Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

I surprised myself by agreeing with him! "Wigan Pier", "Down and Out in Paris and London" are important reportage, also "Homage to Catalonia" if you account for the very obvious bias, and even (the much weaker) "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" may be worth reading for the satire (not the characterization or plot drama, which are almost nil), but Orwell as didactic preacher ("Animal Farm", "1984", "Politics and the English Language") really is just mediocre at best. Good reporter, shallow thinker. And barely acceptable as a novelist.

Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

Now I suppose I'd better read something by Will Self.


Postscript: Russia and Ukraine

The "pregnancy" metaphor, may be overworked, but this analysis is in line with our impressions from the Russian newscasts and our conversations during our recent visit to Russia:

Russia Is Pregnant with Ukraine

New York Review of Books, 2014.07.24


Revolutionary thought, from Michelet to Lenin

Edmund Wilson's TO THE FINLAND STATION: A Study in the Writing and Acting of HistoryTO THE FINLAND STATION: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yesterday I devoted a pair of hours to a review of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, composing directly on the Goodreads review screen as was my habit. But when I was finally satisfied with it and pressed the button to “Publish,” the review vanished! Replaced by the sign-in screen for Goodreads. I won’t do that again. From now on, I’ll compose my reviews in Word, then post them — so if the link fails, I’ll still have my draft.

I won’t try to reconstruct my review. Instead, I refer you to the very good, thorough critique of this book by Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, March 24, 2003, The Historical Romance: Edmund Wilson’s adventure with Communism.

Menand will tell you how Wilson got the idea for the book and his many problems in writing it, including his changing attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Wilson, beginning this huge project in the 1930s, had got himself committed to an overly rosy picture of the Soviet Union, one that no longer convinced even him by the time he published the book in 1940. In his new introduction written in 1971 (a year before his death), Wilson tries to correct that rosy view, at least partially, quoting some very negative reminiscences by contemporaries of Lenin and making very explicit his disgust with Josef Stalin, who was barely mentioned in the original book.

 More important for contemporary readers, as Menand points out, is the success of this wide-ranging history of revolutionary thought in bringing together the ideas and the often tangled lives of those who developed them, from Jules Michelet to Vladimir Lenin. Wilson here is clearly emulating Michelet, whose histories of the French revolution he admires for making the past seem suspenseful and contemporary, viewing events (as much as possible) through the eyes of the people who were living them.

But the book is really historical journalism rather than philosophy, where Wilson was hopelessly incompetent — evident in his chapter on Marx and Engels’ concept of the dialectic. Menand writes,

“The dialectic was just the sort of high-theory concept that Wilson reflexively avoided. At the same time, he was not a man quick to concede his ignorance, and he devoted a chapter of his book to explaining that the dialectic is basically a religious myth (a characteristic exercise in journalistic debunking). Wilson had no idea what he was talking about. ”

Menand however does, and explains it in as good a two-paragraph exposition as you’re likely to find of this subtle and complex way of thinking. I recommend it.

View all my reviews


Historical fiction

Here, in this essay by Sam Jordison, is a clear defense of a genre that needs no defense — historical fiction has always been with us, since Homer, and continues to have very wide readership. Even though some of it is no more that what Hilary Mantel described as "chick-lit with wimples."

What interested me most was this other quote from Hilary Mantel, on the special challenge for serious exploration of the past:
"The grumbling is aimed at literary fiction set in the past,
which is accused of being, by its nature, escapist. It's as if the past
is some feathered sanctuary, a nest muffled from contention and the
noise of debate, its events suffused by a pink, romantic glow. But this
is not how, in practice, modern novelists see their subject matter. If
anything, the opposite is true. A relation of past events brings you up
against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them,
would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The
danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it
is its obscenity."
In the Paris Commune, the most transgressive "obscenity" is not sexual, but the subversiveness of the exalted revolutionary ideals. And the terrible bloodiness of the affair, especially in that final week of May 1871, and the disturbing parallels to cruel events today. This all may surpass the borders of what readers can accept. I shall try to take my readers into that disturbing, exhilarating world, though I know many may be reluctant to go there.
Paris sous le drapeau rouge. Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. De Vieux papiers (blog)

Historical fiction can speak very clearly to the present and the past | Books | theguardian.com


Russians today

Back home in Spain after two weeks in Russia and reflecting on what it all has meant. Our last visit in Saint Petersburg (Monday, 2 days ago), after the ornate Italianate-Slavonic Smolny cathedral and monastery, was to the decidedly un-ornate and still busy Finland Station, Finlyandskaya Vokzal, a plain white railroad and Metro terminal behind a magnificent statue of  Lenin pointing to the future. And yesterday on the plane, I finished Edmund Wilson's look back to the history culminating in that gesture. I'll have more to say about that ambitious, stimulating and antiquated book, To the Finland Station, in a future essay. For now, just some general impressions of Russia.

