One of the symptoms of the hysteria surrounding Donald Trump’s election (a candidate, incidentally, for whom I did not vote) was the conviction that democracy was in danger—“dying in darkness,” the #Resistance, and all that. This led to a revival of interest in the imaginary totalitarian futures of the past, mobilized now against the imaginary Trump terror to come.
Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) was adapted for the stage in Berkeley, edgy as ever, even before that dread November 2016 night; its title has been looted by countless headline writers and the book itself has appeared on Amazon’s bestseller lists. Nineteen Eighty-Four did its bit for Jeff Bezos, too, and a theatrical version (from 2013) of Orwell’s bleak warning opened not in Berkeley but on Broadway. Elections have consequences. There was also a mass screening of Michael Radford’s 1984, “a thirty-year-old film that suddenly feels new again,” marveled Time magazine. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has been made into a hit TV series, inspiring pink ladies in red to show up at various protests. It hasn’t hurt that, unlike Lewis and Orwell, Atwood is still around, and able to talk up supposed Trump parallels. Gilead is on the way!
All this must have been galling to Joyce Carol Oates, a noisy member of the #Resistance, but a dystopia short. She has now remedied that with Hazards of Time Travel.1 She previewed the book in this tweet from January:
If this novel—“Hazards of Time Travel”—had been published before 2016 would seem like dystopian future/ sci-fi; now, a just slightly distorted mirroring of actual T***p US sliding, we hope not inexorably, into totalitarianism & white apartheid.
“Just slightly distorted”? As claims go, that tips over from hype into psychosis, but, as a “mirroring” of the prejudices and paranoia of a segment of today’s Left, this book is of some value. Well, there’s also an intriguing, skillfully implied—no more than that—twist in the plot, which it would be bad manners to reveal.
After a brief prelude, the story moves to the 2030s. Seventeen-year-old Adriane Strohl (much of the book is written in her voice—and convincingly so) is about to graduate from a high school in the “Reconstituted North American States,” a far-from-perfect union. It’s repressive (check), stratified by race (check) and class (check). Health benefits are bad (check), and the postal service has been privatized (reviewer perks up). Most of the national parks have been sold, closed off to the plebs, but opened up to fracking (check) and other outrages. History has been rewritten, scientific inquiry is suspect (check), and it’s unwise to stand out as too smart. Unfortunately, Adriane is smart and has a way of asking the wrong sort of questions. She is arrested by “Homeland Security” (check), just after making a valedictorian speech composed of the wrong sort of questions, and found guilty of “Treason-Speech [no dystopia would be complete without ugly neologisms] and Questioning of Authority.”
What happened to the poor old usa is not set out in detail, but the rot set in with the abuse of executive powers after “The Great Terrorist Attacks of 9/11” (check) and was helped along by environmental devastation (check) partly attributable to climate change (check). The Patriot Party (check) “funded by nas’s wealthiest individuals, which appointed all political leaders as well as the judiciary” (check) is now running the country. Presidents are thought to be “multi-billionaires” (check) or their associates—their names often invented—that citizens are conditioned by the media to “like.” All citizens are “Christian” (check), ethically a meaningless term (fist thrown at hypocritical Trump-voting evangelicals—check) and “no one ever spoke of . . . doing good, helping the less fortunate, being selfless.” Dystopic fiction often contains a satirical strain, but the dagger is generally more effective than the club.
Adriane is handed a lighter sentence than some. Rather than being “deleted” (nasty), she is exiled back in time; and rather than being sent, like the dissidents in Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station (1968), to the Precambrian era, she is allocated a new identity and transported back to a mediocre Wisconsin university in 1959. Her studies at this “excellent” campus will, she is told, be an opportunity to re-educate herself in preparation for a return to nas, an extension, by implication, of the 1950s (check).
