Thursday, 23 June 2016

Anton Chekhov: A Post-Modernist Way Ahead Of His Time

I have been translating Anton Chekhov for over 20 years, bringing into English more than a hundred stories that are lesser-known, unknown, or untranslated. I have been asking myself throughout these two decades: What is Chekhovian? We hear of Chekhovian situations, Chekhovian despair, Chekhovian resolutions. There is Nabokov’s famous take on “Chekhovian” in his novel Pnin:
Ten years before, she had had a handsome heel for a lover who had jilted her for a little tramp, and later she had had a dragging, hopelessly complicated—Chekhovian rather than Dostoevskian—affair with a cripple, who was now married to his nurse, a cheap cutie.
But is Chekhovian really something “dragging and hopelessly complicated?” There is the deep and elusive quality of his plays, which so many directors throughout the world try to fathom every year, and there is also the complexity of the stories he wrote in the last years of his brief life—he died at the age of 44, in 1904—but there is much more to Chekhov’s work than that.
If we look at the whole range of what he wrote we would have to see the term “Chekhovian” in a different light. His writing career lasted for just over 20 years, from 1880 to 1903, and during these years he wrote over 700 novellas, short stories, and short shorts—most of them when he was in his 20s—the four great plays that have made him the father of the modern theater, and a number of comical one-acters. His motto was: “Write as much as you can! Write write write till your fingers break!” And that is what he did. Often the Moscow and Saint Petersburg weekly magazines, which had a readership throughout Russia, published more than one piece by him in each issue, and these pieces appeared under a whimsical series of pen names such as “A man without a spleen,” “Shampanski” (Mr. Champagne), and “Wrench-nut number 6.” Many of the great Chekhov scholars of the 20th century held against him his hyper-productivity, his speed, and facility in writing, and the fanciful pen names. One of his biographers, the eminent Chekhov scholar Ronald Hingley, said about his early stories: “They were written for money (but then, all Chekhov’s work was written for money) and published in various humorous magazines of the period. He felt obliged to maximize such earnings by churning out more and more ‘balderdash.'”
With this I have to disagree. None of the hundreds of early and little-known Chekhov stories I have seen are in any way “balderdash.”  Chekhov’s early work is innovative, lively, and exciting—it reads as being experimental before its time. Aside from stories that he was writing in a more traditional form, Chekhov’s young, experimental pen wrote stories in the form of census reports, statistical surveys, diary excerpts, stories in the form of lists of mathematical problems, lonely hearts advertisements, mini-plays—he even wrote a one-page love story in the form of a legal deposition, with a place in the upper left-hand corner of the page for a government stamp.
What I find particularly interesting about these early stories is that at first glance they could indeed be mistaken for humorous, nonsensical turns (or vignettes)—but there is often something ominous, something “Chekhovian,” going on just beneath the surface. In a story that is written in the form of a homework assignment by a school girl named Nadia, a flighty teenager (her schoolmaster’s name is Chekhonte—one of Chekhov’s pen names at the time), much of the comedy comes from Nadia’s faulty language and spelling mistakes and the cutting-and-pasting plagiarism she does in order to pad her essay. But if one reads between the lines, Nadia is living through ominous circumstances to which she is entirely oblivious. The piece is called “Nadia N.’s Vacation Homework”
An excerpt:
Essay
How did you spend your vacation?
The instant I passed my examinations I left with mama, our furniture, and my brother Ioanni, a third-year lycée student, for our summer dacha. We were visited by: Katya Kuzevich, her mama, her papa, Zina, little Egor, Natasha, and many other friends of mine, who took walks with me and embroidered out of doors. We were a lot of men, but us maidens kept away,  and paid no attention to them whatsoever. I read many books, among them books by Meshchersky, Maikov, Dumas, Livanov, Turgenev, and Lomonosov. In our garden Nature was at its zenith, the young trees growing in rampant profusion, no axe having yet sought out their robust trunks, and the delicate foliage cast a breezy, all-engulfing shade over the reedy soft grasses speckled with the gilded tips of buttercups, an azure spray of bluebells, and crimson cloves. The sun went up in the morning and it set. Where it went up, there was a herd of birds flying. There was this shepherd who was shepherding his sheep, and there were some clouds floating under the sky. O how I do love nature!  My papa was jittery all summer long. The evil bank wanted to take possession of our house just like that, and mama never left papa’s side as she was afraid he would take his own life. I had a very good vacation because I studied science and comported myself very well. The end.
* * * *
During this period, the early 1880s, Chekhov experimented extensively with forms, some of his pieces coming across as post-post modern. His story “Sarah Bernhard Comes To Town,” for instance, was written in the form of a disjointed flurry of crazed and feverish telegrams, letters, reviews, and snippets of conversations in reaction to the great Sarah Bernard descending upon Moscow (with eight tons of luggage) to perform La Dame aux Camelias and Adrienne Lecouvreur at the Michailovsky and Bolshoi theaters.
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Sunday, 19 June 2016

