Saturday, 27 September 2014

Malevich: Beyond the Black Square by Robert Chandler

There has never been a better year to look at the work of Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of abstract art often seen as the greatest Russian painter of the twentieth century. “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art,” first shown in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and now at London’s Tate Modern, is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever.

Malevich is known above all for his Black Square (1915)—a black square surrounded by a margin of white—the most prominent of the abstract, geometric paintings he called Suprematist, first shown at the now famous “0.10” exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. With Suprematism, Malevich hoped to create “a world in which man experiences totality with nature,” though using forms “which have nothing in common with nature.” He declared the Black Square to be the “zero of form,” claiming that it eclipsed all previous art. This iconoclastic icon was first shown hanging diagonally across the corner of a room, the traditional place for the most sacred icon of all.

The Black Square, however, loses little in reproduction—and what we see at the Tate, in any case, is a later version, executed in 1923. What matters more is that this exhibition offers us the chance to see both Malevich’s early work—in styles that include Fauvism, what he called Cubo-Futurism, and the Dada-like style he called Alogism—and the figurative paintings of his later years.

Malevich’s Fauve paintings of 1910–1911 remain startling. Bather, perhaps a direct response to Matisse’s La Danse, can be taken as an image of Malevich himself. A naked figure, with large red hands and two right feet, also large and red, is about to fling himself into unknown waters; the only visible facial feature is an eye. A picture of a chiropodist is no less exciting—and somehow no less Fauve—despite being painted in grey and the very palest of greens and yellows. Even a black and white lithograph, The Floor Polishers, carries a similar charge. The energy of Malevich’s work evidently stems not only from color but also from his remarkable ability to evoke a sense of movement. This dynamism can be sensed in work from all his different periods, whether figurative or abstract.

In his next period, Malevich fused the geometry of Cubism with the energy of Italian Futurism. There are paintings of woodcutters, and of peasant women carrying buckets or gathering sheaves of corn. Once again, as in icons, the eyes are the dominant facial feature. One of the finest is Knife-Grinder (Principle of Glittering). The Futurist technique of multiplying an image to convey movement has seldom been used to better effect. The left foot, operating the pedal that turns the wheel, is in at least five different positions. The fingers are too many to count. This, unfortunately, is one of the works shown at the Stedelijk Museum but not at the Tate Modern; the Tate does, however, offer a related drawing. Even in pencil, it radiates glittering, juddering life.

Malevich’s drawings have never been shown to better effect. A single large room in the Tate contains over a hundred, in chronological order, constituting a summary of all his different styles. The wittiest and most lively are from his Alogist period. Just as the Suprematist paintings anticipate most developments in abstract painting throughout the rest of the twentieth century, so these startling medleys of words and images anticipate much of subsequent conceptual art.

In his Alogist work Malevich intended to reveal the illusoriness of outward appearance; in the Suprematist work immediately following it, he aspired to embody what he saw as some ultimate truth. The Suprematist paintings (1915–1922) fit neatly into a generally accepted story that sees decades of artistic experimentation as a rehearsal for a final supreme breakthrough: into total abstraction. The reverence now bestowed on them, however, is excessive. They are remarkable in many ways—in their purity, their boldness, in their extraordinary variety—but there is more depth of feeling in the later work, and no less inventiveness.

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Zinaida Gippius (Hippius) - Bigraphy

She thought up new ideas, took an active part in lively exchanges of opinion and played a fundamental role in the religious renaissance of her country. For Hippius, the purpose of art was to promote the moral and spiritual development of human beings. Her activities in the Religious and Philosophical Society in St. Petersburg and later in emigration in Paris enhanced her fame in Russian literary circles. Zinaida Hippius was the only female writer to gain recognition equal to that of her male contemporaries in Russian literature prior to the twentieth century.

Zinaida Nikolaevna Hippius was born in Belev, in the region of Tula. She was the eldest of four daughters of Nikolay Romanovich Hippius, who was super-procurator of the St. Petersburg Senate and later became chief judge in Nezhin, in the district of Chernigov. The family surname, spelled ‘‘Gippius” in Cyrillic, was of German origin. Throughout her life the writer expressed a clear preference for the Latin-alphabet spelling “Hippius”. Her mother, whose maiden name was Stepanova, was from Siberia. After her father's death in 1881, Hippius's mother moved the family to Moscow and then eventually to Tiflis (Tbilisi). Hippius was educated primarily at home. Largely self-educated, she was already a published poet when she entered the Kiev Institute for Noble Girls. Later she also studied at the Fisher Private Classic School in Moscow 1882.

