Monday, April 30, 2012

Geometric Abstraction



We have talked some about Russian art in class and there were moments of The Cranes are Flying that brought to mind geometric abstraction, a genre of art filled with solid, geometric forms in non-illusionistic space. Typically, such as in paintings like the one above by Malevich, paintings of this type are non-objective. There were no scenes that were completely reduced to bare shapes and that lacked any movement but there were many moments that stood out because of their stark contrast between light and dark. Shadows on the cobblestone streets and walls and the steel looking X barricades that are clustered on the streets, for example. The part in which Veronica and Mark are in the apartment during the air raid stands out the most in terms of abstract construction. As light flashes within the apartment it creates modular forms of white on the walls and ceiling, breaking down the picture into a more reduced layout. Similarly, outdoor scenes have consistent block forms in them. The shadows on the pavement from buildings are geometric and even though they pertain to specific representational parts, like buildings, they also appear non-objectively on the streets. Most of the moments I felt that scenes had been reduced to bare blocks were ones that had architectural elements in them. I am curious how others feel about the compositions of scenes.

Friday, April 27, 2012

An Impression

The movie The Cranes are Flying is definitely not one I would expect to stem from a play by a Russian author - Viktor Rozov.

The few Russian movie's that I've seen so far have all been devoid of emotion. The Cranes are Flying represents a great contrast between two worlds - the world free of emotion (battlefield) and the world full of emotion that actually stem from the emotionless one (shelter).

Though the story deserves a post in it's own right, I wanted to comment on the actual movie. The production feels both ridiculously bad and ridiculously good. The angular shots, close-ups of running feet and tortured faces, and the collage-like put together shots are very reminiscent of silent movies. The narration style is highly impressionistic. It's more than a movie, it's a piece of art. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I am certain every self-appreciating new age hipster would appreciate this vintage style.

I would also like to commend the minimalistic design they used or propaganda. The cranes masquerade as planes, but are not entirely morphed into them yet, so the viewer has a clear knowledge of their intention, but can still see that they are in fact what they are - cranes. I thought the design was ingenious.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Survive in a Special Camp?

Who is “model survivor” in a special camp? Solzhenitsyn portrays an array of characters who manage to survive many years in a special camp, living under some of the most brutal conditions known to humans. They are in many ways different, but what is common in all of them is how they prioritize their needs. If we use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can see that “survivors” focus primarily on physiological needs as most important ones, then on safety needs, next on belonging needs, esteem, and finally self-actualization.
Some of the physiological needs are breathing, water, food, sleep, or homeostasis. Solzhenitsyn describes in great detail how different prisoners satisfy their need for food. Some, like Shukhov, are resourceful and do little work or favors for others (e.g., sewing slippers for others or waiting in line for Caesar’s package). Some are scavengers, like Fetyukov, who is hunting for leftovers or simply begging or stealing food from others. There are those such as cooks, barbers, or others in position of “relative power” that had relatively unlimited access to food. There is also an emphasis on sleep deprivation among prisoners and how they try to beat the system to get a few minutes of sleep before morning count or on Sundays.
Other needs are also important to some extent. Consider esteem, for instance. Solzhenitsyn insists on importance of self-esteem that Shukhov has. He knows that he can lay bricks perfectly, even in windy, sub-zero degree weather. He is respected for that by his gang leader Tyurin and his assistant Pavlo, which means preferential treatment when it comes to food or other needs. But Shukhov also respects his fellow gang members for who they are and what they can do. Yet, this same Shukhov will first and foremost take care of his own food, sleep, or health needs (e.g., drying his boots in the best spot overnight), and his other actions are mostly a function of his basic needs.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Cranes Are Flying