Innokenty Annensky: Petersburg


The yellow steam of Petersburg's winter,
The yellow snow which clings to the flagstones…
I don't know where you are, and where we are,
Only that we are part of each other.
Did the tsar's decree create us?
Did the Swedes forget to drown us?
Instead of a fairy tale our past contains
Only stones and terrible happenings.
The magician gave us only stones
And the brownish-yellow Neva
And deserts of squares that are mute
Where executions were held till dawn.
And what went on in our land,
What raised our two-headed eagle on high,
In dark laurels, the giant on the rock,
Will tomorrow be game for the workers?
Even he who was furious and brave
Was betrayed by his galloping steed,
The tsar could not crush the snake,
Pinned down, it became our idol.
No Kremlins, no miracles, nothing sacred,
Neither mirages, nor tears, nor a smile…
Only stones from the frozen wastes
And the knowledge of an accursed mistake.
Even in May, when the shadows
Of the white night spill over the waves,
It is not the magic of a springtime dream,
But the poison of sterile desires.

[1910] 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Facing the music: Yevgeny Sudbin




Yevgeny Sudbin D. Scarlatti : Sonata in F minor, K.466


How do you mostly listen to music?
The times when I most often find myself listening to classical music seems to be in the second halves of concerts after having performed a concerto in the first half (I usually try to stay on and listen). These are some of the rare occasions when I don’t associate classical music with also having to perform it myself in the immediate future, and hence I find it more enjoyable. It may sound strange, but a lot of the time classical music just makes me anxious so I don’t listen to it as much as it seems to be expected of a musician, especially during a busy touring season.
What was the first record or cd you bought?
Back at home in St Petersburg we had a box of LPs from the Russian classical label Melodiya which I would rummage through when I was three or four. The one I would put on the most was Gilel’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, to which I would play along on our upright piano called Red October (it did look like a little like a submarine but the sound was nice and resonant, especially in the bass). A few years later, I was given an Elton John CD by someone who felt I should expand my horizons. It made me think that everyone in England wears funny glasses, and later, when I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music in London (where Elton John also happened to have studied), I was disappointed to find out that this was not the case.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
I’m past the age where I feel “guilty” about any pleasures, but my small kids love listening to soundtracks from their favourite movie cartoons in the car and I find myself (secretly) enjoying their enjoyment of it. After repeated listens some of it has grown on me, for example the music (I think it’s by James Horner) for the cute dinosaur movie The Land Before Time.
If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would you choose?
If I had six months off, why on earth would I want to learn more instruments!? I’ve yet to meet a brain surgeon who likes to perform knee surgeries as a hobby or an accountant who likes to fill out other people’s spreadsheets to relax. As a musician, one chooses a specific path in life at a very early stage, and the rest of your life journey becomes in many ways much more restricted than a “normal” person’s (even though this may not appear this way from to an outside observer). But life has so much to offer that it would be a real pity to ever only experience one narrow aspect of it.
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Monday, 13 June 2016

New novel reveals the bygone Stalinist Moscow

Natalia Gromova's work "Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the Archives," recently released by Glagoslav Publications, reveals Moscow as it was in a bygone age. This city of old is now only found on maps, but it is an era that continues to haunt us today. RBTH is publishing an exclusive extract from the book.

