Russian Literature

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (Trust Peirene Press to Deliver!)

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For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by this wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is. How multicoloured the sky above. How fluid the air all around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring up out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling round the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine. The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land…

As he grew, Yerzhan noticed all the subtle shades and gradations of the road they followed to Petko’s music lessons. And that road seemed like music to him: it was just as fluent, the sounds were just as varied. The notes of the wind swayed on the little tamarisk and saltwort shrubs. Shrews and ground squirrels sang the second and third voices.

At home, Grandad’s severe, wrinkled face seemed to the boy like the Bach violin concerto that he was learning to play. Shaken’s tedious cheerfulness was like Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese March, which they had decided not to bother learning at all. Kepek’s dumb behaviour was like Gavinies’s endless etudes. And his Aisulu’s pink-cheeked little face was Vivaldi’s Winter, which the Bulgarian Petko played with ecstatic gusto during the late Kazakh summer.

And only the women, including the city bride Baichichek, did Yerzhan still associate with the monotonous sounds of the old-fashioned dombra.

How I loved this novel. It promised to be a “two-hour book devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film”. But, it took me more than two hours to read The Dead Lake because I wanted to carefully absorb every word.

This novel is the story of a twenty-five year old man who looks like he is twelve. He is a masterful violinist, something which seems quite incongruous due to growing up at a way station on the steppe. How can such an isolated spot allow for such a skill? This man-child, Yerzhan, tells us his story on the train travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan.

It is a story involving his whole world: two families, two shacks, two grandmothers, a grandfather, an uncle, his mother. Their lives are simple and secluded, yet interwoven in ways that cannot be separated. It must be a miracle, that three-year old Yerzhan picks up his grandfathers dombra and plays with such skill that he soon begins lessons with a Bulgarian violinist. He is a wunderkind.

But, being such a talented child does not prevent him from being defiantly brave and in so doing change the entire course of his life. For he lives near the Zone, a fenced in area where atomic weapons are tested, which is where he is introduced to the Dead Lake.

Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecing the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples no trembling–a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possible be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?

The Dead LakeThe Dead Lake brings into sharp focus how the decisions we make when young affect us all of our lives. It is a terribly piercing and poignant book, from Peirene Press’ coming of age series. Just like The Mussel Feast which I read last year, it tells far more than simply a story.

Hamid IsmailovAuthor: Born in 1954 in Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. he writes in both Russian and Uzbek, and his novels and poetry have been translated into many European languages, including German, French and Spanish. In 1994 he was forced to fell to the UK because of his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. He now works for the BBC World Service. His first novel to be published in English. The Railway, appeared in 2006, followed by A Poet and Bin-Laden in 2012. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan today.

Translator: Andrew Bromfield’s career of more than twenty years as a translator of Russian literature had its beginnings in Moscow during the perestroika period. In 1991 he was a founding editor of the journal Glas: New Russian Writing. He has translated works by Boris Akunin, Vladimir Voinovich and Irina Denezhkina, among other writers.

There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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I used to glorify Russia, having never visited there. But I pictured the snow in sparkling white crystals, with troikas skimming over the surface, as if Russia was a fairy land made of ice palaces rather than a prison made of rooms so poorly heated a family of four cannot stay warm within the walls.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya gives me a more accurate picture of Russia. A picture so bleak and hopeless I am grateful for every bad day I’ve ever had. Because all of them together could not equate with the life she has portrayed for the mother, also a poet, in her novella, Time is Night.

This mother’s own mother has schizophrenia. She has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital where at least she can receive a modicum of care. For the woman of the house has all she can do to manage her drunken son Andrey, freshly released from prison; her daughter, Alena, pregnant with her third child and no husband; her grandson, Tima, who counts on her for his daily existence yet lets her slide into the background when his mother appears at the door.

How can a simple apartment hold so many people? How can a poet’s salary provide enough food or money for the rent? How can a family survive under such conditions, and forgive me, such stupidity? For I know not how a woman can become pregnant over and over without a husband or a job. I know not how a son can rob from his mother when it is possible to live honorably. Maybe it is easy for me to say, as I have suffered under neither poverty nor such a hopeless existence.

This sentence, cried out by the mother as she is begging the ambulance driver to take her and her mother home, illuminates much:

On the other hand, if they get rid of me quickly, they can get a nice easy assignment: a family hacked to pieces by a drunken husband, for example.