In 1888 she met Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky, whom she married in Tiflis in 1889. Merezhkovsky was a writer and literary critic, a founder of the modernist movement in Russian literature, who combined fervent idealism with literary innovation. Their literary careers proceeded independently, although their political, philosophical and religious views were in unison. Merezhkovsky is credited with first articulating the basic tenets of Russian Symbolism with his essay “On the Causes of the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature” (1892). The couple then moved to St. Petersburg. Their St. Petersburg literary salon became a focal point for the Symbolists, notably Aleksandr Blok and Andrey Bely. Hippius first attracted attention with her unconventional behavior, cultivating an androgynous image, and later as an outspoken and perceptive critic. Among her first literary acquaintances in St. Petersburg were the poets Apollon Maikov and Konstantin Balmont and the prose writers Leo Tolstoy, Akim Volynsky-Fletser, and Maksim Gorky. At the frequent literary soirées that Hippius attended in St. Petersburg, she met such leading figures as Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was the super-procurator of the Holy Synod, as well as the writers Anton Chekhov, Nikolay Leskov, and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev.

Beginning in the 1890s, Hippius and Merezhkovsky traveled extensively.

Between 1894 and 1900 the couple undertook trips to Greece, Germany, Italy, and Sicily. Towards the end of the 19th century, they also belonged to the group “The World of Art”, led by Sergey Diagilev, who edited the journal of the same name, established in 1899. Hippius and Merezhkovsky began to publish regularly in “The World of Art” shortly after its inception.

In 1919 Hippius and Merezhkovsky left Soviet Russia via Poland. Together with Boris Savinkov they tried to organize military opposition to Bolshevism in Poland, but their attempts failed. In 1920 the Merezhkovskys left Warsaw and settled in Paris, where Hippius continued her literary activities, contributing to various periodicals. In 1925 Hippius published her reminiscences “Living Faces”. In 1926 the Merezhkovskys organized a literary and philosophical society, “The Green Lamp”, where the discussions centred on literary, religious, and political matters. Hippius's volume of poetry “Radiance” appeared in 1938.

Hippius, who had begun to write poetry as a child, first published her verses in “The Northern Messenger” in the November issue of 1888. Hippius's verse of the 1890s reveals her as an individualistic, aesthetically focused poet, one who dismisses the vulgarity of existence, evokes nostalgia for “that which is not of this world”, as she said in many of her works and letters, and seeks to achieve a deep faith in God. Her early poems may be viewed as discussions of abstract ideas held through rhyme and melody. The poems are reverential and call to mind religious meditations. 


Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Russian writer who inspired Orwell and Huxley - Yevgeny Zamyatin

The world knows Yevgeny Zamyatin as the author of “We,” a milestone of 20th-century dystopian literature that presents an apparently ideal world where the Single State has suppressed freedom in the name of happiness. Both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” have echoes of “We” in them. However, long before he wrote “We,” Zamyatin himself was influenced by the British writers he translated and the country itself. 

Born in 1884 in Lebedyan, Tambov province to an orthodox priest father and a pianist mother, Yevgeny Zamyatin had a clear talent for writing and a clear weakness for math, which he later ironically claimed was probably why he chose a math-based career. Zamyatin enrolled at the shipbuilding department of the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University, where he showed his nonconformist streak – he spent a few months in jail in 1905 for political agitation. “If I have any significance in Russian literature, I owe this all to the St. Petersburg Secret Police,” he later wrote. 

Despite these early brushes with the law, Zamyatin began working as an engineer and was sent to Newcastle in 1916 to supervise the construction of icebreakers for the Russian government. However, by the time the ships actually reached Russia, they belonged to the new authorities – the Bolsheviks – and were renamed accordingly. So, in an ironic twist, Zamyatin, one of the most outspoken early critics of the Soviet regime, actually designed the first Soviet icebreakers: “Lenin,” “Krasin” and others. The 18 months he spent in England were a melancholy time for the writer; in letters to his wife, Lyudmila Usova, Zamyatin complained that he could hardly communicate with the locals due to the language barrier, that the food upset his stomach, and that he had a permanent headache. Not to speak of constant German bombing raids – World War I was at its height. “Often in the evenings, as I drove home from the plant in my tiny Renault, I was met by a dark, blinded city that had put out all the lights – that meant that German zeppelins were somewhere nearby, and the bombs would soon come crashing down,” – Zamyatin wrote in his autobiography. “At night, at home, I would listen to the sound of the explosions – some of them far away, some closer, – checking the designs for “Lenin” and writing my novel about Englishmen, 'The Islanders.' As they say, both the novel and the icebreaker turned out quite well.”

