Monday, 27 October 2014

Sofiya Tolstoy’s Defense

In Tolstoy’s 1889 novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” an aristocrat named Pozdnyshev tells a stranger on a train the story of his unhappy family. He married a much younger woman, provoked by her youthful beauty and sexy sweater; they had five children, but Pozdnyshev was disgusted by family life. The marriage curdled, and he became jealous of his wife’s relationship with a musician who kept coming over to play duets. In a rage, he stabbed his wife to death. Though there was no evidence that his wife was unfaithful, and although he feels guilty for his crime, Pozdnyshev argues that he and his wife were equal partners in their submission to lust, and equal victims of corrupt sexual standards that turn all women into prostitutes. He concludes that “sexual passion, no matter how it’s arranged is evil, a terrible evil against which one must struggle.… The words of the Gospel that whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery relates not only to other men’s wives, but precisely—and above all—to one’s own wife.” The only righteous path is abstinence; if it leads to the end of the human race, so be it. In an afterword written in response to many letters asking him to explain the meaning of the novella, Tolstoy confirmed that he shared Pozdnyshev’s opinions. He added that he didn’t mean that no one should ever have sex—only that everyone should try never to have sex, because it is noblest to strive for an impossible ideal.

 “The Kreutzer Sonata” caused an international scandal at a time when sexuality and gender roles were the subject of widespread debate. Banned both in Russia (where Tolstoy had long struggled with the censors) and in the United States, the novella led many men and women to embrace celibacy and modesty, in keeping with Tolstoy’s Christian asceticism, which also emphasized nonviolence, vegetarianism, physical labor, and poverty. One particularly enthusiastic young Romanian castrated himself. Other readers were appalled. In 1890, Zola told the New York Herald that the novella was a “nightmare, born of a diseased imagination.” Tolstoy himself had his doubts. In an 1891 letter, he wrote, “There was something nasty in The Kreutzer Sonata … something bad about the motives that guided me in writing it.”.

The novella had an especially powerful effect on the author’s wife, Sofiya. Friends sent their condolences, and she knew they weren’t the only readers who understood “The Kreutzer Sonata” as a personal attack on her. She decided to shake off the shame by petitioning the tsar (who loved Tolstoy’s fiction but felt very sorry for his wife) to lift the publication ban on the novella: by defending it, she hoped to persuade the world that it wasn’t really about her. When the tsar granted her request, she wrote in her diary, “I cannot help secretly exulting in my success in overcoming all the obstacles, that I managed to obtain an interview with the Tsar, and that I, a woman, have achieved something that nobody else could have done!”.

“The Kreutzer Sonata Variations,” a new volume edited and translated by Michael Katz, places “The Kreutzer Sonata” and its afterword alongside what Katz calls “counterstories” by Sofiya and by the Tolstoys’ son Lev, as well as excerpts from the diaries and memoirs of various members of the Tolstoy family. There are two novellas by Sofiya: “Whose Fault?,” the story of a jealous husband who murders his innocent wife, and “Song Without Words,” about a depressed married woman who becomes obsessed with a composer and his music, and eventually checks herself into a “nerve clinic.” “Song Without Words” is a response to “The Kreutzer Sonata;” “Whose Fault?” is a systematic rebuttal. .

The most well written of the counterstories and the most forceful rejection of Tolstoy’s thesis, “Whose Fault?” is the most intriguing part of “The Kreutzer Sonata Variations.” The heroine, Anna, is an idealistic young woman who is fond of writing, philosophy, and painting. The child of a happy family, she marries, in her late teens, Prince Prozorsky, a family friend in his mid-thirties. She hopes that, as a kind, well-educated older man, he will be her guide to artistic and intellectual pursuits. But just before the wedding, she learns of his premarital sexual adventures, and on their wedding night she is disgusted by his advances. The peasants on Prozorsky’s estate mock her, and she learns that one of them had a long affair with her husband. Of Anna’s response to this news, Sofiya writes, “Despair and horror couldn’t fail to leave their mark on a very young soul for her entire life; they were the sort of wounds that a young child experiences the first time it sees a decomposing corpse.” Anna is overwhelmed by jealousy, shame, and sexual repulsion. Her husband is disappointed by her sexual incompetence (an unfortunate side effect of innocence) and lack of enthusiasm. (All of this corresponds to Sofiya’s own experience.)

