Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Soviet Jazz

Out of the blue came the publication of my little piece on jazz in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s, a response to a passage in a review by Michael Scammell in the New York Review of Books. Here is the link:


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Critic, His Life, His Age: A Tribute to Joseph Frank

 Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings, it seems the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice—a great choice for the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.
Joseph Frank, left, with a colleague, Haun Saussy, at a Slavic Department get together. Spring 1999. Photo by G. Freidin
How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic,[1] bore a title more fitting for the epilogue of a career: “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism?” The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter, came entry into the big leagues: The Idea of Spatial Form.[2] His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture,[3] was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In-between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.

Frank’s stutter, which he struggled with all his life (but I remember with fondness), looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction came along with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. The stutter forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromis­ing yet forgiving, it was so deeply resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, only an Orson Welles with the strut of John Wayne could have filled the bill. Its force is already present in his  “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937[4]; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,” one of his last pieces in The New Republic,[5] and it reverberates throughout the entirety of his Dostoevsky  Pentateuch, the first five books of every Slavicist Bible.

His writer’s voice was Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with an extraordinary aesthetic intelligence—and a sense of empathy, too. For Frank, the world picture—like a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank noted wryly—had to “preserve some ‘impurity’ if it was to be humanly meaningful.”[6]

As a critic, he entered the fray in the mid-1930s, when the world was rent by a clash among the all-too-imperfect democracies and the perfection-mongering regimes of Communism and Fascism. Like many in his generation, he appreciated Marx and identified with the Popular Front, but up to a point.

Then, early in 1939, unhappy though he was with existing order, Frank broke with New Masses, his Red book-review outlet.[7] He had found prescriptive Marxism dead, its historical calculus—the ends justifying the means—odious, and its sacrifice of the arts on the altar of political expediency, unacceptable. Russia, the birthplace of Dostoevsky and Lenin, now ruled by Stalin, was Exhibit One on both counts, as was, of course, Nazi Germany. Apparently, New York refused to listen but Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, two Southern Agrarians, lent him a sympathetic ear.[8] As did a few intellect­uals, exiles from Nazi Germany, whom he befriended during his war-time journalistic stint in Washington DC and with whom he continued his informal studies of great continental writers and thinkers.

By the time The Idea of Spatial Form appeared in Sewanee Review in 1945,[9] Frank’s critical stance had been fully formed: it combined the intellectual tradition of Western liberalism, including a search for social justice and thus elements of Marx, with a commitment to abiding ethical and aesthetic values, rooted in Western individualism, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, significant for Frank, modern literature and art.

What holds these disparate, sometimes tragically incompatible, elements together is Frank’s unstinting belief in the power of art and ideas, as well as his humanity, his appreciation for human suffering, frailty, and contingency—what in Dostoevsky is called “pity for man.” Lack of it was unforgivable. “It is unseemly,” Frank chided an historian and a biographer, “even for a social psychologist to kick a man when he is down.”[10]

Frank’s Dostoevsky was thus preordained, even over­determined, given his early admiration for Camus,[11] and not just as a scholarly study of something or other, but as a critical biography. A genre as capacious as the novel, biography is capable of embracing historical context, ideas, psychology, along with all manner of human contingency. And just as for Dostoevsky, his novels recapitulated his own commitments and dramatized the ideological and metaphysical conflicts of his age, so for Frank, his biography of the great Russian was called forth by rank’s own life, his own commitments, and the historical struggles of his own age. For neither author, the turn to fiction and biography was accidental: only art is capable of giving these disparate elements a coherent and human form.

Reading Frank’s Dostoevsky is to hear the challenge and response of two giants, towering like sentinels, each over his own century.  No better tribute for a critic is possible.
This is how, then, to borrow a phrase from Frank’s Idea of Spatial Form, “the time world of history becomes transmuted into the timeless world of myth.” It is thus that a great man of letters becomes his admirers.

The mark that Joseph Frank left on the life of those who had the good fortune of knowing him. He is part of me, us—we will remember.
Paris. 17 May 2013
© 2013 by Gregory Freidin

This tribute was prepared for the Memorial to Joseph Frank held at Stanford University on 20 May 2013. I wish to thank my friend and colleague Professor Gabriella Safran for standing in and reading it for me.

