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Again With the Yevgeny

Again With the Yevgeny

We have a new essay on Zamyatin, and new poetry on tap as well. Robert Mueller and Tony Jones return with more lyrical and creative writing.

 

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Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca.
Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca.

 

My own writing and reading has slowed a bit as we move to the end of 2008. The holidays have seen me sinking into movies primarily. Nothing of stunning note, though I did enjoy watching the classic, Casablanca, again. My guess is, however, that my own thoughts would not add anything new to the libraries of critical assessments regarding that great story of Rick and Ilsa and the madness in Morocco.

On an entirely personal note, Ingrid Bergman always reminds me of a former girlfriend. Their faces and voices connect for me. Though my ex was originally from Puerto Rico, far, far from Sweden, and generally of a much sunnier disposition than the star of Gaslight, Joan of Arc, and The Bells of Saint Mary’s.

 

Until next time . . .

 

 

Robert Mueller: In the Shadow of Yevgeny

Robert Mueller: In the Shadow of Yevgeny

Scene by Scene


There is this furnace of the pounding,
and then there is this and more
and delicately the surrounding
of white flakes.
There is a brush-up in the waiting
where the birds paly greyed
in slanting pike charge, and lately
the crinkles clasp.
And then there is more, much more
than this, like heaps by the forest
meant to be lumbered o’er, hungered
as if a straight.
And as if the likelihoods of streams
relenting this, that and everywhere,
there is snow and its channels, its lockets,
its tricks and its light.
There is this measurement a-galing
of whole world and its wrongs
and right, swollen in the swales of snow
their very burden
tight and soundly bound, safely
and copiously unfoiled in polters
and in touchturns, the spilled
bathing bright cuff.
There is then the radiance of lounging
around in the homing with stuffing
in the eyes in flight, assured
gurgling prayer-beam’s kite.



— by Robert Mueller



After a moment brought to you by Evgeny Zamyatin
Sunday morning at home by the window, December 21, 2008



_____________
Robert Mueller is a student of comparative literature, according to the indications on his advanced degree certificate.  He writes for fun, and he maintains a curious and constant interest in books of all kinds.  Mr. Mueller shares an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with two female cats, Rudy and Grace, a shorthair and a longhair.


Copyright ©2008, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Mueller: Zamyatin's Garden

Robert Mueller: Zamyatin's Garden

by Robert Mueller

 

Reading Evgeny Zamyatin’s A Godforsaken Hole (Na kulichkakh, 1914), what is the novel like?

First of all, it is very funny. And familiar. And yet the strange thing is that those other novels and texts that it can remind you of would seem to come after; and it would not be any particular writer or book, but merely the feeling of its being so familiar.

What is funny about this book?  Here we feel in Walker Foard’s translation (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1988) the full effect of its capricious humor.  The magic of caprice does in fact lead to something different, some indication of Zamyatin’s genius and personality.  But the novel is known for its biting satire, and it got on people’s nerves once they noticed it, and so they burned and banned it: “By decree of the Supreme Commissariat of the Committee of Culture under Special Arrangements of His Most Esteemed the Tsar Nicholas of Russia the Second, any and all publication, illustration, distribution or infestation whatsoever of the writings purported to be unleashed under the title A Godforsaken Hole authored regrettably by the profane pen of one Evgeny Zamyatin are now and hereby placed in subjection to penalty by law and outrightly forbidden.” (official quotation mine).

What got their goat?  It is hard to say.  How satirical is the novel?  I am not so sure the translator has succeeded in making the characters real (Neorealism).  The humor, the eccentricity, the craziness and goofiness all come across but only to point at how exposure of their hypocrisies might sting, not how the moral awfulness graphically stows and swelters.  In other words, they come across, but not to bring them to life, these hypocrisies and these miserable selves, these most appetizingly miserable parts of them.

