There is something peculiarly unnerving about glimpses of lives being lived without any awareness of approaching catastrophe—film footage of Edwardian England, say, or jfk at Love Field. This can be true too in fiction. Profoundly moving and, at times, surprisingly lyrical, Grey Bees, by the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, is gently powerful, and made even more so by what has happened since it was first published in 2018 (the American edition, translated by Boris Dralyuk, was released this year).1
The protagonist of Grey Bees is Sergey Sergeyich, a forty-nine-year-old former mine-safety inspector, prematurely retired seven years earlier after silicosis wrecked his lungs. A likeable, endearing, enduringly post-Soviet everyman, Sergey lives in Little Starhorodivka, an all but abandoned village located in the “grey zone,” a long, narrow stretch of territory that separates the Ukrainian front line from the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” statelets that broke away from Ukraine in 2014. At the time Grey Bees was written, an uneasy status quo that was neither war nor peace prevailed in the whole region. This made it possible, as Kurkov explains in a foreword to the book, for “a few stubborn residents” to hang on in their homes in the gray zone, “listening to the whistle of shells overhead and occasionally sweeping shrapnel from their yards.”
Kurkov’s delicately chronicled, touchingly funny depiction of their evolving relationship is one of the unexpected delights in what is, after all, a book about the aftermath of a war that has not quite ended.
Unwilling to be parted from the bees he looks after in six carefully tended hives, Sergey is one of those holdouts. For three years (it is 2017), he has eked out an existence—the electricity has long gone—in his house on Lenin Street, one of Little Starhorodivka’s two “proper” streets (the other is named after Taras Shevchenko, the nineteenth-century poet and—much more—a figure who played a crucial role in defining Ukraine’s sense of itself). The only other person left in the village is Pashka Khmelenko, another early retiree, who lives on Shevchenko Street. The two men “had been enemies from their first days at school,” but they now look out for each other in a gruff, cantankerous friendship of a depth they will never quite admit, aloud anyway. Kurkov’s delicately chronicled, touchingly funny depiction of their evolving relationship is one of the unexpected delights in what is, after all, a book about the aftermath of a war that has not quite ended and, although Kurkov did not know it at the time he was writing, also a description of what was merely an interlude before war, on a far larger scale, erupted again.
National identification among the Russian-speaking majority (many of whom are ethnically Ukrainian) in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas, has traditionally been multi-layered and complex, muddled further by intermarriage and history. Its ambiguities are something that Kurkov, a Leningrad-born ethnic Russian whose loyalties lie with Kyiv but who still writes in his native language despite having lived in Ukraine since his childhood (Grey Bees was first published in Russian), is well-equipped to examine. And in Grey Bees, he does so, sometimes obliquely, even playfully.
Both Sergeyich and Khmelenko are Russian speakers, but the former’s sympathies lie, albeit undemonstratively, with Ukraine. Naturally Kurkov has him living on Lenin Street. Meanwhile, Khmelenko not only sympathizes with the separatists, he also appears to pal around with them: the electricity may be out, but someone is charging his phone. No less naturally, he lives on Shevchenko Street. The two men’s gardens, however, send the correct political signals, if only geographically. Khmelenko’s looks out “towards Horlivka,” a city, although Kurkov doesn’t say so (readers in Ukraine would have known), occupied by the Russians, meaning that Khmelenko lived, appropriately enough, “one street closer to Donetsk than Sergeyich.” Sergeyich’s garden, by contrast, faces “in the other direction towards Sloviansk,” a city that Ukraine lost and then recaptured in 2014. The Ukrainian army, in its trenches and dugouts, is close enough to hear, while the Russians and the separatists, “the local lads,” are dug in, “drinking tea and vodka” just beyond Khmelenko’s place, separated only by “the remnants of an apricot grove” and a field.