For a report on the Joe Frank memorial at Stanford, see Remembering Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank: “He had no enemies” by Cynthia Haven on her blog at Stanford University: The Book Haven: Cynthia Haven's Blog for the Written Word

[1] Scholastic: A national magazine for high school students. 1935. See Andrei Ustinov, “Joseph Frank’s Works: A Bibliography,” Stanford Slavic Studies Vol. 4: Literature, Culture and Society in the Modern Age: In Honor of Joseph Frank. 1991-1992, in 2 parts, part 2, p. 11.
[2] “Spatial Form in Modern Literature: An Essay in Three Parts,” The Sewanee Review 53, nos. 1, 2, and 4 (January-March to October-December, 1945).
[3] Joseph Frank, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham University Press: NY, 2012).
[4] Joseph Frank, “Thomas Mann: The Artist as Individual,” The Washington Square College Review 1.7 (May 1937):5-6, 22-23. Frank, a freshman, was on the editorial board of the journal.
[5] A version is reprinted as “Eliade, Cioran, and Ionesco: The Treason of the Intellectuals” in Frank’s, Responses to Modernity.
[6] As Joseph Frank, “T. S. Eliot’s To Criticize The Critic,Commentary 42. 3 (Sep 1, 1966): 87.
[7] As Frank noted during an interview that Steven Zipperstein and I conducted with him in the spring 2010, it was his NYU professor of English, Samuel Sillen, then also the book review editor for New Masses, who recruited him for the journal’s book-review section. Sillen (1911-73) later became the editor of its successor journal Masses and Mainstream (1948-63) but left the post after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956. On him see Allen M. Wald, The Literary Left of the Cold War (University of North Caroline Press: Chapel Hill, 2012):61ff and elsewhere.
[8] “An Economic Basis for Liberal Values,” The Southern Review 7, no. 1-2 (Winter 1941-42):21-39. The essay offers an extensive discussion of Marxism: An Autopsy (Houghton Mifflin: NY, 1939) by Henry Bumford Parkes, and Anglo-American historian and one of Frank’s professors and mentors while he was an undergraduate at NYU in 1937-38.  Reviewed favorably in Time by an anonymous reviewer (Vol. 34.17[10/23/1939]:82), the book produced barely a ripple elsewhere, and Frank’s essay seems to be the only serious discussion of Parkes’ thesis. The essay refers to the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 but does note mention the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, which suggests it had been finished and typeset in the interim.
[9] Then edited by Allen Tate.
[10] “The Birth of ‘Russian Socialism’,” in Joseph Frank, Through the Russian Prism, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, N. J., 1990): 223.
[11] Joseph Frank, “Paris Letter,” The Hudson Review 5, no. 4 (Winter 1953):582-592. Already in college Frank was “really passionate about Dostoevsky,” as his NYU professor Sidney Hook remarked to him after a class discussion (Interview with Stephen Zipperstein and Gregory Freidin, Stanford, 2010). In private conversations, he often suggested that it was via Camus and French Existentialism that he arrived at his study of Dostoevsky. Existentialism and Dostoevsky was the subject of his Gauss Lecture at Princeton in 1955, and the association is in plain sight in his doctoral dissertation, “Dostoevsky and Russian Nihilism: A Context for Notes from The Underground” (University of Chicago. Committee on Social Thought. 1960).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Alexei Balabanov. 1958-2013. In Memoriam.

One of the most talented, masterful and remarkable Russian cinematographers, Alexei Oktyabrinovich Balabanov, died suddenly on May 18, 2013, at the age of fifty five, in his family residence outside St. Petersburg.
        Aleksei Balabanov and Agniya Kuznetsova in 2007 after the showing of "Cargo 200"at the Sochi Film Festival in 2007

Russian cinema of the last quarter century, indeed contemporary Russian culture, is unthinkable without his "Brother" (Брат)  a gangster thriller about the early years of post-communist Russia that became folklore as soon as it was released in 1997; or his film "War" (Война) with its chilling stereoscopic (Western and Russian) view of the Chechen conflict (2002); or his blood-curdling, Gothic vision of Putin's Russia, "Cargo 200" (Груз 200). His sixteenth, and last, film, the mystical "I Want It, Too" (Я тоже хочу), came out in 2012.