Oates uses Wainscotia State University to trash the nostalgic appeal of the “again,” in “Make America Great Again,” taking aim at oafish frat boys, Cold Warriors, the subordination of women, and a certain mid-century American intellectual parochialism (her portrayal of the local poet in residence, a Robert Frost wannabe, is a delight). Then there is the absence of “diversity.”
However gloomy her overall premise, Oates has fun with the idea of someone from the twenty-first century finding herself in Ike’s America. Adriane is shocked by such primitive horrors as smoking—some of our nanny state has evidently hung on into nas—cyclists without safety helmets, and questionable food (a roommate notices how Adriane won’t touch “glazed doughnuts [or] Cheez-bits”). Then there’s the ancient technology, televisions with their pictures “in tremulous shades of grey,” typewriters, books.
A distinctly less predictable topic covered (at considerable length) in the description of Adriane’s studies at Wainscotia is behaviorism (she is attending psychology classes), and, more specifically, her distaste for its “mechanical, soulless view of consciousness.” Presumably Wainscotia’s fondness for B. F. Skinner is intended by Oates as a proxy for mid-century regimentation, but Adriane’s reaction seems excessive. For all its many flaws, behaviorism suggests some useful, if uncomfortable, truths about human nature, truths that Adriane may or may not recognize, but would, in any case, be unwilling—and this may be what Oates is driving at—to accept (despite or even because of the ability of the nas regime to condition those who live under it). Adriane is also, tellingly, somewhat skeptical about the influence of genetics on behavior. Oates’s heroine (again, perhaps tellingly) prefers the defiance encapsulated in her truth: “My parents taught me there is free will. There is a soul within.”
It would take a heart of stone not to laugh.
Varlam Shalamov (1907–82), a clearer-eyed observer of our species and a survivor (more or less) of almost the worst an all-too-real dystopia could do to him, would, I reckon, have permitted himself a wintry smile. In 1961 he compiled a list of what he “saw and understood” in the Gulag. It included the observation that people there could not survive by means of free will: “They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.”
Then again, Shalamov was proud he had “never betrayed anyone in the camps, never ratted anyone out.”
Then again, in his introduction to Kolyma Stories, a new and extended English-language edition of Shalamov’s great Gulag story cycle, the stories’ translator Donald Rayfield relates how in “Permafrost” (a story I have yet to read; it will be included in a companion volume), Shalamov is shown to be “responsible for the suicide of a young man whom he refused to allow to go on washing floors in the hospital and dispatched to hard labor back in the mines.”2
“The camp,” wrote Shalamov elsewhere, “was a great test of our moral strength . . . and 99 percent of us failed it.”
Rayfield also notes Shalamov’s seeming approval of revolutionary violence—if the motives were idealistic and the perpetrators prepared to die for their cause. In that connection, he refers to Shalamov’s “almost deif[ying]” of Nadia [Natalya] Klimova, a pre-revolutionary terrorist, in “The Gold Medal,” another story to be included in the second volume.
Then again, Klimova’s daughter, Natalia Stolyarova (whom Shalamov knew well), helped smuggle The Gulag Archipelago out of the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn praised mother and daughter as representatives of “all the forces of a healthy Russia united.”
Shalamov’s work has been trickling west for years, with the first reliable collection (only a small selection) appearing in English in 1980 as Kolyma Tales. A larger compilation was released in the 1990s under the same title. Now, Kolyma Stories will, with its companion volume, double the amount of Shalamov’s work available in English, going a good way to remedying a gap that should have been filled decades ago.
Shalamov, a priest’s son who had soured on religion (although he maintained that “the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity” in the camps were religious believers), was initially sympathetic to the young Soviet state despite facing discrimination for his “incorrect” social origins. Trouble and his first stint (three years) in a labor camp came with his involvement in the publication of Lenin’s testament, a document containing some unflattering comments about the now-ascendant Stalin. His descent into hell’s lowest circles came with re-arrest in 1937 (for “counterrevolutionary Trotskyist activities”), and years in the Gulag, including long stretches in the mines in the Kolyma region—a territory in Siberia’s far east so remote and inhospitable that it was in itself one of the most formidable of all the Gulag’s many jailers.
