October 24, 2013

A gallery of burning buildings: 10 first paragraphs about The End in Russian literature


Pavel Tchelichew, “The Whirlwind”, 1939

Here is how it will end: you will be on a train. You will be walking down a street, in St. Petersburg. You will be riding a red horse. It will be raining (it’s always raining when it ends). Your face will be cold. The lights will be out, but your hands will be visible anyway, due to what you will gradually realize is the fire all around you. The fire inside you. You will want a cigarette. You will want to kiss your daughter, but the only thing you will have is a cigarette, which you will let dangle between your lips as you look for a lighter. Fields will be on fire—I mean all of them: every field everywhere will be on fire—and yet there you will be, on your horse, in St. Petersburg. On a train that is not a train as the thing dangling between your lips is not a cigarette, but a small, neatly-rolled stick of time. And there’s your lighter. And the fire’s getting closer. And you will want, again, to kiss your daughter, except there is no daughter. Except you want to kiss her. Except smoke is so beautiful, which is why, or one reason why, or not at all the reason why you will raise your hand, and open your lighter, and the horse will rear, and the train wheels will shriek, and then, “all of a sudden” (as they say in books),“The candle, by which she had been reading the book filled with trouble and deceit, sorrow and evil, flared up even brighter, illuminating for her everything that before had been shrouded in darkness; flickered, grew dim; and then was extinguished forever.”

One way to think of Russian literature is as a gallery of apocalypses: a building full of burning buildings. There is a paradox to this, but it is a superficial one. The world will end only once; but Russia, being so full of life, secretly believes that it will get to end at least a few more times than everyone else. This is not about resurrection: resurrection requires death but Russia, like Tolstoy, does not really believe in death—at least, not in its own death. What it believes in is endurance: a self-renewing swamp that bubbles on no matter who dies or what happens. You could be the hero of your book—you could be Anna Karenina herself, radioactive with fate. It doesn’t matter. Your story will survive you by hundreds of pages, only to end while someone else is picking their nose. End so convincingly, in fact, that you might begin to wonder while reading it what the point of living was to begin with.

The rapture will catch us with our pants down, as at least three movies released this summer suggested; but there are no raptures in Russia. Jesus doesn’t walk: he waits, prevaricates, paces, contradicts himself, loses faith, loses interest, loses his car keys, and eventually decides to nap on it. He is Oblomov yapping at Zahar, Master chatting with Man. Remembering the good old days, before the Flood—the cause of which neither of them can really get straight anyway. Such confusion (about something everyone should know about) is comic; it is also Tolstoyan, a matter of misunderstanding. Anna Karenina—to my mind the undisputed Ezekiel in a century full of literary shit-eaters—kills herself not because she is evil, but because she doesn’t understand something; hence her novel’s famous epigraph, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” God, who understands, will be the one to decide who’s lived a good life and who hasn’t; meanwhile the rest of us walk around as if we’ve got the book of life all figured out, when really we’re reading it in a bad translation, interrupted, with key chapters missing.

There are points in Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx when you can almost hear the author talking back to her ancestors: not just Leo, but the entire family of Russian literature. A lot of this talk is explicit—poems are quoted, names repeated, a statue of Pushkin is carved by the book’s dunderheaded anti-hero, Benedikt. But unlike with many postmodern books, it is also confused: less a straightforward conversation than a game of ‘telephone’, in which the garbled message shifts from sense, to nonsense, to a strange combination of the two. Books have survived the Blast, but reading has not—or at least not in a way that we (that is, people living before the Blast) can recognize. Schopenhauer has become shoppinhower, Pushkin’s statue sprouts an extra finger. “Everything keeps mutating,” as Nikita Ivanich, one of the few survivors of pre-apocalyptic times, laments. “Russia! Everything gets twisted up in knots.” Even Tolstoy himself changes—for the more Benedikt reads, the more he begins to suspect that there is a book he hasn’t confiscated: a secret book that will “tell him how to live.” “There’s a faint light in your head,” he thinks, dreaming of it, “Like a candle behind a door cracked open.” But no matter how hard he looks for this book, he can’t find it. Like Anna Karenina, he is trapped in a world of misunderstandings: a world that feels particularly unbearable to him because he’s a reader, someone used to finding meaning in things.

When the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, came out this past summer against gay marriage, calling it “a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse,” he was not just talking as a bigot: he was talking as a reader. This is not as strange as it sounds. Most of us like to characterize zealots as illiterate nincompoops, but the truth is usually the opposite: they’re highly literate nincompoops. They don’t burn books (at least not at first): they enshrine them, or rather one of them. This king book can be anything from the Bible to The Interpretation of Dreams to the Constitution of the United States. It can be easy to read, or dense as a medieval codex; it has to give its readers a picture of the world that they can use as a map to navigate the chaos they feel overwhelming them on every side. Unfortunately, this is pretty much what all great books do, which means that it can be somewhat difficult to distinguish dangerously zealous readers from harmlessly passionate ones.

