Thursday, 18 December 2014

Isaac Babel - Biography

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (according to the records of the Odessa Rabbinate, his real name was Isaac Manievich Bobel) was a Soviet Jewish writer, one of the few to achieve fame abroad. His best known works are the short story collections “Red Cavalry” (“Konarmiya”) and “Odessa Tales.”

Babel was known to have created myths around himself. In his autobiographic works he wrote many “facts” about his own life that contradicted official evidence. For example, in his “Autobiography,” he mentioned that he had been persecuted by Tsarist officials, but no evidence of this has been found in the Tsar’s security service documents.

Isaac Babel was born in Odessa into the family of a Jewish agricultural equipment merchant. The beginning of the 20th century was a time of social unrest and mass exodus of Jews from the Russian Empire. Babel himself was lucky to survive the 1905 Odessa pogrom, hidden by a Christian family. His grandfather was among the 300 Jews killed. To enter the preparatory class of the Odessa commercial college, Babel had to overcome the quota for Jewish students, but, despite the fact that he received passing grades, he was turned down in favor of another boy, possibly due to a bribe. Babel had to start home schooling and succeeded in completing two years of education in one. Aside from the traditional disciplines, he studied the Talmud, music and languages – he knew English, French, German and Hebrew; his first short stories were written in French. After that, he studied at a commercial college, receiving a business education and obtaining a Ph.D. in economics.

After graduating in 1915, Babel traveled to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) with a fake passport and no money. It was during this time that he met his first wife, Evgenia Gronfein, who later moved to France. He entered the fourth grade of the Faculty of Law at the Petrograd Psycho-neurologic University, which gave him the right to receive a residence permit. There he met Maxim Gorky, the famous Soviet writer and political activist, who supported the capable youth and helped him publish two of his short stories. Thus Isaac Babel began his literary career. He wrote for Gorky’s magazine The Chronicle (Letopis in Russian), which united authors who were against nationalism and World War I. His short stories were recognizable by their specific expression, acuteness and depth. Although short, his works often had a very detailed plot. The topics, though, were rather uniform: bandit Jews of pre-revolutionary Odessa, everyday life of Jews in Odessa and the Western Ukraine before the October Revolution and during the Soviet-Polish War of 1919-1921. His approach to the material for his works was rather romantic and biased; he only chose to describe the moments he himself found striking or extraordinary.

Babel then interrupted his literary activity and tried many different occupations. He worked at the People’s Commissariat for Education and in a printing office. He was also a reporter and fought in the 1st Cavalry Army (Konarmiya in Russian), the same army that lent its name to one of Babel’s most famous short story collections. Babel also served in the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage, or simply Cheka - the predecessor of the legendary KGB.

Babel made a comeback to literature in 1923. After the Civil War of 1918-1920 between the Red Army and the White Guard, his first works were about the 1st Cavalry Army, of which he had gained first-hand knowledge. His first short stories of the period appeared in 1924. They were “Salt” (“Sol”), “The Letter” (“Pismo”) and “The King” (“Korol”), and together with those written later they comprised two collections: “Red Cavalry,” published in 1926, and “Odessa Tales,” published in 1931. Babel’s works on the 1st Cavalry Army made him one of the most popular Soviet authors. The freshness of his material, taken from life revolving around the Revolution of 1917, and not yet reflected in fiction, made his short stories extremely significant. They are narrated by the reporter Lutov (the name under which Babel himself served in the Cavalry Army). However, “Red Cavalry” was received in varying degrees by Babel’s contemporaries. Critics were delighted but Semyon Budenny, the Red Cavalry commander, called it “slander” and “old wives’ tales.” Maksim Gorky tried to protect Babel from unjust criticism. “Red Cavalry” was translated into several languages, and soon Isaac Babel became one of the best-known Soviet authors abroad.

In 1928 Babel wrote the play “Sunset” (“Zakat”), thematically connected to the “Odessa Tales.” In the 1930s he tried to reflect the post-revolutionary reality in a number of new short stories. In “The End of the Poorhouse” (“Konets Bogadelni”), 1932 and “Froim the Rook” (“Froim Grach”), 1933, he described the brutal murder of Staraya Moldovanka (a street in Odessa) residents by Cheka agents. Such works did not fail to attract the unpleasant attention of the authorities. A storm cloud started to gather above the “unreliable” author. His interest in French culture and his repeated trips to Paris fueled gossip in literary circles. He was torn between France and Moscow, as his family lived abroad, and this caused the authorities even more irritation. Suspicion towards Babel increased when in 1935 he went to Paris to take part in the International Congress of Writers to Protect Culture, and, defying caution, mixed with the Russian émigrés there.

