Friday, 29 March 2013

Mikhail Shishkin: A revolution for Russia's words

As it creates reality, language judges: it punishes and it pardons. Language is its own verdict. There is nowhere to appeal. All higher courts are non-verbal. Even before he has begun writing, the writer is like Laocoön, pinioned by the language snake. If he is to explain anything, the writer must be freed from language.

It was quite a while after my move from Pushka to the canton of Zurich before the bizarre sense of the unreal, the carnival quality of what was happening to me, was gradually replaced by the tentative and amazed confidence that, indeed, this was no illusion. The trains were not toys, the landscape not painted, the people not planted.

Immediately following the change of scenery, I tried to finish writing the novel I had begun in Moscow, but I got nowhere. The letters I had traced out there had an utterly different density here. In the end, the novel was about something else. Every word is a high step for you to trip over.

Borders, distance and air do wonders with words. A combination of Russian sounds that was so obvious and natural on Malaya Dmitrovka Street, with the Chekhov Casino raging outside my window, won’t make it through customs here. Words stripped of all independent existence there acquire residency permits here and become not a means but a subject of verbal law. Here, any Russian word sounds completely wrong and means something completely different. Just as, in a theatre, the meaning of a phrase shifts when uttered after a change in scenery.

It is as if there were a different centre of gravity on the banks of the Limmat, and any word coming out of a Russian inkwell weighs far more here than in its country of origin. What in Russia suffuses the atmosphere, is strewn in sediments and across human snouts, in “the cadet Grushnitsky”, in the war in Chechnya and in “Christ has risen from the dead”, here it is all concentrated in every word of Cyrillic script – pressed, crammed into every last bI.
As it slips further from reality with each passing day, the fatherland seeks out new carriers and finds them in the squiggles of an exotic alphabet. Russia has gathered all its belongings and taken up residence in a font. Letters have been consolidated, just as apartments once were, to accommodate new residents.
My departure from the language, the loss of Russian murmuring in my ears, forced me to stop, to be silent. On the rare occasions when we meet, writers from Russia are amazed. “How can you write in this boring Switzerland? Without the language, without the tension?”

They are right – the atmospheric pressure in Russian letters is heightened. And the language is changing rapidly. My exit from Russian speech forced me to turn around and face it. Work on my text came to a halt. Just as there are rests in music, so are there silences in a text. Perhaps they are its most important part.
What is the language I left behind? What did I take with me? Where do the words go from here? A labour of silence. If I was to go further, I had to understand where the essence of writing in Russian actually lay. Being at once creator and creature of the fatherland’s reality, the Russian language is a form of existence, the body of a totalitarian consciousness. Daily life has always muddled through without words: with bellowing, interjections, and gag lines from film comedies. It is the state and literature that require coherent words.

More here.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

A novelist who works miracles with the mundane - Igor Sakhnovsky,

A young man hears the voice of his long-dead grandmother ordering him to go to a nearby town. At the train station, he inadvertently saves the life of a homeless man. This man turns out to be his grandfather, who was thought to have perished in the camps many years ago. These serendipitous events – which the author asserts are true – prompted the then 30-year-old poet and magazine editor to pen his first novel, "The Vital Needs of the Dead."

Sakhnovsky, now 54, writes prose that has the potential to become classic literature: the stylistic originality and opulent language combine with unconventional and entertaining plots where the mundane and the miraculous merge organically into one, becoming seamless and inseparable.
Many of the characters are based on real people but are joined by archetypes including a ghost, a wandering Jew, or omniscient sage. The author does not restrict himself to any particular time frame: a single novel can weave together stories of, say, the Middle Ages and the present day.
"Magic realism," thinks the reader. "Pseudo-documentary prose," said the author, who explained that, "life's cornucopia of non-fictional material renders fantasy unnecessary."
Despite such statements, the world of science fiction sometimes claims him for itself: for example, in 2008, Sakhnovsky's novel "The Man Who Knew Everything" won the Bronze Snail prize, awarded to the finest works of fiction selected by Boris Strugatsky (other winners of this award include Viktor Pelevin, Dmitry Bykov and Sergei Lukyanenko).
Sakhnovsky has also been in the running for other emblematic Russian awards. Despite not getting the final nod, he has been shortlisted for the "Big Book," "National Best Seller," and "Russian Booker" prizes.
More here.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Tatiana Nikolayeva plays Bach Partita No.6 in E minor, BWV 830

Anna of Russia

Anna Ioannovna  Empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740.
Anna Ioannovna was born in Moscow on 28 January, 1693. After the death of her father, Czar Ivan V, Peter the Great's imbecile half-brother and co-czar for seven years, in 1696 she grew up with her mother, Praskovia Saltykova, and sisters in the village of Izmailovo on the outskirts of Moscow.

Her mother was an ignorant, bigoted, old-style tsarina who neglected and even hated her daughters. A shy and reserved girl, Anna was educated at home. She studied writing, German, French, dancing and etiquette, but never advanced beyond the bare essentials of literacy and grew into a clumsy, grim and gruff young woman.

Contemporaries noted her rough face, dark complexion, bad manners, deep voice, slovenliness and great height; she towered above all the cavaliers of her court. Anna was also famed for her big cheeks, which Thomas Carlyle once compared to a “Westphalian ham.” Still, she had natural good sense and in her more cheerful moments was a true friend and amiable companion.

Peter the Great acted as a second father to the Ivanovs, as Praskovia and her family were known. In 1708, on his order, the family moved to St. Petersburg and in 1710 Anna married Frederick William, Duke of Courland. The wedding took place in the still unfinished Menshikov Palace in St. Petersburg on 31 October. The next day Peter the Great held a second wedding for two court dwarves (he hoped to breed a race of small people) and ordered dwarves to be sent to St. Petersburg from all over Russia. About 70 dwarves attended the event. The two celebrations were joined together in a drinking bout that lasted several days.

In January 1711, the young couple set off for the capital of Courland, Mittau (now Jelgava in Latvia). On the way, the Duke, exhausted from heavy drinking, fell ill and died 25 miles from St. Petersburg. Anna became a widow just two months after her marriage. The Duke's body was taken to Courland for burial while his widow returned to St. Petersburg where she spent the next six years.

In 1717 Anna was sent to Mittau again, this time to take over the government of Courland. However, realizing that his niece might not necessarily act in Russia's best interests, the Emperor dispatched his lord steward, Peter Bestuzhev-Rumin, who was given three tasks – to govern Courland, to inform the Tsar of everything going on there and to be Anna's lover. Anna’s mother protested the last point, until she was reminded of her own youth, when she had betrayed Tsar Ivan V and given birth to a child fathered by her own bailiff.

