David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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The Black Pushkin and The Blackamoor of Peter the Great

Alexander Pushkin was descended from Ibrahim Gannibal (1696-1781), a black page kidnapped and brought back from “Lagon” in Africa–possibly either in modern-day Cameroon or Ethiopia. Given as a gift to Peter the Great, the emperor became Ibrahim’s godfather and brought him up as a noble with education and responsibility. Ibrahim became a captain in the army, wrote on geometry and engineering, and was called “the dark star of the Enlightenment” by Voltaire.

Ibrahim was possibly Pushkin’s great-grandfather on both parents’ side, at least according to this essay. Pushkin’s black heritage seems a bit better-known than, say, George Herriman’s (and Pushkin was more open about it than Herriman), but it hasn’t sufficiently passed into common knowledge for Jonathan Gill, the author of Harlem: the 400 Year History, not to write that “J. A. Rogers saw everything through the lens of race, insisting that even Beethoven and Pushkin were black.”1

In 1827, Pushkin started a fictionalized romantic history of his ancestor, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, dubbing Ibrahim “the son of a black sultan,” thus noble through and through. He abandoned it after about thirty pages, so what’s left is more or less just the setup for an ensuing drama that was never written. What got written, though, is fascinating. Ibrahim is a likable, suave, and thoughtful nobleman who goes to Paris for a time (culture! education!) before returning to St. Petersburg in the early 1720s. While in Paris, he romances the Countess D., and they fall seriously in love with each other. She also gets pregnant, to the scandal of everyone save her oblivious husband: “men took bets on whether the Countess would give birth to a white or black baby.” Disaster is averted when the (black) baby is swapped with the newborn of a destitute woman, and Ibrahim’s son is raised far far away.

Thus the public, which had anticipated an uproarious scandal, was frustrated in its expectations and had to content itself with mere vilifications.

Ibrahim, displaying characteristic caution, decides it best to leave the Countess before (a) her husband finds out, or (b) the Countess grows tired of him. Ibrahim does not foresee his own love dying, but he’s sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of losing her that “the torments of separation would probably be less painful.” Though brutally matter-of-fact to himself, he handles the matter with spectacular grace in his Dear D. letter to the Countess:

My happiness could not last. I have enjoyed it in defiance of fate and nature. You were bound to cease loving me: the enchantment was bound to vanish…Society, with its fickle ways, persecutes in practice what it permits in theory: its cold mockery would have sooner of later overpowered you, it would have humbled your soaring spirit, and you would have in the end have grown ashamed of your passion…What would then have become of me? No1 I’d sooner die, I’d sooner leave you, than wait for that terrible moment…

Your tranquility is dearest of all to me, and you could not enjoy it while the gaze of society was fixed on us…Just think: should I subject you to the same worries and dangers even longer? Why struggle to unite the fate of such a tender and graceful creature with the unlucky lot of a Negro, a pitiful being, scarcely granted the title of man?

The Countess is upset but gets over it and takes a new lover. Ibrahim responds with the resignation that he did the right thing but wishes it hadn’t been the right thing:

What sensations filled Ibrahim’s heart? Jealousy? Rage? Despair? No; rather a deep benumbed feeling of depression. He kept repeating to himself: I foresaw this; this had to happen…He wept for al long time. The tears eased his sorrow. Then, looking at his watch, he realized it was time to go.

Ibraham’s sensible circumspection contrasts with very nearly every other character in the Pushkin oeuvre, not to mention the dominant archetypes of Russian literature in general, who tend much more toward the passionate than the hyper-rational. He also contrasts with the bumbling fop Korsakov, a friendly though callous noble back from Paris who doesn’t know Russian matters and is soon humiliated at a ball through a ritual fraternity-style hazing presided over by Peter himself. Korsakov’s mistake was in trying to dance with the young Natasha, whom Peter soon decides would make a great bride for Ibrahim, and so suggests a marriage. Ibrahim initially demurs, but after Peter insists, Ibrahim starts to entertain the idea:

To marry! And why not? Or am I destined to spend my life in solitude, never experiencing the greatest joys and most sacred obligations of a man, just because I was born below the fifteenth parallel? I cannot hope to be loved, but that is a childish objection. Can one trust love in any case?…The Emperor is right: I must ensure my future…I will not demand love from my wife: i shall be content with her fidelity. As for her friendship, I will win it by unfailing tenderness, trust, and indulgence.

