The title of this post is a direct borrowing from the title of a novel by one of my all-time favorite novelists, the criminally under-read (outside Russia, that is) Vasily Aksyonov. His novel, Novyi sladostnyi stil’ (The New Sweet Style) came out in English translation while I was in graduate school in 2000, and Aksyonov was still living in emigration (since the country that forced him out, the USSR, no longer existed by that point, I suppose it wasn’t really exile any more…) in suburban Washington, D.C. I loved the book so much that I attempted to write him an e-mail at what appeared to be his George Mason University e-mail accounton the occasion of what an encyclopedia entry told me was his birthday. Thanks to my obsessive retention of electronic data, I still have this absurd missive:
Happy birthday, Vasily Pavlovich. I think I have a couple of minutes before it is too late to be appropriate. I spent the better part of the day finishing Novyi sladostnyi stil' in order to properly thank you on your birthday for writing it. It is a wondrous book that brought me a great amount of joy in reading it, not the least of which being the realization that your skills as a writer are at their peak. I have been a great admirer of your work for almost ten years now (I was introduced to Ozhog and Ostrov krym by a Russian professor in Arkansas, of all places) and am in the process of writing a dissertation on satirical fiction during the Cold War in which your work from the 1970s and 80s figures prominently. I realized late last week (while flipping through an almanac of Russian literature) that your birthday was coming soon and wanted to take the opportunity to wish you continued health and inspiration for many years to come. I hope this message does not seem toadying. I merely wish to express my gratitude to an artist (you) whose work I admire very much. _N.s.s._ moved me like few other works in recent years have. To be frank, it provided several happy days in the midst of an otherwise dreary month of orientation meetings and preparation for teaching. Thank you again and good luck with your courses this semester (I saw the listing on the GMU web-page while looking for your e-mail address and am envious of your students...the modernism seminar especially sounds wonderful). iskrenne Vash, Derek Maus
Oh, you absurd thing, twentysomething Derek. It goes without saying that Aksyonov did not reply to my message and in the grand scheme of things, I can hardly say I’m surprised. It did not diminish my esteem for that book of his or for his work in general. He’s widely available in English translation and in Russian and should definitely still be read by anyone with an appreciation for good literature.
Anyway, I’m not here to write about Aksyonov, though. Instead, I want to give an overview of how the last week of this sweet style of life here at NYI has consisted of over the past week or so since my last extended entry about the particulars.
Last Wednesday, I had the second meeting of my seminar ad the first one that lasted the full 90 minutes. I went in for the start of the class-day, though, and sat in again on both Mitja’s graffiti class and Kathu’s punk-rock class to see how those were going and to generate some thoughts for further overlaps. Once my class started at 4:00, we had a fairly free-ranging discussion of how and why the concept of negation functions as an idealized goal in some religions and philosophies (e.g., the Buddhist/Hindu/Jainist conception of Nirvana as “blowing out” the fires of passion, hate, and, ignorance and ending the cycle of rebirth) that laid the groundwork for the gradual narrowing of our frame of reference in subsequent classes to the political, the aesthetic, and finally the personal.
After class, I found myself happily in the company of a couple of wonderfully bright and friendly linguists I had befriended last year — Masha and Tanya — and we added a couple more folks — my student Julia from Potsdam and my friend/student Jon from Minnesota/Moscow — to make up a party to travel over to “The Idiot” restaurant for drinks and dinner. We ended up having a great time there over zakuski, beers, and a meal, apparently getting so boisterous that one extremely fussy woman at a nearby table came over and gave us one of the most elaborate and passive-aggressive shushings that I have ever been privy to — “I am from California [subtext: originally from Russia, but I don’t claim it any more] and my son has just graduated from Santa Clara [subtext, unknown to her: he had just been making really ham-handed passes at Julia, Masha, and Tanya outside on the street when the three of them had gone out for a cigarette] and now I am here visiting my friend of fifty years and we cannot hear ourselves speak because you are all so loud [subtext: we may have been — though I doubt it — and we had been there for at least an hour before they arrived]. You need to talk at about 20% of the volume you currently are.” Thankfully, we were pretty much done anyway, so we paid our bill, made sure to get in a few fairly voluble and snarky comments before leaving and then split up to head home around 10 p.m.
Given that it is, of course, still brilliantly light out at that hour this time of year in Saint Petersburg, I decided to walk all the way back to the apartment and take in the lovely evening scenery that almost always accompanies such a choice. A few highlights:
Peter and Paul Fortress, a frequent photographic/photogenic subject.
The Rostral columns on the Strelka at the tip of Vasilievsky Island.
And the sunset sky over the rooftops of Petrograskaya Storona.
It was a nice walk and a good way to get to know my neighborhood for this year a little better. I had my headphones in and attached to my iPod Nano (an ancient piece of technology by contemporary standards) and soundtracked the walk with a sampling of music that I hadn’t heard in a while, which was kind of nice in its own right. I got home around 11 and read/wrote for a few hours before turning in.
I didn’t have much formal to do on Thursday morning, so I once again made myself an omelet with cheese and smoked trout for breakfast and ate it out on the sun-drenched terrace before putting on a large pot of coffee and working on the manuscript of Maurice’s memoir until mid-afternoon, when went into campus on Thursday to hear my colleague/roommate Miloje gave a talk…
…on some aspects of his linguistic work on Slavic languages, most of which, frankly, went way over my head. The linguists who participate in NYI are among the absolute best in their fields and the conversations that take place among them usually are in a realm of expertise that is far beyond my dilletantish ken. Miloje’s was no different, though with the help of a couple of people sitting near me, I got enough occasional clarifications to at least not be totally lost in the points he was making about how and why negative imperatives (i.e., phrases like “Do not eat that apple!” as opposed to “Eat that apple!”) are formed in numerous Slavic languages. It’s not something I’m likely to be dropping into conversation any time soon, but from the vigorous conversation that followed among the members of the audience, there was definitely interest in what he had to say.
