Meeting Point

Izvestia, April 11th, 2013

Writer Victor Toporov on whether Maxim Kantor’s new novel can expect impartial criticism

The artist, publicist, playwright and novelist Maxim Kantor has published his second monumental novel, Red Light. Upon the publication of his first (which was called, I remind you, Drawing Textbook  and was published around seven years ago), perhaps the first to respond was Grigory Revzin from Kommersant, who wrote, “Another great Russian novel has been written, thought it seemed that after Master and Margarita and Doctor Zhivago, this would never happen again.” And Dmitry Bykov (it is difficult even to say where, perhaps in Moskontsert) immediately swooped in and amplified the situation: “…nearby, there is a writer working who, if he is not on Tolstoy’s level, then he is at least on a Tolstoyan scale. Life and death, the mechanisms of history, the death of Europe, the revival of Christianity… this is the level of the questions he is writing about…His monumental metaphysicality, under which it is impossible to ironic, is sufficiently candid in its ambition to return art to a large role in the explanation and recreation of the world.” And Lev Danilkin from Afisha summed up the 2006 year in literature in following fashion: “Kantor, Kantor and... Kantor.:

In connection with the publication of Red Light, I do not expect such excitement, or, at the very least, such unanimous enthusiasm. Rather, we should expect two campaigns, only superficially in opposition to one another: one for the silencing of the novel (and its author), and the other calling him names. Strictly speaking, both of these processes have “started” even before the appearance of the novel in book format. Pre-release fragments of the novel, which is mainly satirical in content, that have appeared in magazines and newspapers and online have been met with ridicule (particularly by the mouth of the same Dmitry—Amateur Hour—Bykov), whereas most chose simply not to take notice of the expanded and detailed balanced publication in the “nerukopozhatniy” (meaning the Russian liberal opposition would not shake their hand)  magazine Moscow. Although the same “Tolstoyan scale”—I would, to be frank, call it a “Tolstoyan attempt”—is even more obviously inherent to Red Light than Drawing Textbook.
The reason for this easily predictable change in perception (I would even call it a catastrophe of perception), is simple, albeit ambivalent, or rather, double-edged. First, in place of long-winded criticism of adherents, luminaries and curators—i.e., contemporary art--and this phrase should be in quotes as well—in place the battered contemporary art, in the new novel, there is the equally-ruthless beating of the entire amateur and self-styled leadership of the Orange Revolution. This beating was expanded in space and time (today’s cheaters in politics and/or art are the sons and grandsons of cheaters in the exact same vein). Second, these same “truth tellers” and izryadnoporyadocniye (liberal intellectuals who consider those who are members of their group to be moral, and those who oppose them to be immoral), have horribly degraded over the past seven years, so we cannot expect them to admire the new literary brainchild of Maxim Kantor, elementary objectivity or a modicum of impartiality at the very least certainly cannot be expected.

Meanwhile, Kantor’s book is, certainly, about something else. More exactly, it is not only about what was discussed above. And even more precisely, in the strict spiritual and moral hierarchy in which Kantor’s “long thinking” finds itself (in the tradition going back to the author’s father, philosopher Karl Kantor, and their mutual friend Alexander Zinoviev), exposing the crimes of and mocking these people in either literary form or serious journalistic works, while it is also important, it is not the main priority—far from it—but is also far from being the lowest. Incidentally, it is similar to how caricatures in the vein of Daumier and grotesque work in the spirit of Grosz occupy an important, yet still subordinate place among internationally-recognized paintings, drawings and prints. Kantor’s attempt is not only Tolstoyan, but also Dantean. Of course, you need to settle literary, artistic and political scores with those who have done you wrong. Of course, it is desirable to spend a century doing so. Let it be for  a century, but in passing, not getting distracted from the same “long thinking” about the main thing.

Red Light is a novel of ideas and, certainly, a novel of people. It is a novel about the present, about yesterday (which here is World War Two) and about the day before yesterday. It is novel about Russia and about the USSR, on the one hand, about the USSR and Nazi Germany on the other, and about Russia and the world on the third... The meeting point is London, where a decrepit old man lives in a British intelligence safe house. He was Hitler’s  personal secretary and eminence grise who is sorting through memories of victory and defeat, and, at the request of “curators,” is a consultant for Moscow “oppositionists” on the subject of armed uprisings. The alternative meeting point is Moscow, where an inconspicuous head investigator is investigating a murder on the patio of an art gallery committed by one of the few participants of a closed reception. What is paradoxical about the situation is the fact that the circle of suspects in the Moscow murder is practically identical to the list of London visitors the old German man’s safe house.

The third meeting point is Russia during wartime and post-war Russia. This is where the fathers and grandfathers of the present-day characters of the novel lived and died. And they lived and died closely interlinked, but very differently. Moreover, the link between generations is clearly apparent from father to son not only genetically, but, if anything, karma-wise.... While reflecting upon the novel, I thought that the understanding of “blue-blooded” and “common person” have long needed to be given a new meaning: those who are honestly concerned with the fate of their Motherland are blue bloods, and those who are prepared to, in certain situations, go without it are, sorry to say, common. He has kinfolk (including “elective affinities,” a la Goethe), but he lacks a Motherland, independent of where he resides. And it is the novel Red Light that brought me to this idea, as a journalistic pathos and as an artistic conviction (I would even say artistic indisputability). 

One more thing, perhaps the most important thing. Kantor’s novel itself, with its Tolstoyan and Dantean attempt, returns us, in a new historical era, to the monumental artistic canvases of Konstantin Simonov and Vasily Grossman, and also, to some extent,  to Alexei Tolstoy. Perhaps it should become the meeting point (and “point of strength”) for everyone who refuses to accept the past and present in black and white and, in addition, has enough intellectual and emotional potential to judge “the city, country and world” (as once was the title of the popular program Freedom) independently. In his novel, Kantor is not in any sense “herding peoples” (which his brilliant journalism is at times guilty of) and the wheat is not separated from the weeds even by an overly-careful item-by-item examination. He teaches us not to assume that whatever the cost, “related” weeds are wheat, especially elite weeds, and “unrelated”  wheat is a weed, and always pitiable weeds... It will be only fair if we, in accordance with Pushkin’s behest, will judge an artist (in this instance, a writer) according to law they themselves follow.