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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Doctor Zhivago, By Boris Pasternak

In his introduction to this new translation of Doctor Zhivago, Richard Pevear quotes from a letter written by Boris Pasternak in English: "living, moving reality in such a rendering must have a touch of spontaneous subjectivity, even of arbitrariness , wavering, tarrying, doubting, joining and disjoining elements". Pevear uses this quote to stress his point that Doctor Zhivago is "a highly unusual book". He argues that "to embody the 'living moving reality'", it "had necessarily to be an experimental novel".

For some reason, Pevear refuses to call it modernist, although both Pasternak's words and Pevear's own description of "a feeling of chaos, random movement, chance encounters, sudden disruptions" could very well apply to a modernist author – Virginia Woolf, for example. In the end, it's not what one calls it that matters. What is important is an acknowledgement of the unique features of the novel's structure and style, which combine to create the poet's vision of the Russian Revolution and its consequences.

Pasternak sees this great upheaval as a clash between the inhuman abstractions of a ruthless political order and the indomitable might of life-force. The surname "Zhivago" has the same root as the Russian adjective "zhivoy" –"live", "alive". This sums up the tragedy of the novel's hero, who welcomes the revolution in the hope that it will put an end to injustice, but dies in 1929, unable to live beyond "the year of the great turning-point", as Soviet textbooks would later label it.

Even in 1956, in the atmosphere of Khrushchev's "thaw", the novel was rejected by Soviet publications. However, the manuscript got out and appeared in Italian in 1957. Pasternak's Nobel Prize, in October 1958, led to his expulsion from the Writers' Union, a smear campaign in the Soviet press, and his forced refusal of the prize. This persecution precipitated his death in May 1960, and delayed the novel's publication in Russia for 30 years.

To have an English version ready in time for the award of the Nobel, the translators, Max Hayward and Manya Harari, had to work extremely fast, which led to omissions and simplifications. Moreover, the need to make the book readable often made them replace the rhythm and style of Pasternak's prose with plain, lively English which at times verged on banality.

Their version, published in August 1958, remained the only English Zhivago for 52 years. The blurb of this new translation claims that Pevear and Volokhonsky "have restored the rhythms, tone, precision and poetry of Pasternak's original". They try to follow Pasternak in everything.

Sometimes, especially where the effect depends on the rhythm of the sentence, it works well. Here is the opening: "They walked and walked and sang 'Memory Eternal', and whenever they stopped, the singing seemed to be carried on by their feet, the horses, the gusts of wind". The tone, impersonal and rhythmical, heightening everyday detail, is recognisably Pasternak's. The first sentence of the old translation could be anyone's: "On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory', and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing."

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Bringing early Chekhov to an English-speaking readership

Beloved by audiences the world over for his plays, Chekhov’s short stories are less well known outside Russia, and his earliest works – some 528 of them – have never been systematically translated into English. The prolific Russian translator Constance Garnett published 144 between 1906 and 1922, and others have since added to this tally, but no definitive anthology has yet been produced. 

These stories date from the period 1880-1888, when Chekhov was supporting his family mainly through writing, publishing in periodicals under various pseudonyms such as “Man Without a Spleen” and “My Brother’s Brother.” Often darkly comic and satirical, the stories explore profound issues of human existence without becoming judgmental. 

The Anton Chekhov Foundation’s project is the first to translate these early stories and arrange them in chronological order, allowing readers to trace the development of the writer’s style over time and providing a valuable resource for scholars and Chekhov enthusiasts. Due to the large number of stories, there are several volumes planned for publication, beginning with the very earliest works for Volume 1. 

The project was born out of the success of a week-long festival in 2010 to raise funds for the White Dacha museum in Yalta, where Chekhov lived towards the end of his life. “We were overwhelmed by the response,” says Elena Michajlowska, a trustee of the foundation, “particularly given that the festival’s program was based on the short stories and early comic vaudevilles rather than the well-known plays.” 