Does the translator deserve credit?  Yes.  We get hints, pointers, the many signs and co-signs of the literariness and its urging factors.  We get an idea of what sort of wicked characterizations of what sort of devious characters we just might experience were we graced with some sort of lustful troving of Zamyatin’s actual crushing words.  We can at least see how we might know them to have them.

But, hold on.  What if you have fun with the translator’s words?  What if you make a deliberate and careful effort?  What if you pay them close attention, such as, for example, the geometrical (Andrei Ivanych’s forehead) and geographical (Molochko’s warts) aspects of face and figure and body?  What if you chime in?  You just might get some of the genuine flair of the swords of the Zamyatin juggernaut thrusting and parrying with all the might of deep-envisioned schlopp, deep-immersioned schmattering.  So.  To the matter of the roundness of Captain Nechesa’s wife, to her total geometry:

 

The captain’s wife was lying in bed, small and completely round: a round little face, round quick eyes, and tiny round ringlets on her forehead ? in fact, all her charms were round.  The captain had just given his spouse a smack on the cheek and left.  And the ringing of one of the glasses on the shelf, a result of the captain’s footsteps, had not yet died down when in walked Lt. Molochko.  And having said hello, he proceeded to smack the captain’s wife on the very spot that the captain had chosen.

 

Ok, so something obviously shocks the authorities; and though we ourselves are probably not too shocked, say, by the loud kisses and army-camp familiarities, we are closer, we are approaching knowing what it is like for the captain’s wife, either in mirth or dismay.  It depends.

On most occasions Walker Foard successfully adequates the humor of this or that clever image.  When Marusya (Captain Schmidt’s wife) is shown walking over icy stretches of ground that resemble “an unkempt corpse,” the description of her has nothing to do with her colorful speech or some kind of raucous display.  It is simply a portrait, and so it hits home in its sweet way:  “She buried her chin deeper into the soft fur: she became still more like some sort of timid, downy, precious teddy bear.”  As indirectly voicing the feelings of her pie-eyed companion, the idea is lovely.  Plus, there is nothing like this scene between Andrei Ivanych and his beloved for good-old traipsing through desolate tracts.  It is one of the better scenes, in fact, for comprehending a character’s emotional status (Andrei’s emotions being insufficiently hearty to warrant a “state”).  As beloved, Marusya on her side is unwitting.  Or…  Or, if anything, still more pressing unpleasantries are afoot.  I invite you to find out.

Reading Zamyatin’s A Godforesaken Hole, what is it like?  Take “the general oozed like a pancake in oil.”  Not catchy, perhaps.  It lacks that spoonlashnosing swing of dipped drivel at its mealiest.  It lacks the necessary absorbing gumption.  Still, we know the type.  We are not surprised.  The general as glutton; general as nasty bastard pig.  The general as very civilized nasty bastard pig, as very civilized nasty bastard polysaturating Roman-style deeply fully gourmandeering greedy greasy lusting pig.  What else is new in perimeter?  We feel for the horses and their missing oats.

Did I mention that the novel is very funny?  Actually it’s hilarious, as in the scene at the officers’ club.  The pasty, jolly flavor of the slarmy Russian discourse does not come through in translation, the wild and drunken scene with its wild and witless and delightfully ridiculous singing.  Yet you can tell that there is a flavor.  And it’s hilarious.

Did I say delightfully ridiculous?  I could have said depressingly ridiculous. This is pretty hilarious too, the moment of Zen for Andrei Ivanych and Marusya when their beautiful butterflies of the soul go flut-flut-fluttering:

 

Never to be forgotten — stowed away in a treasure chest — was one particular evening.  Glorious warm weather — people went without overcoats though it was November.  And then suddenly a north wind blew in, the blue sky paled, and by evening ? winter.

Andrei Ivanych and Marusya didn’t light a fire; they sat listening intently to the rustling of the twilight.  The air filled with plump flakes as mounds of snow formed, blue and quiet.  Quietly it sang a lullaby ? float, float, rock in the waves of the twilight, listen, lull away the sadness…

Andrei Ivanych purposely sat away from Marusya in the far corner of the couch: it was better that way.

