In Germany, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, university curators and other supervisors struggled with the balance of power between faculties and centralized administrators. As William Clark details in his book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, private correspondence between administrators and specialists carried the most weight in promotions and hiring.
“A 1795 article in Berlinische Monatsschrift recommended that sovereigns should not consult universities corporately in formal correspondence,” writes Clark. Instead, “a sovereign should consult with a few scholars via confidential correspondence.”
Clark quotes a contemporary history professor who pointed out an eternal truth: “Although the faculties of learned academies recognize the men who most merit a vacant position, they are still seldom or never inclined to suggest the most capable fellow they know.”
The University of Göttingen would be the first to shift away from the correspondence model and inaugurate the era of “publish-or-perish.” But the letter of recommendation, that grim genre of guarded praise and veiled contempt, is still as ubiquitous as ever.
The protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s seventh book, Dear Committee Members, a professor of creative writing named Jay Fitger, is deluged by these requests. In his hands, the letter of recommendation becomes a means of expressing his wider dissatisfaction with his career and his life, only perfunctorily addressing the question of his students’ and colleagues’ “reliability,” “relevant experience,” and “preparedness.” Fitger eschews form in both senses of the word. His letters are incisive instead of workmanlike, garrulous instead of discreet.
Some of the targets of Schumacher’s piquant satire will be familiar: exploitative graduate program schemes that saddle students with debt and unrealistic expectations; automated human-resource systems; and the strained relationship between the university’s idealists (read: humanities professors) and pragmatists (read: bottom-line administrators), the latter of which will willingly trade a nationally-renowned Department of Slavic Studies for a more attractive salad bar.
But Fitger’s letters are also laced with subtle observations about the writing life. The friends he met in the “the Seminar” (which seem to be modeled on Gordon Lish’s courses at Columbia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), writers who were once poised for glory, have experienced setbacks. One novelist’s life story is Job-like, including the sudden death of a wife, but with the manuscript of his magnum opus in place of the seven children.
Schumacher hints that Fitger, a middle-aged man (who happens to be a professional writer), has come to the recognition that the choices he made as a egotistical young aspirant have poisoned his relationships with friends, mentors, and former lovers. Schumacher doesn’t allow any “all-for-the-art” grandstanding for Fitger either, whose career has nosedived since his early success. Instead, with refreshingly honesty, the letters are shot through with palpable regret. He’s still patiently, vainly, attempting to undo the damage 20 years later. A writer who long ago exhausted his own talent, he is especially invested in a shy young writer who is working on a “Bartleby-in-a-Bordello” updating of Herman Melville. The story, which unfolds tragicomically, is redemptive gesture for Fitger.
At one point, Fitger rails against an MFA program (in what is ostensibly a letter of recommendation for a prospective student) by claiming, fairly, that the program exploits the naïveté of students. He writes, “The point of this digression…is not to discourage the practice of writing: What, after all, is a writer’s life without a dose of despair,” before listing off all the “formidable” obstacles of the contemporary writers. But he finishes by saying, the writing life “despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of life worth living at all.”
Earlier this year, Eric Bennett claimed in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction that the Cold War axis of humanist academics and Pentagon spooks shaped the ideological clay feet upon which MFA programs stand: “Creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground.”
Of course, Cold War politics also shaped a much worse example of the writing life: the exceedingly horrific and efficient system of patronage and intimidation administered by the Soviet Union. The persecution of Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstam, and many other writers, journalists, and intellectuals underlines the fact that Soviet government was deeply insinuated in the art world, as sponsor as well as censor.
Finally published in 1967, 28 years after its author died, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita cleverly dovetails the persecution of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) by Pontius Pilate in ancient Palestine and the literary-bureaucratic order of 1930s Soviet Russia. In the latter plot, “Professor Woland,” a satanic figure, terrorizes a group of obsequious, craven hacks belonging to the writer’s organization, MASSOLIT, who mostly pander to the secular, brutal Stalinist regime. (For Bulgakov, those two adjectives do tandem duty.)
During their assault on literary Moscow, two demons visit the headquarters of the Soviet writer’s union, Griboyedov’s House, a stand-in for the Gorky House. During the Communist era, the House brought together writers from throughout the Soviet world to meet, teach, and write great literature.
“You know, Behemoth, I’ve heard many good and flattering things said about this house. Take a look at it, my friend! How nice to think that a veritable multitude of talent is sheltered and ripening under this roof!”
