It’s a novel about the early days of the Russian Revolution, the civil war and the famine that ravaged the Soviet Union. The extremes of hunger and poverty are set off against the high living and obscene wealth of those taking advantage of the Soviet government’s New Economic Policy. A story of love and betrayal runs through it all, and ongoing love in spite of betrayal, of working for the revolution, of trying to more or less ignore it, of falling victim to the new regime’s increasingly bloody nature.
So then how many thick volumes do you think this Russian epic takes up? Four, five, six Solzhenitsyn-size tomes? Less? What about just one? Not even that? Cynics by Anatoly Mariengof actually clocks in at just over 30,000 words. It’s a short, epic novella.
The Silent Era
There is a divide between the cinema of the 1920s and what came after it that cannot be entirely explained by the introduction of sound. Of course it was through sound and then dialogue that naturalism achieved its stranglehold on the medium, but before films were written and directed exclusively by professionals they were also occasionally made by artists, writers and poets experimenting with one of many media in which it was possible to create works of art. Fernand Léger, Antonin Artaud and Man Ray were just some of the artists working in film in the 20s, and movies like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Man with a Movie Camera seemed archaic in a way a decade after their release; they were too aesthetically daring.
Which brings up another reason for the end of the avant-garde dimension of the silent cinema. Because the late 20s and early 30s ushered in a silent era in a very different sense of the word. Russian and German film were two of the most varied and innovative strands of silent film, and far from running their artistic course they were given premature burials by the reactionary tastes and repressive policies of Stalin and Hitler, both avid film fans with their own ideas of what cinema should do.
So what does this foray into early film history have to do with Mariengof’s rediscovered novella? Quite a lot, actually. For one thing, the Imaginist poet was one of those artists who tried his hand at screenwriting, having worked on scripts for the 1929 adaptation of Tolstoy’s play The Living Corpse (German intertitles, English subtitles) and the early Soviet comedy classic The House on Trubnaya. He collaborated with directing legends such as Fyodor Ozep, Lev Kuleshov, Boris Barnet and fellow avant-garde writers Viktor Shklovsky, Nikolai Erdman, and fellow Imaginist poet Vadim Shershenevich.
But Cynics’ resemblance to a rediscovered silent-era film runs much deeper than its creator’s work in screenwriting. The novella itself is like a lost masterpiece of montage, a film by Eisenstein or Pudovkin left languishing in an old unmarked film canister, forgotten. Cynics was published by Russian émigré publisher Petropolis in Berlin in 1928, and was not available in Russia until 1988. The English translation by Andrew Bromfield was published by Glas in 1991 in the publisher’s inaugural collection . (There was a previous English translation in 1973 that is now out of print).
Mariengof was not the first or only writer to adapt the techniques of cinema to prose writing. John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin are two of the more famous examples, but Cynics takes this experimentation further and is wielded more effectively and with greater control. The novella’s shorter length was an advantage in this respect, with each scene and chapter treated like a shot to be edited right up against the succeeding shot.
Mariengof uses this technique to alternate between scenes of extreme and immediate contrast – a luxurious restaurant next to reports of starvation – but also between ancient and modern Russian history, between dialogue and documentary images, as well as between a montage of visual symbolism typical on the silent screen, but highly unusual in a novel.
When Olga matter-of-factly confesses that she has become her brother-in-law Sergei’s lover the chapter ends with Vladimir lighting a match, saying only, “Would you mind taking a bath, please?” The next chapter consists of a historical reflection on the Moscow fire of 1445, history being an indirect way to enter into Vladimir’s inner state.
The Living and the Dead (part I)
Writing teachers tell their students to create characters that exhibit change and growth. Mariengof, fortunately, never got this lesson, and Olga and Vladimir don’t show the faintest trace of personal growth. They remain hopelessly passive. She lounges around eating chocolates; he avoids dealing with her infidelities, reflects on history and takes a few walks. A tremendous amount of action takes place in this novella, but not in the sphere of its characters so much as in the history they are so reluctantly being forced to witness.
