Monday, 11 August 2014

Tolstoy translated

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more people reading Tolstoy in translation than any other writer. That this was an extraordinary phenomenon becomes clear from reading an unsigned review of 13 new volumes of Tolstoy translations published in Britain’s liveliest literary periodical, the Saturday Review, in 1905. “Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia”, it begins. “We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?”

The novelist in question is undoubtedly Henry James, a friend and well-known admirer of Ivan Turgenev, the first leading Russian writer to be widely translated and recognised abroad. The critic is almost certainly James’s protégé HG Wells, one of a number of brilliant young writers drafted in to shake up the Saturday Review by its new editor in the 1890s. A year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read,War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”

Before 1905, James could be forgiven for not immediately perceiving Tolstoy’s genius, as few people outside Russia had even heard his name before the mid-1880s. The English-speaking world was introduced to Tolstoy’s prose when the American scholar and diplomat Eugene Schuyler published a translation of The Cossacks in 1878. Schuyler had visited Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate while working as the US consul in Moscow, and had translated the novella after an extended period in Russia, so he was highly qualified.

This was not the case with the first translators to tackle War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Clara Bell, who worked in London, was a talented linguist but the English War and Peace she published in 1886 was translated from the first French edition of 1879 rather than the Russian original, which it little resembled. The American Nathan Haskell Dole, who published the first translation of Anna Karenina, also in 1886, did work with the Russian text but this was not always apparent. To the critic of the New York Times, his version suggested “the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.

Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian. Henry James spoke for many when he proclaimed in 1896 that Tolstoy was a “monster harnessed to his great subject – all human life! – as an elephant might be harnessed, not to a carriage, but to a coach-house”. It would fall to the next generation of translators to produce the more faithful versions in English that would have so powerful an effect on modernists such as Virginia Woolf.

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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Anna Akhmatova’s Crucial Role in Modigliani’s Art

Only recently, with the publication of Noël Alexandre’s major monograph The Unknown Modigliani which reproduces 376 works on paper [some double-sided], given by Modigliani to his father, Paul Alexandre, has the all-important presence of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Modigliani’s art, began to be recognized and understood.

Akhmatova’s poetic genius; charismatic beauty and elongated, sensual body struck a unique chord with Modigliani. And influenced the course of his art, at a critical juncture in his development.

Aged seventeen, he had written to his artist friend Oscar Ghilia:

Believe me, only work that has gone through the whole process of gestation is fit to be expressed and translated by style…… It is our duty never to be consumed by the sacrificial fire. Your real duty is to save your dream. Beauty too has some painful duties; these produce however, the noblest efforts of the soul.

Six years later, in a small sketchbook he wrote the words reproduced above.

What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human Race.

Modigliani’s intense artistic, spiritual [for him no distinction existed between these two states of being] search to express what he saw as the mysterious, innermost beauty of the human soul, drew him to Buddhist, Indian, Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, African, early Italian and Renaissance art.

Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most important patron and friend during his early years in Paris, observed:

With Modigliani, it is of course not just a matter of painting, but also of poetry, of literature, of everything. It is about the philosophical meaning of life.……Modigliani sought to express the inner self of his models.

Five of the six drawings reproduced in this article were, in all probability, drawn in 1911. They express the range and depth of Modigliani’s feeling for Akhmatova. And herald his later work.

One has only to look at the drawings, paintings and stone carvings which precede them to see the vital role Akhmatova played in enabling Modigliani to realise his path.

Anna Akhmatova [1889-1966] is regarded, with Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, as the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century. She met Modigliani during her first visit to Paris in 1910, on honeymoon with her husband. She returned alone in May 1911 and became very close to Modigliani. Theirs was a union of spirit derived from their shared passion for poetry.


This tender, moving drawing portrays Akhmatova as both Egyptian goddess. And poet lost in her dream.

Erotic in its restraint and languid, sensual pose, it evokes the elongated body and ‘helmet’ of hair of the Egyptian queens and goddesses depicted in the Louvre reliefs Modigliani and Akhmatova returned to, time and again, during the summer of 1911.

Modigliani saw, portrayed in these female images of ancient Egypt, Akhmatova’s own extraordinary beauty and noble, statuesque form. Given his mystical nature, he may have imagined her as the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen or female deity.

The line is distilled to its essence – even the left arm is only suggested – to convey a purity of spirit and beauty. It is one of his first drawings to be imbued with an otherworldly serenity. And quiet, impassioned love.

