks of the radical of presentation.

    But by this standard “Casey at the Bat” is as good a brief epic as any, though it was first printed in a newspaper and i first encountered it as a drama in the form of a comic book, with Robert Bruce Banner (naturally) as Casey and Otto Gunther Octavius (obviously) as the pitcher. It would be difficult indeed to hit a ball when you not only don’t know how it will be thrown, you don’t know which of six possible balls will be thrown. The Hulk cannot in this case be blamed for the lack of joy in Mudville or, as the case may be, New York.

  35. The first sentences make me think (perhaps quite wrongly) that ‘Kremlin’ in this connection is not the building complex, but the metro stop.

    I don’t know why you’d think that, but no, it’s the building complex, the famous Kremlin that everybody talks about.

  36. John Cowan says:

    “It’s simple …”

  37. @John Cowan: Speaking of comic book epics, the original New Gods comics (along with the related titles Forever People and Mister Miracle—which together make up a project known as the “Fourth World”), which were written, penciled, and edited by Jack Kirby from 1970–1972, were specifically designed to create a modern version of a true epic. Kirby made a specific effort to transfer the epic form into something that worked in the modern world.

    One important thing was that he felt that a real epic, analogous to the epic poetry of ancient civilizations, should be told in a popular medium, like comic books—his own principal genre. And while the story would be episodic (a necessity for the comic book medium, and, anyway, something found in many traditional epics, such as the stories of Herakles’s twelve labors), it would also have a definite planned ending—something which was virtually unknown in superhero comic books of the time. (There were, of course, good economic—if not artistic—reasons for this; a character is popular and keeps selling magazine issues, it makes little sense to cancel their series.) Finally, he tried to develop both human and superhuman characters that paralleled the kinds of characters that appeared in traditional epics. In particular, the titular New Gods were godlike, in the sense that they were anthropomorphic personifications of great power, but they were framed in the cultural milieu of the twentieth century. (People in the developed world generally no longer believe in demonic possession or magical attacks by incubi; however, belief in “technological” analogues like alien abduction, framed in more modern terms, is not so uncommon). So the New Gods are not magic-using wizards or devils, but rather alien superhero types wielding advanced technology. Moreover, they are personifications of modernized ideals. Metron, the amoral master of wisdom, who is willing to dispense his powers to either side if he is paid enough, is an gadgeteer, inventor, and scholar. The central hero, Orion, is a god specifically of just war, not for any glory, but for the protection of those who cannot protect themselves; moreover, he is well aware that (and struggles with the fact that) there are many problems that his bailiwick of “utter violence” are useless to solve. And Darkseid, the main villain—and, in classic epic fashion, Orion’s estranged father—is the personification not an amorphous “evil,” but specifically of industrial tyranny.

    Kirby also envisioned the series as being made of multiple narratives, each following a single main character (or team of characters), but crossing back and forth like traditional heroes. At one point, he hoped to get other writers and artists to produce their own comic series following secondary characters in parallel to the ones in the three main magazines that he was writing. Those characters (and he invented several additional New Gods heroes that might be used by other creators) would have their adventures chronicled through the same period of time as the main series, and maybe their adventures could continue on after the main storyline was resolved. However, this idea was never realized, and, in fact, New Gods and Forever People were cancelled after only eleven issues each, while the shared mythos was still relatively early in development; the last series Mister Miracle was retooled into a much more conventional superhero comic book—to the point of giving the main character a kid apprentice/sidekick (a notion that was utterly at odds with the idea that Mister Miracle himself got his powers from being the personification of freedom itself).

    (Half a decade later, the Star Wars films were developed along similar lines—retranslating the epic form into a modern medium and reworking the traditional magical elements along faux-scientific lines more natural to the modern psyche.)

  38. I just realized who the perfect English-language parallel to Erofeev is: Henry Miller. His first novel was also unpublishable at home for years (too much obscenity), and as Elaine Blair writes, “To generations of American readers who got their hands on a forbidden copy of Tropic of Cancer, Miller’s voice sounded like freedom itself.” And Miller lived a similar life while he was writing it:

    He left for Paris as a last-ditch effort to change things up, make something happen with his writing. He bummed around Montparnasse, cadging meals, cash, and living quarters from other artists and a few sympathetic benefactors[…]

    At the age of forty, he found a way to write that sounded true. First-person, loosely autobiographical, freewheeling, drawing on such various guiding spirits as Whitman and Céline (whose Journey to the End of the Night Miller read in manuscript while working on Tropic of Cancer), Miller’s Paris novels did away with a lot of the narrative machinery that he saw, in retrospect, had been weighing down his earlier work. […] The discovery of his writing voice is an event that feels so big that Miller casts it as a renunciation, a total break with his past, a break—in the going style of modernist grand gestures—with literature itself: “Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.” […]

    His narrator drinks, writes, gains and loses small amounts of money, has sex with Tania, with whores, and with his wife when she visits from the States. He makes the social rounds in Montparnasse, among the artists, grifters, Russian exiles, and would-be writers. The book is full of comic incidents and anecdotes unfolding in a continuous present.