Sergeyich, for the most part, is passive, stoic, a man to whom things happen:
His wife and daughter had run off. . . . They had left a wound in his heart. But he persevered. . . . In the summers he enjoyed the buzzing of his bees, and in the winter the peace and quiet, the snowy whiteness of the fields and the total stillness of the grey sky. He could have lived out his days in that way, but something intervened. Something broke in the country, in Kyiv, where nothing had ever been quite right. It broke so badly that painful cracks ran along the country, as if along a sheet of glass, and then blood began to seep through these cracks.
But he stays.
His loyalties are primarily local. When Khmelenko dismissively mentions that one vanished villager is neither Russian nor Ukrainian, but Armenian, Sergeyich retorts, “so what? He lived here, and that means that he’s one of us.”
At the same time, Sergeyich has accepted that both he and his corner of the Donbas belong in independent Ukraine. But his idea of who he is remains unchanged. In his passport, he is described as Serhiy Serhiyovych (the Ukrainian rendering of Sergey Sergeyich), which as he tells Petro, a Ukrainian soldier who shows up at his place, is not his name. The soldier wonders whether that means that Sergeyich doesn’t “agree with his passport.” The reply: “No, I agree with my passport, just not with what it chooses to call me.”
His Ukraine—and his notion of what it is to be Ukrainian—has room for a Sergey as well as a Serhiy.
In some ways, Grey Bees is the story of a man who had hoped to outrun history by standing still but is eventually led to confront it by his sense of what is right.
In some ways, Grey Bees is the story of a man who had hoped to outrun history by standing still but is eventually led to confront it by his sense of what is right. And perhaps appropriately, it takes movement, a journey, to bring him to that point. With spring approaching, he wants to take his bees somewhere peaceful for the summer, “to let [them] fly.” And so, he travels past checkpoints, dallies for a while with a woman who wants him to stay, and encounters a monster of sorts—a deranged victim of the war—as he heads for Russian-occupied Crimea, a choice of destination that reveals a certain detachment from the reality of what had been going on, a detachment emphasized by his seeming belief that the “peaceful Crimeans” had themselves asked the Russian army to come calling. Crimea was somewhere, he reckoned, that would welcome
any sort of family—but especially an apian one. It was a sweet place. Sergeyich had never been there, but each time he mentioned the peninsula, he could taste it on his tongue. It tasted of honey, of sugar.
He and the bees could visit Akhtem, the Crimean Tatar he had met some years ago at a beekeepers’ convention. They could stay on his land, Sergeyich in his tent, the bees in their hives.
But when he arrives at the Tatar’s house, he is told by Akhtem’s wife that he has “gone. They took him. It’s been twenty months now.” Nevertheless, Sergeyich is invited to move his hives near Akhtem’s, and to set up his tent there, “behind the vineyard, near the mountain.” And so Sergeyich does. It is not long before he discovers who they were, and that what they and those in league with them had done was not confined to one disappearance but to something far more extensive. This shatters the detachment that has done so much to sustain him. He begins to emerge from his gray zone, a place of safety, however fragile, that has been psychological as well as physical.
To reveal what happens in Crimea would be to give away too much, but the book ends with Sergeyich returning to his own gray Ithaca, to a home quite literally in the middle of a war that was not quite a war, but with him
taking no part in it. No-one shot at the enemy from his yard, his windows, his fence, which meant his home had no enemies. Maybe that’s why it was still standing, untouched by all the mines and shells that had fallen on Little
Starhorodivka . . .
It’s hard to read those words without wondering how that house—and Sergeyich himself—would have fared in 2022. It’s not too hard to guess.
