Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Vladimir Nabokov on the art of translation

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

 The howlers included in the first category be in their turn divided into two classes. Insufficient acquaintance with the foreign language involved may transform a commonplace expression into some remarkable statement that the real author never intended to make. “Bien être general” becomes the manly assertion that “it is good to be a general”; to which gallant general a French translator of “Hamlet” has been known to pass the caviar. Likewise, in a German edition of Chekhov, a certain teacher, as soon as he enters the classroom, is made to become engrossed in “his newspaper,” which prompted a pompous reviewer to comment on the sad condition of public instruction in pre-Soviet Russia. But the real Chekhov was simply referring to the classroom “journal” which a teacher would open to check lessons, marks and absentees. And inversely, innocent words in an English novel such as “first night” and “public house” have become in a Russian translation “nuptial night” and “a brothel.” These simple examples suffice. They are ridiculous and jarring, but they contain no pernicious purpose; and more often than not the garbled sentence still makes some sense in the original context.

The other class of blunders in the first category includes a more sophisticated kind of mistake, one which is caused by an attack of linguistic Daltonism suddenly blinding the translator. Whether attracted by the far-fetched when the obvious was at hand (What does an Eskimo prefer to eat—ice cream or tallow? Ice cream), or whether unconsciously basing his rendering on some false meaning which repeated readings have imprinted on his mind, he manages to distort in an unexpected and sometimes quite brilliant way the most honest word or the tamest metaphor. I knew a very conscientious poet who in wrestling with the translation of a much tortured text rendered “is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” in such a manner as to convey an impression of pale moonlight. He did this by taking for granted that “sickle” referred to the form of the new moon. And a national sense of humor, set into motion by the likeness between the Russian words meaning “arc” and “onion,” led a German professor to translate “a bend of the shore” (in a Pushkin fairy tale) by “the Onion Sea.”

The second, and much more serious, sin of leaving out tricky passages is still excusable when the translator is baffled by them himself; but how contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense, fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean. Perhaps the most charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an early English translation of “Anna Karenina.” Vronsky had asked Anna what was the matter with her. “I am beremenna” (the translator’s italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that “I am pregnant” might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave the Russian just as it stood.

More here.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Rosa Luxemburg: Life of Korolenko

“My soul, of a threefold nationality, has at last found a home – and this above all in the literature of Russia,” Korolenko says in his memoirs. This literature, which to Korolenko was fatherland, home, and nationality, and which he himself adorns, was historically unique.

For centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and down to the last third of the eighteenth century, Russia was enveloped in a crypt-like silence, in darkness and barbarism. She had no cultivated literary language, no scientific literature, no publishing houses, no libraries, no journals, no centers of cultural life. The gulf stream of the Renaissance, which had washed the shores of all other European countries and was responsible for a flowering garden of world literature, the rousing storms of the Reformation, the fiery breath of eighteenth-century philosophy-all this had left Russia untouched. The land of the czars possessed as yet no means for apprehending the light rays of Western culture, no mental soil in which its seeds could take root. The sparse literary monuments of those times, in their outlandish ugliness, appear today like native products of the Solomon Islands or the New Hebrides. Between them and the art of the Western world, there apparently exists no essential relation, no inner connection.

But then something like a miracle took place. After several faltering attempts toward the end of the eighteenth century to create a national consciousness, the Napoleonic wars flashed up like lightning. Russia’s profound humiliation, arousing for the first time in czardom a national consciousness, just as the triumph of the Coalition did later, resulted in drawing the Russian intellectuals toward the West, toward Paris, into the heart of European culture, and bringing them into contact with a new world. Overnight a Russian literature blossomed forth, springing up complete in glistening armor like Minerva from the head of Jupiter; and this literature, combining Italian melody, English virility, and German nobility and profundity, soon overflowed with a treasure of talents, radiant beauty, thought and emotion.

The long dark night, the deathlike silence, had been an illusion. The light rays from the West had remained obscure only as a latent power; the seeds of culture had been waiting to sprout at the appropriate moment. Suddenly, Russian literature stood there, an unmistakable member of the literature of Europe, in whose veins circulated the blood of Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Byron, Lessing, and Goethe. With the leap of a lion it atoned for the neglect of centuries; it stepped into the family circle of world literature as an equal.

The chief characteristic of this sudden emergence of Russian literature is that it was born out of opposition to the Russian regime, out of the spirit of struggle. This feature was obvious throughout the entire nineteenth century. It explains the richness and depth of its spiritual quality, the fullness and originality of its artistic form, above all, its creative and driving social force. Russian literature became, under czarism, a power in public life as in no other country and in no other time. It remained at its post for a century until it was relieved by the material power of the masses, when the word became flesh.

It was this literature which won for that half-Asiatic, despotic state a place in world culture. It broke through the Chinese Wall erected by absolutism and built a bridge to the West. Not only does it appear as a literature that borrows, but also as one that creates; not only is it a pupil, but also a teacher. One has only to mention three names to illustrate this: Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostoevsky.