This book comprised of three novellas is absolutely piercing. The description of horrors each family lives under is balanced by the writing of a humane and compassionate heart. It is no wonder that the novellas in There Once Lived A Woman Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In have earned Ludmilla Petrushevskaya the recognition of being one of Russia’s best living writers. Her writing contributes much to my understanding of life in Russia, of lives led in a quiet desperation. This book has touched me deeply.

Praise from other sources:

“An important writer . . . Russia’s best-known . . . She’s a much better storyteller than her American counterparts in the seedy surreal. . . . Petrushevskaya’s stories should remind her readers of our own follies, illusions and tenderness.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov.”
—More

[Petrushevskaya] is hailed as one of Rus­sia’s best living writers. This slim volume shows why. Again and again, in surprisingly few words, her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Petrushevskaya’s short stories—which use fairy tale imagery and allegory to comment on Russia’s Soviet past and corrupt present—combine Gogol’s depth of absurdity and Shirley Jackson paranoia, to disturbing effect…The rise of the tightly constructed ‘weird’ tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future.”
—NPR.org

“Anything but dull, the stories twist and peak in odd places. They create nooks in which the reader can sit and think: What does this mean?”
—Los Angeles Times

The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov

The devil has many names. In this novel, he is a black magician. A consultant. A translator, a spy and Satan.

I think he could also be called government.

For Mikhail Bulgakov seems to take on Satan and the Soviet in equal measure.

Perhaps I am ill equipped to write a review on this fantastic and lyrical novel, laden with Russian culture with which I have little experience. All I can leave are my impressions, for much like Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on The Shore, this is a novel which I will need to read more than once. And each time, I’m certain, I will gain  more understanding.

However, my edition is stuck full of little tabs, and it is a few of these marked passages which I will comment upon here:

A diminutive elderly gentleman with an unusually sad face, wearing an old-fashioned tussore-silk suit and a stiff straw had with a green band, was coming up the stairs. He stopped near Poplavsky.

“May I ask you, citizen,” the man in tussore-silk inquired sadly, “where is the apartment No. 50?”

“Upstairs,” was Poplavsky’s abrupt reply.’

“My humble thanks, sir,” the man replied, equally as sadly, and proceeded up the stairs, while Poplavsky got up from the bench and ran downstairs.

The question arises: did Maximilian Andreyevich rush off to the police station to lodge a complaint against the thugs who had brutalized him so savagely in broad daylight? Emphatically, no, not at all, that can be said with confidence. To go to the police and say that a cat wearing glasses had just examined your passport, and that a man in tights, with a knife had…No citizens, Maximilian Andreyevich was far too smart for that! (p. 170)

The devil and his assistants (the cat, for one) create a destruction which cannot be believed. The minute a victim tries to identify what has happened, he is labelled as crazy; indeed several have ended up in the psych ward. They are being observed, and sedated, because no one can believe their stories. A cat, a black magician, a man in a jockey cap and pince-nez, do not do the things these victims claim. Therefore, the victims have no where to turn. The government does not believe them, the health care system does not believe them. They are left to wonder if in fact they are crazy, while the three continue to wreak havoc within Moscow.

Margarita Nikolayevna was putting her coat on in the front hall, getting ready to go out for a walk. The beautiful Natasha, her maid, asked her what she wanted for dinner, and when she said she didn’t care, for amusement, Natasha began a casual conversation with her mistress, and started relating God knows what, something about a magician at the theater yesterday who had performed astounding tricks, handing out free bottles of imported perfume and stockings, and then how, after the show, when everyone was out on the street, abracadabra-they were all naked! Margarita Nikolayevna collapsed on the chair beneath the hall mirror and burst out laughing.

“Natasha! Shame on you,” said Margarita, “a girl like you who knows how to read; people in lines make up the devil knows what, and here you go repeating it!” (p. 189)

Imagine receiving imported perfume (Guerlain’s Mitsouko, one of my favorites, is included here), new lilac shoes, a wonderful new dress…and then discovering you have nothing at all. Even the bills which flutter down from the magician’s show are only so much paper. They are utterly worthless when the bundles are later closely examined. What can this mean but to show us the devil’s empty promises? We eagerly receive something we want, and end up holding nothing at all when it is given by him.

