1. The Catalog of Nibru (Various, circa 21st to 20th Centuries B.C.)
I, the king, was a hero already in the womb
I am a king treated with respect
Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form
Lady of all the divine powers
These lines, inscribed in clay in Sumerian during the Third Dynasty of Ur, were initially confusing to the American archaeologists who around 1900 uncovered them from the ruins of the city of Nibru, or Nippur, in contemporary Iraq. They appeared to be poems, or the Sumerian equivalent of poems, but none cohered, or cohered as completely as the 40,000 or so other texts excavated from the area. And so the 62 lines of this incomprehensible tablet—of this intact yet stylistically fragmented tablet—were set aside, as the more formally explicable texts were decoded. In the course of that decoding, however, the same lines kept cropping up—as first lines: “I, the king, was a hero already in the womb” was the first line of a poem in praise of Shulgi; “I am a king treated with respect” was the first line of a poem in praise of Lipit-Ishtar; “Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form” was a song for hoeing; “Lady of all the divine powers” was a hymn to the love goddess Inana. This led scholars to conclude that this mysterious cuneiform slab was no avant-garde Gilgamesh (whose earliest version was also unearthed at Nibru), but a bibliography or curriculum—an index of the Sumerian canon intended for reference, or instruction. Literature began with the list: Online just made the links palpable.
2. The Talmud (Various, circa 200 A.D. to Present)
A commentary on commentaries: a book divided into books, or tractates, whose every page is divided among debates about Jewish law (Mishnah, 200 A.D.), debates about the debates (Gemarah, 500 A.D.), the glosses of the 12th-century French rabbi Rashi (in a strip down one margin), and over six centuries of tosafot, which are glosses on Rashi’s glosses (in a strip down the opposite margin). Interspersed text blocks can feature extracts from legal codices by Maimonides (12th-century Egypt), Nachmanides (13th-century Spain), Joseph Caro (16th-century Palestine), and Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, aka the Vilna Gaon (18th-century Polish Lithuania). To speak of the Talmud is to speak of a multiplicity-seeking syncretism, a jurisprudential pullulation: a work that intermixes Aramaic and Hebrew and exists in two forms (the earlier Jerusalem Talmud, the later Babylonian Talmud), each of which has appeared in disparate editions, with dissenting annotations and addenda. The Talmud’s ultimate interpretive difficulty, however, inheres in the fact that for over a millennium, its primary “text” had been overwhelmingly oral—commandments communicated face-to-face before being transcribed.
3. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (circa 820 A.D.)
A book from Baghdad, written by a Persian astronomer and mathematician credited with the introduction of what we now call Arabic numerals to Europe. Al-Khwarizmi’s Arabic treatise, which is known to us solely through its 12th-century Latin translation by Robert of Chester, delineates two ways of solving quadratic equations: the first by means of completion, or the movement of negative terms from one side of an equation to the other; the second by means of balancing, or the cancelation of equal terms on both sides of an equation. “The balancing” was al-muqabala; “the completion” was al-gabr, whose transliteration into “algebra” was relatively logical when compared with the Latinate corruption of its creator’s name: from al-Khwarizmi to Algoritmi—source of the modern “algorithm.” By proposing the abstraction or transposition of all quantities into a representative language, al-Khwarizmi founded a method by which all extant mathematical disciplines could communicate. His immediate concerns, though, were more mundane, as his treatise concludes by turning theory to practice and, like the search engines that continue its work today, becomes preoccupied with mercantile transactions: “A man is hired to work in a vineyard for thirty days for 10 dinars. He works six days. How much of the agreed price should he receive?”
4. Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas (1265–74)
“It seems that those who see the essence of God see all things in God. For Gregory [of Nyssa] says: ‘What do they not see, who see Him Who sees all things?’ But God sees all things. Therefore those who see God see all things. … Further, whoever sees a mirror, sees what is reflected in the mirror. But all actual or possible things shine forth in God as in a mirror; for He knows all things in Himself. Therefore whoever sees God, sees all actual things in Him, and also all possible things. … Further, whoever understands the greater, can understand the least, as Aristotle says. But all that God does, or can do, are less than His essence. Therefore whoever understands God, can understand all that God does, or can do. … Further, the rational creature naturally desires to know all things. Therefore if in seeing God it does not know all things, its natural desire will not rest satisfied; thus, in seeing God it will not be fully happy, which is incongruous. Therefore he who sees God knows all things.” Use the Ctrl key to find and replace “God” with “Google,” “Apple,” or the “Five Eyes” (the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand: the five nations that share signals intelligence), throughout.