Natalia’s family is horrified. “Don’t throw Natashnka into the clutches of that black devil,” cries her grandmother. But her grandfather accedes, for three reasons. First, the Emperor has asked; second, the Emperor promises great favor to his whole family; and third, Natalia is in love with Valerian, an orphan of lower origins whom her family took in. Her grandfather is so horrified by her love for Valerian that he decides that marriage to Ibrahim is the best course to stave off his daughter’s unfortunate passion. Natasha is thoroughly repulsed and takes sick just to avoid Ibrahim, only to find out that her family is now apparently entranced with him. (Her aunt says, “What a pity he’s black; otherwise we couldn’t wish for a better bridegroom.”) This is, she realizes, because of her love for Valerian, and she is stuck.

Only one hope remained for her: to die before the hateful marriage came to pass. This idea comforted her. She submitted to her fate with a faint, sorrowful heart.

And that’s where Pushkin stopped. Pushkin’s friend A. N. Wulf wrote that “The main intrigue of the novel, as Pushkin says, will be the sexual infidelity of the Negro’s wife, who gives birth to a white child, and is punished by being banished to a convent”–an inversion of the earlier adulterous pregnancy. (Indeed, this did indeed happen with the real Ibrahim’s first wife, who went to jail for ten years.) Would the father be Valerian? Korsakov?

Even in the short fragment, two contrasting portrayals repeat. First, Ibrahim as the superior noble, favored by Peter, adored by the Countess, possessed of rare intelligence and wisdom easily besting that of fools like Korsakov and Valerian, traits for which he is recognized not only by the Emperor but by most of the characters. Second, Ibrahim as the curiosity and outsider, given the gifts of nobility yet sealed off from familial and amorous integration with the native population among which he lives. It is not until the Emperor proposes the marriage that Ibrahim even considers the possibility of starting a lineage and becoming a patriarch.

The opposing portrayals meet in the reaction to the marriage: while Natasha’s family disdains Ibrahim on racist grounds, her grandfather still prefers him (in a second) over a lower-class heel like Valerian. Ibrahim becomes the instrument by which the lower class can be kept out of the family and their nobility preserved. This time, class trumps race. This was to end in the irony that a white baby would signify Natasha’s infidelity and betrayal, and would presumably meet with a worse fate than the secret but treasured son of Countess D. Yet both these relationships are less inflected by race than his relations with most people. He considers himself an object of curiosity to most: “As a rule, people looked at the young black man as if he were some strange phenomenon.” He even resents the affections of women because of this, as “He felt that in their eyes he was a kind of rare animal,” and he dislikes being fetishized in that way. Yet on the next page the narrator intercedes and tells us that many women do see him “with feelings more flattering than mere curiosity, though he in his prejudice either did not notice anything or fancied only flirtation.” It takes the Countess’ guileless attention to dissolve his suspicions and allow him to fall in love.

So Pushkin tells us explicitly that for all his intelligence, there are limits to what Ibrahim knows of other people’s thoughts, and he cannot always distinguish genuine affection from fetishistic curiosity. The question, then, is whether this is the source of Ibrahim’s doubts about the Countess. His performance regarding her, in relationship and in separation, is seamless, but when he worries that the Countess is capricious, is the caprice in matters of love alone, or with regard to her perception of race as well? Does he fear that he will fall out of being viewed as a human and become a curiosity again? The same confusion ironically comes to light in Natasha’s loathing of Ibrahim, which, because it originates from her love of Valerian, obscures whether she sees him as a curiosity or merely as the guy she’s being forced to marry. And despite Peter’s good will, Natasha’s family goes through with the marriage because of his identity as a noble, which sufficiently overshadows his race, yet also reduces him to a single dimension.

There is an undercurrent of race-as-epistemic-confusion, because the introduction of a new social category (race) knocks existing categories (class, family role, even lover) off-kilter, and not in predictable or unidirectional ways. Translator Peter Debreczeny suggests that inconsistency and general confusion, particularly with regard to Ibrahim’s character, prevented Pushkin from continuing the novel. It’s hard to say. But while Eugene Onegin may be the more sharply-drawn and memorable character, I find Ibrahim to be the more mysteriously evocative.

