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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn: Laughing at Authority

The U.S.S.R. no longer exists. The world (or at least the democratic capitalist governments) thought that the influence of Mother Russia as a Superpower had ended permanently with Mikhail Gorbachev exiting in shame, and Boris Yeltsin dancing on top of a Russian tank to the delight of the Muscovite masses. The idealist/propagandists world looked at this as a miracle--the more realistic groups knew enough to know that Perestroika and Glasnost had done their work, little by little, in breaking the mold of Soviet rule. But before the so-called "Cold War" was over, there were men and women risking their lives, daring (without an open dare) against a system they thought unfair. Most of these valiant individuals were artists.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was both a visionary and a traitor after the publication of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," and "The Gulag Archipelago." That was, of course, after Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to hard labor for anti-Stalinist comments around the same time he was being decorated for his service in World War II. From where, hence, comes the contradiction? His prose seemed to praise the system within a veil of criticism. Not even the Union of Writers (a puppet of the party) was able to keep up with the hidden meanings of his work. The Union knew, of course, that Solzhenitsyn was playing with fire, but could do little to control the output of this driven artist. Not even the KGB could stop the writing power of this man, and, some time after that, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Solzhenitsyn came under attack, all the while writing, hiding, writing some more. The KGB managed to confiscate some of his works (he had to recreate "The First Circle" entirely from memory). All the way up to 1974, Solzhenitsyn continued to write, hiding and existing in a world of shadows, but writing nonetheless. Shortly thereafter he was forced into exile and spent the better part of his advanced age in Vermont. (Incidentally, Mstilav Rostropovich was shortly after sent into exile for having sheltered and supported Solzhenitsyn). In 2005, Solzhenitsyn returned to a post-Soviet Russia for the first time, but he found out (the hard way) that the young nation was not going to be delivered by an author--the people needed jobs and the hope for a better future. Solzhenitsyn (might have) died of a broken heart.

Dmitri Shostakovitch was considered a sell-out by his contemporaries when, in 1960, he joined the Communist party. What his contemporaries failed to realize (as in Solzhenitsyn) was the hidden messages in his musical compositions. For example, the second movement of the Symphony No. 5 presents a theme that can only be compared to the music of a puppet show. The first movement sets the tone to a glorification of the U.S.S.R., the vast, sweeping and militant themes can be seen as a set up of sorts. Here, Breshnev and all the rest in the Politburo nodded and approved of his seemingly Soviet-exalting pieces, and all the while Shostakovitch laughing under his breath. There are many other examples of Shostakovitch's work that fall under the category of subversive; so much so that it is nearly impossible to present in any categorized manner. As a result, I selected the piece I thought best represented his rebellion.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

Notebooks That Matter...

Well, in my never-ending search for the perfect notebook for my Visconti pen, I've come to realize that my solution was right under my nose. While I have been using the practical Moleskine Sketchbook (the paper is so thick there's only 100 pages worth), I have considered the Quo Vadis Havana as the ultimate solution. The problem is that I can't fork over the twenty-something dollars without feeling the guilt. It's very tempting, with that and the fact that the Havanas have the coveted Clairefontaine, 90g extra white, acid-free paper, but I simply cannot do it and keep a clean conscious. So, as I reexamined the (dis)organization of my book shelves and office, I came across a stack of about 20 notebooks I purchased in Japan over a decade ago. The maker is Apica Notebooks, as if by magic there it was: 90g acid-free paper! Super effective with fountain pens, no matter the color. In fact, I wrote in several of these when I lived in Japan back in 1994. The pen at the time was my loyal and ever-trusty Parker Vector, medium nib (20 years ago a $6.95 value at your convenient college bookstore). Even with a medium nib the paper held nicely without any bleeding. Even today, when I review the completed notebooks from 1994, I am amazed I had completely forgotten I had these valuable notebooks just sitting around waiting to be REdiscovered. The Havanas will have to wait for a good while now. Here's a photo of the Apica Classic. The cover reads: "Note Book Most Advanced Quality Gives Best Writing Features" (those of you familiar with the Japanese usage of the Queen's English will no doubt understand the "Engrish" phenomenon).

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The (Agonizing) Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt, part 001

I keep telling myself, "there's nothing wrong with this novel, there's nothing wrong with this novel." The reason, if I have any at all, is the fact that I loved "What I Loved," and "A Plea for Eros" so much it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to realize I am reading the same author. "The Sorrows of an American" is a confusing labyrinth of characters and voices, temporal abstractions (not the ones italicized), and shifts within the plot (more than just a plot within the plot). All of this combined makes this novel a valiant effort, but an effort nonetheless.

If Ms. Hustvedt tried to exercise her knowledge of the surreal in writing, she has succeeded without parallel. The problem stems from the fact that the average reader (myself) does not read exclusively for surrealism, with or without specific order. Now, Ms. Hustvedt is married to Mr. Paul Auster, and despite risking making an unfair connection or allusion, I have to say that I somehow can digest his surrealism but not Ms. Hustvedt. Having said that, I tried and tried and tried to get into the story, to think through the events and study carefully the abstractions. One thing that also made it difficult for me was my inability to recognize a "flashback" versus what Ms. Hustvedt seems to be attempting. Firstly, there's the question of the narrator/protagonist. It takes a great effort to discern that the person "talking to us" is a man. I suspect that the first sentence has something to do with the general sense of the novel: "My sister called it 'the year of secrets'" and from there the first fifteen pages are filled with family details, secrets, the recent loss of a patriarch, letters from his/her father to a lover no one knew about, and an excellent display of Norwegian phrases and how the do not translate well literally into English. I understand that a novel whose premise is a "year of secrets" would eventually resemble this narrative form, but it's nearly impossible to 1) hold the emotional tension a secret helps develop (sort of the holding of the breath), and 2) follow all the shifts in direction, voice, etc.

I will nevertheless recommend Ms. Husdvedt's work, "The Sorrows of an American" included. Reading this novel made me realize my deficiencies in understanding the variants and complexities of fiction writing. Heck, I can't even write intelligently about it.

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