Anna's existence at Mittau was embittered by the utter inadequacy of her revenue. Peter the Great allowed Anna 40 thousand roubles a year for her court and the Duchess was constantly obliged to ask Peter or his wife Catherine I, as well as local magnates and Russian aristocrats, for money. Her presence provided an anchor for the growing Russian influence in the eastern Baltic region and her retainers doubled as agents of the Russian government. ...

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Poem of the Week: “Boris Pasternak”

Born Anna Gorenko to a wealthy family in Odessa in 1889, Akhmatova was made to adopt a pen name by her father, who cautioned her against shaming the family name by becoming a “decadent poetess”. Yet her first two collections of poetry, Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914), won her instant critical acclaim and popularity. Along with the poets Nikolay Gumilev (Akhmatova’s first husband), Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, Akhmatova founded the Acmeist school of writing, which emphasized concreteness and craft over the vague, more ephemeral concerns of the Symbolist movement. But after Gumilev was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921, Akhmatova encountered strong resistance to publishing her work; an unofficial ban on her verse remained in place from 1925 to 1940. In spite of censorship and harassment from the government in the years after the Second World War – a Central Committee Secretary expelled her from the Writer’s Union, calling her “half-nun, half-harlot” – Akhmatova could never bring herself to leave her beloved country or its people.

In “Boris Pasternak”, Akhmatova elegizes another towering figure of Russian literature who, in books including Second Birth (1932) and Dr Zhivago (1957), sought to capture life as it was in their country between the Russian Revolution in 1905 and the Second World War. The two writers were close throughout their lives; Pasternak proposed to Akhmatova on numerous occasions (even while married to another woman), and though she never assented, they remained admirers of one another’s clear speech and ability to “peer” into the terror that surrounded them and their loved ones. Here, Akhmatova praises the way Pasternak reveals the bleakness and hunger of that time by “counting the grains / In the blasted ears” and “making a song out of graveyard thistles”. His gaze is so penetrating that “ice grieves and liquefies”.

In Pasternak’s “eternal childhood”, Akhmatova tells us, he observes with silence and care, “tiptoeing over pine needles, / So as not to startle the light sleep of space”. Her final lines remind us just how many lives Pasternak touched: though only a small notice of his death appeared in the Literary Gazette in 1960, admirers posted handwritten notices with the date and time of his funeral throughout Moscow’s subway system. As a result, thousands flocked to the small village of Peredelkino to attend the services, and to honour him “for filling the world” – as Anna Akhmatova did – “with a new sound”. ...

More here.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The man who held the Russian soul in his hands

Rachmaninoff’s name has long since become a brand. His music haunts the piano students perspiring in music schools no less than it does the covetous, concert pianists rubbing their hands together as they watch their bank balances balloon with every new performance of the great composer’s hits. The music also haunts his rapturous listeners, who freeze like deer in the headlights when they hear the first chords of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rachmaninoff was fated to have both enormous success and a life in exile. At a time when Vladimir Lenin was doing all he could to rock the boat of Imperial Russia, little Seriozha (common diminutive for the name Sergei) was just learning how to press the pedals on the old family piano. His poetic nature slowly matured in the hush of a Russian village and, in December 1917, he left Russia for good.
To the din of church bells being blown up by the Bolsheviks, Rachmaninoff fled to the West. In the frames of a documentary film, we see Rachmaninoff — guarded and gloomy — on the deck of a steamship bound for America. Suddenly, his face is replaced with a Guy Fawkes mask, and we feel that this smile tells us what is most important about Sergei Vasilievich. This uneasy-looking man with the shaved head is, in fact, full of the joy of anticipation. A new life was opening up before him in the New World, which would make him celebrated and unhappy.
Rachmaninoff robbed Russian music of its chastity, tearing asunder its fetters of provincial academism with his long fingers and thrusting it shamelessly onto the stage for all audiences of the early 20th century to hear. He became the messiah of the light genre, to which he applied all the might of his piano so as to forever change the image of classical-music lovers — just as the Beatles did for fans of rock n’ roll.
Rachmaninoff was the first Russian composer to scrape together a fortune — moreover, a fortune from his own recordings.
Right up to the end of his immigrant’s life in the United States, he remained an incorrigible romantic. Listening to the rumble and roar of his latest sports car, Rachmaninoff would race along the California highways, taking his hands off the wheel only to wipe away the tears he often shed for his native Russian birch trees. He could never forgive fate for parting him from his Motherland — from the carefree summers at his country estate near Moscow, where he spent days hunting dogs and playing scales with pretty pupils.
More here.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov: Coronation scene

Boris Godunov. "coronation scene" (prologe, scene 1).
The Bolshoi theater. Moscow.
Boris - Evgeniy Nesterenko.
Cond. B.Khaykin

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A Belated Apology to Anton Chekhov

For a man who died at 40, Anton Chekhov left an astounding legacy. Though he worked full-time as a physician—which in 19th-century Russia meant driving horse-carriages around the frigid countryside to visit badly suffering people in the middle of the night—Chekhov completed an unthinkable 600 short stories and 13 plays in his lifetime. His work inspires adoration from readers, including writers as different as Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver. When asked about his influences, a representative devotee named Tennessee Williams famously said:
"What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!"

Yet Chekhov's charms are subtle, and some readers find themselves underwhelmed after the first encounter. One contrite member this of this camp is essayist and short-story writer Steven Barthelme, who wrote what he told me is an "Apology to Chekhov": an admission that he initially shrugged at a writer who later became an all-time favorite.
With brothers Frederick and the late Donald, Steven Barthelme is one-third of the most influential literary sibling trio since the Bronte sisters. His latest collection is Hush Hush (Melville House), which brings to its stories of the damaged and downtrodden Chekhov's precision and hugeness of heart. With Frederick, he wrote an unusual memoir of gambling addiction, Double Down, in the first-person plural. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, and McSweeney's, and he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Steven Barthelme: I first read Chekhov's "Lady With Lapdog" when at an embarrassingly advanced age I had to teach it in a sophomore lit class at a rot-gut university in Louisiana where I had gotten an instructor job. I thought, What's so great about this? In other words, I missed it utterly.
I wish I could tell you how I became enlightened, but I don't remember the process, truth be told. It was probably just happening onto other, simpler Chekhov stories like "The Lament," "Kashtanka," and "The Kiss" where even I could see what was so great about this. Anyway, somehow I came around.
As many writers more noble than I have remarked, "Lady With Lapdog" is a stunning thing, full of memorable bits of business. I admire for instance all the things Nabokov admires, the business where Gurov is slicing up his post-coital watermelon while his companion is theatrically weeping over her virtue, the headless statuette inkstand at the provincial hotel, etc.
There's a special place in my heart, too, for the moment in the story when he has snuck off to her little town and, standing on the street where she lives with her husband, sees the little dog, and wants to call to it, but can't remember its name. Also the moment when Gurov is back in Moscow and finally can't stop himself from baring his soul—"If you only knew what a fascinating woman I met in Yalta"—to a vaguely drawn friend with whom he has been eating and playing cards. The man listens to his ecstatic exclamations and then says, "You're right, that sturgeon was a bit off," responding to some earlier, unreported and trivial remark concerning dinner. Listener indifference, which is reader indifference, is a trademark joke in Chekhov.
But the passage I remember best is in among a half-dozen breathtaking things near the end, when the now ex-philanderer is reflecting about his own aging and the women he has known:
Why did she love him so much? He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man whom their imagination created and whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they saw their mistake, they loved him all the same.
This is wonderful—that is, full of wonder—but still not outside the capability of most our best writers today, the sort of psychological irony that any good thoughtful liberal could observe and recognize the value of reporting.