In his memoirs, Korolenko characterizes his father, a government official at the time of serfdom in Russia, as a typical representative of the honest people in that generation. Korolenko’s father felt responsible only for his own activities. The gnawing feeling of responsibility for social injustice was strange to him. “God, Czar, and the Law” were beyond all criticism. As a distinct judge he felt called upon only to apply the law with the utmost scrupulousness. “That the law itself may be inefficient is the responsibility of the czar before God. He, the judge, is as little responsible for the law as for the lightning of the high heavens, which sometimes strikes an innocent child ...” To the generation of the eighteen-forties and fifties, social conditions as a whole were fundamental and unshakable. Under the scourge of officialdom, those who served loyally, without opposition, knew they could only bend as under the onslaught of a tornado, hoping and waiting that the evil might pass. ”Yes,” said Korolenko, “that was a view of the world out of a single mold, a kind of imperturbable equilibrium of conscience. Their inner foundations were not undermined by self-analysis; the honest people of that time did not know that deep inner conflict which comes with the feeling of being personally responsible for the whole social order.” It is this kind of view that is supposed to be the true basis of czar and God, and as long as this view remains undisturbed, the power of absolutism is great indeed.

It would be wrong, however, to regard as specifically Russian or as pertaining only to the period of serfdom the state of mind that Korolenko describes. That attitude toward society which enables one to be free of gnawing self-analysis and inner discord and considers “God-willed conditions” as something elemental, accepting the acts of history as a sort of divine fate, is compatible with the most varied political and social systems. In fact it is found even under modern conditions and was especially characteristic of German society throughout the world war.

In Russia, this “imperturbable equilibrium of conscience” had already begun to crumble in the eighteen-six ties among wide circles of the intelligentsia. Korolenko describes in an intuitive manner this spiritual change in Russian society, and shows just how this generation overcame the slave psychology and was seized by the trend of a new time, the predominant characteristic of which was the “gnawing and painful, but creative spirit of social responsibility.”

To have aroused this high sense of citizenship, and to have undermined the deepest psychological roots of absolutism in Russian society, is the great merit of Russian literature. From its first days, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it never denied its social responsibility – never forgot to be socially critical. Ever since its unfolding with Pushkin and Lermontov, its life principle was a struggle against darkness, ignorance, and oppression. With desperate strength it shook the social and political chains, bruised itself sore against them, and paid for the struggle in blood.

In no other country did there exist such a conspicuously early mortality among prominent representatives of literature as in Russia. They died by the dozens in the bloom of their manhood, at the youthful age of twenty-five or twenty-seven, or at the oldest around forty, either on the gallows or as suicides – directly or disguised as duels – some through insanity, others by premature exhaustion. So died the noble poet of liberty, Ryleyev, who in the year 1826 was executed as the leader of the Decembrist uprising. Thus, too, Pushkin and Lermontov, those brilliant creators of Russian poetry – both victims of duels – and their whole prolific circle. So died Belinsky, the founder of literary criticism and proponent of Hegelian philosophy in Russia, as well as Dobrolyubov; and so the excellent and tender poet Kozlov, whose songs grew into Russian folk poetry like wild garden flowers; and the creator of Russian comedy, Griboyedov, as well as his greater successor, Gogol; and in recent times, those sparkling short-story writers, Garshin and Chekhov. Others pined away for decades in penitentiaries, jails, or in exile, like the founder of Russian journalism, Novikov; like the leader of the Decembrists, Bestuzhev; like Prince Odoyevsky, Alexander von Herzen, Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky, Shevchenko, and Korolenko. ...

Written: July 1918 (in Breslau Prison).First Published: Vladimir Korolenko’s autobiographical novel A History of My Contemporary (pages 11-53). Berlin, 1919. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

In Anton Pavlovich’s footsteps: Chekhov’s Sakhalin 123 years later

In 1890, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov did not have the luxury of a 8 hour 40 minute flight to far-off Sakhalin Island from Moscow. In his two and a half month journey through Siberia, the great writer used various modes of transport including trains, ferries and horse carriages to get to the island, then a penal colony.
Just 7 kilometres separate the westernmost point of Sakhalin from the Russian mainland, but as in Chekhov’s time, there is no bridge that links the island with the mainland.
Today regular ferry services operate from Vanino in the Khabarovsk region and Kholmsk in southern Sakhalin. Islanders often complain that the ferry is a popular route for criminals from other parts of Russia and former Soviet republics to come to the now oil-rich island.
When Chekhov took the ferry across the “cold and colourless roaring sea” to get to a northern Sakhalin port, it was actually used to transport those who were considered the worst of criminals.
The way these convicts were treated saddened the great writer. “On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs,” Chekhov wrote in his book Sakhalin Island. “His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.”
Long-term Russian residents also complain about the poor infrastructure in a place that is just a few kilometres away from the modern glass and steel buildings of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk that house international oil companies. The common complaints heard on the streets of Vladimirovka are the irregular water supply and the lack of safety at night.
When Chekhov arrived on the island, he witnessed the brutality of its inhospitable climate and the utter lack of facilities for the prisoners. He considered the island a frozen “hell.”
The city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk did not exist in its present form when the writer visited it, as the Japanese occupied the area after the Russo-Japan War of 1905 and almost changed it completely. But Chekhov wrote about the settlement of Vladimirovka, which is now in the periphery of the island’s largest city and administrative centre.
The settlement had 46 houses and 91 inhabitants in 1890 and was a linear-shaped colony. Among its residents were Polish deportees. Names such as Kovalsky, Kriminetsky and Krakowsky are still common on the island.
In 2013, Vladimirovka has a collection of small dachas and a few larger wooden independent houses. Immigrants from places as far away as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan stay in the smaller houses and renting a flat for these blue-collared workers, who survive on odd jobs, is next to impossible.
More here.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Natalia Bessmertnova - Swan Lake

Natalia Bessmertnova was born in Moscow 1941. Graduated from Moscow Choreographic School 1962 in the class of Sofia Golovkina. Her fragile waif-like beauty and inner mystery reminds that of Olga Spessivtzeva's. Just like Spessivtzeva she made the perfect Giselle. Coached by Marina Semyonova in the first Bolshoi years. Married to Yuri Grigorovich. Bessmertnova died in Moscow on 19 February 2008.

