Friday, 3 July 2015

Marina Tsvetaeva: From "Swans' Encampment"

Marina Tsvetayeva (1892–1941) was one of the four great poets of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. Her long poem of the Civil War, 'Swans' Encampment', was finished in Moscow in 1921, though it remained unpublished until 1957. It is composed in the form of a journal, beginning on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917 and ending late in 1920 with the final surrender of the White Army. The poem intends to honour those who fought against the Communists – the 'swans' of the title refers to the men of the White Army, in which the poet's husband was an officer – but its sympathies are extensive, as this extract suggests.

Elaine Feinstein is the foremost translator of Tsvetayeva's poems into English. The version below was published in the TLS of October 10, 1980.

From "Swans' Encampment"

Little mushroom, white Bolitus,
my own favourite.
The field sways, a chant of Rus’
rises over it.
Help me, I’m unsteady on my feet.
This blood-red is making my eyes foggy.

On either side, mouths lie
open and bleeding, and from
each wound rises a cry:

One word is all I hear, as
I stand, dazed. From someone
else’s womb into my own:
– Mother!

They all lie in a row,
no line between them,
I recognise that each one was a soldier,
But which is mine? Which one is another’s?

This man was White now he’s become Red.
Blood has reddened him.
This one was Red now he’s become White.
Death has whitened him.

– What are you? – Can’t understand.
– Lean on your arm.
Have you been with the Reds?
– Ry-azan.

And so from right and left
behind ahead
together. White and Red, one cry of
– Mother!

Without choice. Without anger.
One long moan. Stubbornly.
A cry that reaches up to heaven,
– Mother!

MARINA TSVETAYEVA; translated by Elaine Feinstein

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Russian soul reawakened: startling revelations in a new anthology of Russian poetry

Russia has always been big news and, after a period of what seemed like quiet, is again big news. But it has never quite gone away. The country has, after all, produced a vast and important literature of which we have not been – could not be – ignorant, from Pushkin and Lermontov through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and the rest.
Big news and politics are not entirely ­detached from literature. Penguin’s first anthology of Russian-language poetry, The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, appeared at the height of the cold war, in the middle of the Cuban crisis, in 1962. Books by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky followed. Then came Brodsky and Ratushinskaya. Daniel Weissbort’s Post-War Russian Poetry appeared in 1974. These books – these poets – defined our sense of Russia in that era. We watched Russia carefully, searching for clues to its nature and its inclinations. We were in awe of “the Russian soul”, heroic, revolutionary, slumbering, tragic. Russia was a giant in action.
Times change. The 1962 anthology was edited by Dimitri Obolensky and consisted of the Russian text with English prose versions at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a brief paragraph of introduction for each poet. There was also a heavyweight, 30-page introduction, intended for the serious, possibly expert reader. (I hold the book in my hand now, its pages and dusty-blue paperback cover softened by time.) It included poets from the medieval period and ran up to the mid-20th century, the last contributor being Margarita Aliger, who was born in 1915.
Over 50 years and some major, not to say momentous, political turns later, a new anthology was needed and now we have one. It is marvellous, working on quite different principles from Obolensky’s model. The medieval poets are missing. Robert Chandler’s introduction is excellent but takes only seven pages. The Russian text does not appear at all. The last section contains verse by English-language poets addressing Russian themes, and because the whole thing is presented as a book not for experts with some knowledge of Russian but for readers of poetry in English, the translations are in verse: not just verse but, often, formal verse.
In the 1960s and 1970s, form was generally considered decoration, an irrelevance to be jettisoned in favour of something that could be extracted from it. Form was anti-modern: the equivalent of pediments and capitals in architecture. To be modern, to be a modern internationalist, was to abandon such things. The contemporary counterargument is that form is not decoration but process, an aspect of meaning not to be detached from the whole. The translations in the new anthology follow this ­principle, in that they look for English equivalents of the original’s use of form in terms of metre and rhyme.
Form is demanding, of course, and in the hands of a clumsy translator (or poet) it can sound stilted. The happy surprise in the anthology is that although not everything is carried off convincingly, an awful lot is, not just Chandler’s own elegant translations but also those of lesser-known others such as G S Smith, Yvonne Greene, Maria Blosh­teyn, Catriona Kelly or Boris Dralyuk. There are skilful hands at work here.
The leading poets are all present: Krylov, Pushkin, Tyutchev and Lermontov, through Bunin, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky, down to Akhmadulina, Brodsky and Shvarts. Some are in new translation, some are old ones from earlier books, dug out of single volumes and anthologies. The poets’ reputations go before them and are confirmed.
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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Vasily Grossman:Life and Fate

