Tag Archives: Alexander Goldstein

The Quiet Fields (Спокойные поля) by Alexander Goldstein

I was reluctant SpokoiniyePolya to tackle The Quiet Fields mostly because I didn’t want to be left without any Goldstein novel to look forward to reading. This may sound a bit strange as he lived to write only two novels, but the sheer literary might of the first one, Remember Famagusta, persuaded me that its author was one of the greatest Russian language stylists of his time, and therefore  his next book must be something out of this world as well. Needless to say, this turned out exactly the case.  The Quiet Fields is a work of  intoxicating linguistic virtuosity and vast erudition which make most of the recent Russian literary produce pale by comparison. Partly fictionalised memoir, partly cultural criticism, this work is Goldstein’s swansong, his final legacy, his ticket to literary immortality. The author was terminally ill with lung cancer when writing this book, and he managed to finish it just shortly before his death. Aware of the fact that the end was near, Goldstein created an intricate tapestry in which he tried to capture as much of the world he was leaving behind as he could. Even partial understanding of this literary arras might require several careful readings as the density of the writing, high as it is, on many occasions goes off-scale.

The narrator, who shares many biographical details with the author, tells the story of his childhood and student years in the Soviet Baku as well as of his later life in Tel Aviv as an Israeli immigrant. But it is not just a story of the people he has known, the places he has visited, and the experiences he has had. It is also a story of literature, art and philosophy that have shaped the narrator and given him his particular voice. Just like in Remember Famagusta, the narrative is fragmentary, with unexpected temporal and spacial leaps. The novel is populated by real and imaginary characters: some of them are the individuals Goldstein personally knew, some are the figments of his imagination, some are historical figures he read about in books. A  life spent reading is as important here as a life spent living, maybe even more. Books, booksellers and bookshops are omnipresent in The Quiet Fields. Throughout the whole novel books are read, discussed, analysed. It appears that for Goldstein literature is just another country, like The Soviet Union or Israel, but more comfortable and more familiar than either of these. He definitely knew it better than any place in the physical world. The abundance of literary allusions playfully scattered on the pages of the novel reveals an encyclopedic mind equal to that of Roberto Calasso or Umberto Eco. We are not talking here about mere references to other works of literature.  The cultural material at Goldstein’s disposal is treated with exceptional subtlety  and is further enriched by passing through the centrifuge of his prose. There seems to be nothing he cannot do with language. Rich in meaning, alliterative and allusive, Goldstein’s sprawling sentences strike by the sheer inventiveness and the originality of looking at things. Even the most mundane situations gain loftiness and solemnity once couched in the baroque luxury of Goldstein’s prose. Nothing which is written nowadays in Russian comes even close to this filigree wordsmithery.

There are fourteen chapters, and the longest one has the same title as the novel – The Quiet Fields. This chapter is the most plot-driven part of the book, although it is unlikely to provide any kind of linearity for an impatient reader. It is a story of friendship of three bookish guys (one of whom is the narrator) in  Baku during the Soviet time.The quiet fields are none other than the Elysian Fields described in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, which happens to be the favourite book of Pavel Torgovetsky, one of the three friends. The other friend is Oleg Blonsky, the narrator’s second cousin who provides him with rare books, some of them banned in the Soviet Union. The ordinary story of sharing and discussing books, of joint walks in the streets of Baku, of meals and  teas taken together is not only energised by the verbal pyrotechnics of the narrative, but also by the intrusion of mystical elements. Oleg’s mother Fira, who has some psychiatric disorder, also possesses a supernatural gift of drawing people the way they will look in the future, in ten or more years. When she was a girl, many relatives and  friends of the family came to her to pose for the prophetic portraits, and even paid money for that. The fun continued until one day she  was not able to fulfill the request of a man who wanted to see how he looked in eight years.  As Fira revealed,  there were just five years left for him. One cannot help but see the parallel between this mystical prophesy of death and a lethal medical diagnosis.

