Oleg Zaionchkovsky – Happiness is Possible

Happiness is Possible
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.


We live in a society now where we are expected to give our lives meaning. We never truly step out of work, and we’re led to believe that we can be ‘happy at work’ or that work can be a meaningful endeavour. This no longer feels like a choice, and as Boris Groys notes in In the Flow (2016) “In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.” It is what I am doing here is it not writing this post? But the ways we make meaning or understanding meaning in our lives has changed. Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky is about a narrator constantly struggling with the difference between his work and his writing and ultimately how he finds meaning.

The nameless narrator is a writer and the impetus, drive, or energy for his novel, appears to have deserted him. Indeed, he even appears to have been deserted by those he love. He has no inspiration for characters and only his dog remains. We watch him visit parts of Moscow, pick up on threads of conversations and glimpses of lives to try and turn them into stories and narratives, but as A.D. Miller writes in the introduction to the book “the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work”. There it is: work. We are watching a novelist at work. What is the work that leads to meaning and what is its worth?

He is given an assignment to write about a restaurant. He goes with his ex-wife and his new partner (of course these are the ‘characters of the novel he is not-writing-but-is-writing), who is an important figure in his life as he lends him money to keep him afloat: ““when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it.” Surely it is the writers job to write it off?

But at the restaurant we, as the reader, see the narrator’s personal reflections and realise how difficult a task this is going to be for him

“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.

Can he not make it up? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him,

“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”

People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself. The writer who is now at the behest of other forces than his own creations, or than any power of personal inspiration. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) was one of the finest and recent novels to challenge this idea of creation and meaning in our postmodern age, and particularly the financial forces that Groys suggested above, are caught up in this messy conception of work. The work of the novel and the work of labor are the same thing to Zaionchonsky’s narrator in this postmodern world. Its progenitor is somebody like McCarthy’s narrator, even though  unlike McCarthy’s character he doesn’t have any money, the pressure is still the same, rich or poor: one must find meaning.

That image of a writer in his flat that we see often in Happiness… was reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider (1942). Although Camus’ novel is not about a writer, it does seem to ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find meaning? Camus’ outsider is a man who is struggling to find feeling, meaning, in the death of a loved one: and why? Because he has to? There is a chapter in which Meursault, after seeing his dead mother, retreats to his flat, where he idly sits looking out of his window, observing the world below him. Like Meursault, the narrator of the Happiness… is often ‘boxed in’. Even when he is not in his flat, he carries this image of him being disconnected, of him trying to reach, connect and configure with the outside world. Instead, moments and events stream or filter through his vision and perception, and not in a stream-of-consciousness manner, but as phenomena, gone before he can comprehend it. At the opening he is saying how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker'(that important mention of history as well), and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his flat.

“I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.”

Is it the death of the author? A couple of pages later he says “I am mute: my own soap opera has been a silent one since my wife left me.” The author might not be dead, but he is rendered mute. The sole, individual creator seems archaic in this society. This would hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers in one or way or another, but this sense of the individual being able, at least, to turn something into a personal, reflective experience is gone. McCarthy’s narrator in Remainder did wield a dictatorial power, but it seemed only meaningful in his life, in a purely solipsistic sense. It is inherently paradoxical, and like Meursault, no matter how much the narrator tries to enter the world, he takes the box with him. He needs others, but others don’t need him. Perhaps this then is The Insider?

Maybe it becomes more about feeling. It stretched beyond tired postmodern debates for me. Where Meursault was given the one, weighty event, in the form of his mother’s death, the world in which Happiness… is, there is a fecundity of meaning, or least potential for creation like in Remainder. Of course the reputability of these creations is the question. The political and ideological criticism is obvious, and in the ways that Groys talks above and in his book, it is how this work is turned into something of artistic value. When the narrator of Happiness…is at the restaurant and cannot find anything to say about the food, is it because he has nothing to say or because he doesn’t want to say anything (the juvenile use of the exclamation mark would suggest the latter to me)? He is under pressure to find something meaningful, something real out of his experience. As McCarthy demonstrates though, no amount, or lack of money can help re-create the real.

