A Great Place for Watermelons

~ Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier ~

Russia, according to Ian Frazier, has its own special aroma, one compounded of tea bags, cucumber peels, wet cement, cold air, currant jam, and diesel fumes. From the subway stations of St Petersburg to the moss-chinked cabins of Siberia, it’s the same. The characteristic smell of the United States, says Frazier, is that of commerce: “gift-shop candles, fried foods, new cars,” etc. It says, “Come and buy.” The smell of Russia simply announces, “Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!”

The heart of Frazier’s long book is a transcontinental road-trip he takes in a beat-up van, with two Russian “guides” he hardly knows, from the Baltic all the way to the Sea of Japan. It’s wonderful. There are woods and more woods, car troubles and more car troubles, mosquitoes and more mosquitoes – not to mention highway wedding parties, abandoned Soviet-era prison camps, adventures in food poisoning, and debates on the true nature of taiga.

To give you a taste of Frazier’s style and humor, I quote two brief passages. The first describes an evening at a friend-of-a-friend’s place as they approach the Urals:

“Here we are at Vyacheslav’s dacha that evening. Dinner has ended long ago, but we are still sitting at the table, drinking our fifth or seventh cup of tea; and I am thinking that Russians can sit at a supper table and say brilliant or ridiculous things longer than seems physically possible; further, this trait may explain Russia’s famous susceptibility to unhealthy foreign ideas, with the postmealtime tea drinking providing the opportunity for contagion; and further yet, I am wondering whether tea perhaps has been a more dangerous beverage to the Russian peace of mind, overall, than vodka. At about midnight Vyacheslav brings down his semiautomatic rifle and begins to tell us about his adventures hunting bears.”

The second describes a drive down a middle-of-nowhere road near Khabarovsk in the far east:

“Soon after Birkin we suddenly entered a weird all-watermelon area. Watermelon sellers crowded both sides of the road under big umbrellas in beach-ball colors painted among wildly painted wooden signs. Sergei pulled over and bought a watermelon for a ruble, but as we went along, the heaps of them kept growing until melons were spilling into the road and the sellers were giving them away. A man with teeth like a crazy fence hailed us and in high hilarity thrust two watermelons through the passenger-side window. By the time we had emerged at the other end of the watermelon gauntlet, we had a dozen or more in the van. The watermelons were almost spherical, antifreeze green, and slightly smaller than soccer balls. We cut one open – delicious. This was not a part of the world I had previously thought of as a great place for watermelons.”

Kinda makes you wonder (or perhaps it explains) why Bill Bryson never wrote a book about Russia.

Standing Still

~ The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati ~

The tableau vivant was a type of theatrical performance that (mostly) disappeared with the Victorians. Rather than tell stories, tableaux vivants depicted scenes: a tryst of Antony and Cleopatra, for example, or Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. They often used stage scenery and props and thoughtful costume choices, but the “actors” spoke no lines; they stood perfectly still, for the quiet contemplation of spectators.

Most novels (certainly all of the best ones) unfold for the reader something like a play or movie: characters move and speak and are subject to various kinds of evolution in the course of the story. Their relations to one another, and to their environment, change. Certain books, however, have a tableau vivant quality to them: they may have plot and characters but these tend toward the stiff and shallow; reading such a novel, we suspect that rather than beginning with a character or a story that he particularly wanted to tell, the author began instead with a fixed idea or static image which he crafted a plot and characters merely to illustrate.

A fair example of this, I think, is Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. His protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, is a young officer assigned to a fort high in the mountains, overlooking a desert region (the steppe of the title) separating his own country from the mysterious Northern Kingdom. No barbarian army has violated the frontier in living memory, but the place casts a spell: the impossible invasion is strictly guarded against, and secretly longed for. In a tableau vivant image of the novel, Drogo would pose atop the rampart flanked on both side by his soldiers, squinting through a telescope into the northern waste.

