Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes has become better known these days for his “scandalous” behaviour in rubbishing the work of fellow Russian historian Robert Service by anonymous comment. Personally, I’d say this was all fair comment: I’ve tried reading a book by Service, and you’ll little that’s more dry and tedious. Figes, on the other hand, is a wonderful read.

Natasha’s Dance is a cultural history of Russia. It’s not told chronologically – not strictly at least, though I suppose it does vaguely follow the customary passage of time – but rather by theme, or perhaps one might even say place (if we were to understand place, at least, as indicating an area in the space-time continuum). For each division, he then chooses an individual (an artist), who is used as a base from which to start the section and a cadence on which to finish it, but in between rambles off at any tangent he feels inclined, thus giving I think a far more rounded (because random) picture of Russia than you’d get from your average history. (One can’t help thinking of the enthusiastic lecturer who always has an anecdote to exemplify every occasion).

To take the last two chapters as examples, on, respectively, culture under the Soviet regime, and culture within the vast disapora that was driven out by said regime. The first takes as its start and end point the poet Anna Akhmatova, who – if at least, as is likely, you’re going to choose an opponent of the regime – is the obvious bet since she stayed in the Soviet Union and lived through it all; but wanders off, as the inclination takes him, to Mandelstam and Shostakovich, Eisenstein and Pilnyak. Then the second uses Marina Tsvetaeva for the same purpose, to represent the exiled brigade: their opposition to the regime, but the terrible nostalgia that draws them back – in Tsvetaeva’s case to her death – bringing in again – as he goes along – Nabokov and his conversion to English, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Kandinsky and Chagall, even Maxim Gorky – some of whom returned, others didn’t.

Anyway, it’s a wonderful introduction to Russian culture, placed a lot of the literature in particular into context for me, and in general enthused me to read yet more Russian books.

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8 thoughts on “Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes

  1. If I recall the real Figes debacle was the “cover up” rather then the naughty Amazon behaviour – him blaming his wife, the lawyer, the cat, the voices….made him look much more of a prat then the perfectly understandable desire to do down a rival academic.

    The book itself sounds great by the way. I’ve long been aware of it as something worth reading but it is a doorstop. I feel I should at least tackle a few of the doorstops I actually own before adding another one. Quite exciting though, the approach and examples you describe.

  2. It is indeed a doorstop – and I rarely read anything over 400 pages – but very worthwhile. Probably took me over a year altogether – but I read the last 200 pages in a day.

    I might have to read his other books: I regret not buying A People’s Tragedy when I had the chance; and he seems to have a book on the Crimea coming out, which is a subject that also interests me.

  3. Hey look! – There’s a Tom McCarthy symposium on next weekend. I should go no doubt: it seems to be free, though I don’t trust a symposium which states you have to make your own arrangements for lunch. Sounds a bit cheap and unofficial to me.

  4. But on the other hand, both McCarthy and his sometime philosphical interlocutor Simon Critchley are attending, so that counts as a modernist imprimatur, surely?

  5. Yeah, it’s true. That’s probably why I was taking the “absence of lunch” as being symbolic of a wider and more profound “absence” which would be found both in the discussion and the work discussed.

    I’ve been to a few of these academic conferences though, and it does help if you know the subject quite well. Otherwise you just sit there blankly for seven hours, imagining everyone’s gone mad.

  6. Yes, looking at the prospectus I’d imagine even the most ardent McCarthyite would find the event a little stamina-sapping.

    From friends who are academics I gather that the real work gets done in the extended booze sessions that seem to never be listed within the formal structure of a given conference.

  7. I believe it’s what euphemistically called “Wine”. It’s true though, most of the best logic comes with drink. Kant, I believe, came up with his categorical imperative after being thrown out of a pub for being drunkenly abusive to a woman.

  8. I see the … er … German translation of The Canal, by one L Rourke, is up for a prize:

    http://www.freitag.de/hotlist-2011

    I guess one can only suppose the translator has ironed out any infelicities in the style of the original (for the sake of her own reputation).

    Meanwhile, I also note that the reviews for Stuart Evers’ new collection of short stories are uniformly good – he is regarded as “one to watch for the future” – he is published by a respectable company, Pan Macmillan – and is up for the Guardian First Book award.

    What with the collapse of Murdoch’s empire, this must truly be the End of Days.

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