5. Index Librorum Prohibitorum (First Edition 1559, Final Edition 1948)
A book necessitated by books: Gutenberg’s invention stilled the copyist’s hand, and ensured that texts were no longer the exclusive possessions of the aristocracy and Church. The democratization, along with the secularization, of “content,” suggested the establishment of institutional controls—if governments and ecclesiastical bodies had ceased to be the primary sources of reading material, they could at least license the printers who were, and regulate the materials they published. The first edition of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum—Index of Prohibited Books—was superintended by Pope Paul IV, and blacklisted over 500 works for reasons not just of heresy or blasphemy, but also of anticlericalism and obscenity; further, it set rules regarding book distribution that curtailed the influx of illicit texts from outside the Holy See’s dominion. The Index’s second edition, authorized by the Council of Trent and so referred to as the Tridentine Index, relaxed the standards of its predecessor, in that it distinguished between books to ban, and books merely to censor, and was more forgiving toward scientific works, except for those by Protestants. Taken in all its editions, the Index was both a guide to the evil opinions of heliocentrists (Kepler and Newton), pantheists (Bruno and Spinoza), Romantics (Balzac and Zola), and fascists (Alfred Rosenberg and Gabriele D’Annunzio), as well as a registry of the occulted holdings of the Vatican Library, which was required to obtain a copy of every book it proscribed. Paul VI abolished the Index in 1966—and in doing so appended it to another Index: that of Church books the Church has repudiated. Still, the list lives on, and has now been made searchable, at beaconforfreedom.org.
6. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, by James Howell (1645–55)
An all-over-the-map, four-volume autobiography—which, because it’s semifictionalized, and because it’s written as correspondence, qualifies it for the distinction of the first epistolary novel in English—Epistolae Ho-Elianae is more regularly referred to by its more regular title, Familiar Letters. Its Anglo-Welsh author, Howell, was arguably the first English-language author to earn his living solely from writing. He was the quintessential freelance, producing histories, political tracts, polyglot dictionaries, and wisdom miscellanies (English Proverbs, 1659, noted: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”). The variety of Howell’s interests—and the variety of his pre-freelance writing employment: as a tutor of and secretary to the nobility, and as the traveling representative of a glass manufacturer—accounts for the varied settings of his Letters (Germany, Italy, Poland, prison), and the varied nature of Letters’ addressees (family, friends, ambassadors of the British Crown, fellow belletristic hacks, and chummy sea captains encountered along the way). The only aggregating premise to this P.O. box of prose is Howell’s naive but endearing conviction that life and writing were synonymous and that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be written down. Beyond that: that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be communicated (published).
7. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726)
A “projector,” to Johnson’s Dictionary, is “one who forms schemes,” and, in its second definition, “one who forms wild impracticable schemes.” In Lagado, capital of Balnibarbi, Lemuel Gulliver is given a tour of the Academy of Projectors, an organization dedicated to “putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanics upon a new Foot.” Which is to say, dedicated to putting them onto, or through, a computer, with which “the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks, and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” Gulliver relates: “It was twenty Foot Square, placed in the middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several bits of Wood, about the bigness of a Die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language, in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order. The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at Work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the Edges of the Frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the Lads to read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes. This Work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the Engine was so contrived, that the Words shifted into new places, as the square bits of Wood moved upside down.”
8. The Telephone Directory, Connecticut District Telephone Company (1878)
In 1877, an inventor from New Haven named George Coy witnessed a telephone demonstration by Alexander Graham Bell and immediately went about founding the Connecticut District Telephone Company—the world’s first commercial telephone exchange. In 1878, the company published its first directory—neither a white pages nor a yellow pages, just a single sheet of stiff cardboard. The company’s 50 subscribers were listed only by name. Numbers weren’t required or even useful: An operator connected, and was privy to, all calls. The second edition of the directory, published a year later, was a bound affair, listing nearly 400 names, alongside directions for telephone operation, guidelines for telephone etiquette, an advertisement for Watkin’s Automatic Signal Telegraph (a business that took telegrams via telephone dictation), and informative essays on “Progress in Electric Lighting” and “The Microphone.”