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Friday, 24 October 2014

Louise Bryant: Leon Trotsky - Soviet War Lord

MINISTER OF WAR, Leon Trotsky, has no prototype in history. Therefore, he cannot be compared, he can only be contrasted. He is without question the most dramatic character produced during the whole sweep of the Russian revolution and its only great organizer. No man will overshadow his eminence in the history of the revolution except Lenin. They will remain the two most distinguished personalities. They are complementary figures. Lenin represents thought; Trotsky represents action. Trotsky's genius might have burned itself out in some wild enthusiasm or some consuming rage if it had not been for the cooling influence of Lenin. On the other hand, Lenin's plans, no matter how carefully thought out, could not have materialized withouts a Labor Army better than a fighting army because it makes him happier to build than to destroy.

But all his organizing genius goes for nothing if he cannot have order and discipline. About three years ago Lenin appointed Trotsky Minister of Railways in addition to his post as War Minister. Trotsky took a trip over the country and found transportation generally smashed and the railway employees as lacking in morale as he had once found the Russian soldiers. He immediately began to re-build transportation with every atom of his strength. If a train was not on time, there had to be a reason given, which had ceased to be done in those days. In fact, no one was ever deeply concerned about exact arrivals and departures of trains under any regime. The Trans-Siberian Railway was the only efficient road which ever operated in Russia. But Trotsky began to make such an everlasting row about these matters that the railway men were aghast. There had always been graft and laziness and indifference, they had no doubt that there always would be, even under government control. Trotsky hauled them up, threatened them with imprisonment and even with death. The result was that the unions were so roused that they threatened a general strike. The situation grew worse and worse. Finally Lenin, to avert a national crisis, dismissed Trotsky and wrote an open letter to the unions about it and Trotsky showed his real fineness of character by accepting his defeat in silence. And yet if he had been in charge of the roads they would certainly not be in the condition that they now are and many thousands of lives in the famine area would have been saved.

Trotsky cannot bear Russian slothfulness and he is constantly irritated by Russian indifference to sanitation. He insists on the utmost fastidiousness and neatness for all who work with him. An amusing scandal took place in Moscow at the time of one of the International Conventions. Trotsky had instructed a Red Army physician to inspect the hotel in which the foreign delegates were to stay and report if it was in order. The physician merely went down to the building and finding a fine grand piano there, whiled his time away playing and let the inspection go. In due course of time the delegates arrived and the first night they were all routed out of bed by insects. This came to the ears of Trotsky and he was so furiously angry that he had the doctor arrested and announced that he would have him shot. The delegates flew around in a fine state of excitement with a petition which they all signed begging Trotsky to spare the physician's life. As a matter of fact Trotsky would not have shot him, but his threats are reminiscent of the day of Tsar Peter who found it necessary to shoot a number of nobles before the others would shorten their long coats as he had ordered by royal decree.

Trotsky is a student of the French Revolution. He lived a long time in France and he loves France, in spite of its hostility to Soviet Russia. Some of his closest friends are Frenchmen who knew him in Paris and who followed him to Russia and work with him there. He never forgets his friends and has a real capacity for permanent friendships. Russians are, as a rule, very changeable in their personal relationships but one can depend on Trotsky.

As an orator he reminds one much more of the French revolutionary orators. Russians speak more slowly and more logically and with less fire. Trotsky Stirs his audiences by his own force and by striking phrases. There were times when these splendid literary phrases infuriated Lenin; from the public platform he once called Trotsky a “phrase-maker.” But this was way back in the Smolny days when Trotsky was more untamed than he is now, and before Lenin realized that Trotsky would be his most able assistant. While Trotsky was in America he was the editor of a Russian newspaper and apparently caught the American feeling for on-the-minute news. He is the easiest official to interview in Moscow and entirely the most satisfactory, because he is free from the general reticence and distrust of the press which most of the Commissars have. I once wrote him a note saying that I was writing a story about the Red Army and would like some material. The very same day he sent me down a great sack of copy. There were many Red Army magazines and newspapers that I had never heard of. There were handbooks and statistics and maps and, besides all that, there was a permission to go to. any of the fronts and to attend any of the lectures at the various schools.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Alexander Blok: Night...

