Friday, June 24, 2005

Here today, gone tomorrow

Tonight I'll give my reading, and tomorrow I'll start back the way I came, by train, then plane, then back in the car from JFK. It's fun to travel, and I've enjoyed my uninterrupted nights, but I'm really looking forward to going home. Or at least arriving there -- I'm not actually looking forward to the craziness of planes and trains.

The car from the airport, though -- that will be something.

kinds of time

Three sorts of time: everyday time, the time of habits and schedules; no-time, the stopped time or timelessness of airplanes and trains; and, worst of all, the jumpy time of the transition from the habits of one place to those of another. I've only been here two weeks, but it's been long enough to establish a schedule, which has gone a long way toward making me feel at home.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Nevsky, two ways

Walking down Nevsky in one direction: There are a couple of sketchy-looking people on the corner, and another coming toward me. I cross the street, thinking: If I get mugged, it's just going to happen. There will be no police report, and it will be as if there were no crime. Isn't the state's first duty to provide for the security of its citizens? Walking down Nevsky, dreaming of fascism.

Walking down Nevsky in the other direction: I've just come from a discussion of human rights abuses in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. For one hour, we listened to a reasoned argument, supported with ample evidence, that the abuse of prisoners in the "war on terror" was not the result of a few "bad apples" but that orders to violate nearly-universally recognized human rights protocols in the interrogation of prisoners came down from Rumsfeld and even from Bush. The evidence is in, and it's overwhelming. There's a reason Bush won't sign international treaties or participate in world courts - he's afraid of getting a one-way ticket to the Hague. My biggest question, now, is this: Why is it necessary to go 5000 miles to a former Soviet country in order to have this sort of conversation? In order to be presented with this evidence and these reasons? In order to develop this kind of reasoned, empirical skepticism?

Because at home, we're lulled by something -- ease, familiarity, the feeling way out there in the heartland that the war doesn't really concern you and me. And it occurs to me, walking the other way down Nevsky, that restarting the heart of the heartland is gonna take something that's been unimaginable til now. A draft might do it, but probably not.

Walking down Nevsky, dreaming of revolution.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

We shall meet again in Petersburg (Osip Mandelstam)

Chased by these lines by the poet Osip Mandestam who wrote these lines in the labor camp where he died:

We shall meet again in Petersburg,
as though there we’d buried the sun,
and for the first time, speak the word
the sacred, the meaningless one.
In black velvet of the Soviet night,
in the velvet of earth’s emptiness,
flowers still flower everlasting, bright,
women sing, beloved eyes are blessed.

The city is arched there like a lynx,
the bridge-patrol stands its ground,
an angry motor dissects the mist
crying out with a cuckoo’s sound.
I don’t need a pass for tonight,
I have no fear of the guard:
I’ll pray in the Soviet night
for the sacred meaningless word.


trans. A. S. Kline

Dostoevsky's apartment

Found it on a long walk beyond the Fontanka, on a street that also boasted a variety of sex shops. Grit on the wind from somebody blasting away at a building five storeys up without a net. All this seemed very appropriate. Museum itself small but impressive -- even contains the manual Anna Dostoevsky used to learn stenography, so she could take Fyodor's dictation. An ambivalent journey -- without him, my imagination would be much poorer but he really was not a terribly nice person, and it was hard to be in a place celebrating The Author when I think there's much more to celebrate in The Work.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Reading List #2

Info dump. Working fast on wonky keyboard, some links missing or broken.

Mark Danner, Torture and Truth
Ed. Tobias Wolff, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories
Mikhail Epstein, Cries in the New Wilderness
Mikhail Epstein, After the Future
Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit
Eva Perkarkova, Truck Stop Rainbows
Ludvik Vaculik, A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator
Arnost Lustig, Lovely Green Eyes
Alan Levy, So Many Heroes (Prague Spring)
Sam Lipsyte, Home Land
Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time
Bahktin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics
Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don
Olga Sedakova, Poems & Elegies
Marcia Aldrich, "Hair," in Girl Rearing
Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers
Adam Johnson, Emporium: Stories
Doctorow, Lives of the Poets
Richard Katrovas, Prague, USA
Leonid Tsypkin, Summer in Baden Baden
Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs
Everything by Glyn Maxwell

And, in the category of things I really should have read by now:
Pushkin, "The Bronze Horseman," and Eugene Onegin
Dostoevsky, "White Nights," Poor Folk, Crime & Punishment
Gogol, Dead Souls


For six years I have been troubled by a dream of a large, elaborate house falling down, usually into a mosquito-infested bog. Sometimes I am on a footbridge over the bog, watching the shingles fall off. Sometimes I am inside the house, usually lost in a twisty hallway or trying to find myself in one of the broken or badly foxed mirrors in the ballroom, where the boards are popping out of the floor.

Coming to St. Petersburg is a bit like waking in that dream. Or, SP is one place where external reality matches up with a bit of my private world, as if that world had found expression here, finally -- which makes me wonder if my vocabulary at home is not limited in some profound way. As if maybe I do not yet have a sufficient vocabulary for disorder, chaos and neglect, even though I sense these things and can make pictures of them in my dreams.