The image is a metaphor, the novel a parable. What Buzzati is doing in The Tartar Steppe is describing the youthful hunger for that ultimate, elusive Something (glory, adventure, necessity, self-testing, etc.) that recedes before us with the years but which some (to their misfortune) never manage to outgrow. That’s the idea; I’m not sure there’s much else to it. In Buzzati’s hands Drogo serves a purpose but he’s not a person in the way Tolstoy’s Levin, or Austen’s Emma, or even Dickens’ Pip is; the plot, so far as there is one, also serves a purpose, but it hardly tells a story. It only paints a picture.

Surely there’s room enough in the world for novels of this sort (the best example that comes to mind may be The Magic Mountain), and The Tartar Steppe gains some poignancy by the timing of its publication in the shadow of WWII (1938). But, turning the last page, I couldn’t help feeling like someone who was promised a glimpse of a tiger but, rather than being shown the living beast itself, was handed a black-and-white photograph of one instead.

Ideally

This summer I’ve been reading, and in some cases re-reading, a good number of Chekhov stories. For the first time I’ve read “Ward No.6,” “The Black Monk,” “The Wife,” “A Woman’s Kingdom,” and “The Murder,” but I’ve especially enjoyed two of Checkhov’s longer tales: “The Duel” and “My Life.” The latter, first published in 1896, opens on an unexpectedly comic note:

The Superintendent said to me: “I only keep you out of regard for your worthy father; but for that you would have been sent flying long ago.” I replied to him: “You flatter me too much, your Excellency, in assuming that I am capable of flying.” And then I heard him say: “Take that gentleman away; he gets upon my nerves.

Two days later I was dismissed. And in this way I have, during the years I have been regarded as grown up, lost nine situations, to the great mortification of my father…

Chekhov’s protagonist, Misail, is a Tolstoyan idealist of noble family who, rejecting the hypocritical values of his class, pursues downward mobility. Though it shames his father, Misail wants to become a manual laborer and live among uneducated peasants. Only in that way, he thinks, can he bring his life and ideals into harmony with each other and be a man on his own terms.

The story is very much what you hope for from Chekhov, carefully observed and sympathetic and a little melancholy (despite the funny opener), neither an exhortation nor a cautionary tale. It’s not finally clear whether Misail is better off at the top or bottom of the ladder. The facts of his choices and his circumstances render such a judgment impossible, much as we find when gaming out the what-ifs of our own lives.

My wife worked at a coffeehouse near our apartment in Seattle when we were still newlyweds. One of her colleagues was a young man (coincidentally of Russian ancestry) named Misha. He was slim and wiry, with straw-colored hair that he cut himself. He was a vegan, as I recall, and he disbelieved in showering (considering it an irresponsible waste of water) but gave himself sponge baths. Misha went dumpster diving for food because he was outraged at what was thrown out behind restaurants and grocery stores. Once he made a big pot of veggie chili from found ingredients and brought it to the coffeehouse to share with any willing takers, and there were more than a few. He was pretty charming, in his way.

That was twenty-odd years ago and I sometimes wonder what’s become of Misha. The world has a way of snuffing out youth and ideals at the same time, but there’s really no telling. He may be meditating right now in a mountaintop hermitage somewhere in Japan, or he may be an investment banker with a BMW in the garage and a vacation home on Maui.

Like Misail and Misha, I was downwardly mobile in my early twenties too – aimless, underemployed, and dissolute. If you had asked me at the time why I’d stalled on the doorstep of adulthood, I might have justified myself with something that sounded like a principled rejection of worldly success, but it would have been a pose. Scratch the surface and you would have found fear underneath. I was simply scared – of adult expectations, of the future, of you-name-it.

Which is not to say that I think all ideals are a sham, but it’s best to treat them with suspicion, both when they’re professed by others and when we’re tempted to profess them ourselves. Some ideals we adopt because they’re fashionable or novel or because it temporarily suits us to do so for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge. Others we adhere to out of obstinacy. Even sincerely held ideals can be problematic. As Plato knew, ideals don’t belong to this world. We pull them down from the aether and impose them on sublunary realities at our peril.