    Sounds familiar!

  39. And a good French parallel would be Céline; I just discovered, to my astonishment, that he was one of the literary heroes of Yuri Nagibin! (From this review of the new edition of Nagibin’s diary: “Неожиданным образом из дневника выясняется: кумиром юности Нагибина был Луи-Фердинанд Селин. В своих печатных текстах он не мог предъявить это родство, в дневнике оно хорошо чувствуется.”)

  40. @languagehat: I don’t know much about Celine, except that he was friends with Miller, with each reading prepublication versions of their most famous works in the 1930s; and that he was one of the most prominent antisemitic propagandists in pre-war and conquered France. By the fall of France, he was totally a committed fascist, and by 1944, as the war had turned against the Nazis, he espoused a conspiracy theory that Hitler had been assassinated and replaced by a Jewish impostor. During the liberation of France, Celine was among the Vichy leadership who were evacuated to Germany, to keep them out of Allied hands.

  41. Yes, quite right, but none of that affects the artistic value of his novels. Voyage au bout de la nuit is excellent.

  42. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hat
    What Brett said. Also he apparently (and fully voluntarily) gave information to the SD (see French wikipedia).

  43. Yes; and what I said. I realize there are lots of people who equate the art with the artist, especially these days, but I am not one of them. You will notice I complained about Erofeev’s antisemitism in the post on his biography, not in this one.

  44. J.W. Brewer says:

    There was a whole to-do in France a few years ago about the plans of a posh publisher to put out new editions (supposedly accompanied by appropriate context/critique) of Celine’s more overtly anti-Semitic works first published between ’37 and ’41, which were ultimately abandoned. One interesting side note is that in France (and many other countries although not all) the works do not fall out of copyright until 2031. Part of the backstory to the abandoned project was that the publisher (Gallimard) had gotten Celine’s extremely elderly widow to give permission, and to me the whole thing undermines the absurdity of anyone having the legal right to bar, limit, or otherwise control access to texts that old. But I take it that Celine’s reputation nonetheless remains high and the French reading public is by and large not impressed with the argument “you shouldn’t read this novel from 1932 because of some really awful things the same author said in a later book which you’ll frankly have to trust us about the awfulness of, because we won’t let you buy a copy.”

    AFAIK, the books Celine published post-1945 are all in print in France. I take it their content was more discreet on certain issues even if Celine himself never really apologized or recanted for his unsavoriness.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/11/plan-to-publish-antisemitic-texts-by-french-writer-celine-off-after-outcry

  45. I just wanted to point out that (apparently unlike Erofeev and Miller) Celine’s jerkass behavior was consequential well beyond his immediate bohemian circle. He threw his weight as a public intellectual completely behind the Nazis. So while maybe his writing was analogous to Erofeev’s and Miller’s in character, his political and social influences were decidedly different from theirs.

  46. Sure, more like Ezra Pound’s (one of my favorite poets).

  47. It was at about the same time that I learned what an amazing artist Degas was, and what a foul antisemite.

  48. It’s amazing how widespread antisemitism was before WWII (not that it’s not widespread now, but it tends not to dare to speak its name, and when it does it gets called out). Back then it was almost taken for granted. I think it was finding out about Dostoevsky that made me accept that I was just going to have to put up with it if i wanted to read great literature. I mean, almost all the great Russian modernists — Blok, Bely, & Co. — were nasty antisemites. Feh.

  49. Our late, lamented AJP Crown linked to a very interesting (but unfortunately incompletely reproduced) article about Degas’s antisemitism reprinted in The Tablet just back in June.

    (I just now tried to find the article again, first by searching directly, before remembering that I had originally been pointed to it by a discussions at this site. So I Googled “Degas Tablet.” However, that produced only pages upon pages of links related to over-the-counter medication—the chewable De~Gas tablet for “belching, bloating, and feelings of pressure/discomfort in the stomach/gut.”)

  50. It’s amazing how widespread antisemitism was before WWII (not that it’s not widespread now, but it tends not to dare to speak its name, and when it does it gets called out). Back then it was almost taken for granted.

    Yes, except for the “almost.” For Britain, specifically, the analysis to read is

    https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/antisemitism-in-britain/

    Orwell’s short list of two canonical philosemites (Dickens and Charles Reade) should be expanded to four (add George Eliot and, if you want to consider him as writing in a British tradition, James Joyce). But that’s still a short list, and Orwell’s long list of writers on the other side goes all the way back to Chaucer, author of the Prioress’s Tale. As to contemporary Britain, I’ll just namedrop Tom Paulin, A. N. Wilson, and Alison Weir. For an American synecdoche I’ll add Dan A. Oren’s Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale, and note that Oren was fully qualified to write such a history. By trade he’s a psychiatrist.