For years now, I have been collecting notes for a long essay on Balabanov's cinematography and its deep roots in Russian intelligentsia mythology, including Russian nationalism, and contemporary popular culture, Russian and Western. A rock musician in his youth, he has been an unrivaled master of the sound track. The soundtrack for "Brother" I and II is the best anthology of contemporary Russian rock, which should be a thrilling discovery for those not aware of this period music. Ditto his "War." It opens with a Jihadist rock song in Chechen-accented Russian, cycles through the best of Splin, Bi-2 and others, and culminates with Butusov's piercing "My Star" (Моя звезда). The website for Balabanov's soundtracks is here.

Osip Mandelstam once called Baudelaire a martyr of modernism "in the true Christina sense of the word." It is in this sense, too, that Alexei Balabanov was a cinematic martyr of Russia's contemporary cinematography, so much did he identify with Russia's pain and her fragile beauty. I may yet write my long piece on Balabanov's cinema, but in the meantime. as a tribute to him, I am reposting my short essay on "Cargo 200." The piece appeared in "Film Watch," the magazine of the Telluride Film Festival where "Cargo 200" had its American premiere in August 2007. Click here to ro read the publication or simply read the text below.  

19 May 2013. Paris

Russia's Grey Underbelly
Aleksei Balabanov's Thriller Reveals Soviet Corruption
 (Film Watch (Telluride Film Festival. August 2007): 72-74

By Gregory Freidin

On the surface, Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 is a noir thriller about a psychopathic police captain in a provincial Russian city, one of those industrial hellholes that pockmarked the face of the U.S.S.R. The month is August, the year the Orwellian 1984. It was then that the angel of history despaired of the Soviet Union and made way for Mikhail Gorbachev. Historically authentic, Balabanov’s packs his Cargo 200  with such a strong allegorical charge that the result is a double exposure of Russia then and now, perhaps, forever. The film has polarized the opinion and set the whole of Russia talking—a sign of the rebirth of Russian film and engagé art.

In 1984, Balabanov was 25, college behind him, and serving as a paratrooper in Afghanistan five years after the Soviet invasion. The USSR itself was 67 and stagnating. Keep this in mind as Cargo takes you to the Captain Zhurov’s fly-infested apartment; think also about the corpse of Vladimir Lenin, embalmed and still open for display outside the Kremlin, a ghoulish symbol of the country’s historical freight.

Balabanov heaves it out of storage. We are treated to close-ups of recycled pickle jars and vodka bottles, armored apartment doors, dilapidated buildings, classic Russian and Soviet kitsch, by now vintage Soviet jalopies, and Soviet TV footage that will set your teeth on edge. All objects are lit with bare bulbs, flashlights, hurricane lamps, primitive disco strobes and, for the most part, the kind of diffuse gray northern daylight that one imagines illuminates the better parts of hell. As always, Balabanov provides a lovingly selected period soundtrack with lyrics that create another layer of meaning. The illusion of authenticity he achieves is powerful, and those who lived under the old U.S.S.R. may break into a cold sweat realizing how little has changed. Cargo was shot on location, not far from St. Petersburg (Leninsk is the actual steel town Cherepovets). Apparently, all Balabanov’s crew needed for time travel was a set of wheels and a tank of gas. Pity Sasha Baron Cohen, who had to travel to Romania to get to his "Kazakhstan.”

Not having to go far, Balabanov digs deep, raising questions both about recent history as well as Russia’s much older romance with alcohol, corruption, xenophobia, and a rigid authoritarian state known for using extreme violence against its own people. Lest we forget, Balabanov has captain Zhurov head the Dzerzhinsky district of the Leninsk police department, the point amplified by a huge bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka (now FSB),  next to Zhurov’s desk.

As in fairy tales, the film's three female figures stand for the three faces of Russia. The 18-year-old Angelika embodies Russia’s present, a spawn of the stagnant Soviet Union. Zhurov’s old mother is a caricature of Soviet citizenry, their minds shot by alcohol and propaganda. She is permanently glued to her TV and a glass jar full of hooch. And Antonina, wife of the underground distiller Aleksei, is a traditional good Russian woman, who is helpless to change anything (she fails to prevent the rape of Angelika) but is loyal and effective in her revenge.