            I really enjoyed watching the first half of The Cranes Are Flying. I feel like we’ve all seen so many WWII movies that I’m pretty desensitized to them, but certain scenes really struck me as both very well-done and surprisingly moving. I think my favorite scene so far was when Veronica realizes that her parents were killed and runs up the stairs of her destroyed apartment building. I knew exactly what was going to happen and in a way the action of the scene seems pretty trite, but for some reason seeing the same staircase in ruins and a huge gaping hole on the top floor where the apartment had been worked really well for me.
            I think I just can’t get over how well filmed the movie is. And here’s the weird thing: I honestly can’t think of a Hollywood parallel. So many American movies made in the 50s address WWII, but I can’t name any that are set during WWII and treat the subject so well. Casablanca is maybe the most famous movie set during WWII, and while still set abroad it doesn’t do a whole lot to bring home the terror of air raids and the destruction in Europe and Russia. Most of our contemporaneous movies focus on the soldiers instead of the civilian aspect, reflecting the general American experience.
            So while a lot of the movie really struck some chords with me, I should also say that some shots seemed very outdated. During the second air raid when Veronica and Mark have their big moment, the shots of his exaggerated facial expressions kind of ruined the scene for me. In fact, it seemed ridiculous to a lot of people, because quite a few of us laughed. But still, that scene was striking like the first air raid scene, with the lighting and the music and the shattered glass everywhere the emphasis was definitely on feelings of vulnerability and sometimes-desperate resistance in the face of so much destruction. I’m excited to see the rest of the movie, and to see if other emotions are portrayed as effectively.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Narration in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The narrative style of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich strikes me as different from any other novels we’ve read previously.  It seems to be from the third person omniscient perspective of Ivan Denisovich Shukov, but it contains various second person asides to the reader.  These asides usually describe some aspect of life in the camps. 

For example: “Let your work warm you up, that was your only salvation” (6).
“Anyway, you should never be conspicuous.  The main thing was never to be seen by a campguard on your own, only in a group” (18).
“There is nothing as bitter as this moment when you go out to the morning roll call--in the dark, in the cold, with a hungry belly, to face a whole day of work.  You lose your tongue.  You lose all desire to speak to anyone” (27).

At times it reads like an instructional guide for surviving in the work camps:

“A squad leader needs a lot of salt pork--to take to the planning department, and to satisfy his own belly too. ... No one in the squad who received any lost a moment in taking him some as a gift.  Otherwise you’d never survive” (27).

But sometimes the narrational style is slightly different:
“The 38th, naturally, wouldn’t let any stranger near their stove.  Their own men sat around it, drying their footrags.  Never mind, we’ll sit here in the corner, it’s not so bad” (46).

For me, so far, the power of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes from its ability to take the readers directly into the work camps.  The narrative style accomplishes this by passing off cold, starvation, and the other atrocities the men experience as just another part of everyday life, to be accepted as unavoidable facts.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Use of Expectation


            While I feel like the other discussion posts have covered most of the thematic elements of Mary, one that may be a little general but, in my opinion, is still pertinent is the use of expectation. I’d like to focus on four characters, Klara, Podtyagin, Alfyorov and Ganin. But to me what makes the novel great is that only one of these characters, Ganin, actually overcomes his expectation and thus proceeds calmly and happily at the end of the novel.
            Klara serves as that unfortunate, somewhat over-well-intentioned character endlessly searching for someone to love. Almost in complete juxtaposition the passionate love story of Mary and Ganin, Klara weeps after she realizes her last words to Ganin and, earlier, feels somewhat empowered to be the courier of messages between Ganin and Lyudmila (something most people can’t stand). Her expectation, by the end of the book, to find someone like Ganin or Ganin himself is horribly unfulfilled.
            Podtyagin’s failed expectation is clearly manifested in his failure to travel. To be aware that one is dying, bound by fate to stay put, and thus unable to fulfill a single desires to go to France, is also perfectly contrasted by Ganin’s freedom and youth.
            Next, we have Alfyorov. Nabokov clearly enjoys mocking this character and fittingly shows him unable to adequately ready himself to meet his wife. By the of the novel, not only is reader convinced that Mary and Alfyorov do not have a strong history like Ganin and Mary, but also that Alfyorov is generally a much lesser person than Ganin (as shown by his drunkenness). The failed expectation is that he never sees his wife in the novel, which I interpret as “it’s not worth showing.” My assumption is that if Nabokov were forced to continue the novel, we would have seen a strained and imperfect marriage.
            So who is Ganin? He’s the character that achieves everyone else’s goals. He knows love, understands and can handle himself within a relationship, is traveling to new experience new aspects and never succumbs to a vice like alcohol unless willingly. While everyone else talks about his or her wishes, he remains unsure and keeps his plans relatively flexible and without firm expectation. Only with this attitude, which I presume Nabokov enjoys, is he able to live freely and happily.




