It’s always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you’ve been meaning to read for many years. It’s exciting, of course, but you’re aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn’t. Sometimes it does. Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman’s idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades. This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg (“The Real and Unreal City”) to “Some Notes on Modernism in New York.” That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I’ll repeat Robert Christgau’s words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what’s most important about it is that it’s a good read. Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it. At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” That’s what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe’s Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it. And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on.
The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born. His major works were first published in the ’80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the ’90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press. Platonov’s other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I’m happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Platonov’s brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB.
Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s should read Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman’s, one of the best works of cultural history I’ve read in many years. After I finished it, I felt as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok’s work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don’t usually get from academic history. Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it’s hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible.
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