That way there would be only what was most delicate, most white — the snow.

 

They whisper a few sweet nothings while the spell is about to be dissolved, thusly:

 

Marusya’s face with its closed eyes was so tender, slightly bluish from the blue snow outside; and what lips she had…  In order not to see ? for it was better not to see ? Andrei also closed his eyes.

But when they lit the lamp, nothing was there anymore, nothing of what had been visible without the lamp.

And all those words about the bird dozing on a snow-covered tree, about the blue evening — they all seemed
so paltry, so ordinary, even a little funny.

But they were never to be forgotten.

 

If this passage were really good satire, and I happen to believe it is, we could not only track down the equal sentiments from the source and sources that are being delicately parodied.  We could not only do that to absorb them into our literary grasp; we could also have heard their familiar lilting charm (Tolstoy?).  We can never hear that music in translation, but we may somehow be able to know that we would if we could, and the knowledge that we could is in itself satisfying.  Meanwhile, satire is not just poking fun but it is a full, a “sated,” and is this whole rats’ life stew, all that’s unfit to print in this godforsaken world.

 

Well, I won’t go on.  I can’t go on.  I invite you to peruse the novel.  You’ll find out what happens, to . . .

 

New York City
December, 2008

________________

Robert Mueller is a student of comparative literature, according to the indications on his advanced degree certificate.  He writes for fun, and he maintains a curious and constant interest in books of all kinds.  Mr. Mueller shares an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with two female cats, Rudy and Grace, a shorthair and a longhair.

 

Copyright ©2008, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Orwell’s Vision of We

Orwell’s Vision of We

Eric Blair. Cerca 1943.
Eric Blair. Cerca 1943.

Zamyatin’s We has generated enormous critical response through the decades. George Orwell reviewed it in 1946, but was limited by the available manuscripts of his day. He read the French version, translated as Nous Autres, and based his comments on that. According to Natasha Randall, the earliest and most reliable manuscript was published in 1952, by Chekhov House. She also mentions in the intro to her translation of We that the Ford Foundation gave indirect support. Ironic, isn’t it?

Orwell was directly influenced by We. He said it was a model for him, and he began writing Nineteen Eight-Four less than a year after reading it. Reading his review, however, makes me think that the French version was not up to par, as he makes no mention of the high quality of the prose, the startling metaphors, the poetics of math and science. He seems to have missed the revolutionary style. Understandable, given the likelihood that the French translation was based upon a less than stellar manuscript.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also a focus of the review. Comparison and contrast. There is some debate concerning Huxley’s debt to We, but Orwell felt almost certain that he had read it and modeled his book after it. Huxley said no to all of that. Here’s a section from the review that sets the table for the comparison:

The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact — never pointed out, I believe — that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence. The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories.

Orwell goes on to say that the problem of “human nature” is largely resolved in Brave New World but continues to be a driving force of conflict in We. He sees that as a major plus for Zamyatin’s novel:

Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation. In spite of education and the vigilance of the Guardians, many of the ancient human instincts are still there. The teller of the story, D-503, who, though a gifted engineer, is a poor conventional creature, a sort of Utopian Billy Brown of London Town, is constantly horrified by the atavistic* impulses which seize upon him. He falls in love (this is a crime, of course) with a certain I-330 who is a member of an underground resistance movement and succeeds for a while in leading him into rebellion. When the rebellion breaks out it appears that the enemies of The Benefactor are in fact fairly numerous, and these people, apart from plotting the overthrow of the State, even indulge, at the moment when their curtains are down, in such vices as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

Then there is the matter of the Soviet’s refusal to publish. Orwell talks about many factors, and thinks Zamyatin wasn’t aiming his satire at the Soviets alone. Zamyatin had written scathing indictments of Western style capitalism as well. But there were enough passages in We to set the Soviet guardians on edge. Orwell abridges one:

“Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?”
“Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?”
“Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”
“My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?”
“But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.”
“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?”