It is not until page 305 that Woland (the black magician, spy, devil, and assorted other names he has been called throughout the novel) is at last appropriately named:

“Hah”! exclaimed Woland, looking mockingly at the man who had entered. “You’re the last person one would have expected to see here! What brings you here, uninvited, but expected guest?”

“I’ve come to see you, Spirit of Evil and Sovereign of the Shadows,” replied the man, looking sullenly at Woland from under his furrowed brows.

“If you’ve come to see me, then why haven’t you greeted me and wished me well, former tax collector?” said Woland in a stern voice.

“Because I don’t want you to be well,” was the newcomer’s impudent reply.

Interspersed within the pages of this novel, largely a story of the devil’s visit to Moscow, is the imaginatively interpreted story of Yeshua, Pontius Pilate, and Yershalaim. It is an approximation of the text found in the New Testament, but deviated just enough to be Bulgakov’s own interpretation. One in which he intimates that one who is there wears a white cloak with a red lining (Woland? Satan?) and that Christ dies at the hands of the “cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate.” (p. 325)

In my opinion, Bulgakov is examining the world’s woes, the forces of evil and the ineptitude of government, while also telling a story of love. One in which the lady is willing to sell her soul to the devil in order to be with the Master she loves.

(I read this novel for tuesday‘s Russian in November literature month.)

Beginning The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

In complete disgust I have laid down Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Like a tough piece of meat, I’ve been chewing on it all November, and it just won’t go away. I’m on page 500-something of 800-something pages, and frankly, it’s not the depth of the book that’s getting me down. It’s that November is  more than half gone, and I have Things To Do.  
I’ve promised myself to read Norwegian Wood this November for my own Japanese Literature Challenge 6.
 I’ve also promised tuesday to participate in her Russian Reading month this November.
So, bye-bye Stephen. Until we met again. Not that I haven’t enjoyed some of your novel, such as the trip down memory lane to the 60’s when I myself was a child.
Last night I opened The Master and Margarita for Russian Reading month. It is every bit as thrilling as I’ve been promised. I find myself inserting post-it tabs in several places, and I’m only on page 62. Behold what has struck me thus far:
  • “I couldn’t agree more!” concurred the stranger, his eye agleam, and he continued, “But this is what disturbs me: if there is no God, then, the questions is, who is in control of man’s life and the whole order of things on earth?” (p. 8)
  • A quarter of an hour later Ryukhin was sitting all by himself, hunched over a plate of carp, downing glass after glass (of vodka). He was coming to realize and to acknowledge that he could not rectify anything in his life, he could only forget. (p. 61)
There’s so much in these two passages! Who is in control of man’s life? We could talk about that forever. Is the solution to rectifying anything in one’s life to only forget? We could talk about that, too.
And, I hope we will once I finish The Master and Margarita in all its tremendous power.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Final Thoughts)

Now more than ever before in my life I see how the person you are when you read a novel effects how you react to it. Lesley and I first discovered this in our shared read of The Thorn Birds. I found it to be true again not a month later with Anna Karenina.
The first time I read Anna Karenina I was in college. Anna’s obsession with Vronsky made sense to me then. I couldn’t understand why my paper which compared her to women everywhere was received with scorn by my Russian Literature professor. “She’s a cold fish,” I thought to myself, and dismissed her opinion as easily as Anna dismissed the voice of reason expressed all around her.
When I saw that the film was being released this November, Arti and I decided to read it together this autumn. I also suggested it to my mother’s book club, to which I have been kindly included for the past twenty years. As the leader for our discussion I opened with, “Can’t you relate to Anna? Isn’t she like women everywhere?” I was met with a combination of blank looks and disbelieving eyes. “No,” they said, “she’s not like us at all.”
Of course, when well past one’s twenties, one finds more rational thought than Anna expressed in Tolstoy’s novel. She’d languished in the force of Vronsky’s gaze, she’d trembled at his touch, and soon she’d abandoned everything for his love. Her marriage, her son, her place in society were all replaced by an ever consuming love for Vronksy which was eventually poisonous in its expression. The depth of her emotion was poisonous to him, and ultimately poisonous to her, resulting in her own demise. Unlike Madame Bovary’s lover, Vronsky truly loved Anna but nothing he could do would convince her that was so.
And suddenly, remembering the man who was run over the day she first met Vronsky, she realized what she must do. With a quick, light step she went down the stairs that led from the water pump to the rails and stopped close to the passing train. She looked at the bottoms of the carriages, at the bolts and chains and big cast-iron wheels of the first carriage slowly rolling by, and tried to estimate by eye the midpoint between the front and back wheels and the moment when the middle would be in front of her.
‘There!’ she said to herself, staring into the shadow of the carriage as the sand mixed with coal poured between the sleepers, ‘there, right in the middle, and I’ll punish him and be rid of everybody and of myself.’ (p. 768)
In the ultimate act of selfishness, Anna throws herself in front of a train. To some this act is viewed as despair, to others it is a way to ‘make him pay’ for not loving her enough. But, what is enough? As my dear friend Carol said to me the other night over a cup of tea, “She was chasing after that which could never satisfy.” We cannot find our fulfillment in another human being. Surely we can love. Surely we can find joy and laughter and passion in the presence of our lover. But our needs can never be entirely met by someone else.
I believe that Tolstoy hints at this when he tells the story of Konstantin Levin. His wealthy landowner life parallels that of the St. Petersberg/Moscow life which Anna and Vronsky pretend to enjoy. He works hard with the peasants, in some of the most beautifully written passages I have ever read.