He and some others were heading out afterwards to get dinner, but I was inclined for a more sedate evening and made my way back to the apartment after a stop at the grocery store, cooked up something simple for my evening’s repast and plopped down in my favorite nook in the living room to do some reading and writing in preparation for tomorrow’s classes. I also started putting together something of a set-list for this year’s musical gig…
…which Anna Neva (a.k.a., the Manager) was wonderful enough to arrange for me at a local bar called 2,5 Men. It’s a real shame that last year’s venue, 2×12, closed — and the general consensus among the NYI crowd was that smoothie-bar and florist that took its place at Fligel’ are really not serving the needs of the community nearly as well! — but this new place is literally right across the road from Fligel’ and looks like it will be a great place to play. I think maybe some others will “sit in” during the show this year as well, so it ought to be quite a lot of fun, even if I’m not yet sure exactly what I’m going to play.
Friday was another class day for me, and I had intended to go in early for Mitja’s and Kathi’s courses, but there was some pretty foul weather in the area during the morning and early afternoon, so I tried to wait it out as best I could. By 2:30, I had no choice and had to catch a bus in the pouring rain. By the time I got to the Admiralty building, it wasn’t raining any more, but there was a thunderstorm in the area that was dropping lightning bolts about every thirty seconds or so and the flat, water-covered environment of Saint Petersburg really makes thunder crack and rumble pretty amazingly.
While I was taking the photo above, one bolt in particular struck very close while I was still near the square between the Winter Palace and the Hermitage and when I looked back, almost everyone in the square was flat on the ground like it was a “duck-and-cover” drill from the Cold War. Moreover, the loud thunder set every car alarm in the area off, so I got to see dozens of uniformed officers come streaming out of the Admiralty at once to point their keys towards their luxury cars parked near the building.
The storm didn’t stop the indefatigable flood of young brides and grooms taking pictures out in the city, though. These two continued walking around under the trees with their photographer, taking photos every fifty meters or so even as the flashes and rumbles went off all around.
The risk of electrocution by lightning in a metal carriage was clearly no barrier to the formalized expression of love that seems to be de rigeur among young Russian newlyweds.
I got to campus with a few minutes to spare, my shirt soaked equally from the rain getting in under the lip of my umbrella and from the sweat that the humidity was drawing out of me. Our classroom was pretty thick, but I threw open the enormous windows to get a breeze and proceeded to lead a discussion on Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “Negative Freedom” (also called “Negative Liberties”) that Anna Neva captured on “film”:
It seemed to go pretty well, but by 5:30 it was clear that we were all at the end of a long day as well as the end of a long week and I sent the students on their merry way.
There was a lecture/demonstration by my colleagues Nikolay Karkov, a very interesting political philosopher who teaches at SUNY Cortland, and his partner Xhercis Mendez, who is moving to Michigan State’s Philosophy and African American and African Studies programs this fall from Cal State-Fullerton. They talked about the history and development of Caribbean dance styles and then demonstrated three of those styles for the students and faculty, getting a pretty significant proportion of them to get up and participate. I was inclined to, but a short, fitful night’s sleep last night and the general exhaustion from the opening week was starting to catch up with me in that humid room and I simply couldn’t muster the wherewithal to join in. Those who did, definitely got a good lesson, as Nikolay and Xhercis really know how to cut a rug.
By 8:00 it was time to catch a bus over to Fligel’ for the traditional first-Friday gathering there. I rode over with Jon Rawski and Tim Portice, an extremely nice guy who I was only meeting for the first time. He teaches Russian-language courses to American students in a program that runs parallel to NYI and is a professor at Middlebury during the academic year. We chatted and swapped Vermont/northern New York stories on the bus and on the walk up Vosstaniye to Fligel’, where about a dozen or so other NYI-ers had arrived. With 2×12 out of the picture, the options were somewhat diminished, though. We stuck it out for a couple of hours, though, getting beers and some food — quite a tasty шаверма (the Russian take on shawarma) at the remaining bar, Vilka. Around 10, though, they had a band coming on, meaning that anyone who wanted a drink to bring back into the courtyard would also have to pay the cover, which didn’t seem likely to happen.
However, it turned out that NYI’s resident technical-guru, Dima, was also spinning records over at Дюны on Ligovsky, where we had gone to see the Great Revivers in the pouring rain last year. Today’s weather had gone from storms in the morning to gorgeous clear skies, though, so this seemed like a perfect change of venue. We piled into cabs and made the five-minute trip with ease and within half an hour, a full-on NYI dance-party had ensued, with Dima manning the turntables (he’s in the black hat on the left)…
…Masha and Anna N. being the pioneers onto the dance-floor, showing everyone how to throw their hands in the air and such…
…the occasional clown/accordionist and roving violinist adding some Russian color to the proceedings…
…the vintage copy of Golden Axe (a late-’80s stand-up video game that I barely recall from my misspent youth) flashing out bafflingly semi-literate English-language mythos for the bar-patrons waiting in line for beers…
…and finally a full-on NYI takeover…
I was pretty spent, but not so much that I couldn’t make it until about 12:45, when I packed up and hiked back over to Ploshchad Vosstaniye to catch a long, slow bus back to Petrogradskaya Storona. I got in at about 1:45 and was asleep the second my head hit the pillow.
Saturday has already been covered for the most part, so I’ll call this entry complete here and pick up with Sunday and Monday in the next installment. Cog- and Cult-Fest are calling me and I should get myself into the city for them now!