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Let’s die for ideas, OK, but only of slow death

March 8, 2012 10 comments

The Suicide by Nicolaï Erdman 1928. French title: Le Suicidé. Translated into French by André Markowicz.

Mais rappelez-vous comment ça se passait dans le temps. Dans le temps, les gens qui avaient une idée, ils voulaient mourir pour elle. A l’époque où nous sommes, les gens qui veulent mourir n’ont pas d’idée, et les gens qui ont une idée ne veulent pas mourir. C’est une chose qu’il faut combattre. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, nous avons besoin de défunts idéologiques. But remember how it was in the old days. In the old days, the people who had an idea wanted to die for it. Nowadays, the people who want to die don’t have any idea and the ones who have an idea don’t want to die. It is something we must fight against. Now more than ever we need ideological deceased.

I’d never heard of Nicolaï Erdman before I watched his play The Suicide at the theatre the other day. If you’re like me, then a bit of biography won’t hurt. Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Russian writer. His first play, The Mandate was played in 1925 and was a huge success until 1930 when the authorities thwarted it. It wasn’t showed again until 1956. He wrote his second play, The Suicide (In French, Le Suicidé, literally The Suicided) in 1928. It was censored in 1932 and won’t be put on in Russia until 1982. It will be the end of Erdman’s career as a playwright. From there on, he will live upon his job for the cinema and will influence the Russian theatre by working with young directors. He will always remain in the shadows but according to the foreword of my French edition, he will be highly influential.

Now, the play.

First scene. Semione, an unemployed Russian of the 1920s wakes up his wife in the middle of the night because he’d want more of the sausage they had for diner. His wife isn’t pleased and they start arguing. During their fight, Semione resents that his wife has a job when he’s out of work. He feels bad to live on her wages and his wife is afraid he might commit suicide. When he leaves the room, she wakes up the neighbour and tells him his husband is suicidal. From then on, the word spreads among a small community and all kinds of people want to use his suicide for their own profit and want to influence the substance of his farewell note.

The intellectual representing the intelligentsia asks him to mention that he killed himself for the sake of the persecuted intelligentsia. A nymphomaniac wants him to explain he couldn’t live without her and committed suicide for unrequited love. A writer also wants to use Semione’s suicide to promote his cause. The priest wants to use his suicide to show that the Church is oppressed.

They all go very far, negotiating what he should write, organizing a farewell lunch, setting an hour of death and taking care of the funeral. Only Semione doesn’t want to die.

In one of his songs, Georges Brassens says Mourons pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente, which is the title of this post. In this play, Erdman explores the reasons why someone should sacrifice themselves for a cause. As mentioned in the opening quote, those who have ideas don’t want to die and those ready to die don’t have ideas, the intellectual says. It reminded me of the terrorists who put a bomb while they know they won’t survive. They are manipulated into thinking they are heroes for their cause, that they bought their ticket to paradise. Several people try to feed Semione with ideas to take over his suicide for their own ends.

On the verge of killing himself, Semione wonders about life after death and someone advises him to ask the priest, as he’s a specialist. Here is the priest’s answer:

Le Père Elpidy– Voulez-vous que je réponde comment: selon la religion ou selon la conscience?Semione – Quelle difference ça fait?Le Père Elpidy – Une difference co-los-sale. Ou je peux parler aussi selon la science.

Semione – Moi, ce serait selon le plus juste, mon père.

Le Père Elpidy – Selon la religion – c’est oui. Selon la science – c’est non. Et selon la conscience – personne ne sait.

Father Elpidy– Do you want me to answer according to religion or according to consciousness?Semione– What’s the difference?Father Elpidy – A HU-GE difference. Or I can speak according to science too.

Semione – For me, I would like the most accurate, Father.

Father Elpidy – According to religion, it’s a yes. According to science, it’s a no. And according to consciousness, nobody knows.

Semione questions the meaning of being human, there is a direct reference to Hamlet in the text. He brings historical events at a human-being’s height. For example, he says that when there is a war, leaders think of political moves while all John Does only wonder if their battalion is call up right away or not. In French we say, chacun voit midi à sa porte (literally, everyone sees noon at their own door) or in other words, we all grasp events and circumstances according to our own selfish and narrow or limited perspective. It’s also from a man’s point of view, far from Nations and big collective concepts.

The Suicide is like a Vaudeville with a Gogolian sense of humour and a slight touch of Beckett. Can you imagine it? It’s hilarious and cynical at the same time. The text includes incredibly bold sentences on Marxism and the author certainly knew well that the play would be censored. It’s about suicide but it’s also Erdman’s suicide as a playwright.

I think the French title, Le Suicidé (The Suicided) is better than the English one. The word doesn’t exist in French either but the neologism express very well the plot of the play: everyone wants Semione to commit suicide and be a useful victim when thinking of suicide only makes him realize how much he enjoys life, as miserable as he can be, it feels good to be alive.

Highly recommended.

An unfortunate death

January 31, 2011 12 comments

The Ladies from Saint-Petersburg, by Nina Berberova. (76 pages) I have read the French translation by Cécile Térouanne.

