Comparing Russian Literature to the Blue Bells Chronicles By Dr. Chris R. Powell

Dear Readers,

Russian literature, blue bells chronicles, great books, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky
Today, please welcome back Dr. Chris R. Powell, fellow author, musician, computer systems expert, woodworker, kilt-wearer, and all-around polymath, well-versed in many subjects. 

He will be appearing this Saturday, 8 am, on 950 AM in the Twin Cities, to talk about Russian literature and Russian beer, along with me, Ross Fishman of Kramer School of Music, beer cicerone Michael Agnew, and the Food Freedom Radio hosts, Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.

Ross immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was 11 years old, and will be talking about some of Pushkin's poetry.  I'm looking forward to his views, having come from Russia.  I believe he'll also be reading a poem or two in Russian and the English translations.

I invited Chris to write a blog post on some of the major Russian novelists.  I truly did not ask him to mention me at all, but he expands here on some of his previous thoughts regarding my own books.  I appreciated his insight into Russian literature.

Please welcome Dr. Chris R. Powell.

In a review of Laura’s books I posted to Amazon, I stated that her stories and character development rival the best of Russian literature.  Now, many might consider those to be fighting words, thinking of the 587,000 words in Tolstoy’s ponderous War and Peace.  While Laura can clearly compete on word count, numbering in the 100’s of 1000’s of words, that was not the basis of my review.  What we get with Laura’s books are depth of character development, extended stories, historical accuracy, and the pace of change across history and in the present day.  That’s what we see in the best of Russian literature, dating from the 1700’s onward.

First, what is the best in Russian literature?  The ultimate cage match:  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov?  Sigmund Freud considered TBK a masterpiece matched only by Hamlet and Oedipus Rex (funny he should mention that last one…).  Einstein considered TBK to be one of the most valuable things he ever read.  Dostoevsky and Nabokov considered AK to be the best ever written.  Hmm, maybe a tie.  So, maybe we need to consult an objective observer.  Here we have the top 10 list of all literature from Time and Life magazines in 2007:

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

It is telling that 4 of these top 10 are Russian.  Unfortunately for our friend Fyodor, though, he didn’t even break into the top 10 on this list.

One author wrote that “…part of what makes the 19th-century Russian writers so distinctive — why we still read them with such pleasure and fascination — is the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience. Not the computer-dating experience, obviously, or the airplane-seat-rage experience, or the “Where is the takeout I ordered an hour ago?” experience. But plenty of other crucial events and emotions appear, unforgettably, in their work: childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace.”   ~ NY Times


This is exactly what we see in the Blue Bells Chronicles--a story much like those told in Russian literature: stories that take place over a series of years and important events, told with historical accuracy, taking us through all of this--birth, death, love, loss, the highest of the heights, and the lowest of the lows.

But, it is deeper than that – there are 2 quotes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works that take us to some of the real reason the stories of Shawn, Amy, and Angus (and Simon Beaumont, of course) are so compelling:

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”  (From: The Idiot)

“I think the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness”.  (From: The Brothers Karamazov)

We see these quotes echoed in the crooked and long paths that Laura’s characters sometimes take to redemption – of themselves, of love, of their behavior, or honor and integrity.  

I see The Blue Bells Chronicles as an extended morality play, similar to Anna Karenina:

“Contrary to the title, I don’t like Anna and Vronsky and their mad, passionate affair. For me, this book is all about Kitty, Levin and the quest for happiness. Through them, Tolstoy gets to shout about his brand of morality. Getting to the heart of it, I think Tolstoy is really saying that happiness and being good are linked, and that to achieve both you mustn’t neglect your spiritual side. The very end of the book is similar to the style of War and Peace, as they both conclude with a very obvious message from the author. On this particular reading of Anna Karenina I enjoyed this part, although it was something I struggled with the first time. Tolstoy became an incredibly religious man in the last years of his life and perhaps put his own revelations and thoughts into Levin’s moment of spiritual awakening:

“My life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it!”  ~ Charlotte Reads Classics
  

I can imagine Shawn saying that.