  1. J. A. Rogers (1880-1966) was quite a character, though. Henry Louis Gates writes:

    If America hadn’t already invented the “one-drop rule” by this time, Rogers most probably would have. He seems to have had some sort of miscegenation-meter, which he used to “out” all sorts of “white” people as having black ancestry. And while he erred on the side of excess as he peered into the proverbial woodpile, Rogers got it right an impressive amount of the time, especially considering when he was publishing his work. (At the other end of his collected works, though, stands The Five Negro Presidents, which, shall we say, would get the “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,” hands down, were there such in existence.)

Cargo 200: Blurred Spaces

Russian director Aleksey Balabanov is a fascinating and discomfiting filmmaker, responsible for one of the very few successful Kafka adaptations, The Castle, to which Balabanov boldly appended his own ending. Technically brilliant, Balabanov is generally enigmatic about what he is doing and how he does it. I took a look at his extremely unnerving Cargo 200, a loose adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, to try to figure it out.



Something awful is going to happen to the girl. This is the Soviet Union in 1984. This is not a nice time, and these are not nice people. The veneer of civilization, this professor of atheism, this friendly colonel, these dancing teens: they are all part of a paper-thin mask. Director Aleksey Balabanov will pull it off soon enough. This is Balabanov and he is dark.

The movie is beautiful. Everything is dilapidated and falling apart, but there’s still a deep palette and the geometry of the scenes is proportionate. There is a neo-classicism here, a desire to recreate aspects of the past without subverting them. Overlaying that is the horror, as though immaculate Greek sculptures were made to violate each other and commit heinous acts. Craft is being deployed orthogonally to content.

The horror is not happening yet, though. Things are calm. The movie goes on, and people are suspicious, and still the horror does not start.

This is an American story. Balabanov took the plot from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, though Balabanov claims it’s a true story. In that ugly novel the young girl fell in with motley bootleggers and was kidnapped and raped by a sociopath named Popeye. The plot is still here. But Cargo 200 is slower than Sanctuary. And everything feels different. It lacks the sordid atmosphere of Sanctuary. This is not the South. This is not anarchy and lawlessness. This is dread, absurdity, oppression, and war. This is not Mississippi in 1929, it is the Soviet Union in 1984.

The government is everywhere. But what is the government? Andropov is dead. The Soviet Union is at war in Afghanistan. Soldiers are coming back home in boxes. The code for these coffins is “Cargo 200.”

[continued at Quarterly Conversation]


Barbara Comyns and Vladimir Sorokin

Barbara Comyns and Vladimir Sorokin have little in common besides a disturbingly comfortable acquaintance with the grotesque, but I have a review of each of them out in the new Quarterly Conversation. The Comyns book is a masterpiece and although I found it difficult to write about her because of her singular nature, I hope people will be encouraged to read her. Hannah Stoneham has much more on Comyns. As for Sorokin, the best introduction to his work is probably the movie he scripted: 4 (Chetyre).

(Special thanks to Ray Davis for introducing me to Comyns many years ago. Your efforts have not been in vain!)

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.

That voice persists in the omniscient third-person in Who Was Changed, which was does not rely on biographical details and yet proceeds with exactly the same confidence. With utter smoothness, Comyns blends jarring and sudden narrative twists into what seems to be a naturalistic novel. Looking back after reading, the amount of time events seem to take is wholly at odds with the number of pages they occupy, in one direction or the other. Digressions and seemingly awkward phrases seamlessly fold into whole.

The plot itself is simple. In a small English village, Warwickshire, sometime in the 19th century, still water causes a case of ergot poisoning in some loafs of bread, and those who eat the bread change, die, or both.


Vladimir Sorokin: Meat and Clones

At first glance, Vladimir Sorokin may seem like nothing but a stylistic provocateur. I first heard of him in connection with Blue Lard, an as yet untranslated novel about clones that produce the titular lard (salo) as a byproduct of writing, which is then used for fuel. Salo is associated with an ethic stereotype of the Ukraine, mocked by Russians, while “blue” (голубой) is slang for “homosexual.” The book caused a stir because of passages like this:

Khrushchev unbuttoned his own pants and took out his long, uneven penis with its bumpy head, its shiny skin tattooed with a pentacle. The count spat in his palm, lubricated Stalin’s anus with his saliva, and, falling upon him from behind, started to thrust his penis softly into the leader. (tr. Lisa Zigel)

Sorokin’s agenda is clear: the demolition of sacred icons (Putin has endorsed a general movement to reestablish Stalin as the leader of a Russian golden age), blatant attempts to provoke, unerotic sexuality and an emphasis on the grotesque aspects of the flesh, and an hostile, inhuman view of the future. With Blue Lard the provocation was successful: the book was prosecuted as pornographic (the charges were dropped) and ceremonially tossed into a giant toilet by the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together.