Just over a century ago, in early 1915, in campaigns that came close to the western borders of modern Ukraine, and sometimes even broke through them, the Austro-Hungarian army was battling the forces of the Russian Empire (the Germans mainly fought further to the north). Compared with the intense focus on the trenches in France and in Flanders, the story of the Great War’s Eastern Front—at least until it started to dissolve along with the new Russian Republic in 1917—has been (relatively) neglected by Anglo-Saxon historians, with distinguished exceptions. Something similar can be said of our familiarity with the literature of that front, again with notable exceptions, making the chance discovery of some writing from that time and place all the more welcome. Tucked in towards the end of The Hotel Years (2015), a skillfully chosen collection of pieces in which the Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894–1939) offers glimpses of the interwar years, is a story entitled “Furlough in Jablonovka.” Here is a magical recollection of a Christmas leave spent, probably, in a Polish village just behind the front lines:
The sky glitters overhead, the snow glitters under our feet. It’s as though the sky is a reflection of the snow. There’s no point following the village street, which is all trampled. The snow was so seductive that it would have been a sin not to walk there, where it lay crisp and deep, noble, virginal, crystal and singing. So as not to encounter our comrades and to enjoy the night and the stars and the snow, we walked up the lane behind the houses. It was peaceful, no war anywhere. Ten or twelve times a searchlight crossed the sky, but even that seemed to be a kind of strolling, a peaceable pedestrian, paler than its brothers whom I knew better in the luminous sky.
Roth had enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916. The magnificently named Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897–1976) had done so the year before, signing up with an elite cavalry regiment. He spent the rest of that war on the Eastern Front. He was the son of a countess and a naval officer, although the circumstances of his birth, which took place shortly after his parents’ wedding, and the brevity of their marriage, gave rise to rumors—Austria-Hungary being Austria-Hungary—that his real father was a Habsburg archduke, rumors that a photograph of Lernet-Holenia found online does nothing to discourage. Appropriately or not, he spent his last years living in an apartment in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace.
Lernet-Holenia, a protégé of Rilke, established himself as a literary figure after the Great War. His Baron Bagge was published in 1936. It first appeared in English in 1956 in a translation by Richard and Clara Winston, and this version has now been republished by New Directions, with, somewhat unexpectedly, an occasionally wildly admiring foreword by Patti Smith, someone of whom the politically conservative Lernet-Holenia might not necessarily have approved.2 Among other additions are a letter to Lernet-Holenia from Stefan Zweig, a friend and sometimes collaborator, in which, not unreasonably, he praises Bagge as a masterpiece, with an exuberance that matches Smith’s.
Smith: “the marbled corridors of an undying dream.”
Zweig: “a realm of visionary luminescence.”
Hypnotic and dreamlike, Bagge is a war story, a love story, a lament for a lost war, lost lands, and a lost society.
Off-putting, I know, but to quote more restrained passages might give away too much about where the plot leads, and so might the thought (stop here if you don’t want to know more), which is by no means only mine, that Bagge has more than a hint about it of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Hypnotic and dreamlike, Bagge is a war story, a love story, a lament for a lost war, lost lands, and a lost society, and also a tale of the uncanny in which even Norse myth makes a glorious return. The story does come with a twist—a few words in Bagge’s early stages give most of it away—although a mysterious reference in one of the final paragraphs to a “well-dressed man of about forty” standing at the entrance to a cemetery might suggest that there is a twist within the twist.
Austria-Hungary being Austria-Hungary, Bagge begins with an unnamed individual talking about an (abandoned) duel before switching to a first-person narrative related by the Baron himself. It opens after the early months of the Carpathian campaign. He is a first lieutenant in a cavalry regiment based in eastern Hungary. His squadron is led by a Captain von Semler-Wasserneuburg, who is considered to be temperamental and unpredictable and who may have inherited the strain of instability that ran through his family. “Outwardly” he showed no signs of it, but “you could never count on him at critical moments.” Nevertheless, he leads the squadron into a charge, “an apparently insane attack” that, against all the odds, and with only a few casualties, succeeds.
