Monday, September 23, 2013

The Great Siberian Railroad

After watching a documentary on the Trans-Siberian railway, I looked for an early account of this famous journey by Eugen Zabel.   He was apparently the first foreigner to take the route from Moscow to Vladivostok, publishing his account in Germany in 1903.

Construction was yet to be completed and Zabel had to take a ferry at Lake Baikal to meet up with the under end.  He seemed to revel in this long journey, which stretched over 9000 km, noting the beauty of the iron bridges.  This is twice as long as the Trans-continental railroad in the United States, which the Romanovs used as a model.

Russia was being industrialized at a rapid rate and the only way to bring together this far-flung empire was with a railroad line linking East and West.  It wouldn't be until 1916 that the railway line was completed, 25 years after its inception date.

Russia was in a massive state of upheaval, which would stretch beyond WWI into the civil war that divided Red and White Russia until 1922.  The train figures heavily into Russian literature, no less than in Dr. Zhivago, in which we read of his family enduring long winter train rides to escape the revolution.

This lovely Faberge egg had been commissioned in 1900 by Tsar Nicholas II for Alexandra Fyodorovna with a lovely gold miniature train inside.

Paul Theroux evocatively captured this great rail experience in The Great Railway Bazaar, a trip he took in 1973, launching him on a great many travels that he would later write about. He included his experiences on the Trans-Manchurian railway, which connects to theTrans-Siberian railway at Tarskaya.   I couldn't convince my wife to take the 17-day trip next summer, so this is probably the closest I will get to experiencing the journey.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bedside or Wastebasket

As Edmund Wilson found out, it is best not to try to predict Nabokov's literary tastes when he lent him a review copy of Faulkner's Light of August thinking Vladimir would appreciate it as much as he did.  Nabokov dismissed this work like he did all of Faulkner's work as trite and tedious romances.

Nabokov was infamous for dismissing canonical authors such as Dostoevsky and Henry James and Albert Camus.  He had no soft spot for the much revered Cervantes either, calling Don Quizote "a cruel and crude book," although he doesn't deny the influence it had on Russian writers of the 19th century.  He just felt that his dear Pushkin and Lermontov greatly rose above it in their poems and stories.

I was a bit surprised to see he so disliked Henry James.  Portrait of a Lady struck me as the type of novel that might appeal to him, as James rises above the social milieu of the time to create a very striking portrait of Isabel Archer, and James has a wonderful sense of time and space, which Nabokov liked so much about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Of course, there were many novelists he did like.  John Updike and J.D. Salinger both received high marks.  He liked Melville and had a soft spot for H.G. Wells.  He also singled out great works of authors while he panned others.  Such was the case with James Joyce, praising Ulysses but blasting Finnegan's Wake.  Likewise with Gogol, whenever he displayed his strong nationalist bent in stories like Taras Bulba, while regarding Dead Souls as one of the great Russian novels, and even speaking highly of Guerney's English translation, which was exceedingly rare.

For Nabokov it was a love/hate relationship with novels.  It was either by his bedside or in the wastebasket, as far as he was concerned.  There was no in between.