Repertoire includes: Giselle (Giselle), The Sleeping Beauty (Aurora), Swan Lake (Odette-Odile), Raymonda(Raymonda), Don Quixote (Kitri), Romeo and Juliet (Juliet), ChopinianaThe Legend of Love (Shyrin),Spartacus (Phrygia), Ivan the Terrible (Tsarina Anastasia). 

Gold Medal in Varna 1965
People's Artist of the USSR

SWAN LAKE (Bessmertnova-Bogatyrev, 1983)

Vladimir Mayakovsky: Past One O’Clock ...

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

This poem was found among Mayakovsky’s papers after his suicide on April 14, 1930. He had used the middle section, with slight changes, as an epilogue to his suicide note.

Source: The Bedbug and selected poetry, translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey. Meridian Books, New York, 1960;

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Aleksandr Tvardovsky - Biography


Born 21 June 1910 in the village of Zagorye, Smolensk district. His father was a literate blacksmith who scraped together enough money to buy a small plot of swampy land, which the family proudly worked.

As a youth, Travdovsky was active in his village Komsomol. In 1924 he began sending off to local newspapers poems about Komsomol activities and various local abuses. His first publication came in 1925 when the paper "Smolensk Village" printed the poem New Hut ("Novaya Izba"). Three years later, when he was 18, Tvardovsky gathered up all his poetry and went to Smolensk to visit the poet Mikhail Isakovsky. This first meeting was the start of a life-long friendship. Tvardovsky had only the incomplete education which a village school could offer. He and other young poets in Smolensk at that time were all in the same boat. As Tvardovsky later wrote:
Superficial reading and some small knowledge about the "little secrets" of the trade inspired in us dangerous illusions.
These illusions led the poet to undertake a trip to Moscow. A few of his works appeared in the journal October, but he had difficulty finding work. So Tvardovsky returned to Smolensk in the winter of 1930 and entered the Pedogogical Institute, where he became a star pupil.

During this time, collectivization was going on. Tvardovsky was also working as a reporter and often visited kolkhozes, so he was aware of the suffering. He also felt it personally, since his father was deported as a kulak. Nonetheless, Tvardovsky firmly believed that the changes were necessary. He achieved a success with the printing in "Molodaya Gvardia" of his longer poem The Path to Socialism ("Put' k Sotsializmu"), about life on a kolkhoz. Despite the critical approval the piece received at the time, Tvardovsky later criticized his own work: 
It was riding without holding the reins, loss of the rhythmic discipline of poetry; more simply stated, it wasn't poetry.
Tvardovsky considered his second major work, Vstupleniye ("Introduction") (1932), also to be a disappointment. Success and national acclaim finally came to him in 1936 with publication of Strana Muraviya ("The Land of Muraviya"), the tale of a Don Quixote-like muzhik who, not wanting to join the kolkhoz, wanders across the nation searching for a kolkhozless area. He, of course, finds no such area and, in the end, realizes that the only happy life is on the kolkhoz and returns home. For this work, Tvardovsky was awarded his first Stalin Prize in 1941.

In 1936, Tvardovsky again moves to Moscow--this time as a recognized poet--and enrolls in the Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy, and Literature. In 1939, he graduates and publishes a collection of lyric poems, Selskaya Khonika ("Village Chronicle"). He is also called up into the army. He participates in the Red Army advance into western Belorussia, in the Finnish War, and, of course, the Great Patriotic War. It was during the Finnish War that Tvardovsky, writing for the paper Na Strazhe Rodiny, created the character of Vasya Tyorkin for a humor column. The peasant-soldier was very popular with the real soldiers reading the paper, and he eventually was reworked into the hero of Vasili Tyorkin. Of the poem, Tvardovsky said:
It was my lyric, my social commentary, song and sermon, anecdote and embellishment, heartfelt conversation, and reaction to events.
"Vasili Tyorkin" was perhaps the most popular work of literature among Soviet soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Appearing in installments between 1942 and 1945, it presented a new folk hero who was everything a Soviet soldier could ever hope to be--clever, witty, inventive, thoughtful, resourceful, dependable, courageous, loveable, fun-loving, and calm under fire. Vasili Tryokin fought Nazis hand-to-hand, was wounded several times, slogged through marshes, swam a freezing river to rescue his comrades, shot down a plane with his rifle, settled arguments, made with the wisecracks and could play a mean accordion. So true and human was Tvardovsky's creation that most Soviet soldiers came to believe that Tyorkin was a real person; many even (mistakenly) remembered seeing him in their units. This work won Tvardovsky his second Stalin Prize in 1946. Surprisingly, praise for this work also came from the staunch anti-Communist Ivan Bunin, who said:
This book is truly unique. What freedom of expression, what accuracy and precision in every detail, what a wonderful soldiers' language--not a hitch, not a single false or vulgar word.
And renegade A. Solzhenitsyn noted:
...soldiers at the front knew to a man the difference between Tyorkin, which rang so miraculously true, and all other wartime books.
The sadness and sorrow of war is expressed in Tvardovsky's 1946 poem Dom u Dorogi ("House by the Road"), which describes life in Russia under Nazi occupation. For this, Tvardovsky won yet another Stalin Prize in 1947. In 1946 he also composed a requiem for the fallen heros, Ya Ubit Podo Rzhevom.

In 1961 he won a Lenin Prize for Za Daliu--Dal' ("Distance Beyond Distance"), a contemplative work presented as a journey across Siberia. In it, the narrator meets a friend returning from a labor camp. Stalinism is condemned as a deviation from Leninism.

