Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War

During WWII, women served in all branches of the military: 225,000 in the British, 450,000-500,000 in the American, and about a million in the Soviet army. The women in the Soviet army contributed to the German defeat, but little was known and little was said about them and the price they had to pay for victory.

Over the course of twenty six years, Svetlana Alexievich sought out many of these women and became the repository for their untold stories. This is part of the body of work that earns her a place as one of only seventeen women out of a hundred and fifteen Nobel Laureates in Literature.

Maybe it’s because Svetlana Alexievich says that she isn’t writing about war nor the history of a war, “but about human beings in a war… the history of feelings.” Maybe it’s because she is what she says she is, “A historian of the soul.” Maybe it’s because she believes, for good reason, that suffering is “a special kind of knowledge,” “the highest form of information,” that suffering has a direct connection with the mystery of life. (“All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love. And these women tell me more about it…”) Maybe it’s because she makes this book of unburdening into an overwhelming choir of over two hundred voices singing a soulful rendition of an unsung threnody for the first time, that it answers my question as to why a piercing account of war can be so beautiful and so important. 

Special thanks to Gabi for encouraging me to read this and for giving it to me as a birthday present last year. 🤍

Lev Ozerov: Portraits Without Frames

“Fifty shrewd and moving glimpses into the lives of Soviet writers, composers, and artists caught between the demands of art and politics.”

Fifty portraits in words by this man born in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire, this man with Jewish origins who extraordinarily survived the Shoah, and who walked among Akhmatova, Pasternak, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich and many others “who lived / in times that were hard to bear.”

Fifty poignant poems, written “so that those who did not know will know” and read by this reader as “what happened long ago / becomes current again.”

Fifty intimate portraits that initially seem to be of individual people but soon become apparent as an exceptional, panoramic depiction of an era of art choked by tyranny.

Little did I know that it would become one of my most treasured volumes of Russian literature. I love how clueless we sometimes are of a book’s value until we read it and become acquainted with its soul.

Teffi: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me

Oh, what would it have been like to be Teffi, born into a remarkable time that made personal encounters with Tolstoy, Rasputin, Gorky, and Lenin possible, and to have made a name for herself as a writer in an androcentric literary world?

These delightful autobiographical essays answer that question. From childhood recollections, what her multipurpose desk was like, how her pseudonym came to be, to encounters with history’s formidable men, Teffi writes with a poetic simplicity that makes for light reading while never lacking depth. 

“I adore oranges. They are round and golden, like the sun, and beneath their peel are thousands of tiny pockets bursting with sweet, fragrant juice. An orange is a joy. An orange is a thing of beauty.

And suddenly I thought of Ganka. She didn’t know about oranges. Warm tenderness and pity filled my heart.”

Stealing from the crate of oranges, she managed to give one to Ganka, who, in return, “Bit off a piece together with the peel, then suddenly opened her mouth wide, made a horrible face, spat everything out and hurled the orange far into the bushes.”

“I had become a thief in order to give her the best thing I knew in all the world. And she hadn’t understood, and she spat it out.”

And dear Teffi who apparently knew what it’s like to give one’s best and have it discarded just like that, called this short piece “Love”.

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

How do reading friends try to lift your spirits? One brought me to Solidaridad, the legendary bookshop founded by the late National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, and forbade me to exit the shop empty-handed.

“It’s on me,” they’ll say, and treat books like a drink in which you’ll drown your pains.

Thousands to choose from, and yet I clung to this one as soon as I saw it. I was unaware that 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning author, Julian Barnes, wrote a novel about Shostakovich! For an idea of how fond I am of Shostakovich’s music: I performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 on my first solo recital and named a pet fish “Shosta” after him — never mind that this pet fish leapt outside of the fishbowl to his doom and died a very dramatic Russian death.

But I digress… needless to say, I took The Noise of Time home with me and finished reading it on the day the 2022 Man Booker Prize winner is expected to be announced.