In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s 1960 novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, dozens of characters are linked to one man, Viktor Pavlovich Strum, a high-ranking Jewish physicist. Early in this book of nearly 900 pages, Viktor’s mother, Anna Semyonova, writes to him from behind barbed wire in the Jewish ghetto where she awaits her death. The brief, passionate letter stands out like a single note amid the cacophony of war: 

"When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me. I’m not always strong in spirit, Vitya – I can be weak too. I often think about suicide, but something holds me back – some weakness, or strength, or irrational hope." 

Anna’s letter was staged recently as a dramatic monologue in Paris and in New York and recorded on film by veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It’s a letter for the ages, and the massive narrative that surrounds it is equally stirring. The book’s recent reissue by Harvill Press is an important literary event, coming as it does at a time when the struggle for freedom in the midst of oppressive ideologies is evident worldwide. 

Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, Ukraine. He moved to Moscow in his twenties, where he became the protege of Maxim Gorky and began publishing novels and short stories. During the Second World War, Grossman worked for Red Star, the leading Soviet army newspaper, and in his role as reporter witnessed the siege of Stalingrad and the capture of Berlin. Grossman also reported on the Holocaust and its aftermath, and he became increasingly aware of his own Jewish roots. 

Until 1955 Grossman’s status within the Soviet literary establishments appears to have been essentially secure, despite occasional political and anti-Semitic attacks. But the text of Life and Fate, completed in 1960, was considered blatantly anti-Soviet. The original manuscript was confiscated by KGB officers in 1961. Though it resurfaced in the West some twenty years later, smuggled out on microfilm, Grossman died in 1964 without having seen it published. 

Life and Fate is a great novel of twentieth-century history, but it’s not a modern novel. With no apparent irony, Grossman wrote this exposé of the Soviet regime in a style faithful to the reigning literary fashion of Socialist realism. The outlook too is distinctly that of the nineteenth century: discrete human beings are firmly linked to each other by birth and circumstance, by their absolute values and actions or by the lack thereof; no one is isolated except in death. Personal ambiguity is not an option; people live or die by their beliefs. 

Grossman portrays not only the sweeping effects of Nazism and Soviet Communism, but the ways in which these crushing ideologies daily affected individuals – fathers, mothers, children, lovers, friends. Structurally, the book shifts between several settings: the laboratories and institutes where Viktor works; a German prisoner-of-war camp; a Russian labor camp for dissidents; battalion headquarters; in a cattle car en route to the gas chambers; in the prison where political criminals are interrogated. All along the chaotic, bloody Russian front, the deployment of men and weapons, the deadliness of hunger and siege, and the cruelty, accident, and error that underlie military strategy take their horrifying toll. 

In contrast, the novel’s desperate characters seek safety and solace in kitchens, overcrowded flats, and in the bombed-out cellars of the blasted countryside. Several subplots wind around the central story of Viktor, a senior member of the Soviet science community whose status becomes precarious because of rising anti-Semitism and because of his unpopular convictions about the future of Soviet research. He is an internationalist, a progressive rationalist, seeing science — and nuclear physics in particular — as a universal rather than a political endeavor.

Translated by Robert Chandler, review by Nancy Sherman

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

By the late 1990s, Svetlana Alliluyeva was living in sheltered accommodation in Redruth. Few of the visiting tourists would have given this old woman walking the Cornish coastline a second glance. She had almost no money, almost no friends and had, in her own words, become “an English derelict”.