Zamyatin’s time in England came to an abrupt end in 1917 when he discovered that there had been a revolution in Russia. Although he returned to St. Petersburg just in time for the October Revolution, he described missing the February Revolution as “never having been in love, then waking up one morning already married for 10 years or so.” 

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Friday, 19 September 2014

Dostoevsky’s crimes

Fyodor Dostoevsky was forty-three when he began work on what was to become Crime and Punishment. This was just old enough for him to count as an old fogey in the eyes of the young men and women who defined Russia in the 1860s and who found themselves slandered by Dostoevsky’s depiction of them as potential axe-murderers. For his part Dostoevsky felt vindicated when Dmitry Karakozov (aged twenty-five) made an assassination attempt on Alexander II that bore some resemblance to his protagonist Raskolnikov’s crime, just as his novel was commencing publication in the journal Russky Vestnik (The Russian Herald). Dostoevsky always fancied himself a prophet, but the French critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé attributed Karakozov’s crime to Dostoevsky’s penchant for stimulating the “demon of imitation”. Indeed, Dostoevsky sympathized with the young people’s desire for social justice, regarding their crimes as born more of impatience than malevolence. Yet crimes they were, and in a letter to his editor, the arch-conservative ideologue Mikhail Katkov (aged forty-eight), Dostoevsky diagnosed the pestilence afflicting Russian youth as nihilism:
“Our poor defenceless Russian boys and girls have their own eternal main point, which will be the basis of socialism for a long time to come, namely their enthusiasm for the good and the purity of their hearts. There are many swindlers and rascals among them. But all these school children and university students, of whom I have seen so many, have converted to nihilism so purely, so selflessly, in the name of honour, truth and true usefulness! Healthy science [or learning: nauka], of course, will wipe it out. But when might this occur? How many victims will socialism consume before then? And, finally, healthy science, though it will take root, will not destroy the chaff so soon because healthy science is still science, not a direct form of civic and social activity.”
Dostoevsky goes on to identify the antidote to nihilism as “freedom of speech” or “glasnost”, which will allow right-minded authors to “make all Russia laugh with positive clarifications of their [the nihilists’] teaching. Whereas now they are given the semblance of Sphinxes, riddles, wisdom, and mystery, and this tempts the naive”. Remaining true to his own youthful socialism, Dostoevsky saw the path to its fulfilment as much more fraught and dependent on discursive mediation. For all its suspense, Crime and Punishment was a considered contribution to the “science” of action.
Young people today may be less inclined to take direct offence, but they are no less likely to see themselves implicated in the naive “enthusiasm for the good” exemplified by Raskolnikov and his motley retinue. After all, the novel is very much a tragedy of failed generational change. When he sees a thirty-year-old man stalking a drunken sixteen-year-old girl, Raskolnikov reflects on how quickly and irrevocably living souls become demographic statistics (what more exalted types might still call “fate”): “Haven’t I seen girls like that? And how did they get there? . . . That’s how it should be, they say. A certain percentage, they say, must go that way every year”. Raskolnikov shudders at the thought of his sister marrying Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin (aged forty-five), even though, Raskolnikov’s mother reports, Luzhin shares “the convictions of our newest generations”; this ingratiating older man has learned the language of the young but misses their point, discrediting their ideals with his transparent calculation. For Raskolnikov all men over thirty are “Svidrigailovs”, or dissolute predators, nihilists of decay rather than of action. Svidrigailov himself is a youthful fifty years of age, but then Raskolnikov’s victim, this “old hag” and “louse”, is herself probably no older than fifty (we are told only that her younger sister, Lizaveta, whom Raskolnikov also murders without premeditation, is thirty-five, as is the investigator Porfiry Petrovich). The generations are separated by an ontological divide and intersect only in set-pieces such as interrogations, public scandals and crimes.
The ages are brought together most melodramatically in the saga of the Marmeladov family, a narrative strand that originated as a project for a novel with the working title “The Drunkards”. The elder Marmeladov, a former civil servant and self-flagellating alcoholic, is in his fifties, but he is only barely outlived by his second wife Katerina Ivanovna (aged thirty), whose fall from noble birth into disreputable squalor and consumption drives her to the brink of insanity. Her stepdaughter Sonya is a prostitute at sixteen, but retains enough of her youthful glow to rekindle in Raskolnikov – and generations of readers – belief in “the good”. The novel culminates in rebirth, the narrator tells us in the second epilogue, but Dostoevsky’s novel remains scarred by the inevitable loss of innocence that makes its characters dependent on contingent beneficence, and which renders direct action more a symptom of their malaise than its remedy.
Oliver Ready, the novel’s latest translator, advocates for the young, laying claim to “the first new translation for a generation”. This is only just true, that of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky having been first published in 1992. Short of some radical strategy of adaptation – and the world abounds in adaptations of Crime and Punishment for stage and screen and in formats such as the graphic novel – how can any new translation bring the novel any closer to new generations of readers? What is different about Ready’s generation of translators
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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Tolstoy’s Real Hero - Orlando Figes on War and Peace