It would be very American, I think, not to have this vocabulary. I wonder how many words there are in Russian for what I'm talking about.

Thinking this way, I became curious about the etymology of "neglect," and sure enough, its root (also shared with "lecture") means "to pick out, to select." It's not quite the same thing as making something public (publishing), but publishing involves selection and drawing attention to what is selected -- which seems the very opposite of neglect.

Jane at breakfast

Jane eats a bagel in Bkyln, & I get to see it, in near-real time, here in St. P!  Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Excursions to Pushkin, Peterhof

I did the touristy thing this weekend, taking group tours out to the summer palaces in Pushkin (yes, they really did name a village after him) and Peterhof (which has another name in Russian that escapes me now).

In the Petersburg suburbs the spaces meant for public consumption (e.g., parks and paths) are kept up very well, while those meant for private use (e.g., apartment blocks) are in a terrible state of disrepair. Can't tell if this contrast is a holdover from the Soviet era or if things in the apartment blocks have gone to hell for post-communist reasons. SO MUCH is needed in Russia -- doors, locks, windows, flooring, grout, tiles, paint. Probably also brushes, hammers, nails. Basic, basic stuff. The good news, I suppose, is that it's a big emerging market. On the other hand, since I think the average monthly income in SP is about $300, Home Depot in St. Petersburg will probably have to wait. I did see an IKEA billboard, though.

So, after hour-long drives into the suburbs, we pull up outside the most extravagant examples of baroque architecture (baroqecture?) I have ever seen... Both palaces were destroyed by the Nazis & so have been only recently (and only partially) rebuilt, to the tune of millions and millions of rubles. They are great tourist attractions, of course, and do generate lots of revenue for further restoration, but it was hard to be in those palaces after seeing the decrepit apartment blocks on the way in. There's some new construction, new apartment blocks, going on, but it really seems like the old ones are gonna just stay there until they fall down...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Local accent?

I have been listening carefully to how Russian is spoken in St. P, and there's a lot of stuff in the language that doesn't come across in the grammar books. So I just had a conversation in Russian in which I added a small grunt to each of my assertions, and tiny, soft hisses to my requests. I was understood perfectly. As far as I can tell.

This one's for Dad

One of my comrades on this trip is the poet Matthew Sisson of American Architectural Iron, which opened its doors in 1896 and is still family-owned and going strong more than one hundred years later. Unless I'm mistaken about the manufacturing category this business falls under, it is also one of only 50 manufacturers of its kind in Massachusetts.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Raskolnikov's apartment

Yesterday I took a walk along the Griboedov canal, following the route that Raskolnikov took, in Crime and Punishment, when he went to kill the pawnbroker. Along the way, I crossed the corner where Gogol's nose intersected with Raskolnikov on his errand, and I saw an astonishing street-level carved wooden door, huge and ancient, that had been slowly beaten into the sinking foundation of the building by the periodic floods in St. Petersburg.

But the most remarkable part of the walk was this: In that neighborhood, despite the rampant crime and general lawlessness of St. Petersburg, two buildings stand wide open -- no locks on the gates or the front doors: the building that contain, or may contain, Raskolnikov's apartment, depending on whose scholarly interpretation of C&P you happen to believe.

Isn't this amazing? A fictional apartment in a wholly dreamed-up city, Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg, stands, in real life, wide open to pilgrims of all sorts, any day of the year.

In the stairwells, pilgrims have left lots of graffiti, much of it speaking directly to Raskolnikov: "Crime doesn't pay," "Don't do it!" and similar sentiments. Other visitors -- who probably would not be caught dead leaving a graffito anywhere in their own neighborhoods - take the opportunity to leave some testament to their arrival: "Skateboarding is not a crime." Or: "Sono stata qui," remarks "Sylvia da Brindisi." Others, more competitive souls I guess, compete with Dostoevsky's genius by adding remarks whose sheerly arbitrary and gnomic character seem like efforts at something like literature, an effort to participate in a discourse that is "literary," whatever that means: "Shine on you crazy Napoleon."

Our tour guide does not invite us to leave a spoor, but he does not discourage us either. No one does. Instead, some people take pictures; I am distracted, then annoyed, by the whine of digital cameras, the dizzy way the flash goes off. A man appears on the landing and slips behind a door, then the bolt clangs home. We have no real business here, what we've come to transact is only imaginary, and it's still a transaction, an experience of unfair exchange: one takes a picture, or a bit of space on the wall. What, though, are we giving in return? On the way home, one of our group, an American girl, bumps into a Russian passerby and says, in English, "Excuse me." I tell her, as gently as I can, that the Russian word is izvenitye, but the effort is bootless, for the horse has already left the barn, and in the end I just feel out of place in the presence of characteristically American goodwill -- clumsy monolingual bonhomie and casually misdirected good intentions.