New books — From the December 2009 issue
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An entire generation has grown up since the end of the Cold War, an event that, despite the persistence of Communist governments in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, has nonetheless come to seem the manifest destiny of a system so cruel and absurd that one is amazed it lasted so long. The complexity of an episode often reduced to iconic snapshots of revelers atop the Berlin Wall is too easily forgotten, but in REVOLUTION 1989: THE FALL OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE (Pantheon, $30), Victor Sebestyen, who fled Hungary as an infant after the 1956 Soviet invasion, restores the complete picture of the epochal Wende, focusing less on Washington and Moscow and more on the six Warsaw Pact members—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany—recalling the perverse particularities that each country developed under Communism.
So many of these details were never widely known: who outside the region remembers, for example, the Bulgarian tyrant Todor Zhivkov’s desperate last-minute attempt to deport Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks, almost 10 percent of the population, although the incident eerily prefigured the death of Yugoslavia? Or that Elena Ceaus¸escu, though she had been thrown out of school at age fourteen, fancied herself a prominent chemist and even managed to get a leading British scientist to applaud her contribution “to macromolecular experimental chemistry, especially in the field of the stereospecific polymerisation of isoprene on the stabilisation of synthetic rubbers and on copolymerisation”?
The well-known struggles of Walesa, Gorbachev, and Havel are all here, but perhaps more interesting is Sebestyen’s exposure of the little stress cracks that became fissures as soon as pressure was applied: the incredible creative accounting that allowed the terminally bankrupt East German regime not only to keep its leader in bespoke suits but even to present itself as one of the world’s most dynamic economies, or the ethnic tensions always simmering beneath the rhetoric about socialist brotherhood, and the leading role minorities such as the Bulgarian Turks or the Magyar Romanians took in toppling those countries’ governments.
One result of this revolution was the publication in Russia, in 1988, of Life and Fate, a novel by the Russian-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, who died in 1964 without knowing whether his greatest works, which demonstrate a range and moral urgency that have been justly compared with Tolstoy’s, would ever be published. In EVERYTHING FLOWS (New York Review Books, $15.95), Grossman begins with the story of Ivan Grigoryevich, a once-promising young man deported to the gulag, who is liberated after the death of Stalin and returns to Moscow and Leningrad in late middle age, completely estranged by his experience from his former relatives and friends, with their more pedestrian traumas. It is clear that this man stands no chance of ever resuming anything like a normal life.
His life is, like this book, a fragment, but the form does not make the novel any less powerful—to the contrary, its incompletion and fragmentation are perhaps ideal reflections of an experience so lightless and fundamentally incomprehensible that prose will always be unequal to it. Grossman is not an ideologue; his novel endeavors to capture the thoughts and motivations of everyone entangled in the impossible Communist system: “But do you know the vilest thing of all about stool pigeons and informers? Do you think it is the bad in them? No! The most terrible thing is the good in them; the saddest thing is that they are full of merits and good qualities.”
If Grossman understands the motives that kept this system going, he must also have understood that this novel could never have been published in the old Soviet Union: he died twenty-four years before Gorbachev assumed power, yet writes as if he were free, even going so far, in describing the death of the Red Tsar, as to anticipate the end of his empire: “The State’s body, the State’s flesh, was in fact mortal and earthly. It too, like Stalin, suffered heart tremors; it too had albumen in its urine.” Nor does he hesitate to attack the immortal body preserved in Red Square. “There was nothing that Lenin shrank from, no tactics too vicious for him to employ,” Grossman writes—again, not for ideological reasons, but to explain the sources of Lenin’s personality, the degradation of his people. “It is time for the students and diviners of Russia to understand that the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery.”
The subjects—a man condemned to the gulag, a Ukrainian village condemned to famine, a woman separated from her child and husband and sent to die in Siberia—could not be more grim, but the book is a delight to read. Grossman is dryly funny (“Again and again he saw the same signs: ‘MEAT’ and ‘HAIRDRESSER.’ In the twilight the vertical ‘MEAT’ signs shone red; the horizontal ‘HAIRDRESSER’ signs were a piercing green. These signs, which had appeared together with the first residents, seemed to reveal man’s carnivorous essence”) and skilled at creating scenes of gently tragic power, as when Ivan Grigoryevich, his cousin, and his cousin’s wife reunite and the awkward realization of all that they have lost dawns on them: “If you ever have the feeling that you’ve lost whole decades and that your life has been wasted,” the cousin, a successful scientist swelled with his own importance, stammers, “if ever you feel like this when you meet people who have spent their lives writing books and suchlike rather than felling trees and digging the earth—don’t even give this feeling the time of day!”
Grossman’s determination, in a country of slaves, not to surrender his individuality is echoed in Edmund White’s CITY BOY: MY LIFE IN NEW YORK DURING THE 1960S AND 70S (Bloomsbury, $26), a book so witty, so insightful, so bristling with gossip, that one almost fails to notice that it is an essential chronicle of a revolution in many ways no less important than the fall of Communism: the gay liberation movement, in which White was both an actor and a privileged spectator, from the time he arrived in New York after college, when “there was no ‘gay pride’ . . . there was only gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred.”
White’s account of New York’s artistic milieu at a time when the city was an abandoned and dangerous grab bag of vagabonds and aristocrats (“As Stan used to say, ‘Half the people in New York if they were anywhere else would be either interviewed or arrested’”) sparkles with the anecdotes that make his novels so vivid and with the incredible range of famous people he has known. But his early doubts and obscurity, along with his years-long struggle to write and be published, remain too present in these pages ever to allow him to come across as a snob.
In one of his many discourses on friends famous—Jasper Johns, Peggy Guggenheim, James Merrill—and otherwise, White describes a now-forgotten novelist’s book as lacking “that key, embarrassing literary quality no one knows how to discuss: charm.” City Boy is full of it, even when discussing weighty topics, a quality his book shares with Eva Hoffman’s TIME (Picador, $14). This book is something of a departure for Hoffman, who is best known for her writing on the Polish-Jewish community in which she was raised, though it begins with the shock of how time accelerated once she emigrated westward. In Krakow, “there were no great careers to be made, no glamorous possibilities of upward mobility or the seductive temptations of acquiring great wealth. There was really nothing much to hurry towards.” Time was not money in Poland; in Canada and the United States, it was.
Hoffman examines this philosophically fraught subject in unpretentious, clear chapters: asking how time affects our bodies, our minds, our cultures, and, finally, how time has accelerated and changed with the advent of the computer and the concept of “immediacy”—or, as she puts it, “what pace and density of stimulus we need in order to feel that something ‘interesting’ is happening.” As a writer who is also an accomplished pianist, Hoffman is well qualified to analyze just what happens when time is unduly quickened (ADD-ridden children addicted to video games) or slowed down (the cultivated boredom of an Oblomov), and she ends her book with a description of contemporary composers whose “techniques of reiterating, with minute variations, short musical units, can be seen as both a way of slowing down time and of registering certain processes which may take place both in computers and in our bodies—the repetition, replication and recombination of microscopic, modular units of matter and motion.” Better than clocks or calendars, music can order a nameless flux that neither religion, with its feasts and holy days, nor technology, with its promise to abolish temporality, can ever fully reckon.
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