But, afterwards, nothing is quite the same; the soldiers look somehow different. Even the horses “drew up in rows with unusual discipline, without the customary tugging at reins and the almost mechanical cursing of the sergeants.” Bagge’s own thoughts are jumbled and he starts to wonder whether he had survived until he gradually begins “to recall details of the fighting.” Eventually the squadron arrives in the small town of Nagy Mihaly (now Michalovce in Slovakia, not far from the Ukrainian border: the history of central Europe is what it is) where he runs into a beautiful young woman, quickly revealed to be the daughter of a family well-known to Bagge’s own, who greets him with a kiss that is more than a greeting:
Staggered, I straightened up again, and she, too, took a step back. I now saw that she was tall and exceedingly slender. So light was her stance that she seemed hardly to touch the ground. Her eyes were a radiant blue, as though the whole sky were reflected in them, and they regarded me unblinkingly—like the eyes of goddesses who, it is said never blink.
Nagy Mihaly is crammed and cheerful, possessed with a “wild and reckless gaiety that sent the people flocking into the taverns and wine-cellars. . . . Excess was the characteristic of the town, not only in a qualitative but in a quantitative sense; every family was extraordinarily large.” Fears that the Russians might be nearby are dismissed. Indeed, there are no signs of them. But Bagge is unable to shake off a feeling that something is not quite right, whether it is how he sees—the persistence of a sense of unreality—or what he sees. Nagy Mihaly might be en fête, but:
the snow-covered region beyond it lay completely deserted. . . . We saw no trace of human beings, no peasants, vehicles, or troops, not even smoke from the chimneys of the village houses. The land lay unmoving, as though forged of iron.
Still suspicious that the Russians are out there somewhere, Semler sends the squadron off on another reconnaissance mission:
The further we advanced, the lower the valley floor dropped, while at the same time the mists swathing the mountains became more translucent and we saw that the peaks, riding rockily out of gloomy forests of tremendous pines, had risen to meet the sky and scarcely admitted the daylight any longer.
And still they move forward.
Writing in The New Criterion of November 2020, I reviewed two books by Kathryn Scanlan, The Dominant Animal and Aug 9—Fog. Both were masterworks of whittled-down prose, as evocative as they were precise, but of the two, it is Aug 9—Fog that has lingered with me. It was essentially a reworking—a hopelessly inadequate word—of a diary kept between 1968 and 1972 by Cora E. Lacy, a Midwestern woman then in her late eighties, that Scanlan had found at an estate sale. Running through Aug 9—Fog is the question of where Cora ends and Scanlan begins.
The same question arises with Scanlan’s latest book, Kick the Latch, which is, she writes, “based on interviews” with a woman here called Sonia “recorded in person and by phone in 2018, 2020 and 2021.”3 With Sonia’s permission, Scanlan had those recordings transcribed, and she used them to write Kick the Latch, “which is a work of fiction.” The book is dedicated to Sonia, but how much of Scanlan’s Sonia is Sonia is left to the reader to guess. More, I reckon, than Scanlan’s Cora was Cora, simply because, by the time Scanlan started writing Aug 9—Fog, Cora was long dead. As I noted in my earlier review, when Scanlan discovered more details about Cora beyond those in the pages of her diary, she came to realize that “I was not, in fact, her—was not now, had never been. It had been me all along.”
But Scanlan’s relationship with Sonia was with Sonia, not a diary. The two engaged in a series of conversations, which were not, I imagine—well, not entirely—monologues by Sonia. And Scanlan would have been aware that the real Sonia would one day be reading the words of Scanlan’s Sonia, which must, at some level, have been a little daunting.
A clue to Scanlan’s approach to her transcripts of what Sonia said may come from an article she wrote for Granta in 2018:
Recently, when several babies were present, it was pointed out to me by my mother that one of them behaved much like I had at that age. This baby was silent, still, watchful. She seemed to record what went on without attempting to insert herself. This, at a family gathering where I sat quiet, listening, making notes on my phone.
It’s in this recorded footage I rummage when I work.
During composition, the footage breaks into parts to be manipulated, exaggerated, extrapolated.
But if she exaggerates, it is more through subtraction than addition, refining and editing, again and again, leaving behind only an invisibly elaborate minimalism.
