David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kleist (page 1 of 3)

The Galley Slave, by Drago Jančar

Slovenian writer Drago Jančar published The Galley Slave in 1978, but it doesn’t bear too many signifiers of that particular time, at least to Western eyes. Its setting is firmly premodern. Even though the novel is set in the identifiable 17th century, plague and witch-trials are the two most frequent events. This is not the civilized world.

Emerging from a long trek through a swamp, Johan Ot arrives in a small town in Central Europe, around the Adriatic. Protestantism burgeons, Leopold I is Holy Roman Emperor, and the plague is visiting town after town, so I suspect we are in 1679, year of the Vienna Plague.

Everyone is scared, even the Emperor. No one understands a damn thing. The Scientific Revolution may have happened, but the upper classes are absent from this book; this is about the countryside, and so it feels medieval. No one knows who to blame and no one knows what causes anything. Is it God? The Devil? Witches?

The nightmarish events and even the protagonist’s name, Johan Ot, might recall Kafka, but the resemblance is only superficial. In Kafka there is a sharp delineation between the protagonist and the other characters and setting. Josef K., Gregor Samsa, and the rest are devoid of true allies, and they are always singular characters distinct from anyone else in the world.

In The Galley Slave, Johan’s fate is not signaled to be anything especially different from that of those around him, other than by chance or misfortune. Others can be friendly or hostile, but they hold no secrets. Some of them have authority and control, though–people do not differ by levels of knowledge, only by degrees of power. At times, Johan does begin to suspect he might be different, a thought that Kafka’s characters resolutely avoid. The chaotic tumble of events, which sends him all around the Adriatic coast and eventually toward Venice, is closer to Kleist or Leskov.

Johan has some medical skills; he takes up lodgings in the town and is comfortable. Jančar tends to announce the forthcoming plot points before they occur, lending a didactic and premodern slant to the narrative. So when there is much talk of witch trials and the gathering of evidence, we know Johan will be arrested and tried long before it happens in a flash, after a dizzy summary of pagan rituals that seem half-dreamed by him.

Though the process for the trial is set out in detail, again hinting at Kafka, the condemnation is quick. (Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles depicts how such trials went.) Yet Johan escapes his death by being taken in by a revolutionary millennial religious brotherhood (leftovers of the Templars?), seeking to overthrow church and state both. From them he sees “the true face of the world”:

Fire and blood and chaos were the order of the day. The cruel, bloodthirsty Turk was still skewering innocent Christian children on his pike before their parents’ eyes. He had been beaten back a hundred times, but still he wouldn’t relent. Rebellious peasants were being condemned to death and the gallesy. The nobles were undermining the Emperor’s and the Church’s authority with their plots and feuds. The Church was perpetrating the worst sacrileges. Barely had it managed to subdue Luther’s false prophets than it was once again overtaken by greed, sin, and viciousness….

But the old brotherhood was still alive. It was corroding this world of darkness at its roots. It’s true it had been involved in the uprisings. It’s true it had been a part of conspiracies. For aren’t all means permitted when one is destroying a world built on chaos and error? (84)

This truth fades. The brotherhood sends him on missions to spread the secret gospel (it might be Protestant, but it feels millennial), but he loses interest and falls in with a reasonably affable group of merchants, settling down and sleeping with Dorotea, the wife of successful merchant Locatelli. The government and the revolutionaries have not forgotten him, of course.

Further events ensue, including an anomalous episode between Dorotea and Emperor Leopold, which seems to have wandered in from another book. Other frequent but less jarring shifts in tone occur as well, making it harder to figure out just who Johan Ot is, or just who anyone is. Beneath the chaos, this is the center of the book, and whatever identity Johan claims for himself is slowly removed as he is drawn toward his eventual fate as a Venetian galley slave.

The question of identity is paramount. Though this is hardly a totalitarian regime, Johan is claimed by various groups over the course of the book, and his inability to find any enduring place for himself.