Chapter 6. The House That Flew Away
A story
Whenever I had a fight with my parents, I would always imagine that I had been a foundling child. This started when I was around ten years old. Any reproach from my father was all it took for me to think: I probably wasn’t their own child, they were concealing the truth from me, and somewhere out there my real parents were walking around, they would never raise their voices at me, and they certainly wouldn’t cuff me on the nape. My tears would flow as I felt sorry for myself.
I would turn over these tragic, and, at the same time, sweet thoughts on our balcony. The balcony was small, with thick bars, and it hung over an enormous yard. The building consisted of communal apartments, though for some reason it was called “The Generals’”, and it featured a silver-painted Lenin in the flower bed, a skating rink with gypsum figures of Pioneers at the entrance, and a green gazebo built from wooden boards, from which one would hear the squealing of girls or the twang of a guitar in the evenings.
The balcony became my place of solitude for a long time, and there I would meditate on the vanity of all things. I would look out from the heights of the ninth floor at the little shapes of people below: perhaps my real mother and father were there among them, and they couldn’t even guess that I was watching them? The history I bore inside my head got increasingly intricate, someone turned out to be someone else, someone learned from someone else about my family’s past, and, a miracle!, finally everything would be cleared up. My current parents would get down on their knees before me and beg me not to leave them. At the end of the play that was acted out before my inner gaze, I forgave everyone. Everyone would embrace.
When the first warm days came, the balcony served as my bed. I placed an old mattress on its concrete floor, covered it with my father’s military cloak, and, when evening fell over the city, I would crawl into a sleeping bag. There, freezing, I would look through the bars at the endless space of the city lying under me. In the distance the Moscow River flowed on with little flames. Over it hung a metro bridge where shining metro carriages would run. I felt that I wasn’t lying there, I was flying over the City, and my balcony was the basket of a hot-air balloon setting off straight into the sky.
We ended up in this building in a completely miraculous way: our family received the right to move from a communal apartment on the outskirts to a 12-floor building on Prospekt Kalinina [now Novy Arbat street - RBTH], which furthermore stood right on the bank of the Moscow River. Back then my father had taken me, a nine-year old girl with braids down to my shoulders, to look at the new apartment. It was on the ninth floor. We spent a long time going up in the elevator with its varnished wood and mirrors gleaming on both sides. It took our breath away.
On a light-colored door a nameplate shown, where “Colonel Malyshev” was written in cursive. I looked at my father with surprise.
“Those are the neighbors we’ll have. Imagine, there is only one family living there now, and not ten like before.”
A door was opened to us by a gray-haired military man, but this turned out to be not Colonel Malyshev but Major Kuzhelkov; he was frantically tying books and clothes up into bundles, and his movements had a strange haste to them, as if he was trying to escape from there as quickly as possible. It was precisely in these two rooms that Kuzelkov was now emptying, that we were going to live.
My father leaned over him and cheerfully asked:
“Well, how’s life, comrade major, how are the neighbors?”
Kuzelkov shuddered. For a movement he froze over the boxes and, without lifting his gaze, he said:
Ah, yes… People are different. It didn’t work out for us. Maybe things will be different for you…
My father only answered by nodding cheerfully. It was obvious how much he liked the two large and well-lit rooms after the one room where the four of us had been living, how he was joyously looking down on Prospekt Kalinina with people swarming like ants, on the old lanes of the Arbat that were being demolished ahead, and how he was happy to see a new Moscow being built. He grabbed me under my arms and set me before the enormous window, so that I would feel the same surge of happiness that he did.
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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Stalin’s Curse

Josef Stalin collapsed alone in the early morning of Feb. 29, 1953, after bidding a five a.m. farewell to his inner circle. The dictator’s cronies, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Nikolai Bulganin, had been forced to endure another long, liquor-soaked dinner with their leader and earlier, a movie (Stalin adored Hollywood films). A week later, on the evening of March 5, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana witnessed her father’s last moments as he lay struggling for breath at his dacha in a Moscow suburb. “He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all,” she wrote later. “The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed.” A few seconds later, Stalin was dead.

