Who? Isaac Babel, Russian journalist and super-Jew who was later tortured and murdered by Stalin’s goons.
What? Thirty-five short-short stories about the exploits of the Soviet First Cavalry Army in their failed 1920s fuckover of Poland.
When? 1926, after the Bolshevik Revolution and brutal Red Terror, before Stalin’s Purges.
How? Concise, direct vignettes with enough casual violence to make Irvine Welsh say: ‘Oo – that is gory. And true.’
Why? I first read Babel’s short story ‘Salt’ in The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories and thought ‘yawn‘. Compared with the daring of Bulgakov, the colloquial charm of Zoshchenko and (closest to my heart) the sheer linguistic ambition of Platonov, Babel’s journalistic, war’s-hell-laden plainspeak bored me to the tits. But in many ways, Babel surpasses his contemporaries. His sense of the realities of war is laid out in mostly terse, certainly distanced images which still resound with more humanity (however shellshocked) than Bulgakov’s. His characterisation is equally resonant; the various vaguely-recognisable archetypes that recur throughout the collection, and the conflicts that define them, are as authentic as any voice in Zoshchenko’s stories. Still, the major surprise in Babel’s prose comes from the bafflingly-poetic idiosyncrasies he chooses to include even in spite of his otherwise concrete style. These inflections of personality approach what Platonov envisaged when loading his imagery with multiple mirrors and perspectives. These are chinks of light in a chiaroscuro painting otherwise overloaded with shadow.
8 December 2016
Who? Rostislav Dubinsky, a world-renowned violinist whose group, the Borodin Quartet, played at Stalin’s funeral. Part-time Russian, full-time Jew.
What? An autobiography in which the author meets every famous Russian musician of the time, has a trip to America and tries to avoid being busted for not loving life in the Soviet Union.
When? 1980s, when the guy was old.
How? Anecdote-by-anecdote, with reconstructed dialogue that makes everyone sound like characters in a Tony award-winning one-man Broadway show.
Why? Although Dubinsky’s complaints about life in the Soviet Union rarely wander into political rhetoric, his portrayal of life as a musician employed by a culturally-invasive bureaucratic state is compelling, and his colouring of contemporaries like Shostakovich and Oistrakh adds charm. But, there’s a snag: the prose is cheap and predictable, and the anecdotal gloss makes every retelling seem somewhere short of authentic. If it is not ghostwritten, and if Dubinsky had not begrudged his KGB handlers, he might have made a rather successful hack for a state newspaper.
6 November 2016
Who? Faubion Bowers, a flamboyant culture critic from Oklahoma, later to inexplicably rescue the Japanese art of kabuki from extinction.
What? A biography of the fin de siècle Russian composer Alexander Scriabin: a baby-faced solipsist and syn-aesthetic with a knackered right hand.
When? 1960s, and smacking of vaguely pre-acceptable speech.
How? Via sprawling examinations of the composer’s holidays and extensive quotations from boring domestic letters.
Why? Bowers’ fascination with the quasi-mystic Scriabin stays on the proper side of worship; he appreciates the music without indulging the pie-in-the-sky program notes that obsess most devotees. Instead, Scriabin’s poetry is presented plainly alongside the context of his development as a composer, and thankfully the two can be firmly separated. Bowers at once reinforces the untimely psychological force of the music, whilst dimming the mysticism that still surrounds the composer’s legacy. It is unfortunate that this legacy is not explored in the biography, as Scriabin, despite being examined in minute detail for 600 stodgy pages, dies from a lip-sore two pages before the end.
16 October 2016