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From Rogier van der Weyden’s (c.1435) The Descent from the Cross

Happiness…is ultimately about art in such an unpretentious way, in a way that would initially be seen as pretentious (self-referential narrator) that you can miss how profound this book is at times. It is primarily concerned with the gaze; that of the gaze outward by the artist and the gaze returned to the artist. Here is Groys again as he talks about the development of art and its practice:

“the division between artists and spectators seemed to be clear cut and firmly established socially: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude, and works produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century this simple dichotomy began to collapse” (Groys’ work is timely for this work as he references Soviet art frequently. But his discussions of the art and the avant-garde now in the age of the internet means its a book you should consider visiting if I haven’t persuaded you enough yet).

And what has it collapsed into? As I sit here writing this blog there is perhaps a clue there. The quest you follow in Happiness…is how this narrator can turn himself and his art into something that is worth the gaze of others, and is worthy of spectators. This is of course what all novels are, but you’re in the process and the pursuit, you the reader become the voyeur of the voyeur in Happiness…. For this reason it reminded me of Ben Lerner’s (2012) Leaving the Atocha Station. The similarities are not just startling with each other but with their precursors, as we’ve mentioned here, like Remainder and the The Outsider, as well as one another. For a start Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work were both published in 2012 and feature nameless narrators. Happiness…unlike Lerner’s work, is not by a debut novelist (yet only Zaionchkovsky’s second), but they are both narrators who have been given a capital to produce something (in Lerner’s; a thesis on the poet John Ashbery). And then, when you open the pages you get both narrators in their apartments, in a cosmopolitan city with the noises filtering, meaning to go out and have an artistic experience. Lerner’s endeavour appears much more of a crisis though; his narrator looks upon somebody else having a meaningful experience of art in a gallery looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I urge you to visit or re-visit that opening, but after looking at this person, Lerner’s narrator verges on panic and says, “I had long worried that I as incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.”

The narrator, whether he knows it or not has received something from his experience, but not from the art. He has ‘discovered’ something, and all that might be, is a lack of an ability to have a profound experience by looking at somebody else. The Other has gotten in the way. The narrator in Happiness…tries to use others to develop his novel by recreating their stories, but it must ultimately come from one-self.

Happiness…is a self-conscious novel; the anxiety doesn’t seem as palpable as something like Leaving the Atocha Station but there is an acute awareness of the self and its lacking – the art is not making him whole. Ultimately, Happiness…like the other novels of its time, is about how do I create meaning from myself? How do I strip the societal, capital investments and pressures to produce something from myself? A question posed but not necessarily created by Woolf: how do I find a room of one’s own?

There is a lesson to be taken from Old Salamano in Camus’ work when his dog escapes. But when does it escape? When the old man is distracted by watching the stalls at the fair, and a performance of “The Escape King”. So, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. In Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of the dog disappearing, watching the watcher, but the gaze now may also be upon you. Art is not something that renders you entirely unconscious like it did to Old Salamano; art is more than a distraction, it requires somebody to pay attention to your attention.

And so with that in mind I’ll leave you with this passage from Zaionchkovsky’s novel.

“It seems to me that the image of Moscow only exists in the minds of the provincials. It’s the same with a whale for example: look at it from the outside and you see a certain image, but when it swallows you and you end up in its belly, the image disappears.”

Readers of Smith’s essay will have an advantage at seeing the strong claim in Zaionchkovsky’s novel to settle in with some of notable works of recent times, even if, as the narrator continually worries that he is a mute in his own soliloquy, even if he worries, as Prospero foretold, of being but a spirit and melting into thin air.

The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Adolescent
Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Dora O’Brien)
Alma Classics: £8.99 rrp.: 654pp.

The adolescent holds a precarious position in western culture, perhaps because of the precariousness of its subjects. It’s a time when a person’s values from political, to relational, to sexual are never so intensely questioned by a person. Teen movies and sitcoms have probably done the demographic a disservice, and the idea of rebellion doesn’t necessarily have to be a loud and an anarchic affair but there is some truth in it – at some point in one’s life, you must try and understand the world in your own terms. The time for realising that you can’t understand everything comes later.  The Bildungsroman is affectively the novel of adolescence and becoming. But every novel is arguably a process of realisation, a multitude of anxieties in figuring out what works and makes sense for the times that it is being written in whilst also figuring how it relates to the past and future. It is no surprise then how much cultural interest there is in the adolescent or the person ‘coming of age’.