Mary (plot and general comments)

In class we talked about how nothing actually happens in Mary. I think that a plot, more than just existing, is quite well developed in this book. In fact, there are two distinct plots; there are the events that happen in Berlin and the reminisces of what took place in Russia years ago. I found that part of what made this book so readable and compelling were the dual plot lines.

The part of the story that takes place in Berlin is interesting because it follows the struggle of someone superfluous as they try to find a goal or direction. While the reader doesn't perceive very much development of Ganin's character over the course of the book, Ganin goes from stagnating to moving forward in his life. This is an interesting development on the idea of the superfluous man theme that has plagued us since the beginning of this course. Is someone superfluous if their life has a direction? Ganin provides little or nothing to society, yet at the end of the book he has a focus and direction.

The plot that grabbed me the most was the one that focused on the idea of first love. The development of Ganin's love with Mary was a good story for me. There was exposition, conflict, rising action, a climax, and no resolution until the very last page of the book. I really enjoyed that I had no idea how the book would end even though I was on the second to last page. By having two separate plots, Nabokov broadens the amount of people that could really connect to the book. The parts where Ganin is reminiscing about his life made me nostalgic. I thought about stuff that I haven't thought about in a long time when I was reading that part of the story.

Anyway, I thought it was a really good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Also, sorry this is two days late. I sort of forgot.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Russian Tether

For the first time since Anna Karenina, Mary allows us to continue the discussion of Russians abroad. Like Kitty, the residents of the pension use their time away to reflect on their home country. On page 81, Podtyagin states "whenever we dream about Russa we never dream of it as beautiful, as we know it was in reality, but as something monstrous." Ganin's reply to this is "I only dream about the beautiful things...we have to get out of here." The sense of displacement the Russians feel is intensified by their (perhaps false) mental images of Russia. Even as they move farther away or acknowledge, like Podtyagin does, that they may never return, the Russians' memories tether them to their home country. Because of these memories, even the diverse group of Russians that we see in the pension are able to establish some sort of commonality.

The shift I've noticed since Anna Karenina is that there seems to be less focus on the idea of what it means to be Russian abroad. During Kitty's spa visit, the Russians are either trying to blend in with the western Europeans or assert their "Russianness" as Kitty's father does. Perhaps there's less focus on Russian identities because we don't see the citizens of the pension interact with other non-Russians.


"Frozen in a Lunar Trance"

Mary begins with Ganin and Alfyrorov stuck in an elevator, a brief scene that dramatizes the workings of the rest of the novel. Ganin and his housemate are stuck in an elevator in an isolated boarding house full of Russians stuck in Germany. Even Alfyorov notices this: "Don't you think there's something symbolic in our meeting like this?" he asks Ganin(3). Ganin claims not to understand, even though he is perhaps the most stuck character in the novel. Mary is Nabokov's first novel, and it's a bit reassuring (given his later works of freakish genius) to find that his book, a house of often exquisite details that don't quite go anywhere, is itself a bit stuck.

Nabokov is fond of giving us litanies of sensory impressions: "Close to him, in a corner to the right, stood the iron case: swarthy-faced images behind glass, wax candles, a coral crucifix. Of the two windows, the more distant one shone straight ahead, and the head of the bed seemed to be pushing itself from the wall"(31). These delicate lists freeze and focus Ganin's impressions of the world, and almost always, his memories--the passage I just cited is a memory of his recovery from typhus, for example. Nabokov is intensely interested in the workings of memory in this novel, and he most successfully mobilizes remembered detail when describing Ganin's lush memories of his affair with Mary--memories that run "like a regular pattern through his everyday life"(55).  A whiff of carbide sets off his mind: "it brought back everything at once: the wet grass whipping against his moving leg and wheel spokes; the disk of milky light that imbibed and dissolved the obscurity; the different objects that emerged from it--now a wrinkled puddle, or a glistening pebble"(67).

All this, of course, is an impression of the past--Nabokov tells us that Ganin's memories had reached a "perfect form," that is, a powerful precision that mimics the workings of fiction. The precision of the details is, paradoxically, a sign of how irretrievable they really are. Ganin needs to leave Berlin, to get in motion, if he is too free himself from the memories that arrest him.