More here.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Vladimir Nabokov, “Houdini of history”?

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his novel “Bend Sinister” (1947), Vladimir Nabokov writes the following:
I am not “sincere,” I am not “provocative,” I am not “satirical.” I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of “thaw” in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent.
Nabokov was no stranger to the political atrocities of the 20th century. In 1919, he and his immediate family fled revolutionary Russia on the last ship out of Sevastopol, a vessel aptly named “Nadezhda” (“Hope”). In 1937 he escaped Hitler’s Germany by fleeing to France, and in 1940, just weeks before Paris fell to the Nazis, he boarded a French ocean liner’s last voyage to New York with his Jewish wife and son. So, was his insistence that his art was independent of politics and society fact or fiction? In “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov,” Andrea Pitzer suggests that such pronouncements were merely part of Nabokov’s public façade — “the genteel, charming cosmopolitan, incapable of being dented or diminished by history.” The Nabokov that Pitzer presents to us “is more vulnerable to the past than he publically led the world to believe,” recording events “that have fallen so completely out of public memory that they went unnoticed.” Pitzer is particularly interested in tracing how Nabokov planted references to concentration camps in his art. To prove her point, she chronicles historical events as they unfolded in the course of Nabokov’s life and shows how Nabokov’s works “refract” these events. While the result is an admirable work of archival research, Nabokov’s art, unfortunately, comes out as a mere apparatus for capturing history — a heroic service no doubt but one that raises the question: if all you wanted to do was record events, why go through the trouble of writing fiction? Pitzer suggests that, by burying “his past in his art” and waiting “for readers to exhume it,” Nabokov had devised a new and different method for documenting inhumanity and the history of violence.
If Pitzer is correct, why was Nabokov so cryptic? Pitzer cites Nabokov’s famous assertion that art is difficult and should challenge the reader. But if Nabokov intentionally hid historical information in his fiction as a kind of challenge to his readers, then he was either a sadist for telling them not to look for such content or he was really into reverse psychology. In the introduction to “Bend Sinister,” Nabokov dissuades readers from viewing his book as political dystopian fiction: “The story in “Bend Sinister” is not really about life and death in a grotesque police state,” he writes. Yet Pitzer uses quotes from his foreword to argue that the author “directly links” the world of “Bend Sinister” with the totalitarian states in which he lived, those he calls “worlds of tyranny and torture, of Fascists and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jack-booted baboons.” When put back into context, however, Nabokov’s exact words are: “There can be distinguished, no doubt, certain reflections in the glass directly caused by the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life: worlds of tyranny and torture.” According to Nabokov, to read too much into these reflections is to allow these idiotic and despicable regimes to control the realm of art, the only haven that can declare true independence.
Vladimir Nabokov had a specific term for the kind of reader who obsessively searches for political and social clues in fiction: “the solemn reader.” This “solemn reader” falls into the trap of reading his novel “Bend Sinister,” widely recognized as his most political work, for “human interest.” Lecturing about Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” Nabokov would remark that the “solemn reader” takes for granted that Gogol’s prime intention was to “denounce the horrors of Russian bureaucracy.” Such reading is not necessarily wrong. It’s just that, according to Nabokov, his and Gogol’s art deals with “something much more than that.” Vera Nabokov once mentioned that “every book by VN is a blow against tyranny, every form of tyranny.” When Nabokov reminds us in “Lectures on Literature” that “the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world … having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know,” he is not advocating that writers employ their stylistic gifts for the sake of showing off. For Nabokov, there exists no greater blow against tyranny than art that refuses to be a vehicle in the service of society.
More here.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Stanislavski was racked by self-doubt

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Russian actor, director and theorist, Konstantin Stanislavski. If the anniversary is remembered at all, it will be with quiet respect. There was a time – not a time out of memory, though it seems distant now – when furious battles were waged in the theatre about acting: what it was and what it should be. In green rooms, in drama schools, and in the fiercely polemical pages of the theatre magazine Encore, the debate raged. It started around the time of the foundation of English Stage Company at the Royal Court theatre in the mid 1950s and continued until some point in the late 1970s, when all ideological and aesthetic discussions were abandoned in the face of economic trauma. The principal figures around whom the antagonists grouped were Stanislavski and the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht who, in the 1920s and 30s, articulated a theory of acting to rival, and indeed to oppose, the Russian's. Broadly speaking, Brecht's approach was political, Stanislavski's psychological; Brecht's epic, Stanislavski's personal; Brecht's narrative, Stanislavski's discursive. Brecht's actors demonstrated their characters, Stanislavski's became them; Brecht's audiences viewed the actions of the play critically, assessing the characters, Stanislavski's audiences were moved by the characters, identifying with them; Brecht's productions were informed by selective realism, Stanislavski's aspired to poetic naturalism.
As Stanislavski had done with his Moscow Art theatre, Brecht created an acting group, the Berliner Ensemble, whose practice embodied and demonstrated his theories; the Ensemble's visit to London in 1956, the year of Brecht's death, had a seismic effect on British theatre, an effect that only started to fade in the last years of the 20th century. The Moscow Art theatre, meanwhile, had started to calcify; when Stanislavski's original productions, still in the repertory, came to London they seemed preserved in aspic. Brecht and his theories made all the running, both aesthetically and politically, chiming with the British leftwing puritan tradition, resulting in productions that were bare, cool, politically explicit. The German's influence, first felt in Joan Littlewood's productions, was a formative factor in the unique populist style she forged for her Theatre Workshop; it informed a great deal of the Royal Court's house style, in physical productions, in new plays, and in acting. It was also at the root of Peter Hall's new Royal Shakespeare Company, and – sometimes a little incongruously – became part of the many-hued fabric of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company, which produced a number of Brecht's plays, performed new plays (by John Arden and Peter Shaffer, for example) heavily influenced by him, and applied his lessons to classics such as Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, starring Maggie Smith, who proved to be a brilliant, if somewhat unexpected, Brechtian.
But Stanislavski had been a force in the British theatre long before Brecht. His system had been taught in drama schools from the 1920s, and, slowly at first, but increasingly, leading British actors embraced his quest for psychological truthfulness over mere theatrical effectiveness.John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave – but not, significantly, Olivier – endorsed his work; after the war Paul Scofield did the same. The huge popularity of 1950s film stars such as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and John Garfield gave currency to the extremely limited version of Stanislavski's system created by their teacher, Lee Strasberg, who coined the phrase The Method for his Stanislavski-lite version of it. Essentially, Strasberg elevated one aspect of Stanislavski's work – emotional truthfulness – into the whole theory. Not only was this a crude reduction, it ignored the constant development and refinement of the theory, which preoccupied the Russian until the day he died, weighted down with international honours, in Moscow, in 1938. But by then the Soviet cultural nomenklatura had started the process of ossification that led to the lifeless productions London saw in the 1960s, a bitter paradox for a man whose entire life in art had been an unceasing quest for renewal, an unending struggle against the formulaic, the conventional, the self-referential.
By Simon Callow
More here.