Dostoevsky’s characters were not all adolescents, but a lot of them seemed to be in a similar position to one; discovering this new consciousness and in a situation of trying to understand how that conscious really influenced their world and in turn influenced them. Ironically, The Adolescent is not held as in high regard as his other works, and has not just been neglected but maligned by some critics, so is a new translation justified? Dostoevsky is eternally interesting even when he’s ‘bad’. You could argue that The Adolescent resembles an adolescent; unruly, rejecting form, concealing information, and trying to understand and comprehend ideas beyond comprehension. And like an adolescent trying to find a moniker, a sign of individuality, the novel has had many names and titles; ‘The Raw Youth’, ‘An Accidental Family’ and ‘Discord’, but Alma have chosen to settle on The Adolescent, which I think was the wisest choice.

In the 19th century bildungsroman there was an important trait: the protagonist of one was usually fatherless or parentless. Dickens of course provided many examples of this, but the young man or woman (as it unfortunately was most often a male), needs to educate oneself and has to find their own way of life away from the home. Arkady then is the illegitmate son of Versilov who married beneath his class in his serf Mother. He is fatherless in the biological sense and his ‘real’ father is absent. Ironically Arkady shares his surname with the founder of Moscow, Prince Dolguruky and is repeatedly mistaken as an heir of. He is in name but not in person: this is something that novel continually questions the philosophical implications of.

But to consider the times in which we’re in, here is Arkady at an auction:

“There were those who got excited and those who remained silent and waited, and there were those who bought and then regretted it. I didn’t have any sympathy for a certain gentleman who hadn’t listened carefully ad had by mistake bought a milk jug made of German silver instead of sterling silver, paying five roubles instead of two for it.”

This illuminates the tension that is central to the novel and the jugs represent this idea of similarities being completely different. So what is the difference? Like the jugs, Arkady is stumped in battling and raging against Versilov, a man who isn’t really his father, only something that resembles and represents him. The novel was published in 1875; around that time Marx was reconfiguring the way people understood what money was, or for that matter wasn’t, and this question of what the essence of a thing is, was transcending culture western culture. Dominant Kantian thought for a long time had posited that essence was elusive and unobtainable, but for Hegel who was influential on the thought of Marx, there was a difference between something’s Being and its Essence, or what lies behind the thing that looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like. For Hegel, “the truth of being is essence.” In Logic Hegel went on to write: “In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other.” (Author’s emphasis)

I’m not saying that The Adolescent is imbued in Hegelian philosophy (it might be, but I don’t know enough about Hegel, or philosophy for that matter), but I think that the passage above provides some of the backdrop, and the important way in which Dostoevsky is using the Bildungsroman form: there is no real other for Arkady, only a man representing himself as the other. It is the opposite of when Stephen Dedalus would try and leave both the family and the strict Catholic environment he had grown up in (Arkady recounts in the first few pages what it is like at school that both invokes Madame Bovary and the school days of Stephen Dedalus), but Arkady is instead returning to his surroundings that would otherwise prevent or obscure the journey of self-education.

The Adolescent is arguably paradoxical then in its approach to the form. If anything, it’s the opposite of self-discovery or education, or is at least mostly an unconscious process, because Arkady already has, what he calls his “idea” of living. Part of the problem for Arkady is to get over this “idea”, but as the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that this idea is not as enlightening or constant as it seems:

“The most frenzied dreams escorted me right up till the discovery of the “idea”, when all the those foolish fantasies turned sensible and went from the dreamy realm of fiction to a rational form of reality.”

The idea is elusive as the portrait he is painting of himself, but although the novel may be a form of self-discovery for Arkady, it is up to us to see through him whilst also being enveloped in his viewpoint. This after all is Dostoevsky writing this novel and Arkady like most of Dostoevsky’s characters has been thrust into a world where he is making choices and decisions that he does not necessarily understand the implications of, even when he thinks he does. And so the adolescent is the perfect medium for Dostoevsky, because who else represents the world better than an age group that is stereotypically thought to know more than it already does?