Nostalgia: The Immigrants' Curse

Nabokov pictures in very emotional way nostalgia among a group of Russian economic and political emigrants who now reside in a run-down pension in Berlin, Germany.  Although this group is very diverse in terms of their age, occupation, and even social status they had in pre-Revolution Russia (e.g., Lev Ganin, Podtyagin, and Klara), most of them share this longing for times past and their homeland. Nowadays, and especially in Western culture tradition, there is this enthusiasm for the “global village” and the related ideal of cosmopolitism. This enthusiasm makes us more eager to focus on adjustment and assimilation. Nabokov reminds us that stepping outside the boundaries of one’s culture is a complex and challenging experience, one that involves a loss of familiarity, of confidence, of spontaneity, and often a destruction (temporary or not) of private lives.
All immigrants typically lost their homes in their homeland, which means the familiarity of their daily life. To compensate for it, or simply to feel more secure, they often live in ethnic ghettos similar to the pension described in the novel that is owned by another Russian √©migr√©,  Lydia Nikolaevna (married Dorn).  They also lost their occupation, which means the confidence that they are of some use in this world. This, in the novel, is especially apparent in the case of old poet Podtyagin. They also lost their language which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, and the spontaneous expression of their sentiments. Finally, their loved ones, relatives and friends, are left behind which means the rupture of their private lives. This is, for example, illustrated with Mary being left behind in the new Soviet state by her husband Alfyorov.
The book raises many interesting questions: Does attachment to one's native culture preclude or merely influence adaptation into a new culture? Do we fashion our identity in interdependence with others, or do we shape it in a non-contingent frame? Is it possible to assimilate in an unfamiliar world without risking self-alienation? My view is that the cultural adjustment of immigrants can only happen when personal identity is understood as a quest for continuity in one's life story, even alongside the most radical cultural rupture. What do you think?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Foreigners in Master and Margarita


In Master and Margarita we increasingly see the progression of Soviet territorial isolation and increased animosity against foreigners. When Soviet Union was established many foreign countries were mostly hostile to the country and mostly because divisional differences in ideologies. For Stalin the presence of foreigners in USSR represented as a capitalist threat to the communist ideals. Every country and every foreigner that was not a communist was potentially an enemy. As very few foreigners were granted to enter and travel in the USSR, very few Russians were not allowed to travel abroad. The whole process was carefully watched and monitored. 
In Master and Margarita we see a progression of this isolation and people’s paranoia of foreigners. Thus, it was logical to portray the only foreigner, in this case Wolland as the Devil. From the beginning of the novel, we see how characters are very cautious not because they sense that Wolland is devil but rather they were suspicious of him being a foreigner. Wolland introduces himself as a German professor of black magic and as it was expected he was accepted with hostile looks, questions and treatments.  
Additionally, foreigners also presented a danger that they would bring chaos or they might potentially sway “fellow communist citizens” into capitalism. This situation is presented in the Turgsin Store. The Turgsin for the reader is the only foreign currency established store with complete chaos such as stealing food, and demolishing displays. The whole scene changes when the manager arrives and Koroviev gives an impassioned, controversial and “politically dangerous,” speech. He starts off by comparing, poor, thirst and hunger wracked Behemoth to a fat foreigner with Russian salmon.  Koroviev’s speech results in “a miracle”, which causes another customer to attack the foreigner, and screaming, ‘‘He’s right!’’ This scene shows how absurd the whole situation actually is, but looking at it closely, the scene presents a highly politically daring speech against foreign powers.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

De-Individualization in Zamyatin's WE

We, like most dystopian novels, produces a large variety of responses in the reader. The response that the novel elicited most strongly in me was a deep reflection on individuality. The United States is a society that places a great deal of importance on the individual. All citizens are supposed to be responsible for themselves, and individual success or failure is attributed to the amount of effort one expends. We live in a meritocracy in which everyone is theoretically able to pull themselves up by their boot straps and live the American Dream. This contrasts dramatically with the society the One State strives for, in which all citizens are ultimately de-individualized and restricted in everything they do.

This de-individualization is quite remarkable. The One State dictates its citizens' schedules as well as their work, their sex lives, and eventually even their personalities and moods. I find this complete de-individualization terrifying, as I think Zamyatin does as well. Could any of us honestly imagine what life would be like in a world where everything - and I mean everything - is centrally planned? What life would be like in a world where even your own thoughts and desires are purposefully eliminated so as to make you a better worker and a better citizen? Where your "imagination" is surgically excised via state decree? I can hardly think of a more terrifying society in which to live.