Akhmatova records Modigliani giving her some sixteen drawings he drew of her. All disappeared. In her memories quoted below, of Modigliani [Memoir on Modigliani dated 1958-1965 and included with memoirs on Osip Mandelstam in Pages from a Diary], she recalls their love for each other.

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Saturday, 2 August 2014

War and Peace: many stories, many lives

Henry James once said that "really, universally, human relations stop nowhere," and that the exquisite problem of the writer is to draw the circle "within which they shall happily appear to do so". James would never have nominated War and Peace – he famously thought it a "loose baggy monster" – but Tolstoy's novel is surely the greatest attempt in the history of the genre to represent and embody the branching infinity of human relations of which James spoke. And there is no better example of that challenge than the way in which Tolstoy's project kept growing. He wrote War and Peace between 1863 and 1868, and intended, at first, to write a domestic chronicle in the manner of Trollope (whom Tolstoy, with a few qualifications, admired). The novel would be set in 1856, and concern an aristocratic revolutionary and his return from exile in Siberia. It would be called, improbably, All's Well That Ends Well. But in order to explain the atmosphere of Russia just after the Crimean war, Tolstoy felt he had to go back to 1825, when the Decembrists, a group of largely upper-class rebels, were arrested, and either executed or exiled. And 1825, he later said, could not be described without going back to the momentous year of 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia and occupied Moscow for a month. Yet 1812 obviously needed 1805 as a proper prelude – which is where War and Peace begins.
Inexorably, what began as Russianised Trollope widened and deepened, until it became nothing less than the attempt to write the history of Russia during the Napoleonic campaign – in fact, it became the quarry that Tolstoy had identified as a young man, in his journal: "To write the genuine history of present-day Europe: there is an aim for the whole of one's life." And as this originally "English" novel became more complex and ambitious, so it became singular and unconventional. Tolstoy claimed that it was "not a novel", at least in the familiar, European sense. We Russians, he said, produce strange misfits, awkward black sheep, like Gogol's unfinished picaresque, Dead Souls, and Dostoevsky's semi-fictionalised account of his time in a Siberian prison camp, The House of the Dead. Gustave Flaubert seemed to agree. Admiring and horrified, he complained that Tolstoy "repeats himself, and he philosophises": sins good formalist novelists should not commit.
Impatient with both traditional history-writing and traditional novel-writing, Tolstoy breaks into his fictional narrative with essays and lectures about free will, determinism, history and power. A superb fictional account of the battle of Borodino is followed by a slightly grumpy military history of the battle and a map of the battlefield. Throughout the novel there is authorial argument, admonishment, preaching – a clear desire to correct the "official" record and write the proper history of the Napoleonic invasion; truth, you feel, is being battled for, with whatever literary weapons come to hand.
Many readers tend to agree with Flaubert, and either skip or speed read the essayistic passages about historiography. There is a tradition, particularly in English letters, of separating "Tolstoy the artist" from "Tolstoy the preacher"; the long chapters about European history, it is sometimes thought, are prolix leavings, while the rich stories of Natasha and Pierre, Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostov, are precious loans. Keep the great realist novelist, jettison the great irritable arguer. But Tolstoy is at once a preacherly artist and an artistic preacher, and it is as hard to divide him into two distinct selves as it is to divide DH Lawrence into sermonising high priest and storytelling layman.
Moreover, there is something emphatic and pedagogical about Tolstoy's storytelling; he is teaching even when telling a tale. He is simple and direct and emphatic – sometimes he seems more practical and childlike (perhaps "innocent" is the right word) than most great novelists. He is not afraid to begin an episode with a throat-clearing "Here is how it came about" – the kind of phrase we encounter in fairytales. Tolstoy is a great creator of palpable individuals – the "little princess" with her short upper lip and faint moustache; Pierre Bezukhov, bumbling short-sightedly on to the battlefield at Borodino; the old Prince Bolkonsky, with his rages and his "small dry hands"; a shirtless Napoleon, grunting to his valet, who is brushing his fat back and hairy chest, "Do it hard, keep going" – but the Tolstoyan atmosphere often seems Homeric because these highly particular characters essentially share simple, large, universal emotions – joy, shame, love, anger, fear – that might easily be transferred from one character to another. Nikolai Rostov, for instance, has a young man's exuberance and solipsism; he goes to war "because he could not resist the wish to go galloping across a level field". But all his young male friends and fellow soldiers might feel the same way. Essentially, Nikolai is like all healthy young men. Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov both have religious experiences, but their metaphysical curiosity is almost interchangeable (and essentially indistinguishable from Levin's, in Anna Karenina). There are female "types" in Tolstoy, too: young Natasha in War and Peace has some of the passionate curiosity and waywardness of young Kitty in Anna Karenina, while older, seasoned Natasha (the woman we encounter at the end of the novel, contentedly married to Pierre Bezukhov) has something in common with the wiser, seasoned Kitty who eventually marries Levin. And so on.
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Friday, 25 July 2014