The idea to go back to Chekhov’s very origins and create a chronological anthology came from Rosamund Bartlett, a renowned Russian translator who has just completed a new translation of “Anna Karenina.” She is the founding director of the Anton Chekhov Foundation and has published extensively on the writer, including a 2005 biography “Chekhov: Scenes From a Life.” 

For Bartlett, it is vital that the project is inclusive and democratic. “We wanted to involve as wide a range of people as possible,” she explains. “So we have retired academics and students who are still learning Russian, alongside professional translators.” The project has a global reach as well, with participants from as far afield as Bulgaria, Australia and China. They can all use a dedicated Facebook page to ask translation questions or share ideas. 

This grassroots approach is a nod to Chekhov’s character and attitude. A modest man from humble origins – he was the son of a poor merchant and the grandson of a freed serf – Chekhov often treated patients for free and claimed a few months before he died that his stories would only be read for another seven years. 

“His own stories encompass a huge range of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Michajlowska explains, “I’d like to think he would have been keen to encourage an inclusive project that encouraged the study of Russian, the language he loved and found so beautiful.” 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Exile Returns - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

On the morning of January 7, 1974, the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union convened to draw up battle plans against a grave threat to Communist ideology and power—a writer and his manuscript. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Party, sat at the head of the conference table and opened the meeting. “Comrades,” he began, “according to our sources abroad and the foreign press, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has published a new work in France and in the United States—‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ ”

By then, Brezhnev’s health was beginning to fail. He worked only four or five hours a day, his burden soothed by frequent naps, massages, saunas, and snacks, and by round-the-clock attention from his doctors. His speech was slow, slurred. “I am told by Comrade Suslov that the Secretariat has taken a decision to develop in our press a debunking operation against this work by Solzhenitsyn and its appearance in bourgeois propaganda,” Brezhnev went on. “No one has had a chance to read the book, but its essential contents are already known. It is a filthy anti-Soviet slander. We have to determine what to do about Solzhenitsyn. By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail. He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power—everything dear to us. . . . This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control.”

Yuri Andropov, the chief of the K.G.B. at the time and a future successor to the Party throne, did not wait long before offering his recommendation. He was by far the most intelligent of the Politburo members, and it is plain from reading the minutes of the Politburo session (a stack of classified documents stamped “Top Secret” in the Party archives) that Andropov’s was the decisive voice. Better than anyone else, he understood the threat Solzhenitsyn’s work posed to the regime. Back in 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev approved the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” as a way of discrediting the Stalin era, a great cultural thaw had already begun—one that so unnerved the Communist leaders that they eventually called it off, banned Solzhenitsyn from print, and, in 1964, “retired” Khrushchev “for reasons of health.” But Solzhenitsyn’s literary mission, the process of giving voice to the sixty million victims of Soviet terror, went on secretly, and even collectively. Much of “Gulag” was based on the hundreds of letters and memoirs that former prisoners had mailed to Solzhenitsyn after “One Day” was published. Andropov had an intuitive sense that this new work could do as much, in its way, to undermine Soviet power as all the nuclear arsenals in the West.

“I think Solzhenitsyn should be deported from the country without his consent,” Andropov said, according to the Politburo minutes. “Trotsky was deported in his time without getting his agreement. . . . Everyone is watching us to see what we will do with Solzhenitsyn—if we will mete out punishment to him or if we will just leave him alone. . . . I maintain that we must take legal action and bring the full force of Soviet law against him.”

Andropov then fuelled the already evident anger of the other members with terse descriptions of Solzhenitsyn’s “impudence”—his meetings with foreign correspondents, his brazen flouting of Party control over literature and over publication abroad. (The manuscripts of “Gulag” and other works had been microfilmed by Solzhenitsyn and his wife in Moscow and smuggled by friends and other contacts of theirs to publishers in the West.)

Nikolai Podgorny, the chairman of the Presidium, was furious, and indignantly defended Andropov’s proposal to suppress Solzhenitsyn against any prospect of a righteous response abroad. “In China, there are public executions,” he said. “In Chile, the Fascist regime shoots and tortures people! In Ireland, the English use repression on the working people! We must deal with an enemy who gets away with slinging mud at everybody.”

“We can send Solzhenitsyn away to serve his sentence in Verkhoyansk,” beyond the Arctic Circle, said Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Premier, a “liberal” in the eyes of many foreign analysts. “Not a single foreign correspondent will go visit him there, because it’s so cold.”