It is surprisingly an apt read for a time when many Russian musicians and artists are being cancelled worldwide for not publicly denouncing Putin and the war against Ukraine.

This book suggests that it is not always as easy as it seems to make a public stand.

Shostakovich, who enjoyed international success after his first symphony, dealt with a blow when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a title familiar to NYRB editions enthusiasts) was condemned by the Soviet government in 1948, endangering his life, family, and career. Although the aforementioned work was a success after its premiere in 1934, Barnes highlights the capriciousness of the Soviet state: “What the party had said yesterday was often in direct contradiction of what the party was saying today.” As if under similar laws of energy, Soviet power evolved and mutated from one form to another.

How Shostakovich had never joined the Party initially, but had allowed himself to be seen as supportive of the Party, and how his subsequent decisions played out, appear to be a question between cowardice or courage. But wasn’t this too much to ask from a man who simply wanted to compose music?

What becomes of art when it is suppressed or governed under tyranny — “art made tongue-tied by authority”?

This book has some beautiful answers:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

“Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say or wish for.”

But if those lines still cannot convince one of the purity and the incorruptibility of great art, the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 just might.

Némirovsky: Fire in the Blood | Gille: The Mirador

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Because I arrange my books based on geography, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman, and Irène Némirovsky among a few others share a spot on my shelf. They were all born in Ukraine while it was still under the Russian Empire.

Fire in the Blood was thought to be unfinished when Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942. It was only through subsequent research years later that the rest of the manuscript was found and published posthumously.

She wrote this around the time she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, but there is no pain of epic proportions in this book. There are none of Gogol’s ghosts, none of Bulgakov’s political caricatures, and none of Grossman’s wars.

At the beginning I was so convinced that this was simply a charming picture of rural life in an idyllic French village. She makes the reader believe that, until one surprising revelation after another piles up towards the end, and it reveals its own unique depth.

“Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?”

Fire in the Blood, the fire of youth contrasted with the sobriety of old age through the introspection of Sylvio and the lives of those around him leaves the reader with a subtle sting that leads to a silent contemplation on, or the questioning of, passion, love and life.

There may have been none of Gogol’s dark humor, none of Bulgakov’s satire, and none of Grossman’s reportage on tragedy, but perhaps Némirovsky deserves her place alongside these men as someone who lays bare the human heart.

 “No, it wasn’t that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire… That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest.”

The Mirador by Élisabeth Gille

Don’t you love it when an underexposed book surprises and transcends expectations? I had not anticipated The Mirador to contain this much beauty!

Having read nothing by Élisabeth Gille prior to this, I approached it as someone who was simply curious about her famous mother, Irène Némirovsky.

From her mother’s journals, letters, unpublished notes, “dreamed memories”, and with the help of her elder sister’s own memories and research, Gille recreates a striking portrayal of the mother they lost to Auschwitz when they were mere children.

Regardless of the applause that her novels garnered and despite her tragic fate, it was for her indifference and lack of political sense that Némirovsky was criticized. Gille, however, does not justify her mother’s shortcomings. She allows a beautiful irony to unfold through the pages and writes a lyrical and clearsighted grasp of her forebears, literature, history, and the political arena that surrounded Némirovsky from her early childhood in Kyiv, growing up in St. Petersburg, fleeing to Finland in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and building a life and a successful writing career in France until the German Occupation.

I must admit that I personally prefer the daughter’s writing over the mother’s, and it was saddening to learn that Gille died from cancer in 1996, only four years after The Mirador was published. But I beam at the thought that Némirovsky would have been so proud.

How cathartic it must have been for a daughter to write this! It makes one wonder at the mysterious power of writing — how it can liberate the writer and the subject at the same time, how it can be a simultaneous act of holding on and letting go.

Vasily Grossman Trio

“History’s only true heroes, the only true leaders of mankind are those who help to establish freedom, who see freedom as the greatest strength of an individual, a nation or state, who fight for the equality, in all respects, of every individual, people and nation.” – Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad

Everything Flows. Stalingrad. Life and Fate.