Shalamov’s life was saved by a doctor, who arranged for him to be trained as a paramedic. He spent his last few years in the camps as a medical assistant, a relatively soft job. Released in 1951, Shalamov eventually arrived back on “the mainland” in 1953.
Partly autobiographical, partly built on observation and extrapolation, these stories are the product of a specific time, place, and experience, but they also transcend them. They stand at the pinnacle of the literature of the long Soviet night, but to describe them solely in those terms would be akin to labeling the short stories of Chekhov—a writer to whom Shalamov is often compared—as nothing more than superbly taken snapshots of late-Czarist Russia.
The stories are concise, spare, dark, matter-of-fact, and unadorned. “There is no polishing them,” Shalamov explained, “but there is completeness.”
Shalamov was also a poet, and he had a poet’s eye for the right word in the right place, but those looking for lyricism, let alone consciously “fine writing,” will almost invariably be disappointed. The power of these stories comes from something else. It is, maybe, a mark of their exceptional quality that it is hard to identify just what. I do know, however, that even some of their shortest of passages can stay with you for a long, long time:
A whole brigade of one-armed men, who’d mutilated themselves, washed gold in winter and in summer. Then they handed over the specks of metal, the gold grains, to the mine’s till. That’s what the one-armed men were fed for.
The life that Shalamov describes is nastier, more brutish, and far shorter than anything that even Hobbes could have dreamt up. These are not tales of redemption or inspiration, nor do they make any claims about the nobility of suffering. Decency (such as the life-saving act of kindness in the haunting “Handwriting”), or, at least, an unexpected absence of cruelty, occasionally lightens the darkness, but these are exceptions, as are flickers of bone-dry humor: “A Dr. Krasinsky, an old military doctor, a lover of Jules Verne (why?), took over his case.”
Unadorned prose offers up humanity unadorned, refined most frequently in its savagery, whether from guards or “ordinary” criminals, “friends of the people” allowed and encouraged to prey on the lowest of the low, the “politicals” who had incurred the rage of the state.
Survival was a matter not of heroism, but of keeping one’s head down:
We had learned to be meek . . . . We had no pride; no self-esteem or self-respect . . . . It was far more important to learn the skills needed to button up your trousers in sub-zero winter temperatures. Grown men would weep when they found they could not do that.
Survival was a matter of grabbing every chance that came a prisoner’s way. In “Cherry Brandy,” the inmates of a transit camp take two days to disclose that a famous poet (unnamed, but clearly Osip Mandelstam, one of the best known of Stalin’s literary victims) has died in his bunk:
His enterprising neighbors managed to get a dead man’s bread for two days; when it was distributed the dead man’s hand rose up like a puppet’s. Therefore he died earlier than the date of his death, quite an important detail for his future biographers.
In another story, Andreyev (sometimes one of Shalamov’s fictional alter egos) muses that he was “kept alive by indifference and resentment.” Each of his tales, Shalamov wrote, was “a slap in the face to Stalinism.”
Kolyma Stories lacks the grand sweep of The Gulag Archipelago (Shalamov declined Solzhenitsyn’s invitation to co-write the latter). Shalamov did not appreciate the epic style (he was no fan of Tolstoy), or even what he dubbed the “narrative genre.” His stories do not attempt to decipher the Gulag’s origins. Nor, except in echoes, do they track its development: new waves of prisoners, new types of prisoners—Balts, a Hungarian doctor, Russian émigrés caught in Manchuria, Red Army soldiers repatriated after the war—tumble into its maw. Henry Wallace—yes, Vice President Wallace—pays a visit.