Later Scanlan adds how she aims “to write a sentence as unbudging and fully itself as some object sitting on a shelf in my office.” In the work of the writers she admires most, “the clammy conventions of casual speech are resisted, subverted at every turn.”
And so, to her Sonia:
We lived in a poor part of town but we had the greatest entertainment. We had the goldfish ponds, we had Motorcycle Hill, we had the dump and Bicycle Jenny. We made rafts for the creek. We lived off the land.
Bicycle Jenny? A local eccentric who lived in the “scorched concrete hole in the ground” that was all that was left of her house once it burned down. She was a gardener of genius, a keeper of countless Chihuahuas. She spoke in a “high, cracked” voice, “eerie like a witch’s.” In the end, “they hauled her off to a home at Comstock, Iowa . . .”
It might have helped that Sonia was born in Iowa in 1962. Scanlan herself was raised in the same state (and Cora, for that matter, lived not far away, in Illinois), Midwesterners all, sprung from a part of the country where people are not known for wasting their words.
Compelling, spare, and not infrequently moving, Kick the Latch is the story of a hard life overcome. The narrative is episodic, a series of chapters, few more than a page long, a format that reinforces the depiction of a life in which even the routine was chaotic. Its narrator, matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and shrewd (if not always in her choice of lovers), recalls past troubles—another hopelessly inadequate word—without any hint of self-congratulation at the toughness she displayed in making it through:
Near the end of summer, I woke up in my trailer one night with a man over me. He sneaked in while I was sleeping and put a gun to my head. I got raped. He was taking pills. He was a jockey trying to cut weight. He told me he’d just shot a dog. . . . I cut my hair real short after that.
Hers is a small epic of survival—a bad accident, smaller injuries, an abusive boyfriend, a possibly murderous boyfriend—in which her fundamental decency endured. And, as is fitting in a book that is far from a being a saga of relentless gloom, the kindness of others plays its part too.
If Sonia has lived most of her life (later come more regular jobs) at the margin, it is in one of its more colorful corners. Sonia has always loved horses. She gets a job with some horse trainers and later works full-time on the racetrack circuit, mainly as a trainer, traveling from meet to meet with her “racetrack family,” far (mostly) from the glamour of Churchill Downs: “There was grooms, jockeys, trainers, racing secretaries, stewards, pony people, hot walkers, everybody.” Theirs is a nomadic, self-contained existence, with its secrets, its skills, its tricks, its folkways, its brutality, its camaraderie: “we stuck together.”
This world, with which Scanlan has some family connections, is an enduring piece of that old, weird America in all its oddness, ugliness, and, occasionally, beauty, which must have appealed to an author with such a sharp eye for the strange. But its fraying durability contributes to the quietly elegiac tone of Kick the Latch, which stealthily and subtly gathers force as the book progresses. Sonia, like Cora, will remain with me for a long time:
By the time you’re my age you’ve had a lot of injuries. And where there’s injuries, you get arthritis. I got buggered up a few times but thought I escaped pretty good. Now I wake up on a rainy day and think, I remember this. I remember it right here.
Trust is the second novel by Hernan Diaz, a writer and academic, whose first novel was In the Distance, a reimagined Western, which was either so good, or such a skillful submission to conventional pieties, or both, that it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017.4 I have not read it, and comments Diaz made to The New York Times in 2018 are not a huge inducement to do so:
Westerns, he said, glamorize “the worst aspects of the imperial drive of the United States”—brutality against nature, genocidal racism, “the whole macho thing, the place of women, the frivolous violence, it goes on.”
Yes, yes, Trust’s archetypical money man is an fdr skeptic, untrustworthy, and even criminal, but whatever.
And yet, Trust, a novel in which traces of a not entirely unrelated didacticism lurk, is so thoroughly enjoyable that I will give In the Distance a try. Good writing and unsound politics are far from incompatible. Yes, yes, Trust’s archetypical money man is an fdr skeptic, untrustworthy, and even criminal, but whatever. And I was left unconvinced that Diaz understands the role of speculative capital, a weakness at any time but especially in a novel set in an era when speculative socialism was killing millions. As for the book’s great reveal, well, what it discloses is appalling, but the 1920s were not the 2020s.
