Last month I posted a link to a review of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed; here‘s her list of “four Russian modern classics that you’ve probably missed,” and it makes me even more interested in her. The woman has taste: Shklovsky (Zoo), Platonov (Soul), Mandelstam (The Noise of Time), and Kharms are unimpeachable choices and not as well known as they should be, and I like her statement “Zoo is at once incredibly funny and incredibly sad, like all my favorite books.”

I got the link from Lizok, who also reports on the death last Friday of the poet Elena Shvarts (whose Wikipedia page, oddly, is under the spelling “Schwarz,” which I’ve never seen used for her). Shvarts is much anthologized and widely respected, but her poetry has never done that much for me—too much flayed skin and bloody sacrifice and demonic rage (“И новых демонов семья в голодной злобе/ Учуяла меня. Все та же мука” [“And a family of new demons in hungry rage/ Caught my scent. Still the same torment.”]), not enough… whatever it is I’m looking for in a poem. Still, царство ей небесное (RIP).


  1. J. Del Col says

    Thanks for the link to her list. I wasn’t familiar with Kharms at all.

  2. There are a bunch of good Kharms links (some, of course, broken by now) at this MeFi post; as I said in that comment thread, “I’ve loved Kharms ever since I discovered him; he’s at one and the same time the funniest and cruelest of writers. His stories are like little exercises for language students, full of repetitions and simple dialogue, except that people keep dying and going mad and disappearing.” I also provided an extended quote from Solomon Volkov’s St. Petersburg: A Cultural History that gives some useful background.

  3. I like your brief summary of Kharms, Languagehat! I enjoy Kharms a lot, though it took me some time to get used to him.
    I don’t know much at all about Shvarts… but flayed skin and blood definitely aren’t my thing!

  4. flayed skin and blood definitely aren’t my thing!
    Flaying doesn’t have to be gory. The 16th century anatomists had a fabulous line in the depiction of muscle structure without silly skin obstructing your view, for instance écorché tenant un poignard et sa dépouille. As for the blood, that was usually cleaned up before the picture was taken – for compositional reasons, I imagine. As with those darling little babies newly-born on television, where the slime and blood have been removed so as not to detract from the cuteness.

  5. When you say little known – you mean in the West?
    It’s interesting that Batuman in her article pairs Shklovsky with Tolstoy (read all Tolstoy?) and Platonov with Gogol (tired of Gogol?). Shklovsky wrote an expansive biography of Tolstoy and I have often thought of Platonov’s technique as similar to Gogol’s.
    Whoever loves Kharms (I do) would also be smitten by Alexander Vvedensky, another tragic figure in the 20-30s Russian literature. I think his absurdist poetry and plays are even more hilarious than that of Harms. Vvedensky is translated into English, but I wonder how well he is known? Batuman quotes Kharms’s little story on Pushkin’s stupid sons, but he also wrote similar cruel pieces on contemporary writers, Alexei Tolstoy for example. Oh, he had enemies.

  6. When you say little known – you mean in the West?
    Of course, but I didn’t say little known, I said not as well known as they should be. Mandelstam in particular is quite well known for his poetry, but I suspect few people are familiar with his amazing non-autobiography (far fewer than are familiar with, say, Nabokov’s comparable Speak, Memory). And Vvedensky is almost completely unknown.

  7. I see your point, yes. Pity about Vvedensky.
    Here is a Cornell Univeristy selection with both Kharms and Vvedensky, translated and with a foreword by George Gibian. In the early eighties I was still very nervous bringing the book back to Moscow from abroad.

  8. John Emerson says

    I’ve said this before and it didn’t go over too well, but Kharms’s anti-stories seem as though Kharms had read Vladimir Propp’s structuralist analysis of what a story is and what it’s essential parts are, and then systematically violated Propp’s rules.
    In Russia the literary formalists and the critical formalists were presumably in contact. Of course, creative formalism may well have preceded analytic formalism.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Is it only me who wishes Ms. Batuman would hire one of these as her assistant.

  10. Boston programming note: Elif Batuman will be at Brookline Booksmith Wednesday.

  11. If you ask me, Shvarts was a poet on par with Kuzmin, Tsvetaeva and Vaginov, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who would claim as much as that. But, like Sologub and Kuzmin, she wrote a bit too much. It means, for me, having to sift through the dust (golden as it may be) to get down to the diamonds. To pick five poems, let’s say St. Xenia and the Black Candle here; Shestov and the Opium House here; and this early piece. I would be surprised if you don’t find at least one of them rewarding.

