Woman in Chains: Before and During by Vladimir Sharov

Before and During
Vladimir Sharov (Translated by Oliver Ready)
Dedalus Books: 348pp.: £12.99 rrp.

As a child you’re a liar, as an adult, you’re a novelist went a recent New York Times article. Ironically, there is some truth in this, like there is truth in our stories. Stories conceal, but truth prevails in some way. Concealment though occurs even when think we are telling the truth, sometimes conscious, sometimes not; think of the unreliable narrator who is doing more than telling a story, he is keeping the true story to himself, yet in doing so, he is telling a truth about himself. But the stories we tell persist, not just what we tell ourselves but in our cultures, and only when we get to a certain age do we see the darker malice of a wolf dressing up as a girl’s grandmother, or do we realise that hanging flags from our windows is not such a benign act of patriotism.

Thanks to the debates involved within postmodernity, stories about stories are often treated as such – postmodern constructions – and any truth evoked is only another form of fiction. Vladimir Sharov said that “Russian history is, In fact, a commentary on the bible”. Comments like these are not taken too well in authoritarian societies but he is invoking there two of the most formidable ‘carriers’ of a story in culture – religion and history, and it seems he is willing to go beyond these postmodern debates. History and religion can operate in parallel; a succession of great men ‘creating’ their political gardens of Edens, all promising that their way of life is the best way? Both are imposing and perhaps Sharov is saying that it might not necessarily be a choice as to which we choose…

Before and During’s protagnoist Alyosha (one of the many nods to other Russian literature) is entering a psychiatric hospital, willingly it seems. He suffers from ‘blackouts’, and as he settles in, he decides that he is going to create his ‘Memorial Book’ and record the lives of the people he has known, in and out of the institution. He writes and recreates their stories. Some of these people have disconcerting resemblances to ‘real-life’ people like Tolstoy and Stalin, and sometimes they are the real people themselves like the composer Alexander Scriabin. One of these real-not-real persons is Madame de Stael who becomes a central aspect of Alyosha’s Memory Book. The question of why she does so is an important one. Ifraimov, another patient, is recounting the story of de Stael, so it is already embellished, but Alyosha’s blackouts are not just device for him to be an unquestioning believer of what he is told, but also the reader as well.

Madame de Stael begins love affairs with the philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov and Alexander Scriabin; she gives birth to Stalin, but in real life, de Stael was famous for her stance against Napoleon. She was taken by the ideas of Rousseau. Perhaps it is also ironic that de Stael’s maiden name is Necker, shared by the inventor of the famous visual illusion, because that is what the novel in effect becomes; like a hall of mirrors, except the mirror reflects other distorted reflections onto a different mirror, so that the original, true source is not known.

As a result, Before and During is complex, layered and replete with references. There does seem to be an unacknowledged reference to another notable Russian thinker though, Alexander Herzen, who said, “the death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow.” This idea of a ‘pregnant widow’ is the abiding image of the book. Herzen’s thought was apparently influential in the emancipation of the Serfs, and developing socialist thought in Russia. It is down to the reader how much they interpret this as political, but metaphorically, it is a pertinent representation of the story of de Stael.

The title of the book seems to allude to this idea; this is a book about beginnings, not endings, it is pregnant with potentials. It’s an anxious search for a resolution – isn’t the end of pregnancy the actual beginning of something? Beginnings and endings are not such a simple linearity so now one can see Sharov’s earlier comments take an ulterior tone. There is certainly a large Oedipal presence throughout the text of which de Stael is representative of, but it’s also the idea of motherhood and birth that is important. At the start we get a sense that Alyosha is indebted to his mother (“Waiting for my next fit to strike had worn her down, as had the fact that she could never let me go off anywhere on my own”), and a sense of him wanting to break, but unable to, her bond.

Think how this feeds into the story of religion though. Biblical imagery isn’t just prevalent, it’s profuse. The way Ifraimov begins his story of de Stael, appears entwined with the beginning of Christendom.

“When man was driven out of paradise,” he said, “the tree of knowledge was banned as well as with plenty of other trees….Essentially every tree repeats, as it were, the fate of the human race. It, too, is conceived in Heaven, where its seeds ripen and gather strength and sap, before plummeting to the Earth like Adam. But their womb is in the sky, and it is to the sky they long to return…And yet dying and enfeebled, the tree, in the last summer of its allotted span, brings forth in the sky a fruit as pure and chaste as a child born of the most sinful woman.”