In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages,
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.1
Whether one agrees or not with Nabokov—whose own translation into English of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin sacrificed poetic rhythm, rhyme, and readability for literal word-by-word equivalence—there is no doubt that the practice of translation is strongly influenced by the literary tastes and sensibilities of the receiving culture.
When the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were first translated into English, beginning with Ivan Turgenev’s in the 1870s, they were patted into a Victorian mold of “good writing.” That the first to be translated was Turgenev, the most Europeanized of all the Russian writers, was to have a lasting influence on the reception of Russian literature in the English-reading world: Turgenev’s elegant simplicity of style and gentle social realism fixed the acceptable boundaries of “Russianness,” influencing later translations of the rougher and more Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which really only began to be widely read in English from the 1890s on.
No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946), who translated into graceful late-Victorian prose seventy major Russian works, including seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol, four of Tolstoy, six of Herzen, seventeen of Chekhov, and books by Goncharov and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D.H. Lawrence, recalled her
sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be this high…really almost up to her knees, and all magical.2
She worked so fast that when she came across an awkward passage she would leave it out. She made mistakes. But her stylish prose, which made the Russian writers so accessible, and seemingly so close to the English sensibility, ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard of how these writers ought to sound and feel. For the English-reading public, Russian literature was what Garnett made of it. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1917, “Turgeniev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev.”3
The Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure.”4 Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers’ styles so that “Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev”:
In reading the original [of Notes from Underground], who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky’s style? It is expressed in convulsions of syntax, in a frenzied and somehow piercing diction where malicious irony is mixed with sorrow and despair. But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.5
Joseph Brodsky sniped that the “reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”6
In the English-speaking world there is a common perception, largely due to Garnett’s translations, that Tolstoy’s style is classically simple and elegant. This is only partly true. Tolstoy writes with extraordinary clarity. No other writer can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy. His moral lexicon is penetrating and direct, without the nuances and ambiguities that make Pushkin so complex, and in this respect Tolstoy’s writing is relatively easy to translate (“goes straight into English, without any trouble,” Garnett said7 ). But there are other elements of Tolstoy’s literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities that have been ironed out, not just in Garnett’s translation, but in most of the subsequent translations of this masterpiece.8
Tolstoy’s syntax is unconventional. In War and Peace he frequently ignores the rules of grammar and word order to strengthen an effect or to recreate the looseness of the spoken word—a practice that can make his Russian read quite clumsily at times. He employs a wide variety of linguistic idioms, from the archaic civil service language of the chancelleries (put into the mouths of statesmen such as Arakcheev) and the Latin-German pattern of eighteenth-century literary Russian (spoken by the old Prince Bolkonsky) to the Gallicized and sentimental Russian of the early-nineteenth-century salon and the plain speech of the soldiers, peasants, and workmen.
Above all, Tolstoy is deliberately repetitive. Repetition is perhaps the most distinctive single feature of his style. The literary scholar R.F. Christian has highlighted several types of repetition in War and Peace.9 Tolstoy constantly reiterates a particular mannerism or physical detail to identify his characters and suggest their moral qualities: Princess Marya’s “radiant eyes” or Napoleon’s “small white hands.” In describing the peasant Platon Karataev, Tolstoy uses the word “round” (krugly) no less than five times in one sentence. He repeats words and phrases for rhythm and rhetorical effect, sometimes using the same word six or seven times in as many lines, as in Prince Andrei’s death scene (in the excellent new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):
They all went up to [the body in the coffin] for a last farewell and they all wept.
Nikolushka wept from a suffering bewilderment that rent his heart. The countess and Sonya wept from pity for poor Natasha and because he was no more. The old count wept because he felt that soon he, too, would have to take that dreadful step.
Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now, but they did not weep from their own personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.
Equally characteristic is Tolstoy’s fondness for building large rhetorical structures through the classical device of repeated triads of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions:
Now thousands of feet and bayonets moved with flying standards and, at the officers’ command, halted, turned, and lined up at intervals, circling around other similar masses of infantry in different uniforms; now there came the sounds of the measured thudding and clanking of the dressed-up cavalry, in blue, red, and green embroidered uniforms, with embroidered musicians in front, on black, chestnut, or gray horses; now, stretching out with the brazen noise of polished, shining cannon shaking on their carriages, and with their smell of linstocks, the artillery crawled between the infantry and cavalry and settled in their appointed places.
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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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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Bella Akhmadulina: Rain Flogs My Face...

