poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

January 7, 2011

… To this great stage of fools.

That was a difficult year… I was prepared to acknowledge that it left me with little to crow about, yes, but it wasn’t until I broke into tears as “Happy New Year!” left my lips at the stroke of midnight that I felt the full weight of it. Like I’d been holding my breath since June. Horrible. A bit terrifying actually… This is my MO. I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. People kept informing me, “It’s not normal, T–” “You should be sad, T–” Eventually I did cry, when everyone else had gotten on with their lives and stopped wondering what to do with me. My emotional timing is always off. I managed to hold myself together as I suffered some freak neurological nightmare all year. Now I am crying all the time for no discernible reason. I cried at my step-parents’ house. Well, the holidays are stressful and emotional when you are orphaned-like. But I cried, inconsolably sobbed, when my step-mother kept asking where her box of chocolates was. Like I knew. Like the whole house were not filled to the brim with sweets. Like if she kept asking eventually I would confess to lifting them. I sat on the couch and wailed hysterically. Obviously not about the chocolates. Just like I did not cry about the arrival of the new year. I have no idea why I am suddenly such a drama queen lately. Certainly not pregnant, and don’t seem depressed or blue otherwise… I expect a decade from now another random blood test will reveal an imbalance of some magical chemical recently discovered to control one’s emotional sensitivity. … Eventually we’ll all be robots.

Well, like I said, I am not actually depressed. Just profoundly relieved 2010 is over. And one week into 2011 I’ve little Russia watching to boast of. I got nothin’, I tell ya. If you want serious political analyses, go visit AGT or that… Ioffe, I think, is her name. Yes. They have the dish on the liberal infighting and Putin’s corruption and our man in Chita and all that jazz. Nothing new under the Russian sun, as far as I can see. But then, just when you think that, there will be a coup or collapse or Vova will issue a “Putin sings Motown” LP or something else no one could have predicted. But that’s not happened since I last posted, so in the meantime I busy myself with the following:


Black Swan. It’s not technically Russian, I suppose. On the other hand, it is directed by a guy named Aronofsky, takes place at the ballet, in a very dark and ill-defined reality, is set to Tchaikovsky’s music, and has a lesbian sex scene between two rather emaciated but beautiful women. And it isn’t French. So…

Inverse to my peers in the audience, I came for the ballet and stayed for the lesbian sex scene. But the draw, it turned out was neither. The psychodrama and Pyotr Ilyich’s score are responsible the film’s genuine intensity. Each on its own would be enough to make your heart pound, but the combination of two work like that of an illicit drug and alcohol. You arrive a bit jaded and cynical but braced for some adventure, get cinematic rush, leave the theater with your head spinning, and feel the full ugly weight of it the next day. It’s kind of like a terrifying nightmare you awake from the next day and, in the harsh light or reason and reflection you think, “Fuck. That didn’t even make SENSE.” Or maybe like a one night stand: insane in the moment, but now you’re in no mood to repeat it, wonder if you haven’t been made a fool of, suddenly remember that one annoying matter you blocked out of your mind in the heat of the moment but which now seems a bit cheezy and revolting (<-Winona Ryder zombie. Really?) But it just might haunt you for the rest of your life. Or not.

Well, did you want a proper review? Something about Kubrick and maybe some interpretation (metaphor for the creative process? stress-induced nightmare? complete mental breakdown? REALITY?) Oh, the Internet is full of that. Go google it. I liked it. I also like every aspect of this movie in its own respect (ballet, the score of Swan Lake, horror stories, psychotic break stories, artistic process stories, lesbian sex scenes, Flashdance-era fashions…) If you don't like any of these things, I can't imagine why on earth you would possibly want to see this film.