Ifraimov’s tree of knowledge embodies both male and female aspects. To call it ‘Mother Nature’ would be treading a cliché, but notably its “womb is in the sky, and it is the sky they long to return”. This is an idea we see often throughout Before and During, which often never reaches its fulfilment (this is only Before and During no?), because it always broken or prohibited before it can be done so. Above is one of the many descriptions of splitting; there is the split between the distinction of man and woman, from the notion of heaven and earth, and from the child and mother, and when the child is split from the mother, in biblical terms at least, purity is split from the sin, or the person with history. A page later Ifraimov says“the world of God is the world of questions. Only questions are commensurable with the complexity of His world,”- but – “answers have no place in God’s world”. If the world is overwhelmed with these two dogmas of politics and religion, ones that believe they have all the answers, what’s the point in living if all our answers are catered for?

What is eternal though, what are we leaving behind with all these stories? Is truth a fiction that merely has a truthful end? Anxiety may prevail, unanswered questions, but when we’ve created, we have creations. Stories promote unity and cohesion, but our great stories embedded in religion and history are rife with ‘splits’. Genesis presents itself as a story of unity but look how often somebody is split apart, deferred or banished from that passage above. The mother is split from the child, and in the case of religion, sin seems unavoidable, but the baby is born pure (think back to the description of Pearl in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). What then is the desire and drive to tell a story, if it is not to unite? There is a lot of love in Before and During and this is why I think Madame de Stael becomes so important – she challenged Napoleon’s form of revolution, and his authoritarianism. She takes it upon herself to split then; symbolically, here, she fashions herself a glass coffin in which she sleeps. When she meets her lover Fyodorov they cannot make love so de Stael, after Fyodorov had fallen asleep:

“she unable to take any more of it, would lift herself up off the couch and, with her pubis, touch the glass he had warmed with his stomach and his groin, where he had made the glass not just warm, but hot, and moving her body this way and that she drove herself into a frenzy.”

The frenzy above appears to be satisfying in some way rather than frustrating or perhaps it’s just a frenzy about the frenzy? It is difficult to understand in which way this is a ‘satisfying’ experience. But further on:

“Besides, she valued Fyodorov just as he was, she liked lying beneath the crystal glass, liked being the Sleeping Princess, and she didn’t want to lose any of this. In other words, she’d have been happy to make him her lover but only on condition that nothing else in their relationship changed: the way he looked at her, the way he sat with her, the way she lay beneath him, close but inaccessible, unattainable. She liked the innocence of their relationship no less than before, and how this could be combined with him becoming her lover was beyond her comprehension.”

She is the Sleeping Princess, a ‘real person’ rendered mythical. But is that relationship she’s preserving more than sexual? Sanctified almost? The relationship that of a mother to her son? Asmuch as love is about unification it is about separation and being apart. Different types of love complicate relationships (above, sex and lust getting in the way of unconditional love). Love needs revolutions sometimes. Revolutions and politics, sometimes one must break with the old orders, much as we do in our relationships. Perhaps I’m saying too much, but the tension between creation and reproduction, and the sense of re-creating develops, intermingling with these ideas of sex and politics.

Oddly, it reminded me of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (2015), which I reviewed last year, in the sense of grappling with the source of the story and questioning whether there really is one, true source, and who ‘benefits’ from the story. As Luiselli suggests, it could be an ideological idea that there is one true great creator behind each work and both of the works share a scepticism, and it’s easy in postmodernity to forget that just because you mention the telling of a story, it doesn’t mean your work is any more self-conscious than something by Balzac or Zola. Think to the openings of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, or Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or how deeply suffused Dicken’s work was with his voice – they made their readers well aware that they were reading a story of their own work. Take lessons from religion and history though, we should never take it at face value or accept the surface narrative, because one thing they don’t do, and as Sharov teaches us, they forget and undermine women and femininity: man may be born free but everywhere in chains, as is the woman. That is the unfortunate truth about religion and history.

The Power to be Moved: Part 2

At the time Chekhov was writing, Russia was enduring and beginning a tumultuous period of history by any country’s standards. The October revolution would begin just under twenty years later, but before this came the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, leaving Russia with large scales of emancipated peasant communities that was still enduring in Chekhov’s time. With this in mind, let’s look at Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.

Nikolai Chikildeyev, becoming ill whilst in Moscow, decides that he should return ‘home’ to Zhukovo, the village that he grew up in. Although when he arrives:
“in his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened.”