9. “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility,” by Émile Borel (1913)
Not the first version of Swift’s scenario (which has also been imagined by Leibniz, Pascal, Cicero, and Aristotle), but the first to involve singes dactylographes—“typing monkeys.” Borel, the French probabilist, cracks his knuckles: “Let us imagine that a million monkeys have been trained to strike the keys of a typewriter at random, and that … these typist monkeys work eagerly ten hours a day on a million typewriters of various kinds. … And at the end of a year, these volumes turn out to contain the exact texts of the books of every sort and every language found in the world’s richest libraries.” The implication being that, given enough monkeys, typewriters, paper, and time, even Borel’s sentences are destined to be written again, as is this sentence, and so on.
10. The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platonov (1930)
“To change the world”: Half a century before this became the sanctimonious mantra of Silicon Valley, it was the violent imperative of Soviet Russia. Platonov’s darkling novel concerns a pit being dug to accommodate the foundations of a vast residential tower that will ultimately shelter the entire population of an anonymous city in the USSR. Once the tower is finished, all the people’s former dwellings will be destroyed. “And after ten or twenty years, another engineer would construct a tower in the middle of the world, and the laborers of the entire terrestrial globe would be settled there for a happy eternity. With regard to both art and expediency, Prushevsky could already foresee what kind of composition of static mechanics would be required in the center of the world, but he could not foresense the psychic structure of the people who would settle the shared home amid this plan—and still less could he imagine the inhabitants of the future tower amid the universal earth. What kind of body would youth have then? What agitating force would set the heart beating and the mind thinking?”
Excerpted from Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2018 by Joshua Cohen. Published with permission from Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Over the past few months, bookstores have seen a spike in the sale of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January, followed soon after by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Predictably, this news was fox chased by trend piece writers — who then became the target of protesting think piece writers: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US” shouted one; “Grave New World: Why “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not the book we need in the Trump era,” claimed another.
Meanwhile, away from the mud and scrum, in the hothouse of independent publishing, French author Antoine Volodine’s eighth book in English translation, Radiant Terminus, was released by Open Letter. Deftly translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, it’s the first major apocalyptic novel to come out in a year stacked with books in the genre, notably Omar El Akkad’s American War and David Williams’s When the English Fall.
As with most titles without big marketing budgets, Radiant Terminus may struggle to find its way into popular discourse. This is a shame. Not just because it’s the most stylistically courageous, entertaining dystopian novel in recent memory, but because of all possible scenarios leading to our cataclysmic end, the one imagined by Volodine might be among the timeliest. Rather than caused by the direct result of aggression, he envisions the world ruined by a bright idea.
Far in the future — keep following, this shouldn’t take more than a minute — engineers of the Second Soviet Union beat warheads into sizzling fuel rods, transforming their planet into a hive of energy self-sufficient cities, resource extraction centers, and prison camps, each powered by a nuclear reactor. But after generations of implied slack and harmony, the reactors fail, a cascade of nuclear meltdowns follow, and this “project of the century,” born of the purest egalitarian spirit, collapses society. Entire continents become uninhabitable. Dog-headed fascists lunge from their dens. Counter-revolutionary armies raze oblast after irradiated oblast.
It’s here that Radiant Termius begins. And where the fun begins.
Narrowly escaping the fall of the last fortified city, comrade-soldier Kronauer flees into the Siberian taiga. In scenes evoking visions of present-day Chernobyl — birch roots wedging cracks in irradiated concrete, atomic heaps steaming under evergreen canopies — he seeks help from a settlement believed to be across the steppe, within a dark wood.
As if stumbling into a folk tale dreamt by Strugatsky Brothers, the crippled kolkhoz that Kronauer enters is nuclear-powered yet primordial, existing in a fabulist realm between dreams and reality. This community of “Radiant Terminus,” whence the book gets its title, is led by the monstrous Solovyei, “a gigantic muzhik in his Sunday best, with a beard and a wreath of hair sticking out here and there as if run through by an electrical current.” Unfortunately for Kronauer and all those who meet him, Solovyei is a jealous giant, a twisted psychic tyrant. In the words of one victim:
Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he’d gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished.
