Winter 2016-17

A series of winter trips have taken me to Mexico City, Cartagena, Saigon, Angkor Wat, Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei, and Washington. This has not allowed me to find time to work on the writing. Only 3 months of the past 10 I didn’t travel somewhere. However, I feel that all my future writing benefits from the education gained via exploration of unfamiliar cities and countries. Ann Radcliffe wrote quite well about Venice and the south of France without actually having been there, but that is an exception. Reading can’t substitute for actual travel, in terms of being exposed to new things.

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Summer 2016

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Taking one trip every month of the summer, June July August and September, I ended up in Odessa, Vienna, Budapest, Istanbul, Bogotá, Riga, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, in that order. Hungary, Colombia, and Brazil were new to me. The best of all these were Bogotá and São Paulo. This has significantly delayed work on my book, Émigré Dacha, but a certain amount of travel is necessary I think. (Navigare est necesse, vivere non est necesse – Plutarch, quoting a Roman traveler). My plans are to finish the first chapter of the book by the end of the year.

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2015

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2015 was a very interesting year in terms of reading, as I made the discovery of several remarkable authors I had not read before: Proust, Colette, de Nerval, de Gourmont, Alexander Ostrovsky, Andrei Bely, Henry James, Petrarch, and D’Annunzio. I lament not being acquainted with their work earlier in life, since the insights I gained from them were significant. I was especially impressed with D’Annunzio, Bely, Proust, and Nerval.

In total I got through 43 books in 2015. As a result, my list of books I have yet to read has gotten much larger – since the more the more I read, the more I find out about. Books are added to the list at a faster rate than they are taken off. There were around 50 two years ago; now there are 100. More than half of them I consider as something essential to read before I finish writing Émigré Dacha – even though writing this book will not require any factual research. I consider myself not very literate, having never studied literature as a primary occupation, but am doing what I can to remedy this. Literature as a concept consists of: perception, ideas, and style. Style is the communication of the artist’s perception and thinking, and how others do this ought to be studied. Schopenhauer wrote about observing certain stylistic elements, that “we can by reading summon it up in ourselves, become conscious of it, see what can be made of it, be fortified in our inclination to employ it, judge of its effectiveness, and thus learn how to use it correctly; only then shall we actually possess it.”

I completely disagree with the assertion I sometimes hear that being literate, id est having a good knowledge of literature, is not a prerequisite to writing. I can’t think of any major writers who were illiterate; in fact most were extremely literate.

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Côte d’Azur and Munich

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I drove up and down the coast of the Côte d’Azur, from Saint-Tropez in the west to Menton on the Italian border. The place I liked the most was Saint-Tropez, where I spent several nights. The town’s isolation is a positive – there are no trains or highways going to it and the number of hotel rooms is limited, which creates an exclusivity there. There are good small French restaurants in the old town, as well as pricier ones such as the Christian Dior restaurant. The fashion is exquisite, with shops from all the well-known brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Alaïa, and some I’ve never heard of, like Martine Chambon. Each store is small, but has only the chicest things, making one wish one were here with a girl who could actually buy and use all these things. Ladies walking around, even during the day, typically wear stilettos or wedge-heel shoes. Saint-Tropez has Les Caves du Roy, one of the most notable nightclubs in France – which was rather good, but not as good as P1, one of the most notable in Germany, where I went the following weekend. I flew over the Alps to Munich, getting there by the start of Oktoberfest (Wiesn). Every time I’m in Munich it keeps reconfirming as my favorite city in Europe. This is the only place to be. (I had tried to describe some of the aspects of Munich in a chapter that takes place there in my last book).

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Berlin and Vadim

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On the spectrum of stiletto usage rates in major Western cities, one city is at the top- Milan, and one city at the bottom- Berlin.

(In the range in between, New York and Helsinki are closer to Berlin, Paris is somewhere in the middle, while Munich and St. Petersburg are closer to Milan).

But this is only one element, and does not at all imply that Berlin is unfashionable, just that it is more casual. Despite the casualness, on average, people in Berlin are much better dressed and look better than in New York.

Berlin is a city I had visited a few times (including this June) and will continue to visit. It has little to see but has a diverse range of nightlife and restaurants and is probably the best value in Western Europe. Where else would a Sofitel be less than $150? Berlin is also dynamic – it had numerous radical changes in the past 100 years and one doesn’t know where it is going in the future.