The three most important books the narrator acquires with Blonsky’s assistance are Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne.  Goldstein writes about each of these works at some length, but even without his explanations, the reader of the novel who has reached this point will be able to see their significance for the narrator given his background, ideas and aspirations. Kolyma Tales narrates one of the most horrible moments of history of the country in which he and his friends have come of age. Shalamov is the Russian Virgil offering to the reader a descent into the hell of Stalin’s labour camps. Whereas in other works on the subject, like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, some aspects of camp labour are presented in the positive light as a source of meaning and self-actualisation for the dejected inmate, for Shalamov forced labour is a just a type of slow execution. Its only purpose is to wear out and degrade the prisoner until he succumbs to untimely death. Both Rilke’s and Jacobsen’s novels deal with the struggles, hopes and inevitable disillusionment of the aspiring poet who finds it hard to come to terms with the alienating society. It is important to remember that one of the genres mined by The Quiet Fields is the Künstlerroman, albeit the narrator’s formation as an artist, as opposed to that depicted in more conventional works of such kind, is shown  in non-linear, kaleidoscopic manner, with many gaps remaining unfilled.

The trio of intellectuals becomes just a duet after the tragic death of Oleg in a drowning accident. The two friends continue seeing each other, but  it’s not what it used to be. They slowly grow apart as Pavel becomes more and more obsessed with the Aeneid which he considers a prophetic book. He tries to predict the future by opening it at random and reading the arbitrary passage. The literary value of the poem gives way to its purported occult powers. Their walks together become rare until they cease meeting  altogether, restricting their communication to weekly phone conversations. After some time even the phone calls stop. When Pavel dies, the narrator is conveniently sick with flu, which gives him an excuse not to attend his funeral. Interaction with great writers and philosophers via books come easier to  Goldstein’s protagonist than human relationships in real life. Not that it is so uncommon among artists.

The story of three friends is just one of many recounted in The Quiet Fields. It stands out among others as it is the longest and the most fleshed-out narrative in the book. The nature of Goldstein’s novel is such that very often we get just a glimpse or hint of some event, and then it gives way to another before we become fully aware of what has just taken place. Some events and characters reappear later in the book, others disappear forever leaving to the reader a lingering taste of mystery. Besides that there are numerous set pieces of insightful commentary on various writers, artists, philosophers, and historical figures. The list of personalities discussed by Goldstein includes Bertold Brecht, Ernst Jünger, Giacomo Casanova, Iamblichus, Siyyid Ali Muhammad, Paul Scheerbart, Andy Warhol, Ferdinad II of the Two Sicilies, Garcilaso de la Vega, Witold Gombrowicz, Sergei Diaghilev, Sergei Kuriokhin, Louis Althusser and even Tupak Shakur. In the company of Goldstein’s inquisitive and critical mind, we discover a lot of fascinating facts and ideas. For instance, we learn why Andy Warhol’s photograph with a bulldog and a Roman bust counters the ancient doctrine of the great chain of being and also get to know the four important conclusions stemming from Garcilaso de la Vega’s description of the mummified Inca kings. The novel is full of little gems like these. Not less captivating are some ways in which the narrator gets hold of the books that provide him with food for thought, for sometimes the circumstances of acquiring a tome are tinged with the sense of mystery, of occult initiation. The case in point is his acquisition of a book with the writings of the Syrian Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus. The book is given to him by a mysterious barefoot man whom he meets in a forest. The narrator asks the man about the meaning of Nothing. After delivering a protracted monologue on the nature of being and reality that touches, among other things, on the philosophical teachings of Gautama Buddha, the artistic ambition of Ezra Pound, and the many-worlds interpretation of Hugh Everett III, the sage wanderer disappears in the woods  leaving the cloth-bound Iamblichus on the moss-covered stone he was sitting on just a while ago. The style of the wanderer’s speech fully conforms to the overall aesthetics of Goldstein’s novel: his ramblings are learned, convoluted and impressionistic. This is how, for example, he illustrates the impossibility of escaping the material world (please note that in no way my translation can do any justice to the original):