Rather than fell Kronauer with his axe, Solovyei makes him a prisoner of the communal farm. Expected to work on pain of being cast as a drain on socialist society, Kronauer meets Radiant Terminus’ residents: Solovyei’s three grown daughters, all prey to their father’s incestuous, oneiric violations; a handful of shambling proles; and Gramma Ugdul, the witchy keeper of a radioactive well, two kilometers deep, at the bottom of which lies a reactor in eternal meltdown. Together they join in the endless labor of gathering and “liquidating” irradiated items by hurling them down Ugdul’s abyss.
The book’s heroic narrative progresses with dreamlike logic, leading, as most would expect, to an almost unbearably tense confrontation between Kronauer and Solovyei. What results isn’t an end. Instead, it precipitates a pivot in the narrative — or, better described: a concussive break of the central narrative, cracking the skull of the story, opening a consciousness unable to differentiate between nightmares and waking life, declamations and ramblings, physics and shamanism, she and they, he or I.
If this all seems odd, it is — in the best sense. Part of the joy of the book is the playful seriousness with which Volodine goes about his world building; another is spotting his influences. Samuel Beckett is clearly one. So are the aforementioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, perhaps best known for their 1971 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, adapted into the feature film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The nightmarish, irradiated atmosphere of that world — a world in which the most terrifying perils lie unseen, often imperceptible — is reflected in Volodine’s. So too are other fantastic elements, including Solovyei’s psychic projections.
In Radiant Terminus, what Volodine brings to the French — and now, through Zuckerman, to the English — is perspective on a genre that’s refreshingly distinct from the two or three upsetting novels America read in high school. Unlike 1984 or Brave New World, he evokes a post-urban dystopia — a communal, agrarian dystopia, slowly receding into an apocalypse of open steppes and endless woodland. This may seem unprecedented, but not within the Russian tradition.
After witnessing the Terror Famine of 1932 and 1933, Andrey Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit, a brilliant short novel brought to English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson in 2009. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, it follows a team of rural workers tasked with excavating the foundation of an unimaginably brilliant edifice, a “future building for the proletariat.” With little prospect of seeing the project realized, they spade deeper into the clay, oblivious to the pit’s semblance to a mass grave. Meanwhile, in the village where the workers are barracked, an activist hurries along the process of total collectivization — culminating with the gathering and liquidation of the region’s kulaks.
The satiric atmosphere of The Foundation Pit is so toxic with jargon and slogans that the prose itself mutates; description becomes sooty with language from official mouthpieces: “Most likely the rooks felt like departing ahead of time,” the narrator muses as a worker scans the sky, “in order to survive the organization collective-farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm.” In Radiant Terminus, Solovyei’s psychic intrusion into his subjects’ minds, his joy at “walking supreme throughout [their dreams]” seems only a fantastic reframing of what Platonov’s diggers experience when they return to their barracks, “furnished with a radio … so that during the time of rest each of them might acquire meaning of mass life”:
This oppressed despair of soul from the radio was sometimes more than Zhachev could endure, and, amid the noise of consciousness pouring from the loudspeaker, he would shout out: “Stop that sound! Let me reply to it!”
Adopting his graceful gait, Safronov would immediately advance forward.
“Comrade Zhachev, that’s more than enough…It’s time to subordinate yourself entirely to the directive work of the leadership.”
This same imperative hits Kronauer when he first steps into the boundary of Radiant Terminus, halting at the sound of a piercing whistle. Hands over his ears, he looks to his guide, one of Solovyei’s subordinated daughters.
Her eyes were obstinately focused on the tips of her boots, as if she didn’t want to watch what was happening.
—It’s nothing, she said finally. We’re in one of Solovyei’s dreams. He’s not happy that you’re here with me.
Kronauer walked up to Samiya Schmidt and looked at her, aghast. He kept his ears covered and he found it necessary to talk loudly to make himself heard.
Within the communities of both novels, truth is subservient to the barreling pace of activity: neither Solovyei nor the unseen spirit of Stalin would pause to consider the objection to a posited statement: in company, with frenetic movement and reprisals, they act as their will dictates; in seclusion, behind doors barred to dissent, they recuse themselves from question. Unlike the urban 1984 and Brave New World, where rigid control is needed to maintain the hard science fiction of the state, the rural setting of these two microcosmic dystopias can tolerate facts that counter its leaders. They’re simply ignored or dismissed, brushed away by hapless followers. Existing within a cycle of work and days, the power of these tyrants becomes as intemperate and natural to them as the weather — even, to some, as entertaining.