When we think we’re serving our ideals, most of the time we’re really serving ourselves. Rather than bringing my life into conformity with my ideals, what I needed to help me finally grow up – and what I happily discovered when I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife – were duties.

Canon Fire

~ Cellist by Gregor Piatigorsky ~

Mrs. Yates was my private art teacher (pencil drawing and watercolors, mostly) but she also taught me to love classical music. Every Thursday after school I spent an hour in her small 1950s ranch-style house. She was older than my mother but younger than my grandmother, a pretty woman with freckles and fine wrinkles, who kept her dark hair up in a bun and moved like she had once been a dancer. Waiting for me on the Formica table in her kitchen were cookies and milk, or tea in the winter. The radio was always tuned to the classical music station. Working on a landscape or still life at the kitchen table, I got to know the music of Mozart and Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Grieg, Dvorak, and many others.

When my son at age seven announced he wanted to play violin, I had to wonder how much of his interest in classical music was owed, indirectly, to Mrs. Yates; if it weren’t for her influence on me, he might not have been raised listening to it. Now that he’s eighteen, I reflect on how my son has deepened my own appreciation for music. Not only have I watched him slowly master his instrument, which has given me an understanding of technique and performance I wouldn’t otherwise have gained, but he has taught me to listen more intelligently, to recognize and savor the characteristic nuances of the performers he most admires – violinists like Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, and Leonid Kogan, and other artists like cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

It was on my son’s recommendation that I recently read Piatigorsky’s 1965 autobiography; it had a lot of the “Russian flavor” he knew I enjoyed. Indeed, it opens like a Chekhov story:

“Ekaterinoslav had a mild climate, but the air in the steppe seldom stood still. The breeze bent and swayed the grass and rye, which grew high and wild and made the wide plains look like an ocean. I had never seen an ocean, but my father said that the steppe looked like one. It had great power over me. I liked to stand outside in front of the fence and listen to the wind and watch it change the face of the steppe. Inside our peasant-like house I was always in the mood to hear stories about it. Fascinated, I listened to the tales of roaming packs of wild dogs that devoured the cobbler’s son Vanya, for example, of tramps and deserters, of hidden springs and mysterious flowers whose scent put men to sleep, never to awaken again.”

The first half of Cellist would make a fine movie. Young Gregor survives pogroms under the Czar, family upheavals, war, and revolution. From age eight he plays cello in theaters and taverns to support his family, then leaves home for good at twelve years old. He is homeless off and on, sleeping in parks and train stations. He gets a position with the Bolshoi Theater, then escapes the Soviet Union over the border to Poland, living a bohemian life until signing on with the Berlin Philharmonic and launching the international career that would eventually bring him to the United States.

The book is full of memorable anecdotes and pranks (once Piatigorsky and a co-conspirator tied a thin cord to another cellist’s instrument and slowly lifted it off the floor in the middle of a performance). There’s a lot of name-dropping, too. He played for royalty and presidents, James Joyce attended one of his rehearsals, and he was friends with Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. And of course Piatigorsky knew everyone in the world of early 20th-century classical music: Vladimir Horowitz, Toscanini, Carl Flesch, Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Richard Strauss, Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland, among others. He tells a story about riding in a speedboat on Lake Lucerne with Rachmaninoff:

“[I]n rain hood and phantom-like, he raced, zig-zagged, and transformed the peaceful lake into a churning whirlpool. As if challenging the trust of his guest, he headed straight for the shore, avoiding it by a sharp turn at the very last moment. He had a smile on his wet face. ‘You are not easily scared,’ he said. ‘You should have seen some other musicians. I like you.’ I more than liked him, I deeply admired him and he never ceased to fascinate me. But I never took another ride in his boat.”

