February 2, 2021 at 9:30 pm

Visiting Writer | Anthony Marra Reads from His Work, Feb. 11

Anthony Marra, portrait

Anthony Marra

The English Department is proud to announce that Anthony Marra is this year’s visiting fiction writer. He will read from his work and take questions on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. via Microsoft Teams.

Marra is the author of the collection of short stories The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories, and the novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, and the inaugural Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Additionally, Marra’s work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Currently, Marra teaches at Stanford University as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction.

Recent Creative Writing alumnus, Chase Campbell, offers the following appreciation of Marra’s work.

Though Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno (2015) has the subheading “Stories” printed on its cover, this slyly revelatory book might just as easily have been called a novel. Characters recur throughout, linked across the borders of stories and towns by family, friends of friends, and sundry objects whose apparent lack of consequence belies grave importance—an obscure landscape painting, a mixtape, a photograph. It’s a testament to Marra’s proficiency as a writer that this intricate use of recurring images never feels forced or ostentatious or unbelievable. Although the individual threads end up stretching across a century and a solar system, they’re never truly load bearing: while each story feels stronger for them, none is so dependent on them as to stop being a self-contained work of fiction, each a wonderful illustration of the emotional immediacy and focused vision that, in fiction at least, is found in its most distilled form in the short story. Simultaneously, when the stories are taken in aggregate, the book is more than the sum of its parts; Marra’s latticework gives the collection the scope and thematic richness usually reserved for the finest novels. Lying in the long shadow cast by the totalitarianism and war that dominated the 20th century and still haunt our present, bolstered by Marra’s stylistic flexibility and Tolstoian cast of memorable characters, The Tsar of Love and Techno offers a profound meditation. And Marra shows us that the ways in which people and their lives are represented—in art and media, in the recording of history, in stories, in one’s own mind—can, in turn, obscure and illuminate the complex beauty of the human experience.

Part of what makes each story so individually compelling is Marra’s narratorial ventriloquism: there are almost as many unique voices in The Tsar of Love and Techno as there are stories. Memorable speakers include Alexei Kalugin, narrator of the collection’s titular story, who desires, in the words of another character, to be “a professional aphorist.” His narration is marked by delightful turns of phrase that range from cynically clever to genuinely profound. Reflecting on the ugly violence of a mob hit he witnessed as a child, he proclaims that “the institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano.” When wondering whether or not a pile of coins in a gallery is an art installation, he opines that “the modernists ruined reality for laypeople.” On his brother Kolya—one of Marra’s most memorable characters in a cast full of them, a young delinquent turned petty criminal turned murderer turned contract soldier—Alexei remarks that “there are more ways to remember one person than there are people in the world.”

Even more impressive is that the peculiarities of each voice add thematic depth to the stories: Marra has a keen sense of how to best use interiority as a functional narrative device. Roman Markin, the narrator of the collection’s first story, “The Leopard,” is a Soviet censor tasked with airbrushing political dissidents from photos and paintings. Markin’s narration is pocked with partyisms that can at times feel excessive (one could be excused for wondering if even the most devout Marxist-Leninist would think privately that “it is not God or gravity but the grace of the state that holds us upon the earth.”) It becomes evident, though, that Markin’s enthusiasm is reflexive and defensive, a coping mechanism for the guilt of failing to save his own brother, Vaska, from arrest and execution. Yet his interior devotion doesn’t keep him from resisting himself: as he erases rebels, radicals, and other persons of political inconvenience from photos, he inserts alongside members of the shrinking coterie of acceptable party members his brother’s face at various stages in life—as the boy Markin recalls from childhood, as the young man he allowed to die, and as the old man his inaction will forever prevent Vaska from becoming. Markin grants his brother a kind of salvation from the purgatory of historical erasure, and Marra grants us an unforgettable story.