Not understanding what it was or where it came from, in the midst of his work he suddenly felt a pleasant sensation of coolness on his hot, sweaty shoulders. He glanced at the sky while his blade was being whetted. A low, heavy cloud had come over it, and big drops of rain were falling. Some muzhiks went for their caftans and put them on; others, just like Levin, merely shrugged their shoulders joyfully under the pleasant freshness.

They finished another swath and another. They went through long swaths, short swaths, with bad grass, with good grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus’s. But soon as he remembered what he was doing and started trying to do better, he at once felt how hard the work was and the swath came out badly.” (p. 251)

The novel does not end with Anna’s death. It ends with Levin’s beginning. He has come to understand the very foundations of faith, of belief in God, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up a novel which focuses on happiness. On needs. On our ultimate fulfillment as human beings.
‘This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed – just like the feeling for my son. Nor was there any surprise. And faith or not faith – I don’t know what it is – but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul.
‘I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak in my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!’
The End

I read this with Arti of Ripple Effects. You can find her thoughts here, Care’s here, and Stephanie’s here.



Anna Karenina (Parts 1 and 2)

Arti of Ripple Effects and I decided to read Anna Karenina together before it’s released in film on November 9. She began earlier than I, and is posting on Parts 1-4; I am rereading it more slowly and have only completed up to Part 2. But, we’re still sharing our initial thoughts with you today, perhaps giving you an incentive to read along with us before we finish at the end of October?
I can’t tell you how passionate I am about this novel. I first read it in college, for one of my many Russian literature courses, and I clearly remember writing a paper which I titled, “Anna Karenina: The Plight of The Russian Noble Woman.”
I got a horrible grade.
The professor did not feel that Anna was representative of a typical Russian woman, noble or not, in any way. And now that I have read it again and again in the years since, I think I should have titled my paper: “Anna Karenina: The Plight of People Everywhere.” For to me, it is indicative of the search that we all have to follow our passions, to pursue our desires, to find happiness out of an often dull and repetitive existence. The only difference between some of us and Anna is that we curb our appetites. Whereas she does not.
The novel is full of foreshadowing. As I read my nook, so much lighter to hold than the tome above, I kept marking passages with the highlight function. This, I find, is one of the joys in rereading. You know what’s coming, and you are able to look with what you’re rereading in a “brighter” light. For example, we find Anna talking with the mother of her lover-to-be in their train compartment:
“I could go all around the world with you and never be dull. You are one of those delightful woman in whose company it’s sweet to be silent as well as to talk. Now please don’t fret over your son; you can’t expect never to be parted.”
or, when her husband begins to understand that she is in love with Count Vronsky he says:
“Our life has been joined, not by man, but by God. That union can only be severed by a crime, and a crime of that nature brings its own chastisement.”
We will leave the subject of Anna’s chastisement for later; I simply wanted to point out two small, but extremely powerful, examples of what is to come.
My favorite character in the novel is Levin. He is the landowner, he is the one grounded in simplicity and faith. Almost everything he says is true and good, and I find myself holding him in great admiration. Well, admiration, but also compassion, for the doubts that he holds are the very same doubts I have often asked myself:
“As he saw all this, there came over him for an instant a doubt of the possibility of arranging the new life, of which he had been dreaming on the road. All these traces of his life seemed to clutch him, and to say to him: “No, you’re not going to get away from us, and you’re not going to be different, but you’re going to be the same as you’ve always been; with doubts, everlasting dissatisfaction with yourself, vain efforts to amend, and falls, and everlasting expectation, of a happiness which you won’t get, and which isn’t possible for you.”