    And specifically about language, here on pp. 126-135 is Henry James holding forth about Jews and “the agency of future ravage” — that is, Yiddish.

    https://archive.org/details/cu31924030992006/page/n139/mode/2up

  51. Correction, sorry: Alison Weir is an American.

  52. @Jonathan Morse: Per Wikipedia: “Weir was born in 1951 and brought up in Westminster, London.”

    However, I’m not sure from what you wrote whether you are saying she is antisemitic or the reverse.

  53. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think Jonathan Morse may have been conflating the woman wikipedia knows as mere “Alison Weir” with the separate woman it knows as “Alison Weir (activist).” Neither of whom should be confused, of course, with “Alison Francis Weir (cricketer).”

  54. J.W., you’re right. The Alison Weir I meant was “(activist),” who is an American.

    Brett, the American Jewish newsletter Tablet is pretty far to the political right. But look anyway at Weir’s complaint about Jews on the Supreme Court at

    https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/stanford-professor-recommends-anti-semitic-website-to-readers-then-kind-of-takes-it-back

  55. Yeah, I don’t normally pay much attention to Tablet‘s political coverage, although it is occasionally interesting. However, I have found it to be a reasonable source for Jewish cultural coverage.

  56. No, Céline is without parallel. The man published not one but three insane rants – Bagatelles pour un massacre(1937), L’École des cadavres (1938) and Les beaux draps (1941) – the last one during the occupation.

  57. No, Céline is without parallel.

    That’s an odd thing to say, unless you’re restricting your parallels to great French authors of the interwar period. There were plenty of open antisemites who were not afraid to rant in public about it.

  58. I’m talking about writers in general. Céline’s anti-Semitic language in these pamphlets and in his account of his travels in Russia, Mea Culpa, is nonpareil. Perhaps Hitler’s propagandists resorted to the same epithets and imagery but for an eminent man of letters, I can’t imagine another example. I don’t want to paste quotes because they are too disturbing – all these texts can be found on the net with a little effort.

    Also, publishing an anti-Semitic brochure in a free country is not the same as publishing the same under Nazi occupation.

  59. I’m sure they can, and there’s no need to give examples — I think we can all imagine them. I’m surprised you think he’s unparalleled, and I suspect you haven’t done a thorough study of all writers of the period but are simply so shocked by his rants you can’t imagine there could be anyone else like him, but who would want to do such a study? There’s no point arguing; if you want to think he’s the ne plus ultra, go right ahead. But antisemitism was the air everyone breathed in those days.

    Here’s a passage I just ran across in Christopher R. Browning’s NYRB review (available here) of Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (which sounds like an excellent book):

    In April 1919 Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio in Munich (and future Pope Pius XII), reported to the Vatican that the communist-led Bavarian Soviet (which existed for less than a month before it was crushed by the counterrevolutionary Freikorps) was composed entirely of Jews. One of its leaders, Max Levien, was described as “also a Russian and a Jew,” “dirty,” “vulgar,” “repulsive,” and “sly.” Levien was in fact a Russian émigré to Germany, a four-year veteran of the German army, and a non-Jew. This did not, as Hanebrink observes, signify an exceptionally anti-Semitic disposition on the part of Pacelli but simply reflected the “utterly typical” consensus of virtually all European conservatives at that time.

    From the beginning of World War I, tsarist Russia had treated its Jewish subjects as unreliable and potentially disloyal. Its military forcibly displaced some 500,000 to one million Jews from combat zones. The very approach of the Russian army thus also instigated the flight of many other Jews from the eastern regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the presumed safety of cities like Vienna and Budapest. The Russian Revolution erupted amid already existing fears about Jewish loyalty and floods of displaced Jews, and intensified those fears. The “panic” over Judeo-Bolshevism, Hanebrink argues, “flourished in ground that had been prepared by wartime paranoia about Jewish loyalty.” In what Hanebrink calls the “long World War I” in Eastern Europe, including the Russian civil war, the Soviet-Polish war, and the Romanian ouster of the Béla Kun regime and Miklós Horthy’s subsequent White Terror in Hungary, “sovereignty panic” intensified the catastrophic consequences for Jews, particularly in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine.

  60. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s amazing how widespread antisemitism was before WWII

    It was mainstream, not to beat about the bush. It varied only (an important variation, certainly) in degree of murderousness.