Kazimir Malevich: prisoner, revolutionary, suspected spy … artist

At the heart of Kazimir Malevich's art is a statement so final that everything else orbits it. Emphatic, plain and declarative, his Black Square has a modest, expressionless presence. It seems like a last word. But what was it? An abstract icon? A tombstone for pictorial art? The portrait of an idea? Or a thing in itself? Perhaps not even Malevich knew.
What do you say when you have said the last word? One solution is to keep on saying it. Existing in several versions – the first was painted in 1914 or 15, the last in 1929 – Malevich's Black Square is both beginning and end. There's depth in the black. It seems to be as much volume as surface. It is simple, it is complicated, and Malevich said that it had been painted in a sort of "ecstatic fury", though each version seems calm and emphatic. The painting looks back at you, blankly, saying nothing, giving nothing away.
Or almost nothing. The Black Square was hung across the spot where walls and ceiling meet, like a Russian religious icon. It took the place of a signature in Malevich's last, figurative paintings. A black square was wedged between the headlamps of the truck that carried his coffin on a grey May morning in Leningrad in 1935. It appears again in a little drawing, seen in perspective, being borne flat on a stretcher like someone wounded. As well as black squares, there were black quadrilaterals and crosses, white-on-white squares, and an off-square red shape titled Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions). Red squares met black rhomboids, circles and wedges.
Malevich's art advances and retreats throughout his turbulent career, and now fills a suite of galleries at Tate Modern, complementing the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs that continues until September. Born in Kiev to Polish parents in 1879, Malevich lived through artistic and political revolution. He was embroiled in both. The opening rooms of this extensive retrospective show a bewildering set of influences: Russian folk art and dutiful 19th-century portraiture, Gauguin and Van Gogh, Monet and Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. All of whose work Malevich had seen as early as 1905, when he encountered two of the greatest collections of western avant-garde art in Russia, or indeed anywhere, belonging to Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.
Symbolism and impressionism, cubism and futurism – all found their way into Malevich's painting. But he was never playing catch-up, and he managed early on to effect a synthesis of these influences.
Here is a church, seen through bare trees, the whole painting in bleached snow-light and thin yellow sun, the paint heavily flecked and crusted (I imagine the crunchy sound of boots on frozen snow); then a Gauguinesque self-portrait, the artist full-faced with an almost glowering concentration. And here, men in smocked shirts doing a lumbering dance as they polish a floor with lumps of pumice under their bare feet.
Malevich's echoes of Matisse, Picasso and the rest were combined with imagery depicting the lives of the Russian peasantry. His variants on cubism contained touches of realism: a collaged image of the Mona Lisa, and the head of a highly representational bearded middle-class man. They became filled with nonsense words; there was a meeting between a cow, a violin, a fish and a wooden spoon (like the spoon that poked out of his jacket pocket as though to announce his outre modernity).
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Monday, 21 July 2014

A Moment of Faith - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky is a monumental figure not only in Russia, a country that reveres writers, but in global literature as well. Born in Moscow in 1821 he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1837, after the death of his mother, and two years before the death of his father.
While the life of Dostoevsky could fill up volumes, much of the writer’s influence can be traced to the moment he thought he was going to die.

Dostoevsky was a rising figure in Russian literature in the 1840s. He had already published his first novel, “Poor Folk,” in 1846 and “The Double” that same year. It was around this time Dostoevsky started attending meetings of the Petrashevsky circle, a discussion group founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky that gathered to discuss the problems in Russian society through the lens of the expanding impact of civil liberties being granted in European countries.

While Dostoevsky was an infrequent visitor to the group, he was fervently against the institution of serfdom. Over time however, Dostoevsky distanced himself from the Petrashevsky group, considering them to be too apolitical. Regardless of his minimal contributions to the group’s discussions, he and numerous others were arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress in April 1849.

A Commission of Inquiry was tasked with investigating the alleged revolutionary activities of the Petrashevsky circle but they found little to charge them with in their report submitted to Nicholas I. 28 in all were accused of some crimes and the fate of the accused, including Dostoevsky, was given to a Military-Civil court to further prosecute under military law. On Nov. 16, 1849, Dostoevsky and 14 others were sentenced to death.