  12. to sift through the dust (golden as it may be) to get down to the diamonds.
    but isn’t it what poetry is about? finding intimacy in a few written lines? other poems may be famous, quoted and anthologised, but you have your own few, which no one else feels the way you do?

  13. Thanks very much, Alexei; I’ll investigate those when I have more leisure.

  14. I was looking for Russian references to Elif Batuman’s work (there are fewer than 10) and one linked to this article on Platonov. I think you are right in saying that she has taste, but she also shows a deep understanding of how to put a writer in historical context. And tactful intelligence: she argues, in effect, with Brodsky saying “Woe to the people into whose language Andrey Platonov can be translated.” On untranslatability of Platonov Batuman says:
    True as these claims may be, it bears mention that Platonov’s language, independent of embodying Soviet absurdities, is a fully functional, literary language. In this way it differs fundamentally from the “Newspeak” coined by Orwell in “1984.” Whereas Orwell merely depicts Newspeak as a feature of the society portrayed in his book, Platonov actually writes in his new, and thereby living, language, a language that resuscitates, rather than deadens, the reader’s sensibilities. Although Platonov was certainly critical of many aspects of the Soviet regime and its bureaucracy, he was really trying to exploit the technological, multifarious richness of the new world order to produce a new kind of art.
    To me, it is also very endearing in this passage that Batuman seems to be departing from the narrow view of socialist realism as just a repressive tool of the Soviet regime, not a valid aesthetic system. Her article shows how the stated principles were coming into conflict with political realities. The authority simply coudln’t stomach the real and exciting product of new literature, Platonov.
    And when I read that ‘Platonov’s prose can theoretically be re-created in any language that has ever been deformed by bureaucracy and propaganda (or even, as in the case of English, by advertising)’, I immediately thought of Kurt Vonnegut. Did he not put this ‘theory’ in practice?

  15. An interesting comparison! I’ll have to mull it over. And yes, I like what she writes about Platonov; thanks for finding that essay.

  16. I was thinking mostly of God Bless you, Mr Rosewater (in Russian: “Благослови вас бог, мистер Розуотер, или бисер перед свиньями”

  17. I always thought Vonnegut was basically escapist, with the exception of his first book Player Piano “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.” Even when he picks a serious theme, like religion in Cat’s Cradle, he does it in a way that says to his audience that they don’t have to take the world seriously or grow up. His later books are even less serious, depending on repeating some theme phrase “so it goes” or recycling his more amusing characters;, at one point he even breaks the fourth wall by having one of his characters (Kilgore Trout?) actually meet him and demand to have the creator (author) make him young. If you don’t want to live in the real world, it’s an amusing world to live in, but I really don’t see much social/government/bureaucratese commentary there, as Platonov appears to have.

  18. John Emerson says

    Try “Slaughterhouse Five”. Vonnegut had a dark view of the world and bouts of intense depression, and I wouldn’t call him escapist. A lot of his stuff seems to want to help distance themselves or buffer themselves from the dark and fraudulent aspects of the world, but it isn’t warm fuzzy escapism.

  19. I was making the comparison strictly along the language lines (technique), not general style, views or favourite themes. It seems to me that Vonnegut does use social/government/bureaucratese speak to create his own inimitable sound.
    On Zamyatin-Huxley: according to wikipedia, Orwell, who was Huxley’s student at Eton, believed Huxley was lying when he said he’d only heard of ‘We’ after he’d finished The Brave New World. Does anyone know more about this?
    Slightly different subject, but interesting. We, Brave New World and 1984 are the three great distopias of the last century, but Huxley’s great new discovery was that he saw pleasure as a more powerful instrument of control than pressure. He wrote about this to Orwell after reading 1984. Dostoyevsky noted how fear of punishment didn’t work in his Notes from the Dead House. And Anne Applebaum argues in her recent comprehensive history of the Soviet camps ‘Gulag’ that the whole system was crumbling even before it was disbanded after Stalin’s death because inmates no longer had fear.
    But the dark view of the technological, controlled future goes back to the Romantics, I think. Shelley’s Frankenstein, in a way, is distopian. And the earliest distopian story that I know of belongs to Vladimir Odoyevsky, an influential writer and thinker of the Pushkin circle, – ‘The Town Without a Name’ (“Город без имени”, published in 1839 and later included in the ‘Russian Nights’ collection). Is it known? It takes place, like Moore’s Utopia, in America.

