Apprenticing with the dead: smashing the four-dimensional fourth wall (Alexander Herzen)

My fiction is full of time-slips and voices from the past surfacing in the present, and foldings-over that make the chain of causality obscure at best.

You know what they say: write what you know. The voices in the next room aren’t necessarily my literal contemporaries, and some of my nearest writer-relatives were dead ninety years when I was born.

Let me introduce you to Alexander Herzen, and tell you why he’s my long-lost brother.

Here’s the tag end of an anecdote about a diplomatic dinner party in London, 1854. The Russians and the Americans were the only ones who could down the Kentucky punch (‘red pepper with an infusion of oil of vitriol,’ as the teller conjectured):

The chemical affinity with alcohol raised me terribly high in the consul’s eyes.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said: ‘it’s only in Russia and America that people know how to drink.’

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘there is an even more flattering affinity: it’s only in America and Russia that they know how to flog serfs to death.’

My Past and Thoughts,  (tr. Constance Garnett, Berkeley University Press), p. 481

That punch line lanced through the 130 years between us in a lightning strike, with all the terror and joy and laughter of the truth succinctly told. I’d had the fourth wall smashed like that once or twice before. But there was a world of difference between Sinclair Lewis nailing 1970s Toledo, Ohio in his 1920s Babbitt, and quite another to receive a personal telegram from the Russia of Nicholas I.

Another line from Herzen, about the ‘ancient Americans of fifteen,’ obsessed with money and career, cemented our relationship as literary fraternal twins. If he knew as much as all that about me and my contemporaries in Reagan’s America, then I was ready to trust him on the matters of his own country and century.

As I read his memoir, My Past and Thoughts, I found myself seized by the urge to write back to him about how right he’d been about the smoke he smelled on the wind. It was blowing his way from the battlefields of World War I and the crematoria of the Final Solution and the various other pyramids of skulls erected by our Political Betters on the road to their notion of the better and braver new world.

My debt to this Russian revolutionary aristocrat is considerable. Herzen introduced me to the nineteenth century he knew, from George Sand to Harriet Beecher Stowe to P. T. Barnum to Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx. I learned Russian to read him in full; his work, like mine, teetered on the razor edge between essay, drama and novel. He taught me the attitude that one’s native language is a playground, and that one may borrow freely and fearlessly from all of its variants as well as from other languages. His mentions of favorite authors made my nineteenth century canon rather different from the one I’d been taught in school. Last, and most importantly, he taught me that critical sensibility, razor wit, and revolutionary ambition are far from contradictory.

Most important of all, he taught me to beware alleged revolutionaries with no sense of humor.


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