Psalom/Psalm (Fridrikh Gorenshtein)

Well this is a wonderful book.

The idea is that Dan, the Antichrist, the Viper is sent to earth by God to carry out necessary punishment according to the four afflictions of the Lord:  hunger, the sword, lust and disease.  At the beginning in a brilliantly-observed scene he is the only one in a Ukrainian tea-room who will give food to a beggar girl.  Later on he realises that he has been sent to earth by the Lord not to effect damnation, but to be damned himself.

At the end he goes out into a wintry landscape in a family party with his son Andrei Koposov from the parable about fornication; his adopted daughter Ruth (also the prophet Pelageya) from the parable about the torments of the impious; their son Dan from the parable about sickness of the spirit; and Savely Ivolgin, the alchemist and sinner from the same parable.   The sign of the trees in the woods burning with  holy whiteness of snow causes them to realise that after the four grievous afflictions of the Lord there will come the most terrible–hunger and thirst for the Word of the Lord.

As the  book goes on the religious and eternal themes break through into the narration more and more clearly, like the painted-over pictures of Jesus becoming visible in the converted church where Annushka, the impious martyr later driven away into slavery so that she can curse the German land, lives with her mother (also called Annushka).

Many of the episodes especially at the beginning achieve a genuinely Biblical concentration and intensity.  We see people who are still people rather than allegories or symbols and who are in the grip of things outside of themselves they do not understand.  And the defamiliarised newness of life in towns and institutions to a beggar girl from the country is wonderfully realised, as is her uncomprehending servitude in the home of her sister and his husband and her lover.

Much  of the book represents a reply to Dostoevsky from a Jewish standpoint.  We see characters and scenes typical of the Old Testament on Russian soil, and a depiction of the terrifying life of people who have abandoned the Law.   Dostoevsky is first of all referred to as a Russian literary man gazing at a tablecloth soaked with wine and then his presence becomes steadily more explicit.  Russian Christianity, or pagan Christianity, has diverged from the real Jewish Christianity and the real Jesus, who continued the line of Moses rather than rejecting it.  When Dan first of all appears in the Ukraine of the Great Famine he sees that everywhere there is idolatry, and especially idols of a moustachioed Assyrian bath-attendant.

As far as I know, this book has never been translated into English and I don’t know why.  I would have thought that the Old Testament basis would be a lot easier for the Anglo-American reader to understand than the Russian one.  There would be less shock value of course, since (to skate over a few issues) our native Protestantism is certainly a Judaising type of Christianity, if not quite the Jewish Christianity that Gorenshtein would approve of.

There are translations into French and into German.

Biography of the author

Fridrikh Gorenshtein was born in Kiev in 1932.  His father, a professor of economics, was arrested in 1935 after the assassination of Kirov.  His mother fled to the countryside and Fridrikh was brought up first of all by relatives and then–after the death of his mother–in a series of orphanages.  In 1949 he worked as a labourer, after which he studied in a mining institute and then worked as an engineer while starting his career as a writer.  He studied screenwriting in Moscow in 1961, after which he worked on the screenplays for a number of Soviet fims, including two very famous ones–Solaris and Slave of love.

Psalom was written in 1974/75 and like almost all of his prose had no chance of publication in the USSR.  After publishing in the Metropol almanac, Gorenshtein was forced to leave for the West in 1980, where he lived first of all in Vienna and then in West Berlin.  He was married twice and had one son.

Fridrikh Gorenshtein died of pancreatic cacer in March 2002, a few days before his seventieth birthday.

A few extracts:

And Grisha got what he wanted from Maria and at the same time groaned like one suffering from typhus.  (p70 in edition pictured above)

And the beggar girl Maria, who had been rejected by her mother and older brother and sister, who had lost her younger brother Vasya and whose absence from God’s world would displease only the rapist who had made use of her body in a barn, through God’s weeping between a white heaven and a white earth was borne up and achieved through this unreasoning but  heartfelt weeping the Lord’s comfort, which he pronounced through the prophet Isaiah. (p82)

In Russia the brawler has always been very keen to weep once he has finished his business, crippled somebody or killed them.  […]pity me, good people.  And they pitied him.  One well-known Russian literary man indeed saw in this the most valuable national characteristic. (p210)

And all of this [Siberia] was populated by Russian women.  But to fill such wide spaces with people one has to know one’s business.    There are two cases where a woman has to know her business well–when a people is constantly exterminated and needs to be restored, and when a people lives in spaces that are too large, that need to be populated…In such cases, a high level of skill is required from women…(p 222)

Already for a long time there had been between her and Savely those relations, friendly and–in feminine terms–open, with aid of which a clever woman keeps a man she does not love back from taking rash steps .  (p379)

Every life and every fate, even a bitter life and an agonising fate, when it passes, should form a Psalm.  Praise the  Lord that it came to pass, in contrast to lives that were never born and fates that never came to pass. (p 445)

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2 Responses to “Psalom/Psalm (Fridrikh Gorenshtein)”

  1. Mickey Mouse Says:

    I’ve only just found this site. I also like to see Sorokin’s ‘Telluria’ published in English, as I ordered in error in German translation !). I also want to see anything by Elena Chizhova that has not yet been translated, or is not in the process of being translated. I assume that old favourites like Voinovich, Makanin and Ulitskaia are still being translated regularly? What about Vladimir Sharov?

    I’d also like to see more novels that I should avoid, and the reasons why

    In general, English-language translations are much rarer than those in French, German, Italian, etc.

  2. Mickey Mouse Says:

    I want to remain anonymous to avoid trolls.

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