I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.
This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.
Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.
He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.
There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.
A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.
Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.
I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.
There are two museums here. The first painting, Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress, is from the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’d visited a couple of days prior to my National Gallery jaunt. The blogging of my V&A trip was solid Mediæval and Renaissance, and along with everything non-North-East Eurasian European peninsula, there was no place for Joseph Mallord William Turner. The National Gallery put on a Turner trio for me, so I’ve rolled the V&A one in here.
Michel Serres loves Turner. I’m sure he resonated with me as well prior to my student years introduction to Serres, but I forever associate Turner with that time when my university philosophy friends, having already blown my mind on Butler and Deleuze said, “Well if you like them, you’re gonna love Serres.” It was probably Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, and the chapter Turner Translates Carnot, seducing me with the interplay of these three subjects, with thermodynamics and art. It occurs to me now that the scene in Feersum Endjinn, where Count Sessine is in the bowels of a steam train with a younger, forked version of himself is a work of Turner.
It may be unremarkable to love both The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up and — especially — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, but perhaps it is having seen them so often they serve as a mnemonic for Serres, who in turn leads me through the art of Turner, through science and aesthetics and ethics, and makes it so much more than just singular, remarkable paintings.
As with Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I found myself in Room 34 faced with works I’ve seen for years in print unexpectedly there before me. I made some noise. The school kids were all, “What the fuck, tall old weird person?” They were being forced to stand before it and experience Art. I wonder if they could sense how remarkable these works are, or if that was drowned beneath the imperative to concur, that yes, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare these are masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is unremarkable, mediocre, forgettable. Turner, particularly in his 1830s and ’40s period, is a monster. You can see him moving toward the intensity of Rain, Steam, and Speed in much earlier works, in the cloud and circulating light, and you can see traces of where he came from in the Temeraire itself, sliding between Baroque, Romanticism, and Realism, going somewhere that superficially resembles Impressionism, but there’s no way to get to that from where Turner ended up.
To see these close up, shoving in a crowd to get close enough to marvel at the detail, to wait for that break in the throng to be able to photograph them, all while rushing to make the airport. The hare running before the train is a long diagonal blob, and the detailed photo misses it entirely, but look at the train, a black maw around a white-hot inferno, and on the shore between the bridges’ arcs, a group of dancers; like the wheels on the train precise in the raw chaos of brush strokes. Look at the sky in the rectangle of paddle-wheel tug, funnel, smoke and the Temeraire’s pale bow. It shimmers and burns in the heat, convection rising and falling, peeling off, dirtying and hazing the air. The slender black upright of the funnel links both these paintings; as Serres says, “the entire world becomes a steam engine … Turner entered into the boiler … the painting is inside”.
A month after I was in Wuppertal, I finally finish editing all the images from the Von der Heydt-Museum, which I sprinted through on a Friday morning before Gala and Michael’s dress rehearsal, two hours of indiscriminate camera-ing. Michael said, “I’ve lived here two years; never been.” Well it’s a regional museum, so you never know if it’s going to be banging, sad, or somewhere in-between.
Somewhere in-between, with moments or rather bloody good, plus fuck that was well done why don’t more museums do it like that? Lighting was a bit crap, lots of the natural stuff, which is good, but not diffused enough and pointing at heavily varnished old paintings, which is not, and some rooms where the clowns took over the illumination, so I’m wondering if the museum people even look at their own art. They don’t like people photographing though, that’s for sure. Cheap entrance price and utter thieving gouging ten euros to flop out a camera. Kinda stunned at that, like, you’re not the Louvre, you know that, eh?
Not much mediæval stuff, which is always my first stop, but there is a 1563 print of Martin Luther (minus nail holes), plus a stack of Albrecht Dürer copper engravings, which are achingly beautiful. I especially love the bagpipe player and the more disturbing works that didn’t photograph well, so no wild boar with an extra set of legs on its back, nor his mythological stuff. Past the wooden sculptures covering 500 years in a room, and into into another dim room with holy crap!
Francisco Goya’s Los caprichos. Everyone knows him for his Los desastres de la guerra series, but Los capricos was the my inspiration for bitches 婊子 and is by far my favourite work of his. And here’s half a dozen (they probably have the whole series buried somewhere) lined up along a wall.
