Dismissing the West

Maxim Kantor's acclaimed new novel suggests that the dream of Westernizing Russia has turned into a nightmare.

By Victor Sonkin

"The Moscow Times", November 24, 2006

Painter and author Maxim Kantor is an extraordinary man. Usually the masters of nonverbal art tend to be, well, nonverbal. Artists writing treatises seem to have vanished with the Renaissance. Earlier this year, however, Kantor surprised both the artistic and literary communities by publishing a novel titled "The Drawing Textbook" (Uchebnik Risovaniya). And what a novel! At 1,400 large-format pages spread over two volumes, it is one of the longest fiction books written recently, and, volume-wise, it rivals such classic epics of Russian literature as Tolstoy's "War and Peace" or Sholokhov's "And Quiet Flows the Don." And it wasn't just the size of the book that invited such comparisons. Many critics said Kantor had revived the tradition of the Russian socio-philosophical novel, and others, most notably Dmitry Bykov and Grigory Revzin, heralded "Textbook" as a new "great Russian novel," a feat that seemed impossible after "The Master and Margarita" and "Doctor Zhivago."

Perhaps it wasn't all that unexpected. Several years ago, Kantor published "The Wasteland" (Pustyr), a series of seven philosophical letters and 70 etchings. The letters, addressed to a nameless "beloved" who can be tentatively construed as the embodiment of Western civilization, were eloquent, elaborate and, indeed, philosophical; in a nutshell, they contained the seeds of his future novel. This was already a surprising project for a man better known as a visual artist, but at least the texts were juxtaposed with graphical works, which is rather common in modern art, though typically in smaller portions.

"I've always been considered a kind of talking monkey among artists," Kantor said during an interview Tuesday in his central Moscow studio, enveloped in the pleasant smell of paint. "My colleagues thought they could expect something of the kind from me. But perhaps not on such a scale."

Kantor has never been able to separate the artist and the writer in himself. He's been doodling since age 6, always large pictures, and writing novel since about the same age. At 13, he joined a private workshop -- such outfits existed semi-officially in Soviet times -- and later studied at the Moscow Polygraphic Institute, which was considered a very liberal place. He started working exclusively as a painter in 1980, and for several years he was essentially making art for art's sake, because the work didn't bring any money. "I had literally hundreds of paintings, which I didn't think would ever be interesting to anyone," he recalled. The situation changed almost overnight with perestroika, when Western museums and galleries opened up to Soviet unofficial artists, giving them the chance to earn money for the first time. The resulting euphoria is vividly described in Kantor's novel.

"The Drawing Textbook" provoked much controversy. It seemed to denounce everything in recent (and not just recent) Russian life: politics, mores, the spineless behavior of the intelligentsia, the depravity of avant-garde art, the greed of gallerists and impresarios exploiting painters, Russia's awkward attempts to embrace the free market, and Western civilization itself, which, according to Kantor, has forsaken its Christian roots. In Germany, a respected translator commissioned to present some of the novel's more provocative passages for possible publication in German ultimately denied permission to use his translation for any public purposes, claiming the book was "fascist." Kantor, who has his own web site at www.maximkantor.com, received several anonymous letters with threats. However, even such bizarre responses were not entirely unwelcome, because initially it was feared was that the book would go completely unnoticed.

Last Wednesday, the jury of the Big Book prize, Russia's heftiest literary award, announced its choice, bypassing Kantor's opus, which only made the shortlist. The top prize, worth 3 million rubles ($112,000), went to Dmitry Bykov for his companion to Boris Pasternak's life and works, while second and third place went to Alexander Kabakov and Mikhail Shishkin, respectively. On the eve of the ceremony, Kantor seemed quite dismissive of the whole award business. "I don't want to sound immodest, but I don't think my book should compete with anything or anyone. The nomination was the publisher's idea -- it practically coincided with the publication -- and it was a way to create some publicity. We were both afraid the novel would sell about 100 copies. If I knew it would enjoy a modicum of success, I wouldn't have agreed to the nomination."

For some critics, Kantor's presence on the prize's shortlist seemed incongruous with his book's anti-capitalist message -- as well as the fact that the message came from a very successful and financially secure artist. Kantor is aware of the critical response to his book, and is not very happy about it. "They say my characters are one-dimensional and schematic, invariably pointing out some minor figures. It's just unavoidable in a book of such length. If you take any of my main characters, I don't think they can be called schematic." Another rookie mistake that critics have made (typical for Russian tradition) is mistaking the heroes for the author. "It is a chronicle, yes; but no one seems to notice that the chronicle is written by one of its characters." Even more surprising is the fact that no one seemed to notice the author's warning before the book even starts: "This text cannot be considered documentary."

Of course, quibbles are inevitable; perhaps more important is the fact that Kantor, a vastly educated man with strong ties with the West, aesthetically a heir of classical European culture, fluent in several foreign languages, seems to deny and deride his country's aspirations for Westernization and democracy. "The present is characterized by the simple fact that Russia has lost its identity," he said. "There's no emotional side to the issue. It's just a plain fact."

Kantor's vision is not devoid of hope. He sees the current situation, with intellectuals in both Russia and the West marginalized and forced to serve the immoral capitalistic machine, as a stage that will someday lead to a new consolidation and reawakening. "This process will transcend national boundaries," he said. "It will be a kind of new international community of intellectuals."

Kantor continues to work actively as an artist. He just returned from London, where he was working on a series of etchings. "This genre, which has never been very big in Russia, has completely disappeared by now, because it doesn't sell well," he said. "I work on etchings in London with a British printing company; this cooperation started many years ago." His novel, by the way, contains short fragments of draftsmanship instructions that gave the book its title -- taken together, they add up to about 100 pages of a real drawing textbook, strict and passionate at the same time. Kantor is now working on a second novel, which will go further back into history, especially the time between the two world wars. From a structural point of view, it will be similar to "Textbook": an epic with lots of characters and subplots. But he is reluctant to identify himself with any literary movement or group.

"I think my book will have the same fate as my paintings," Kantor said. "I never belonged to any union or circle; as an artist, I have always been a loner. I guess the same is true about my work as a writer."

"The Drawing Textbook" (Uchebnik Risovaniya) is published by OGI.