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century –
Nothing will change.  There's no way out.

You'll die – and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal's rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.
                                             10 October 1912

Translated by Alex Cigale

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

It’s hard to write about the great evildoers of history. “Absolute evil” is not a useful concept, at least from the standpoint of a biographer. You can only make the portrait work, as John Milton did in Paradise Lost, by showing the cracks and contradictions that make the monster (his Satan) human. The demonic versions of Stalin and Hitler that most of us have internalised are not helpful in working out what made them tick. The assumption that the man who kills (or causes to be killed) a million people is a million times more evil than the man who kills one is another stumbling block. We can’t imagine a person a million times worse than a cold-blooded axe murderer, so the whole thing becomes unreal. Moral philosophers may be needed to straighten this out, but my own feeling is that the premise is wrong: evil, as a quality of a person, is not quantifiable, and we can’t obtain an index through multiplication. Perhaps the only reasonable way to handle the problem analytically is to postulate what has been called a Power Amplification Factor – if you’re Joe Blow, your actions, however murderous, tend to be relatively local and quantitatively limited in their impact, but if you’re Stalin or Hitler, you get the global impact and multiples in the millions.
Added complications arise when the evil in question is related to a state leader’s responsibility for mass deaths. A general tacit assumption is that wars fall into a special category, in which mass deaths can occur without automatically bringing moral odium on the leaders who gave the orders. But revolutionaries, or leaders who still have revolutionary transformation on their mind, think they fall into that category of exemption, too. They see the deaths they cause in the same “necessary” light as those caused in war. It’s a dilemma for historians, who are likely to have an aversion to letting revolutionaries claim the exemption, especially once the revolution is won and they are in power.
Stephen Kotkin, whose first book, Magnetic Mountain (1995), had the bold subtitle “Stalinism as a Civilisation”, is not one to shrink before challenges. His expansive study is just the first of a projected three volumes. The title gives nothing away: you can’t get much blander than “Paradoxes of Power” as a subtitle, and the brief preface is almost anodyne. He tells us, however, that “accident in history is rife”, dropping a clue that this is not going to be a story of historical inevitability or psychological determinism. “The story emanates from Stalin’s office,” he writes, rather puzzlingly, “but not from his point of view.” Who, if not Stalin, is looking out from his office? Is it Kotkin, an invisible watcher, who has quietly drawn up a chair next to Stalin at his desk? At any rate, the message seems to be that in the intimate relationship between biographer and subject, this biographer is keeping the upper hand.
Stalin makes only cameo appearances in the first 300 pages, which range over the Russian empire, Russian absolutism, the European state system, modernity and geopolitics before getting to the revolution. It’s an expansive interpretation of context, and one of the effects is to make the young Stalin, born in obscurity on the periphery of the Russian empire, look pretty small. Whenever Stalin does make an appearance, however, his aspirations and determination to make something of himself are evident, and quite sympathetically described. Kotkin’s Stalin is a striver and an autodidact of talent and determination. There were setbacks and difficulties as he was growing up, but Kotkin dismisses the idea of childhood trauma: lots of people, including many fellow revolutionaries, had it worse. As happened with many bright young men in late imperial Russia, Stalin’s aspirations for betterment got deflected into the revolutionary movement.
His revolutionary activity doesn’t amount to much. The figure that catches the eye in these early chapters is Pyotr Durnovo, Nicholas II’s interior minister, who saved the empire after the 1905 revolution by savage repression. Kotkin drops another clue here, remarking that this was a moment “in the play of large-scale historical structures when personality proved decisive: a lesser interior minister could not have managed”. As for Stalin, he was out in Siberian exile “battling mosquitos and boredom” for much of the last imperial decade, and thus missed the first world war. The life of a once-promising young man seemed on the road to nowhere. Then came the miracle: the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917. Revolutionaries like Stalin could claim little credit, but they were beneficiaries. Still a relatively obscure figure from the underground, “wearing Siberian valenki” – felt boots – “and carrying little more than a typewriter”, he arrived on 12 March 1917 in the capital, St Petersburg, to join the revolution.
From his civil war leadership at the battle of Tsaritsyn in 1918 and the notorious clashes with Trotsky, Stalin starts to claim more of the author’s attention, and what kind of biography Kotkin is writing becomes clearer. Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight. In contrast to many who have written on Soviet politics of the 1920s, he is not a partisan of Stalin’s opponents, either collectively or in the person of Trotsky or Bukharin; nor does he proceed from the common assumptions that Stalin must be measured against Lenin, and that to a greater or lesser degree he will fall short.
The theme of Stalin’s departure from or betrayal of Leninism has had a long innings, particularly on the non-communist left. But from Kotkin’s standpoint, Lenin is scarcely an exemplary figure. A man with an idée fixe, Lenin is as often wildly wrong as he is right: “deranged fanatic” is one characterisation that the author seems to endorse. Kotkin is not interested in the old argument about continuity or discontinuity between Lenin and Stalin: like Richard Pipes, whose work is often cited in the early Soviet chapters, he thinks continuity is self-evident and wants us to see that much of what is thought of as the worst of Stalin’s rule is present or latent in Lenin. Indeed, when it comes to comparison between Lenin and Stalin, Lenin generally comes off worse in this study. With regard to empire, for example, which is always important to Kotkin, Lenin, who had “never set foot in Georgia, or even Ukraine, for that matter”, compares poorly to Stalin, with his “first-hand experience of the varied realm” and understanding that there was more to inter-ethnic relations within the empire than just Russian oppression.
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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Aleksandr Kuprin - Biography

