Friday, August 28, 2015

The Long Long Read

Earlier this week I finished reading The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning, three books set in Bucharest and Athens at the start of World War II. I read the first book, The Great Fortune, several months ago, took a breather, and then powered through the next two, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. Still to come is Manning's follow-up trilogy that continues the story of a married couple repatriated to Egypt, The Levantine Trilogy.

I'll need a break after the one-volume edition, which ran 924 pages. That's a long book, the longest I've read in years. I struggled to get through it, to find the time in between the Internet flotsam and jetsam that too much clutters my vision.

I miss the days of what I call the long long read, books that grabbed me and ran on and on free of distractions. What were they?

Looking back, many had a classical or historical theme. In junior high school, probably 1971, I read The Winds of War by Herman Wouk, who first came to my attention when I read a paperback version of The Caine Mutiny, complete with illustrations from the movie. In high school, the great long long read was The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gone with the Wind figured in, also, along with seeing the movie in one of its periodic re-releases. College found my nose stuck in Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Bleak House made me a confirmed Dickens fan and I went on, post-college to read many of his books, all of them doorstoppers in size. I tried Atlas Shrugged at one point but just couldn't get going, although I still have it. Stephen King's enormous The Stand also gripped me, with some truly haunting scenes of social chaos and survival. I even watched the mini-series with Molly Ringwald.

My literary wanderings continued with two 19th century books always linked in my mind: Les Miserables and Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick especially impressed me with passages of startlingly modern sound, while Les Miserables played nightly on Broadway, providing constant encouragement to read the book and then see the play. I didn't see the play until I enjoyed a New Jersey high school production 30 years after I read the book.

For true poundage and long Russian earnestness, nothing can top my early 1990s excursion into Life and Fate by Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman, clocking in at 896 pages in the paperback. I needed two or three rounds of reading to finish this epic of World War II, but it was worth it. The hardcover was enormous and I doubt I could even get it in the backpack I use for my daily train commute.

More sprightly, if you can use that term, was the Children of the Arbat trilogy by fellow Russian writer Anatol Rybakov, consisting of the novels Children of the Arbat (685 pages), Fear (686 pages), and Dust and Ashes (473 pages). Chronicling a decade of life in Stalinist Russia from 1933 to World War II, the trilogy entranced me with is mix of historical and fictional characters.

Then there were the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, which I flew through in about a month in the early 1980s.

Which brings me back to The Balkan Trilogy, another war epic. I didn't read it for length but because the issues and setting grabbed me enough for me to devote considerable time to crunching through the volume. The sense of getting lost in a work, of shutting out the world, still happens, albeit with somewhat shorter works, like, to name some off the top of my head, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Man's War, The Lincoln Lawyer. I can still find books I like a lot and even write about, but I look for the monumental reads that demand that time and distraction stop and, in the words of Arthur Miller in The Death of a Salesman, "Attention must be paid."

In the Internet era, reading a long long book takes dedication, a willingness to get lost and forget the distractions that lurk at screen and phone. That's not easy. I know. Every time I take a swing through my favorite sites, I'm losing time I could spend on books. Short books, long books and the books I always plan to write. My daily commute, while it requires me to wake up at 5:30 a.m., actually is a treat for me because it gives me a solid hour to read whatever I want free from laptop and desktop, and my smartphone doesn't count for much. If I can stay awake on the train--always an open question--then I can make some progress, especially if I have a page-turner.

On to the next book.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Robert Conquest, My Guide to Soviet Hell

Yesterday's passing of Robert Conquest, the scholar who studied the blood orgies of the Soviet Union in the Stalin Era, brought back memories of how his work intensely interested and educated me almost a quarter-century ago.

A native of England who served in the British Army and Foreign Service, Conquest wrote several books that I devoured in the early 1990s, when Soviet history interested me so much that I seriously considered returning to graduate school to become a scholar of the topic, along the lines of Conquest himself, in my dreams, anyway. That never happened, but Conquest's research educated me in the horrors of the period, written with the flair and clarity one would expect from a man who was also a published poet.

I still have the three books of his I read, each noting the date I bought it. The first was Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, on April 20, 1991. The book dealt with how Stalin starved Ukraine, killing millions in the 1930s. Almost 90 years later, with Ukraine independent, the two countries continue their Russia-imposed conflict.