Zamyatin is quite critical of the Soviet experiment in this novel, and he reaches the reader on a very personal level. It is as if he is cautioning Soviet society about the potential pitfalls of communism and state control, while also reminding that same society of the individuality of human nature - an aspect of life in which the state should not attempt to interfere.

Nineteen is definitely not twenty

In the first part of the course I got more and more used to the romantic and maybe a bit exaggerated style of the 19th century authors. The protagonists were usually trying to prove their heroism and had romantic concepts about how they could escape mediocrity. Some of the novels we read had happy( The Captain's daughter) or at least reasonable(Fathers and Sons) endings, while others were rather tragic(Anna Karenina). All in all, after reading the first few novels, the ending of Anna Karenina could be foreseen and the element of surprise was going away for me. I nevertheless enjoyed reading them and picking up the hints about the future of Russia and its literature in the 20th century.
However, I was still blown away by We. I did not expect such an amazing change even if the book was classified as Sci-Fi. As we read Envy and Master and Margarita I was even more surprised by the change in style, the narrative and even in symbolism. While the 19th century authors, especially Tolstoy, seemed to mostly point out to obvious ideas in his book and make us think in a certain way, the 20th century authors are more open-ended and more descriptive.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of writing in the new century is how love, or rather how sexual interactions are described. From the "..." scenes in Anna Karenina, we went to lowering the curtains and the pink slips in We, then to sharing the same woman in Envy and most recently we witnessed the love affair between the Master and Margarita.  Also, the accurate descriptions of envy in Olesha's novel felt new and refreshing compared to the old century depictions as well.
What is the most surprising aspect of the transition from the 19th century to the 20th for you? What is your favorite novel of these three 19th century ones that we have read until now? Do you think they are linked together by any other stylistic or textual element except for the references to the Soviet rule? And lastly, which one do you like best: 19th or 20th century?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Increasingly Apparent Role of the Unreliable Narrator

As we progress through this class, time and time again I find myself grateful that we are reading these works in the order they were published. For one, this helps expand our examination of the literature to encompass the society around it. And for two, it makes literary trends that may have easily passed from one author to another more apparent.

In this post, I will examine one such trope--the ubiquitous idea of the unreliable narrator. For every work that has a style of narration more personal than the third-person omniscient, there must be at least some ambiguity as to accuracy, if for no other reason than the inherently error-prone nature of humankind. For example, in The Captain's Daughter, the protagonist is writing a memoir to the in-book audience of his descendants. Thus, it may be assumed that some details of setting or dialogue have become fogged through the passage of time or the narrator's deliberate stretching of truth to appear more admirable. However, as the works read have become more recent, there's been a definite trend of increasingly unreliable narrators, especially as we move into literature of the 20th century. I posit that this trend is due to both updated literary conventions, and a new method of reflecting the Soviet culture immediately following the Revolution.

This is especially noticeable in We, which is both the book written soonest after, and closest in theme to, the real-life Revolution. The narrator's quickly degrading knowledge of the world around him seems to reflect the uncertainty and panic that was present in the newly-formed Soviet state.

In The Master and Margarita, on the other hand, the myriad narrators seem to be well in possession of their mental faculties and skills of storytelling. However, the fact that what they've seen is too outlandish to be believed makes everyone around them assume they're unreliable--that is, insane. At the time of this writing, I haven't yet finished the novel, but I hope that as we reach the end of the book, the dualism between what characters perceive as truth and what the "real world" insists is truth coalesces into a great revelation of how things really are.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Injections, Yeshua, and Ivan

Within the first few pages of The Master and Margarita I was struck by the imagery of Berlioz's heart "with a blunt needle lodged inside it" (p. 4). This needle seems to cause Berlioz to hallucinate, and I was interested in following this theme of inoculation in the novel. Often inoculation refers to vaccines, but I also view it as receiving ideas/visions/dreams, etc. (we could even call it, wait for it, INCEPTION!) This early instance of a sort of direct needle-vision correlation doesn't always happen, but there were some interesting points, especially concerning Ivan the poet. There is always a language of disease used with the novel, as well as a definite mirroring of Ivan and Yeshua. I've compiled a sort of list of relevant points to this interrelated topic. 