Er… I am a bit hesitant to post this here; I fear either no one will believe me, or my college peers will come crawling from the woodwork. But I simply must share! I beat Darren Aronofsky to the punch! In a performance art class taken in my undergraduate years, I -why? who even knows? it was performance art!- did one performance set to the score of Swan Lake which involved, among other things, a sharp blade and a stupid amount of my own blood. I went to a university that churns out actors and directors and other industry professionals. Who in that class is now hanging with Darren Aronofsky? Until I find out, I will be gracious and just mutter something about great minds…


Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk. Someone (Spires?) was advising me to read Akunin. My New Year’s resolution is to read Borges, but this was at the library, and seemed more … doable. I am slowly realizing the reason I have never read Borges is not laziness, but a sincere desire not to. Akunin. It’s ok. Pretty routine mystery stuff. I love mysteries, but that’s the problem. After so many of them it becomes a struggle to not see the formula. In fact the first few pages were intolerable, very talky and haughty (I want to blame Andrew Bromfield,) but it suddenly became interesting just a I was ready to chuck it. And it has remained interesting. I would not conflate “interesting” with “genius,” but it is certainly not … low brow. Pretentious? A little, which has the effect of making something respectable seem a bit cheap. But it is nevertheless enjoyable in an “I’ve been reading Latin all day and I don’t even know Latin, so brainpower is now on standby” way and great for the train. To quote an Amazon.com review, “I enjoyed the Dostoevsky references.”

On the topic of Russian literature, let us pause to appreciate this stunning article from the Guardian:

Why western authors are in love with Mother Russia.

I am “western,” in love with Mother Russia and … uhm, I have a blog. Maybe he’d gotten to the root of my madness? I was quite intrigued. Until I was reminded that the reason this western girl has a blog about Mother Russia is to combat the utter crap being written about her elsewhere.


Russia has recently inspired an abundance of novels. I mean, specifically, novels set there by English-speaking authors, from thrillers such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko mysteries, to Helen Dunmore’s Leningrad books. (By contrast, surprisingly few home-grown, contemporary Russian writers have found wide foreign readerships. The Putin era has not in general been conducive to great literature.)

Dear Mr. Miller, YOU SUCK. I don’t write this stuff for my health, you know. (Well, actually… but that’s neither here nor there.) Yes, if London bookshops are not crammed with Russian novels, it simply MUST be Putin’s fault. But, let’s not get started about the crimes Mr. Putin would be accused of if London bookshops were crammed with Russian novels.

Martin Cruz Smith is “great literature?” I am going to go shoot myself. You can continue reading…

There are multiple ways to think about Russia’s extremes. The obvious one is physical. Much of the vast country is lethally cold for half the year or more. Virtually any outdoor activity – starting a car; walking down the obstacle-course, snowbound streets – can be its own microdrama. This harsh environment helps to explain why Dostoevsky and others always seem to be stretching up their hands to heaven. The fundamental questions – Why are we here? Is anyone in charge? – somehow seem sharper at -20C, or on a three-day train ride.

Well, considering London just absolutely ceased to function period after a few inches of snow, I can see how the author would attribute Russia’s penchant for drama to … cold weather. Still, it doesn’t explain the dearth of Canadian lit on London bookshelves. Personally, I blame Stephen Harper. Not conducive…


Russia is not, or not only, a sort of moral zoo, which writer and reader can visit with a safe sense of superiority. It is also a place to test their moral pride and presumptions.

Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations. Throughout the cold war, it was alien, unknowable, the other, enemy world, and an easy setting for thrillers. Something of that menace persists, partly in the guise of the Russian mob, one of the elements in John le Carré’s latest book Our Kind of Traitor. At the same time Russia is European, notionally Christian and industrialised. It has a familiar high culture and recognisable architecture. Go to Moscow for a day or two, and you might consider it a normal northern European city, with extra neon and worse roads. You have to stay a little longer to uncover the wildness. As the Marquis de Custine put it after visiting in 1839, it is “only too easy to be deceived by the appearances of civilisation”.

Don’t be deceived – they’re animals, not like us! It’s a “zoo.” Brits go there to get their moral superiority on. Someone should tell them they really do that just fine at home and save them the plane trip. And 3 hour train trip. In the cold.

One question posed by some novels set in Russia is whether this place that sometimes looks the same actually is the same: whether everything that happens there could happen here too, could happen to us, if we shed our inhibitions and our own “appearances of civilisation”. … Would we cling to our integrity today, if almost everyone about us was selling theirs?

Uhm, other than to read his own articles, has the author picked up a newspaper lately? Who the fuck is clinging to their integrity?! Please, I want to start a commune with this person. Tell me who we’re talking about. We should breed, and save civilization! Well, I never did find out why we westerners are in love with Mother Russia, but I did learn that Brits are apparently so boring they must travel to inclement and morally depraved places to find interesting people to write about. That’s depressing.

