Saturday, October 6, 2007

Third Ways 1: A Russia of the Mind

This may end up having to be a two part post, so I’ll get right down to it. For the last few weeks I’ve been making my way through an amazing landscape of wolves and trees and snow: Jesus, I’ve found myself muttering as my teeth chatter. Jesus fucking Christmas, am I glad to be back! Mother Russia, how I have missed you.

If every reader has certain mental terrains – cities, eras, rivers, houses – to which they return again and again like a cabin in the woods, to restore their courage or just get that old whiff of pine cone and stale Rice Krispies, then Russia is mine. Back in high school I took a bus across the country with Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment and Dead Souls in my embarrassingly-monogrammed LL Bean duffel bag. Sixth months later I was living in Moscow with a host family that had a parrot named Kiyasha, and kept jar upon jar of fruit preserves in a bench under their kitchen table.

I could go on and on about these people. The father was a soldier who hadn’t been paid for three months; the mother Irina smoked constantly. My two host brothers, Kiril and Grisha, gave up their room for me. The first thing I saw in this room was the gigantic poster of Freddy Mercury above the bed, fist-raised, be-wifebeatered and with the usual glorious moustache: Kiril was learning guitar, and like half of the male population of Russia, worshipped a pantheon of musical gods that puzzled me, to say the least. Richie Blackmoor, King Crimson, Freddy. The two prerequisites for his worship seemed to be: 1) Unholy guitar chops, and 2) A wardrobe that included wizard hats, velvet cloaks, and rune-covered parachute pants.

Grisha, who was seven, had been in one of Russia’s many pre-teen boy bands. He displayed his four-color tour poster proudly and offered to teach me some moves. He loved correcting my Russian, which one day made me so mad that I tore off all the legs on one of his stuffed caterpillars – I was and am very ashamed about this. Gennady, the father, nodded sadly when the little roll-shaped legs were discovered stuffed beneath one of their couch cushions. That night he recited parts of Evgeny Onegin to me from heart while I pretended to have some clue what he was talking about.

It was one of their worst winters in years! They had no money, bread lines stretched around corner after corner…And I fucking loved it. I had never met anyone so happy in my entire life.

Anyway, to relate this all back to something more than my own literary mastication: a few posts ago I talked about the diarist’s power to act as a sort of generator, a form that could take the raw shit of life and turn it into, or reveal it as, pure gold. This has to do mainly with perception, I think: with organizing your soul into something on which, as Henry James said, “Nothing is lost.”

I tell you, I am searching for this right now, Seth. It is my grail and the sock I just can’t find, but which I’m convinced has found a portal to another dimension behind my radiator or something.

It’s also a capacity and gift that I smell again and again in Russian writers: Nabokov with his gnats darning the air and Tolstoy who forgot whether or not he had dusted his chair and Shklovsky, who parked my car on Tuesday. The combination – the sheer, unadulterated frottage – of the mundane and the mystical, surreal and sub-real. Like they all just landed here from Mars or something, and are fucking ecstatic about it!

I think this is part of the key, too. Their solutions to problem are fresh and powerful, because they come at an angle, from one remove. My uncle likes to use the phrase “internal technology”; well, recently in my writing I have been trying to cultivate a very particular type of internal technology, one that I feel my Russians would recognize. It’s the literary equivalent of duct tape, which is versatile and sticks to everything and always tend to work better for me than, for example, buying a whole air conditioner (remember that it is, unbelievably, eighty five degrees in Brooklyn right now). Or maybe duct tape wielded by Gary Kasparov, since what I’m talking about is not low-tech exactly, as a technology that is both very low and very high, like the amazing Miranda July website you linked last time. Web page + writing on your appliances with a sharpie.

I throw all this down under the assumption that, as Miranda herself says (after seeing her fridge, I feel like I can call her Miranda), “Both of us know what I’m talking about.” I see Seventh Draft themes and obsessions beginning to rise, kraken-style, and one of these seems to be the mysterious Third Way of writing, where to find it, how to hunt it down. I don’t know. I am obsessed with certain possibly-useless things, for example the kind of devolution/evolution that Bob Dylan showed by going back to Depression-era folk songs. One step back to go two steps forward.

Next post: show and tell. I’ve got a kick-ass video.

Also, an open question: imaginary landscapes? The places that make you shout, like Tertz, “Kangaroo!”

Davenport’s best book: “The Geography of the Imagination.”

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