In all, the charges against Dostoevsky that nearly resulted in his execution are a reflection of the unbending nature of the autocracy: reading aloud literary critic Vissarion Belinsky’s 1847 letter to Nikolai Gogol criticizing the writer for considering Russia’s social problems a result of the people’s moral failures, and failing to denounce a subversive work by another writer were two of the charges. Prosecutors also added another, stating that Dostoevsky had “taken part in deliberations about printing and distributing works against the government by means of a home lithograph.”



The Tsar was asked to show mercy on the prisoners because of their youth and lack of criminal intentions. Since Nicholas I enjoyed his position as the all-powerful yet merciful ruler, he agreed, reducing the sentences of the men charged. However, the Tsar wanted a point to be made and decided that rather than tell the men they had been granted leniency, they had to go through the terrifying ordeal of being prepared for execution before, at the last minute, being saved.

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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Lev Rubinstein: A Little Night Serenade

Lev Rubinstein is among Russia's most well-known contemporary writers and one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism. He has been called a "Postmodern Chekhov." 

1.
Nightingale, O my nightingale,
You perch beneath the branches' veil!

2.
Like a ghost beneath branches' veil
He appears, the nightingale!

3.
Nightingale, O my nightingale,
Where are you, in the branches' veil?

4.
Amid the spreading leafy veil
Starts a song, my nightingale!

5.
Behold again, the nightingale!
He hops amid the branches' veil!

6.
Can you see him, amid branches' veil—
The herald of joy, O nightingale!

7.
Tell us, O my nightingale
What you see in branches' veil!

8.
Hark! Here next to branches' veil
The heart skips for nightingale!

9.
Mischief-maker nightingale
Sings away in the shady veil!

10.
From the secret shade of leaf-veils
He watches us, the nightingale!


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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The final days of Osip Mandelstam

In October 1938 Osip Mandelstam sent his final letter to his brother, Alexander. The poet was being held in a transit camp near Vtoraya Rechka railroad station – in present-day Vladivostok – and seemed to sense that the end was near: “My health is very bad, I'm extremely exhausted and thin, almost unrecognizable, but I don't know whether there's any sense in sending clothes, food and money. You can try all the same, though. I'm very cold without proper clothes.” From the very start of Bolshevik rule, Mandelstam lived with the firm belief that he would be locked up sooner or later – at a minimum. He was strongly opposed to the official literature of the time, writing poetry that was extraordinary in its freedom. He detested imitation and censorship and made no effort whatsoever to pretend that he was loyal, even though this could have drastically improved life for him and his wife. For Mandelstam, compromising his beliefs in such a way was simply out of the question.

In November 1933, Mandelstam finally launched a stinging attack on Stalin himself in a poem that he recited to several friends and never committed to paper: “His unwieldy fingers are greasy like worms. / His words are as staunch as the weights made of lead. / Like roaches his whiskers lengthen in laugh. / And teasingly shine, his polished boot-flaps.” The writer Boris Pasternak was one of those friends Mandelstam chose to hear these lines. When the poet had finished speaking, Pasternak said: “What you just read … is not poetry, it is suicide. You didn’t read it to me, I didn’t hear it, and I beg you not to read this to anyone.” This advice fell on deaf ears, and Mandelstam was arrested for the first time in May 1934. News of the arrest was met with concern by a number of famous writers, including Pasternak, who received a notorious phone call from Stalin, of which there are more than 12 known versions. “He is your friend isn't he?” the party leader asked, referring to Mandelstam. Pasternak was flustered and didn't know how to respond. “But he’s a master, isn’t he? Is he a master of his art?” Stalin pressed on. “This does not matter,” Pasternak replied finally. “Why are we talking about Mandelstam and only Mandelstam? I've wanted to meet you for a long time and have a serious discussion.” “What about?” Stalin asked. “About life and death,” Pasternak answered. Stalin hung up without replying. Apparently Pasternak was so utterly terrified by Stalin's phone call that he was unable to petition him on his friend's behalf. However, Nikolai Bukharin, an old Bolshevik, did defend the poet, and it was thanks to his influence that Mandelstam's sentence was lessened. Mandelstam was exiled with his wife to Cherdyn. The poet was suffering from intense mental strain as a result of being held in prison and was admitted to hospital, where he tried to end his life by jumping out of a window. After this suicide attempt, his sentence was commuted to exile in Voronezh for three years, which ended in 1937 when he returned to Moscow for the last time.

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