Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gladkov's Cement: A Brief Review

Cement (European Classics)Cement by Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Westerners familiar with Russian Lit immediately cast this book into the 'not worthy of real literature/soviet propaganda' dustbin (I suspect because their prof told them to and, I would imagine, without even reading it). Comments I read on Goodreads, for instance, summed up the general sentiment: "This book is only of academic interest... written as stalinist agitprop... bereft of any characterstics that would qualify the tome as literature."

A shame, because 'Cement' is a fascinating insight into the (granted, naive) spirit of post-revolutionary Soviet Russia. Historically it is a little like John Reed's 'Ten Days That Shook the World': it captures very vividly a moment in time that is vital to understand if one wishes any insight on modern Russian History.

In terms of literature, while not on par with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, what writer is??? If we were to use the 'great russian writer or bust' criteria for evaluation we'd eliminate the vast majority of novels ever penned. Gorky isn't there either (though better than Gladkov), but he's very good. Gladkov has his moments. His style is sparse, pithy, certainly prescient in terms of what was to come. Aesthetically something is afoot, mirroring the revolutionary changes taking place in the arts during this period - graphic art, Shostokovich, etc...

In short, a must read for anyone interested in the spectrum of Russian Lit. Give it a chance before you chalk it up to Soviet propaganda.

UPDATE:  Having just read Lermontov's 'A Hero of Our Time' (highly recommend), I must say there is a terrible double standard in Russian literature.  We forgive Lermontov's shaky prose just as we forgive Gogol for burning a good portion of 'Dead Souls' in his fireplace - all because of the moral, social, and historical merit that makes both novels extraordinary.  

'Cement' is just as extraordinary in this sense, yet for whatever reason is not forgiven for fairly mild literary shortcomings.  

And yet we do know the reason.  Criticism of 'Cement's mild literary shortcomings is merely a ruse for a general attack on the Soviet propaganda machine.  And for good reason: we justifiably abhor the extent to which the Soviets oppressed people generally and the arts specifically.  

But to make "Cement" a scapegoat for Soviet censorship, oppression, etc., is a serious mistake.  This is a novel that captures very beautifully not only an important moment in history but also the nascent emergence of many modern issues and practices transcending early Soviet life.  The emergence of day care, for instance.  Or the rights of women.  The novel in fact is centered very much on the difficult adjustment Gleb and Dasha must make in reuniting; their newly-defined relationship certainly resonates with contemporary issues.  Franz Boas would have a field day.  

It is time to dissociate the crude connection between Gladkov and what is now a very impotent/obsolete political discourse, and rediscover the worthy place 'Cement' occupies in Russian literature.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if much of the criticism of Gladkov's stilted prose is a response not some much to the actual text as to the English translation, which is hopelessly antiquated and off the mark. I haven't had a chance to compare it to the Russian yet, but it reads like a third rate English novel from the 1920. If any bored translators out there are looking for a project, a new version of Cement would be a service to humanity.