In 1954 Tvardovsky began work on Tyorkin Na Tom Svete ("Tyorkin in the Other World"), a type of parody-continuation of the original Tyorkin tale, in which the hero visits hell and finds there a distorted view of Soviet life. The work was not completed until 1963. It was published, but not viewed favorably by government and Party officials.

More here.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Blue shawl - Синий платочек

'Blue shawl' (Siniy Platochek) "Синий платочек"
Is one of the best soviet lyric songs of WW2.
Music - E. Peterburgsky
Words - M. Maksimov, Ya. Galitsky 
Singer - Klavdia Shulzhenko

Ehrenburg’s life

The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg has long seemed a significant, or at least a symptomatic figure. But significant or symptomatic of what? It is not merely that his career spanned from the first to the seventh decades of our century, with so many changes of fortune or direction, but also that he does not seem to have pulled the contradictions of his own personality together until the comparative and partial success of his last years. The late Anatol Goldberg’s quirky but often fascinating book reflects a rather similar disjunction, in a way which is helpful, if sometimes distracting, to our understanding of the issues involved.

Ehrenburg was, above all, a representative of the literary-political intelligentsia that is to be found in continental Europe, particularly Eastern and Central Europe. (It is not really matched by anything we have in the Anglo-Saxon countries, except as an import, like the Russian word “intelligentsia” itself.) He started in extreme youth as almost a caricature of the most avant-garde section of this intelligentsia and was known among the Bolsheviks as “shaggy Ilya.” Recruited into the party by Bukharin at the age of sixteen, he was soon arrested and spent some months in jail before the usual rich parents got him abroad, where he left the Party as a result of listening to Trotsky’s dogmatic views on literature. He never rejoined, but was later to pay at least lip service to aesthetic attitudes incomparably more dogmatic than Trotsky’s.

His exile was in Paris, where he nearly became a Benedictine monk but soon settled down to the Closerie des Lilas and the Ro-tonde. After some work as a war correspondent, he was back in Russia in 1917, opposing the Bolshevik Revolution. Over the next few years he became reconciled, up to a point, with his old comrades. They join others in what seems a fair characterization—he was a “skeptic,” “sardonic towards both Red and White,” a “nihilist.” But Bukharin helped get his first well-known work, Julio Jurenito, published; and for the next decade he moved between Moscow, Berlin, and Paris in somewhat distrait fashion, without really committing himself. In 1932, however, he made a definite decision to serve the Soviet regime—initially as Izvestia correspondent in Paris.

Ehrenburg seems to have realized that his country’s political despotism would become even worse but to have hoped that literary liberties could be preserved. And from now on, he exemplifies one of the great moral dilemmas which have faced so many Europeans and others: to what extent js it permissible to collaborate with a tyranny with a view to limiting, however slightly, its excesses? It is the question which faced not Quisling but Laval, who, by his own lights, worked to save what he could of French liberty in case of a Nazi victory. To do so he had to acquiesce or participate in many dubious actions; the same is true of the members of the United Front who collaborated with Communist governments in the postwar period. The criterion is, presumably, how far they succeed, which is usually not very far. In Ehrenburg’s, case, twenty years followed in which he had almost no effect, beyond sometimes preserving a little elbow room for himself, at the same time performing services, some of them disgraceful, to the despot. If Ehrenburg had died in 1953, there would be no more to say. But, as we shall see, he was able to defend literature to some extent after Stalin’s death.

By the Thirties he had become a brilliant journalist. Goldberg quotes some of his pieces, taking them at face value. I remember myself being much struck by his reports on the Asturias rebellion and the Schutzbund rising. But the only time I met him, after the War, he wrote his vivid descriptions of the honest Bulgarian peasantry from the bar of the Bulgaria Hotel in Sofia. Such phenomena are not unknown in Western reporting; but in this case it was a matter of fiction decking out Stalinist disinformation.

This is not to imply total dishonesty. The rise of Hitler and the Spanish War engaged his real feelings, and his reports from Madrid, even if unreliable as fact, were powerful and stimulating. He contrived briefly to defend, not anarchism as such, but at least the ordinary anarchist workers; and although he went along with the virulent attacks on Trotskyism, he never made them his main theme, sticking mainly to the horrors of Francoism. Goldberg notes that some of his books were to be published in Spain while Franco was still in power, and wonders if Ehrenburg knew of this.

On returning to Moscow late in 1937, the question of his being sent back to Spain was unresolved, so he wrote directly to Stalin, who refused permission. Thereupon Ehrenburg wrote again, urging Stalin to reconsider, and was then let out. Such a request to the dictator to admit that he had made a mistake was totally out of harmony with the spirit of the times. Stalin’s response will remind us that there was another strange personality besides Ehrenburg’s involved in Ehrenburg’s survival—Stalin’s own.

