Monday, 30 March 2020

Re-reading The Group

I included The Group in my 2020 re-reading challenge because it fit the criterion of a book that was important fifty years ago and that I hadn't re-read since. It was important to me and my female friends as a source of information we could not obtain elsewhere; it was also enticing in a way few other books were. Remember: we were behind the Iron Curtain where anything even remotely hinting at a possibility that human beings practised sexual reproduction was outrageous. Unlike the other books I have re-read, The Group was obviously not translated into Russian, so someone smuggled paperback copies from the West at great risk, because it was certainly on some top-secret list of banned pornography. It was pornography in our eyes because it was the closest we had ever seen or read of explicit sex. It also depicted glamorous life we were denied.

I remembered two details from the book. First, that one of the girls went to get a pessary. We had heard vaguely that there was such a thing; rumours had it that the Bolshoi ballet dancers were given them. There is a detailed description in the book of the procedure, which triggered our imagination. The second episode was another girl being shocked to see her friend's naked baby. I don't know why it made an impression on me. Even at that time I had seen naked male babies.

As young readers in the Soviet Union we were multiply displaced from the story and its protagonists. The USA was another world, a galaxy far far away. We didn't know what Vassar was, and although it is clear from the book that it is a women's college the connotation was lost on us. We didn't understand that the girls and their families were privileged because we thought everybody in the USA was rich. We probably didn't notice that the novel, published in 1963, takes place in the '30s. I definitely had no memories of the extensive political discourse. Today, I winced at some male characters being Communists, clearly with the author's sympathy.

The preface to the Kindle edition I have now read, written by someone who is presumably famous and of whom I had never heard, states that the novel, despite repeated claims, is not a forerunner to chick lit because it has literary merit. If so, I failed to notice it. Now, I am not an expert in chick lit. At the same time as The Group, we also read Valley of the Dolls, which puzzled me, since I just didn't get it. Some years ago I tried to read a couple of chick lit novels my daughter had recommended, and again, I didn't get it. The lifestyle, views and aspirations of the girls of The Group are totally alien to me and not interesting enough to want to know more. While whatever was attractive fifty years ago isn't any longer. I finished the book because it was part of the challenge, but it was painful.

A friend has told me that their grandchild loved the book. I wonder what it offers to the young generation today.

This is the paperback edition I read fifty years ago

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Coping with isolation

In addition to food shortages, which I discussed in my previous post, journalists and bloggers seem to be concerned about isolation. How will they cope with two weeks isolated from their regular networks? Well, to this I can only say: Think of all people who spend years in isolated prison cells. I knew some political prisoners in Russia who had spent years in isolation and survived. Many survived because they were educated and could recite poetry to themselves.

If isolation becomes necessary, I am in an incomparably more privileged situation than a political prisoner in the Soviet Union (or today's Russia), and I don't share the concerns of people who have expressed their fears of boredom.

To begin with, I am already isolated in a way, living on my own. I have two cats I talk to – in Russian of course, and I talk to my children and some friends on the phone or skype. If I am restricted in movement and not allowed to meet other people, I will still have those connections. Hopefully isolation will not preclude walks because I enjoy walking and will only be happy to walk on my own 10-12 kilometres a day. Better than going to a gym (and my gym is closed anyway). If I am not allowed to go outside, I will exercise and meditate indoors.

All public events I typically attend have been cancelled: concerts, theatres, public talks. I will have to do with streaming movies and music. As long as there is internet. Wait a minute, maybe I should download some movies and music, just in case. And books. I can never get bored as long as I have books. Get a couple dozen e-books. In case internet is cut off. But what if electricity is cut off, and there is no way to charge the devices? Then there will be no movies and no music either. I can sing to myself. I can read printed books. Even though I have got rid of so many books, I still have two shelves of favourites, and I can re-read them many times. I also have a couple dozen books about dollhouses and miniatures. They may not be as exciting as novels, but there is a lot of reading. If there is no electricity, I will do what our ancestors did: go to bed when it's dark. It will soon be daylight most of the day.

I can write. As long as there is electricity I can use my laptop. If there is no electricity I will write by hand in pretty notebooks. I can write poetry, short stories, reflections or a sequel to my memoirs that I concluded with my move to Sweden forty years ago. A lot has happened since then.

I also have my crafts, for which I do not need electricity. I have a hundred and fifty miniature furniture kits, and I have tons of supplies for do-it-yourself. I have a damaged dollhouse I need to mend, and another dollhouse to renovate. I have fabric and thread to sew dolls' clothes. I have supplies and tools for book-binding. I have origami paper. I have knitting needles. I am spoiled for choice.