  Those who follow this blog know that I’ve decided to join Sarah’s challenge entitled “Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge”. The 10th book of the challenge must be a friend’s choice and that’s how Guy from His Futile Preoccupation ended up picking The Ladies of Saint-Petersburg for me.

Summer 1917, the Russian Revolution has begun. Barbara Ivanovna and her daughter Marguerite arrive at doctor Byrdine’s guest-house. The house is located at twelve versts form the nearest train station. They are exhausted. They left St Petersburg behind. The country is disorganized, the trip lasted two days instead of a six-hours journey by train. We don’t know why they come here, but we guess they are fleeing from a city devastated by fights.

Upon the night of their arrival, Barbara Ivanovna dies from a stroke. The heat is intense. The village is far away. It is impossible to send the corpse back to St Petersburg for its burial. The doctor’s wife suggests to bury Barbara Ivanovna in their garden. We then follow the preparations for the funeral.

Marguerite is about 20, I think, though her age is never mentioned. Despite the horror of the situation, her instinct is to live. She is all alone, her parents being both dead now and among strangers. She needs to take practical decisions for the funeral. She is in pain. But her life force is strong enough for her to notice the beauty of the garden, to think about marriage. Her mother is dying and she thinks:

Il ne lui restait plus qu’une chose à faire : épouser, à n’importe quel prix, Léonide Léodinovitch, autrement, elle était perdue. There was only one thing to do now: to marry Leonid Leodonovich at any cost, otherwise, she was lost.

She could sound vapid and selfish but she isn’t. She knows her feelings are improper but youth is stronger than good manners. 

Marguerite ne quittait pas Byrdine : ainsi elle ne sortit pas dans le jardin, touffu et parfumé où elle craignait de succomber à des tentations, une douceur et un laisser-aller inopportun qui déjà la gagnaient à travers les fenêtres et les portes de la maison. Le sentiment de l’été et de la liberté lui faisait tourner la tête. Marguerite never left Byrdine. She didn’t go out in the thick and fragrant garden. She was afraid to succumb to a sweetness and an improper abandon that already reached out to her through the windows and the doors of the house. The feeling of summer and of freedom made her dizzy.

When Nina Berberova relates Barbara Ivanovna’s death and its consequences, she also depicts 1917. People on the roads running away from cities, peasants and craftsmen taking advantage of the situation. Social links are falling to pieces. She shows the poverty is the countries, the children running after the doctor’s carriage and begging for food and their bad health. In a few words, she describes how people rapidly lose any fake politeness or friendliness when living through hard times. The reader first perceives the changing of regime through tiny details, such as St Petersburg suddenly being called Petrograd. The last chapter is quite significant on that part, but I won’t tell more here.

Nina Berberova’s style seems simple, made of short sentences anddialogues but she has an original way to assemble words, like in her “Byrdine glanced at her lazily and aggressively”. How can someone be lazy and aggressive at the same time? Or here is Marguerite’s night after her mother passed away: “Without moving or crying, she laid still until morning, listening to birds, then servants, then the ladies and gentlemen wake up.” We can well imagine her sleepless night.

I really enjoyed reading this novella and its combination of a pleasant style,  historical background and personal story. So thanks Guy, you made a good choice.

 PS : I did the translations. I did my best.

Seven months in the life of a Russian terrorist.

December 30, 2010 9 comments

The Pale Horse, by Boris Savinkov.  (French translation : Le Cheval blême)

This is strange. I had ordered that book after reading Guy’s post on it, thinking I’d read it “someday”. But when I received it, I started to read the first page and I was caught at once. I didn’t put it down until it was finished. Perhaps it is because it is at the crossroads between books I have read recently. There’s something of Novel With Cocaine: the Moscow setting at the beginning of the 20th century, the brutality and absence of remorse of the narrator. There’s something about Gary’s thoughts in The Dance of Gengis Cohn on murders in the name of an ideology.  

Back to The Pale Horse. It is the journal of a Russian revolutionary terrorist, from March to October 1906. George – a pseudonym, we never get to know his real name – is writing the diary. He is the boss of a commando in charge with the assassination of the governor of Moscow. The commando has five members, including George and each of them has their own reason to be a terrorist. Each one corresponds to a type of terrorist.  

Heinrich is the intellectual. He is a convinced socialist and an advocate of violent actions to bring socialism to power. Killing is the necessary path to give the power to the people. He doesn’t have the temper to be a terrorist but he wants to be in to practise what he preaches. He says he’s not credible if he stays in the sidelines. He’s too soft for this, but he’s doing it for the revolution and for himself, to prove to himself he can do it.  

Vania is martyr material. He’s a fervent Christian, his speech is full of quotes from the Bible. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ being one of the Ten Commandments, he struggles to reconcile his faith in God and his faith in terrorism as a necessary mean to achieve the revolution. He thinks his being killed while bombing an enemy is the greatest sacrifice he could make. Killing is a mortal sin. If he kills someone and is hanged for it, he will sacrifice his life and his soul. His speeches are full of love and how Christian love should rule the world but his acts are hatred He really made me think of religious martyrs. His motto could be “Make war, then love”.  