Where is the lie? It’s not so easy to explain, but I’ll try. As a sectarian immured in the masonry of the real, totally ignorant of anything but matter in the broad presence of its manifestations, – mettlesome cynic challenge – I was free as a bird, a flaneur on a voyeuristic walk,  everywhere finding the proof of my case. From The Capitals-talmuds, unread, leafed through out of boredom, from the orators’ speeches, radiochaos, strikes, from the newspaper columns with stock quotes and crime rates, from aviation, jazz, mustard gas, Rabelaisian devaluation and resurrection of money, from the tempo-rhythm of the city flooded by new iniquity (secret clubs, underground lupanars, Roman indecencies of the petite bourgeoisie of Weimar, night life opening the fan of sexual and racial exoticism for the first time surpassed the daytime in saturation), from the discontent of factory workers, from the political provocations, from the black weariness crying for the rabble-rousing to be fettered,  from the plebeian lies and violence there crept the red inflamed carcass of reality, live and complacently rotting meat bored by a million-headed worm, and even the cinema, lunar and theatrical, mistakenly chartered by doubles, psychosis, hypnosis, cocaine and morphine, lacerated him with hooks, thin like Chinese needles, like needles of embalmers.

On the last page of the novel there is the phrase “the morphine splits the text in two “. It is a grim reminder of the circumstances under which Goldstein was putting finishing touches to the manuscript of The Quiet Fields. Both as a linguistic tour-de-force and as a testimony of its author’s stoicism in the face of death, this book has a special place in contemporary Russian literature. I am not fazed in the least by the small print run of the edition that I have read: just 1,000 copies. It is true that Goldstein is little read in Russian-speaking countries and is almost unknown in the rest of the world. However, judging by his two novels which, when their time comes, will be keeping busy more than one generation of scholars, I personally have no doubt that his fabulous prose already belongs to the pantheon of eternity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Remember Famagusta (Помни о Фамагусте) by Alexander Goldstein

RememberFamagustaThe English-speaking audience might have heard first the name of Alexander Goldstein from one of the most important contemporary Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin. During his talk at the Harriman Institute, Columbia, he actually said the following:

For me now the top of Russian literature is Alexander Goldstein. […] I’m sure in fifty years here at Columbia University and other American universities all professors will consider our time, our epoch, the epoch of Alexander Goldstein. And we, writers, will be just contemporaries of Alexander Goldstein. We just shared with him the epoch. […] And if you asked me, “What Russian writers are important and genius nowadays?” I would say: “Read Alexander Goldstein”.

This is a very strong statement from a writer whose authority has been cemented by such impressive works as Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark (although, in my opinion, they are not a patch on his mind-bending tour-de-force The Capture of Izmail. I’m not sure that Goldstein is really the genius Shishkin would like him to be, but upon reading his first novel Remember Famagusta, I was totally sold on the idea that there had not been a better stylist writing in Russian in the past century, except maybe Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov.

Goldstein has created his own linguistic universe, a parallel dimension of words, in which the commonly accepted laws and conventions do not apply. Although appreciated by some, the novel in question remains poorly understood . It is impossible to find a single critical article on the novel throwing substantial light on its numerous mysteries.  Regretfully, I have to confess that I am no exception. I am not sure what I have just read. I had been utterly  baffled during the reading so many times that I started to get surprised each time I did understand something. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to consider  Remember Famagusta  ” a Russian version of Finnegans Wake” because Goldstein’s alchemy  rarely invades the word itself; that is to say, the reader has no problem understanding the meaning of isolated words, which is one of the challenges posed by Joyce’s text. It’s the way those words are woven into the texture of the novel, the unexpected lexical combinations and collisions, the baroque over-abundance of luscious imagery that are liable to leave even the most sophisticated reader high and dry.

Having made the necessary disclaimer, I will  share some thoughts on this extraordinary and, for the most part, impenetrable novel. I have my own explanation as to why the narrative is so chaotic and elusive, sending us on a wild chase of its various will-o’the-wisps. The novel is set both at the time of the creation and disintegration of the biggest empire on earth, the Soviet Union. Goldstein’s prose reflects and amplifies these tectonic shifts. The time and space are in a state of constant transformation, and consequently nobody is granted even a moment of respite. The jumps from one place or period to another are abrupt and can even remain unnoticed until later. Moreover, the city playing the central role in the novel is never called by its name, although it is not difficult to guess that it is Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in which the writer used to live until his emigration to Israel in 1990. And here we can confidently draw a parallel with Joyce, for Goldstein does to Baku something similar to what the great Irish writer did to Dublin in Ulysses.