Lastly on the topic of Russian literature, from Muse Daily.

Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Plus ca change…

I need to run off and return to real life.

But I was going to add something about there being a world food prices crisis which the UN reports may lead to uprisings. (Do hungry people have the energy to fight?) And on the same day I read about an article in our local paper highlighting a recipe using obscure, gourmet ingredients in some kind of contest among local chefs to make the most unique and over-the-top cuisine no one would ever want to eat evar. One step in the recipe involved covering a lemon in salt and letting it set “for 4-6 months.” Meanwhile, Americans are shopping at the Dollar Store and starving Indians are on the verge of revolt. Karlin just posted something about people living in sewers under Las Vegas.

It is just not right.

No wonder I cry…

But I must run! Ok, thanks for reading. Ciao!


  1. Somehow you made your little crying spell extremely entertaining- really enjoyed your excerpts, especially the “zoo” one

    Comment by Russian Lit Connoisseur — January 8, 2011 @ 12:08 AM | Reply

    • Thank you, I think…

      Comment by poemless — January 14, 2011 @ 5:56 PM | Reply

  2. Oh, Arkady Renko… Any Russia observer is supposed to discover novels about Russia by anglo-saxon authors. I downloaded some Arkady Renko novels once ago, and attempted reading. That was a pure embarrassment.

    Previously I made a fair attempt to read an English fantasy novel about Russia, “Nine Layers of Sky” by Liz Williamz. Although I adored other works by that author, this one was a fail for me. Well, look at that miserable piece where it goes political:

    But Ilya said only, “The kettle’s boiling.”

    She found a packet of black tea. There was no food and Elena was uncomfortably reminded that she had not eaten all day, but there was no help for it.

    “It’s a good thing we’re Russian,” she remarked.

    “Why is that?”

    “We’re used to hunger and cold.”

    Ilya smiled. “Not your generation, surely? Not under these new men: Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Putin . . .”

    Names like beads on a chain, or those nested dolls that were so popular with the few tourists who made it as far as Almaty—parodies of politicians.

    Elena laughed. “New men? Brezhnev’s been gone for thirty years, I’m happy to say. That’s when the USSR really started to die, if you ask me—during the Zastoi, the Stagnancy.”

    “At least there was a degree of peace. And those men are new to me.”

    “If you are truly as old as you say you are,” Elena said dubiously, for she still did not quite believe him, “you must have seen a host of changes in Russia.”

    “Political changes, yes. But in reality? In eight hundred years, most of what I’ve seen has been people having kids, growing turnips, getting sick. They complain about the system—tsars or the Party, doesn’t matter what the theory is, the reality doesn’t seem to change all that much for most people. They grumble, they endure. And then there are the deaths.” His face creased momentarily, as if he did not want to face what he was saying. “All the deaths. Forty million, so they say, in the last century, what with the wars, the purges, enforced collectivization . . . And Communism was still better than the time of the tsars, except for Stalin. Russia is built on death. Yours has been a peaceful time, by comparison. I don’t imagine you had to look over your shoulder too much, or watch your words.” The irony of what he was saying must have struck him, for he smiled.

    “Not in my time,” Elena said. “You wouldn’t want to say anything too stupid in public, obviously, and you don’t want to fall foul of the authorities. That’s why you and I made a run for it, after all. I don’t see a whole lot of difference before the end of the Soviet Union and now. Things have shifted, that’s all. We still have the secret police, but now we’ve got the Mafiya as well. Democracy just means that a few families and their cronies run things rather than the Party, as far as I can see. Everyone’s greedy, because they have to be. Everyone steals as much as they can from the State. We’ve become a nation of thieves. When I was a little girl, you’d have to queue in the shops for food, and things often ran out, or they’d produce too much of one thing. We were too big a country for a command economy to work properly. Now there’s plenty of stuff in the shops, but no one can afford it. It all depends on what blat you have, what pull, whether you know enough people in power to give you a ‘roof.’ ”

    Her colleague’s remark echoed in memory: We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. She repeated this to Ilya. “That’s all the country runs on now, dreams and air. Perhaps it’s always been this way.”

    The only Western author who played Russian characters well is Neil Gaiman in his “American Gods”. But the only reason he managed to do that is because he showd Russian emigrants to the U.S., characters the likes of who he could have met in his own country.