Starting over again is fun, especially if you’re losing; but it can be exhausting if you do it too much. One of the hardest parts about it is that you never really do it at the beginning: you do it in the middle, which means that right off the bat a significant part of your energy has to be devoted to either forgetting the past, or convincing yourself that the thing you’re doing is actually an extension: the same game, the same stakes, except this time you’re winning. This is particularly true with books, and particularly particularly true with the genre-within-a-genre of postapocalypse, which nests within the optimistic conservatisms of science fiction like a plutonium nugget in a matrushka doll. “Benedikt pulled on his felt boots, stomped his feet to get the fit right, checked the damper on the stove, brushed the bread crumbs on the floor—for the mice—wedged a rag in the window to keep out to cold, stepped out the door, and breathed the pure, frosty air in through his nostrils.” So, with the first sentence of The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya convinces us that we’re in familiar territory. We are stepping out into the middle of literary Russia—a place we have been many times before, or at least think we have, until two sentences later, we learn that “Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop.”

The secret theme of all fairy tales is change, which is what makes them so beloved by people that at one point could have been called “disenfranchised.” If you feel like you’re on the bottom of a pile and want to be on the top, or at least a little bit closer to it, you will probably respond to a genre of entertainment which suggests that even the poorest farmer’s son can become a king. At the same time, as these entertainments become more familiar, you will probably become more aware of how drastically they differ from anything you or anyone you know has experienced—which is why you may begin preferring stories in which the farmer’s son who becomes a king (fashion designer/rock star/superhero) eventually becomes a farmer’s son again. At this point, (if you’re anything like me) you will congratulate yourself on your ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, and the maturity of taste that allows you to prefer the latter over the former; but the truth is, you will actually be doing something much more interesting. What you will really be doing by preferring stories that more closely resemble your own experience is confusing the boundaries between art and life—that is, extending the power of “story,” so that instead of occurring over here, in a castle or faraway kingdom, it now has the ability to happen anywhere.

Disaster is what happens when the wrong story wins; but Apocalypse is what happens when the wrong story loses and, instead of rewriting itself in a way that transforms that loss into a sign of eventual victory (as fairy tales and novels do), decides that it will never win, and that the whole story-infected world therefore needs to be blown-up. It’s the Great Misunderstanding: a disappointment that occurs after what we thought was our last appointment, while we’re lying in our beds thinking about how lucky we were to get away. In order to be thinking this, of course, we must be a little bit disappointed with our lives—which is why, in the end, The End is usually a co-operation between the destroyers and the destroyees. In Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx, for example, it begins to happen after Benedikt—once a harmless reader, now a decidedly harmful one—helps his horripilating Father-In-Law seize power. Up to this point, F-I-L (who is essentially Trotsky, if Trotsky had the ability to shoot laser beams out of his eyes) has talked like a liberator. But as soon as the coup is complete, and he sits down to scrawl his first decrees on a piece of bark, all talk of justice goes out the window. “DECREE NUMBER ONE:” he orders Benedikt to write. “I’m going to be the boss now.” Meaning, essentially, Alright, the story’s over, this is the way it’s going to be forever. The good guys have won: except that, for Benedikt, the victory turns out to really be a debunking of the fairy tale story he’s believed in this whole time. The disaster that follows this disappointment—a disaster that Benedikt goes along with passive desperation—is his attempt to keep, not just his story alive, but any story alive. It’s his attempt to continue believing that life is a book like the ones he’s read, because the only alternatives that he can see don’t make any sense.

In the end (inescapable phrase!), Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx is not a book about destruction, anymore than its great ancestor Anna Karenina is a book about death: it’s a book about books. Anna, a romantic, misunderstands the world, which is not romantic; Benedikt, a reader, searches for a book that will give him all the answers. The problem isn’t that they’ve read too much—it’s that they haven’t read enough, or at least deeply enough, to understand what reading is. They think that books will allow them to understand the world, to stand outside of its confusion, whereas what Tolstoy and Tolstaya seem to be suggesting is that the only thing books will help you understand (and make peace with) is misunderstanding. This doesn’t seem like enough to keep the world from ending, but then maybe we’re the ones who have gotten the message wrong here. Maybe the real point is not to prevent misunderstanding, but to accept it as an inevitability – a necessity, even, protecting us from the real disaster of understanding one another perfectly. For as the secretly-Tolstoyan (Tolstayan?) Baudelaire said, “What makes the world revolve is nothing but universal misunderstanding; through misunderstanding the whole world reaches agreement. Because, unfortunately, if everyone were to understand each other, no one would ever get along.”

About half way through writing this post I realized that most of the lullabies I’ve been singing to my two month-old son were about the end of the world. I am not sure how this happened. Probably it started before he was born, when my wife and I started singing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” to him—not because it told us to “have no fear for atomic energy”, but because it was beautiful. Later, in the hospital room—where the three of us hunkered like suburbanites in a fallout shelter—I probably should have been more sensitive to the weird millennial subtexts in Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.” (whose September, 2001 release date was famously delayed due to lines like “tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs”). But I wasn’t: I just loved the way he stopped crying when I sung it. And now it’s too late. Now, when I sing him the first line of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”, I feel like I’m asking him something important—something that I imagine he, as a survivor of his own world-ending event, might be able to answer. But he doesn’t, of course. He has no idea what I’m talking about—and thank god for that. Thank god too that by the time he’s old enough to really tell me what the end of his world was like, he will have forgotten it completely.


JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at begborrowstijl.blogspot.com.