In case of this particular book, it is much easier for me to talk about the characters than about the action. They are a motley and exotic crew. First of all there is the narrator, most probably an alter-ego of Goldstein himself, who describes his youth in Baku and recent life in Tel-Aviv. Then there is Yashar-muallim, a wise old man who is said to have the dowsing powers. Besides that, he copies sacred texts, acts as a spiritual mentor and has taken part in an expedition whose goal was to capture dybbuks, evil spirits of Jewish mythology. Seeking to revive the Sufi doctrine of hurufism, Yashar-muallim tries to recruit one of his students as an assistant and squire. We also get to know the Orthodox priest and polymath Father Paisius who is sent “under the tusks of the Solovetsky SLON”, the latter acronym being identical to the Russian word for “elephant”: hence the pun. SLON stands for  Solovetsky Lager’ Osobogo Naznachenia, i.e “Solovki Special Purpose Camp”. Father Paisius manages to survive the hardships of the GULAG and finds solace in writing the history of onomatodoxy, a religious movement that gained currency in the beginning of the 20th century on Mount Athos. Of particular interest to me proved Jalil-the editor, a character based on the Azerbaijani  writer Jalil Huseyngulu oglu Mammadguluzadeh who founded the once famous satirical magazine Molla Nasraddin and stayed in charge of it until its closure in 1931. The passages relating his obsession with early German cinema bring to memory Siegfried Kracauer’s renowned study From Caligari to Hitler. I don’t know if it was possible in the Soviet Baku of the 1930s  to watch Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse in the movie theatres, but there is something fascinating in recognising the masterpieces of expressionist cinema through descriptions of Jalil’s movie-watching sprees. And, most notably, there is the Armenian gladiator Mger-Claudius Mgoyan. In the fifteenth chapter of the novel that can regarded as a set-piece we read an engrossing story about the construction of a modern Colosseum in Baku in the 1920s. Here I am more confident about the time because at some point the funeral of Rudolph Valentino is mentioned.  Mgoyan handpicks the best fighters for the arena, and for three weeks, every day the public watches in awe retiarii, secutores, murmillones and other types of gladiators conjured up from the ancient times clash in combat. There are, of course, other memorable characters, and quite a few of them are real historical personages, such as the Ottoman military leader Enver Pasha and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but those I have mentioned should be enough to give you at least an idea of what kind of book it is.

The Cypriot city of Famagusta lost to Turkey as a result of the 1974 invasion does not necessarily  invoke  Baku, which the narrator “loses”  after his immigration, but rather the overall sense of loss experienced by millions of people caught between the millstones of major geopolitical  transformations that shaped the 20th century. Both the formation and the dissolution of a great empire inevitably entail for some losing their homeland, language, culture and even identity. However, in such processes, there are also creative forces at work. Cultural symbiosis and cross-pollination that take place when different peoples come into contact quite often give birth to new artistic and literary forms, new ways of looking at the world; staggering achievements in  arts and sciences can come about as a consequence.  Goldstein’s narrative accommodates both destructive and creative aspects inherent in the very notion of the empire, and therefore it is no wonder that some passages might repel and fascinate the reader at the same time.

Now, suppose this beast gets translated some day and you will have a chance to enter Goldstein’s world. When you finish the book, some of you will instantly want to read it a second time. My advice: wait at least for a month, let what little you have grasped settle in, because it would be too much to rush immediately into this maelstrom again.

If I wanted to sound glib, trite and lazy when asked  what reading Remember Famagusta feels like, I would most probably come up with something painfully formulaic like “imagine Pavic writing like Joyce with a dash of classical Persian poetry, Sufi mysticism and automatic writing”. That wouldn’t do justice to the book, of course. In reality, Goldstein writes like nobody else, and that is why he is one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, still not duly recognised and not even widely-known. But it’s not news to us: remember Melville, remember Gaddis. 

Update: If you can read German, you are in luck as Denk an Famagusta is forthcoming this April from Matthes & Seitz Berlin.


Filed under Reviews