On the plane I saw Et Dieu créa la femme (1957, Brigitte Bardot), one of my favorite films. Although this light comedy about Brigitte in Saint-Tropez is generally acknowledged for its significance, I still think that Roger Vadim is an underrated director. He was not limited to light genres and, in fact, the film of his that I esteem the most is the dark and dolorous Et mourir de plaisir (1960, Annette Stroyberg). Here it is easy to understand the extent of his creative genius. The film is based on Sheridan LeFanu’s 1871 vampire novel Carmilla. While not following the plot exactly, more importantly it manages to reproduce the ‘voice’ of the text, its lyrical, sometimes inscrutable nature. The piano score is exquisite, as is the actress Annette. The film’s apt combination of beauty and melancholy makes it deserve to be in the top ranks of art house cinema.

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New Paris chapter

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I decided that after finishing Émigré Dacha, I would go back to the text of Idée Vixe and created a second edition, with a brand new first chapter. This new chapter would be about Vixey in Paris, during the summer immediately preceding the book’s events. It would lead into her encounter with Karl in Baden which would still take place in the second chapter. I have never been satisfied with the current first chapter, which I feel is the weakest of the entire book. (That is why there is that precautionary epigraph from Walter Scott, from when he was faced with a similar issue).

The content in the first chapter would be moved to somewhere in the second. Meanwhile the first would expand on some of Vixey’s interactions in Paris, which are only mentioned by way of flashbacks and reminisces in the book currently. Her acquaintances there come not only from the fashionable German circles of Otto Abetz and Coco Chanel, but from leading members of the French couture industry such as Lelong and Dior. (Chanel did not work during the war and was aligned with the Germans).

I would also take the opportunity to shorten certain philosophic discussions throughout the text that are too unrelated to the plot and themes, and to make various edits as needed.

It is not without precedent to publish a second edition of a novel after a few years. Andrei Bely published Peterburg in 1916, then made revisions and re-issued the novel in 1922. Both versions are in circulation today, but the 1922 version is considered the more definitive.

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Val Thorens, Istanbul, fashionTV, and WWII films

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(Just the concise facts…)

I skied for a week in the Trois Vallées, staying at Val Thorens. For April skiing, this is a good place to be since it is the highest elevation ski village in the Alps. The slopes near the base of Courchevel (at the other end of the Trois Vallées) were already beginning to melt at this time. In January, however, Val Thorens would probably be too cold.

There were many opportunities to find good off-piste descents with fresh, virgin powder, as this is the largest ski area in the world. It is comparable in its scope to Val d’Isère-Tignes, which is nearby and is almost as large. An efficient lift system makes getting around the mountain easy. In terms of acreage, Whistler-Blackcomb, the largest in North America, is less than a third the size of Les Trois Vallées.

Val d’Isère and Val Thorens are probably the two best places in France for après-ski. One establishment, La Folie Douce, is an outdoor discothèque at the top of a mountain with a DJ and a very loud sound system. People gather there near the closing time of the lifts to drink and then ski down to the hotels, which are all ski-in/ski-out. There is no shortage of good French restaurants either.

Courchevel is good for a stroll and a lunch. At this late point in the season its boutiques are closed, but still one can see elegantly-dressed people walking around, as in other fancy ski villages like St. Moritz. It is possible to buy Chanel or Fendi skis.

There are only two ski areas in the Alps I am still interested in seeing: Verbier (Switzerland) and St. Anton (Austria). But since I don’t expect the Swiss franc to depreciate in the near future, I am inclined to go to St. Anton first.

The hotel had fashionTV, which is the best channel I have ever seen for the purpose of background ambiance. I’ve seen it in hotels in France and Austria, but nowhere else. It is not available in America, even with satellite, but it is possible to view through the internet, from www.fashiontv.com.

The channel has a mix of content related to fashion and models. One weekend was focused on Tom Ford, the former designer of Gucci. Aside from showcasing his current projects, there were various interviews with him, recording his interesting thoughts on life. Sometimes the channel played artistic fashion films, such as Dior’s famous Portofino video with Monika Jagaciak and L’Odyssée de Cartier with the Leopard. The bulk of the programming consists of briefer videos set to modern soundtracks showing photoshoots or examining couture collections.