Finland Station, St. Petersburg
First and most importantly, the people. Everyone we met, anyone we approached to ask directions or anything else, was friendly and helpful — surprisingly so, at first, until we realized that that was the norm. Our initial surprise was because of the difference in facial expression and body language. Russians look severe until you give them a reason to look at you with interest and to smile, which requires no more than that you take an interest in them by saying "Hello" or "Excuse me, do you know…?" And the typical Russian stride takes command of the ground more definitively than the lighter, quicker steps we're used to. Russians appear brusque and direct to Westerners (just read the guide books), which I quite liked. When they try to help you, they get right to the point, and may go so far as to walk out of their way to point and show you what it is they think you asked. At least, that was our experience. It's a huge country with millions of individuals and regional contrasts, but such were the people we encountered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A second general impression was the over-all cleanliness of streets and sidewalks, and —mostly — the good repair of public spaces, as compared to, say, Madrid or New York. No obvious garbage strewn on the streets or rivers. Nor did we see much obvious poverty, even outside the central tourist areas, except for a few, mostly elderly women, mendicants. Nor any jostling or shoving — beyond unavoidable pressing together —even on the crowded subway cars.

Finally, as I've already noted in this blog, there appears to be an attitude of critical respect toward the whole, still recent Soviet experience. Most of the statues and images of Stalin have disappeared (except as jokey designs on matryoshki and other souvenirs), but many of Lenin remain, and at least some of the impressive architecture is being restored.

Unfortunately I don't have the language skills for more than minimal observation, so I can't tell you much about public opinion. From comments by our Moscow guide, and the flags and collection booths for money for the people of Donbass, it was evident that a sizable part of the population think that Russia must support the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and from all that and what we read or saw in Russian media, that US accusations against the Russian government are baseless and motivated by competitive interest. And people seem very satisfied to have recovered Crimea.


Do svidanya, Rossiya

Or to say this in proper Russian, До свида́ния, Россия. This is our last night in St. Petersburg and in Russia. We're a bit tired, so I'll just mention some highlights since my last blog entry.

The Russian Museum — Best collection we've seen of not only constructivist art (Malevich, Popova, Tatlin and others), but also of their contemporaries working from different premises in that brief golden age of post-October Revolution creativity.

Museum of Political History  — The two houses (one of a ballerina favored by Nicholas II, the other of a rich merchant) that became Lenin's headquarters in Petrograd, now joined as this museum, are themselves well worth seeing. The exhibits are a detailed history of Russia and the USSR, and now simply "Russia" again, 1917 to the present. In Russian, but with booklets with English-language explanations. Lenin's Petrograd office was in the best corner of the merchant's house.

Constructivist architecture in a working-class district of the city, far off the tourist route, but we got to see the most important examples still standing. Details to come.


Russia, revolution and me

On the 4 1/2 hour train ride from Leningradsky Station in Moscow to Moskovskaya Station in Saint Petersburg last Thursday, I continued re-reading Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station.
Lenin's train. From Canadian Military History
I've now got close to the end of this history of revolutionary thought from Michelet to the 1917 revolution, and the arrival of Lenin and other exiles at the Finland Station in Petrograd (as the city was then known), which we plan to see tomorrow. Meanwhile, while visiting museums (the Hermitage, Museum of Russian Art) and monuments and churches and walking all over the central city in this great heat, I've been reflecting on what this visit means for me and what I've defined as my life projects.

The most immediate of those projects is completing my novel about the Paris Commune. Wilson is little help there; his too-brief summary is not only mistaken in some details, but treats the whole adventure with detached bemusement. But Wilson and this Russia visit both help me understand better the larger and longer-lasting context of that adventure. More important, they have led me to understand this novel in larger terms. What I really aim to do is understand all of social change, the revolutionary impulse, how it gets mobilized, its splits and contradictions, and especially the conflicts ensuing upon initial victory. The Paris Commune of the spring of 1871 is but one essential chapter. It inspired Lenin and all the other Russian revolutionaries, which is one reason it is essential. The other is that it was a tightly condensed laboratory experience that suggests almost all that can, or has, happened, not only in Russia 1917-1920, but also Mexico 1910 and after, Cuba 1956 (landing of the Granma) and on, and so on. I don't know how much of all this I'll be able to complete before that great, final deadline, but the whole picture, however dimly, will be in my mind as I continue.

So I see these questions as parts of two life projects: 1, to write fiction that helps me and my readers enter these processes emotionally, and 2, to analyze them as the sociologist I was trained to be.

And finally there is a much smaller, less ambitious project: for over 50 years I've wanted to learn Russian, and now I'm doing it. I've begun working through the originals, with the help of the translations, in a bilingual edition of Osip Mandelstam's verse, and loving it. This trip has been the great stimulus.


Moscow: dead Lenin

It is a quasi religious experience, after standing in line in the hot July sun and finally passing the security checkpoint, to  file past the red granite tombstones of Communist heroes — John Reed among them (no women, as far as I could see, though I didn't actually manage to read all the names) — and then enter the dark descending staircase. Uniformed honor guards signaled vigorously for me to take off my cap and hushed everybody. Then, after another turn in the dark passageway, you file past the waxy figure, dressed as though to chair a meeting or give a speech. The guards keep everybody moving so soon we are back in the bright sun, walking past still more tombstones and plaques with names of dead Communists. 