  20. Is it known? It takes place, like Moore’s Utopia, in America.
    It’s certainly not known in America! Thanks, I’ll have to check it out.

  21. In Laura Miller’s review of Batuman’s book you mentioned here before there is a passing comment that the Dostoevsky novel The Possessed gave the book its title, but “the current, more accurate translation of Dostoevsky’s title for that book is “The Demons.” Apart from the irritatingly prescriptive tone of this comment, is The Demons really currently accepted as the best rendition? “Бесы” could mean demons, but ‘possessed’ probaly better transfers the thrust the novel into English. And there is another, equally valid English title for the novel – The Devils (tr. by David Magarshack).

  22. is The Demons really currently accepted as the best rendition?
    The question is not whether it is “the best rendition” but whether it is more accurate, simply as a lexical translation, than The Possessed, which it unquestionably is, regardless of connotations. If you look up бес in the dictionary you will find “demon, evil spirit,” not “possessed.” I don’t think she’s taking any position on the relative merits of The Possessed and The Devils.

  23. Does anyone know more about this?
    Well, that Wikipedia doesn’t present any smoking gun, like a copy with Huxley’s bookplate or a library slip in his name. It’s just the conjecture from Orwell’s review of We and a radio interview remark from a translator. The 1962 letter reference (with its rather confusing footnote) presumably means one to Christopher Collins; he refers to it here (I hope that first page is visible even to those without JSTOR). Collins reworked his IU thesis into a book-length treatment of Zamjatin. He doubted the claim on stylistic grounds. (Kit Collins also wrote one on the Serapion brothers. Note to Yale University: this is not how you help your students find out more about book authors.)
    And in the previous paragraph it lists Men Like Gods, of which Brave New World began as a parody. And we know that Wells was an influence on Zamyatin.
    earliest distopian story
    I think it’s key to define the terminology, since there is clearly a progression toward what we might call the classics (We, 1984, Brave New World). Does Gulliver’s Travels count? For that matter, does Ecclesiazusæ?

  24. The article on dystopias in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction takes them back to “a tract of 1644 warning of the terrible disaster which would follow were the monarchy to be restored” but says they “began to proliferate in the last decades of the 19th century”; the first item in the Wikipedia List of dystopian literature is from 1835 (by an author with the remarkable name of Oliver Bolokitten), so the Odoevsky is certainly one of the first modern dystopias. You can add it to the list if you’re confident it belongs there. I don’t have the leisure to investigate it now.

  25. He doubted the claim on stylistic grounds.
    yes, and the imagery and humour are so different. Connected or not, We and Brave New World are independently great works. Thanks for the jstor link – the first page does give a good idea of Collins’ argument. We were lucky with HG Wells, he got translated into Russian and widely published, while Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell were banned until the late 80s. It is because Wells, a friend of Gorky and in love with Gorky’s secretary/mistress, visited Russia at the end of the Civil War in 1920 and met Lenin. He wrote the critical ‘Russia in Shadows’ after the visit. Then, in 1934, Wells visited again and met Stalin for three hours. And later reported in glowing terms on Russia’s industrial progress. The story of the two visits was turned into a huge propaganda thing.
    key to define the terminology
    yes, of course. I think the main feature of a distopia is the good idea gone horribly wrong – the pursuit of happiness imposed on a society and making its ordinary members miserable, with or without them realising it. So, intelligent horses ruling savage monkeys probably doesn’t qualify, and, I think, Aristophanes doesn’t show socialising women as a complete failure? In the early Soviet years some local councils tried exactly that – with disastrous results. Rumours that bolsheviks would ‘communize’ women drove thousands under the White Army banners.
    more accurate, simply as a lexical translation, than The Possessed
    lexically, yes, obviously. I only bristled at the dismissive tone towards The Possessed which is equally good, if not better, as a literary translation.