    The exceptions among the literary artists are the remarkable ones, and I think it’s no coincidence that (in English, anyhow) some of them are greats among the great: Joyce, George Eliot, Dickens. Although Hat is right that one should in principle try to separate the work from the author, I think any idea of a potential clean separation between the two is illusory. Barthes-nonsense, ultimately.

    Passively going along with the fouler prejudices of your era, if not necessarily a sign of great personal wickedness, is nevertheless a failure of imagination: and systematic failure of imagination damages art – objectively, qua art. It’s true, for example, that Pound was a great poet: but a parallel-universe Pound who was not an antisemite would almost certainly have been a greater poet. It’s possible to be a great artist despite being an antisemite. No artist was ever greater because they were antisemitic.

  61. Sure. But we don’t have access to that universe, and in this fallen one, we have to choose between demanding our artists be morally perfect, in which case we won’t have any art to enjoy, or separating art from creator and saying “it’s a pity the artist was such an asshole” as we settle down to enjoy the work. I’m not going to stop enjoying Chinatown because of Polanski’s sins, or stop reading Pound and Céline and Dostoevsky and all the rest because of theirs. Anyone who feels differently is, obviously, free to avoid whatever repels them, but they are not improving the world as they deprive themselves. I am very annoyed by the current tendency among progressives to demand that everyone renounce artists who fail in the currently fashionable ways (curiously, antisemitism doesn’t bother them so much, but sexism and racism are right out); “cancel culture” is an overused term, but it represents a real phenomenon.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Jonathan Morse:

    Thanks for the Orwell link. I’d never seen that before (incidentally, it demonstrates that my characterisation of (British) antisemitism as “mainstream” before WWII is seriously oversimplified.)

    Quite apart from other typical Orwellian intellectual robustness, it addresses the unfortunately all-too-topical question of the ineffectiveness of opposing irrational entrenched opinions with facts.

    I agree with his conclusion, too:

    But that antisemitism will be definitively cured, without curing the larger disease of nationalism, I do not believe.

  63. Yup, I am in hearty agreement.

  64. Owlmirror says:

    So I Googled “Degas Tablet.” However, that produced only pages upon pages of links related to over-the-counter medication—the chewable De~Gas tablet

    Google has a whole bunch of tricks for finding what you actually want. The most useful is restricting a search to a specific site, thus, [ site:tabletmag.com degas ] finds the article you want. Other search engines support this, as well as their own suite of tips and tricks.

    Huh. I did not actually know until just now that if you Google for the word ‘askew’, it renders the page askew as well as showing the results. Yay, stupid HTML tricks!

  65. Cute! And googling [do a barrel roll] is even more fun.

  66. Sympathy gripe, because I am sure everyone here encountered it too: if I try to find a dictionary of an obscure language X by googling “X dictionary”, I get links to two dozen English dictionaries or dictionary knockoffs, which either define X (“a language spoken in Y” or such), or tell me they don’t have a definition of it yet.

    I’ve mostly learned to not look for dictionaries that way, but sometimes I forget.

  67. Alon Lischinsky says:

    I can’t bring myself to read Céline, who on the basis of literary influence should be entirely up my alley, because as a Jew I find it impossible to be that dispassionate. But I’m entirely aware that’s my own personal choice.

    I am very annoyed by the current tendency among progressives to demand that everyone renounce artists who fail in the currently fashionable ways (curiously, antisemitism doesn’t bother them so much, but sexism and racism are right out)

    As a progressive myself, all I’ll say is that I’ve never found this to be the case.

    The kind of progressives I know will encourage people to boycott living authors for their ethics, but that’s on the same principle as any other kind of boycott: don’t do things that put money in the pockets of a bastard.

    When it comes to older works, the au fait thing is to warn the reader beforehand that they might encounter bigotry or hatred of a specific kind, but this is not meant to discourage them — just to help them prepare, in whatever way they need, to deal with potentially painful content. And to be honest it’s something that I greatly appreciate as a reader myself.

  68. As a progressive myself, all I’ll say is that I’ve never found this to be the case.

    You’re lucky. If you hang out on MetaFilter, you’ll encounter lots of the kind of thing that causes the term “cancel culture” to be thrown around. Don’t read Faulkner, don’t read Twain, don’t read Updike or Bellow or Roth… Some people have decided to read only women authors. Nothing wrong with reading women, of course, but the train of thought is idiotic.

    When it comes to older works, the au fait thing is to warn the reader beforehand that they might encounter bigotry or hatred of a specific kind, but this is not meant to discourage them — just to help them prepare, in whatever way they need, to deal with potentially painful content. And to be honest it’s something that I greatly appreciate as a reader myself.

    Yes, that’s right and proper, and I’m glad it’s becoming more widespread. (And objection to “trigger warnings,” with the usual tired mockery of oversensitive millennials, is an easy way to identify fools.)

Speak Your Mind

*