For the main male characters, Balabanov uses his favorite “brothers” device, arranging them in three sets. The “fathers” are the 50something colonel from Leninsk and his Leningrad sibling Artem, a professor of Scientific Atheism. Both worry about the future and are corrupt. Their “sons” are more despicable. Slava—that's Russian for "glory—is a good-for-nothing hedonist. The shady operator Valery (healthy" and" strong”) wears a red T-shirt with huge letters USSR on it and is romancing the colonel’s daughter to avoid the draft. As in the old Soviet joke about Pravda and Izvestia, which contrary to their titles contained neither truth nor news, the “sons” have no claim to either glory or strength, or health. Valery turns out to be a hopeless drunk and coward: he abandons Angelika to her abductor and flees from the area reluctant to get entangled with the police. As the film ends, he and Slava strike up a friendship of convenience, and we see them in a fading shot poised to spin out deals and become tycoons in today’s Russia. The film’s only other young man of their generation is Angelika’s long-awaited boyfriend, heroic Sergeant Major Gorbunov. He arrives in a sealed coffin, the film’s actual cargo 200.

At the core of the tale are Aleksei (the director’s namesake) and captain Zhurov ("glum") who belong to neither generation and are, in a way, outside of time. They formed a bond, based on some secret, while Aleksei serving a ten-year term for manslaughter. The bond remains so strong that when asked by Zhurov, Aleksei accepts a death sentence for the murder committed by the Zhurov. What their secret was is never revealed, but the film as a whole implies that, whoever different , Alexey and Zurov are invisibly joined at the hip like Siamese twins.

They are eternal Russian types, locked in the eternal Russian sadomasochistic drama. Alexei may indulge in a drunken Dostoevskian “conversation across eternity” with the professor of Scientific Atheism, wax eloquent about God and spin visions of utopian socialism. But he thinks nothing of forcing himself on Angelika the moment she walks in and would have, had he not conked out in a drunken stupor. Antonina hides Angelika in the peasant bathhouse where Aleksei keeps his illegal still but Zhurov picks up where the other left off. He finds Angelika there, forces her onto all fours and sodomizes her … with an empty vodka bottle. Soviet times, Balabanov is implicitly quoting from Dostoevsky, are the “eternity that is nothing but a peasant bath house with cockroaches in every corner.”

The rape scene is hard to take. But if you don’t look away, you notice a shadow of pleasure flit across Angelica's face—a form of consent between the victim and the victimizer. Balabanov links Angelica’s violation to Russia’s romance with alcohol. If Angelika-Russia is the enabler, then the police officer, who instead of protecting, gruesomely violates an innocent, rises as an embodiment of the brutal Russian and Soviet state for which vodka—before they struck oil—was the biggest source of revenue and civil quiescence.

In the morning, Zhurov handcuffs Angelica to his motorcycle. Their ride through the industrial outskirts of Leninsk is perhaps the most haunting long shot of the entire film, an inversion of the motorcycle glamour. Zhurov is taking his victim into the heart of—no, not darkness, but worse—Soviet industrial gray. Shooting in color, cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov proves himself the supreme connoisseur of every possible non-descript tint. Elevated tracks, intertwining pipes, smokestacks, girders, cables and cooling towers fly by, forming a cruel backdrop to Zhurov’s handsome stiff-backed motorcycle posture and Angelica’s face with smeared eyeliner and flowing mane.

Balabanov inverts the opening of Easy Rider and has a soundtrack to match Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” As Zhurov rides, his prey handcuffed to the sidecar, the voice of Yuri Loza croons: " Through storms and rain, taking with me only my reveries, my childhood dreams, I shall float away on my little raft, … let my journey be hard … and perhaps I shall come to know the world in which I live … perhaps shall find a new bright and colorful world …”

Gregory Freidin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities at Stanford University, is author of a critical biography of Osip Mandelstam, A Coat of Many Colors (UC Press, 1987) and forthcoming critical biography of a Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, A Jew On Horseback (Stanford University Press). He has been a commentator on Russian affairs for the Voice of America, BBC, PBS, and CBS.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory Freidin