    And it’s only more the pity that Russian science fiction is unknown to western readers and writers, while there are some true gems which would not only help the western people to understand Russian characters, but would contribute to the world culture if they were known to the world outside Russia.

    Comment by Evgeny — January 8, 2011 @ 9:26 AM | Reply

  3. For example — I’ve mentioned Liz Williamz who attempted to work with a folk mythical Russian character, Ilya Murometz. I’m saying exactly that — “attempted to work”. If such a book was written by a Russian author, that would have been an absolute fail.

    For a comparison, you can see how that classic character was treated in a 2006 Russian fantasy novel, “Hrabr”, by Oleg Divov:


    Comment by Evgeny — January 8, 2011 @ 9:37 AM | Reply

  4. Sorry — I’ve immediately found something in the middle of your blog post to reply to. Then I read it carefully. I am not sure if it’s OK for me to say that — but please, take my sincere condolences. I wish you the courage to stay and to live through that.

    I have been reading some Chinese press recently. I think you may enjoy that (there are several photos and you can navigate through them):

    Comment by Evgeny — January 8, 2011 @ 12:07 PM | Reply

  5. “Someone (Spires?) was advising me to read Akunin” – er, no, that wasn’t me…I did however advise you to read Borges!

    Comment by Scowspi — January 11, 2011 @ 3:51 PM | Reply

    • Whew. That turned out to be utter crap. I mean, it’s the kind of mystery I don’t mind having on the TV while I’m doing laundry or something, but I kind of never want to read him again.

      Have you read anything by Akunin? Maybe it is just the translation, but actually, I struggle to see how it read in Russian. It was like the most formulaic English mystery with references (and references for references sake, providing no value or insight) to Russian lit thrown in. Oof. Either the translator rewrote the entire thing, or Akunin is adept at nothing but aping mediocre Anglophile literature.

      For now I am avoiding Borges with Hakuri Murakami.

      Comment by poemless — January 14, 2011 @ 6:03 PM | Reply

  6. Haven’t actually read Akunin. Keep meaning to, tho’ mainly for sociological reasons rather than literary. However, at the moment I’m re-acquainting myself with Bohumil Hrabal’s great story collection “The Death of Mr. Baltisberger,” just re-issued by the good folks at Northwestern University Press.

    Comment by Scowspi — January 16, 2011 @ 11:47 AM | Reply

  7. I thought Gorky Park was great, although not great literature. It captured Moscow in the winter perfectly, IMO. The next one in the series, Polar Star was also excellent IMO, because he made the cold and claustrophobia of the ship come through the pages. And the stories weren’t half bad either, at least compared to most contemporary thrillers. From there the books went downhill, but I read them anyway because I rather like Arkady Renko and I often remain loyal to writers who I have previously enjoyed (James Lee Burke is another).

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 21, 2011 @ 6:24 AM | Reply

    • Agreed; I really liked both Gorky Park and Polar Star. They were escapist lit with almost no redeeming qualities beyond the moment, but that’s what I was looking for. If I were looking for a book on national culture or political philosophy, I wouldn’t pick up a pocket novel. My wife reads Akunin, but I suspect she’s so hungry for Russian literature that she would read the Moscow telephone book.

      Comment by marknesop — January 24, 2011 @ 5:24 PM | Reply

      • I really enjoyed Gorky Park and Polar Star. But his last one sucked. Far worse than Akunin. It just had zero effort put into it. Anyway, in general, I like reading Martin Cruz Smith mysteries. But the article seems to imply he belongs to a class of “great literature” being produced by Westerners about Russia.

        Comment by poemless — January 24, 2011 @ 6:13 PM | Reply

  8. I’m zafraid I didn’t see the last one – and now I won’t bother to look for it. Like Tim, I liked the character of Arkady Renko; you can’t not like somebody who expects so little, and just keeps on keeping on in spite of getting even less than the little he expected. Also, I love seeing the investigative process unfold, and am a sucker for detective novels because of that weakness.

    Books that re-feature a common character are a lot like movie sequels; sometimes the author wrote another Arkady Renko novel just because his contract said he had to, although there was no story burning to be told.

    Comment by marknesop — January 25, 2011 @ 11:41 AM | Reply

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