All considered, it wouldn’t be wrong to view the kolkhoz of Radiant Terminus as reconstruction of the village of The Foundation Pit. Stolen from the Russian, charged with psychosis, radiation, and incest, Volodine rebuilt it slat by slat, hut by hut, within a darker world.
In his foreword to the novel, Brian Evanson reminds us that Radiant Terminus is just one book in a forty-nine volume set that, when complete, will form Volodine’s ambitious, interconnected “post-exoticist” project. “One of the key features of [his] work,” Evanson explains, “comes in the echoes that operate both within individual books and between books.” Certainly, within the book’s last quarter, these echoes rebound — becoming as taxing on the reader as they are to Volodine’s characters:
—It’s just repetition, Noumak Ashariyev insisted. It’s hell.
—It’s not just hell, Matthias Boyol corrected. It’s more that we’re within a dream that we can’t understand the mechanisms of. We’re inside, and we don’t have any way of getting out.
Long after the point is taken, the book persists, nearly to the point of page-flipping exhaustion — the same exhaustion that meets every reader of Bouvard and Pécuchet — but it would be cruel to dismiss Radiant Terminus on this charge.
In truth, to be fair — what other conclusion could we expect? “Death occurs,” John Berger wrote, “when life has no scrap to defend.”
At the end of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as either implied by or explicitly stated in their respective appendices, future academics discover the texts or recordings that form the books’ core narratives. But in Radiant Terminus, in a future irreversibly collapsed from the start, there are no academics — only snow, steppes, a shamble of survivors, “existences wasted and millennia gone for nothing.” Without the ability to rebuild civilization, the novel, its world, and its world’s inhabitants lose common language and temporality: overcast months become years, years become decades, decades become “one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six years or more.” As humanity atomizes and recedes, surrounded by Platonov’s “universal enduring existence,” its narrative deltas into a frozen sea.
As Ben Ehrenreich wrote in his exploration of Volodine’s “post-exoticist” project for The Nation, “this, you’ll remember, is literature of defeat”; Radiant Terminus offers nothing in the way of hope. But perhaps an injection of French pessimism is warranted — overdue for those who still assume the spirit of humanism to be indomitable. Volodine reminds us of a truth we can easily forget, distracted, as we often are, by the luxuries of technology and moral outrage: namely, that the civilization we’ve inherited is an heirloom so terribly precious, at risk of shattering into one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six irreparable pieces, yet in constant motion — passed and plundered from generation to generation, hand to shaking hand. At the height of the Cold War, in his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the massive upheaval of Western society is “approaching that point beyond which the system becomes metastable and must fall.” Over the decades that followed, most considered his prediction delusional. Today, to many, it seems less so.
Future scholars may agree or disagree, but only in the chance they exist. As Radiant Terminus demonstrates, Kafka’s axe — the axe of a book that can split the frozen sea — is useless without the knowledge to wield it as a tool. Present circumstances considered, the thought alone makes Orwell and Atwood seem cheery.
It’s always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you’ve been meaning to read for many years. It’s exciting, of course, but you’re aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn’t. Sometimes it does. Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman’s idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades. This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg (“The Real and Unreal City”) to “Some Notes on Modernism in New York.” That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I’ll repeat Robert Christgau’s words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what’s most important about it is that it’s a good read. Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it. At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” That’s what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe’s Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it. And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on.
The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born. His major works were first published in the ’80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the ’90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press. Platonov’s other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I’m happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Platonov’s brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB.
Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s should read Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman’s, one of the best works of cultural history I’ve read in many years. After I finished it, I felt as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok’s work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don’t usually get from academic history. Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it’s hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible.
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Pasternak may be more celebrated, Babel more influential, Grossman more expansive, and Solzhenitsyn more heroic, but for my money, Andrey Platonov might be the finest Russian-language fiction writer of the Soviet era. It’s yet another black mark against Stalinism that “there is probably no twentieth-century writer of [his] stature who is so little known in the English-speaking world,” as Platonov’s translator Robert Chandler has put it. But with this volume, Chandler goes a long way toward rectifying the injustice. Soul and Other Stories reveals Platonov as an incomparable stylist and an utterly singular sensibility. Indeed, as in only the greatest art, the two form a perfect unity.
