Dive deep into literature with a community of book lovers.
A multi-session, scholar-led series exploring books linked by a common theme
Liven up your mud season and kick your mind back into gear with the MHC's Portland Seminar.
University of New England, Alumni Hall | 6:00-8:30 pm
- March 23 | The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
- April 13 | Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman
- May 11 | The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
- June 8 | Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets An Oral History by Svetlana Alexievich
With Russia’s reemergence as a major actor on the world stage, this seminar turns to great literature for a wider perspective on Russia’s past and the legacy of its Soviet era on the present.
Two nonfiction works by Nobel laureates—Milosz’s The Captive Mind and Alexievitch’s newly translated Secondhand Time—investigate the appeal of the Soviet system during its height and after its fall, respectively.
These works frame two great Russian novels of the 20th century: Grossman’s Everything Flows, a harrowing portrayal of Stalinist enormities as remembered by a man returning from the gulags, and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a satiric phantasmagoria of devilry in Moscow. Read together, these four works create a fascinating dialogue among themselves, and should create the same among seminar participants as we explore, away from the heat of the daily news, modern Russia.
Though nonfiction, The Captive Mind is clearly the work of a poet. Passionately analytical and compassionately judgmental, Milosz’s book starts from his understanding of human nature and of “profound human longings,” and seeks to explain how totalitarianism relates to these existential longings. It is also the work of a Pole, someone located between East and West and belonging fully to neither. This is another source of the book’s power—while unsparingly critical of the Soviet Imperium, Milosz also measures the West and America with critical perspective, wondering about the capacities of their system to satisfy profound human longings.
While not always easy sledding, the writing is elegant, personal, and timeless in its anatomy of the thinking mind under totalitarian conditions. It is also fascinating to read this work of the early 1950s with the hindsight of subsequent history, especially in light of the collapse of Soviet communism and the advance of global capitalism.
Though Grossman is perhaps better known for his epic Life and Fate, his later novel Everything Flows also includes the sweep of Soviet history, wrenchingly remembered by an old man released from the gulags after Stalin’s death. His encounters with former acquaintances who acquiesced or worse in the face of State terror dramatize some of Milosz’s central concerns. Other momentous events brought to life by the novel are Collectivization and the Ukrainian famine, life in the gulags, and the issue of Soviet Russia’s continuities with Tsarist Russia (somewhat as our fourth book looks at Soviet legacies today). Though bleak in its assessment of human cruelty and inexplicable suffering, the novel offers some glimmers of affirmation, among them the undying desire of humans for freedom.
Bulgakov’s sprawling novel, presented here in a newly revised translation, has attained cult status in Russia and a growing following abroad. Like many modern masterpieces, it is difficult to categorize. In exuberant style it combines hilariously surreal scenes (a irascible vodka-swilling cat as devil’s helper) with social satire of life and art in Stalinist Moscow, a visit to the city by a Faustian devil named Woland, and the moving love story of the title characters, a writer and his mistress. In addition, Bulgakov splices into his novel several sections of a novel written by the Master, set in Jerusalem and featuring Pontius Pilate during the crucifixion. These haunting chapters, in which imperial power meets spirit, add a layer of religious complexity to the novel—just one of the many things for which it was banned in the officially atheistic Imperium.
One of the New York Times’ best books of 2016, Secondhand Time has been hailed as one of the most intimate portraits of the life and attitudes of ordinary Russians today. For all the confinements of spirit and human damage of the Soviet system portrayed in the previous three works, Alexievich’s achievement in Secondhand Time is to document the emotional loss and existential crisis occasioned by the collapse of that system. This a nonfiction work composed of interviews with hundreds of Russians between 1991 and 2012, but the disparate voices gain power and distinction through Alexievitch’s signature style of artistic composition. This chorus of contemporary voices reflecting on their private lives today as well as upon the Soviet past, much of it reflected in our previous readings, is a fitting conclusion to our armchair foray into modern Russia.
Peter Aicher, a retired Classics professor at USM, has been the Seminar’s fearless leader since 2001. A graduate of Colgate University, Peter Aicher received his Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The tradition of epic literature from Homer to Joyce holds a special interest for Professor Aicher, as does the city of Rome, about which he has published numerous articles and two books: Guide to the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome and Rome Alive: A Source-Guide to the Ancient City, a two-volume guide based on ancient Greek and Roman writings about the capital.