It seems that each of Tolstoy’s characters are in a search to discover happiness. To find fulfillment in their lives. It is the way in which they do so which so compels me to love this novel.

To be continued later in October…

The Lost Button by Irene Rozdobudko

by Irene Rozdobudko
translated by Michael M. Naydan
published by Glagoslav Publications, UK, 2012
181 pages
I have an enormous passion for Russian literature, much like the one I hold for Japanese. And so it was with great pleasure that I accepted some contemporary Russian Ukrainian novels, published by Glagoslav Publications, for review. The book you see pictured above is the first I’ve read, and it is a mysterious, ethereal love story. It is also a search for meaning, and one’s place in the world, which are a few of my favorite themes. Here is a blurb from the back cover, which gives you a rather succinct idea of what to expect from this novel:
The taut psychological thriller The Lost Button keeps the reader transfixed. It received first place in the Coronation of the Word competition in 2005 and subsequently was made into a feature film. The novel tells the story of young student scriptwriter’s encounter with a mysterious, femme fatale actress named Liza at a vacation resort in the Carpathian Mountains in Soviet Ukraine in the 1970s. Unable to let go of his love after getting lost with her in the woods for one beautiful night, the young man’s fascination with the actress turns into an obsessions that changes his life dramatically.
Great happiness or great tragedy can begin from the smallest detail, from a button, that is so easy to lose, but for which you can search your entire life. The Lost Button, a drama that ranges in geography from Central Europe to the United States of America, is a novel about love, devotion, and betrayal. It is about not looking back, but always valuing what you have – today and forever.
As I read this novel, slowly and carefully, I found myself marking wonderful quotes in the margins. I’ll leave you with a few of them below:
~”I studied the requisite five years. I won’t say that I forgot her and didn’t look for her. I looked. Til the time when I came to the conclusion: in the end, everyone aspires for just one thing – love, saying it in a different way – recognition. This searching can lead you just about anywhere – to terrorism, feminism, fascism, just anywhere. Whoever doesn’t want to disappear into oblivion, but who doesn’t have any talent, strives in any way to make himself be known. If Hitler had been recognized as a real artist, if Josef Dzhugashvilli (Joseph Stalin) hadn’t been thrown out of the seminary, would they have wanted to prove to the world that they exist in such a horrific way? ” (p. 59)
~”Everyone in this life bears his cross,” the old woman said, “The more mistakes you make, the heavier the cross becomes. And yours, my child, is really small. Bear it, endure, and have faith…” (p. 160)
~”It was still dark outside. The icy fog wreathed like milk before me. I walked five or six meters and turned around: there was nothing behind me. There was no grandmother, no orchard, no house there – everything dissolved in the white haze…I felt sharp pain in my heart for the first time in several months. I realized: life has no taste, in its pure form it’s like distilled water. We add salt, pepper, or sugar to it ourselves. When life acquires taste – your heart hurts more.” (p. 160)
~”Sooner or later, people who don’t feel any love turn into a zombie, into amorphous nothingness, they are not satisfied with life no matter how good it is.” (p. 165)
This book is remarkable for what it has to say about love. It encompasses the way we love as humans, selfishly and selflessly, and in so doing make the object of our affection an idol. Or, a ghost of who they really are. This is a tremendously creative, and thought provoking novel, one which I savored throughout the weekend.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My mother has invited me to attend a Classical Pursuits course in Toronto this summer from July 12 through the 21st. We’re reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (which seems fitting given the teaching career I’ve held for the past 28 years). Anyway, the translation we’ll be discussing is the one by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and I’ll be posting on it probably more than once in July as it’s such an important novel.
So, should you wish to know more about Dostoevsky, or idiots, please feel free to join me. We’ll have a lot to discuss, including these questions put forth by our leader:
  • Dostoevsky’s intention was “to portray a truly beautiful soul.” What are the stakes of such a goal? How does Dostoevsky characterise Prince Myshikin?
  • What is the relationship between the setting and the characters’ internal world?
  • For what characters does the narrator have the most sympathy? The least?
  • For whom do you feel the most sympathetic?
  • The novel is filled with “scandalous scenes” and contrasts/clashes. What might their role be?
Are you willing to read along? I’d love to hear your ideas on these toward the end of July!