In “On Lend-Lease,” a parricide, a respectable, “ordinary” criminal, uses a bulldozer supplied by America to its Soviet ally against Hitler to create a new mass grave—up to then almost an impossibility in the permafrost—for the undecomposed bodies of (to quote from one of Shalamov’s poems) some of his “unrotting brothers.” Previously they had been packed in a stone pit that had, most indecorously, spilled over:
Corpses were crawling across the hillside, exposing a Kolyma secret . . . . Every one of those close to us who perished in Kolyma . . . can still be identified, even after decades. There were no gas ovens in Kolyma. The corpses wait in the stones, in the permafrost.
But not, as Shalamov recounts in another story, before their gold teeth had been knocked out. In Kolyma, it wasn’t only the rock that was mined.
Taken together, these tales, each a small shard in which a glimpse of a greater nightmare is caught, form a pointillist portrait of the worst of the Gulag at the worst of times: “Shalamov’s experience in the camps was,” said Solzhenitsyn, “longer and more bitter than my own . . . to him and not me was it given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all.”
Some of the stories overlap and collide in ways that do not quite make sense, a reminder that in Kolyma what we fondly imagine to be universal rules counted for nothing:
Any human concept, while still keeping its spelling, its pronunciation, and its usual set of letters and sounds, now meant something different, for which the mainland had no name.
The first volume of Kolyma Stories ends with the freed narrator in Moscow: he “had come back from hell.” He had, but its demons hadn’t finished with him. Shalamov’s poetry was published, but only one of his least-controversial Gulag stories appeared in print in the ussr during his lifetime, and even that led to the dismissal of the editorial board that had approved it. When copies of the Kolyma Tales were published in the West, Shalamov publicly objected, “evidently,” writes Rayfield, “under compulsion.” As a reward, possibly the greatest of all the giants of Russia’s twentieth-century literature was finally admitted to the ussr’s Union of Writers, a necessity if he was to make a living selling the few permissible scraps of his craft.
Shalamov—like his narrator—had emerged from hell, but brought some of it back with him. His health never fully recovered. His memories drove his writing but left him forever an ex-prisoner, cautious, distrustful, and “difficult.” “All my skin has been renewed,” he told a friend, “my soul has not.” By the end of the 1970s, Rayfield writes that Shalamov was “homeless.” That might be an overstatement, but Shalamov was certainly in a very poor way. He was placed into an old people’s home. Conditions were appalling, and he reportedly lost much of his vision and most of what was left of his hearing. In 1982, Shalamov was diagnosed with dementia, and transferred, Rayfield writes, “almost naked [and] in the freezing cold” into a psychiatric hospital where he died a few days later.
Shalamov’s tales about Kolyma began appearing in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, but, Rayfield relates, it was only in 2013 that a “reasonably complete” collection became available in Russia. Part of Shalamov’s childhood home now houses a museum dedicated to him, and some memorials are scattered across his homeland, including one in the central Russian town of Krasnovishersk on Dzerzhinsky Street, a street still named after the founder of the Bolsheviks’ Secret Police (why?).
Shalamov was trapped in hell for nearly two decades. The Italian writer Curzio Malaparte (1898–1957), best known for Kaputt (1944) and its sequel, The Skin (1949), dropped by there from time to time, sometimes as an observer, sometimes in his imagination. The (in Malaparte’s words) “horribly gay and gruesome” Kaputt is a frolic through the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe and the war on the Eastern Front. Brilliantly written and strikingly original, it combines a superb evocation of evil with interludes of disturbing frivolity. In The Skin, the narrative resumes in liberated Naples. Like its predecessor, it slips without warning from autobiography to embellishment to outright fiction—a process that Malaparte, a former fascist with much to explain away, also applied to his endlessly rewritten résumé—but this time the confection, even allowing for some remarkable sequences, came across as a little stale.