Yet in her room were four photographs that gave testament to an extraordinary life. They were of her daughter, who now lived in the United States; her mother, who shot herself when Svetlana was six; her grandmother, whose family was largely killed or imprisoned by Svetlana’s father; and her childhood nanny, who she’d say was the only person who truly showed her love. What was notably missing was a photograph of the man whose shadow had caused her to end up on these Cornish hilltops: her father, Joseph Stalin.

Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, but this can rarely be as directly true as for Svetlana. Her mother shot herself after being publicly humiliated by her husband, leaving her child to a solitary life within the walls of the Kremlin. Teenage dates meant a bodyguard at the next door table; school writing lists of her own father’s achievements.

Her aunt and uncle were executed and their son, Svetlana’s childhood playmate, disappeared. Her first love was sent to the Gulag and her mother’s sister sentenced to confinement. Her half-brother was killed by the Nazis while a POW after their father refused a prisoner swap.

It is little surprise that Svetlana emerged a mess: at times imperious and putting associates’ lives at risk through her loose tongue; at others crippled by social awkwardness and desperately searching for someone to love her as her parents never did. This resulted in three husbands, so many affairs the CIA labelled her a “nymphomaniac”, and a defection not only to America but also, briefly, back to her communist homeland.

Reading this extensively researched book, it is impossible not to feel for a woman who grew up “the political prisoner of my father’s name” and who despite all her efforts – whether as a wife, writer or even during a dalliance with a commune – could never escape it.

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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Ludmila Ulitskaya: Poor Lucky Kolyvanova

The red girls’ school stood opposite a grey boys’ school, built five years after it as if to proclaim the rational symmetry of the world, but also so that the spirit of competition should not spill out aimlessly over the entire district but concentrate above their roofs and, dove-like, glow above the girls’ school, proclaiming it the more distinguished, excelling, as it invariably did, in academic achievement, the behaviour of its pupils and (inversely, of course) in its accident statistics.

There was general agreement that the staff in the red school were better qualified, that the dinner lady did less thieving, that the caretaker in winter broke up the ice more energetically, and in summer chased dust along the drive more assiduously.

Its headmistress, Anna Fominichna, was also distinguished, having worked in the 1920s alongside Nadezhda Krupskaya, and was eager that the school should bear the name of Lenin’s wife. That honour, however, went instead to a nearby maternity hospital. Anna Fominichna had a quiet but steely voice, and wore a round comb in short hair the colour of hemp. Throughout the working week the breast of her navy blue jacket was full of holes, but on special days each had an award or similar token of recognition screwed into it. All her medals were, of course, pinned on as well.

She chose her teaching staff meticulously, not limiting the criteria to ‘social reliability’, identifiable from secret codes in their files, but also taking account of their human and professional qualities. Her authority with the District Education Department was such that she got away with much that others would never have dreamed of attempting.

The teachers were fully aware of Anna Fominichna’s extensive powers, but even they were dumbstruck when the German teacher, an old German lady plagued by angina and insolent girls in the senior classes, retired and their headmistress introduced them the day before the next school year began to a new German language teacher with the surname of a well-known general. This Lukina looked more like a Western actress than a Soviet schoolmistress. She had just returned from Germany, having lived there for many years with her military husband, and from head to toe was one defiant fashion statement. Her legs were particularly defiant, and indeed looked indecently naked in colourless stockings, sheer and even seamless, which were a new luxury.

Thanks to their professionalism, the predominantly female teaching staff were unfazed, but the impact on schoolgirls not yet tempered by experience of life did not bear thinking about.

It already looked like being a difficult year. The government had just issued a directive introducing co-education, and the only territory still segregating boys and girls was now the toilets at the end of the corridor. Younger schoolmistresses who had only ever worked in the red school were thrown into confusion. Their senior colleagues, who had taught in mixed schools before the war, grudgingly but without undue anxiety resigned themselves to the innovation. The merging of the schools was accompanied by the introduction of a school uniform with echoes of pre-revolutionary grammar schools. Old Konstantin Fyodorovich, who had begun his career as a maths teacher before the 1917 revolution, commented enigmatically on the impending change, ‘A school uniform keeps you organised inside’. Since the days of his youth he had been accustomed to keeping a close guard on his terse pronouncements and not speaking out of turn.

