19 March 2014

Falling on One's Face in the Haymow: Some Thoughts on Russian Novels

Part One: The Unhappy Family

The characters in certain Russian novels, as a genre, have a curious habit of experiencing great revelations, falling on their faces in moments of ecstatic clarity, shouting their innermost thoughts with many exclamation points and many ellipses, and setting off into the future with bold ideals aflame within them. They are forever going into raptures or suicidal rage over the time of day, the sticky leaf buds, the fact that no one answered the door, or just how Russian Russia is. You know that someone is a bad guy in a Russian novel when he has the presence of mind to speak at something less than full throttle and in French.

(What I find especially curious about all this expressiveness on the printed page is that most of the Russians I know in real life are extremely reserved.)

I was trying to figure out whether the emotional intensity comes about because the protagonists of these novels are all in their teens or early twenties (there is always the wise old man with a Russian face who serves as a sort of foil to their youthful exuberance and confusion), or if this is how a person should live, even as an adult: in a constant state of amazement.

There are little revelations in my life, even daily when I remember to notice them, but I am not shocked that there are revelations. I occasionally discover something new and exciting to become but it does not make me fall on my face in the haymow; it feels more like checking the mail and learning that there is a sale on the pots I need from IKEA: like, oh, yes, correct, goody, what hashgacha, let me put that on my calendar, it will be fun to get round to that.

I began to wonder whether the emotional intensity of Russian novels should be attributed to the fact that so many of them were written by aristocrats: perhaps, I said, this is what people experience every day when they have no housework to do (since no matter what turmoil you experience in life, dishes remain dishes)...

...but no. The answer to this riddle (thank you Rabbi Estuary) is that one doesn't experience constant, dramatic, sweeping redefinitions of self and the world unless one is a bit lost about how to define oneself to begin with.

(In other words, you don't make a good Russian novel unless you are an “unhappy family”...)

Part Two: So What Is Life Like in the Happy Family?

In the Megilla of Esther, Achashverosh wished to rescind the taxes from the province to which his new queen belonged; and, when she would not tell him which it was, he rescinded the taxes from all 127 provinces. This morning I saw (in Rav Brevda – so the Gra, probably) a strange verse in Ch. 10, at the very end of the Megilla. There has been life and death and political intrigue and hangings and rioting in the streets – and what is on Achashverosh's mind? Reinstating those taxes. Achashverosh hu Achashverosh, he remains the same villain at the end that he was at the beginning; he is completely unaffected by Purim.

Which is not the case with the Jews, who are still putting a fedora on the lab skeleton and turning the furniture in the classroom on its nose to celebrate Adar, not even Purim yet, a thousand-odd years later.

So yes- a person is supposed to be sensitive to the lessons set out in this world. “When life gets boring, make yourself interesting,” said Rabbi Iridescent to me, once. Or as my friend Zokaif said once, sometimes we need to furnish our own background music.

The little revelations do not make for great Russian fiction, but they are not so little for that. Sometimes the sticky little leaves are in the housework.

G-d is in the Megilla although His Name is not.

No comments:

Post a Comment