On the plane I saw two sad WWII films: Fury and Book Thief. I liked the fact that they were more balanced and realistic than most American films about the period. These two films portray war as nothing but bad, and they remind one that positive and negative people existed on both sides. Most of those who suffered as a result of the war were innocent, regardless of whether they wore the insignia of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (Girls’ section of Hitler Youth) or not. Side note: I noted a small similarity to something in Idée Vixe – a US soldier breaking the non-fraternization policy and gaining a German girl’s goodwill by playing something on her piano.

Before returning to New York I went further east and spent a weekend in Istanbul. It has great restaurants, cafés, and baklava, and an active nightlife where one finds a lot of well-dressed and attractive people. The lira is currently at record lows. The center is divided into three main areas: the old town (Constantinopolis), the Bosphorus coast near the bridge, and Beyoğlu (Pera) around Istiklal caddesi, a pedestrian street. The most notable hotel in the old town is the Four Seasons. On the Bosphorus coast there is the Çirağan Palace Hotel, a W Hotel, and yet another Four Seasons. The primary nightclubs are either large ones along the Bosphorus (like Anjelique, which I wanted to go to but didn’t know it was closed on Sunday outside of the summer season) or various rooftop bars and other places along Istiklal caddesi. A big disadvantage is the traffic, which makes getting across town difficult.

The main landmark is of course the Sophia church. This was the world’s center of Christianity during the entire Middle Ages. It was what impressed Olga of Kiev and later Vladimir of Kiev to convert to Christianity and bring it to Russia. There are now other smaller Sophia cathedrals: the Sofiyskiy Sobor in Kiev and in Novgorod, plus a Lutheran Sophienkirche in Dresden.

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Émigré Dacha

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Towards this book (mentioned in an earlier post below), I have 20 pages of notes, 8600 words. I have some themes, the setting, most of the characters, but am not sure about tone or structure. I have some plot points but nothing close to a plot outline.

I will begin to write certain parts of it after I finish reading another 30 books or so. These are mostly works of fiction that I still haven’t read, but which I consider indispensable for learning what has been done before and how – style, structure, characterization… They include authors as varied as Racine, Sophocles, Hesse, Le Fanu, and Stendhal. I also have a sizable list of what I need to finish reading while I write, before getting too far.

The characters include:
Sophia; brunette
Innokenty (Ken) Dashkov
Veronica; blonde
Nataly Petrovna; her aunt, light brunette, ~28
Greg
Several with the name Alex
Other minor

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Nevsky Prospekt

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Now and then I reread Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt, and am always impressed by the potency and importance of this work. We all came from Gogol’s Petersburg stories,- myself, Dostoyevsky, Bely, Nabokov, Bulgakov, Babel, Zamyatin, Teternikov, and Turgenev. No comparison is intended among this group, except for the common influence of Gogol, without which it’s hard to imagine the development of Russian literature. Pushkin, who was already near the end of his life when Gogol appeared, was impressed with what seemed to him well ahead of the times. Gogol’s influence outside of Russia is harder to gauge, but sometimes it is unmistakable, like with Kafka.

Nevsky Prospekt is a particularly good example of many of Gogol’s trademark attributes: the fantastic city concept, the world’s absurdity, the difficulty of maintaining artistic idealism, etc. Gogol’s writing is an improbable mix of romanticism, realism, and surrealism (avant la lettre). The story’s message is that fate prevents us from ever obtaining the objects of our desire. The world is absurd and deceptive; the devil’s hand is in everything. Amidst the sordidness and poshlost’, real beauty can sometimes be discerned, but this will just make things more maddening. Only philistines can be unaffected by it all and get by, although not without some trouble of their own.

A common theme throughout many of Gogol’s works is the devastation sparked by feminine beauty. In Nevsky Prospekt a character with an artistic sensibility cannot come to terms with the horrible rift between æsthetic perfection and tangible reality.

The girl he meets is beautiful, pure, and young – 17; her face is “eloquent of an inner nobility”. But her actual essence, as becomes evident later, is the exact opposite of what her appearance implies. For such perfection to be combined with such internal corruption is something impossible to reconcile for someone used to living in the abstract, an artist. His ideals shattered, his is led into a spiral of increasing opium use that only increases the mistakenness of his trust in perception and beauty.

I know of no other work of writing in which is better described such a situation and its implications. The deep sorrow inherent in the conflict between ideals and reality is vivid here. Even Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) – although the very title implies the concept of this æsthetic conflict – doesn’t describe it as potently, I believe.

