May 2013

Madeleine Monson-Rosen

fiction

Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century translated by Muireann Maguire

Muireann Maguire's Red Spectres are not the spectres of Marx's Communist manifesto. Their red is not the red of the Bolsheviks. Many, although not all, are the ghosts of the dying Russian aristocracy. This sense of decayed aristocracy gives these stories something in common with their nineteenth-century Anglo-American counterparts, although that decay isn't manifested so much in spooky old houses as it is in hauntings that push the boundaries of perception and reason in the world. If these stories have an English relation, it is Frankenstein's creature, although his Russian cousins often eschew his Romantic fervor for a more exhausted, sometimes cynical, war-weary satire.

The title alludes to this anthology's most famous (for English-speaking readers) author, Mikhail Bulgakov. In "The Red Crown," a story subtitled "Historia morbi," or the history of the narrator's mental disease, the protagonist begins by searching for his brother, a cavalry officer: "He had ridden away in a grey officer's cap; he came back in a red one. And the day had ended. His face had become a black shield under a coloured crown. Where his hair and his brow had been was a crimson halo with yellow flecks. The horseman with the tousled red crown was my brother... Two wet red stains were all that remained of the bright eyes sparkling an hour before." This red crown is composed of the exploded flesh, bone, and brain of our narrator's poor brother, and it also crowns this collection.

Bulgakov has the most facility with the pervasive terror that seems to infuse Russia itself during its 1917-1922 civil war. His other offering in this collection, "A Séance," is wonderfully supernatural satire: a group of silly fallen bourgeois, who think they are communing with the spirits of Napoleon and Aristotle, are done in by a maid they believe a fool. Instead of conjuring spirits, this party conjures the secret police: "The spirit cast his eyes over the chaos of the spiritualist's room and, smirking unpleasantly, said: 'Your documents, please comrades...'"

While Bulgakov, unsurprisingly, offers the most overt evocations of the rise of the Bolshevik regime, this anthology is also haunted by the spectres of Russia's rapid industrial evolution. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's "The Phantom" relates the story of a preserved fetus, mysteriously come to life, that pursues the medical student who attended its bizarre birth. The would-be doctor causes this birth with a misstep during a classroom exercise with forceps and a "phantom," a word whose medical meaning describes a model of the human body: in this case, a female torso and birth canal. This reanimated fetus pontificates with its tongue in cheek, "Books are well aware that there's no such thing as free will, but the authors of books have already forgotten this." This "minus of a minus, the non-being of non-being" must pilfer preservative: "Because of the rain and the damp, my body was softening and dissolving; putrid fluids, accumulating in the sublimate and alcohol, went rancid and tormented me." This stillborn, reborn phantom-in-two-senses certainly suggests Frankenstein's creature when he lectures the tormented doctor who created him on Kant and teleology. Yet while in Frankenstein the creature and his creator appear locked in an eternal cycle of hunter and prey, in "The Phantom" both protagonists finally expire. A metaphor, perhaps, for the futility of philosophy and science under totalitarian dictatorship.

This sense of futility, of sardonic resignation and creeping cynicism, is the stuff of much great fiction in this anthology, and it puts this work into relation, politically and geographically, with the masters of the fantastic form: Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz are often seen to have appeared without contemporaries. It is with these writers, whom Philip Roth identified as hailing from the "other Europe" that the fictions in Red Spectres create a lineage, an other Gothic. These writers are historical and thematic contemporaries, sharing a tense negotiation with the rise of industry hand in hand with the rise of the totalitarian state. Borges said that every writer creates his own precursors, and together this group of precursors creates an alternate Gothic lineage for the more familiar figures of fantastic fiction for which there seemed few antecedents.

This other Gothic is further represented in two stories whose eerie proximity in the anthology is a coincidence, as the book is organized alphabetically. The first story, Valery Bryusov's "In the Mirror" and the third, Aleksandr Chayanov's "The Venetian Mirror" both imagine worlds through looking glasses. In the first, a woman is held captive by her evil mirror-double, who makes her a mere puppet, "I saw before me my boudoir as I looked out from the mirror. My rival was standing in front of me and laughing. And I -- oh, the cruelty of it! -- I who was dying from torture and humiliation, I had to laugh as well, repeating each of her grimaces, in exultant, joyful laughter." In the second, the protagonist, a gallant gentleman, has his position and his lover usurped by "the glass man," his own mirror double. Are these allegories of aristocratic narcissism at the end of empire? Are they reckonings with dark desires that psychoanalysis had only recently unearthed? Yes, and much more.

Maguire's introduction argues that these stories "transcend the specificities of the Soviet era." While the stories transcend, the authors did not. Bryusov died in 1924, while Chayanov, "an agronomist by training," was executed for treason in 1937 (perhaps a casualty of Trofim Lysenko's pseudoscientific agricultural policy, an instance when totalitarianism resulted in a national mania far more horrific than any revenant represented here). Maguire's hand is deft in introduction and translation. Her facility with the specificities of time, place, social class, and condition in each story seem effortlessly clear, and each author emerges in the individual idiosyncrasies of voice and tone. She observes for instance, in a discreet footnote, when Chayanov "is indulging his specialist knowledge of agronomy." Indeed, Chayanov, a scientist with a taste for the strange and fantastic, a lover of the tales of E.T.A. Hoffman and, in turn, an inspiration for Bulgakov, whose three tales are highlights in this collection, bears the standard for this other Gothic, but we have Maguire to thank for collecting and translating these truly exquisite tales.

Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century translated by Muireann Maguire
Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1468303483
224 pages