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Posts Tagged ‘stalin’

The Totalitarian Tank Engine, and Other News

May 13, 2015 | by

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Thomas: a thinly veiled work of socialist realism? Image via the Telegraph

  • As Thomas the Tank Engine turns seventy, it’s worth asking: What’s this talking train’s political agenda? A thoughtless pushover, fearful of going off the rails and fixed on his cohort’s industriousness, “Thomas resembles one of those preposterous idealized figures of Stalinist propaganda. Face radiant with a dream of heightened productivity. In fact, Stalin would probably have approved of Thomas, who always does what the Fat Controller tells him and strongly disapproves of other engines who step out of line.”
  • If society seems increasingly illiterate to you, person of letters, remember that society relies less on literacy every year: “Most human beings worldwide would rather talk than read. Reading and writing are late inventions in the human story; widespread literacy in most places is only a few centuries old. And the fact that in black-and-white pictures of a commuter train almost every passenger is reading was an artifact of the technological state of things at the time. Today, most of those people’s equivalents are either talking on their phone or listening to music on it. Their forebears in those pictures would have been as well, if there had been devices to allow it.”
  • Piero di Cosimo is remembered most for his religious paintings, but he also made “startlingly vivid portraits of individualsHe gave himself the same tests, again and again, though he did not always pass them: for example, depicting feet, which he did in an elegantly detailed manner, down to their splayed toes.”
  • “When I began my first novel … I asked my colleague whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, ‘Yes,’ a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response.”
  • Want a euphemism for motherfucker? Try melon-farmer, mother-fouler, or motorcycle, and have a nice day.

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

May 11, 2015 | by

How the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction went from utopian to dystopian.

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Near the beginning of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, a 1970 novel by the Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the innkeeper, Alek Snevar, proposes to his guest, police inspector Peter Glebsky, that mystery is always preferable to explanation. “Haven’t you ever noticed how much more interesting the unknown is than the known?” Snevar asks. “The unknown makes us think—it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.”

It’s a strange idea to appear at the beginning of what seems to be a locked-room mystery novel—a genre in which all puzzles are meant to be solved. Soon after Glebsky’s arrival, a blizzard blocks the road to the inn. Right on cue, another of the guests, a Scandinavian named Olaf Andvarafors, is found dead in his room with his neck twisted, the window open, and the door locked from the inside. Everyone at the inn is a suspect: Simone Simone, a nervous, billiard-playing physicist; Hinkus, a “youth counselor” on sick leave; a celebrity magician named Du Barnstoker and his androgynous ward, Brun (“the sole progeny of [his] dear departed brother”); an imperious alcoholic named Albert Moses, and his knockout wife, Mrs. Moses. Then there is Snevar and his maid, Kaisa; a St. Bernard named Lel; and Luarvik L. Luarvik, a mysterious one-armed man who shows up half dead after being caught in the storm. With this bizarre cast you expect to find plenty of red herrings before a hiding-in-plain-sight solution is revealed.

Instead, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery. Read More »

What We’re Loving: Communism, Climates, Cats

April 11, 2014 | by

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Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana, 1935.

Shortly after moving to New York, I found a used copy of Twenty Letters to a Friend, a memoir, written in 1963, by Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter. It’s an unlikely book, to say the least—she condemns Communism, details her father’s agonizing death, and tries to come to terms with her own, very particular Stalinist experience—and it fed my budding fascination with Soviet cultural history. Nicholas Thompson’s essay in the March 31 issue of The New Yorker, which describes his friendship with Alliluyeva and her experiences in the United States, was a reminder of how that bizarre, late Soviet period had first piqued my interest. I’d never read, though, about Alliluyeva’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, an adherent of the theosophist G.I. Gurdjieff. Oligvanna believed Alliluyeva to be the reincarnation of her daughter, also named Svetlana, and wanted her to marry the dead woman’s husband; she did. It’s the kind of thoroughly weird story that couldn’t possibly be true, but then, this is Stalin’s daughter. —Nicole Rudick

After receiving two uncomprehending reviews in the New York Times, Jenny Offill’s novel Department of Speculation has finally gotten the kind of attention it deserves, first from James Wood in The New Yorker and now from Elaine Blair in The New York Review of Books. The latter is actually more than a review; it’s a brief and startling essay on the place of adultery in fiction today. Of the marriage in Department of Speculation, Blair writes, “How can a relationship so intensely intimate and companionable seem so easily soluble? And what is that other thing, extramarital sex, that has everyone quickly making contingency plans to jump ship? The wife and husband’s exemplary, perhaps even ideal, modern marriage is a form of personal gratification—a nonbinding choice that is very much bound up with the ego.” When Blair writes about fiction, she writes about life, which in some moods seems to me the only way to do it. Read an excerpt of Offill’s novel in issue 207. —Lorin Stein

I don’t often have the time to reread these days, but I recently gave a copy of André Maurois’s Climates to a friend, and he enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to revisit it. It’s an autobiographical novel of love lost, found, and lost again, the kind of book you find yourself giving to all your friends, wanting them to read it immediately so you can marvel at it together. Back when I first read Adriana Hunter’s beautiful translation, I felt it mirrored the melancholy of events in my own life. I worried, I think, that it wouldn’t resonate as much now. But I was wrong: it is a gripping read, deeply felt, and so full of memorable lines that I wanted to dog-ear every other page. I would have, except that this time it was a library copy—I had long since given mine away. —Sadie Stein

When I rewatched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, I knew, faintly, that the film’s odd pudding subplot was based on a true story. But only now have I done my homework. Fun fact: in 1999, a Californian engineer named David Phillips was grocery shopping when he noticed a loophole in a frequent-flier offer on Healthy Choice products. He did the math and discovered that if he could purchase enough cheap Healthy Choice–brand foods, the value of the miles would exceed the cost. So Phillips scoured the region, buying up some twelve thousand cups of Healthy Choice pudding—the cheapest product he could find, at a quarter a cup. He redeemed them for 1.25 million American Airlines frequent-flier miles. This is that rare thing, a Kafkaesque story with a happy ending: a man confronts the warped logic of bureaucracy and emerges victorious. It was shrewd of Anderson to rip it from the headlines. In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler’s character makes the same discovery, and it softens his neurotic, seething violence. He’s attuned to the world, we see, just vibrating on a different wavelength. The plot gets at the surreal, godlike power that corporations can wield in our lives, descending from on high to deliver the occasional windfall or catastrophe. As Sandler’s character says, “I have to get more pudding for this trip to Hawaii. As I just said that out loud I realize it sounded a little strange, but it’s not … You can go to places in the world with pudding.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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