For Class 5B, that 1 September was unforgettable: instead of twenty girls from one class transferring from the red to the grey school, they suffered the incursion of fifteen close-cropped hooligans, sullen and disorientated. Hedgehog-like, they formed a tight grey ball in the far left-hand corner of the classroom, a ring of fire which nobody was in fact planning to breach. The girls did their utmost to feign insouciance, put their arms round each other, hung on each other’s necks, and paired up before moving to occupy their desks.

Strelkova sat alone and inconsolable at one desk, grieving for Chelysheva, gone ere her time to the other world of the former boys’ school. Tanya Kolyvanova, scorched by rural sunshine, settled as usual at the back and, even though the class had yet to start, already had a smudge of violet ink on her cheek.

The electric bell rang, and as it buzzed its last the new mistress entered her class.

Everybody froze, both the securely established girls and the male newcomers. She was tall and well-built. Forty-one pairs of eyes focused on the new teacher, overlooking no detail of her appearance. Her hair gleamed with lacquer like the lid of the grand piano in the assembly hall, and was indeed lacquered with a substance of whose existence this sixth part of the world had as yet no knowledge. Bright red lipstick slightly overlapped the outline of her small mouth. Flat, dark green shoes with a black bow and a handbag, also dark green, hinted at improbable coincidence, and she was sporting a broad engagement ring which just nobody wore in those times.

‘When I grow up I’m going to make myself a checked suit exactly like that,’ Alyona Pshenichnikova decided on the spot, while the other twenty-five girls, incapable of such rapid decision-making, stared at the spectacle in disbelief.

Kolyvanova, whom nature had endowed with an acute sense of smell, was the first to detect the complex and heady aroma of perfume. She breathed as much of the spicy fragrance into herself as she could, but it made her eyes water and, unable to contain it within herself, she sneezed loudly. Everybody turned to look.

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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Anna Akhmatova: Everything

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children. 