There is far more going on under the obscene, visceral surfaces of his books than the controversy would suggest, and his work has an urgency and gravity lacking in the more self-amused fictions of Tatyana Tolstaya and Victor Pelevin.


The Deflation of Romanticism in Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel

Kuprin wrote this novel based on his own experiences in the army in the 1890s, about a sensitive man not cut out for the mechanistic and emotionally brutal army life. It is not a masterpiece and Kuprin himself said he wasn’t happy with the ending, but it has some wonderful moments. The main character, Romashov, is a captain granted command by dint of his higher upbringing, but he is a complete misfit. He is given to very Walter Mitty-ish fantasies about love, glory, and even death, and he alternates between seeing himself as the sole benevolent force in the other soldiers’ lives and looking down on them as robots who can’t feel anywhere nearly as deeply as he does.

So while Romashov is likable at points and recognizably more human than most of the characters, Kuprin insistently deflates him. His fantasies are unrealistic failures, and they remove him from being able to do actual good for himself or for others. Kuprin is harder on him than Thurber was on Walter Mitty. And Romashov is not an especially good man: he already has had one mistress, the wife of another officer. She now disgusts him, and she threatens him in order to keep him coming round. Meanwhile, he is infatuated with another officer’s wife, Alexandra, who of course proves herself to be even more craven than his old mistress. Romashov is oblivious to this, of course. (The women are not portrayed with any great insight or sympathy, but for the circumstances of the story, they suffice as dei ex machina.)

The novel alternates Romashov’s endless mental circles with extremely dreary portraits of army life, which render the book a bit more plainspoken than the incisive social satire of Kuprin’s more talented contemporary Sologub. But Kuprin writes with great charm, and Romashov is painfully believable. Kuprin’s most brilliant move is to hold off on mentioning any duel whatsoever for most of the novel, knowing that the situation he paints leaves no grounds for any possible duel to be reasonable, noble, or satisfying. Having only the title as a foreshadowing gives a creaky, wincing suspense that makes passages like this even more nerve-wracking:

He was struck by the blindingly clear realization of his individuality.

“I–it’s here inside,” he thought. “All the rest is a mere construction, it’s not I. This room, the street, the trees, the colonel, Lieutenant Andrusevich, the army, the flag, the soldiers–all that is not I.” Romashov looked down at his hands with surprise, raising them close to his eyes as though he were seeing them for the first time. “Is this I? And is the one who is thinking I? And the one who wants to go out? And now I am walking up and down, and now I have stopped. … Strange, does everybody have this kind of I? Maybe not. If I stand in front of one hundred soldiers and shout ‘Eyes right!’, none undred men, all of whom have their own I and who see in me something outside of it, will all, nevertheless, turn their heads to the right at the same time. But I, I cannot tell them apart….

Yes, but if I die there’ll be no more country, invaders, honor. They only live as long as I do. But think of it the other way around–if country, discipline, the honor of the uniform disappear my I could still remain. Therefore I is more important than all these notions about duty, honor, love? And so, if my I, no, not only my I, but the millions of I’s which make up the army, the whole population of the world, suddenly decided ‘no more,’ wars would become unthinkable.

Kuprin maintains a deadpan stance chronicling Romashov’s excursions into this sort of thought, whether he’s abstractly philosophizing like this or imagining a hero’s funeral for himself after he commits suicide and everyone blames themselves for not treating him better. Romashov embraces lesser and greater forms of romanticism as the novel goes on, turning to Love, God, Brotherhood, and other ideals in quick succession, in search of any meaning for himself. It is very convincing. I imagine Kuprin himself had many of these thoughts in his youth, perhaps to a lesser extent, but at the time of writing, he had the right distance from them to portray them artistically, honestly, and ironically. It’s touching, but it’s also pathetic.

Romashov is a young man; it’s hard to hate him, hard even to pity him. But his delusions, in tandem with the awful realities of army life, prove to be utterly toxic.

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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