Monday, February 8, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/8/16: Stephen Fry reads Onegin

Russian was a language we heard all around us growing up in Jewish Baltimore. The Soviet Jews started pouring into Baltimore in the late 80s, and by the time I was ten there were at least as many thousands of Russian speaking Jews peppering Pikesville as there were Yiddish speakers during my early childhood before they started to die off. Tucker family events were always a polyglot experience when relatives descended upon our dinner tables and you could hear simultaneous conversations in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish. Occasionally, when people decided to speak in their second languages, you could also hear German, French, Italian, and Polish.
It's a source of genuine shame that this stupid and spoiled American never truly mastered any language but English, briefly trying studies of most of the aforementioned languages before growing bored with them all. Speaking foreign languages badly is as much a Tucker family tradition as speaking them well. My Bubbie and Zaydie Tucker never mastered English, my other Bubbie forgot all her German and never mastered the Russian her father spoke so eloquently, my other Zaydie never mastered French or German, my Mom never mastered French or German or Hebrew, my uncle never mastered five languages in addition to the four he speaks fluently. The only true polyglot in my family is my Dad, whom while he claims to speak them all terribly, seems to speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, French, German, and Italian with terrifying fluency.
As I've written many times here, my brother Jordan and I've often commented about the fact that our family doesn't quite feel American, or not at least like Americans of our own time. Whether organic or artificial, the fact that we came off the boat so much later and after so much more trauma than most other Jews we know puts us with one foot still in the European Jewish experience. It was not that long ago when my Bubbie was going to the Enoch Pratt library, checking out whatever Russian books she could for her father, Avraham Katz, my Hebrew namesake. I wonder if I could go down there and find the records of what she took out...
We Americans publish books with an ease unknown in any country in history. There are untold thousands of small publishers, and even if none of them accepts you, you can self-publish. Over the last half century, it would surprise me if the nearest rival to America in quantity of books published has even half the same number. Every creative class big shot in their field has two dozen books to their name which are read by the smaller paeans in their industry looking to break in. Every would-be big shot has some kind of book they write that is read by nobody. Every B-list journalist eventually gets a multi-book deal to cater to the interests of older upper middle class empty nesters who have the leisure time to read. Sadly, this makes journalistic non-fiction the closest our country has to a literary scene of consequence.
Everybody writes in America, yet nobody reads. We have low fiction, airport novels, read by the millions. But they're all interchangeable, read quickly to pass a bit of time and forgotten immediately thereafter. We have plenty of genre fiction here of various types, and some of it's pretty good - that doesn't even count our amazing graphic novels - but it's fruitless to pretend that more than a few tens of thousands care more about genre fiction than what's on TV or in the movie theaters. As for traditional realist fiction, forget it. It's a non-starter. The same goes for poetry that isn't in the form of song lyrics. Neither has a devoted public that's more than a couple thousand people. And that's not even counting their more modernist incarnations... The American intelligentsia can still talk a good game with books, but we're all talk, we could probably go through our entire lives knowing how much good stuff there is to read and remain completely untouched by all of it - never knowing how much more meaningful our lives could be unless we made the effort to read it all. There's too much good TV out there, too many good bands, too many movie adaptations of the books we wish we had the attention span to read.
We all sat through High School English, we have vague memories of Gatsby and Atticus, Whitman and Dickinson, Frost and Eliot, and if we're unlucky, Moby fuckin' Dick. But how many people go back to this stuff later in life? Fiction in America was always too small, too slow, too White and WASP to cover the explosive dynamism of the American experience. We needed movies here, because a camera is the only aesthetic technology that can keep up with the speed of life in this country. The high fiction stories of our generation's American lives were made by Kubrick and Scorsese and Coppola and David Lynch, our populist fiction by Spielberg and Lucas and Cameron. Nobody in my generation can recite Whitman or Dickinson, but even music ignoramii can quote at least half-a-dozen verses from Dylan and The Beatles. People like me can sing Michael Jackson and Madonna even if we can't stand them. Nobody can remember more than a line or two from Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire, but everybody can quote The Simpsons, South Park, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad ad libitum (and now, Game of Thrones...). The most educated among us can even do the same with Classic Hollywood and older popular songs. For better or worse, these populist genres comprise our true literature. They are our scripture, soul food, our spiritual medicine. They are the North Stars we look to for guidance and wisdom.