Or, we sometimes see characters that are independent in The Blue Bells Chronicles, but, when looked at in a more complex light, might be the same character wrapped in a struggle with themselves, like we might see in a Russian story.  Consider Grushenka and Katerina in Dostoevesky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  Grushenka is described as a prostitute, a bitch, a wild animal and a kept woman.  “She would have drowned herself if that old merchant hadn’t stopped her then,” describing how Samsanov saved her.  In contrast, we have Katerina, a “girl of great beauty, a lady, a colonel’s daughter,” although Alyosha takes note of her “domineering ways,” and Dmitry calls his former fiancĂ©e a “hard, cruel woman, who knows how to hate.”   Later, when Katerina and Grushenka have a conflict over Dmitry, Grushenka actually displays higher integrity than Katerina, and we see parallels between them as she says, “We are too vicious, my good woman, both of us, and we’re both past the niceties of forgiveness.”  

I am reminded in this story of the contrast between Eamonn the monk of many times, and Simon, the Lord of Claverock, and killer of many times.  Simon is stymied in his attempts to rid all times of Eamonn, over and over again.  The adept killer is outrun, outshined, and out-maneuvered by Eamonn in a way that doesn’t suit his experience or moods.  I sometimes imagine Eamonn and Simon as the same character, wrestling over good and evil within.  This complexity is reminiscent of Russian literature.  (See: http://www.geocities.ws/kmseniorthesis/BrothersKaramazov)

We see beauty in works of Russian literature – but beauty that is not skin-deep, of a dime-store novel; we see beauty that is fundamentally of and from God.  An artist, Nina Tokhtaman Voletova said on Tolstoy’s theory on art:

“Art has nothing to do with beauty. All philosophical definition of beauty can be reduced to two main views: 1) Beauty is a manifestation of something metaphysical and absolutely perfect (god, will, ideas, etc.) and 2) a certain kind of beauty is the pleasure received by us... Metaphysical determination, claiming the beauty objectification nevertheless subjective.”

This also relates to beauty in a universal sense.  Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his work on the Evidential Power of Beauty, tells us that universal beauty (that is, of and from God) connects science and theology.  The truly greatest scientists (think Einstein, Copernicus, Sir Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Max Planck, among many others) knew that science never could stand alone in explaining the universe.  They believed that God built the universe on scientific and mathematical principles, which man, with proper perspective, could discover.  In Scottish history, and in the Chronicles, we see beauty in this way – it is a deeper meaning than Laura perhaps intended, but it came from the soul and is echoed in the work we’re both doing in the Theology of Music.

We see this also in Russian literature – the images of what is proper and expected, no matter one’s class or position in life, and what happens when someone does things other than proper and expected (think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina), and perhaps what we should do in the face of evil set up as proper and expected (think Solzhenitsyn).

Who are these great Russian authors?  I’ve listed them in reverse order below, with a few of their works listed, including quotes from their works or lives that remind us of Laura’s work and characters, followed by a note about that reference.  In this list we see Tolstoy edging out Dostoevsky as #1 and #2.  One reason for this among those who read is that Dostoesky’s writing can be darker, whereas Tolstoy does find happiness – in a Russian country scene, in love, in life.  Although, in a twist of karma related to this list, Tolstoy became an ascetic near the end of his life and died of pneumonia not long after.  How Dostoevsky-ish…  

10. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich)

• “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man” (from Robert the Bruce, to Shawn, we see this theme over and over)
• “Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people.  Let your memory be your travel bag.” (Perhaps Laura in a nutshell?)
• “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence” (Simon Beaumont’s “ethic”?)

9.  Ivan Turgenev (Father and Sons, Sportsman’s Collection (short stories))

• “O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorrow sits well upon your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say, 'I alone am alive – behold!' even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun .. like snow .. and perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to think that there is nothing you will not do: it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose. Each of us feels most deeply convinced that he has been too prodigal of his gifts – that he has a right to cry, 'Oh, what could I not have done, if only I had not wasted my time.” (from First Love) (Perhaps Shawn, reflecting to himself about Amy)

8. Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita)

Nabokov, great books, great stories, great literature, what to read next
• “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” (How many Lolitas did Shawn have?  How many “tangles of thorns” did he practically throw himself into?)

7. Mikhail Bulgakov  (The Master and the Margarita, Heart of a Dog, The White Guard)

• “The tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes never! You're asked an unexpected question, you don't even flinch, it takes just a second to get yourself under control, you know just what you have to say to hide the truth, and you speak very convincingly, and nothing in your face twitches to give you away. But the truth, alas, has been disturbed by the question, and it rises up from the depths of your soul to flicker in your eyes and all is lost.” (Amy perhaps, talking to, or about, Shawn)

6. Anton Chekhov (many important short stories)

• “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other” (Imagine Shawn’s bravado about life, with his lawful wife being music, and his life being his mistress)
• “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (For some reason, this takes me to Niall standing next to Loch Ness, contemplating getting in that currach)
• “What a fine weather today! Can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself.” (A typical day in Scotland, perhaps?)