“Like pineapples in a hothouse,” said Behemoth…
If Bulgakov’s fictionalized account and Ismail Kadare’s fictionalized memoir Twilight of the Eastern Gods are accurate, though, the Soviet Goethes and Soviet Gogols weren’t doing much creative “ripening” in the house. Instead, they were carousing, drinking heavily, and engaging in mercenary character assassination against rivals, students, allies, supervisors, cronies, family, and friends.
Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a brilliant non-fiction treatment of Soviet literary culture during the later Leonid Brezhnev years, a non-fiction response to Bulgakov’s novel. As a promising Albanian writer, Kadare was invited to Moscow, where he met the odd mix of Party sycophants and belles-lettrists that was the Soviet intelligentsia.
Of course, the explicit goal of the House was to build a Soviet literature that would undermine nationalist culture, but the reverse-refugee program is comical. Siberian and Ukrainian writers, one Russian notes, have the real problem of enforcing literary convention on a surrealistically unconventional existence:
Can you imagine living your whole life in six-month-long days and nights, and then being required to divide your time into artificial chunks when you sit down to write? For instance, [a Ukrainian writer] couldn’t write ‘Next morning he left’ because ‘next morning’ for him meant in six months’ time.
Kadare also writes about how the literary history of the city was being distorted by the intense political scrutiny:
Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow. Even characters who lived there or were visiting always remained in some imaginary street, as I did in my dreams, and almost never turned into Gorky Street, Tverskoy Boulevard, Okhotny Road, or the environs of the Metropole Hotel…and if they did wander into it they seemed stunned: they heard nothing, and saw nothing — or, rather, they had eyes and ears only for the Kremlin and its bells.
Literary-political events unsettle the young Kadare’s mock-idyll. The first occurs in 1958: Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize, in part for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. Kadare’s own interaction with the book begins auspiciously when he finds the illegal manuscript in one of the rooms at Gorky House. Having accidentally read a few incoherent and scattered pages surreptitiously, Kadare then witnesses the full force of the Soviet media machine as it pummels its dissident and newly-minted Nobel laureate.
Forgoing political outrage, he renders the melancholy disquiet of the anti-Pasternak media blizzard evocatively. He writes:
All the same, newspapers, radio and TV carried on campaigning.
Doctor…Doctor…the wailing of the transcontinental wind made it seem as if the entire, and now almost entirely snow-covered Soviet Union was calling for a man in a white coat. Doctor…Doctor…Sometimes, at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, you could almost hear the deep-throated moaning of an invalid waiting for the arrival from who knew where of a doctor who had so far failed to turn up.
Then, as quickly as it began, the smear campaign stops: no one talks about Pasternak or the Nobel Prize again. A “spontaneous” demonstration is held, under the suspicion that the West secured the prize for Pasternak to undermine to Soviet culture. (Recently declassified CIA documents have shown that, apparently, they were right.) It is eventually decided that Pasternak will have to turn down the prize.
Sometime later, an artist from Moscow becomes infected with smallpox in Delhi, while sketching an Indian princess. Once news of the infection spreads, the Soviet government immediately quarantines the possibly infected. Muscovites rush to vaccination clinics. During the panic, the young Kadare spots a friend who had seemingly given him a cryptic warning, “for me — or rather, for my country.”
The friend demurs, then confesses that there are rumors that Russian-Albanian relations are cooling. Gorky House suddenly turns on the young, anonymous Albanian writer. They fear contagion: because of spurious rumors about faraway political machinations, his one-time mentors and colleagues quickly ostracize and marginalize Ismail Kadare, a great 20th-century novelist. If he had been embraced, his work would have inevitably been co-opted or at least compromised by his sponsor-censors.
Reading Twilight of the Eastern Gods, I thought about another writer who had the similar mixed blessing of being banished from his home country, Witold Gombrowicz. In his Diary, he offered as an archetype the great French humanist François Rabelais, “a writer who had no idea whether he was ‘historical’ or ‘ahistorical.'” (I would add “national” or “internationalist,” “reactionary” or “revolutionary.”.) The author of Gargantua and Pantaguel “had no intention of cultivating ‘absolute writing’ or of paying homage to ‘pure art,’ or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself.”
Gorky House was formative for Kadare. But being rejected by its writers was hardly an obstacle. In fact, the Soviet literary elite might have been doing Kadare a favor by disfavoring him. The concerns of that circle have proven to be parochial, venal, insular. Yet, it produced Kadare, who has managed to craft a nuanced, luminous memoir to commemorate the time when Moscow cried with “the deep-throated moaning of an invalid.”