Pilate has a headache throughout chapter 2, causing him to treat Yeshua as he would not normally treat a prisoner. He also wonders if he has been poisoned in some way, which I see as tying back into the idea of being inoculated. Pilate is also named on p. 27 as "Knight of the Golden Spear," which I associate with needles as being a tool for poking. This sounds silly so far, but bear with me. 

After Ivan is taken to the mental ward he is given injections numerous times to calm him down. The first is after he tries to jump out the window: 

A hypodermic syringe flashed in the doctor's hands, and in a single motion the woman ripped open the bedraggled sleeve of Ivan's Tolstoyan shirt and grabbed his arm with unfeminine strength. There was a smell of ether, Ivan grew weak in the arms of the four attendants, and the agile doctor took advantage of the moment and plunge the needle into Ivan's arm. p. 59
We see Ivan getting more injections on page 96 when the nurse notices him crying in frustration at his failed attempts to write what had happened, and again on page 142. Ivan receives this injection after the ward is upset when Nikanor Ivanovich arrives and makes a ruckus, and Nikanor is also soothed by an injection, along with all the other patients. The doctor's and nurses treat these (probably morphine) injections as an act of mercy to upset patients, but it offers no cure for their ailments.

As Ivan drifts off to sleep we revisit Pilate and the crucifixion of Yeshua. As I said before, the spears I related to needles, and here they are used as a means of relief to Yeshua, Gestas, and Dimas.
"Praise the merciful Hegemon!" he whispered solemnly and quietly pierced Yeshua through the heart. Yeshua shuddered and whispered, "Hegemon..." p 151-2
Before the mercy killing, the soldiers also offer water on a sponge so they can drink. Although both are used for relief, the spears offer a more permanent (if violent) solution to pain, and release blood instead of injecting something into it.

Yeshua and Ivan are clearly connected by homelessness (Yeshua is called a vagrant by Pilate, Ivan's poet name, Bezdomny, means homeless), mental instability (Ivan is in a ward, Pilate calls Yeshua mentally ill), as well as both being rather simple-minded (Yeshua is not a stoic Jesus, but a more naive and straightforward character, the Master calls Ivan an ignorant man, and Ivan agrees). I'm interested in seeing how this parallel plays out in the rest of the novel.

On a final note, there is also a language of disease used in several instances, on page 54, "The skin on the doorman's face took on a typhoid tinge..." and on p 129, "a putrid malarial dampness had spread over the floor." The barman is told by Woldon that he will die of liver cancer in nine months, and advises against going to the hospital, because they can offer no cure.
Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz versus Hector Berlioz
It is striking that there are several important characters in the Master and Margarita who share their names with famous composers of classical music: Dr. Stravinsky, a psychiatrist, and Igor Stravinsky; a theater director Rimsky and Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov; and, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz and French composer Hector Berlioz. This is almost impossible to be a coincidence, and there seems to be a message behind this. Bulgakov’s intent for using these names, however, is not obvious. While there are similarities between these fictional characters and real life composers, the link in the context of the novel is not apparent. I will focus on the Berlioz duo.
Both Bulgakov and Hector Berlioz seem to be drawing inspiration from Goethe since Hector Berlioz wrote an opera titled The Damnation of Faust which was based on Goethe’s Faust. Bulgakov has his own Berlioz (Mikhail “Misha” Aleksandrovich) square off with his version of Faust, Professor Woland.  While Bulgakov and Hector Berlioz both seem to be fascinated with the mysticism in general and the character of Faust in particular, Misha Berlioz is an antithesis to this curiosity. He is editor of "a fat literary journal", and chairman of the board of one of the major Moscow literary associations, called MASSOLIT (probably the abbreviation for the Masters of Soviet Literature). He is a typical representative of the intellectual elite, a good follower of the official policy who cannot follow the dissenting opinions expressed by Woland as well as his supernatural gifts. Unlike real Berlioz, Misha Berlioz is both unable and unwilling to wrestle with unknown and unexplained (or unexplainable).
Hector Berlioz also wrote the well-known Symphonie Fantastique.  In the fourth movement of this symphony, March to the Scaffold, the main character is seeing his own decapitation in his dream. Misha Berlioz also dies by being decapitated, but by a tram. Again, Bulgakov uses Hector Berlioz as an inspiration for his own literary creation.
While Hector Berlioz was often, as a composer, ahead of his contemporaries in his understanding of music and its complexity, Bulgakov’s Berlioz is a synonym for mediocrity. Hence it is unclear why Bulgakov chose the name Berlioz for his ordinary and conforming character. Or, did I misinterpret Bulgakov’s Misha Berlioz?