5. Alexander Pushkin (Eugene Onegin, The Captain’s Daughter)

books that change lives, greatest Russian novels, greatest authors
• “Bound for your distant home you were leaving alien lands. In an hour as sad as I’ve known I wept over your hands. My hands were numb and cold, still trying to restrain you, whom my hurt told never to end this pain.
“But you snatched your lips away from our bitterest kiss. You invoked another place than the dismal exile of this. You said, ‘When we meet again, in the shadow of olive-trees, we shall kiss, in a love without pain, under cloudless infinities.’
“But there, alas, where the sky shines with blue radiance, where olive-tree shadows lie on the waters glittering dance, your beauty, your suffering, are lost in eternity. But the sweet kiss of our meeting ...... I wait for it: you owe it me .......” (I imagine Angus finding and thinking over this poem)

4. Ivan Bunin (The Village, Dry Valley, the autobiographical The Life of Arseniev)

• “On the second and the third night there was again a ball -- this time in midocean, during a furious storm sweeping over the ocean, which roared like a funeral mass and rolled up mountainous seas fringed with mourning silvery foam. The Devil, who from the rocks of Gibraltar, the stony gateway of two worlds, watched the ship vanish into night and storm, could hardly distinguish from behind the snow the innumerable fiery eyes of the ship. The Devil was as huge as a cliff, but the ship was even bigger, a many-storied, many-stacked giant, created by the arrogance of the New Man with his ancient heart.” (from The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories) (and this is where Angus arrives with his inflatable boat and motor to save half of Scotland on that ship!!)

3. Nicolai Golgol (Taras Bulba, Dead Souls)

• “The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.” (I thought this was a witty quote that basically summarizes all of Irish literature)
• “I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.” (perhaps a summary of the entire Blue Bells Chronicles?)
• “There are occasions when a woman, no matter how weak and impotent in character she may be in comparison with a man, will yet suddenly become not only harder than any man, but even harder than anything and everything in the world.” (from Dead Souls) (We see this in Amy, Christina, and other women in the books)

2. Fyodor Dostoevsky (The House of the Dead, The Insulted, The Injured, Winter Notes on Summer Impression, Crime and Punishment)

read a good book, greatest authors, great authors
• “Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” (from The Brothers Karamazov) (This is Shawn early in the stories)
• “People speak sometimes about the "bestial" cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” (paging Mr. Simon…)
• “I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can't help re-living such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experienced. I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year. I feel I know you so well that I couldn't have known you better if we'd been friends for twenty years. You won't fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you've made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you've reconciled me with myself, resolved all my doubts.
“When I woke up it seemed to me that some snatch of a tune I had known for a long time, I had heard somewhere before but had forgotten, a melody of great sweetness, was coming back to me now. It seemed to me that it had been trying to emerge from my soul all my life, and only now-
“If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don't need to wish her anything, for she'll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be for ever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn't such a moment sufficient for the whole of one's life?” (from White Nights) (again, I think of Angus and this quote)
 1. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina)

• “A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.” (from Family Happiness)  (I have heard the Blue Bells author yearn for this life.)
• “Love. The reason I dislike that word is that it means too much for me, far more than you can understand.” (Anna Karenina, quoted in Anna Karenina) (This is basically the entire novel summarized in one sentence.  Imagine this quote being said by Christina, by Amy, by Shawn, by Angus…)  
• “All the girls in the world were divided into two classes: one class included all the girls in the world except her, and they had all the usual human feelings and were very ordinary girls; while the other class -herself alone- had no weaknesses and was superior to all humanity.” (Anna Karenina) (Shawn’s thoughts about Christina)  
• “I always loved you, and if one loves anyone, one loves the whole person, just as they are and not as one would like them to be.” (Dolly, quoted in Anna Karenina) (perhaps the lesson Amy learns about Shawn)

Why is Russian Literature like the Blue Bells Chronicles?  Also consider that Russia in the 18th century essentially “time-traveled” to Western ideas in a very quick fashion, attempting to integrate lessons (and language) from France against its very Russian history.

