Friday, 5 September 2014

Alexander Grin - Where Simple Miracles Abound



Alexander Grin is the pseudonym of Alexander Stefanovich Grinevsky who was born into a family of an exile Polish living in Slobodskaya Vyatka Province.

In 1896 he finished a four-grade Vyatka college and left for Odessa. The boy lived as a tramp, worked as a sailor, and a fisherman, then washed gold in the Ural, and later served the army, where he joined the Socialist revolutionary party. Following this Alexander was arrested in Sevastopol for socialist propaganda. The writer served his sentence in prison and three exiles. His works were published starting from 1906. The first short story, titled Merit of Private Panteleev (Zasluga ryadovogo Panteleeva was of an agitation character and thus the copies of the brochure were confiscated by gendarmes. Soon Alexander Grin withdrew from direct political activities and started working as a professional man of letters. In 1912 the writer moved to St. Petersburg, mainly writing short stories at that time. After the revolution, which was a very painful experience for Grin, the fact obvious from his works of 1918-1919, the major theme of his writing was the collision of freedom and unfreedom, most vividly expressed in his novels The Shining World (Blistayushii mir) (1923), Jessie and Morgiana (1929) and The Road to Nowhere (Doroga nikuda) (1930). Grin’s symbolical fairy story Scarlet Sails (Alye parusa) (1923) is considered to be his best creation. In 1924 Alexander Grin moved to Theodosia, Crimea. Gradually his writings came to be in conflict with ideological principles of the communist party, and so his publications were getting scarcer and scarcer. In 1930 the writer moved to the town of Staryi Krym (not far from Theodosia), where two years later he died of lung cancer. This is where he was laid to rest. 

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ALEXANDER GRIN, who died in 1932, was a most ''un-Russian'' Russian writer. His lush and romantic tales transport us to exotic and refreshingly apolitical climes worlds away from the boring, flat steppe of the motherland: tropical rain forests, way stations in the Andes, enchanted warmwater seaports, desert islands. Grinlandia, as the author called his fictional realm, is a never-never land as far removed from the depressing realities of early 20th-century Russia as ''Alice in Wonderland'' was from life in Victorian England.

Photographic realism of the sort practiced by Tolstoy and Turgenev, or even by his erstwhile protector Maxim Gorky, left Grin unmoved. Instead, perhaps in an attempt to escape a life dogged by poverty, loneliness, sickness and misfortune, he turned to Western adventure writers for excitement. Robert Lewis Stevenson, Fenimore Cooper, Mayne Reid (now better known in Russia than in English-speaking countries) and Bret Harte were among his models, as Nicholas Luker points out in the informative introduction to this welcome new collection. Grin - his real name was Grinevsky - has even been called (wrongly) ''the Russian Edgar Allan Poe.''

It's all the more curious, then, that Grin's prose has traveled so poorly. Although adored at home, Grin has remained virtually unknown abroad - even among students of Russian literature. But he has found a devoted fan in Mr. Luker, a British scholar and translator who has been laboring for some years to bring Grin's work out of obscurity, and who has now selected and translated 20 representative stories by the writer he calls a forgotten ''visionary.''

Mr. Luker's work is affectionate and solid. The dust jacket would have us believe ''this is the largest selection of Grin's tales to appear in English,'' but a Soviet foreign-language house published a fatter volume in 1978. It included a translation of the author's best-known work, his short ''fairy-tale novel'' ''Scarlet Sails,'' which also appeared separately in America in 1967 and again in 1985. Mention ''Scarlet Sails'' to a Russian, and he or she is likely to respond with the sort of nostalgic sigh that ''Treasure Island'' evokes in Americans and Englishmen.
Presented chronologically, the stories Mr. Luker has selected come from all periods of Grin's career. The first, ''The Oranges,'' about a political prisoner's relationship with a woman comrade who brings him oranges stuffed with increasingly romantic missives, was finished in 1907, when Grin was 27 years old and after he had been several times arrested and imprisoned for his work with the outlawed Socialist Revolutionary Party. The last, ''The Green Lamp,'' a parable on the familiar theme of ironic role reversal between rich man and bum, was completed in 1930. By then Grin was seriously ill and almost entirely excluded from publication by the reigning Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, which denounced the content and characters of his fanciful stories as remote from the gritty work of socialist reconstruction.

And they were. Despite his early involvement in the Russian revolutionary movement, Grin was anything but a socialist realist. For him, imagination was the most fascinating, noble - and most powerful - human faculty. Miracles abound in Grinlandia, but they are the work of simple men and women, not of supernatural forces or magical creatures.

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