That story ends, unsurprisingly, in Kafkaesque horror as Markin is arrested, prosecuted in a kangaroo court, and executed for a crime he didn’t commit. His accusers use as evidence a photograph of a ballerina that Markin failed to adequately censor. The photograph, or rather its subject, comes into sharper focus in “Granddaughters,” the collection’s second piece and its most formally inventive. In another of Marra’s delightfully creative adventures in narrative voice, the story is told in the first-person plural by a chorus of the eponymous granddaughters, a handful of women from Kirovsk, the Siberian mining town around which much of the collection’s action revolves. “Granddaughters” details the lives of the ballerina featured in the photo that proves Roman Markin’s undoing and her granddaughter, Galina. The ballerina, imprisoned in a labor camp for her involvement in a Polish saboteur ring, directs her fellow inmates in ballet performances that are as sophisticated as they possible could be, given the circumstances, at the behest of the camp’s director. In placing this story directly after the story of the Soviet censor who attempts to erase the ballerina from history, Marra emphasizes the potential for individual people—through remembering, through story telling—to resist the monopoly the powerful have on the architecture of history.

It would’ve been easy for Marra’s point to end here, with an optimistic portrait of individuals wresting historical truth from the wretched maw of totalitarian censorship. It would’ve been satisfying, too, particularly for the primary audience of Marra’s book—people who continue to read fiction and think critically about it in this day and age are, to risk essentializing the diverse demographic of Good Book Readers, perhaps a little more likely than average to place some personal stake in the belief that storytelling and artmaking more broadly are fundamentally moral practices that, when done sincerely, shape our understanding of one another and the world for the better. Marra’s stories project this optimism to an extent, but not without reservation. While the granddaughters in “Granddaughters” pry the ballerina’s story from history, in their telling of her granddaughter Galina’s story—their friend’s story, which they claim a little spuriously as their own—the images they present are blurred. Marra’s chorus frequently draws attention to its own unreliability and in so doing emphasizes the potential of a narrative to warp or mangle the reality of what it presents; it offers quick judgements about people whose lives, seen here in slivers and fragments, come into greater focus in later stories. They speak of the aforementioned Kolya Kalugin—with whom their friend Galina has a teenage romance—with disdain and dismissal: “if we could, we would airbrush him from the story.” They have good cause to be harsh—Kolya, we learn, murdered a friend and former member of the group of granddaughters and friends who narrate the story. As Kolya’s character develops in later stories, though, the reader comes to empathize with him and understand his poor life choices in ways the granddaughters are, justifiably, unwilling. The granddaughters aren’t deliberately trying to mislead—they aren’t lying about Kolya, nor are they lying when they give passing mention to Vera, “who as a child denounced her own mother to the NKVD,” a summary of events that, as the reader learns in a later story, is incomplete—rather, they report the information they have, erroneous as it can be, as truthfully as possible.

Though Marra doesn’t suggest a moral equivalence between the granddaughters’ inaccuracies made in earnest and the sort of censorious art produced by Roman Markin in “The Leopard,” both are examples of ways in which inaccurate representations—in storytelling and in visual art respectively—can warp the truth. Even the best intentioned can mislead without meaning to, and the worst intentioned can use representations in art, history, and media to oppress a people and obscure their humanity. How we represent other human beings in our art, in our stories, in our history—this is how we construct the shared delusion that we call reality.

Marra is fixated on the lives that ache and fade in the former Soviet Union, contained as those lives are in a region in which political power passed from the hands of autocrats propped up by a one-party system to oligarchs propped up by the influence of foreign capital and a farcical imitation of democracy. Yet as is the case with all good writers, the themes he explores have bearing on human life outside the particular borders, geographic or otherwise, within which his stories unfold. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, the lives of others, and the world at large can only ever be tiny tiles within a greater mosaic of humanity and existence itself. This doesn’t make individual people and their individual stories unimportant, though, of course; like Marra’s stories, we are all small, crucial parts of something vast in scope and importance. The greater the size of the chorus that sings, the closer that story comes to something resembling truth. The connections that stretch across The Tsar of Love and Techno aren’t the tricks of a clever writer—well, they are, but they’re so much more too. Marra’s connections show us the threads that run through the fabric of reality. We are all connected, Marra reminds us; we are all responsible; we are all essential.

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