Today's Russians must view Lenin much the way Americans are supposed to think of George Washington, as the founder (or "father") of the modern state, meriting the same kind of respect as Peter the Great, the motor force of an earlier great modernization. Their respective ideologies, like Washington's supposed "deism", are little more than historical curiosities — very few Russians today call themselves "communists". But Lenin's thinking may still offer us some good guidelines, both regarding political strategy (his ideas about how to gain and extend power were most effective) and
larger economic questions (imperialism, for example). He may not have been a pleasant man to deal with (I'm remembering Struve's and Valentinov's memoirs, quoted by Edmund Wilson in his 1972 introduction to To the Finland Station). But he was a brilliant and audacious one. And Russia could not have become the power it is today without the consolidation of the centralized, modernizing state, difficult to imagine under the Mensheviks or any of the other contenders of 1917-1920.

 Olga Boiko has posted  historical photos of the mausoleum, together with interesting commentary


Moscow: history and literature

After browsing around the monastery of St. Peter on the Hill (more divinity-powered icons), we paid hommage to a more recent summoner of magical forces, Mikhail Bulgakov, by a visit to Patriarchs Ponds, the opening scene of Master and Margarita, which Susana has been reading. From her descriptions (I haven't got into it yet), its miracles and black magic are even weirder than the stuff in the churches.

From there it was only a short walk to the Museum of Contemporary History (an oxymoron in its English translation — what the Russians mean by современной истории is "recent" history, since Alexander II - 1856-1881 — to today). Fascinating collection of objects and images, including film footage of battle scenes and troops in World War I, political rallies and fighting in 1905 and 1917 and following. All the explanatory labels were in Russian and we had only an hour before closing time, so I had hardly time to consult my dictionary for some of the more curious exhibit cases, but we didn't really need to to get the gist of a history we've long studied from other sources. It could all have been made much clearer with a better arrangement, and more information in other languages — Japanese tourists, for example, would surely be interested in the section on the Russo-Japanese war, a military and financial disaster for the Russian Empire that largely provoked the 1905 revolution. Still, the exhibits as a whole helped us imagine those lives and that history more vividly.

Then a longer walk to the twin bookstores at 18 Kuznetsky Most, where I was hoping to find a bilingual edition of some classical or contemporary Russian literature. But no. One store had only Russian, the other only foreign languge (mostly English), no bilingual editions in either. And no store clerk in either store who really understood English, so I was forced to exercise my pitifully minimal Russian. I remembered a book that had made a powerful impression when I'd read it in translation and decided to find the Russian text: Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry".  And I made myself understood— I bought a 1986 paperback collection that includes not only the 34 very short stories in Конармия but also his Одесские рассказы (Odessa  stories). And to create my own bilingual experience, I searched on-line for a translation in some language I can read, and was delighted to discover on Kindle a 1928 translation into French on which Babel himself (who spoke and wrote French fluently) had collaborated. The translator seems to have known Babel well, and his introduction is a delight. More on that later — potom, as the Russians say.

Meanwhile, on another much in the news and people's concerns:
US-Supported "Good Guys" Firing Ballistic Missiles in Ukraine?


Moscow: seeing what's left of constructivist architecture

Rusakov Workers Club by Melnikov
Yesterday (in Moscow's continuing exceptional heat) we saw about as much as still can be seen of the  city's constructivist architecture designed and built in the 1920s and beginning of the '30s. The architects and engineers' aims were to create spaces for the education and expressive development of the workers (with libraries, theaters and sports and recreation areas), announce by their strikingly new design the society's entry into a new communist era, and to do all this quickly and cheaply with available scarce materials. (In addition to the Wikipedia article, see New World Encyclopedia, source of photo at the right.)

As with the constructivist art that I mentioned yesterday (and which in some cases was produced by the same people who designed the most impressive architecture), that creative, open and experimental period did not last. The art was mostly destroyed or hidden with the bureaucratization of the Soviet state and the imposition of "correct" tastes. The architecture was neglected or altered, sometimes drastically, for uses for which it was never intended. But some of it is still standing, and some has even been conscientiously restored. 

It would have been impossible for us to get to so many widely separated sites on our own in one day, or for us to negotiate in Russian with the doorkeepers so we could see the interiors of some of these places. Fortunately, we had hired Arthur Lookyanov to get us to all these places, and Arthur is a very persistent and organized guide — with very good English, an air-conditioned car with GPS, and photographic skill and equipment. Susana had sent him in advance the list of sites, and he had worked out the most efficient itinerary; he was very dogged in trying to get us into places, some of which were in reconstruction or were in top security sectors — a power plant, for example, or the famous Shukov radio tower.

He took much better pictures than we would have managed. I'll share them with you once he sends them. If you're planning a tour of Moscow, he would be a good guide: Moscow Driver is his website.