“The mid-1800s Russians are definitely amazing, but they are even better with a little bit of context. The main salient detail is that the nobility was suddenly and abruptly westernized by Peter the Great, circa 1700. Even 150 years later, a lot of what is going on is that these guys are caught between two worlds, one feudal, folk, collective, and Russian, the other modern, sophisticated, individual, and largely French. You'll notice in a lot of the novels that the nobility speak French more than Russian, and in fact a lot of them couldn't even speak or write Russian very well. That is, until the mid-1800s, when a real movement to reclaim Russian identity arose. Not coincidentally, a real Russian literature arose at roughly the same time, and a lot of the people who created it were also the people trying to figure out how to integrate their Western and Russian identities. 

“The sudden Westernization and resulting inferiority complex also meant that they tended to get Western ideas at an extra level of abstraction, and in some cases to take them way more literally and seriously than the people who came up with them in the first place. This is where you get a lot of the wacky radical extremism found in the fringe characters of Dostoevksy, though some of that was doubtless amplified for satirical or socratic purposes. But Turgenev's Bazarov in Fathers and Sons is evidently a pretty accurate portrait of some of the young radicals around at the time he, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky were writing, and the sporadic utter ideological wackiness of critics like Belinsky and Chernyshevsky is also pretty established in the records of their interactions with the big three authors of the time. 

“It was sort of a fundamentalist religious tempermental approach to modern ideas and science. They took these things deadly seriously in some cases, and took lots of things to their logical conclusions and well beyond. It's really interesting because you have very intelligent people who are well-versed in the ideas that would make the 20th Century, for better or worse, but who were also approaching them from a different angle, from outside the traditions they were working in, and without a lot of the assumptions that Europe and the rest of the West were working from. So you get the same attempts to adjust to and define the early modern world, but with very different emphases and insights and approaches.

“So you've got all that going on, plus a Victorian-London-esque, chaotic, rapidly urbanizing society in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a debate over serfdom that had similarities to and was contemporaneous with the US debate over slavery, frontier expansion at the expense of indigenous peoples and a manifest destiny sort of tint to the rising nationalism that also mirrored what was going on in the US, a colonialistlike romanticization of both the indigenous people and Muslims they were conquering and their own peasants, who they were just about as alienated from as the former. And looming ominously over all of this ferment, there was an archaic, absurd, dysfunctional, wildly unpredictable autocratic state. 

“Dostoevsky went through a mock execution and was sent to Siberia for 10 years basically over handing out some flyers. Others at different times got away with much more with impunity. It was all pretty arbitrary and the rules were constantly changing. Things opened up a lot by the mid 1850's, but everything was still subject to the capricious whim of the censors, the social arrangement of the nobility, and the czar. So, there was a lot of subtext and parable and allusion going on to get around
that, and the feelings of political powerlessness and precariousness really colored the outlooks of the writers, especially Dostoevsky” 

(See: https://www.librarything.com/topic/10538)

These jarring changes are definitely seen as Niall visits the present day from the 14th century, and learns how modern society was completely different from his day.  Yet, he integrated, learning quickly how to fit in and not look like a bumbling medieval tourist.  And, vice versa, when Shawn traveled back, as a pompous womanizing internationally-famous musician, he became a fit, effective knight fighting alongside the Good Sir James in guerrilla raids inside the English border, well-versed in piety, family, and principle, even if he didn’t practice those ideals all the time.  The Laird, and Niall, and, well, half of Scotland, probably wanted Shawn roasted over a spit, but he did learn, and, most of all, he learned what he needed to do once he returned to his own time.  Those moral lessons were learned in Russian literature, as well, sometimes bitterly as moral lessons frequently are.

So, if you haven’t yet, read the great Russian authors.  And, read Laura’s books as well!

About the Author:

Dr. Powell is the author of The Path that Shines, a medical memoir about the illnesses faced by his late wife, Bonnie.  It has been compared to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.  He plays trombone, piano, guitar, and drums, and is the proud owner of both a sackbut and harpsichord.  He works as a systems specialist for large systems, and is the father of one daughter.


COMING UP:

  • February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman Pushkin and Russia, and Dr. Chris R. Powell on Russian literature.  We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.
  • March 20-24, 2017: Indie-Con, an online convention of indie authors in which I'll be participating with guest blogs, Q&A, and critiquing.

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