More here.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Diaries and Letters by Mikhail Bulgakov

Some great writers, such as Keats and Kafka, are also great letter-writers; others, such as Wordsworth and Proust, are not. You put down the letters of the former as stimulated as you would be by their poetry and fiction and you can enjoy them even if you have never read their other work. You only read the latter for what they tell us about authors we already admire and the times they lived in. Bulgakov belongs firmly in the latter category. I have rarely read the letters and diaries of an artist that were less intrinsically interesting.
Both the diary and the letters start in the early 1920s. Bulgakov, newly married, had given up his career as a doctor in his twenties and had come to Moscow to make his name as a writer. He writes like any fledgling author: “My writing is progressing slowly, but at least it’s moving forward. I’m sure that’s the case. The only problem is that I’m never absolutely certain that what I’ve written is any good.”
Though he states that world events are of such importance that keeping a diary is imperative, most of the time his diary reads less like the Goncourt journals than like that of a minor government official in a story by Gogol or Dostoevsky: “Aftershocks are continuing in Japan. There’s been an earthquake in Formosa. So much going on in the world!” Elsewhere, he writes: “Had a horrible day today. The nature of my illness is evidently such that I’ll have to take to my bed next week. Am anxiously trying to decide how I can ensure that the Hooter does not get rid of me while I’m off sick. And secondly, how can I turn my wife’s summer coat into a fur coat?”
In December 1925, the diary abruptly ends and a note tells us: “There are no further extant diary entries after this. Bulgakov’s apartment was raided by the OGPU [secret police] in May 1926 and his diaries confiscated. This may have discouraged the author from continuing to record his thoughts in his private notebooks.” This was the start of a nightmarish period for Bulgakov. His writings of the early 1920s, including the novel The White Guardand the play he made from it, The Days of the Turbins, though subject to censorship, seemed, if not to be establishing him as a major voice in Soviet literature, at least to ensure that he could make a living by his pen.
But times were changing. Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin soon assumed control of the Communist Party and the country. Bulgakov, who hadnever hidden his sympathies for the Whites in the civil war and his bourgeois origins and leanings (his father had been a professor at the Kiev Theological Seminary), found himself increasingly at odds with the political and literary establishment. Yet he went on submitting plays, some of which were put on and then quickly taken off, some of which were rejected and many of which had him struggling to comply with an increasingly confusing bureaucracy while retaining some vestiges of integrity.
More here.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

WWII - "Moscow Strikes Back" (1942) -Full Documentary

‘Perfection is always simple’ - Vasily Grossman

Armenia is a stony country, and one of the arts in which Armenians have most excelled is architecture. Few places illustrate this better than the monastery of Geghard, where two of the three adjacent churches have – literally – been gouged out of the mountainside. In one there is a spring. The water forms a large pool in a corner, then streams down a shallow channel across the centre of the church. Stone, of course, is everywhere – rough and smooth, plain and exuberantly carved.

Last October, I attended Sunday mass in the third of these churches, which stands just clear of the mountainside. A tall narrow window on the southern wall let in a slanting band of almost solid sunlight. Standing in the raised east end, close to the altar, were six priests, four wearing blue robes, one in white and gold, and one, a novice, in black. Sometimes they faced the altar, sometimes the congregation. The acoustics of this small, squat building, with its rounded apses and dome, were so perfect that their voices sounded equally strong no matter which way they were facing. Their singing was deep, rhythmic and powerful. My guide explained that the priests sing only in Old Armenian. Recent attempts to introduce modern Armenian have been rejected; the fit between the old words and the music is perfect, and too valuable to sacrifice.

I had gone to Armenia because I was translating An Armenian Sketchbook, a memoir by Vasily Grossman about the two months he spent there in late 1961. He too had been impressed by the medieval churches. And like me, he had gone to Armenia to work on a translation; he had been commissioned to edit a clumsy literal version of The Children of the Large House, a long novel about the second world war by an established Armenian writer, Hrachya Kochar. That, at least, was the official reason; the real reasons were more complex.

In February that year the KGB had confiscated Grossman’s typescripts of Life and Fate, his own long novel about the war. In it he had broken several taboos. He had drawn a direct parallel between Soviet and Nazi concentration camps; he had argued that Stalin and Hitler had learnt from each other and that their regimes were mirror images. Grossman had even written of Stalin “snatching the sword of anti-Semitism from Hitler’s hands”. Much of this remains controversial even today, even in the west. Few Soviet citizens thought, let alone wrote, such things in 1961. There is no surprise in the fact that the novel should have been “arrested”, as Grossman always put it.

Grossman had entrusted two copies to friends, but he could not be sure these were safe. His marriage was breaking down. He was suffering from cancer, though this had yet to be diagnosed. His letters give the impression that he was in financial need. There were reasons for him to want to get away from his everyday life.

The Soviet authorities, for their part, had reasons to want Grossman out of the way. By commissioning him to edit this Armenian novel they were probably trying to buy him off, to compensate him – at least financially – for the non-publication of Life and Fate, and so lessen the danger of his contacting foreign journalists or sending manuscripts abroad. Three years earlier, the authorities had miscalculated disastrously after Boris Pasternak published Doctor Zhivago in Italy. By forcing Pasternak to decline the Nobel Prize in Literature, they brought Doctor Zhivago so much publicity that it topped the New York Times bestseller list for six months. The authorities evidently learnt from this. The low-key approach they took with Grossman was, in fact, so successful that a Russian text of Life and Fate did not appear, even in the west, until as late as 1980. And although my English translation was published in 1985, it took another 20 years for Grossman to win recognition in the anglophone world. Without an international political scandal it was, sadly, almost impossible for a Soviet writer to be taken seriously in the west. Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn are both famous; two still greater writers, Andrey Platonov and Varlam Shalamov, remain relatively little known to this day.

More here.

Konstantin Simonov: Wait for me, and I'll come back!

to Valentina Serova

Wait for me, and I'll come back!
Wait with all you've got!
Wait, when dreary yellow rains
Tell you, you should not.
Wait when snow is falling fast,
Wait when summer's hot,
Wait when yesterdays are past,
Others are forgot.
Wait, when from that far-off place,
Letters don't arrive.
Wait, when those with whom you wait
Doubt if I'm alive.