But whereas more of America's empty space is filled every day, the vast majority of Russia will always remain empty. Life in America will always be lived at top speed, but at least until the Putin years, Russia was a place defined by its slowness. Stalin tried as best he could to change it with the kind of force that kills millions, but not even Stalin could change the nature of Russia, where the way of life in so many places remains unchanged, century by century. The history of Russia is the history of autocrat after autocrat trying to control this vastest of the globe's expanses, and failing utterly.
We Americans are defined by our hunger for action. Russians are defined by their contemplation, the examination of the soul is their daily bread. Even when we have time to sit down and slowly contemplate the world, there will always be a nagging voice in our head telling us that this is a terrible waste of our resources. Literary fiction is not meant for Americans, but the traditional Russian way of life was made to fondle every detail of stories, about which they're so passionate that the stories could last forever, and Russians would still beg for more.
We Americans are sustained by our movies and TV, which show us the diverse and dynamic carnival of life in America - which has so many facets that only a new type of electronic art shifts quickly and flexibly enough to capture our essence. Russia, moreso even than England or France, has literary fiction. The camera captures all those quick changes in exterior life which make life in America so interesting, and also perhaps so superficial. Only literary fiction can capture those subtle shifts in our souls which Americans do everything to avoid feeling. America's arts love the infinite permutations of exterior life, Russia's arts love the infinitesimal but no less infinite gradations of the changes within our souls.
It all begins in Russia with their novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. For Russians, it's the mouth of their literary river; just one long poem that means as much to them as the entirety of Shakespeare does to us. For history, it's publishing between 1825 and 1832 marks the beginning of what's generally regarded as The Novel's Long Golden Age. For me, it's a novel in poetry so meaningful that it does what neither the novel nor poetry can do on their own.
Every Russian says the same thing. You can't possibly understand why Eugene Onegin is so amazing in any language but Russian. I've never tried to learn Russian, and at this point I probably never will. But I don't care what Russians say, this is a work that can move you so far beyond what either most poetry or fiction can do without each other's help.
Among other literary works I know, only certain late Shakespeare plays like The Tempest and Winter's Tale can do something similar to what you get here. If you wanted to look past words, I suppose you can feel similar strings plucked from your soul by Mozart or Rembrandt. Not just every emotion is present in this poem but every emotional nuance within every emotion. Not for Pushkin the extreme emotional hammers of Dostoevsky or Shakespearean tragedy. Rather, it has all the sad comedy of Tolstoy and Chekhov. but unlike either Tolstoy or Chekhov, Pushkin can perform the kind of dynamic feats of language you get from Shakespeare and Sondheim. The poetry effortlessly floats between life exterior and the soul interior. If the tone ever becomes too close to the story's emotional ugliness to let our spirits down, Pushkin immediately moves our mental cameras further back from the action with diversions from everyday life, from his own life, from history. Sometimes the stories are funny, but you'll rarely laugh out loud because he wants no more to bring you to the extreme of laughter than the extreme of tears. A visceral reaction is too exhibitionistic, too vulgar, too American, for the spirit of this work. The delicate, Mozartian balance, the intermingling of these two emotional poles, is Pushkin's prime responsibility. He seems to make you think that if the story were told slightly differently, you could easily be brought to either.
I doubt that most Americans would hear the interior soaring of the soul which this poem can draw out from so many Russians. There is no way that a person who too values exterior life can understand the gift Pushkin gives. The American pursuit of extremes wouldn't know what to do with Pushkin except be bored by it. There are worse things than to drown out life's emptiness with a series of thrills, and if anything, American life proves that to a certain extent, it can be done. I often think to myself that the worst thing any American can do is to slow down and examine their lives, because if they did, they'd be so depressed by the empty hypocrisy of it that they'd jump out windows. But what a loss it is that we live in a place that drowns out these emotional intonations. It's a deep flaw in the American character that we're not taught to live with our unhappiness. There's a terrible contradiction in human existence that life in America brings out even more: the pursuit of happiness is a right for all, the harder we chase it, the more elusive it can become. What Russians traditionally understood, and we never did, is that life does not exist for us to enjoy it. Hopefully, can get through our lives with beauty, love, acceptance, and wisdom. Perhaps if we have those, happiness is not necessary.

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