Ivan and Misha

They lay quiet, looking up at the sky. “Which do you think is bigger,” Misha asked, “the Grand Canyon or the Milky Way?”

“Wrong question, Mishka. The point is not how big they are, it’s how small we are.”

“But together, you and me,” Misha had said, “we’re as big and grand as this canyon and all the stars put together.”

What a tender book this is. I’m not Russian, I’m not a twin, I’m not especially close to my brother, and I’m not homosexual. But Michael Alenyikov writes with such compassion and eloquence, that these two brothers and their father became instantly endearing to me. Through a series of separate-but-connected chapters we read of their lives; the way their father has brought them to America, sparing them the full story of their mother’s death, but fulfilling his promise to them. Now he is fragile, even dying, but he loves his sons and on this they can rely.

Ivan is manic depressive. When he’s “up” he’s in a frantic state, once not sleeping for nine days in a row, driving his taxis around New York, talking with his fares, calling his brother with hare-brained schemes or consolations depending on his mood.

Misha is the steadier one, in my opinion, of these twins. The bond between them is flawed but unbreakable. He will set aside everything when Ivan calls, ready to be there for Ivan’s needs which in many ways answer his own.

Ivan and Misha is a powerful look at America. At homosexuality. At family. It reads with a lyricism I would have thought impossible given such emotionally laden themes. It touched me quite deeply, especially when Alenyikov wrote of their father, or the way I felt that neither Russia nor America was their home.

Aren’t many of us ‘strangers in this land’?

Dr. Zhivago: Book Two

The Bolshevik by Kustodiev

I am a sucker for Russian novels, for snow and despair, and for tragic love stories. Anna (Karenina), Emma (Bovary), and now Larissa (Feodorovna), tell me how it didn’t work out for you, and I will feel sympathetic for your loss. I shouldn’t; it’s your own damn fault that you were married and chose to love another. But, I do. Because these things happen. In the midst of war, or the boredom of everyday lives, or utter isolation, it would be easy to be led astray. But how much harder to suffer the consequences.

Lara’s husband is fighting for freedom; after searching for him, assuming him dead, she is left alone to raise their daughter, Katenka. Yuri Zhivago was taken captive by the army to help the wounded. After he escapes, he is a fugitive. While living with Lara, they can neither return to their respective homes nor make a new one together. It is a hopeless situation, indicative to me of the hopelessness found in Russia during the October Revolution. Their joy together is brief and ultimately destined for despair.

“The closer this woman and her daughter became to him, the less he dared to think of them as family and the stricter was the control imposed on his thoughts by his duty to his own family and the pain of his broken faith…But the division in him was a sorrow and a torment, and he became accustomed to it only as one gets used to an unhealed and frequently reopened wound.” (p. 406)

But before that, their relationship is explained as this:

“Their love was great. Most people experience love without becoming aware of the extraordinary nature of this emotion. But to them–and this made them exceptional–the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of eternity were moments of revelation, of continually new discoveries about themselves and life.” (p. 395)

How can it be both, a torment and a revelation? Perhaps in a similar way that the Bolsheviks are striving for their place in Russia…

A book of tremendous layers, political as well as social, it is always the story of Yuri and  Lara which most moves me. I can almost cry with her as

“she was shaken by her repressed sobs. She fought her tears as long as she could, but at times it was beyond her strength and they burst from her, pouring down her cheeks and onto her dress, her hands, and the coffin, to which she clung.

She neither spoke nor thought. Sequences of ideas, notions, insights, truths drifted and sailed freely through her mind, like clouds in the sky, as happened so often before during their nighttime conversations. It was such things that had brought them happiness and liberation in those days. A spontaneous mutual understanding, warm, instinctive, immediate.” (p. 501)

A mutual understanding which they were forced to forfeit because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Find more thoughts from Frances, Bookssnob, Marie, Jess, and Joan.