Sunday 19 July 2015

The Power of Art in Fear and the Muse Kept Watch

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large July 18/15 and its relevance to this site I think should be obvious given that six chapters in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) are devoted to the Soviet Union.

In the introduction of Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: The Russian Masters – from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein – Under Stalin (The New Press, 2015), journalist Andy McSmith, reminds us that the purpose of George Orwell’s classic 1984 was to demonstrate how the creative life was crushed out of the people, leaving them incapable of free thought and acting like robots. By contrast, McSmith argues that Soviet citizens, who absorbed great drama, music, film, novels and poetry, could not be turned into robots even under the machinery of Stalin’s terror. They would outwardly conform but they remained sentient beings who needed and appreciated great art. As a result of the Revolution, a vast more number of Soviet citizens were exposed to the arts, especially theatre, because of that hunger. This is an intriguing thesis, one that I agree with, though I am not certain that the author has proven it. At times he does provide convincing evidence, but he leaves it to the reader to make the connections.

I do not want to suggest that Fear and the Muse is devoid of intellectual pleasures. On the contrary, one of its great strengths is that it comfortably shoehorns these artists and their art into one book. Too often, cultural life is relegated to a single chapter in Soviet histories, confined to biographies or specialized monographs on one of the arts. Instead, McSmith combines astute biographical profiles with perceptive insights into their art and how both were related to the larger cultural and political climate of the time, especially given that Stalin paid considerable attention to the arts. There is not much that is new here, and he ignores the role of the visual arts, but McSmith’s major accomplishment has been to synthesize in lucid prose a great amount of material from secondary sources and translated Russian correspondence. One bonus is that he is self-taught in Russian, and some of his more memorable quotations occur when he quotes from untranslated Russian correspondence.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Crossing Moral Boundaries in the Historical Mysteries of Joseph Kanon

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I have reproduced it on this site because the thread that unites his novel, moral transgression, is the central theme of the two volumes of That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions)

Novelist Joseph Kanon. (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Joseph Kanon, the former publishing executive, has demonstrated two great strengths in his novels: his capacity for providing a textured atmospheric backdrop to his murder mysteries populated by both historical and fictional characters, and his ability to convey to readers the pressing moral questions of the moment. In his seven novels, the setting for at least part of each novel has been between 1945 and 1950 where the unresolved issues of World War II are played out.