Next I found The Great Terror: A Reassessment (March 14, 1992), Conquest's masterpiece on the history of the purges of the 1930s. First published in 1968, the book was revised after Soviet records became more open to scholars in the glasnost era. The scholarship is vast, and the details are gruesome, It echoes with analysis, statistics and shocking images of the inhumanity of the era. One passage to give the flavor of the times:
Even when not arrested, families suffered terribly. An attempted mass suicide is reported by a group of four 13- and 14-year old children of executed NKVD officers, found badly wounded in the Prozorovsky forest near Moscow. The daughter of an Assistant Chief of Red Army Intelligence, Aleksandr Karin (who was arrested and shot, with his wife), was 13 in the spring of 1937. The Karin apartment was taken by one of Yezhov's men, who turned her out into the street. She went to her father's best friend Shpigelglas, Assistant Head of the Foreign Department of the NKVD, who put her up for the night, but was virtually ordered the next day, by Yezhov's secretary, to throw her out. Shpigelglas remembered she had relatives as Saaratov and sent her there. Two months later she came back: "She was pale, thin, her eyes filled with bitterness. Nothing childish remained in her." She had meanwhile been made to speak at a meeting of the Pioneers, approving the execution of her father and mother saying that they had been spies.
Finally, on April 27, 1996, I found Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, which focused on one part of the gulag system described in The Great Terror.

Conquest was also generous in supporting the work of other scholars. In 1990, he wrote a forward for the book Stalin's Prosecutor: The Life of Andrei Vyshinsky, by the Russian investigative journalist Arkady Vaksberg. I bought it on May 25, 1991. He opens with an invocation of the rebirth of "historical truth" in the USSR under glasnost as archives opened up, and credit Vaksberg as "one of the supreme examples of this new research. He wrote,
Arkady Vaksberg appears in this book as a sane man quietly gnawing away at the roots of paranoid falsification. he is not, of course, the only Soviet citizen responsible for bringing that rotten enormity crashing to the ground. But he has played a unique role in the process. Above all, as I have said, he has shown that extraordinary instinct for the discovery of records which in principle still remain inaccessible, but of which copies exist i the possession of various institutions or individuals.
Other sources give details about Conquest's life and enormous impact. I think of him as my guide to the vast stretches of the inferno that was Stalinist Russia. I can only thank God that my ancestors left Ukrainian shtetls around 1900 for the US, or I could have been caught up in the nightmare. His comments on the deluded Western intellectuals who supported the Soviet enterprise and the Stalinist show trials stand as a warning to us in 2015 about those who excuse or rationalize new forms of terror and suppression of free thinking.

His works cannot be studied enough.

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" at Princeton

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" -- The Italian poet Dante begins "The Inferno" with those words, "Midway upon the journey of our life," interpreted to mean when he was 35 years old. That passage came to me after I read the survey from my 35th Princeton reunion, held in May. A staple of Reunions activities, the  survey tracks the lives and thoughts of my fellow Tigers of the Great Class of 1980.

This year's survey hit me harder than past ones. While my classmates and I are in our late 50s, we are more middle-aged as Princeton classes go -- after 35 years, we're in the center of the long orange line that marches across campus in the P-rade that's the highlight of Reunions. The Old Guard, the men (still men for a couple more decades, and then the relentless logic of coeducation and the actuarial tables will kick in) and the families form up starting with the Old Guard and moving back, year by year, to the class that is graduating in a few days. From the centenarians to the 22-year olds, we're all there. My own favorite Old Guard memory: Seeing Judge Harold Medina '09 in a golf cart, looking dapper at Reunions in the 1980s -- he lived to be 102 and theoretically could have made his 80th Reunion in 1989.

The survey reflected the issues of aging baby boomers: places to visit, 12 percent with grandchildren, location changes and impending retirement, caring for our own aging parents, dozens of comments on career advice, political beliefs. I could pick out some of the comments I made, and I identified with others.

The responses became emotionally grueling when they reached the question about regrets; we all have them. Divorce, living in fear, insecurities, not spending time with parents, no children, no family, limited risk-taking, depression, misplaced values, i nodded my head at several of these, although I never made the mistake of "selling Apple stock," since I never had any to begin with.

The P-rade sign ideas, mostly jovial, revealed some dark undertones of issues swirling around me as an undergrad that I never imagined, like, "Fear of physical violence as a gay man all my time at Princeton," Several other sign ideas made that point. I never knew. I never suspected. Was I blind, wrapped in my own gnawing insecurities and academic struggles? Reading these I cringed at the idea of people I know feeling unsafe at Princeton--the fishbowl so apart, I thought, from the mean world. but it wasn't. And then there was my sign contribution: "A memory: Getting blindly drunk as a freshman, the first time in my life. A valuable learning experience!"

In the middle of the journey of our Princeton life, I hope the classmates who felt unsafe have found their secure harbor in a more accepting society, and that those with regrets balance them with other sources of happiness and peace of mind as we edge closer to the front of the P-rade line. Every five years brings a time to take the pulse of the class. If this is 35, the center between youth and age, what will 70 be, in 2050, closer to the end? I hope to still be around to find out and post another update.

Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link .] My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called ...