A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
A friend alerted me to the fact that “curate,” a verb formerly evoking museums and archives, a verb with family ties to assistant priests in country parishes, is enjoying a hip renaissance. My friend is more in the swim of things than I. These days, he tells me, curators abound and curate all manner of material: playlists, the news, cheese, porn movies (link questionable for work), blogs, and, according to one New York Times piece my friend curated especially for me, a stable of food trucks. I realized how long the trend must have been building when I saw a facetious Facebook status update about curating an Oz viewing marathon.
I won’t curate them for you here, but many of the contemporary uses of the verb make the heart yearn for a simpler time–tumbrils instead of tumblrs. Still, to deny the import of this word in its new iterations is to deny the real anxieties of our information-saturated age. How will I know all the new songs, and the best memes, and the craft beers and oozing cheeses, if they are not curated for my edification? Moreover, in this age of curatorial ubiquity we must not forget the older and arguably indispensable function of the curator–without curators, art would make no sense at all.
Out last week, Nom de Plume is Carmela Ciuraru‘s admirable application of the curatorial principle to a phenomenon that is neither new nor hip. Writers have always found it expedient to conceal their real names, and bibliographies of pseudonymous writing abound (Cushing; Halkett & Laing; Stonehill & Block & Winthrop). Even in 1690, when Adrien Baillet came out with Auteurs Deguisez, his 1700-name index was only a preliminary effort. So many masked authors! How to classify them? Whom to choose?
Ciuraru chooses, curating 18 of these pseudonymous authors in 16 tidy sketches that shed light on the many and various motivations for pseudonymous writing. The book is a good exhibit across space, time, and material, combining the old standards (Blair/Orwell, Brontë/Bell) with some less well-known names (Sheldon/Tiptree, Pessoa/Campos et al.). Ciuraru sifted through biographies and autobiographies and published works, and here she synthesizes her research nicely. She has a gift for organizing and presenting information and an ear for the money quote from a novel or letter. I finished this book feeling armed for a book fair or an evening among highbrows: “Ah yes, Patricia Highsmith, an anti-semite with snails under her breasts,” I might say, and dazzle my interlocutor.
Ciuraru has done a fine job with her considerable research and final product, but there are some troubling aspects. Ideally, the lacunae that inevitably result from synthesizing oceans of data about 18 writers would be rendered moot by the book’s theme, since, ostensibly, Nom de Plume is meant to focus on the particulars of each author’s pseudonymity, rather than provide the entirety of their various life stories. However, since the wherefores of an author’s pseudonym are often inextricable from his or her biography, and since Nom de Plume is rather long on biography, it matters that George Orwell is suddenly absent from the Spanish Civil War, the bullet never entering his saturnine neck.
I think the rest of my complaints are traceable, like so many things, to the invisible hand of the markets. It is gratifying to see that a major publishing house was willing to make an offer on a book dealing with the arty dead, but the struggle for marketability is perceptible in the text, and the effects of the struggle ultimately diminish Ciuraru’s prose. On the inside flap, we are assured that the book is “grounded by research yet highly accessible,” and as I came across the author’s jarring comparisons of bygone novelties and institutions to iPads, The Onion, Michael Jackson, and, of all things, Seinfeld, I understood them to be awkward gestures toward the promised accessibility.
Likewise, kicky phrasing (“But wait, there’s more”), superfluous instances of telling over showing, some questionable pseudo-criticism (“That single-minded devotion to process–the ardor for writing itself, rather than the vanity of having written–is, or course, the mark of a true writer”), and the references to what the reader does and does not know (“There was his affinity for taking photos of nude girls, of course” or “We know how well she came to terms with that loss; those who don’t should read her notorious poem ‘Daddy,’ which says it all”)–these reveal a struggle to define for whom precisely this book was written. The writing feels anxious in its effort to do the impossible and include a little something or everyone, literary types and the great unwashed alike.
Marketing, too, explains the cute subtitle: “A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.” This subtitle only highlights the fact that this is not really a (secret) history; it publishes no new letters or journals, it reveals nothing hitherto unknown about its subjects. This is curatorship–engaging and impressive curatorship to be sure–but taken alone, none of its chapters are revelatory. The writing at some moments has that quality of desperation, familiar to anyone who has written a research paper, to finagle all the necessary paraphrasing of someone else’s work; hence sentences like “Sylvia was always driven to be the best, and often was” or “Henry came from fancy stock.”
I admire Ciuraru’s effort–I admire the considerable research she patently did, I admire her feeling for a great quotation, and I am glad that she was able to sell this idea and get the book published. I was unlikely to seek out and read the collected biographical material of Fernando Pessoa, and I am grateful that Ciuraru has done it for me. But I see it as a book for these times and no other. Our particular moment is all about managing data rather than producing it; a theme is assigned, the material assiduously curated. No conclusions can be drawn other than that writers choose aliases for a variety of reasons, and that great writers are usually outlandish people.
As blog after blog of funny photos gets picked up and published, I should be grateful there was room for this bookish offering. I think, though, that I shall always prefer my novelists straight, without even the most competent mediation of a market-conscious curator.
Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.