What did Johan Ot want, where did he come from and where was he going and what, in fact, was he doing in the middle of this moment that seemed forever to turn back on itself? Surrounded by dangers and pleasures that, to tell the truth, had absolutely nothing to do with him? What brilliant notion did Adam have inside him that his eye burned bright and his mind spun and spun, and all he craved was action? And Ot’s covenant–hadn’t he once been a member of a group that also wanted to create and order things in this world? He had? A horrid shudder went up his spine. He had? And a sharp realization shot through him, one that had already pushed him out into the world so many times before: get going. Bad things are brewing here. Blades are being sharpened here, and ropes are being braided for necks. Get going. Away from this place. Here he would only rot in some tower of justice again, some joker would put on the thumbscrews and he’d be paraded through the streets on a cart like some exotic beast. That morning by the river he felt the whole of the chaos of the universe within him, and it shifted and jostled and collided inside him, sharpening into a single, clear thought: get going. (171)

Each time he leaves he loses himself. Hints of his life before the start of the book are given, but only faintly. The use of the premodern setting is extremely unsettling: the moorings obtained in urban life to assert one’s self, one’s thoughts, and one’s sanity simply don’t exist. Superstitions cannot be so easily disposed of, when a coherent truth is not available. Johan tries to trust his senses and his instincts, but they cannot stand up to the assault of incoherence.

Here Kleist looms large, but Kleist remains at the level of event and surface to portray the cosmos more than the person. Jančar’s delicate engagement with Johan’s psychology creates a frightening evocation of ego-collapse, the likes of which readers are fortunate not to know today. Whether it is accurate is difficult to tell: the premodern pre-urban mentality seems to resist capture in words. (That strange Leopold/Dorotea episode causes the book to lose focus for a bit.) But with those psychological touches, Jančar gets closer to its absolute foreignness than many, and the last third paints Johan’s final release of his self with an austere and punishing gracefulness.

It’s best summarized when Johan is sick, lying on a hillside watching a procession of inspired, self-flagellating pilgrims with torches. A toothless vagrant tends to him and tells him:

“You’re bad off,” he said. “You’ve seen everything but you’ve understood nothing. Everyone is getting slaughtered and flattened in these times of ours. Other people know why. You haven’t passed any of your tests very well.” (245)

To which Johan replies, in a virtually anachronistic moment of clarity:

“I see just one thing–this sorry country and this terrible mess. This mental illness that’s crossing through the land and drenching it through and through–the land, the air, the people. I said that once somewhere. They tried to butcher me for that. So I’ll say it again: spiritual anguish is being forged into human substance. That’s why all of this has to collapse, disintegrate, and rot. Along with me.” (247)

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!


Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.


I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.


The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .


The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.


These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

The Guinea Pigs, Ludvik Vaculik

[This is an old review which I’m bumping because Open Letters has recently republished this book, for which I am grateful. It has stayed with me as one of the greatest Communist allegories I have read.]

Ludvik Vaculik has very little in common with Milan Kundera, or Ivan Klima, or Josef Skvorecky. Those are three of the biggest names in modern Czech writing, and they all combine a historical awareness with a fondness of heavy allegory. All deal with political subjects explicitly, but the material isn’t polemical, especially with Kundera.

The Guinea Pigs is different. It shuns any specific realism and has a surrealistic streak that has more in common with the samizdat literature of Czechoslovakia, like that of Lukas Tomin, but it is handled with such steely calm that surrealism doesn’t predominate.

Very little predominates over anything else; Vaculik applies Kafka’s style of ambiguous symbolism to totalitarian allegory with huge success. Next to the more explicit and/or fanciful allegories of Koestler, Makine, Pelevin, and others, Vaculik’s book is more intimate, less graspable, and far more striking. Kafka wrongly gets posited as a political or humanitarian allegorist, when his stories are rather personal series of images and processes that cannot be conclusively unlocked. Vaculik really is an allegorist.