Sugar and Vice and Everything Nice


To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the twentieth century Russian literature we’ve read has been its fascination with the regulation of vice.  We briefly discussed the regulation of sex in We last Wednesday; beyond this though, the One State is also intent on regulating or restricting all unwholesome aspects of its citizens’ lives, resulting in fables illustrating the consequences of laziness and missing work and the One State's outright prohibition of alcohol and tobacco as dangerous and subversive substances.  In Envy, Olesha also indirectly discusses how soviet society is trying to move beyond its vices through his drunkard narrator Kavalerov and Kavalerov’s interaction with the gluttonous Andrei, the lusty Anichka, and the delusional Ivan.  Basically, it’s suggested in these two novels that the new socialist utopia has no place for the bourgeois creature comforts of the old world.

That being said, while Olesha and Zamyatin both critique state interference in the lives of individuals and praise self-determination, their relative stances on vice are less clear to me.  I don’t think either of them endorses wholesale hedonism, but Zamyatin seems to associate vice with personal liberation far more than does Olesha.  Where Olesha portrays the consequences of vice (alcoholism, poverty, resentment, alienation) in a pretty unfavorable light, Zamyatin portrays D-503’s emotional awakening as triggered by, among other things, drinking liquor and smoking tobacco with I-330.  Where Zamyatin portrays vice as an act of rebellion, Olesha portrays it as a real social problem that interferes with the aspirations of his characters. 

What you guys think about the role of vice in post-revolutionary Russian lit?  Do you see authors treating vice as a social ill like Tolstoy and Turgenev earlier treated nihilism, or is there more at play here?  Is Olesha critical of Russians' vice, or is he indifferent to it? 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Religious Imagery in The Master and Margarita? Maybe?

(I'm a little uncertain as to what book to write about, as I see nothing much about Envy here, but I'll just touch on The Master and Margarita that we started with today, as I'm enjoying that so far.)

Throughout this course, we've covered a variety of different novels that have touched on various different subjects.  However, we have not really seen much in terms of religious writing (in either direction, for or against it), with the exception of in We with the One State religion concept.  With The Master and Margarita, we now get that in a very unique and borderline whimsical manner.  Instead of using societal religious figures, such as priests or clergy members, as plot devices, Bulgakov opts for the more absurdist, fantasy-oriented, fictional method of literally bringing Satan to life in the guise of Woland, while also focusing on The Master's manuscript, which is a revised version of Jesus' trial.  With that in mind, so far, this feels very little like religious criticism.  Instead, it feels like the religious imagery is only conjured merely because Bulgakov was feeling like being creative in a manner that would be objectionable to the orthodox church at the time.

In previous literature courses, the most I've ever seen of religion being involved in a novel is that it has either served the role of oppressor, or a main character has been a sort of Christ-like figure (both sides of the same coin, I guess...).  Thus, I find this new twist on the religious theme to be quite fascinating.  The way it is integrated so far makes me feel like this is more about a "good and evil" kind of theme that will be revealed in some manner.

The 20th century literature we've read so far has been a far cry from the 19th century material.  We've now covered dystopian societies, extreme satire, the presence of a "big brother" styled state, and now this unusual religious imagery.  What does this say about the state of Russian literature in the 20th century?  Despite the fact that this novel was withheld/restricted/censored/delayed/whatever, is it a sign of social or literary progress to see how writers seemed to really push boundaries more now than ever before, especially in terms of bringing in radically fictional elements into their works?  How did 19th century works lead to the incredibly different novels we're reading now?


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Religion and We

In Zamyatin's We, the reader is constantly bombarded with references to the old world and the future. Both times, though very different, seem to have a need for religion in common. Giving people a way to ground moral values and give reason to life, religion has been an important part of people's lives throughout history. However, religion in We seems both to criticize organized religious practices and realize their necessity.