  26. kittens come from bollocks, don’t they?
    Thanks for mentioning Wikipage, I forgot to look it up. There are more missing: Kingsley Amis’s The Russian Hide and Seek is good, sort of reverse plot of Fatherland – set about a generation after WWII, England under Russian rule, main character a dashing cavalry officer. And the Strugatsky Brothers Inhabited Island, a very clever ‘nesting doll’ plot – distopian planet being slowly turned round by an agent of the KGB – komission of gallactic security (bezopasnosti) when his evolutionary approach is upset by a young pilot from Earth who crash-lands on the planet, joins the resistance and starts a revolution, ingnoring the horrible consequences. The Earth in the novel is a utopian society, but the planet where events take place looks more like the real contemporary Earth. The novel, heavily censored, came out in the late 60-s. Last year a rather wimpy Russian film version was made.

  27. marie-lucie says

    I read the Dostoevsky book in French years ago as Les possédés, but I see that it is also known as Les démons. In French the second title can suggest that the characters are diabolical, monsters in human form: is that the Russian meaning too?
    Would it make sense to combine the two alternatives in English, as in “By devils possessed”?

  28. By James Gould Dostoevsky!

  29. is James Gould ‘Possessed’ worth reading? or is MacDonald’s enough?

  30. No idea. One thinks of Cozzens as a reactionary hack, but reading the Wikipedia article it seems like that may be an unfair characterization: “His prose is crafted meticulously and has an objective, clinical tone and subtle, dry humor. His work is at times complex, using multi-level layering and double voicing as narrative techniques for expressing viewpoint.” I probably will never get around to reading him, life being short and all that, but I’m willing to think of him with less condescension.

  31. as in “By devils possessed”

    you’ve caught just the essence of the very long debate about the title: is it meant to be in active (devils working to possess others) or passive voice (people who are possessed by devils)? There is a certain ambiguity in the Russian word бесы (besy). In singular (bes) it is roughly equivalent to the devil, but in plural it is more like evil spirits, naughty, wreaking havoc, but not necessarily on a grand scale. Besy envokes both ‘бесовский’ – diabolical and idiom ‘бес попутал’-‘devil got into me, devil possessed me’, say, to make the wrong turn, to have too much to drink, but not really to kill someone.

    The novel is the most political of all by Dostoyevsky. It is well known that it is based on the Nechayev incident – the murder in 1869 of a member of a revolutionary group who disagreed with the leader. Nechayev was tried and convicted in 1873. What I am not sure of is how well the significance of this, the Nechayev story, is understood. I think it was the defining turning point not only in Russia’s descent into violence, with the growing public acceptance and even approval of political terror, first individual, then mass, but it was also where the path started that lead to the politically motivated horrors of the 20th century. Nechayev was condemned by Marx, Bakunin and Lenin. But Lenin’s major add-on to marxism, the idea that a small well-disciplined and determined group of revolutionaries can seize power and then build a society of universal happiness relying on forcefuls means, that idea is there in Nechayev. Lenin hated Dostoyevsky, called him “архискверный” (arch-execrable), because, I think, no one like D. understood Nechayev’s element in the revolutionary movement – and showed it.

    This is why I think The Possessed is better. Devils or Demons is like saying ‘yeah, horrible, but they are not us’, Possessed is seeing the force that is there to take over our lives, possess us – and it is very close, maybe already inside us. (In Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ cycle daemons are people’s constant companions, separate from them, changing shape, but the link cannot be cut).

  32. John Emerson says

    I don’t know Russian or Russian history, but what sashura says is what I’ve thought. The idea of “possession” is that someone who might have been an ordinary person is taken over by an evil force, whereas the idea of “demons” would seem to just be the idea that some people are just naturally evil.

  33. John Emerson says

    “1984” is so Eighties.
    Ignatius Donnelly the early dystopiast also was the modern originator of the Atlantis myth, a major figure among the Baconists in Shakespeare studies, and the author of the preamble to the Populist Party’s Omaha Platform.

  34. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, Sashura. I should reread the novel in light of your comments (I was very young at the time and unaware of the historical context).

  35. sorry, I can’t help it – I have nearly fallen off my chair laughing after reading Kharms’ ‘literary anecdotes’ just now. (in Russian, I wonder if it’s available in English). Dostoyevsky is celebrating his own 150th birthday, all writers attend, they play cards, Tolstoy deals and each player has five aces. Dostoyevsky asks Pushkin to deal and every player gets six aces and two Queen of Spades…
    I have thought that Kharms’ ‘anecdotes’ were separate miniature pieces, but here it’s a long suite of stories, with logical composition, repeating microplots and incantatory motives: ‘Tolstoy loved children’ is repeated about a dozen times, each time there are more children. Absolute delight to read.

