Thursday, February 15, 2018

`You Are with Me for Life, Pip!'

Dedicated readers will understand what it means to be transported by a book, moved in time and space from immediate surroundings to an alternate, not always happier but certainly more interesting and safer world. The gift is precious, rare and effective. Think of a trans-oceanic flight without a book.

In Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (Northern Illinois University, 2017), Polina Barskova devotes a chapter to the reading habits of Soviet citizens during the 872-day siege of Leningrad. From September 1941 to January 1944, the German army blockaded the city, leaving its three-million residents without food, heat or light. An estimated 1.5 million people died, many from starvation.

Barskova’s prose is too dry, academic and jargon-clotted to be read for pleasure. She drags in fashionable and irrelevant theory and theorists (Bachelard, Barthes, Foucault) but, fortunately, also cites accounts by survivors of the siege, many not otherwise available in English. Leonid Panteleev (1908-1987) was a popular Soviet writer for children. Barskova (all translations are hers) quotes his anecdote of a girl reading during an air raid:

“When the air raid siren sounded today I happened to be on a streetcar, near a girl who was reading. She reads greedily, `experiencing’ the book with the sort of passion and ardor you see only in children and certain adults who have held on to their childlike immediacy.”

Panteleev watches her continue reading without interruption on the platform after leaving the streetcar. He writes: “And just one square over, our antiaircraft guns are firing.” Barskova over-psychologizes the girl’s ability to concentrate, calling it a “trance mechanism.” What I admire is the girl’s choice of distraction by way of concentration. Other might drink, fight, grow catatonic or slowly fall apart.  

Not everyone was pleased with the idea of disappearing into books during the siege. Barskova quotes the diary of the critic Lydia Chukovskaia (1907-1996): “In the bomb shelter, Tusia reads Dickens. This angered Shura, who saw no point in distracting oneself or others with idle words—this is hypocrisy and weakness: one must concentrate and await death, one’s own or that of others.” Such distrust of devotion to reading sounds familiar. Would Shura have objected as strongly if Tusia had been reading, say, Pushkin or Lenin, rather than Dickens? Shura sounds like an apparatchik, a humorless true believer. Barskova looks at how blokadniki (Leningrad residents during the siege) read five writers – Tolstoy, Poe, Dickens, Proust and the Russian poet Alexander Blok. She quotes the critic Lydia Ginzburg (1902-1990):

“. . . during the war, people voraciously read War and Peace as a way of checking themselves (and not Tolstoy, whose validity no one doubted). And the reader said to him or herself: so, it means what I’m feeling is correct; that’s how it is. Whoever had the strength to read, voraciously read War and Peace.”

Of course, many of us read War and Peace that way. It encourages full immersion. I know several men still in love with Natasha Rostov and who suspect they have too much in common with Pierre Bezukhov. Barskova quotes Panteleev again:

“In the most horrific days of that winter I read Dickens’s Great Expectations. The book had just come out in a new translation; I bought it at a stall in the street. I read it by night, by the light of a smoky night-lamp. And I know that for me that night-lamp, its soot, and my breath-vapor have become forever linked with everything I was reading about, with the spirit and gloom and light and smells of Dickens’s novel. Whether you like it or not, whether I like it or not, you are with me for life, Pip! You’re a blokadnik.”

Panteleev and the artist and book illustrator Vladimir Konashevich (1888-1963) both read the first volume of Proust’s novel during the first winter of the siege, and both acknowledged their use of “involuntary memory” in writing their memoirs. Barskova quotes a passage from Konashevich’s memoir, On Myself and My Work (1968):

“People are pulling white, unpainted caskets on sleds. Everything is white. There’s a mass of snow. . . . This white winter reminded me of long-ago Moscow winters, when snow covered the streets in the same way. . . . It became very quiet. . . . How vividly it all comes back to me.”

I’m reminded of My Century, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat’s “spoken diary” based on his recorded conversations with Czesław Miłosz. In his account of the time he served in Lubyanka, Wat recounts reading Machiavelli’s letters and the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu: “. . . the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

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