When writing becomes therapy

Dmitry Bykov is a larger-than-life figure in so many ways. He is a big man and his personality is immense; his unruly hair and casual T-shirts contrast delightfully with his analytical mind and phenomenal memory. As part of the Slovo Festival of Russian Literature, he captivated a crowded, London audience this week with a bravura performance, reciting poetry, cracking jokes and engaging in a relaxed, but impassioned interview.

Bykov has won numerous prizes for his novels and biographies, including the National Bestseller and Big Book awards for “Boris Pasternak” (2005). He is also a teacher, journalist, TV and radio presenter, but he is currently best known for his Citizen Poet project, involving satirical poetry on contemporary themes in the styles of different Russian writers. Most people have come to the sold-out “Evening with Dmitry Bykov” to see the co-creator of Citizen Poet and its new successor, Gospodin Khoroshi (Mr. Good).
“I’m not sure if I’m a big fan of his prose-writing,” said Yelena Durden-Smith, who was in the audience, “but he is a very skilled versifier. I think this is his prime area.” She enthusiastically recounted the satirical targets of the latest show, which included the Pope, Hugo Chavez and – at one point – a letter from Silvio Berlusconi to Vladimir Putin’s dog, Koni, written in the style of the lyrical poet, Sergei Yesenin.
After a series of virtuoso recitations of his own pastiche-poetry whose literary inspirations include Lermontov, Pasternak, Pushkin and Blok, Bykov talked about his extensive travels across Russia. “The provinces are more radicalized than Moscow,” he said. “They are hungrier, angrier and less subject to TV propaganda.”
As a writer with a reputation for being outspoken, Bykov accepts his controversial status with equanimity: “Some people love me; some people hate me,” he said. “When I die, they will hang me from my tongue … No one in Russia can be loved universally.”
One of the recurring themes in his work is the cyclical nature of Russian history. He sees parallels between figures in different eras, enabling him to create acute, epoch-spanning satire: “Psychologically all these characters are the same,” he added. “People play the same role and history repeats itself. We have the same play being staged over and over with different set designs.”
More here.

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov

In his 1924 History of Russian Literature, the critic D.S. Mirsky complained that Anglo-Saxon readers knew what they wanted out of a Russian writer, and that Nikolai Leskov was not it. But to read Leskov, he continues, is to experience a Russia that Russians themselves would recognize, a vast and haunted steppe populated by vagabonds and righteous men.
Mirsky’s judgment is related in the introduction to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, stories by a writer who has long been adored in Russia but whose greatness has never been fully acknowledged in English. With Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, Leskov should at last receive the recognition he deserves. “Enchanted” is precisely how Leskov’s stories come to us, and enchanted is how we, his readers, leave them.
Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ambition in bringing Leskov and all his stylistic peculiarities into English is impressive, and all the more so for how it contrasts with their previous role as translators of Russian. The pair are justly famous for their renditions of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists; their editions of Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment have become the standard versions, and have won consistent and well-earned praise. The importance of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, however, has never been questioned, nor really has the belief that a new translation could illuminate aspects of the writer’s style that earlier efforts had somehow obscured.
With Leskov, the situation is different. Although he was highly respected in his lifetime (Chekhov named him his favorite writer), Leskov’s posthumous reception abroad has alternated between periods of neglect and periods of critical appreciation. And although his work has appeared in English before, he has never been regarded by Anglophone readers as equal to his great contemporaries. Part of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s task in translating him, then, has been to introduce us to a voice not so much new as unfairly ignored.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories includes seventeen tales that span nearly the whole of Leskov’s career. The world they reveal may indeed come as a shock to those who, as Mirsky implied, believe that all of Russia is contained in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Leskov’s Russia is windy and wooded, a cruel, magical place, filled with demons and saints, gypsies and kings. The stories are arranged chronologically, with several early novellas, such as “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “The Enchanted Wanderer,” at the beginning, and the shorter, denser “stories of righteous men” at the end. The selection itself already deserves praise, for it demonstrates that nothing was foreign to Leskov; he was as at home in a Moscow living room as in a Tartar tent on the steppe, as deft in comedy as in tragedy, as funny as he was wise.
As Walter Benjamin observed in his essay “The Storyteller,” Leskov’s work combines the two oldest categories of yarns: those told by the wandering sailor (that is, by someone who comes from elsewhere) and those by the “resident tiller of the soil” (a native grounded in local tradition and lore). Part anecdote, part drinking song, part fable and part myth, Leskov’s stories are illiterate in an ancient sense. They are profoundly oral events; they take their substance from the voices of characters and not from the conventions of genre, and may in fact pass through several generic types on their way to completion. “The Spook,” for example, might for a while seem like Russian magical realism, though it is later a disarmingly simple story of loneliness and misunderstanding.
“The Enchanted Wanderer” is similarly surprising: it begins as a rollicking bandit tale and ends in mystical ecstasy. The eponymous wanderer meets a band of workers near the border with Finland, and is eventually coaxed by them into telling his life story. He reveals that a moment of accidental but unrepented cruelty has been the cause of his enchantment: after killing a bystander by mistake, the wanderer was cursed to keep dying, but never die, all his life. And so he encounters, and perpetuates, one death after another (each in its own right a hair-raising tale), but always escapes, always endures, moving only slowly and painfully toward peace and absolution.
The plot of this long, breathtaking tale proves nearly impossible to predict. The reader is, like the wanderer, tossed haphazardly across time and space, and the experience is partly so striking because the structures that hold it together come from the oral tradition and not from the novel. Perhaps this is what Mirsky meant when he said that Leskov was not what Anglo-Saxons expected out of a Russian writer: Leskov was no novelist. Although he did try his hand at the form, “his genius was not suited to the genre of the novel,” Pevear explains, “and he knew it”.
“The Enchanted Wanderer” is much less concerned with psychological interpretation than with the performance of narration (though it certainly does not lack psychological depth). The story thus becomes a theatre of voices: “astonished listeners” interrupt the storyteller constantly, never in order to interpret, but only to demand confirmation of what they have just heard: “What … you and that Tartar … whipped each other? So you beat the Tartar? Yet it must have been terribly painful.” They provide opportunity for repetition; they encourage the development of thematic refrain, allowing the story to settle into itself and allowing us, isolated readers, to exist as some among many listeners. In this respect, as Benjamin remarks, Leskov undermines our readerly solitude by offering us a communality of experience.
One reason for Leskov’s lesser visibility among the great nineteenth-century Russian authors is his highly distinct use of language, which he himself identified as “untranslatable.” His Russian is so polyphonic, so well-tuned to local dialect, idiom, and wordplay, that it can’t help but suffer in the journey to English. But according to Pevear and Volokhonsky, Leskov has perhaps been made to suffer too much. Previous translations, they feel, have tended to smooth out the intentional oddness and playfulness of Leskov’s style. Their own version has made a great effort to preserve these qualities, and it has succeeded to such an extent that those who encounter this new Leskov will find themselves continually surprised by the writer’s inventiveness, by his subtlety and unexpected humor. Readers can look forward to stumbling upon such collocations as “the most internecine conversations” carried on by a travelling sovereign, or the “fatal appearance” of a character in “The White Eagle.”
Pevear and Volokhonsky have proven sensitive translators throughout their joint career, and for the most part, they handle Leskov as expertly as they have handled his contemporaries. They have given him space so that all his clamoring voices may speak for themselves, and when we Anglophone readers come across them, the Shandyesque digressions and the holy benedictions, we can recognize this Leskov, in English, as a king among Russian storytellers.
More here