  36. Sashura, thank you for your analysis of translations of the Possessed title — I, too, prefer that version because I think it has a flexibility that fits the Russian title.

  37. P.S. There’s another review of Batuman’s book in today’s New York Times Book Review: link

  38. Oops, sorry, Languagehat, about the wrecked link… Here’s another go at the link to another review of Batuman’s book, this time in today’s New York Times Book Review: link

  39. and another one: here
    But is it the kind of review authors are after these days?

  40. There is a certain ambiguity in the Russian word бесы (besy). In singular (bes) it is roughly equivalent to the devil, but in plural it is more like evil spirits, naughty, wreaking havoc, but not necessarily on a grand scale.

    And then of course there’s Sologub’s Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon).

  41. John Cowan says

    Marie-Lucie’s suggested title By Devils Possessed reminded me of the novel By Furies Possessed (1970) by the author, editor, and music critic Ted White (not to be confused with the much better known author T. H. White or the historian Theodore H. White). It is for one thing a detective story with a particularly hard-boiled first person narrator, so much so as to be a complete asshole. The title refers immediately to the case he is investigating, which does indeed seem to involve widespread possession by something that causes the “infected” to change their thought and behavior patterns, an idea with obvious links to zombie fiction. The detective traces this change to a single person that he himself knows slightly, a sort of friendly Dracula, so the book is also a horror story, though without the conventional trappings. In the end, though, we see that the ones “by Furies possessed” are in fact the detective and his whole society, though things are changing (cf. Bujold’s insight that, just as detective stories are fantasies of justice and romances are fantasies of love, science fiction stories are fantasies of political action).

    ObFeghoot by Martin Helgesen (1981), dug up while researching this:

    In October, 1983, Ferdinand Feghoot appeared before the Supreme Court representing the National Conference of Christians and Jews. They were appealing a lower court decision on a suit filed by a group of atheists demanding not only that religious organizations be outlawed, but also that the very mention of a supreme being in public be banned as unconstitutional. Dale Bowman, the attorney for the plaintiff, concluded his argument that it was an infringement on the constitutional rights of an atheist for him to be subjected to the sight of people worshipping a being whose existence he denied. Then Feghoot arose and addressed the bench: “Court, save the united faiths and this honorable God.”

  42. John Cowan: In the end, though, we see that the ones “by Furies possessed” are in fact the detective and his whole society….

    Of course, this kind of sentiment was previously made famous by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which starts out seeming like the least political science fiction novel possible, but ends up being profoundly political in the end. Of course, none of the movie adaptations kept this ending, although the 2007 adaptation, which kept the title, was originally intended to end with Neville’s realization that he had become the legendary monster feared by the vampires. However, the ending was hastily changed to something without such moral ambiguity after test screening audiences were nonplussed.

  43. In the end, though, we see that the ones “by Furies possessed” are in fact the detective and his whole society, though things are changing (cf. Bujold’s insight that, just as detective stories are fantasies of justice and romances are fantasies of love, science fiction stories are fantasies of political action).

    For some reason that reminds me of Jon Bois’s remarkable sf/football/philosophy mashup 17776 (requires much scrolling; T of C here).

  44. Oh yes, when I saw that first, I thought “how can this be good, SF about American Football?” But it is good.

  45. Yes it is. And I’m no football fan.

  46. John Cowan says

    No, it isn’t. The first chapter was interesting. Then it got to be boring. Like football games.
    Then it got to be excruciatingly boring. And stupid. Like sports announcers.
    Then I started watching the videos by skipping forwards, because it was too boring to wait for the print to appear at reading speeds way below mine.
    Next I started skipping videos altogether.
    And then scrolling through the printed parts too fast to read, and not bothering to wait until the images loaded.
    And then I gave up.
    I don’t even remember exactly when.
    And I don’t care if there’s a point to the whole thing, I mean I see that it’s about eternal boredom, but dammit, a story about boredom shouldn’t be boring.
    So the hell with it.
    So the hell with
    So the hell
    So the

  47. Different strokes, man. Different strokes.

  48. .Wow, I am like totally agree with JC. Exactly the same impressions and exactly at the same points. And I never even met the man. I clicked through to the end though. There is nothing there. I mean, real nothing would be interesting. There is a black hole of banality.

    .The whole multimedia approach though is cool. Let’s try some colored text here.

    .Ok, font tag is not working.

    .See you on Andromeda. No football.

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