Goldstein’s Fields.

I’ve finally finished Alexander Goldstein’s final, and very difficult, novel Спокойные поля [Peaceful fields] (see this post), and I don’t really know what to say about it. I wasn’t sure whether to post about it at all, but having spent the better part of a month on it, and being impressed as well as confused, I decided I might as well. Besides, there’s very little available about Goldstein in English, so I feel I should add my mite. Fortunately, there’s an enthusiastic analysis at The Untranslated (“a work of intoxicating linguistic virtuosity and vast erudition”) that I can send you to for more, and I’ll quote the paragraph on him from A History of Russian Literature, by Kahn, Lipovetsky, Reyfman, and Sandler (see this post):

The in-between prose of the émigré critic and journalist Aleksandr Gol′dshtein (1957–2006) had a significant impact in experimental literary circles. His books Farewell to Narcissus (Proshchanie s Nartsissom, 1997), Aspects of the Spiritual Union (Aspekty dukhovnogo braka, 2001), Remember Famagusta (Pomni o Famaguste, 2004), and Quiet Fields (Spokoinye polia, 2006) were perceived as an updating of the novel through a free-floating combination of fiction, autobiography, impressionistic travelogues, cultural history, and criticism. Gol′dshtein shows that the challenge [Lydia] Ginzburg identified, namely, what literary prose should be in the aftermath of the Great Russian Novel, continued to spur writers to create new literary forms. Gol′dshtein defines the ambitions he has for his prose in a programmatic essay, “The Literature of Existence” (“Literatura sushchestvovaniia”), that concludes his book Farewell to Narcissus. He refers to what has been deemed the “new sincerity,” reflecting both the desire for an unmediated expression of individual experience and the postmodernist understanding of sincerity as a complex of rhetorical devices and discursive principles. […] Gol′dshtein proclaims an ideal of literature synthesizing genres and media, transcending all barriers, including those separating the biographical author from his/her literary image. “The unification of the word and the talking body” remain as utopian as Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty,” to which Gol′dshtein also refers.

So what did I think? For a long time I was simply floundering. He starts with a couple of pages on Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher/poet who has often been seen as Socratic (see Socrates in Russia, Part I and Part II), jumps to a bus ride in Israel and accompanying memories, then to Paris and someone called A.N. (he uses initials a lot, and sometimes lower-cases proper names for reasons I can’t discern), then to his friend Zhenya Pechonkin whom he meets again in Madrid… I couldn’t tell if there was any sequence or if it was a semi-random set of associations. There’s one chapter, “Yu.T. and Yu.N.,” that turned out to be a fairly harsh analysis of the Soviet writers Yuri Trifonov and Yuri Nagibin, both of whom I like (and why hide them behind initials?). Eventually I got to the long central chapter after which the book is named, which is set in Baku (where Goldstein grew up) and has a reasonably connected narrative about his friends Pavel and Oleg and the books they share with him, especially the Aeneid (the fields of the title are Virgil’s Elysian Fields); both friends die, and I began realizing the connecting thread of the novel (aside from literature) is death. The very first sentence is “Григорий Сковорода любил кладбища” [Grigory Skovoroda loved cemeteries], and it ends with a clear reference to his imminent death (“Оставляю себя” [I am leaving myself]). If that sounds grim, it doesn’t read that way; Goldstein’s love for words, books, and language shine through everything he writes and made me want to keep reading even when it took me an hour to figure out a paragraph.

Another thing that kept me interested was his wide range of references; in addition to the long list at the linked review at The Untranslated, I’ll add the Tibetan Bardo, Céline, Ian Dury, Fellini, Allen Ginsberg, Gurdjieff, Knut Hamsun, Ho Chi Minh, Georgy Ivanov, Joachim of Fiore, Mikhail Kuzmin, Mayakovsky, Moby Dick, Henry de Montherlant, Novalis, Fernando Pessoa, Andrei Platonov, Boris Poplavsky, Cole Porter, Ezra Pound, Rilke, Stockhausen, Vasily Yanovsky, and Efim Zozulya. He clearly wanted to memorialize everything he was leaving behind. One of the most moving to me was his quote from the Aeneid near the end of the long eponymous chapter: «Счастливы будьте, друзья, ваша доля свершилась». That’s a Russian translation of Virgil’s “vivite felices quibus est fortuna peracta/ jam sua,” rendered by Robert Fitzgerald as “Be happy, friends, your fortune is achieved.” This is said by a tearful Aeneas as he prepares to leave the mini-Troy created by Helenus, Andromache, and other fellow-exiles at Buthrotum (now Butrint in Albania); he, of course, is fated to sail on, encounter and abandon Dido, and found a more glorious mega-Troy at Rome. Goldstein is fated to move permanently to the Elysian Fields, hopefully (unlike this vale) perpetually peaceful.


  1. I understand the notion of variation between Goldstein and Goldshtein (or Goldshteyn), but the ‘ in Gol’dshtein seems … intrusive? Unnecessary? Evidence of a transliteration schema devised solely so it could be losslessly backtransliterated into Cyrillic by robots w/o any attention to user-friendliness for those accustomed to reading Latin-scripted languages?

  2. It represents a soft sign in the Russian. I personally think it’s confusing and otiose in an English text, but I’m quoting a book that uses it, so I copy it faithfully. Such is my lot in life.

  3. the postmodernist understanding of sincerity as a complex of rhetorical devices and discursive principles

    I don’t understand shit:(((((((

  4. Yeah, that’s academic-speak for you. I’m afraid the book, excellent as it is, is full of crap like that. There aren’t any more Prince Mirskys.

    By the way, I meant to mention in the post that there’s an annoying misprint on p. 231 (I won’t say “of my edition,” because I’m pretty sure there’s only one — only 2,000 1,000 copies were published, and I bought one of them just recently): “из Бенгалии на плантации чая в Ассане” should read “из Бенгалии на плантации чая в Ассаме” [from Bengal to the tea plantations of Assam].

  5. “the postmodernist understanding of sincerity as a complex of rhetorical devices and discursive principles”

    I read it as stating that what the author or the readers may interprete as “sincerity”, from post-modernist point of view is still a “complex of rhetorical devices and discursive principles” maybe unexamined by one or both sides.

  6. Sure. But the fact that it means something doesn’t keep it from being annoying jargon.

  7. If I am confused, I am never impressed; I am, however, often annoyed.

  8. I think the jargon underspecifies “sincerity.” As I understand the relevant postmodernist understanding(s) (perhaps imperfectly …), an overripe bunch of bananas is probably likewise “a complex of rhetorical devices and discursive principles.” When a single secret gnostic insight purports to explain absolutely everything in the phenomenal world, it rapidly becomes trivial/banal.

  9. Quite so. The interesting thing is that they have to keep changing gnostic insights every few years in order to keep the banality fresh.

  10. I’m sure that most “sincerity devices,” such as used in lyrical poetry, fiction and diaries, had been identified, taken apart and reassembled long before postmodernism. By Russian Formalists, for example.

  11. in order to keep the banality fresh
    Under the influence of JWB’s example, I read that as bananity first.

  12. In retrospect, that’s what I should have written. L’esprit de l’espalier!

  13. Pruning the garden of postmodernism, one pun at a time… 🙂

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