Erna is in because she loves George. And George doesn’t love her but needs her for sex and for her skills in chemistry. She’s the one who prepares the bombs. Erna is madly in love with George. It’s a painful, unrequited, crushing love. He sleeps with her without loving her and perfectly knowing she’s in love with him. He’s cruel, selfish, insensitive but honest. He tells her he loves someone else, he never hides he doesn’t love her.  Poor Erna who fell in love wih the wrong man.

Fiedor is ready to die. He’s the mercenary type. He’s in this revolution but he could have been involved in another one with the same enthusiasm. He’s more looking for danger and adventure than really eager to bring socialism to power. He’s cold-hearted and brave.  

And then George, the narrator. Cold, full of hate, bored. He seems heartless but he seems genuinely in love with Elena. He’s capable of feelings. He’s not immoral. He’s amoral. He doesn’t want to abide by any law. He thinks rules don’t apply to him. He’s a terrorist because it is a job that suits his lack of ethics. He talks about vengeance, hatred but never explains the roots of these feelings. He just sounds utterly depressed and prone to self-destruction. He is drowned into a sort of deep despair that found a mean of action and expression in the revolutionary context of the Russia of that time. I see him as an opportunist. Like Vadim in Novel With Cocaine, he watches himself live. He doesn’t feel the emotions at the time he is living the events. He’s like hovering over himself and observing himself live with detached eyes.  

We follow the preparation of the bombing, the waiting, the attempts. All this left me with an impression of improvisation. They look like resolute amateurs. They observe, but not really thoroughly. They don’t know for sure how to reach their target. How do you throw the bomb? When? Who’s going to throw the first bomb? Can you avoid to get killed? They’re alone, they’re not even trained. The Pale Horse is autobiographical. Boris Savinkov did organize such bomb attacks. So we can assume things happened that way. Seen from the 21st century, with all the technology we now have, this seems really hazardous, home-made terrorism.  

Besides the idea of killing for a cause, what disturbed me is the total absence of political speech. These people – apart from Heinrich – didn’t really believe in their cause. But had they deeply believed in their cause, could that faith be an excuse for their acts? Can anything justify a murder? Is killing for political reasons more noble than for personal reasons? Is it forgivable to murder a hateful person? Do the ends justify the means? This journal raises all these ethical issues. Savinkov wrote it in 1908, when he was living in France. He wasn’t in action at the time. Was he starting to question the justification of the assassinations he had organized?  

I was also shocked by the Andreï Petrovitch character. He represents the Central Committee. He’s the link between the political – and supposedly – respectable face of the movement and its armed arm. He regularly checks on George, giving him the latest instructions. The wind changes of direction at each visit. Once they want to slow down on terrorist actions. Once they want to intensify them. Andreï Petrovitch is convinced he has a direct influence on the events. But whatever he says, George just does as he pleases. It shows how limited the influence of politicians on these groups is, how dangerous a weapon there are. I thought of Northern Ireland, of the Spanish Basque Country, of Corsica.  

And in the middle of all this violence, this hatred stands the sunny Elena. She’s the Ariadne’s thread that still connects George with the bright sight of humanity. She’s the Achille’s heel of his supposedly solid shell. She’s married and loves both her husband and George. She wants to be free to love two men at the same time. Is she an image of the fight for women’s rights? And George, who claims there are no rules, can he bear to have the rule of monogamy broken? Elena perfectly knows George is a terrorist, however, she doesn’t give him to the police. What does this mean? Does she make an exception to moral rules out of love? Or does it point out that the terrorist actions are welcome and understood by the Russian people?  

I was fascinated by the progression of the events and the workings of the relationships between the members of the commando and between George and Elena. The underlying question is that of the relativity of moral principles.

Savinkov’s style is as dry as George’s heart and soul. No compassion. No compromise. Only facts shown in a crude light. The only soft moments lay in the description of nature, of Elena, of George’s feelings for Elena. The dialogues are composed of abrupt sentences, bullets sent between the persons. It sounds like Marguerite Duras, though she couldn’t have influenced Savinkov, of course. It reminded me of Hiroshima, mon amour and of L’Amant. Indeed, in L’Amant, the female narrator builds a shell around her, she doesn’t want to fall in love with the Chinese. She deludes herself into thinking that she’s not touched by their affair. George does the same with killing. He thinks and shouts he doesn’t mind, but he does. Is that was Savinkov discovered about himself in Paris, when the excitement of day-to-day action had vanished?

There would be much more to say about this fascinating book. I didn’t expect the constant references to the Evangels. Sometimes, when the characters talk, they use whole sentences from the Bible. The love triangle between Elena/George/Erna could have been superfluous but it fits in and sheds some light on George’s temper. I’ve read it with candid eyes, I’m not educated enough to detail the political and historical context. In fact, I didn’t care. It has a universal insight on the dynamic of such groups. This is literature, not history, which brings us back to the haunting question of Gary in The Dance of Gengis Cohn: how can we accept that the horror gives birth to a book, to art?

A last thing. My French edition is excellent. The foreword written by the translator is relevant to explain the context and the place of this book in Savinkov’s life. The footnotes are useful for the political and religious references.

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