In order to stress the phantom-like existence of his characters being swept along by events Mariengof places them in a world of objects more alive than they are. To achieve this almost menacing Alice-in-Wonderland effect he doesn’t resort to the fantastic or to creating an overpowering sense of atmosphere, but to similes that as you read achieve a powerful cumulative force. “The lamp-posts on the corners feel the chill in their long legs,” and “Like a housewife buying a melon from a cart, the frost feels my skull to see whether it is crisp or not,” – to the point where everything from the moon to the furniture to the not always available food (“The radishes are pouting their plump red lips as though they have taken offence at something.”) is vital and alive. It is only the characters who sit around pouting (Olga) and staring off into space quoting historical figures (Vladimir).
You might think the title of the novella refers to the two main characters, who certainly display more than their fair share of cynicism. Yet what about everyone else? Are there any non-cynics? Dokuchaev, the rich nepman who sees the famine as a business opportunity, possesses a cynicism far deeper than anything the jaded Olga and Vladimir could ever aspire to. And what about the Communist leaders so thoroughly insulated from the dire consequences of their own policies?
And the novella itself is far from being a cynical romp. In fact, from the outset Mariengof has laid the groundwork for something quite unexpected. In the beginning of this old black and white film the darker shades are all devoted to the characters’ sarcasm and bleak view of goings-on while the documentary chapters merely record the ups and downs of the revolution’s first steps. This begins to shift, though even the reports of arrests and deaths are handled with macabre humor for a while.
The Living and the Dead (part II)
An then comes the short and succinct Chapter 12 in 1922: “The peasants have begun eating gophers.” Considering all the black humor and absurd imagery that have piled up so far this one-line chapter with its unglamorous animal might seem to be another invitation to laughter, except that this laughter gets caught in your throat. Soviet mismanagement, drought and civil war have transformed absurdism into the harshest realism, and any sense of a joke fades away into evidence of mass starvation. Mariengof has led his readers to the edge of the abyss without any moral clarion call or sentimental glosses to prepare ourselves for what we are about to see.
Suddenly the documentary chapters take on a bleakness that make Olga and Vladimir’s outlook seem positively radiant. Imagine a contemporary writer dealing with this subject: wouldn’t they most likely tell the story of the famine in the voice of a survivor, preferably a child or teenager, rather than in voiceless, emotionless dispatches?
The Part About the Cannibals
And having brought us to the edge Mariengof doesn’t hesitate in then pushing us over. Scenes of Moscow luxury and corruption alternate with reports from the countryside of the escalating crisis: “In the village of Slovenko, in the Pugachov rural district, the peasant woman Golodkina divided up the corpse of her dead daughter between her living children. The hands were stolen by the Selivanov orphans.”
Like the similes of living objects these pitiless accounts have a shocking and cumulative effect, much in the same way that the similarly brutal “The Part About the Crimes” section does in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. At the same time, Mariengof’s montage and use of short and intense bursts of violence strikes me as being more powerful than Bolaño’s endless, graphic description. For one thing, Bolaño’s cumulative effect ends partly in numbness, however intentional that is. Mariengof aims to keep the reader’s nerves jarred and on edge, so the above example is followed in the next chapter as starkly as possible: “The fat, well-fed samovar purrs and screws up its eyes in contentment.”
Sarcasm and Obscurity
Though Mariengof only published Cynics abroad he was forced to apologize to Soviet authorities for this unauthorized step. Reading through it you wonder what he was thinking trying to publish it at all while still living in the Soviet Union. Dilute its sarcasm by 95% and it would still seem unimaginable to expect to get away with it. Its satire cuts so deep that you can’t even say he was writing for his desk drawer but for an even more remote and inaccessible destination, like an underground crypt or a time capsule sent into outer space. The half century of obscurity this book was condemned to was tragic but obviously beyond our control. If it drifts back into obscurity now that we have it in English we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Photos – 1) Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, 1929, 2) Anatoly Mariengof, 3) Phantom by F.W. Murnau, 1922, 4) Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein, 1925