In the last post, we talked about this issue of blindness and occlusion that can sometimes be overtly obvious (ie.a mirage like in ‘The Black Monk’) or more subtle but personally powerful, like childhood memories. This is another occasion of expectations not being met, or of a person’s representation of something not corresponding to reality, or to a reality that occurred a long time ago (‘The Kiss’ operates the other way round – the representation becomes everything).The peasant hut is dirty, and Nikolai, back from the city cannot understand how they live in such a feudal fashion. Yet, there is something about the village, something transcendent, beyond the fact that it is a very religious village, and the passage deserves quoting and delving into extensively:

“Behind the peasants’ properties began the descent to the river, steep and precipitous, so that there were huge rocks here and there in the clay. There were paths winding down the slope close to these rocks and pits dug out by the potters, and there were whole heaps of fragments of broken crockery piled up – now brown, now red – while spread out there at the bottom was a broad, even bright-green meadow, already mown, on which the peasants’ herd was now out walking. The river meandering with wonderful curly banks, was a verst from the village, and beyond it there was, again, a broad meadow, a heard, long lines of white geese – then, just as on this side, a steep uphill climb, and at the top, on the hill, a village with a five-domed church, and a little further off, a landowner’s house.”

If that does not get you awing at Chekhov then I don’t know what will. It starts with an occlusion, a blindness, as we are ‘behind’ the peasant’s property and as a result there is a suggestion that we should see behind and beyond. One must willfully do this though as the passage subtly urges, and the overall feeling is that this will be a trying effort. And then what we’re shown is more images of fragmentation and breakage, with the broken crockery, now brown, now red as if we’re following this scene. Yet at the bottom of the image presented to us, there is a bright-green meadow. The contrast between the colours is remarkable, from suggested manufacture to natural wonder. People are working here though. This isn’t a meadow that is naturally green, somebody has had to labour to make it green, and we realise that is ‘already mown’ – the freshly cut blades are glistening and the peasant’s herd are starting to make their way across it. Then as we go further out, the scene starts to come together, the perspective allows us a cohesive picture. We can see the hill and the climb and the village on top, which notably finishes with that structure that for so long facilitated communal togetherness – the village church.

This is Chekhov in Tolstoyan mood. But where Tolstoy would suggest that this sense of naturalness is the dream, Chekhov is asking, is this unobtainable like a dream? It is a matter of perspective. Were we not in the village and were stood on that hill looking down, would we see a similar, rural pleasantness where the peasants are, like Nikolai had? And let’s not forget Nikolai started off with a desire to return here, based on his own childhood perspective, and now we’re already seeing the promise of something else. No matter how obvious the vision maybe for Chekhov, it always represents something that cannot be obtained, even when it may appear obviously real to the character. We’re in the moment though and Chekhov will leave it to the reader to answer the questions that Chekhov not only asks, but the questions the reader asks of Chekhov.

The light and the church become important motifs for the story, especially as this theme of fragmentation continues.Further on in the story “when the bluish morning light was already breaking through every crack” of the peasant’s house, and when the sister-in-law’s of the two separate families go on a walk together in the morning there “stretched a strip of light, the church was radiant and the rooks were calling furiously in the landowner’s garden.” There is the light again and there is the church. What do we make of this light? Here we have two families of different class yet are related. So we’re lucky to have all this splendour surrounding us, but are these gifts of God or of nature? This is made no more obvious when Olga recites Scripture, “pronouncing words,even ones she did not understand, her face would become compassionate, emotional and light”. She is enlightened but there are parts that she does not understand, so what are the enlightening forces?

The whole passage becomes a frantic search for that cohesiveness, or more poignantly, meaning, and so anxiety becomes the compelling mechanism. Quoting at length again:

“Laid across the river were some unsteady log planks, and right underneath them, in the clear, transparent water, swam shoals of broad-headed chub. On the green bushes that looked at themselves in the water the dew was sparkling. There came a breath of warm air and a feeling of pleasure. What a splendid morning! And what a splendid life there would doubtless be in this world, were it not for the need – the terrible, incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere! You had only to look back at the village now for everything from yesterday to come vividly to mind, and the enchantment of happiness that seemed to be all around to disappear in an instant.”

Constant movement external and internal, but this time it has gone from the picture of serenity on the outside, to the sense of breakage on the inside. The outside again is seemingly a world of togetherness (“the shoals of chub”) and positive reflection (“how the green bushes look at themselves in the sparkling water”). The splendid morning is an objective, declarative statement – no matter one’s standing, all the criteria are met for it to be a splendid morning, but this is irrelevant, in fact, makes the subjective position worse because of that need.