Wait for me, and I'll come back!
Wait in patience yet
When they tell you off by heart
That you should forget.
Even when my dearest ones
Say that I am lost,
Even when my friends give up,
Sit and count the cost,
Drink a glass of bitter wine
To the fallen friend -
Wait! And do not drink with them!
Wait until the end!

Wait for me and I'll come back,
Dodging every fate!
"What a bit of luck!" they'll say,
Those that would not wait.
They will never understand
How amidst the strife,
By your waiting for me, dear,
You had saved my life.
Only you and I will know
How you got me through.
Simply - you knew how to wait -
No one else but you.


Out of the ruins of Stalingrad - Vasily Grossman

Little by little, Vasily Grossman seems to be working his way into the consciousness of the modern world. If his name already means something to you, and especially if you have read his novel Life and Fate, you may share my view that it is only a matter of time before Grossman is acknowledged as one of the great writers of the 20th century. If today is the first time you have encountered his name, take note of it, for your life may be about to change.

All I can say is that my own life has changed. Late last year, a Guardian colleague asked me if I had read Life and Fate. I had not; the author's name meant nothing to me. My friend thought that Grossman had written the 20th century equivalent of War and Peace. Not surprisingly, I was intrigued. I looked in bookshops and found the historian Antony Beevor's new collection of Grossman's journalism, A Writer At War. The novel, though, was harder to come by.
Eventually, I found a copy of Life and Fate. Or, to be more accurate, I found two of them. I bought both and gave one to my eldest son, saying I had heard good things about the book and thought he might find it interesting. It was my understatement of the year. Over the past month or so, the two of us have devoured its 880 pages in parallel, endlessly exchanging favourite bits and observations. Along the way I seem by chance to have discovered a new generational bonding technique. But Life and Fate is a book that demands to be talked about - as a somewhat startled Menzies Campbell discovered the other day when I started rhapsodising about Grossman's novel to him in the middle of Northumberland Avenue.
Grossman was born in Ukraine in 1905. He grew up amid the German invasion of the first world war, the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian civil war. But the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 provided the adult Grossman with a front-row seat at the defining events of 20th century Europe. Grossman volunteered for battle but ended up with one of the most awesome journalistic postings of all time, as a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper at Stalingrad. Through the winter of 1942-43, he reported from the craters and cellars of the front line as the besieged Russians turned the tide and encircled Hitler's forces. His writings made him a national icon. After the German surrender, Grossman rode west with the Red Army, providing the first and most authoritative eyewitness report from Treblinka. In May 1945 Grossman was at the Brandenburg Gate as Berlin fell. In Hitler's bunker he pocketed stationery from the Führer's own desk for souvenirs.
All this would have ensured Grossman's status as one of the key witnesses of the war. Yet, from 1945 until his death in 1964, Grossman's life entered a richer creative phase. He became a dissident, writing with ever deepening truth about the essentials of the Soviet experience. Much of this is informed and defined by Grossman's experiences as a Jew. After the war he worked with Ilya Ehrenburg on the fate of Soviet Jews under the Nazis, but soon came under Stalinist anti-semitic attack. Grossman did not always respond as honourably as he should. Viktor, the closest thing to a central character in Life and Fate, goes through similar humiliations.
All these epic experiences and pressures came together in a creative climax in the late 1950s in Grossman's most important work. Life and Fate is set in the shadow of the battle of Stalingrad - many gripping descriptive episodes are set there - but as the novel develops, the battle fades into the background. The book's real subject is the daily endurance of the human spirit amid the monumental pressures of absolute war and totalitarian rule, communist as well as fascist. There are terrible scenes, searingly described. And yet, if it were possible to distil the subject matter into one word - and it is so rich a work that the attempt is probably futile - that word would be freedom. This is a novel about what it is to be a free human being.
No wonder that when he submitted it for publication during the relative thaw of the Khrushchev years, Grossman was told by the Kremlin that his novel could not be published for 200 years. The Soviet Union and freedom could not coexist. But, although the KGB attempted to destroy all copies of the manuscript, miraculously a single copy survived; the novel was first published in the west in 1980, in English in 1985 and, finally, in the Soviet Union in 1988.
The echoes of War and Peace are deliberate and hard to miss. Yet the writer who seems to be Grossman's inspiration is not Tolstoy but Chekhov. (Life and Fate could be stunningly adapted for the stage. Go on, Nicholas Hytner, do it at the National.) There is a wonderful passage when Grossman allows a character to proclaim why Chekhov matters to him. From the old believers through Tolstoy to Lenin, he explains, Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant and sectarian. "But Chekhov said: let's put God, and all these grand progressive ideas, to one side. Let's begin with man. Let's be kind and attentive to the individual man - whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in a restaurant ... That's democracy, the still unrealised democracy of the Russian people."
More here.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Boris Grigoriev’s Les enfants

Boris Grigoriev’s Les enfants

"...the vision of Grigoriev is in essence romantic. It is romantic as Gorky is romantic, romantic as are the soul-racked pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In brief, it is feeling, not form, that maintains ascendancy in these vital, invigorating canvases." - Christian Brinton, 1924

Painted in 1922-23, Les enfants is a powerful image that showcases Boris Grigoriev's unique abilities as a portraitist. Documented in Grigoriev's personal archive (Fig. 1), this painting is a testament to Grigoriev's skill at rendering emotional intensity and his propensity to imbue a canvas with palpable drama. Furthermore, the painting dates from Grigoriev's seminal period in New York, during which he exhibited widely with great success, was lauded by the critic Christian Brinton and enthusiastically promoted by James Rosenberg, the founder of the influential New Gallery in New York. Grigoriev's arresting figures made a profound impression upon the American public who were enthralled by the hidden narratives of his insightful portraits.