Vasek, the narrator, works as a bank clerk in Prague, where people regularly steal money to make their living. He buys some guinea pigs for his children, but becomes obsessed with them himself: specifically, with their responsiveness (or lack thereof), their tolerance for adverse situations, and their seeming absence of personality short of gut reactions (like biting).

Halfway through the book, he is torturing them. The tortures aren’t beastly; what makes them acutely discomfiting to read is the narrator’s sickly mental state:

As the water rose, the guinea pig rose too, although it ordinarily doesn’t stand around on its hind legs, but rather squats like a hare or a rabbit. Now it stood on its hind legs, though, and raised its body above the water level. “Well, how are things?” I said gently. “Not so hot,” it replied, and rocked slightly in the waves. But it was still standing on its feet. It raised its head, up, in my direction.

I turned off the water. The silence was a relief. Only the sewer gurgled. I became aware of a pressure in my skull, a drunken excitement that I had never known before, a tremor of the nerves. I reached into the pit. With my miraculous power, I lifted Ruprecht into the air, he grabbed my hand with all his claws, he hung on. I picked him up to my cheek and I could hear his tight, thin, wheezing breathing. I also whispered to myself, “We’re saved.”

Vaculik walks a very fine line between a symbolism that is too schematic and intrinsically arbitrary, on the one hand, and an overdramatization of the Vasek’s treatment of the guinea pigs, on the other. Sometimes he loses control and takes the easy way out, as when Vasek tells his wife that he’s turning into a guinea pig. But much of the time he carefully piles on the ambiguities and mysteries.

Vasek’s strange relationship with his workplace and his superiors, including the venerable Mr. Maelstrom, whose name signifies the slow degradation of the surrounding environs, as money disappears after it is confiscated from the workers who stole it, as the guinea pigs meet random fates in the face of Vasek’s disinterested curiosity, and as Vasek meets his fate as he loses all his emotional capacities.

The end of the book is an explicit reference to the end of The Trial, and there are other segments that resemble it, like Maelstrom’s discourse on circulation, which could be a first cousin to the speeches of the lawyer and the priest of The Trial. The flow and process of the book is not as effortless as in Kafka, but Vaculik manages a stricter version of a process Kafka never fully embraced, that of removal. It’s not there in his novels, and the two short stories in which the process of removal predominates–“The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist”–are actually atypical. By placing the senseless guinea pigs front and center, Vaculik sets his aim quite early, and follows the arc without error. What remains at the end is not language, as with Beckett, but a physical void.

Books like these that strive for an almost noetic effect can have an initial impact that is not lasting, but guardedly, I will say that it ranks far beyond any of the other Czech writers mentioned, and alongside Kleist and Gogol.

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

Nikolai Leskov

Slightly late here, but I did write an essay on Nikolai Leskov over at the Quarterly Conversation, the fantastic and strange 19th century Russian writer. I hope his works are reprinted and retranslated.

My old exegesis on his greatest work, The Enchanted Wanderer, is still available here.


Of the great Russian prose writers of the 19th century, Nikolai Leskov was an outsider. He was not a member of the gentry, he lacked a privileged education, and he wrote about common serfs and the country clergy in their own language. He managed to alienate both the left and right wings of the Russian intelligentsia early in his career, and though his work was popular, critics dismissed it. His work was capable of great darkness and brutal cynicism, but it lacks the angst, romantic and existential, present in so much other prose of the time. (Still, one of his stories was so controversial in its criticisms of the Russian church that it was only published decades later.) And Leskov himself was confused enough as to his own strengths that he said that his brilliant storytelling abilities would be forgotten in favor of his ideas, when, in fact, his legacy lies in the unique qualities of his stories, which are hilarious, unpredictable, surreal, and often baffling.

Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to Leskov (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with Leskov himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of Leskov’s best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. Leskov’s structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.


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