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Characters from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993)

What’s remarkable about the The Adolescent is how a lot of it appears to be caught in a direct tension conscious and unconscious. Arkady knows that he has to discover something but he does not know what he will become as a result. Something is truly compelling Arkady to write this; you lose count of the times Arkady refers to feelings and urges that can’t be ‘controlled’ or are not comprehensible. The opening words for instance are “Unable to hold back…”. What then is the reason for him not being able to do so any more, even though he knows to write an autobiography “a man must be all too miserably enamoured with his own self to write about himself without shame”?

Is it Arkady’s idea? As you read on, you’ll see it become an occlusion, but also does represent part of Arkady’s journey at hand, knowing that it must be broken down or parsed to see the deeper meaning of. Look for instance around the constant references to ‘seemliness’. It is a novel about seemliness after all; people seem like his father but are not; people seem to be princes but are not; ideas seem to represent things but they don’t; instead, it is a constant case of abstraction, resembling and mirroring reality. And in a way, it is a novel that seems to be a novel yet takes from fictional memoir or at times drama, never fully whole and rounded, like the adolescent who sometimes seems to be an adult and sometimes seems to be the youth.

As a result, nobody knows. Things only ‘seem’, or as Hegel stated, “there is only the diversity and reference to an other”. Arkady doesn’t even know what his “idea” is that he persistently reminds us of. He is aware of these new different codes of reference like dreams, and knows that what he is not entirely aware of is a powerful thing:

“Let the reader remember my dream! If there was such a dream, if it could burst out of my heart and express itself that way, it means that I not so much knew as had a premonition of an awful lot of what I’ve just explained, though I only actually truly discovered it “after it was all over”. There was no knowledge as such, but my heart was throbbing with premonitions and evil spirits had taken over my dreams.” (Author’s emphasis)

The passage shows how many different levels and directions of thought Arkady is trying to comprehend. There’s the references to the dream and its symbolic powers which would of course be taken upon by Freud, but the narrator describes it as been taking over with ‘evil spirits’ which would signify a much more religious inclination. Yet it is his heart that throbs like a romantic, and then he seems to also rail against ‘true’ knowledge. It’s ironic because it appears that the Arkady is fully aware that he is writing for the audience, yet we as the reader not entirely sure who that the audience is us.

We’re frequently reminded of Hamlet in The Adolescent (as we are in most bildungsroman’s: think of Stephen Dedalus and his ‘Hamlet hat’);  the sense of a father being replaced by somebody who isn’t the father, but having to live, not only domestically, but politically under him as well (Versilov and Arkady regularly exchange political ideas, but it’s that sense of abstraction in who Versilov represents, or for that matter, doesn’t represent and in the sense an element of King Lear; the constant sense occlusion and particularly the recurring motif of a letter). Arkady and Hamlet both wanted to conscientise themselves to become that person who was in their father’s place and Hamlet showed the tragedies that can occur in trying to do so. But Arkady is constantly aware of his excess unlike Hamlet was. He is aware of the excess of knowledge that is to be had about the self, but not sure what the knowledge is (he is “unable to hold back” remember). There are frequent references to ‘blushing’ and ‘crying’, these excessive displays of emotion that signify more for the observer than for the person in question. Perhaps that is all that matters, the act that represents it. In Robert Brownings ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842: a dramatic monologue which The Adolescent verges on at times) the Duke in question constantly refers to the blush of his Duchesss even when he doesn’t appear to be describing her as ‘blushing’ (“She had/ A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad”): obviously what we perceive the blushing to be, may different to the Duke’s perception, but arguably the Duke is effectively blushing to the reader – revealing more than he intended to.

The TLS suggested that the reason for the novel’s failure was that it had similarities or elements to most, if not all, of Dostoevsky’s novels. Unfortunately this is a lesson learn in adolescence; nothing is original. But there are lessons to be taken from that; the new edition of this novel comes at a time when the world we’re in appears to be clinging onto old ideas of how the world should work from economics to ecology. In the same way that we ignore the lessons of youth, we ignore Dostoevsky at our peril.

Thanks to Alma for providing a review copy