Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Endurance ("The Most Dangerous Book" by Kevin Birgmingham & "The Zhivago Affair" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee)

To be a great writer is to suffer, it seems, under the weight of your own extraordinary talents. Those few whose careers lacked any serious trials or tribulations--Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James--are paled by the hundreds of canonized writers whose biographies read like tragic novels all their own. Emily Dickinson, for instance, spent most of her life as a recluse in her parents' home, where she wrote in her private bedroom and conducted much of her relationships through letters. Herman Melville's failed attempts at writing serious, long-lasting works of fiction brought about the dissolution of his family and the collapse of his already unsteady mental state, and he remained in obscurity for more than three decades after his death, a punchline wrapped up in a footnote.

Others were victimized by the governments under which they wrote, their work breaking through the propaganda and revisionism that justified appalling abuses of power. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for instance, was raised by his widowed mother in the impoverished and totalitarian Soviet Union, served as a battery commander in World War II, and was shuffled between Soviet work- and prison-camps for eight years while also suffering from an undiagnosed cancer that would almost kill him; after he was released, he kept his writing in jars that he buried in his garden so they would not be discovered and taken, won the Nobel Prize, survived an assassination attempt, and was deported. When Solzhenitsyn died in 2008 at age 89, it was almost like a Russian epic was itself ending, daring you to challenge its veracity.

And, of course, there are those whose entire lives were a constant, unending balance between hedonistic adventures and the work that hedonism inspired--a paradox in which the very experiences that served to nurture interesting fiction also shortened the lives of those who wrote about them. The most recognized of all these is Ernest Hemingway, the barrel-chested big-gamesman who survived not only World War I but the Spanish Civil War and World War II--he drove ambulance in the first and covered the latter two as a journalist, all voluntarily--along with two successive plane crashes while on safari in Africa, lived in Paris, married four times, and suffered from physical and psychiatric disorders so varied and severe that it is surprising he survived as long as he did. We see his life reflected in the experiences of his characters, who are wounded in war, struggle with depression and a then-undiagnosed condition called PTSD, fall for and lose beautiful women, and duel with the natural world around them, often fruitlessly.

Last month saw the release of two nonfiction books each concerning an author, their most famous work, and the ways in which their lives fell apart because of it. The first, Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book, concerns Irish writer James Joyce and the controversy surrounding his 1922 novel Ulysses, which became the focus of widespread censorship efforts in much of the English-speaking world and corresponded with Joyce's decline in health. The second, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee's The Zhivago Affair, tells the story of Boris Pasternak's epic novel about Russian life after the October Revolution--an event that transformed Russia into a communist state thereafter called the Soviet Union, which eventually fell under the control of dictator Joseph Stalin. Finn and Couvee's history traces Pasternak's career, the government's reaction to his work, and ways in which the CIA used his book as propaganda in the midst of the Cold War. In both books we see how literature can change the world and convey new ideas to people who suffer under censorship and totalitarianism; how one person can bring those ideas to millions using only ink and paper; and how everyday people will put their own livelihoods--and, often, life itself--at risk to see these ideas distributed worldwide, all to further literature's true role in society.

Still, there are differences between the two men that are worth noting. Joyce wrote as a free man throughout Europe, and the poverty he experienced through much of his life was almost entirely of his own design. He refused to compromise his artistry, and his arrogance towards others was immeasurable. (He once told poet W.B. Yeats, then 37 years old and already considered one of the greatest poets of his generation, that he--Joyce--could have helped make his poetry better if Yeats hadn't been so old and already set in his ways. Joyce was himself 20 years old at the time.) And when Joyce was seeking out a publisher for his most famous and infamous work, an experimental novel based on The Odyssey and running over 700 pages long, he did so before the book was even finished--not an unusual practice at the time, but one that forced his potential publishers into an awkward position of having to approve a book they had not seen in full, and one that would get even more sexually detailed as it progressed towards its final chapter. For years Joyce and his allies labored to see the work realized in print and available to as many people as possible, and for years he was stopped by government censors on both side of the Atlantic. In the case of the United States, Joyce's work was halted by the Post Office, who confiscated every serialized copy of the novel, burned them, and threatened jail-time for their publishers--who, in the case of Ulysses, were almost always women.