Stalin’s last gesture is telling: a threat from above called down on everyone at once, even, perhaps, on himself. The gesture’s power derives from its inscrutable willfulness: No one could predict where Stalin’s doom might land. Stalin’s effect on Soviet society was omnipresent and chilling. As Joshua Rubenstein makes clear in his new book The Last Days of Stalin, the Soviet dictator made sure that no one, not even the members of his Politburo (which he renamed the Presidium) was safe from execution or exile, the fates he had visited on millions of his subjects.

The first result of Stalin’s passing was unprecedented shock. The unthinkable had happened, the death of a man-god, “the greatest genius of world history” who had destroyed the Nazis and put Russia at the forefront of world history. A lethal crush of crowds took place in Trubnaya Square outside Moscow’s Hall of Columns, and hundreds of desperate mourners, hoping for a glimpse of Stalin’s coffin, were trampled in the melee. But mourning for Stalin was mixed with a bewildered exultation among his victims, including the Gulag’s prisoners, the peasantry that Stalin had robbed and starved into submission, and the Jews he had recently begun to persecute. The top ranks of the Party felt a strange joy; for a moment at least they could breathe. Standing with Khrushchev and Stalin’s children next to the dictator’s still-warm corpse, Beria, the hated former secret police chief who aimed to succeed Stalin as head of state, broke the silence by calling loudly to his driver, “Khrustalev, my car!”—a remark that entered Soviet legend.

Stalin’s henchmen started to jockey for position on the Kremlin’s chessboard, each trying to present himself as the dictator’s heir. With great slyness Khrushchev began to maneuver against Beria and another Presidium member, Malenkov, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in late March as the probable new Soviet chief. (Time called him “the Cossack with the shady past and forbidding presence who stepped from Stalin’s shadow into the role of No. 1.”) But Malenkov overreached when he crudely doctored a photograph from an official reception held in 1950. When the photo appeared in Pravda a few days after Stalin’s death, Malenkov had airbrushed out Andrei Gromyko, Bulganin, Anastas Mikoyan, Khrushchev, and Zhou Enlai, making it look as if he were standing alone with Stalin and Mao.

Khrushchev’s campaign for power was altogether more subtle. He literally caught his chief opponent Beria with his pants down. After Khrushchev engineered Beria’s arrest during a June 1953 Presidium meeting in the Kremlin, Beria’s military escort took his belt and popped off the buttons on his waistband so he would have to hold up his trousers with both hands, preventing him from making a run for it. The news of Beria’s downfall made the prisoners in the Gulag even more ecstatic than they had been four months earlier when Stalin died.

***

Rubenstein’s book briefly but vividly depicts Stalin’s anti-Semitic project in his last years. In one crucial respect Rubenstein alters our picture of the anti-Jewish campaign. People have long thought that in 1953 Stalin was planning to forcibly transfer Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan, the Siberian Jewish “homeland” developed in 1928, just as he had earlier transferred the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars, the Ingush, and other ethnic groups. Scholars have supposed that this massive deportation failed to occur only because Stalin died before he could make it happen. But Rubenstein finds no actual evidence of a plan to transfer the Jews. He argues that the anti-Semitic atmosphere was so intense in the months before Stalin’s death that many simply assumed such a project was in the works; the deportation swiftly became a worldwide rumor and within a few years would be reported in the Western press. Khrushchev later said that he himself had convinced Stalin not to deport the Jews, but he seems to have invented this story to give himself credit for undoing one of Stalin’s evil plots. The archives reveal no trace of any scheme for a large-scale transfer of Jews to Birobidzhan.