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Sergei Mikhalkov: a symbol of the Soviet era

The opening of a memorial plaque, a commemorative concert at the Bolshoi Theater, the presentation of a book of memoirs – Russia is remembering the outstanding Soviet-era writer and poet Sergei Mikhalkov on his birth centennial. His poems are still admired by children just as they were by their parents and grandparents decades ago. And, of course, every Russian knows that Sergei Mikhalkov was the author of lyrics for the Soviet and now Russian national anthem.

He lived a very long life of about 97 years. Much-lauded and lavished with awards during Soviet times, Mikhakov regarded himself as blessed and lucky. He was spared the purges and repressions of the 1930s; during World War II, he was a frontline correspondent, and came back alive. He was blissfully happy with his wife Natalya Konchalovskaya, a writer and poetess. They had lived together for 53 years and raised two sons, Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov. Both are world renowned film directors.

Sergei Mikhalkov’s grandchildren have also made names in culture and the arts, particularly his elder grandson Yegor Konchalovsky. “Grandpa possessed a trait that I would call ‘healthy adventurism’, and it helped him a lot,” Yegor recalls.

"For all his diplomacy and caution, he was adventure-minded. As far as I know, he was not among those asked to write an anthem in 1943, because he was nothing more than a children’s poet. When he and El-Registan, the anthem’s co-author, sent their version, it was sort of chance-taking. But the text was noticed and that’s how it all worked out."

The Soviet anthem with lyrics by Mikhalkov was first played on the national radio on the night of January 1, 1944. And 55 years later, on January 1, 2005, Russians heard the first performance of the post-Soviet version of the anthem, also reworked by Mikhalkov.

He was a prolific writer, and despite being burdened by social responsibilities of all kinds, he still managed to publish 3-4 books a year. His works have sold a total of half a billion copies. He wrote plays too. One of them, titled “Crawfish”, has survived 5,000 shows. And he wrote scripts for 40 films. Moviemaker Alexander Stefanovich recalls:

"I was lucky to have a chance to work with him. We made three films together – “Residence Permit”, “Foam” – a satirical comedy, and “Dear Boy” – the first Soviet musical film with music by David Tukhmanov. We treated each other as equals and we were even equally paid, which is hard to imagine now."

Sergei Mikhalkov would use his indubitable authority to support and intercede for talented young authors. Dementyev, a well-known poet and former chief editor of the popular Youth magazine, keeps grateful reminiscences of that facet of Mikhalkov’s personality.

"Once, during a writers’ forum in Moscow, a poet, let his name not be mentioned, was criticized by Mikhalkov. The poet, who was sitting next to me, jumped up and said: “Comrade Mikhalkov, in former times you would have been challenged to a duel for that”. Mikhalkov retorted without a moment’s hesitation: “I am, by the way, a nobleman and don’t fight duels with no matter who”."

More here.

Russia's iconic war writer dies

In 1954, thirty-year-old engineer Capt. Boris Vasilyev left the army to become a writer. He had a whole war behind him: he had volunteered for service at the age of 17, been seriously wounded, studied at an armored warfare academy and worked as a tank tester. This solid life experience would help Vasilyev in his literary career — especially since he started it with his play “Tank Troops,” which was almost autobiographical.
Yet this was not to be the first of his works to see the light of day.

Renamed “Officers,” his play “Tank Troops” was banned after two performances and not published in Theatre magazine. The young dramatist’s new plays were only performed in military command theatres; he wrote screenplays for films that did not become landmarks of Soviet cinematography, while he did other work on the side — writing newsreel stories and jokes for the TV show “KVN” (Russian initials for the full title, “Club of the Happy and Inventive”).
Vasilyev’s first book, published in 1968, was, in fact, scripts he had written for “KVN.”
In the summer of 1969, Yunost magazine published his story “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” — a poignant tale of the resistance that a platoon of young female anti-aircraft troops and their sergeant put up against German saboteurs. Vasilyev’s debut proved to be a sensation. People were reading his story, discussing it and recommending it. It was clear that a new and striking talent had joined the ranks of “lieutenants’ prose.”
“Vasilyev belonged to a generation of writers who rethought the role of war writing in Russian literature and in people’s consciousness. This trend was called ‘lieutenant’s prose’ and included Vasil Bykov, Yury Bondarev, Konstantin Vorobyov and other authors,” says Dmitry Bak, a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities and director of the State Literary Museum. “Thanks to them, the war was seen in a new light: not just as a feat of the Soviet people, not just an event of global scale and significance.
“These works depicted the Great Patriotic War from the point of view of people right at the center of events — with the soldiers in their trenches [and] the people who took responsibility for the lives of these soldiers. In the works of the ‘lieutenants,’ combat actions of only local significance take on a universal scale when they feature the lives of people,” says Bak.
The story was filmed by Stanislav Rostotsky just three years later; it was also successfully staged at the Taganka Theatre in a Yury Lyubimov production and made into the subject of an opera. Both the book and the film are ranked among the most important works about World War II. The film based on the story enjoyed huge success in China, where, in 2005, the author was involved in the creation of a 16-episode series that was watched by more than 400 million people.
But Vasilyev was not just the author of one book.
More here.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Describing a beautiful nightmare about the Soviet 1930s