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Something Orwell doesn’t discuss, which I find fascinating: Zamyatin’s synesthesia. Like Rimbaud and Kandinsky, Zamyatin may have suffered from, been blessed with, this remarkable condition. He described the way certain letters made him feel, and attached colors, temperatures, and even elements to them. Natasha Randall provides some examples:

L is pale, cold, light blue, liquid, light. R is loud, bright, red, hot, fast. N is tender, snow, sky, night. D or T is stifling, grave, foggy, obscuring, stagnant. M is kind, soft, motherly, sea-like. A is distant, ocean, misty mirage, breadth of scope. O is high, deep, sea-like, bosom. I is close, low, pressing.

Will discuss some of the political implications of Zamyatin’s novel in the near future . . .

 

Zamyatin’s We

Zamyatin’s We

Yevgeny Zamyatin. Drawing by Boris Kustodiev. 1923
Yevgeny Zamyatin. Drawing by Boris Kustodiev. 1923

We is the grandfather of Sci-Fi and perhaps the first dystopian novel. Zamyatin finished it in 1921 and quickly ran afoul of the Soviet authorities. He was always running afoul of the authorities. In this case, it was because he satirized the very same system that would repress any book about that system. Implicit and explicit in the book was the fact that it would be suppressed by its subject.

Set in the distant future, it’s the story of D-503, a mathematician and builder of the Integral, the One State’s first starship. D-503, like all the citizens of the One State, has also been tasked with creating works to fill that starship.

He reads the announcement at the beginning of his journal . . . .

All those who are able are required to create treatises, epics, manifestos, odes, or any other composition addressing the beauty and majesty of the One State.

The novel takes the form of his contribution, a diary. But it becomes apparent, as the novel progresses, that the reason for the request in the first place is not just about propaganda. The mass writings are also a subtle form, a far more personal form, of eavesdropping. The citizens of this world live in glass houses, and can only draw the blinds when they have their requisitioned time for sex. At all other times, their lives are an open book, with the Guardians being the chief watchers. But their thoughts are still potentially their own, and these thoughts are coveted by the Guardians, who do the bidding of the Benefactor.

It is a highly structured, mechanized world. Taylorized. But there are forces seeking to disrupt that order, that rigid, unbending structure, and they appear to D-503 in the form of a woman, I-330. She rocks his world, and their relationship drives the novel forward into mystery and revelation.

Zamyatin’s prose (translated beautifully by Natasha Randall in 2006) is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Elliptical, darting, spare, it is charged with mathematical ions and surreal equations. It is the language of a scientist, engineer, or mathematician, who has poetized those knowledge fields, rearranged them for new consumption. Zamyatin has his protagonist describe fellow ciphers (citizens of the One State) as geometric shapes, as cubist dreams. And his language of description grows bolder, more poetic as the book moves along, as if he gains confidence, becomes more daring, the longer he spends with I-330 — though he has his doubts and moments of panic.

As if in answer to the power of I-330 and her underground movement, the One State is pushing for all citizens to have the Operation. Scientists have located the physical place in the brain for the imagination, and the Benefactor wants that removed. From everyone. In that society, happiness is in direct conflict with the imagination, and so it must be expunged. Happiness, blissful, ignorant happiness, is the sum total of all that is good and holy. In a couple of scenes that might have come right out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the ciphers are marched into the machine that removes the imagination, and march back out completely changed. The first members of lobotomy-ville.

On the other side of those walls, of that society made of glass, is a world few from the One State ever see. A world of Nature, where free men and women roam in the wild. That world encroaches on the One State more and more as the book proceeds, and plays a huge role in the denouement . . .

Will talk a bit more about We in my next blog entry, my own contribution for the starship. Primarily to add George Orwell’s take on this revolutionary novel . . .