Aleksandr Kuprin was born on 26 August 1870 in the provincial town of Narovchat, in Penza Province in southern Russia. The only son to survive in a family otherwise made up of girls, he became his mother’s favorite. His mother, Liubov' Kuprina, a strong-willed and somewhat authoritarian woman, was undividedly honored with the title of “supreme creature” by her son. Even at the age of sixty, Kuprin still spoke of his mother with awe and piety. A descendant of a princely Tatar family, the Kulunchakovs, she was proud of her ancestry and instilled like-minded feelings in her son; not surprisingly, one of the persisting themes in his art was the fate of the Tatars. He also very much appreciated his mother’s sense of expression. “How many times would I steal from her, weaving her words and expressions into my own stories,” he wrote. His father, Ivan Kuprin, a clerk for the arbitrator in Narovchat, died of cholera n 1871, at the age of thirty-seven when Aleksandr was barely a year old, and the impoverished Kuprin family was forced to move to the Widows' Home in Moscow in 1874.

In 1876, at the age of six, young Kuprin entered the Razumovsky Pension for orphans of the gentry. He then resumed his education in the Second Moscow Military High School (known as Cadet Corps), which he entered in 1881, and completed his studies seven years later at the Alexander Military Academy.

Reflecting on his cadet childhood, Kuprin saw the general environment of military schools as dreadful. Taught to perceive themselves as superior to civilians, the boys at military schools were however denied any chance for a creative outlet. At the age of ten, the boy was confronted with the raging injustice, encouraged at military schools. Notions of nobility and justice, introduced by his mother, conflicted with the triumph of mindless power over weakness, propelled by the military disciplinarians. The teachers were rigid and physical punishment was common; the most serious crimes were grounds for suspension in the isolation room.

Still, the harsh conditions of the cadet corps developed in Kuprin a craving for writing poetry. When he started writing at the age of ten, he was lucky to secure the backing of an unusually sympathetic and intelligent teacher, Tsukhanov, who helped young Kuprin enhance his literary skills. During his years at school Kuprin wrote approximately thirty poems – of patriotic, satirical, and lyrical character. In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Kuprin published his first serious literary work, a short story entitled "The Final Premiere" in the Moscow “Russian Satirical Paper.” Kuprin based the story on a real incident involving an actress whose unrequited love forced her to commit suicide during a performance. "The Final Premiere" caused a scandal when school officials learned about it as cadets were not permitted to publish unapproved pieces. Kuprin's unauthorized publication cost him several days in the guardroom for unsuitable behavior. The memory of this furor stayed with him and inspired later works, including his long, autobiographical novel “Junkers,” written in 1928-1932 and published in 1933.