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Joseph Conrad: Turgenev: A Study. By Edward Garnett

Dear Edward,
I am glad to hear that you are about to publish a study of Turgenev, that fortunate artist who has found so much in life for us and no doubt for himself, with the exception of bare justice. Perhaps that will come to him, too, in time. Your study may help the consummation. For his luck persists after his death. What greater luck an artist like Turgenev could wish for than to find in the English-speaking world a translator who has missed none of the most delicate, most simple beauties of his work, and a critic who has known how to analyse and point out its high qualities with perfect sympathy and insight.

After twenty odd years of friendship (and my first literary friendship too) I may well permit myself to make that statement, while thinking of your wonderful Prefaces as they appeared from time to time in the volumes of Turgenev’s complete edition, the last of which came into the light of public indifference in the ninety-ninth year of the nineteenth century.

With that year one may say, with some justice, that the age of Turgenev had come to an end too; yet work so simple and human, so independent of the transitory formulas and theories of art, belongs as you point out in the Preface to Smoke “to all time.”

Turgenev’s creative activity covers about thirty years. Since it came to an end the social and political events in Russia have moved at an accelerated pace, but the deep origins of them, in the moral and intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded in the whole body of his work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer. The first stirrings, the first gleams of the great forces can be seen almost in every page of the novels, of the short stories and of A Sportsman’s Sketches— those marvellous landscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.

Those will never grow old. Fashions in monsters do change, but the truth of humanity goes on for ever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the variety of its disclosures. Whether Turgenev’s art, which has captured it with such mastery and such gentleness, is for “all time” it is hard to say. Since, as you say yourself, he brings all his problems and characters to the test of love, we may hope that it will endure at least till the infinite emotions of love are replaced by the exact simplicity of perfected Eugenics. But even by then, I think, women would not have changed much; and the women of Turgenev who understood them so tenderly, so reverently and so passionately — they, at least, are certainly for all time.

Women are, one may say, the foundation of his art. They are Russian of course. Never was a writer so profoundly, so whole-souledly national. But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev’s Russia is but a canvas on which the incomparable artist of humanity lays his colours and his forms in the great light and the free air of the world. Had he invented them all and also every stick and stone, brook and hill and field in which they move, his personages would have been just as true and as poignant in their perplexed lives. They are his own and also universal. Any one can accept them with no more question than one accepts the Italians of Shakespeare.

In the larger, non-Russian view, what should make Turgenev sympathetic and welcome to the English-speaking world, is his essential humanity. All his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressed and oppressors, are human beings, not strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions. They are human beings, fit to live, fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit to win, fit to lose, in the endless and inspiring game of pursuing from day to day the ever-receding future.

I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in a sense. But one ends by having some doubts. To be so great without the slightest parade and so fine without any tricks of “cleverness” must be fatal to any man’s influence with his contemporaries.

Frankly, I don’t want to appear as qualified to judge of things Russian. It wouldn’t be true. I know nothing of them. But I am aware of a few general truths, such as, for instance, that no man, whatever may be the loftiness of his character, the purity of his motives and the peace of his conscience — no man, I say, likes to be beaten with sticks during the greater part of his existence. From what one knows of his history it appears clearly that in Russia almost any stick was good enough to beat Turgenev with in his latter years. When he died the characteristically chicken-hearted Autocracy hastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the tomb it refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionists went on for a time flinging after his shade those jeers and curses from which that impartial lover of all his countrymen had suffered so much in his lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Every page of his writing bears its testimony to the fatal absence of callousness in the man.

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Monday, 8 December 2014

Vladimir Sharov: Before and During

"Russian history is, in fact, a commentary to the Bible," Vladimir Sharov said in a recent interview. Coming from an historian, this statement calls for certain facts to be revised in its light; illustrated in a work of fiction, it makes for a complex, thought-provoking and controversial book.

On its first publication in Russia in 1993, Before and During did cause some controversy: editors of the very magazine where it appeared criticised the author for taking too many liberties with facts, while a proportion of readers found its links between Orthodox Christianity and Bolshevism hard to digest.

The novel starts at the tail end of the Soviet era, with its narrator, known only as Alyosha, working on his Memorial Book, where he intends to record the lives of people he has known. He suffers mental blackouts and is admitted to the dementia ward of a psychiatric hospital in Moscow. There his project takes on a new dimension: he resolves to include his fellow patients in the book and begins jotting down their stories, not realising at first that his subjects “needed to be loved and saved, not analysed.”