Put those concerns aside and Trust is a pleasurable puzzle made of four overlapping, contradictory parts. The first, and in many ways the most entertaining, is “Bonds,” a novel within a novel, a story purportedly written by one Harold Vanner of the rise and not exactly fall of Benjamin Rask, an immensely successful American financier blamed for triggering the Wall Street crash in October 1929:
[A]midst the rubble, Rask was the only man standing. And he stood taller than ever, since most of the other speculators’ losses had been his gain.
And his position at the top of that new summit, together with the fact that he was an “eccentric semi-recluse,” made Rask the ideal scapegoat. Vanner adds, however, that “Rask had turned an incalculable profit” from this debacle, which meant that in “financial circles all over the globe, even among the legions of enemies he had made” he was “lifted . . . to divine heights.” Vanner, or more accurately Diaz, clearly understands that aspect of the psychology of many who play the financial markets.
Vanner’s book is often drily, slyly amusing (one character is horrified that her father, increasingly preoccupied with the mystical, “was becoming a hoarder of nonsense”) and neatly observant of the codes of those in, if only sometimes barely, the upper ranks of Gilded Age New York. Its tone darkens when tragedy intervenes, though at the end of it, Rask is still getting richer. But his magic touch, it’s widely felt, has gone.
And then Trust changes gear, moving into a second narrative, this time in the form of a half-completed draft of an autobiography written by a financier, Andrew Bevel. Bevel looks a lot like the model for Vanner’s Benjamin Rask, something confirmed in a third story, this one recounted by Ida Partenza, who describes in a memoir written decades later how she was recruited by Bevel, ostensibly just as a typist and stenographer. But the real reason she won the job despite formidable competition—this was during the Depression—was the gift for fiction she displayed in her application letter, something that Bevel, not the trusting sort, uncovered. Her task was to work with Bevel not only as typist and stenographer, but also as the ghostwriter of the autobiography he was planning. The book was intended to obliterate Vanner’s novel, a somewhat superfluous step in that Bevel had, one way or another, already effectively suppressed it. Much of Bevel’s focus was, with Partenza’s help, on filling out a portrait of his wife, Mildred, as a philanthropist to be sure, but also as a homemaker, an unthreateningly “accessible” figure, very much secondary to the great man. At one point, Bevel told Partenza how much Mildred had loved to talk him through the mystery novels she had read, a detail that he could only have gotten from reading what Partenza had written, as Partenza had made it up.
Bevel died before his autobiography could be finished.
Then we get the final account, this one contained in Mildred Bevel’s journal, which once again overturns much of what has gone before, whether in Vanner’s novel or in the story that Bevel was telling Partenza, who had herself begun to suspect where the gap in what she was being told was to be found, if not what the gap actually contained. To say more about what is in the journal would be to give too much away.
Clearly Trust—even the title can be read two ways—has more than a touch of Rashomon about it. It was also no surprise to read an online exchange published on Literary Hub in which Diaz mentions the influence that Jorge Luis Borges has had upon him. In a book he has written about Borges he refers to that author’s “nesting worlds . . . mises en abyme where each new layer questions the authenticity of the preceding one.” This is, of course, the case in Trust. In a way, Mildred’s journal settles too much, but there is a suggestion within it, as in Baron Bagge, that we still do not have the whole story. And that’s as it should be.
- Grey Bees, by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk; Deep Vellum Publishing, 360 pages, $15.95.
- Baron Bagge, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Richard and Clara Winston; New Directions, 80 pages, $13.95.
- Kick the Latch, by Kathryn Scanlan; New Directions, 144 pages, $17.95.
- Trust, by Hernan Diaz; Riverhead Books, 416 pages. $28.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 3, on page 55
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com