The sense that the well was running dry is even stronger in The Kremlin Ball.3 This unfinished work, regardless of chronology (the book is set in Moscow in 1929, a city Malaparte had visited at that time), was intended to conclude the exploration of European catastrophe begun with Kaputt. Malaparte apparently put it to one side to work on cinema and theater projects in 1950, and that is where it stayed. Malaparte being Malaparte, it’s tempting to wonder whether his complicated relationship with the Italian Communist Party influenced his decision not to proceed any further—the book contains largely matter-of-fact references to Stalin’s great purges to come, but plenty of opprobrium for those beyond-the-red-pale Trotskyists. Or maybe Malaparte realized that The Kremlin Ball’s central conceit—a reimagining of the Soviet elite as the beau monde of Belle ÉpoqueParis—was better as political punch line than book.
The Kremlin Ball was published in Italy in 1971 as part of a complete edition of Malaparte’s works. It was released in English for the first time earlier this year, with a foreword by Jenny McPhee, its (excellent) translator who, however, sporadically bends the knee to contemporary pieties with an assiduity that Malaparte would have applauded and a sincerity that he would have mocked. While Malaparte was repelled by Nazi anti-Semitism, his writings are not those of an author preoccupied by Europe’s “toxic misogyny, racism and homophobia,” nor, despite some admiration for Soviet steeliness, was he ever seriously tempted by communism, except as a device to save his skin after Italy had surrendered to, and signed up with, the Allies in 1943.
McPhee is on safer ground when she highlights the way Malaparte used what he called his “novels of biographical reportage” to play games with reality. As she says, he took “the unreliable narrator to a new level.” And by this time in his career he was doing so with teasing, exuberant brio, beginning The Kremlin Ball with the manifestly ludicrous assertion that “everything” in this novel “is true: the people, the events, the things, the places.” Just how ludicrous will rapidly become obvious to Russian history buffs (to take just one example, Prince Lvov, the first head of the provisional government assembled after the fall of the Czar, had died in France four years before Malaparte supposedly encounters him, uh, selling an “enormous” armchair on a Moscow sidewalk). But even those who are not so familiar with the byways of the Soviet past will have their doubts about the accuracy of Malaparte’s account of a meeting with Olga Kameneva (Trotsky’s sister and the ex-wife of a Bolshevik leader who had fallen foul of Stalin—two strikes): “She was a woman who was already dead. A subtle odor of dead flesh spread through the room.”
Yet Malaparte’s greater truth holds. Kameneva was doomed, and she knew it, although she outlived her former husband and their two sons. They were shot before her.
It may be unfair to be too harsh a critic of an unfinished work, but The Kremlin Ball has its longueurs, and they are not confined to Malaparte’s attempt to fashion a Potemkin Belle Époque on the unpromising territory of early Soviet Russia. In particular, the philosophizing (disappointing in such a detached writer), whether it is on Christianity, suffering, Europe, death, whatever, is all too often jejune, wrong-headed, and, most unforgivably, dull.
Nevertheless, sifting through the dross is rewarded by flashes of something that, despite Malaparte’s love of illusion, is more than just gilt:
It was, at the time, Easter week in Russia. But the bells were silent. At the tops of the bell towers of Moscow’s thousands of churches, the church bells hung silently, their thick clappers dangling like tongues from the heads of cows hung out to dry in the sun.
Thousands of churches? No, there were not, not even in Moscow, the “Third Rome” of wishful Russian thinking, but the way that Malaparte (an atheist, as it happens) brackets that exaggeration—a depiction of a stifled Easter reinforced by an image of death rather than of resurrection—points to a more important truth.
Malaparte travels around Moscow, fraternizing with writers, Soviet prominenti, diplomats, and remnants of the past: Prince Lvov and other “well-bred, miserable ghosts,” “former people” in the terminology of the time, a description that became a proscription. As he moves from strange meeting to strange meeting or even indulges in a little macabre tourism—he visits the room where the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky has just committed suicide—Malaparte is often accompanied by his secretary. Marika is a dark-eyed, sixteen-year-old Georgian, an (unrequited?) love interest, echo or preview, perhaps, of the dark-eyed, sixteen-year-old Romanian waitress Marioara from Kaputt, another not-quite dalliance (a pogrom intervenes) in the disintegrating world that Malaparte made his own.