The Sufi-inflected novel from which the collection takes its title echoes the plot of several other Platonov works, including The Foundation Pit (one of my favorite books of 2009): An idealistic young man sets out to bring the fruits of the revolution to impoverished hinterlands. It would seem that this story can only end in one of two ways: propaganda (the revolution arrives), or dissent (the revolution is a fraud). The miracle of Platonov’s writing, however, is that the depredations it records somehow make his Utopian yearning burn brighter. As Soul’s Mosaic protagonist, Nazar Chagataev, leads his ragtag “nation” across the deserts of Uzbekistan, he comes to see the ineffable…well, soul that blazes in every camel and turtle and tumbleweed, and, by extension, in every person. Of a “savage, enfeebled” mongrel, Platonov writes:
The dog lay down obediently; it was trembling from exhaustion – old, bewildered, lacking the strength to cease living the life that tormented it, yet still convinced of the perfect bliss of its existence, because in its very endurance, in its thin trembling body, there was something good.
Soul is as visionary as any of Cormac McCarthy’s Westerns – which it often resembles – but Platonov is looking in exactly the opposite direction. In Paul Eluard’s formulation: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” The seven short stories that follow are, if possible, even better, transplanting Soul’s huge-heartedness into more recognizably domestic settings. The tender irony with which Platonov observes his proletarian characters’ outward movements is balanced against sudden, startling forays into the interior. “Among Animals and Plants,” “Fro,” “The River Potudan,” “The Cow,” and “The Return” are, simply put, some of the best short stories of the 20th Century. (“Fro” is a good place to start, if you want to ease your way in.)
Soul also represents a correction, of sorts, to a previous NYRB Classics edition, The Fierce and Beautiful World, based on earlier Platonov scholarship. Such is the difficulty of bringing to American readers a writer whose work was, at various points, suppressed, bowdlerized, and destroyed. But now that Platonov’s fierce and beautiful humanism has infected me, I have dreams of seeing his other novels and collected stories translated and in print in the next decade. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the present collection, which can stand alongside the works of Svevo and Walser – and indeed, as Edwin Frank has suggested, those of Kafka and Beckett – as a modernist masterwork.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.
Today’s Question: In honor of the 10th anniversary of NYRB Classics: What out-of-print book would you like to see become an NYRB Classic?
Emily: With presses like Dover, Everyman, the Library of America, Broadview, NYRB, and the Persephone Press (not to mention Oxford and Penguin classics series) doing excellent rediscovery and reprinting work of all kinds, I don’t often find myself longing for a new edition. The one great—nay, I would go so far as to say glaring—exception is the work of Ogden Nash, perhaps best know for epigrams like “Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker” and “The Cow”: “The cow is of the bovine ilk;/One end is moo, the other, milk.” Yes, there is a “best of” anthology arranged by Nash’s daughters and printed by Ivan R. Dee, and, yes, he’s in Library of America’s American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, but what I long for is a chronological, scholarly “complete works” volume: I want America’s great comic poet to be taken seriously.
Those who’ve only encountered “Custard the Dragon” or Nash’s epigrams (my favorite, which he composed with Dorothy Parker: “Hoggamus higgamus,/ Man is polygamous,/ Higgamus hoggamus,/ Women monogamus”), might question whether Nash is a serious artist deserving of such attention, but if you’ve read poems like “Don’t Look Now, But Your Noblesse Oblige Is Showing,” “Curl Up And Diet,” “Don’t Wait, Hit Me Now!”, or “Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer”, you know that Nash is a keen social observer with a satirical edge (an edge sharpened by the Great Depression), and an approachable, conversational stylist reminiscent of Frank O’Hara (think “Ave Maria”). Nash’s conversational style sometimes obscures his sparkling wordplay (Cole Porter-ish), his deft, innovative use of meter, and his subtle allusiveness, but look again at poems like “Pastoral” or “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” or “Columbus.”