We uses the One State as organized religion for all people. This way, people have a common goal and background to increase uniformity among beings. The Benefactor serves as a god-like being, all-knowing and all-powerful. The benefactor is referred to as He, a term usually used for only God. D-503 even says that the Benefactor's face was "somewhere in the clouds, up above" (186). Many of the ceremonies take on a religious feeling. I made a connection to the story of Adam and Eve through parts of the novel. Love, or D-503's feelings toward I-330, can be seen as Adam tasting the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Also, the fact that the surgery of taking rid of the imagination is done, shows a criticism of religion. I think Zamyatin is arguing that religion takes away much individuality because it makes people constantly conform to certain beliefs.

What role do you believe religion plays in the novel? Does Zamyatin portray religion in only a bad light?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Don't tell me how to feel!


After reading so many 19th century authors who seem to go to great lengths (often literally) to broadcast their own opinions (nihilism is dumb!  Christianity!  Peasants!), I’ve found Zamyatin and Olesha’s willingness to embrace ambiguity and nuance very refreshing.  Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy all appeared to have well-formed ideas about how one should live and seemed to utilize large parts of their novel to convey these thoughts.  Turgenev has long periods of philosophical debate about the tenets and merits of nihilism.  The premise of Dostoevsky’s entire work was premised on the question of how someone functions in a modern society and he comes to the relatively straightforward conclusion that God can solve it all.  Tolstoy spends literally hundreds of pages romanticizing the simplicity of peasant life and concludes that living for God is the only way to go.

Zamyatin and Olesha, by contrast, seem much more willing to embrace vague and open-ended conclusions.  Both critique communism and the new Soviet Union while simultaneously acknowledging some benefits.  While Tolstoy was perfectly at home making broad categorical statements (“All happy families…”), Zamyatin and Olesha seem very uncomfortable doing that, preferring to prod and poke rather than wholly praise or condemn.  This is perhaps best exemplified by the warm welcome Envy received in the Soviet press and its simultaneous endorsement by critics of the Soviet Union.  After reading so many novels that seemed like lectures, I’ve really appreciated Zamyatin and particularly Olesha’s willingness and ability to praise opposite ends of the spectrum at the same time. 

Does anyone else feel the same way about the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reading Experience of 'WE'

I've read a fair number of distopian novels, but in reading WE I found myself sympathizing with the quest for creating an ideal world (though arguably impossible) more than I have in the past. This is probably due mostly to the fact that I haven't read a distopian novel since early high school and now have more knowledge surrounding industrial mechanization, communism, and the cold war. Growing up in the United States in a post- Cold War world, I was (as many of us in the US are) raised to value individuality.

Therefore, in the past when I have read distopian novels I always felt negatively toward the stifling suggestion of uniformity that is present in these novels (which I am supposed to feel as a reader). While reading WE, however, I kept thinking about the idealism that was behind the 'One State' and the idealism that was behind early soviet visions. The idea of a world in which everybody is equal, has their basic needs fulfilled and are content sounds great in theory.

Perhaps I am more inclined toward this sympathy considering that Zamyatin was Russian and wrote WE at a time in which the soviet experiment was only just beginning. Does anybody else find themselves similarly affected by WE? I just think that it is interesting that WE has provoked more thought about these issues than, say 1984 which I enjoyed reading more. Maybe it is simply because I am older and have more context than when I read 1984, but maybe there is something special about WE also!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Problem with Being Human


 In We, Zamyatin shows how the One State and Benefactor try to control every aspect of life; from waking up in the morning to the bell, to walking in lines in the surroundings enclosed by the Green Wall to allotting specific Sex Days given out by pick slips. It seems that D-503 has completely bought into the ways of the One State at the beginning of the book. D is content with his work as a builder of the Integral and loves spending his Sex Days with O even though he knows that O is also with R. The reader slowly discovers that D is different from everyone else in the One State. He continuously describes his surroundings as full of color (yellow, blue, green) and is completely infatuated with I-330. He goes against all of his beliefs for I-330. Instead of describing his actions with "we" he starts to use the word "I" and describes what his own desires and needs. 

Although D ends up going through with the Operation at the end of the book, the state itself is still chaotic. As we discussed in class today, I think Zamyatin is trying to critique how during this time leaders in Russia idealized communism. If they could just control each individual, everyone would be happy, however this is impossible. This is made clear when D expresses his individual desires. He also expresses his own jealously, another “human” emotion, when he sees O with R together.  Each person has his or her own desires and needs, and there is no middle ground that can make everyone equally happy. This is the human way. Therefore, there seems to be no right answer on how to run a state or even just a group of people. Look at the problems within our government today!