Alongside his good humor, Piatigorsky’s love for music is apparent on every page. Though I possess it in lesser measure and without the insight of his genius, I share that love. So does my son (more deeply than me), and so do all the children and teenagers he’s played with in youth orchestras and string ensembles and chamber groups since age seven. They say it’s a dying art, but in our city there’s a surprising number of young people studying classical music performance. Still, I fret about the future, for my son’s sake. As he prepares to study music in college, I worry that today’s standard-bearers of the great tradition are also its worst enemies. Not to be outdone by humanities departments sacrificing themselves to the fashionable gods of racist critical theory, the classical music world is feverishly slashing its own wrists too.

For a sobering review of the state of classical music in the United States today, read Heather Mac Donald’s twopart City Journal essay. Just ten years ago, anyone might have laughed to hear that the traditional canon was nothing more than a bulwark of white, colonialist, patriarchal oppression, but these days taking exception to that notion can cost you your chair in the orchestra. Mac Donald writes:

“As the lies about classical music accumulate, not one conductor, soloist, or concertmaster has rebutted them. These influential performers know that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and quartets are not about race but about pushing beyond ordinary human experience into an unexplored universe of unsettling silences and space. They know that Schubert’s song cycles are not about race but about yearning, disappointment, and fleeting joy. They know that the Saint Matthew Passion is not about race but about crushing sorrow that cries out in pain before finally finding consolation. To reduce everything in human experience to the ever more tedious theme of alleged racial oppression is narcissism. This music is not about you or me. It is about something grander than our narrow, petty selves. But narcissism, the signal characteristic of our time, is shrinking our cultural inheritance to a nullity.”

I choose not to despair, however. Fads pass and few leave permanent scars. The academic study of music – like the academic study of literature – is not the sum total of the art. Like the love of books, the love of music belongs first of all to amateurs, because that’s how everyone begins. Even if the conservatories shut down and the orchestras shame themselves into silence for a generation, there’s an almost infinite catalog of scores and recordings to await rediscovery. In the meantime, young people continue to practice their instruments and our local classical music radio station is going strong, with the works of the greats in prominent rotation. Seated at kitchen tables in 1950s ranch-style houses all around this country, there’s another generation of children, like me, accidentally discovering and learning to love the music of Bach and Schubert and Dvorak and all the wealth of the traditional canon.

Jane and Jim

~ Persuasion by Jane Austen ~

Jim Ignatowski (played by Christopher Lloyd) officiates a wedding in a 1978 episode of Taxi. There in the garage, surrounded by friends, cab mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) marries a prostitute named Vivian in order to get a green card so he can stay in the United States. No one’s sure what to make of the disheveled “Reverend” Jim, a drugged-out relic of the Sixties who makes his first appearance here, but as the service begins he proves unexpectedly eloquent:

The question often asked in our time is ‘Why marriage?’ The answer is hard to see – but it’s obvious there’s a heartbeat to feel. We marry to have a friend, a lover. We marry to deny Solitude’s cold hands on us. We marry because after all the other alternatives have been explored, we still want to, need to, and must.”

Then Jim looks round the garage and says, “I bet you all thought I was going to screw up, didn’t you?”

Strange to say, I thought of this scene as I finished reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, the goal of Austen’s novels is always marriage, which is, from a certain perspective, the most commonplace thing in the world. It’s nothing but the mating instinct in action, says the Materialist, a fiction and a fancy to dress up the biological imperative for perpetuation of the species.

Like Jim, most of us can’t help but feel there’s more to marriage than that. Some few of us persist in calling it holy, a sacrament. For Catholics, even when it’s hard, marriage is an ikon of longing and promised fulfillment, of Christ and the Church, of the union of God and the soul. Anchored in vows that commit us to self-emptying love for our spouse, marriage becomes (if we let it) a school of salvation.