Rain flogs my face and collar-bones,
a thunderstorm roars over musts.
You thrust upon my flesh and soul,
like tempests upon ships do thrust.

I do not want, at all, to know,
what will befall to me the next - 
would I be smashed against my woe,
or thrown into happiness.

In awe and gaiety elated, 
like a ship, that's going tempests through, 
I am not sorry that I've met you,
and not afraid to love you, too. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Nadezhda Teffi -Unimpressed by Rasputin: A witty female voice in a male-dominated sphere

If you asked most readers for a list of 20th century Russian prose writers, the same names would keep cropping up: Bulgakov, Pasternak, Gorky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn. Few people would mention Teffi. And yet in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution, Teffi was a bona-fide leading light, a superstar who was stopped on the streets of Moscow by admirers and counted both Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin as fans. She mingled with high society figures like Rasputin and wrote about them with a searing and uncompromising wit. 

Teffi was born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya in 1872 to a wealthy St. Petersburg family. She married in 1890 and moved to the countryside to begin a calm and uneventful domestic life. However, Teffi wasn't the kind of person to live up to society's expectations, and a decade later she headed back to the city to make a go of her writing career. She deliberately picked an androgynous pen-name – adapted from the name of a fool, since fools were supposed to be lucky – and set about carving a niche for herself writing satirical articles and vignettes of contemporary life. The editor of The Russian Word, Vlas Doroshevich, recognized her potential and encouraged her to spread her wings into short stories. “Let her write what she wants to write,” he said. “You don't use a pure-bred Arab to haul water.”

Until now, there haven't been a great deal of English-language editions of Teffi's writing, but a notable exception is the recently published “Subtly Worded,” translated by Anne Marie Jackson with the collaboration of Robert Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. The book shows us the development of Teffi's writing from short, vivid sketches to more nuanced narratives. Clever, outspoken and sarcastic, she pokes fun at socialists and snobs alike, and the tales are full of sharp and sudden turnarounds. “One of Us” is the story of a society woman who is delighted by a conversation with a knowledgeable stranger at the opera – only to find, to her horror, that he used to work there as an usher. “One Day in the Future,” on the other hand, is a withering and brave little piece from 1918 warning about what to expect after the Bolsheviks turn the social world on its head: “They were even going to send a telegram to the Minister of Enlightenment, but it turned out none of them knew how to write. Then they remembered the Minister couldn't read or write either, so they decided not to bother.”

Teffi's style combines Jane Austen's nose for pretension and the gleeful, catty wit of a Wilde or a Waugh. She is a master of capturing the inflated dramatics of children and skewering the vanity of the privileged. “The driver flicked the reins and the boy dropped behind,” she writes. “Varenka felt rich and important, and modestly pursed her lips so that the passers-by she had splashed with mud would not be too jealous.”