[Marxism] Struggling to Love, Work and Do the Right Thing in Putin’s Russia
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 10 10:43:33 MDT 2018
NY Times, July 10, 2018
Struggling to Love, Work and Do the Right Thing in Putin’s Russia
By Dwight Garner
A Terrible Country
By Keith Gessen
338 pages. Viking. $26.
Keith Gessen’s “A Terrible Country” feels small and tentative in its
opening pages. The sentences don’t ring. You’re not sure the author is
capable of seizing his material, rather than following along behind it,
like a man in a boat with a little two-stroke motor.
This is Gessen’s second novel, after “All the Sad Young Literary Men,”
which appeared a decade ago. In that time he’s established himself as a
journalist (largely for The New Yorker), a translator from the Russian
(the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices From Chernobyl”), a
critic (largely for The London Review of Books) and an editor. He was a
founder of n+1, the many-tentacled literary magazine out of Brooklyn.
Picking up his new book one wants to say, in a voice out of an Isaac
Bashevis Singer novel: “What? He needs to write fiction, too?”
“A Terrible Country” is about a young man’s moral and aesthetic
progress. His name is Andrei Kaplan. Like the author, he was born in
Russia but raised in the United States. Like the author, too, he is
afflicted with a permanent sense of semi-exile.
Andrei is a frazzled academic in New York City with scant job prospects.
His adviser mocks the vagueness of his area of expertise by parodying
him, declaring in a little girl’s voice: “I’m a specialist in modernity.
I study the ways in which modernity affects the Russian mind.”
Andrei’s girlfriend has abandoned him. Money is low. In this novel, like
his last one, Gessen writes with special feeling about the flyspecked
romance of being young, idealistic, frugal and needing to scrounge for a
decent meal. Both books are, on a certain level, ramen-packet versions
of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”
“A Terrible Country” is about what happens when Andrei returns to
Moscow, at the request of his older brother, an amoral uber-capitalist
named Dima, to care for their 89-year-old grandmother, who is beginning
to show signs of dementia. Dima has fled to London after his latest
brilliant scheme has gone bust.
The story is set in 2008. We follow Andrei as he learns to navigate the
Moscow subway, searches for Wi-Fi, joins pickup hockey games, is dragged
to nightclubs and ultimately falls in with a crowd of bookish and genial
subversives and would-be socialists. Their small pickets and protests
and “actions” are drawing more attention from Putin’s government than
they are aware.
Gessen is a writer of spare sentences; he’s more of a Chekhov than a
Nabokov. There’s little thunder, no off-piste mental excursions, no
sense of a writer stropping his razor. His sort of plain writing is
difficult to pull off. There is a fine line between elegant simplicity
and mere meagerness.
As this novel pushes forward, however, Gessen’s patience, his ability to
husband his resources, begins to pay off. He introduces character after
character — goalies and oilmen and comely academics, the heartbroken,
the disinherited and the excluded — each of whom blooms in the mind.
Which is another way of saying that this earnest and wistful but serious
book gets good, and then it gets very good. Gessen finds an emotional
tone for his material. He writes incisively about many things here but
especially about, as the old saw has it, how it is easier to fight for
your principles than live up to them. At the wrong moment, in front of
the authorities, Andrei flinches.
Andrei’s grandmother is a particularly vivid presence. She may be losing
her mind, but she still destroys Andrei at word games. When anything
goes wrong in her apartment, she clutches herself and mumbles, “We’re
ruined, we’re ruined.” She pulls out her false teeth in cafes, causing
children to scream.
She embodies, in her way, this novel’s complicated sense of Russian
politics and morality. She lost her beloved country house due to
capitalist machinations. But she got her apartment in Moscow, near the
central K.G.B. offices, thanks to her work on a propaganda film for
Stalin and to the misfortune of another family in the Stalin era.
Referring to the apartment’s nearness to former execution chambers,
Andrei says, “It was like living down the street from Auschwitz.”
There are wonderful moments in this novel when Andrei begins to rent old
Soviet-era movies of which his grandmother is fond, because she cannot
stomach the violence in new films. They watch them together.
Andrei’s motives for returning to Moscow (he has sublet his apartment in
New York to a drummer) are not entirely altruistic. To find a teaching
job, he needs to publish. Perhaps while in Russia he can stumble on a
topic. He finds one in Sergei, an academic who sacrifices his job for
his own ideals.
About the paper he publishes on Sergei, Andrei says: “I placed his work
in the context of quixotic Russian attempts to reorganize the world.
Sergei struck me as a Tolstoy figure, the sort of person who gives up
everything to wander the earth and follow the dictates of his conscience.”
Andrei wants to be this kind of person but is not, or at least not
quite. He joins Sergei’s political group but is at best a socialist
manqué. (“Manqué see, manqué do,” as John Updike wrote in “Bech: A Book.”)
Andrei has wandered into this group in part because of his affection for
a young woman, Yulia. She has green eyes. This reviewer would like to
propose a moratorium on women whose glowing souls can be glimpsed
through their green eyes.
It was an earlier young woman, one who rebuffed him, who nailed Andrei.
She said to him, “You seem like a nice young man. But I don’t think
you’re cut out for this.” Cut out for what, he asks? Her reply: “For
Gessen does not declare his intentions in “A Terrible Country” through a
megaphone. He’s all about exploring understated antitheses, not brazen
theses. This novel builds, subtly, to a moment that allows Andrei a
career victory that may enable Putin’s regime to impale those Andrei
loves most like moths on pins.
This artful and autumnal novel, published in high summer, is a gift for
those who wish to receive it.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.
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