Dreams and Anna Karenina

We do not think of Tolstoy as a comic writer, but his genius permits him to write farce when it suits him. There is a wickedly funny scene in Anna Karenina that directly precedes the painful scenes leading to Anna’s suicide. It takes place in the drawing room of the Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who, almost alone among the novel’s characters, has no good, or even pretty good, qualities. She embodies the kind of hysterical and coldhearted religious piety that Tolstoy was especially allergic to. “As a very young and rhapsodical girl,” he writes, she
had been married to a wealthy man of high rank, a very good-natured, jovial, and extremely dissipated rake. Two months after marriage her husband abandoned her, and her impassioned protestations of affection he met with a sarcasm and even hostility that people knowing the count’s good heart, and seeing no defects in the ecstatic Lydia, were at a loss to explain. Though they were not divorced, they lived apart, and whenever the husband met the wife, he invariably behaved to her with the same venomous irony, the cause of which was incomprehensible.
Tolstoy, with his own venomous irony, makes the cause entirely comprehensible to the reader of Anna Karenina, as he shows Lydia Ivanovna fasten herself on Karenin after Anna leaves his house to go abroad with Vronsky, and preside over his degeneration into his worst self. She is an ugly and malevolent creature who coats her spite in a thick ooze of platitudes about Christian love and forgiveness. When Anna was on the verge of death after giving birth to Vronsky’s daughter, Karenin experienced an electrifying spiritual transformation: his feelings of hatred and vengefulness toward Anna and Vronsky abruptly changed into feelings of love and forgiveness, and under the spell of this new “blissful spiritual condition” he offered Anna a divorce and the custody of her son—neither of which she chose to accept. Now, a year later, she wants the divorce, but Karenin is no longer of a mind to give it to her. The blissful spiritual condition has faded away like a rainbow, and Karenin, in thrall to the malignant Lydia Ivanovna, has reassumed his old, supinely rigid, and unfeeling self.
Anna’s brother, Stepan Arkadyevich (Stiva) Oblonsky, has gone to Karenin to intercede for Anna, and Karenin has said he would think the matter over and give his answer in two days’ time, but when the two days pass, instead of an answer, Oblonsky receives an evening invitation to the house of Lydia Ivanovna, where he finds her and Karenin and a French clairvoyant named Landau, who is to be somehow instrumental in Karenin’s decision. The comic scene that follows is filtered through Oblonsky’s consciousness.
By now we know Oblonsky very well. Tolstoy has portrayed him as a person whom it is necessary to condemn—he is another dissipated rake—but impossible to dislike. He radiates affability; when he comes into a room people immediately cheer up. And when he appears on the page, the reader feels a similar delight. In the novel’s moral hierarchy, Lydia Ivanovna and Karenin occupy the lowest rung; they sin against the human spirit, while Stiva only sins against his wife and children and creditors. Through his geniality, Oblonsky has been able to maintain a job in government for which he is in no way qualified, but now, because he needs more money, he is trying to get himself appointed to a higher-paying position in the civil service. Lydia Ivanovna has influence among the appointers, and Oblonsky figures he might as well use the occasion to charm her into helping him. Thus, while listening to Lydia Ivanovna and Karenin’s odious religious palaver, he cravenly—but, he hopes, not too cravenly—hides his atheism:
“Ah, if you knew the happiness we know, feeling His presence ever in our hearts!” said Countess Lydia Ivanovna with a rapturous smile.
“But a man may feel himself unworthy sometimes to rise to that height,” said Stepan Arkadyevich, conscious of hypocrisy in admitting this religious height, but at the same time unable to bring himself to acknowledge his freethinking views before a person who, by a single word to Pomorsky, might procure him the coveted appointment.
During all this Landau, “a short, thinnish man, very pale and handsome, with feminine hips, knock-kneed, with fine brilliant eyes and long hair” and a “moist, lifeless” handshake, is sitting apart at a window. Karenin and Lydia Ivanovna look at each other and make cryptic remarks about him. A footman keeps coming into the room with letters for Lydia Ivanovna, to which she rapidly scribbles answers or gives brief spoken answers (“Tomorrow at the Grand Duchess’s, say”), before resuming her pieties, to which Karenin adds pieties of his own. Stiva feels increasingly baffled. Lydia Ivanovna suddenly asks him, “Vous comprenez l’anglais?” and when he says yes, she goes to her bookcase and takes down a tract called Safe and Happy, from which she proposes to read aloud. Stiva feels safe and happy at the chance to collect himself and not have to worry about putting a foot wrong. Lydia Ivanovna prefaces her reading with a story about a woman named Marie Sanina who lost her only child, but found God, and now thanks Him for the death of her child—“such is the happiness faith brings!” As he listens to Lydia Ivanovna read Safe and Happy,
aware of the beautiful, artless—or perhaps artful, he could not decide which—eyes of Landau fixed upon him, Stepan Arkadyevich [begins] to be conscious of a peculiar heaviness in his head.
The most incongruous ideas were running through his mind. “Marie Sanina is glad her child’s dead…How good a smoke would be now!… To be saved, one need only believe, and the monks don’t know how the thing’s to be done, but Countess Lydia Ivanovna does know…And why is my head so heavy? Is it the cognac, or all this being so strange? Anyway, I think I’ve done nothing objectionable so far. But, even so, it won’t do to ask her now. They say they make one say one’s prayers. I only hope they won’t make me! That’ll be too absurd. And what nonsense she’s reading! But she has a good accent….”
Stiva fights the drowsiness that is overcoming him, but begins to helplessly succumb to it. On the point of snoring, he rouses himself, but too late. “He’s asleep,” he hears the countess saying. He has been caught out. The countess will never help him with the appointment. But no, the countess isn’t talking about him. She is talking about the clairvoyant. He is lying back in his chair with his eyes closed and his hand twitching. He is in the trance Lydia Ivanovna and Karenin have been waiting for him to fall into. She instructs Karenin to give Landau his hand and he obeys, trying to move carefully, but stumbling on a table. Stiva watches the scene, not sure he isn’t dreaming it. “It was all real,” he concludes.
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