I also have my balcony garden. I haven't yet received the main delivery, but even what I have will provide some happy hours every day. Of course if they cut off water, the plants will die. On the other hand, if they cut off water, boredom won't be my main concern.

 One of many remedies against boredom

Friday, 13 March 2020

Coping with shortages

After a couple of my comments on Facebook, I got a request to share my experience of coping with shortages during hard times, and since hard times were constant during my childhood and youth, I have no problems coming with examples.

My parents and grandparents had of course lived through war, famine and rations, but by the time I was born our family was relatively affluent and even privileged. As a child I never wondered where food came from and how much it cost, and it was in my upper teens I realised how much things had deteriorated, or as the saying went: Communism has won a total victory over [cheese, sausage, caviar, salmon, bananas – substitute as required].

     An old lady enters the famous deli department store in Moscow.
    - I remember this shelf used to have fifteen kinds of cheese. That shelf had twenty kinds of sausage. The shelf over there had ten kinds of tea…
     One salesperson to another:
    - Hell of a good memory this granny has!

I remember those fifteen kinds of cheese on occasions when someone took me shopping, which didn't happen often. I remember hams and sausage and pate. I remember the smell of newly ground coffee. My grandfather, a great coffee lover, would blend one third of Arabica, one third of Colombia, and one Costa Rica. I remember that tea connoisseurs prefer Ceylon over Indian, and totally despised Grusian.

Variant of the above:
     - I remember this shelf used to have salmon, sturgeon, red and black caviar, shrimp, oysters… What was the harm of it all?

 By early 1970s, there was one kind of cheese, one kind of sausage, one kind of tea, and ham was a sweet memory.

     - Is there really no cheese in your shop?
     - No, it's the shop next door that has no cheese, we have no sausage.

     - Can you slice 200 gram sausage for me?
     - Of course we can, just bring your sausage.

These are jokes, but they were a close reflection of reality. So how did we cope with shortages, when there was shortage of everything? One day I will tell you how we coped with shortages of clothes, shoes, tights, shampoo, cosmetics, baby pacifiers, book shelves (not to mention books), rugs, female hygiene, pencils, notebooks, towels, bed linen, detergent, paper napkins, sewing thread, electric bulbs, Christmas candles, and many more items people in the first world take for granted. I may tell you how we coped without washing machines, or dishwashers, or freezers, or record players. But this will be another story that will be told another time. This story is a response to the current situation and will therefore focus on the current issues, such as toilet paper and food staples.

When my daughter Julia was three or four, we went to visit family in Moscow, and at the airport she needed a pee. I took her to ladies room, and after she was done she asked me helplessly: “Mummy, where is toilet paper?” She could not in her wildest dreams imagine that what she saw was toilet paper, more like sandpaper. For me, it was by far not the worst. I was used to wipe my bum with newspapers, as everybody else. As a child, when we ran around in nature, we would use leaves and grass.

During the worst shortages of toilet paper in the late 1970s and '80s, people would steal toilet paper from work – if it was available there. In nicer public toilets, for instance, in theatres and museums, there would be an attendant providing strictly one square of paper per person.

In mid-'80s, a Swedish writer was staying with a colleague in Moscow, a highly intellectual, refined lady. The Swedish guest was an idealist and had decided that during her visit she would live like ordinary Russians. The first culture shock came one early morning, when the hostess woke her saying: "Get up quickly. I have been told that in a suburb shop fifteen metro stops and ten bus stops from here there will possibly be toilet paper later today. They will allow twenty rolls per person. The shop opens in two hours, we must go as soon as possible and queue". The Swedish writer never believed in victorious socialism after that.

At that time you could see famous writers and artists walk Moscow streets carrying packages of toilet paper. A roll would be the best birthday present. This wasn't an emergency or a crisis, it was our everyday life.

When it comes to staples, I remember well when at the age of ten we were all promptly dispatched to queue for flour, equipped with pillowcases, since there were no bags available: flour would be poured from huge sacks into whatever you brought. It was rationed to maybe two or maybe five kilos per person, and after we children had queued for two or three hours, the rest of the family would join, each with a pillowcase.

Yes, that was the country of victorious socialism.

The manifesto of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, adopted in 1960 and aiming at completed communism by 1980s, promised in accordance with Karl Marx's slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". 