Then what happens is that “Why don’t more museums do it like that?” thing. Nearby a Rembrandt engraving (the Zweiter Orientalerkopf one) is a 19th century Japanese watercolour, heavy orange sun setting over a turbulent wave, followed by Jan van Bylert’s Singende Hirte. It’s just the beginning. Some rooms later, when we’re deep in 20th century German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit all over the walls, the centre of the room is Japanese and South-East Asian sculpture and works on paper. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen artwork from across the globe arranged like that in the same room … same museum? Coming up a blank. It’s rare even to see, say, Buddhist sculpture in the same museum as European art, outside of monster museums like London’s V&A where multiple departments are under one roof, but even there that former stuff is anthropology or The Asian Collection, and somehow implicitly not art — it’s craft or religious iconography, or Other … anything other than proper art coming from proper artists. So to put the two together, two thousand years East and South-East Asian mingled with half that of European; the head of a stone Ghandara Buddha figure from the first to third century next to Adolf Erbslöh’s Blaue Reiter period Schwebebahn; Javanese Wayang kulit shadow puppets and a folding screen by Kano Mitsunobu beside hard 21st century works by Sabine Moritz, Tamara K.E., and Tatjana Valsang; they work together so well and it isn’t an imperative to see the former as art like the latter but it becomes very uncomplicated and unremarkable to do so.
To see this stuff that’s always less art than art because it’s ‘for a purpose’ or whatever, be seen firstly and even solely as art is unexpected and radical. See the colour and that delicate but relentless Expressionism in the tapestry of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s from his time in Switzerland, facing off an equally colourful and delicate Chinese or Japanese Buddha / Luohan from centuries earlier. If nothing else, even if this arrangement does nothing for you, at least these works are being seen. And I’d totally be up for a big museum that does it like this. Imagine being in the Louvre or on Museum Insel in Berlin and not going into separate museums for each arbitrary delineation, but wandering through European mediæval art, and Ghaznavid Islamic art, and Japanese Kamakura art, and Chinese Song and Yuan, and South-East Asian, and the mediæval Americas and Africa and Australia … a global mediæval art exhibition mashed with a 20th century one. Sometimes I think museums are just going through the motions of museum-ing and exhibition-ing — however awesome their collections are — and then I find something like this, not this neo-liberal museum bollocks infestation, but something profoundly Museum: here is art, let’s look at it all together and find out what that looks like, what it causes, how it enriches all the artworks.
Complete divergence here. Back whenever Alte Nationalgalerie had the Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende exhibition (almost two years ago), amongst all the sublime brilliance they had this Degas piece. He’s a sleazy tosser, but I have a love for his ballet pieces, like Tänzerinnen im Probensaal, which I cried over. Fucking art. So I’m in Von der Heydt-Museum, and there’s a Degas! And it’s the same one. Didn’t cry this time, I’m hard, me. There was another of his too. Yeah, I know he’s a cliché, but it’s because he started it. All of that was to say, same work, different exhibition, different museum, different wall, different lighting, different companion works, different audience (a lot smaller and quieter for one), all that makes a different artwork. I didn’t even recognise it as the same one. I was talking with Robert Bartholot about this, how to photograph art, and how the work changes as fast as the light moving outside, and I dunno, maybe compare the two. Same, different.
Other special works. Besides Adolph Erbslöh’s Schwebebahn, cos I was in Wuppertal and the Schwebebahn is the best Bahn. How about Bahnhof Gesundbrunnen? My home station. I know that bridge so well even if that station hasn’t looked like that since the ’40s. There was also an Edvard Munch, which I got mad excited about, cos I don’t think I’ve ever seen his stuff on a wall. A whole bunch of 20th century post-war German art, almost all by men until the century flips over, Kuno Gonschior’s massive yellow minimalist / colour field / abstract expressionist piece was definitely a fave. So much I missed and haven’t even mentioned.
Worth going to? If you’re in or near Wuppertal, then yeah, says Frances who lived in Melbourne and went to the NGV maybe once — and didn’t pay attention. It’s difficult to modulate this for people who aren’t like me, who don’t travel hours with an agenda of binging art. If I was in the Ruhrgebiet or Düsseldorf for a bit, then it’d be a no-brainer: go to Wuppertal, see museums, see Pina Bausch. See Pina Bausch, ride the Schwebebahn.
Because I’m obviously in love with the best public transport in the world, here’s some photos of the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn from Bahnhof Landgericht, which is the stop for Börse, where Gala and Michael were performing. It’s colossal, science-fiction engineering of swaying beauty.
No one told me they sway! Side to side. And lean into corners like they’re racing. Wuppertal’s Schwebebahn is the best 13km of public transport in the world. So good, Gala and I made a song about it. It’s the title of this post, repeated until you’re bored. You won’t be though, because Schwebebahn is the Best Bahn. The only thing that could make the best better would be Schwebebahn racing. Not especially fast, but especially awesome.