After three dystopias, Switzerland comes as a relief, but in To the Back of Beyond, Thomas decides to cast himself out of Schwiizertüütsch Eden.4 Modestly prosperous with a wife and two kids in a pleasant, orderly town, he marks his family’s homecoming from a Spanish vacation by sneaking out on them that night without warning, explanation, or any obvious reason. He hesitates momentarily, then, “with a bewildered smile he was only half aware of,” heads for the garden gate. Then he is gone—for good, it seems.
The only hint—maybe not even that—of trouble ahead had been Thomas’s suggestion that the family stay on in Spain for a year, an idea his wife, Astrid, “the voice of reason in the relationship,” rejects. Later, after Thomas has vanished, Astrid uploads their vacation pictures. The best shot of Thomas is “of the bottom half of [his] face with a rather strange half smile,” an absence repeated in photographs taken on other, recent trips.
First published in German in 2016 and then released in this country (in a fine translation by Michael Hoffman) late last year, this book, by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm, is short, spare, and haunting; it lingers, unsettlingly, in the memory. To return to Shalamov’s adjective, Stamm’s prose is “unadorned,” and yet, even in the book’s first lines, he manages, without any drama, to convey a sense of unease, a sense of waiting, a sense of a coming storm:
By day, you hardly noticed the hedge that separated the yard from that of the neighbors, it just seemed to merge into the general greenness, but once the sun went down and the shadows started to lengthen, it loomed there like an insuperable wall, until all light was gone from the garden and the lawn lay in shadow, an area of darkness from which there was no escape.
Sometimes Astrid “asks herself if Thomas would have chosen a different sort of life if they hadn’t been a couple.”
Stamm alternates descriptions of Thomas’s hike towards the mountains and depictions of the reactions and actions of the family that he has left behind. To begin with (later, it’s not so straightforward), it is Thomas’s journey that draws the attention. There at least, there is movement. Back at home, Astrid begins by doing her best to preserve a status quo that has vanished beyond recall. Meanwhile, the farther Thomas trudges from home, the further he breaks, in a mild Swiss way—Apocalypse Now this is not—from the constraints of his old life, accidentally stumbling into a brothel (a first, even if nothing much happens there, although he does steal a coat as he leaves, another first), sleeping rough, scavenging some food. And the further Thomas goes, the greater his sense of distance from where he has been and, even, where he is:
Thomas had the disquieting feeling that all this had been laid on for him, that the people in the village were actors who were merely waiting for him to come by, to assume their roles and speak their lines. It was an artificial world, a model construction under an expansive blue sky.
There is something of the waking dream about both Stamm’s prose and a storyline dominated in its early stages by a pilgrimage with no discernible end in sight. Thomas is a man driven—and his determination to avoid detection indicates that he is driven—but it is unclear by what. Perhaps the answer is buried within Thomas’s observation that none of his clients ever ask, “What was it all for?” The obvious and perfectly satisfactory answer—nothing—will clearly not do.
But To The Back of Beyond goes far beyond being a beautifully written account of yet another middle-aged man’s existential crisis. I won’t say what takes place in the mountains, partly because it would be a spoiler, and partly because I’m not so sure I’ve fully understood it myself, but it is the hinge on which the story—or stories—turns. The pace picks up, but Stamm finds the time to deepen his touching, if still economically drawn, portrait of Thomas and Astrid’s marriage before bringing Thomas’s odyssey to a conclusion that can be taken in different ways but is, I have found, impossible to forget.
- Hazards of Time Travel: A Novel, by Joyce Carol Oates; Ecco, 366 pages, $26.99.
- Kolyma Stories, by Varlam Shalamov; New York Review Books Classics, 768 pages, $22.95.
- The Kremlin Ball, by Curzio Malaparte; New York Review Books Classics, 240 pages, $15.95.
- To The Back of Beyond, by Peter Stamm; Other Press, 160 pages, $15.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 59
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