What is the need? We do not know where it comes from, but one can only say that this need is something that is ‘beyond us’, yet of this world. It is transcendent but humane. Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) that for the Christian “sin lies in the will, not in the knowing; and this corruption of the will affects the individual’s consciousness”. Chekhov’s characters are Christian characters, but the notion of being a Christian in a Christian world, or being a person living in a Christian world without a God, was now a conundrum. Schopenhauer, thirty years before Kierkegaard had published his work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), which brought a new light on this inexpressible thing that drives us but is not necessarily divine. Nietzsche would publish then Beyond Good and Evil (1886) where he moved these explanations of impulses beyond binaries of good and bad. Following this, Freud would publish his work The Intepretation of Dreams (1899) at the turn of the century. Look at the years of those publications. Chekhov’s first notable story, ‘The Huntsman’ arrived in 1885; the formalising of Chekhov’s brilliance happens in an implausibly short space of time, and arguably as rapidly as thought was changing in a period of global modernisation.

Looking at Chekhov in this context we get some answers posed by his work: here we see perhaps, why Chekhov perhaps didn’t write anything longer – it is about that moment that this will takes over, at the moment the will begins to asks questions of the world and the self. You could argue that nothing is explained in his elusiveness, but you could also say that everything is explained by it, the answers are not there to be answered. We get a brief glimpse of the human spirit, and Chekhov, although writing in extremely political times, does not suggest that this is anything to do with the rise of capitalism by the industrialisation of peasantry or anything like that; it is instead historical, something passed down the generations, explained in different terms by different generations, yet permanent and all too human. In this light he is ahead of the philosophers who were working around him.

If there is an answer we’ll examine it by sticking with that notion introduced above by Kierkegaard – the sin lies in the desire, not the knowledge of it. Although philosophers like Nietzsche were aiming to philosophise without concepts such as good and bad, there is still sin in Chekhov’s world, as there still is now. Whether or not we ascribe the term guilt to that ravishing anxiety we can sometimes feel at the expense of the will, it does suggest that guilt is unavoidable. It is interesting that Paul Virno in his recent publication – Deja Vu and the End of History (2015) – described in the blurb as a ‘radical new theory of historical temporality’ uses St. Augustine’s Confessions for some support. He cites a passage from the Confessions to make his point:

“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”

Confessions was a work obviously propelled by guilt, and whatever your understanding of guilt is, it arises out of the feeling of not knowing where something is located, or where something arises out of history to make itself known to be felt more urgently felt in the now, whether that be a feeling or a memory.

A lot of Chekhov’s characters we have determined, are always moving; forward, back, their physical manner usually antagonising their psychological desires. Chekhov often focuses on the males, but there is always a strong female presence. They both have their needs (they need each other), and they’re aware that they have them, but not all that clever on knowing how these desires manifest and operate. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which really is as good as it gets, the lady in the title, finally comes to terms with the liaison that she is embarking on with the man:

“But here still was the same diffidence, the gaucheness of inexperienced youth and an awkward feeling; and there was an impression of bewilderment, as if someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, this “lady with the little dog”, regarded what had happened in a special sort of way, very seriously, as though it were her fall – so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her features had drooped and faded, her long hair hung sadly down the sides of her face, and she had fallen into though in a doleful pose, like a sinner in an old painting.”

Perhaps it could be argued that Chekhov missed a note with his use of the adverb ‘sadly’ (translations though), but the terminus of that inner will has never looked so futilely affecting as now. You can pick out Augustine’s classifications of ‘time-presents’ from that passage, but look how the passage ends. She has gone from a feeling of movement, the resurfacing of her inexperienced youth at the start, but has been pushed too far – she feels like she has fallen. It almost feels as if Hitchcock stole that closing moment for the impetus of Vertigo, but that image is extremely powerful. We are aware of her, not just as a woman, but now as a piece of art; whilst she may feel the sin in the will, all we have left of her, in that moment, is the static rendering of her as a sinner. In this case, she has been rendered immovable.

Chekhov’s works, like his life, were short. Most of them are elegiac in tone, and the one thing that does feel tangible is a descent into delusion or death. We could argue then that it is death, or the knowledge of it that is driving the pieces, that is driving the character’s self-awareness. But death is always in combat with something else.

Carver was heavily influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story about Chekhov in his final hours, but Carver’s most famous collection and story was What we talk about, when we talk about love. Chekhov’s characters are always finding ways to deal with their fickle emotions and fragile existence, are always finding that whatever lies beyond death, there is only one way to get there, through living and trying to love. There can’t be any love the Huntsman said but all too often there is. I think even when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about it.