Moscow Chestnova, an orphaned girl, born a few years before the Russian revolution, is named after the city she lives in. Her story strangely mirrors the triumphs and terrors of the new communism.
A powerfully alive and beautiful young woman, she marries too young so that “her heart, which had sought heroism, began to love just one sly man…” Leaving him, she tells a stranger that she loves “the wind in the air” and he advises her to enroll in the school of aeronautics; she learns to fly, but plummets to earth after accidentally setting fire to her parachute. Following her “wandering” instincts, she moves through a series of lovers, loses a leg while helping to build the Moscow metro, and finally disappears from her own tale.
In parallel, author Andrei Platonov introduces the men who love Moscow: geometrician and town planner, Victor Bozhko, tirelessly writing letters in Esperanto to fellow-communists around the world, who celebrates Moscow as a model of a new humanity; or Sambikin, the immortality-seeking surgeon, who believes that the soul is located in the gut, in the “empty section between the food and the excrement.”
Part of Platonov’s power as a writer lies in his combination of contrasting registers, the metaphysical and the scatological, scientific and romantic. The mechanical engineer, Semyon Sartorius, loves the young Moscow so profoundly that “he could have looked at waste products from her with extreme curiosity.” Philosophical meditations on the “mystery of existence” segue into trade union committees or construction-workers’ canteens. The overall effect is more like a dream than a novel; plot and character are secondary to the hallucinatory progress of vivid, revelatory scenes.
The chapter in which Sartorius follows Moscow into the countryside is poetic: the city’s electrical glow “reached as far as the fields and lay on the ears of rye like an early, faithless dawn”; the couple walk towards a farm, imagining the smell of bread and pastured cows; they talk, weep and make love in a pit full of weeds. Then she leaves him and they return to “daily long labor.” The following chapter follows Sartorius into his workplace, the “Republic trust for Scales, Weights and Measures of Length.” Platonov drew on his own experience to describe this work, according to translator, Robert Chandler, “with almost documentary accuracy.”
More here.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Anna Pavlova - Two Biographies

Anna Pavlova was born on January 31, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of Lyubov Feodorovna, a washerwoman. Her father's identity is not known. When Anna was very small, her mother married reserve soldier Matvey Pavlov, who died when Anna was two years old. She and her mother were very poor, and they spent the summers with Anna's grandmother. According to Pavlova, she wanted to be a dancer from the age of eight, when she attended a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre. Two years later she was accepted as a student at St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School. This school for classical dancers offered its students lifelong material protection; the czar (the ruler of Russia) Alexander III (1845–1894) was its main supporter. In return, the school demanded complete physical dedication.

Although the young Pavlova was considered frail and not exactly beautiful, she was nevertheless very supple (able to bend and twist with ease and grace). Her talents impressed ballet master Marius Petipa, who was to become her favorite teacher. Pavlova also learned from other famous Maryinsky teachers and choreographers (those who create and arrange dance performances) such as Christian Johanssen, Pavel Gerdt, and Enrico Cecchetti, who provided her with a classical foundation based on ballet tradition. Pavlova made her company debut at the Maryinsky in September 1899. Competition among dancers was intense, but Anna Pavlova soon attracted attention with the poetic and expressive quality of her performances.

Read more ...

Anna Pavlova was in her time and even today, the most famous ballet dancer in the world. Pavlova was also the first person to make ballet popular in the United States and her influence is felt to this day.

Pavlova was born on January 31, 1882, in St. Petersburg. She was an illegitimate daughter of a laundry-woman and her father was a Jewish reserve soldier and a businessman, whom Pavlova never knew.

According to Pavlova, she cared to be nothing else but a dancer from the age of eight, when she attended a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theater. Two years later, Anna entered the Imperial Ballet School at ten. Pavlova worked very hard there and upon her graduation began to perform at the Maryinsky Theatre in 1899.

Mikhail Fokine choreographed the "Dying Swan" for her with music from Saint-Saen's "Carnival of the Animals." It became her trademark. In 1907, she began her first tour, to Moscow, and by 1910 was appearing at the Metropolitan Opera House in America.

Anna Pavlova created her own company with eight dancers from St. Petersburg in 1910. Touring around the world, Pavlova extended her dance company with English dancers and in 1913 she toured in the United States. In 1914, she was traveling through Germany on her way to England when Germany declared war on Russia, her connection to Russia was for all intents broken. For the rest of her life, she toured the world with her own company-a total of 4000 performances and 300,000 miles.

Pavlova kept a home in London, where her exotic pets were constant company when she was there. Victor Dandré, her manager, was also her companion, and may have been her husband (she kept this a mystery). ...

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Letters and secret files reveal the tormented life of Lina Prokofiev