In 1922 Florence Cane (1882-1952) commissioned Grigoriev to paint a portrait of her twin daughters, Katherine (b. 1910) and Mary (1910-2003). Herself a painter, Florence and her husband, Melville Cane (1879-1980) - a copyright lawyer and published poet - were part of a thriving artistic community that included the artists Marsden Hartley, Alfred Stieglitz, John Marin, Joseph Stella, and Arthur Dove, as well as poets and novelists including e. e. cummings and Thomas Wolfe. At this time, Grigoriev was experiencing international success for his Rasseïa cycle (circa 1916-1921) which combined his gift for portraiture with a steely critical eye and looked to the Russian countryside and peasant village life for subject-matter.

Born in Rybinsk, Boris Grigoriev studied at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg under Aleksandr Kiselev and Dmitrii Kardovskii before relocating to Paris in 1912, where he attended the Acadmie de la Grande Chaumière. Drawing inspiration from icon painting, Grigoriev painted many of the most important figures in Russian culture, including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Kustodiev and Nicholas Roerich. His distinctive grotesque stylisation, with its emphasis on line, lent itself to graphic work, as seen in his illustrations for the publications Novyi Satirikon and Apollon. Grigoriev's style was as innovative as it was au courant; as the critic Igor Grabar later observed; 'He took what he considered necessary - something from Cubism, a little from Cezanne - and worked out his own Grigoriev-esque style, which on one side, touched on the work of Petrov-Vodkin, on the other, that of the French Post-Impressionists.' (I. Grabar, as cited in D. Ia. Severiukhin and O. L. Leikind, Khudozhniki russkoi emigratsii (1917-1941),St. Petersburg, 1994, p. 171). As with his other cycles, including Intimité (1914-18) and Boui Bouis (1921), for Rasseia Grigoriev chose everyday people as his subjects, finding in the farmers, sailors and showgirls a psychological depth that he was able to capture on canvas. As Louis Rau explains: 'the title Rassea was chosen to suggest a land of villages and boroughs populated by peasants and workmen - the Russia that Grigoriev wished to capture in his portraits and genre scenes' (B. Grigoriev, Faces of Russia, London, 1924, p. 16). Grigoriev's portraits effectively transformed these figures into modern-day oracles, imparting a sense of gravitas and universal wisdom; it was precisely this exotic, yet human, glimpse of Russia that delighted a rapt American audience.

More here.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Russian Booker Nominees Listed

Maya Kucherskaya

The “long list” for the Russian equivalent of the prestigious literary award was announced at a press conference on Wednesday. Twenty-four hopefuls have entered the running, whittled down from 87. The final shortlist of six candidates is to be announced on October 3.

The award is considered one of the most prestigious literary honors in the country, and this year marks the 22nd time it will be granted to one of the prime writing talents in Russia.
This year’s nominees include Yevgeny Vodolazkin for “Laurus,” which has been signed to six countries including the UK; five-time nominee Alexei Slapovsky for “Back,” and scholar, columnist, and one-time “Student Booker” winner Maya Kucherskaya for “Aunt Motya.” The selection of candidates span a vast array of literary styles.

Winners will receive 1.5 million rubles ($45,552), with the six finalists each being given a lump sum of 150,000 rubles. The final winner will be announced on December 4.
“This list contains many new names, and the quality of the works of those who could be called novices are comparable with the masters,” said chairman of the jury, Andrei Dmitriyev, who won the prize last year.

He has observed the competition since 2004 and declared that with each year the list of applicants has become thicker and more interesting. He aired hopes that, in line with the aim of the prize, it would draw attention to and encourage the spread of serious prose.
“The decline of Russian literature is only spoken about by people who do not read, or read sporadically,” he said.
The 2013 Jury also includes novelist and philosopher Vladimir Kantor, poet and executive secretary of a journal entitled “Problems of Literature,” Yelena Pogorelaya, critic and deputy chief editor of the Yekaterinburg-based literary magazine “Ural” Sergei Belyakov, and rock musician Yevgeny Margulis.

First established in 1991, the award consolidated itself as the first non-governmental literary prize since 1917.

Read more: Here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Zemfira: Walk

Directed by Renata Litvinova

Understanding Mayakovsky, the dark and beautiful “cloud in trousers”

Vladimir Mayakovsky had just turned 13 when he read Marx for the first time. Soon he participated in secret meetings and handed out Bolshevik Party pamphlets. In 1909, he was arrested for the third time as a teenager and spent eleven months in Butyrka Prison. In the solitude of cell 103, Mayakovsky honed his writing and his art. Soon after imprisonment he would be known as an actor, playwright, journalist, cartoonist, draftsman, children’s book author, cultural agitator, and above all, a poet whose gaze was set on the future. “My verse will reach you/across the peaks of ages,/over the heads/of governments and poets.”

“I remember when my brother came out of prison we were all so excited. The first thing he did was go and wash his hands,” his sister had recalled. Those who knew him intimately recalled his obsession with cleanliness, and the fact that he carried his own soap.

Mayakovsky was born on July 7th, 1893, in Baghdati, a small town in Georgia where his father worked as a forest ranger. In the company of his father, among the mountains and the murmur of the river, he discovered the rhythm and music of the verses he would eventually write. But he was an especially sensitive and at times troubled child who was slow to read, according to his biographers. The tragic and sudden death of his father from sepsis – from a small prick with a rusty pin – caused Mayakovsky’s family great anguish. It also probably brought on his ritual cleanliness. The family moved to Moscow and lived hand to mouth.