Austen’s novels are notably secular. Occasionally a vicar crosses the page but there is no outright theology, no hint of mysticism. And yet, Austen’s persistent questing after the riddle of marriage suggests a real spirit of devotion. In the looks and words and signs her would-be lovers exchange, their attempts to read one another, their misunderstandings, and their revelations, we sense a straining toward a joyful consummation and communion that can only find perfect fulfillment beyond the rim of this world.

Nothin’ to Say

I find I have less to say as I grow older, and even when I have something to say I’m less inclined to say it. That goes for writing too. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been so half-hearted on the blog these days. Or perhaps, following up on something Damian wrote, my general contentment with life is eating away at my instinct to put virtual pen to virtual paper. Another possible explanation: I’m suffering from a case of solar idiocy; I’d escaped it the last year or two, but it’s back.

In my experience, the best way to get out of a writing slump is to announce that you’re going to take a break from writing. Somehow, more often than not, that gets the juices flowing again. Until that happens I’ve got Nothing to Say.

A Sea of Troubles

~ The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham ~

I feel about science fiction the way I feel about country music: I don’t care much for what goes by the name these days but the older stuff I consider a guilty (and often a not so guilty) pleasure. When it comes to country music, I’m especially fond of honky-tonk artists like Hank Williams and the wonderful Lefty Frizzell. When it comes to sci-fi, I enjoy H.G. Wells and his more immediate heirs, like John Wyndham.

Wyndham is best known for his 1951 novel Day of the Triffids but his 1953 follow-up improves on it. The title may call to mind a line from Clash of the Titans or the empty threat issued last year by former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, but The Kraken Wakes is better paced and plotted than its predecessor and, importantly, the narrator isn’t such an unsympathetic cipher. The story involves “xenobathetic intelligences” (“bathies,” for short) from an unknown planet who have taken up residence in the deepest reaches of our oceans, from which they launch a war to exterminate the human race.

That’s right (you may roll your eyes now), it’s another apocalyptic alien invasion story. But the pleasure of the book is in Wyndham’s restraint (never divulging the motives or physical appearance of the aliens) and especially in the sleuthing of his main characters, husband and wife journalists Mike and Phyllis Watson. They have a cinematic chemistry reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the old Thin Man movies, and their banter often includes bookish references – to Eliot and Kipling and W. Somerset Maugham, among others.

For example I’ve converted the dialogue below into script form. Mike and Phyllis have been sweating through a Caribbean summer, waiting (they think) to file a report on an imminent attack from the “bathies.”

PHYLLIS: “I like idleness – in the sun.”

MIKE: “Twentieth-century woman appears to regard sunlight as a kind of cosmetic effulgence with a light aphrodisiac content – which makes it a funny thing that none of her female ancestors are recorded as seeing it the same way.”

PHYLLIS: “Yes.”

MIKE: “You can’t answer a whole observation like that with simply yes.”

PHYLLIS: “I have reached a comfortable stage of enervation where I can say ‘yes’ to practically anything. It’s a well-known effect of the tropics, often underlined by Mr. Maugham.”

MIKE: “Darling, Mr. Maugham depends very largely on the wrong people saying ‘yes,’ even outside the tropics. It is not so much a matter of temperature as his system of triangulation, in which he is second only to Euclid, another best seller, by the way…”

PHYLLIS: “Mike, you’re rambling – that’s probably the heat, too. Let’s just contemplate idly, shall we?”

As it’s becoming clearer our COVID pandemic was unleashed on us, Kraken-like, by the hubris of the same scientific community that’s now trying to save us from it, I also enjoyed Wyndham’s depiction of how facts (whether of threats alien or viral) may be withheld or distorted to suit the interests of those in power, and how the media (Mike and Phyllis included) are employed as tools of propaganda. As Wyndham’s discredited scientist Bocker, whose crackpot theories prove increasingly justified, says: “There are always cliques and factions anxious to keep the public in the dark ‘for its own good’ – a ‘good’ that is seldom far from the interests of the faction advocating it.”

It was ever so, I suppose. But I’m with Phyllis: “I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt… Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of into the Age of Ostensible Reason?”