A sign in a shop window during completed communism: "There is no need for milk today". 

The most important item every person always carried on them was a net bag, the infamous just-in-case bag, a Soviet citizen's best friend. It was fifty-odd years before environmental concerns so we didn't use our environmentally-friendly bags for ideological reasons, but exclusively because there were no shopping bags available in shops, and you needed to have your just-in-case bag just in case you saw something worth buying. Maybe potato, maybe apples, maybe cottage cheese, tea, salt, oats, pickles, mustard. And when you did see something, you were a good friend and bought as much as you could carry, to share with others. It wasn't shopping, it was hunting. For some things, such as cream, you had to bring your own jar.

The problem with just-in-case was that everyone could see what you were carrying. A friend once heard two guys behind her:
     - Look what a smart babe! Look at her fir-coat! She must be a foreigner.
     - No way! She is carrying five frozen chickens in her net bag.

I remember one day a friend and I were going along a central street in Moscow, on our way to visit some other friends. We saw a line and joined it without even asking first what was on sale. It turned out to be bananas, something we hadn't seen for many years. The line was long and moved slowly. People were buying as much as their just-in-cases could carry, and more. We were initially going to buy a kilo, but as we progressed forward in line, our appetites grew. We would buy a kilo each. No, we would buy more and give to our friends. No, we would buy more still and share with folk at work. By that time, the line got anxious that the kiosk would run out of bananas and demanded that they were restricted to five kilos per person.

On another occasion, a co-worker went hunting – during working hours of course, as was the accepted practice – and came back with ten boxes of a very special nostalgic candy from our childhood. We all happily paid for a box each, then looked at each other and said: “Let's eat it now. Our children don't even know what it is, so they won't miss it”.

This is, very briefly, how we coped with shortages. Firstly, you learned to manage with what was available. In winter, apples was the only fruit you could get if you were lucky. Once again, my little daughter caused indignant sensation during a visit in Moscow when she was offered an apple and asked for a pear instead, the spoilt Western brat! Secondly, you were nice to each other and shared. People who had allotments would share whatever they managed to grow. We made preserves, dried apples when they were abundant. We picked and dried mushrooms. I give you dried mushrooms, you give me a jar of jam. I give you a bar of chocolate, you give me a bar of soap. Thirdly, when you have no reference frames, you don't know what you are missing. Yes, we did remember the hams and cheeses of our childhood, but our children didn't, so they were happy with whatever we could put on the table. Buckwheat porridge, cabbage soup, potato cakes, bread and butter and cheese of the only kind available, “cheese”.

With this background, I am watching the current stockpiling with some amusement. That said, I have stockpiled toilet paper, chicken peas, beans, lentils, rice, buckwheat, coffee and cat food. I think I will survive. 

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Re-reading The Centaur

The move from Hemingway to Updike might not seem natural, but for me it was, since both were part of that joint reading experience in my youth when everyone I knew was reading the same book. Let me remind you that it was a serendipity which translated books reached Russia. But when they did they were always a sensation, and because there were never enough copies the few lucky people shared their treasures with friends. Queues in libraries were enormous. Like many translated and original works, The Centaur was published in a literary magazine, probably in several issues. I don't remember reading it as a book, and I don't think I even read it in English, although I read the Rabbit novels, Couples and Marry Me in English.

Of The Centaur, I remembered two details: the very last sentence, “Chiron accepted death”, and a notice in a autorepair shop,



 I figured out, rather than remembered, that the main character had some connection with Chiron the centaur, and I know I would have recognised all the mythical allusions back then because I knew Greek mythology inside out, and Chiron had always been one of my favourites.

I did not remember the main character's name, which is forgivable, and not one single detail of the plot, which is less forgivable if this was an important book. I did not remember that part of the novel is told by Caldwell's young son. I did not notice then that the other parts are told in the narrative present tense, which has become so common today that some people think it was invented in the 21st century. Memories did not appear as I was reading (as they did with Hemingway and even Marquez).

I am in two minds about the novel. I did enjoy some of it, for instance, Peter's sarcastic comments on his father, or the lengthy description of the father and son attempting to start a dead car. Peter saved the book for me – I wasn't interested in the pathetic father at all, and he didn't deserve the comparison to the noble Chiron. I am not the kind of reader (or critic) who needs a moral, but I couldn't help wondering why the author is telling me this story.

I will not re-read this book, and I won't recommend anyone to read it. When I am finished with my re-reading challenge, I may try another Updike, either Rabbit Run or Of the Farm.