After prison, he quit the communist party and enrolled in the Moscow Art School, where he met David Burliuk, his best friend, “his first master,” the first who believed in his poetry and who offered him 50 kopecks a day so he could write and not go hungry. With his friend Burliuk, he embarked on an adventure called the Futurist Movement, which rejected any artwork that smacked of the bourgeoisie. In 1912, they published “The Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” with texts by David Burliuk. Alexander Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov. Vasily Kamensky soon joined the group. The Futurists would cause scenes in public and were not taken seriously by the Russian intelligentsia. Their poetry evenings were provocative. Sporting yellow shirts, top hats and canes, their faces painted, they read their poems to audiences that howled and booed them.

More here.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Poets and Czars From Pushkin to Putin: the sad tale of democracy in Russia

It was only a century ago that Russia was the center of world literature. Writers streamed from all over the world to Yasnaya Polyana to bow before Tolstoy, like pilgrims to Jerusalem. And in Russia the authority of this writer was so great that, should he, the great writer, have decided, say, to be elected czar, it is doubtful that Nicholas II could have held on to his throne. The snag is that Tolstoy didn’t consider power to be worth a brass farthing—and that it is impossible to be elected czar: in Russia, legitimate power is derived only from God. It is also impossible, I should add, to be elected a great writer. But where did this power of literature come from in Russia?

At the time that Shakespeare was penning Hamlet’s monologue in the West, in Russia there were no poets or writers to speak of. There were only czars and holy fools. God gave the Russian people the king-emperor and the fool-in-Christ. The former held sway over the lives and deaths of his subjects, the latter was the only one who could speak truth to the tyrant. Recall the famous scene in Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, when the holy fool exclaims: “It is forbidden to pray for Czar Herod, the Holy Mother forbids it!” The counterweight to the sanctity of power was the sanctity of Christian conscience.

Back then, the Russian atlas of the world looked something like this: the holy Fatherland in the center of the world, the only truly Christian country, surrounded on all sides by an ocean of enemies. Centuries-old servitude to the czar meant a confiscation of body and will and mind, but in exchange it elevated the soul and conferred a righteous purpose on existence. What looked to ambassadors from the banks of the Rhine like Russian despotism and slavery seemed on the banks of the Moscow River a committed participation in a common fight, in which the czar was the general and everyone else was his child and soldier. The absence of a private life was compensated for by the sweetness of dying for the homeland. The stretch of the Fatherland across geography and time was the down payment for personal salvation; the unconscious slavery was bitter for the body but life-sustaining for the spirit. Russia, like Noah’s ark in the flood, fulfilled the mission of saving sacred life on Earth.

But everything changed with Peter the Great. He wanted to “cut a window to Europe,” but instead he cut a hole in the Russian ark. Russia’s regular historical paradox is that its rulers want one thing but the result is often something entirely different. Peter the Great wanted to strengthen the empire, but instead he placed a bomb beneath it, which destroyed it. In our time, Gorbachev wanted to save communism and instead he buried it.

The point of Peter’s reforms was to obtain military technology from the West in order to do battle against that very same West. In the eighteenth century, a torrent of Gastarbeiter came to Russia from enlightened Europe. The Russians had invited engineers and specialists, but those who came were people, and they brought with them European ideas of individualism, personal rights, and human dignity. Modern technologies demand education, and education inevitably brings with it the concept of personal freedom. And that is how Russia got its intelligentsia.

More here.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Dostoevsky, Inequality, and Tsarnaev’s Humanity

IT BEGINS with a once-promising student and a number of contributing factors that could perhaps have been tolerated in isolation, but in their confluence bring about horrific crimes.
The student is “a strikingly handsome young man, with fine dark eyes, brown hair, and a slender well-knit figure, taller than the average.” He lives alone in a city of thousands, and unbeknownst to his distantly located but eminently involved mother, he has abandoned his schoolwork. His ideological commitments have become increasingly extreme and convoluted, and despite evidently having maintained at one time a rational, moderate worldview, he has “recently become superstitious.”
He is poor, disenfranchised, and angry, and he is planning cold-blooded murder. The target is a matter of concentrated rage and coincidental opportunity. Though he has meditated upon murder for some time, his plans are expedited when it becomes clear to him that the perfect set of circumstances have arisen for him to carry out his attack without detection.
His reasons are in equal measures strange and sober. They represent grotesquely extreme incarnations of “the most usual and ordinary youth talk and ideas”: a distaste for greed, a disgust with the tyranny of the powerful over the oppressed, and a general sense of personal obligation to defend the world from its infectious elements.
In a tiny apartment lodged in a building of low-income housing units, he prepares himself and his instruments to carry out murder. It is a painstaking process that he approaches meticulously, but is nonetheless sped along by chance. With all of his materials and nerve mustered, he merely awaits his chosen hour.
And he will commit bloody murder. Those who know him best –– his closest friends, his mother, his sister –– will be shocked, devastated, concerned and horrified. They will struggle to explain why a young man with such promise, who had been at some earlier point in his life well adjusted, outgoing and sociable, would so recklessly destroy human life.
This is the story of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It is not the story of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But the tales of the two young men echo one another profoundly. A former struggling student with a few revolutionary leanings, Dostoesvky was a stranger neither to the incendiary potential of youthful malcontent, nor to the host of minor indignities that can turn once well-liked and talented young men lethal. Dostoyevsky’s underlying empathy and antipathy renders Raskolnikov at different points in the novel reprehensible and sympathetic, monstrous and all-too-human, inscrutable and familiar, like, for the people who knew him, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
More here.