Not only does Alyosha fail to redeem them by merely transcribing their accounts – in retrospect, he thinks that his intervention may have brought about the catastrophic finale.
As the novel’s threads multiply, it grows into a phantasmagoria centred around the character of Madame de Staël, a French author famous for her stance against Napoleon. Possessed of an ability to prolong her life, she settles in Russia after her first reincarnation, a “Pythian priestess” who can see into the future and whose actions eventually determine the country’s fate (the similarity between her name and Stalin’s is no coincidence).

Powerful erotic currents are created by descriptions of de Staël’s relationships with her many lovers, among them the philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, one of the founders of Russian cosmism, and the composer Alexander Scriabin, who saw music as a way of building a new universe. His unfinished opus, “Mysterium”, conceived as “a sublime orgy, a rite, a kind of global frenzy”, has never been traced.

Sharov offers an intriguing scenario where Scriabin performs it for none other than Lenin, who transcribes its principal themes in a code, thus producing some of his best-known works, including The State and Revolution. These writings, when deciphered, turn out to portray the events that shook the world in 1917: “One part of a nation leads another to slaughter and the smell of the offering, the fragrance of the offering, brought with faith in truth and justice, with unwavering readiness, goes up into the sky.”

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Friday, 5 December 2014

Dread and Wonder The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee. She certainly has the stature. Translated into many languages, the winner of multiple major awards, not only is she Russia’s leading dramatist by wide agreement, she is also its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women’s writing in the country. In the words of Anna Summers, her English translator, “She is the only living Russian classic. No one comes near.” Students study her in high schools. Scholars write their dissertations on her both in Russia and abroad. Her seventieth birthday was marked by an official national celebration. As for her plays, which are staged around the world, a handful are typically running in Russia at any given time, and one, Moscow Choir, has been a staple of the White Nights cultural festival in St. Petersburg for over twelve years. Still going strong at 75, an accomplished singer, performer and painter to boot, she is also co-scenarist ofTale of Tales, repeatedly selected as the greatest animated film of all time. In The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, only two post-Stalinist writers are given sections of their own. One is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The other is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
That we are still so unfamiliar with her in America is partly her own doing, in several senses. Her writing is insistently colloquial and conversational, a record of the voices that she hears around her on the streets and in the subways, in Moscow’s arid offices and overcrowded flats. Her prose, as a result, is highly idiomatic, and therefore highly problematic for translation. When The Time Is Night, the novella that’s regarded as her masterpiece, was published in an execrable version twenty years ago, she forswore further translation into English. More recently, through Summers’s efforts, she has been persuaded to relent. A first selection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, appeared in 2009; a second, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, in 2013. This fall will bring a third: a trio of novellas, including The Time Is Night and Among Friends, her most controversial work of prose.
“Father and Mother,” one of the pieces in Sister’s Husband, concerns a girl who grows up in a house of unrelenting squalor and conjugal hatred. “Everything that happened to her afterward,” the story ends—and “everything” means homelessness, to start with—“all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” The tale provides a clue to Petrushevskaya’s resilience, vitality, even optimism. Nothing she would face in later life could measure up to what she dealt with as a child. Conceived out of wedlock (a huge taboo back then), denounced by her father before she was out of the womb, Petrushevskaya was born to a prominent Bolshevik family that was in the midst of going under in the Great Purge. Some were shot or exiled; the rest were classified as enemies of the people, which meant that they had no official right to food or shelter—and Petrushevskaya grew up during the war, when it was hard enough to survive even with official right to food and shelter.
Widowed young and with a child, Petrushevskaya did not begin to write until about age 30. A couple of stories were published in 1972, another handful in the decade and a half to come, but for the most part she was banned. Her pieces were too dark, too frank, too much of a challenge to the authorized picture of Soviet life. She turned to the theater instead, staging performances with student groups, at factory clubs, in makeshift rooms. Gradually, her reputation grew. In 1988, with glasnost, she was finally allowed to publish the prose that had been accumulating for twenty years. The resulting book, Immortal Love, became a signal cultural event, greeted by her audience—Russia’s ordinary struggling urbanites, and in particular its impoverished intelligentsia—with a shock of gratitude and recognition. All this time, as Summers puts it, all those years, someone had been writing down what they were going through. Someone had been bearing witness to their lives.
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