These three, read in this particular order reminds me of realist painting lessons: One starts by sketching the foundation and the outline, followed by painting the background and setting the mood for the main subject, and then finally filling in the details and emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow by articulating the source of light.

Because of its fullness, it is hard to believe that Everything Flows is an unfinished work, but after having read the three in succession, I now see it as a concise foundation on the scope of Grossman’s knowledge and profundity. Stalingrad exists to set a monumental stage, Life and Fate consummates the masterpiece.

Everything Flows is a forceful literary piece in which the main character occasionally disappears to give way to in-depth analyses of Russia, Lenin, Stalin, other political figures of that era, and sometimes, its literature.

For someone considered the Tolstoy of the 20th century, it is important to note that the difference between Grossman and Tolstoy is that Tolstoy wrote about a war that took place before he was born, while Grossman wrote about wars in which he was a war correspondent. The things immortalized through his fiction, he experienced and witnessed firsthand. 

He wrote at a time when there was hardly any published information regarding the Gulag, Collectivisation, the siege of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, Treblinka, 20th century’s lesser-known acts of genocide — the Armenian, the Circassian, and Ukraine’s Holodomor or Terror Famine — and he wrote of these things. Most of all, he did not merely write, he did so with unbelievable insight and clarity.

And because of current world events, I think there is no better time to read him.

He was born in Ukraine.

Stalingrad, an expression of how the siege impacted the lives of Russians and one particular extended family is, to me, epic in every sense of the word. But what will stay with me is the hopeful tone that Grossman maintained amidst all the human suffering!

“No wartime blackout has darkened the stars.”

Despite the horrors of which he wrote, he never fails to stop to admire beauty: “At times like this we cease to have distinct perceptions of light, space, silence, rustlings, warmth, sweet smells, the swaying of long grass or leaves — all the millions of ingredients that make up the world’s beauty. What we perceive then is true beauty, and it tells us only one thing: that life is a blessing.”

I believe this is also where he leaves clues about the kind of art he sought to achieve. In a brief chapter hides this beautiful passage that book reviews of Stalingrad (at least, the ones I’ve read) fail to mention:

Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.

As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.

But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.

In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labor and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.

All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.”

And if you ask me, Grossman has achieved this in these three works.

Life and Fate is where the excruciating details are.

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face?

And yet he does!

I overestimated my courage when I set out to read this. Some of the most heartrending passages in literature are found between these pages: A Jewish mother who is about to be seized writes a long farewell letter to her son, the last words being, “Live, live, live for ever… Mama”; a woman, mad with hunger, who had just eaten her two children; a suffocating chapter of a scene where Jews are being herded like cattle to their deaths; a childless woman who had a chance at freedom but chose to hold the hand of a boy on the way to a gas chamber, and as she draws her last breath, she reflects, “I’ve become a mother.”

It took me longer to finish reading this than expected because I had to put it away so many times just to catch my breath or to calm myself down before continuing, not to mention a fever that made it difficult for me to read the last two hundred pages. But then again, Life and Fate concludes the painting. And what work of realism would be complete without its darkness?

The thing about masterpieces is that you cannot merely read them. You experience them.

As I review my notes of the three books, I notice recurring themes: Warnings about the tendencies of totalitarianism and its evils, what it means to be human, what causes one to cease being human, freedom, and kindness as the greatest achievement of the soul.

Never mind the fascinating passages on quantum mechanics that reflect Grossman’s knowledge in this field, never mind that Life and Fate contains some of the most illuminating discussions on Russian literature, never mind the other things about Grossman and his works that easily come up in internet searches, Raymond Chandler sums it up beautifully in his introduction to Life and Fate, “It is an exhortation to live.”

Mikhail Bulgakov (May 15, 1891 – March 10, 1940)

“The snow would just melt, the green Ukrainian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain.”

— Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard

Bulgakov, whose death anniversary is today, was born in Kyiv. The White Guard, his first full-length novel, is set in the Ukrainian capital.