Gogol’s descriptive skills are superb; he even rivals Hugo in this respect. Both of them manage to convey, not how something looks, but at least some of the underlying emotions generated when seeing it. “The curve of her lips was suggestive of a throng of the most enchanting reveries. It was as though every cherished relic that survives our childhood memories, the quiet inspirations of sweet daydreams by the light of an icon-lamp, was joined together and reflected in those lovely lips.”

In this compact story, there is more description of the girl than there is of Anna in the 800-page Anna Karenina. After finishing the voluminous novel one still does not get a powerful image of what Anna looks like. The descriptions of her are mostly confined to the beginning, and although one does get the idea that she is beautiful, Tolstoy does not explain why and how.

Most writers are content in just listing a girl’s tangible attributes, and then making her seem attractive by describing the emotional reactions of the male characters towards her beauty. They usually do not go far enough in explaining what it is that makes her beautiful. On the other hand, writers such as Gogol, Turgenev, and Flaubert do take the time to explain.

Gogol is also noteworthy for creating many characters who have become universal “types”. One frequently comes across references to them in the works of other authors, and some have even entered the Russian language as adjectives, like Plyushkin from Dead Souls, whose name is now applied as the Russian equivalent of ‘obsessive hoarder’. I’ve seen Pirogov, the philistine officer from Nevsky Prospekt appear in The Idiot and Smoke (Dostoyevsky and Turgenev), and I reference him myself in Idée Vixe. I also indirectly reference Piskaryëv, the artist from the story. When I describe Elena in chapter 15, I do it gradually through three sets of eyes: first Vixey, then Karl (who is helped by a quotation from Pushkin), and then through a hypothetical Piskaryëv.

There is more literature about St. Petersburg than any city in the world, besides Paris and London. Petersburg was the capital of imperial Russia, the world’s vastest empire, and Nevsky Prospekt was the central street of the capital city. Descriptions of the street and its environment are a large part of the story. “Here you will encounter waists unlike any you have ever seen, even in your dreams.” Gogol speaks the truth: indeed in a Кофе Хауз café a bit off Nevsky, among other things, I saw a girl with such bewildering curvatures in her waist that I could not have imagined it myself without seeing it. I’ve been to Petersburg twice, in ’06 and ’09 – in one of those visits actually living on Nevsky Prospekt (just before the Anichkov Bridge) – and have had some small adventures on the street myself.

Oddly, in my life I’ve never met anyone who has told me they’ve read Gogol, despite my occasional suggestions. If even Gogol, who ranks, in my estimation, in the top 5 writers of all time, has such a poor result in today’s times, how can I expect anyone to read my own much lesser work? I can’t – that’s why I write the novels primarily just for myself.

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Troilus and Cressida

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Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602) is another work (besides Idée Vixe) which contains a concurrency between a private and a public theme. The fall of Cressida’s modesty (as perceived by Troilus) relates metaphorically to the fall of Troy. Or to put another way, the impossibility of maintaining constancy is contrasted to the impossibility of finding honor or meaning in the nine-year long Trojan war.

It is one of the most philosophical of Shakespeare’s plays, raising questions about entropy, value, and desire. The Trojans debate about honor, but it becomes clear that their motives are primarily a misplaced idée fixe with Helen, whose beauty is symbolic to saintliness for them.

The deliberations of the Greek camp are even more long-winded: replete with sophisms and Latinizations, they are extremely hard to follow. But it was not for this reason that the play was not performed for 300 years. Producers during the Restoration, for instance, thought that Cressida was too slutty of a heroine for audiences to find acceptable. Nor was the play performed during the Georgian and Victorian periods.

The scene when Cressida (the fiancée of the Trojan prince Troilus) is brought to the Greek camp is the closest Shakespeare comes to physical impropriety. Cressida is passed from one Greek to another and kissed in turn. It seems that she enjoys it, – and later she goes somewhere alone with one of them and is found in that compromising situation by Troilus.

Interpretations of Cressida’s character have varied in different periods, but I find her inconstancy excusable based on how it could have been a reaction to Trolius’s inexplicable prior refusal to save her from being sent from Troy to the Greek camp. She chose to make the best of the new situation rather than maintain a long-distance relationship in the days before phones or internet.

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