The great unspoken irony of Ulysses is that, after every major American publisher rejected the novel outright--and every great American publisher at that time was owned and operated by men--Joyce's work fell into the possession of a half-dozen passionate and determined women, many of whom were also politically active--at least one was a former anarchist--who saw the struggle between free speech and self-preservation and chose the former without hesitation. They knew this small-press crusade for freedom of ideas and expression might lead to their own incarceration--their own loss of freedom--especially under federal law, and they published excerpts of Joyce's novel anyway. In Europe, it fell to an American-born bookshop owner named Sylvia Beach to publish Ulysses in full for the first time. Working with a single French typesetter, she put out a respectable first edition, which sold at the rate of a modern bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and finally introduced readers to the world of Joyce's protagonist Leopold Bloom, as well as his wife Molly, whose closing monologue not only ended the novel but introduced the world to a female character whose thoughts were complex, detailed, complicated, occasionally obscene, and totally uninterrupted by the hands of men. Not only was this a revolutionary way to end an already revolutionary novel, it was a note on the strength and independence of modern women that also served as an unintended monument to the women who'd brought Joyce's words to the public when no one else would.

Women would serve a primary role in the life of Boris Pasternak, too, but in a much more tragic way. Married for much of his life, Pasternak took mistresses, and the Soviet government used one of these relationships to try and bully Pasternak into renouncing his novel and submitting to the wishes of a government that had little interest in his work, especially after a draft of his novel Doctor Zhivago was spirited out of the country, published by foreign presses, and garnered him international fame, a sizable income, and the Nobel Prize. A poet for most of his life, Pasternak's foray into narrative fiction came from a desire to show how the promises of the October Revolution had been corrupted and suffocated by the Communist government that had sprung from the revolution's bloody soil. Though they had been promised equality of life and peace of mind there was now violence and fear from the all-powerful Joseph Stalin, his strongmen, and his successors. Millions of Pasternak's countrymen were beaten, shipped off to gulags and work-camps, tortured, coerced, and killed, often on little to no evidence other than the spite and paranoia of those in charge. Others were followed by agents of the government, communications both inside and outside of the country were intercepted or forged, and any work that went against the wishes of the government was suppressed and even destroyed. By writing a novel that depicted the Soviet government as undermining the goals of the revolution, Pasternak was putting himself in serious danger, but the government was never violent towards Pasternak himself; instead, they brought immense pain and suffering down on Pasternak's mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, who was sent to a gulag for five years and, as a result, miscarried her and Pasternak's child. Later, Pasternak would write of Ivinskaya, "She was put in jail on my account, as the person considered by the secret police to be closest to me, and they hoped that by means of a grueling interrogation and threats they could extract enough evidence from her to put me on trial. I owe my life, and the fact that they did not touch me in those years, to her heroism and endurance."

Like Joyce, Pasternak's novel found publication through a series of covert channels. Where Ulysses was deemed too overtly sexual by potential publishers, who saw his writing as pornographic, Doctor Zhivago was considered too condemnatory towards the Soviet government, and it took the negotiating skills of an Italian publisher (who also happened to be a communist) to convince Pasternak that his novel could be released by a foreign press, which it eventually was. Unfortunately for Pasternak, this was in direct violation of the Soviet government's own laws, which forbade writers to publish their work in other countries without first getting approval to publish in the Soviet Union, which they had not and would not grant to Pasternak. When the CIA caught wind of the controversy over his book, they printed thousands of copies in its original Russian, which they filtered into the Soviet Union as a way to undermine the government's authority. (In one instance, Soviet citizens who were given a copy of the book outside of their home country ripped off the book's cover, divided up its pages, and stuffed the entire novel in their clothes in order to sneak it back with them.) None of this, however, helped Pasternak avoid the propaganda- and fear-fueled backlash he experienced from his fellow writers and countrymen, who denounced him openly and called for his deportation, his novel equivalent to treason, even though almost no one had read anything other than excerpts selected and published by the government itself--a strategy utilized decades earlier by American censors who hoped to undermine any claims of Ulysses' literary merit by isolating portions of the novel in which Joyce uses sexual and anatomical terms with abandon, again to represent a book that almost no one had read.

In the end, both novels came to be the lauded as the best work by their respective authors, with Ulysses being deemed the "finest English-language novel published this century" by the Modern Library in 1998, a decision that surprised many and confounded most. Unfortunately, neither Joyce nor Pasternak would live long enough to see themselves fully vindicated and their work installed as classics among the cannon of world literature, though Joyce's arrogance and Pasternak's Nobel Prize all but guaranteed it. Decades later, their stories offer us insight not only into the pressures both men felt--Joyce's self-imposed because of a debilitating illness, Pasternak's from the country he called his home--but the ways in which those who attempt to suppress important and revolutionary literature, who try to stifle the spread of ideas, will always lose, as human progress invariably moves towards a future that offers us a freer and more open mind, regardless of where we live and what we live for. It is this aspect of literature that makes Joyce and Pasternak worthy of study, their novels worthy of being read, and their stories worth being told, if for no other reason than to let us see just what fear can cost us.