One important spur for Stalin’s anti-Semitic phase was Golda Meir’s visit to Moscow in September 1948. (Before 1948, Stalin was not notably anti-Semitic; although he had ordered the deaths of Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky, all of them Jewish, one of his closest advisers to the end, the thuggish Lazar Kaganovich, was a Jew.) Meir, then still named Golda Meyerson, was the new Jewish state’s diplomatic representative. When she visited Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on the High Holidays, thousands of Russian Jews crowded rapturously around her, an event that must have shaken Stalin. Here was evidence that Soviet Jews, as Rubenstein puts it, “remained Jews with longings and dreams that extended beyond the physical and spiritual borders of the Soviet state.” Stalin had allowed the newly Communist state of Czechoslovakia to ship arms to an embattled Haganah earlier in 1948 and so had played a major, perhaps even decisive, role in the birth of Israel. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognize Israel, which Stalin viewed as a future Socialist ally. But when Stalin saw the kind of devotion that Meir inspired he began to turn against the Jews.

Stalin had always been suspicious of Soviet citizens whose homelands lay outside the USSR; he had already persecuted the nation’s Koreans, Poles, and Greeks. With the founding of Israel, Jews too had become foreigners, and their loyalty was now suspect. Most Soviet Jews had relatives in either Israel or America. With their close ties to the outside world, to a mind like Stalin’s they were clearly a potential Fifth Column.

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Sunday, 5 June 2016

Igor Levit plays Beethoven

Igor Levit plays Beethoven's Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, op.31 no.2, 2nd movement



Born in Nizhni Nowgorod in 1987, Igor Levit at age eight moved with his family to Germany where he completed his piano studies at Hannover Academy of Music, Theatre and Media in 2009 with the highest academic and performance scores in the history of the institute. Mr. Levit has studied under the tutelage of Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, Matti Raekallio, Bernd Goetze, Lajos Rovatkay and Hans Leygraf.

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Friday, 3 June 2016

Sakhalin to Moscow: How a brief Asia trip revived Chekhov’s sagging spirits

In 1890 Anton Chekhov, who by all accounts was a highly sensitive person, was completely shaken up by his three months on Sakhalin Island. After a long and grueling journey by train, horse-carriage and ferry from Moscow to the island in the Russian Far East, Chekhov spent three months interviewing settlers and convicts on what was then a penal colony.
“He was more than happy to leave a place he called “hell” and take a more comfortable journey back to Moscow by ship,” says Tamara Chikova, a retired academician in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. “His letters indicate that the bad impressions of Sakhalin stayed in his head throughout the journey, but Chekhov was happy to see the colors and life of Asia.”
After setting sail from Vladivostok, which Chekhov lamented was characterized by “poverty, ignorance and worthlessness that might drive one to despair,” his ship bypassed Japan – in the grip of a cholera epidemic at the time – and headed for Hong Kong. The writer took an instant liking for the city. A lot of his impressions sound similar to comments about the bustling metropolis from modern-day travelers, who like the city’s bays, mountains, trams and Victoria’s Peak.
“It is an exquisite bay,” Chekhov wrote. “The traffic on the sea was such as I had never seen before even in pictures; excellent roads, trams, a railway to the mountains, a museum, botanical gardens; wherever you look you see the tenderest solicitude on the part of the English for the men in their service; there is even a club for sailors.”
The playwright traveled on a hand-pulled rickshaw and, although he noted the poor conditions that the city’s Chinese people were living in, he refused to be too harsh on the British colonizers. Taking a swipe at his fellow Russians, he wrote, “Yes, the English exploit the Chinese, the Sepoys, the Hindoos, but they do give them roads, aqueducts, museums, Christianity – and what do you give them?”
The voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore also had a deep impact on Chekhov. While was happy to discover that he was not prone to seasickness even on a rough journey, he was disturbed by a couple of deaths on board.
“One the way to Singapore, we threw two corpses into the sea,” Chekhov wrote. “When one sees a dead man wrapped in sailcloth, fly, turning somersaults in the water, and remembers that it is several miles to the bottom, one feels frightened, and for some reason begins to fancy that one will die oneself and will be thrown into the sea.”
Chekhov wrote that he had no clear memory of Singapore and felt very sad while visiting the city. He added that he was “almost weeping.”  
Muthu Kumar Mohan, a historian and former employee of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore says the visit was low key and devoid of publicity, as Chekhov was not a world-famous writer at that time. “There is no record in the city’s archives of Chekhov’s visit, as it was very common for European ships to call on the port and for the passengers to disembark for a couple of days,” Mohan adds.
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