Garth: This year, a panel at the PEN World Voices festival prompted me to explore the work of an author who was barely on my radar: Andrey Platonov. I devoured The Foundation Pit in one gulp, on a plane, intoxicated by the discovery of a sensibility as potent, distinctive, and hard to describe as Kafka’s. I’ve since moved on to the stories in Soul, in an impressive translation by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. A certain novelist friend of mine, who’s also a reputable critic, assured me that Platonov’s other major novel Chevengur, is even better than The Foundation Pit, and that a Chandler translation already exists…in the U.K. Apparently, the unreconstructed character of Platonov’s socialism makes Chevengur a tough sell for U.S. audiences. His response to Stalinism was not to abandon utopia, but to turn it into an organizing principle for his art. Still, this is one of the major stylists of his age. We deserve to have his work in print domestically, no matter how undomesticated it may be.
Max: I was introduced to Vasily Aksyonov via his epic Generations of Winter. Here is the twentieth-century Russian analog of the multi-generational epic, tracking the Gradov family through the tragic and tumultuous decades spanning 1925 to 1945. It is a historical period deserving of the weightiness of the once exiled Aksyonov’s novel, and yet the book is not widely known or read. But at least it is still in print. The rest of Aksyonov’s books are unavailable in the U.S.
While Generations of Winter was published after the fall of the Soviet Union (it became a mini-series on Russian television), his dissident novels, originally banned from the Soviet Union, may be more important. The New York Times this year called The Burn and The Island of Crimea “increasingly phantasmagoric and outspoken in their dissidence.” The Burn, the Times said “is a surreal, jazz-inspired riff on the plight of intellectuals under Communism, and Island of Crimea imagines what life would have been like on the Black Sea peninsula if the White Army had staved off the Bolsheviks there during the Russian Civil War and their descendants had flourished.” See also: Vasily Aksyonov, Giant of Russian Literature, Dies at 76; Sonya’s recent championing of another hard-to-find contemporary Russian author.
Let us know what out-of-print books you’d like to see returned to print.
It was raining last Thursday (because it is always raining in New York) when I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear a panel called “Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov.” I’m glad I braved the weather, however. The panel featured four of the most mellifluous voices in Anglo-American letters – Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser, and intellectual historian T.J. Clark. I could listen to Ondaatje read the phone book. Even more remarkable, though, was Platonov himself. Indeed, this Russian writer of the Soviet epoch turned out to be my big discovery of this year’s festival.Edwin Frank, whose NYRB Classics imprint has brought Platonov’s fiction back into print, opened the proceedings. Reminding the audience to turn off cellphones, Frank had a kind of Woody Allenish mien, but he waxed eloquent as soon as he began discussing Platonov’s complicated publishing history. Platonov’s “pressurized, contorted. . . lyrical” style made him “the most inventive writer of the revolutionary era,” Frank suggested – a Slavic peer of Beckett and Kafka, only with a desire “to bind up [the world’s] wounds” in addition to probing them. His admirers and champions included Yevtuschenko and Gorky, and like the latter, Platonov truly believed in the revolution. He had the utopian spirit. And yet, perhaps detecting the negative capability that is always hostile to ideology, Stalin’s functionaries suppressed Platonov’s best writing.After this fulsome introduction, the panelists let Platonov’s work speak for itself. Ondaatje read from an early short story. Then Lesser undertook a mash-up, reading half of “Fro” from the recently retranslated collection Soul and half from the “barbaric” older translation (which NYRB published in 2000 as The Fierce and Beautiful World). Apparently, publishing complications have followed Platonov even into English, and Lesser’s reading made clear why. Platonov is an intensely unusual stylist, blending modernist subjectivity with futurist, revolutionary diction and visionary mysticism. Francine Prose’s reading from “his finest story,” the eponymous “Soul,” revealed an animist sympathy with trees and rocks and buildings. “After reading him for a while,” she said, nodding toward her bottle of Aquafina, “you start to wonder what the water bottle might think of this evening’s proceedings.”The most spirited performer of the night, however, turned out to be T.J. Clark, who read a remarkable excerpt from the newly reissued novel, The Foundation Pit. Clark “did all the voices,” as the third-graders I used to teach would say, and drew the audience into a story remarkable, above all, for its sensibility: passionate, tender, absurd, and tragic. It’s a sensibility I look forward to reading much more of in the coming weeks.