Sunday, November 12, 2017

Modern Jewish Literature - Jews Under Soviet Rule - Beginning

I'm going to start by reading to you an abridged bit of something that's by Saul Bellow, who is not just not a Soviet writer, but in many ways the opposite of a Soviet writer. But there is always power in opposites. The tale side of a coin is still the object closest to its head. So here is Saul Bellow at the beginning of The Dean's December, a novel of the early 80's which he began by describing a trip by Alexander Corde - like nearly all his protagonists a Bellow surrogate, with his Rumanian wife - who shared her nationality with Bellow's then wife - to her native country to visit her dying mother. We won't get to it when we discuss American-Jewish fiction, but this is a novel that needs to be rediscovered, and it won't be any time soon:

Here everyone was kind--family and friends, warmhearted people--he liked them very much, to him they were "old Europe." But they had their own intense business. This was no ordinary visit. His wife's mother was dying. Corde had come to give support, but there was little he could do for Minna. Language was a problem. People spoke little French, less English. 
Corde's mother-in-law, who had had first a heart attack and then a stroke, was in the hospital. Only the Party hospital had the machines to keep her alive, but the rules were rigid there. She was in intensive care, and visits were forbidden. Corde and Minna had flown a day and a night to be with her but in five days had seen her only twice--the first time by special dispensation, the second without official permission. The hospital superintendent, a colonel in the secret police, was greatly offended because his rules had been broken. He was a tough bureaucrat. The staff lived in terror of him. Minna and her aunt Gigi had decided (Corde took part in their discussions) that it would be polite to ask for an appointment: "Let's try to have a sensible talk with him."
On the telephone the Colonel had said, "Yes, come."
Minna, when she went to see him brought her husband along--perhaps an American, a dean from Chicago, not quite elderly but getting there, would temper the Colonel's anger. No such thing happened. The Colonel was a lean, hollow-templed, tight-wrapped, braided whip sort of man. Clearly, he wasn't going to give any satisfaction. An institution must keep its rules. 
There had been an impropriety. Under no circumstances could the administration tolerate that. Outraged, Minna was silent. What else could she be? Here only the Colonel had the right to be outraged. His high feeling--and he allowed it to go very high--was moderated in expression only by the depth of his voice. 
Minna spoke emotionally about her mother. She was an only child. The hearing the Colonel gave her was perfectly correct. A daughter who had come such a distance; a mother in intensive care, half paralyzed. Without knowing the language, Corde could understand all this easily enough, and interpreted the Colonel's position: where you had hospitals, you had dying people, naturally. Because of the special circumstances an exception had been made for the doamma and her husband on their arrival. But there had been a second visit (here the incensed emphasis again), without permission.
Minna, in terse asides, translated for her husband. It wasn't really necessary. He loosely sat there in wrinkled woolen trousers and a sports jacket, the image of the inappropriate American--in all circumstances inappropriate, incapable of learning the lessons of the twentieth century; spared, or scorned, by the forces of history or fate or whatever a European might want to call them. Corde was perfectly aware of this.
Valeria, the old woman, was not a Party member now, hadn't been one since, as Minister of Health, she fell in disgrace. That had happened thirty years ago. She was then denounced publicly by press and radio, expelled, threatened with prison, with death too. Before he could come to trial, one of her colleagues who fell in the same shake-up had his head hacked off in his cell. This old militant who had survived Antonescu (the Romanian fascist dictator whose antisemitism in that era was second only to Hitler's - ET) and also the Nazis was butchered with an ax or a meat cleaver. Dr. Valeria somehow came through. Dr. Valeria herself had founded this very hospital, the Party hospital. 
The Colonel, towards the last of the interview, put on a long, judicious look--cunning, twisting the knife--and said that Valeria was removed from the intensive care unit, Minna might come as often as she liked. Unhooked from the machines, the old woman would die in fifteen minutes. This of course he did not spell out. But there was your choice, madam. This was the man's idea of a joke. you delivered it at the point of a knife.
When we approach the Soviet Union, we are Albert Corde. What you've just heard is what it means to be an American not just in the Soviet Union, but from the one country truly shielded from the Twentieth Century as most of the world had experienced it. Surely we had our problems, problems that show no signs of late of getting anything but bigger, but our problems were unique. Our problems were the problems of the one country, the one world power anyway, that always knew we would have enough to go around, and that the only question was how to distribute it.

Everywhere else in the world, even the most prosperous people in the country knew what it meant to be so cold, and so hungry, that their children would cry all day and all night, and at times the only potential relief for their suffering seemed to be their death. Every other major world power - Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, China - every single one, knew of this suffering; from the bottom of society to the very top. It's one thing to live in a society where the hope that you can reach prosperity is never fulfilled. That can drive a society insane in its own way. But then there are the societies for which there is no hope of advancement at all - that creates a very different different kind of insanity. In a society where the hopes for the prosperity of millions are too long delayed, people can become very soft. In such a society, the greatest faux pas among anybody who even has a small amount of prosperity is a lack of empathy. But then there are the societies in which there's no hope at all, and in these societies, people become very hard, because the greatest faux pas is to have any empathy at all. In a society without hope, empathy is synonymous with weakness. A society where you allow yourself to display weakness is a society where the hope of getting better is real. It's brutal enough when such a hard society exists less than a just a few blocks away from where we currently sit; but imagine for a moment that West Baltimore were 8.65 million square miles, one-sixth of the world's landmass, stretched ten time zones, and included nearly 300 million people. And this in no way includes the rest of the Soviet bloc satellites and all the various .

Some people in here, particularly younger people, might have a nagging voice in your head saying that surely, life in the Soviet Union can't have been quite as bad as that. Nothing so big could have been so monolithic. And surely it wasn't. The Soviet Union was an extraordinarily diverse place, but in ways we can only talk about tonight very briefly, its leadership did everything it could to make the Soviet Union as monolithic as possible. And in the cases of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, the USSR succeeded in making a monolith of suffering beyond what any American can imagine.

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