She endured an abusive husband who likened her to "an infected tooth", and torture by Stalin's secret police, who stuck needles in her, threatened her children and drove her to the brink of madness. The tragic life of the wife of Sergei Prokofiev, one of the 20th century's greatest composers, is now revealed in hundreds of previously unpublished letters, as well as secret Soviet files.
The cruelty suffered by Lina Prokofiev at home paled against her later torture, but she never stopped loving her husband – even when he abandoned her for another woman – and she never spoke publicly of her suffering during eight years in a Siberian prison camp.
Prokofiev (1891-1953) is the composer of masterpieces such as the opera War and Peace, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the children's fable, Peter and the Wolf. But when Simon Morrison, a British-born music professor at Princeton University and president of the Prokofiev Foundation, was given access to the unpublished documents by Prokofiev's family for a new book, he was shocked by their contents. They revealed "a real indictment of his personality", he told theObserver. "I have a moral question. Prokofiev's music is some of the most emotional of the 20th century, but he was a person of very little feeling. As a biographer, you have responsibilities. As a listener, I don't think I can listen to the music the same way again. It is a harrowing story." Letters from Lina to her children from the gulag are equally poignant, he added.
The 600 letters – whose contents are to be published on 21 March by Harvill Secker in The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev – were made available to Morrison by Prokofiev's older son, Svyatoslav, whose "dying wish was for his mother's story to be told in unvarnished guise".
Morrison said that Svyatoslav told him: "My mother always wanted to have her story told and she never herself could do it." Morrison added: "He gave me permission to look at intimate letters that had never been seen." They reveal a heartbreaking story of doomed love. In various passages, Prokofiev accused Lina of "bat grabbing" his hair and rarely displaying "acts of love". He criticised her for being manipulative, and wrote of his feelings for another woman: "It's only now that I recognise the barrenness of my life, excluding my work." With brutal bluntness, he told Lina that, when she kissed him, he felt like an adulterer, betraying his real love.
Until now, the correspondence was sealed in the Russian State Archive. Morrison said: "Nobody got to see it. It literally says 'categorically forbidden' because of its intimate nature. The family didn't want people going in there because they recognised that one could write a devastating indictment of the composer and what he put his family through. I sent my book to the grandson. He read it and he was deeply affected by it. He didn't interfere with it at all and said 'this is just devastating'. He himself had never gone through this material."
The Prokofievs were married in 1924. Several scores, including The Fiery Angel, were inspired by her. Seventeen years later, he left her for a woman 24 years his junior, and the marriage was officially annulled in 1948. During their marriage, they wrote extensively, as his touring kept them apart. But, despite his adultery, Lina never stopped loving him, pleading in her letters for reconciliation. In one letter she protested that she was neither "a freak nor an idiot", as he made her feel. Even when she knew of his affair, she wrote: "Well, go ahead and see her. I won't object; but that doesn't mean you have to live with her."
Lina was in her Moscow apartment one night in 1948 when the telephone rang and the caller insisted that she come downstairs to collect a parcel. In the courtyard, she was arrested. Charged with espionage and treason following her attempts, through the British and French embassies, to escape from the USSR, she endured nine months of interrogation and torture, spat on and bound in painful positions. Soviet files reveal the account she submitted to the prosecutor general in 1954: "For three and a half months … I wasn't allowed to sleep. I was driven to the point of madness … Having been made sick … the investigator 'consoled me': 'Don't worry, you'll be screaming even louder when you feel this truncheon down there!'…"
Once in a camp, her two sons were able to visit her and correspond with her. Her older son kept diaries. Morrison said that the correspondence and diaries provide a "first-hand account" of the horrors of a prison camp.
More here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Ludmila Petrushevskaya :The Princess With Lily-White Feet

Translated by Jane Taubman
from Fairy Tales for Grownup Children,Glas 13

Once upon a time there lived a Youngest Princess, and everybody loved her. She had tiny little hands like rose petals, and her tiny white feet were like lily petals. On the one hand, this was pretty, but on the other hand, the Youngest Princess was almost too delicate and sensitive - she'd cry at the slightest provocation. She wasn't exactly reprimanded for it, but the family certainly didn't condone such behavior, either. "You can't let yourself fall apart like that!" her Mama, Papa, Grandma, and King-grandaddy used to say. "You have to keep yourself in hand. You're a big girl now."
This would only hurt her feelings even more, and the Youngest Princess would take to crying again.
Nevertheless, there came a time when a Prince came to woo the Princess, which is the way it's meant to be.
The Prince was tall, handsome, and gentle. "A fine pair!" everybody in the kingdom agreed.
The Prince and the Princess went on lots of walks, they danced together, and the Princess - and for her this was totally unheard of - wove flower garlands on the meadow for the Prince and for herself, garlands of cornflowers every bit as blue as the Prince's eyes.
The Prince and the Princess were betrothed, which is the way it was meant to be - that is, they were declared fiance and fiancee. Then the Prince rode back to his own kingdom.
The Youngest Princess stayed home and started crying. Everyone disapproved of such behavior; they even called the doctor. The doctor talked a bit with the Princess and unexpectedly prescribed not sedatives, which is the way it's meant to be, but pain pills. Because it turned out that the Youngest Princess had overexerted herself with all that dancing and walking and chafed her tender little hands and feet till they were sore and bleeding.
Time passed, the wedding grew near, but the bride kept crying, sitting in bed and favoring her bandaged hands and feet. She couldn't walk or hold a cup of tea in her hands: she was fed by her old nurse, who held her cup for her, too.
The doctor, however, optimistically predicted that everything would heal up before the wedding, and said the Youngest Princess was simply too delicate and too sensitive, a crybaby with no self-discipline, and that was the fruit of her improper upbringing in the family, but as soon as the Prince returned she would get up and dance and move her hands just the way she used to. "It's all psychological," said the doctor, and kept feeding the Princess pain pills.
Then the old nurse gathered together some photos of the Youngest Princess and set off to see a sorcerer. She brought back an enigmatic answer: "He who loves, carries in his arms."
This phrase soon became legendary with absolutely everybody who had loved the Princess so much since she was a baby, when she used to smile blissfully, showing her first four tiny teeth and the two little dimples in her cheeks, when her little ringlets were like golden silk, and her little eyes like forget-me-nots.
And who didn't love the Princess! Everybody loved her: Papa and Mama, Grandaddy and Gram, the King and Queen. They would remember what a wonderful baby she'd been, how loveable and cute, with her four tiny little teeth. When the rest of the teeth came in, the picture deteriorated a bit. The crying and the crankiness began, and things even went so far that, in response to the question "Well, are we now finished pouting at every last little thing?" the Princess generally didn't even answer, which was impolite to say the least - particularly when it was the King and Queen inquiring, and on the palace telephone at that. After all, when people take the trouble to call you, you should be polite and say something!
Anyway, under the tutelage of the old nurse, they would come one at a time to pick up the Princess and carry her in their arms. Which, of course, was a really heroic feat, particularly when you consider that the Queen-gram, for example, was a lady with no experience in such things, who had never lifted anything heavier than a wine goblet. And the Princess-Mama didn't even begin to know how to get a grip on her already fairly weighty daughter. Fragile or not, nevertheless the Youngest Princess was no baby any more - fifteen years old is nothing to sneeze at!
But, straining every muscle, they would lift the Youngest Princess. At first she didn't understand what was going on, and even threw fits because she wanted to be left alone, until it was all explained to her by the old nurse. Even then the Youngest Princess continued to rain tears. She didn't even appreciate the world record set by the Prince-Papa, who lifted her twenty-two centimeters off the bed! "Every tabloid journalist in the world would be here tomorrow," announced the Prince-Papa, "if it leaked out that roses are red, violets are blue, our daughter is a crybaby and a wet noodle, too."
Then the old nurse would carry the Youngest Princess around the bedroom for ten whole minutes, as in her childhood, to pacify her, but as she was walking around, the nurse began to remember her gripes: instead of a drumstick, the cook had left her some kind of hairy turkey elbow, and her grandchildren were running around the village alone without anyone looking after them. You live here, and you put yourself out like a plucked chicken, and you get no gratitude.
"But you do love me, of course, don't you?" - asked the Youngest Princess, when the nurse, tuckered out from running around with her burden, put her precious little Princess back on the bed.
"And why shouldn't I love you?" the nurse answered, grumbling. "If I didn't love you, I certainly wouldn't have hung around this long for the salary they pay me!"
So it happened that everybody was carrying the Youngest Princess around in their arms, but she wasn't getting any better.
Then they began to say that the sorcerer was incompetent, or maybe the old nurse had jumbled something. "And what the heck is this, anyway?" asked the doctor, indignant. "He who loves, carries in his arms." We won't talk about individual cases, but you don't see me getting carried around! They don't even carry the Queen!
Everybody agreed with this, and started to say you had to understand the phrase to mean that the Youngest Princess herself didn't have it in her to love anyone, that's what it was hinting at.
Meanwhile the Princess sat in her bedroom, and the nurse kept nagging her to call the Prince, but the Princess wouldn't do it. She just kept crying, "Why doesn't the Prince call me himself?" Finally the Prince did call, and the receiver was held by the angry nurse, who was annoyed because the conversation went on for two hours and she missed out on dinner, and she was also ticked off that in the course of the entire conversation the Youngest Princess managed not to cry even once, and, in fact, laughed the whole time. ...

Ludmila Petrushevskaya, born in 1938, a Muscovite, was originally known as a dramatist. Her sombre and unusual plays were highly popular among dissident-minded intellectuals in the 1970s and 80s.
In 1992 her novel The Time Night was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize and later translated into many languages and included in college courses as one of the best novels of the 20th century. It was followed by a collection of short stories and monologues, Immortal Love, also translated into many languages.
Today Petrushevskaya's plays are produced around the world while her stories have been published in more than 20 countries. Petrushevskaya was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Prize by the Toepfer Foundation in Germany. She has also received prizes from the leading literary journals in Russia.
The Time Night, published by Northwestern University Press, is her magnum opus, describing the life of three women — a poetess struggling to make ends meet, her wayward daughter and her senile mother.
In this collection we offer three tales for adults, her favorite genre of the latest years.

"Told in an intimate, loose, over-the-back-fence style, this is an alternately funny and desperate book — a welcome introduction to a strong talent." — Kirkus Review

"The Time Night is one of the most powerful books on poverty that has ever been written." —

"One of the finest living Russian writers... Her signature black humor and matter-of-fact prose result in an insightful and sympathetic portrait of a family in crisis." — Publishers Weekly

"The writing is beautifully controlled and the spirit large... She deserves a wide readership." — TLS

"Petrushevskaya takes the reader on an unforgettable journey into the domestic hell where there is too little of everything: too little food, too little space, too little love. The Time Night provides a memorable glimpse into the dark side of life. Written in a stark, naturalistic style, the book brings the reader face to face with the harsh reality of life in Russia. It is not often a pleasant site, but it is one well worth the trouble." — The Moscow Times

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tale of Tsar Saltan

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian: Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков, Nikolaj Andreevič Rimskij-Korsakov, 18 March [O.S. 6 March] 1844, -- 21 June [O.S. 8 June] 1908) was a Russian composer, and a member of the group of composers known as The Five.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan

1. Tsar's Farewell and Departure
2. Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea (4:07)
3. The Flight of the Bumble-bee (11:52)
4. The Three Wonders (13:21)

The Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by David Zinman

Swan Lakes at the Kremlin

In December 2012, Russian social websites were buzzing with a story from a Moscow writer who had been part of a delegation to the Committee of Culture of the Russian State Duma. During the meeting, a young woman with “steely eyes” had suddenly “drilled out”: “You must understand: art should be the expression of party values!”. Since the Committee, like the Duma itself, is essentially an instrument of the policies of United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, this pronouncement caused understandable alarm among those who do not support the party’s views. The parroting of Soviet-era jargon by a person who was probably in primary school when the old regime collapsed served more to threaten than to amuse.

Yet members of Russia’s creative community can probably rest safe in their beds. The current Russian government may hanker for the centrist control and supposed consensus of the Brezhnev era, from which it takes the buzzword “stability”, but it has so far not taken the essential step of providing funding to match its ideological ambitions. Efforts to condemn artistic events (such as the exhibition by the Chapman Brothers at the Hermitage in 2012) are considerably less effective when the financial support for institutions also comes from sponsors beyond the government. In turn, the stark dwindling of state largesse since the early 1990s has had a retrospective impact on the way that the cultural politics of the Soviet period are understood. The view that creative artists – not just talentless hacks – could be beneficiaries of Soviet government and Party institutions, and at some level collaborators in, and indeed creators of, the artistic policies that regulated their lives, is now widely accepted. It is generating a thorough-going reassessment of the arts, particularly the performing arts, which are vulnerable to economic pressures in any society, and where the issues of artistic autonomy are therefore especially vexed.

If in the 1970s and 80s, study of the relationship between creative artists and the Soviet government and Party institutions mainly focused on repressive mechanisms (with excellent work on literary censorship by, for example, Martin Dewhirst), recent research has turned to the work of the creative unions, to patronage networks, and to the importance of key officials in shaping ideological concerns and policy decisions. There is much left to do; there is, for example, no complete biography of Platon Kerzhentsev, who played a vital role in the development of Soviet agitprop in the 1920s and 30s, and who figures significantly in Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker’s new collection of documents, Music and Soviet Power, 1917–1932. But such books as Jan Plamper’s study of the impact of the Stalin cult on the visual arts, The Alchemy of Power (see TLS, June 29, 2012), or Katharina Kucher’s Der Gorki-Park: Freizeitkultur im Stalinismus 1928–1941, have joined earlier work by scholars of Soviet film, literature and culture such as Katerina Clark, Denise Youngblood and Sheila Fitzpatrick, in reassessing the nature of the accommodation made by Soviet intellectuals with what people might now hesitate to call “the system”, given that the unpredictability and instability of Soviet power relations are among the principal contentions put forward.

Frolova-Walker and Walker specifically mention Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work as an influence on theirs, and their introductory articles follow her in emphasizing the fluidity of musical politics in the 1920s. In the late 1920s, the main story (as usually in accounts of the decade) is the rise of the formidably aggressive organizations of a “class war” orientation, such as the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). However, as Frolova-Walker and Walker’s selection of materials and their incisive, lucid framing sections make clear, there are no heroes in this narrative. Nikolai Roslavets, a leading light in the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM), happened to be married to a senior officer in the GPU, the Soviet secret police force, and close associate of Felix Dzerzhinsky, which assured him protection – until he and Natalya Roslavets split up. While shouts of “class war” were shrill and hence easily heard, more conservative forces in the arts were quietly building their own institutional power bases. At the end of 1931, the composer Mikhail Gnesin made a brave stand against bullying from RAPM – but the crucial turning point in his opposition to the Association came when he wrote what in other contexts might be called a “denunciation” to Stalin, reporting frankly on what he saw as wrong in the world of music. This was an example of a general pattern by which, as the editors of Music and Soviet Power put it, “the rigours of these years had made [musicians] much more amenable to Stalinisation”.

More here.