Upon his graduation from the military academy in 1890 with the rank of sub lieutenant, Kuprin joined the infantry in Proskurov, near Zhitomir, in southwest Ukraine.

He deeply loathed serving in the military and was constantly possessed by the idea of resignation. The only thing that shelved his decision to quit was a serious relationship with a girl. As a provincial minor officer, Kuprin wasn’t much of a catch for a husband, but the girl’s father promised to go ahead with the marriage if Kuprin entered the Academy of the General Staff. In the fall of 1893, he traveled to St. Petersburg to pass the entrance exams, but it never happened, as Kuprin was almost immediately summoned back to the regiment. He was punished for a row he’d had with a local policeman on his way to St. Petersburg, which ended when Kuprin tossed the aforementioned policeman in the Dnieper River.

Robust as a boy, Kuprin was also strong as an adult. Very emotional and impulsive, he was normally kind and charming, but could become dangerously reckless when put out of temper. This emotional instability played against him many times and hindered his career. One of the bitterest examples dates back to 1908, when Kuprin was almost elected an honored member of the Academy of Sciences but as Ivan Bunin, Kuprin’s friend and an outstanding writer, recalled: the academy did not accept him because its members were afraid he might abuse his privileges when under the influence of alcohol. During his military service in Ukraine, Kuprin started to publish in local Kiev newspapers both as a journalist and as a writer, gradually developing his style and the scope of his themes. He wrote several stories about the human psyche, among them "Psyche" (1892), “On a Moonlit Night” (1893), and "In the Dark” (1893). His frequent but irregular literary experience soon resulted in two collections entitled “Kiev Types” and “Miniatures.”

His work for the Kiev newspapers, writing for the casualties and humor section was a school of writing for Kuprin and he maintained his love for journalism throughout his life.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Passion of Anton (Chekhov)

Chekhov 1898 by Osip Braz
The academy has not been kind to dead white writers lately. But it's a different story on stage and screen, where everyone from Victor Hugo to Raymond Carver has enjoyed a successful run in recent years. Who will be the next hot literary property? One safe bet, for this year and every year, is Chekhov. 

An old New Yorker cartoon makes a comic case for the Russian writer's ubiquity. Three men are asked for their greatest influences. ''Mainly the short-story writers -- Hemingway, Eudora Welty and, of course, Chekhov,'' an author replies. ''There was a teacher in high school, and the owner of the first garage I worked in. Then, of course, Chekhov,'' an auto mechanic says. Lastly, a ballplayer responds: ''I had a great batting coach in the minors, and I try to emulate the great outfielders, like DiMaggio and Mays. And, of course, there's Chekhov.'' Tennessee Williams answered the same question more succinctly. ''Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!'' was his regular response to queries about favorite authors.

Chekhov's lasting appeal lies not just in his writing. His life -- or at least the version of it available up to now -- is seductive in ways that admirers have found hard to resist. ''The good doctor'' is what Neil Simon calls him in his play of that name. Others have been less moderate. ''St. Anton'' is what the critic Richard Gilman calls the Chekhov of literary legend. The modest, gentle creature we first meet in Maxim Gorky's memoirs becomes a stock figure in later accounts of the life.

The outlines of this saint's life are well known. There is the Dickensian childhood, plagued by poverty, disease and the dictates of a tyrannical father, who is the son of a freed serf. There is the young Chekhov who becomes the de facto head of his extended family, struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his dual vocation of doctor and apprentice author. Then comes the growing fame, early for the fiction and later for the plays, accompanied by the first signs of the tuberculosis that will finally claim his life in 1904.

Thoughtful, unassuming and generous to a fault, Chekhov ministers to the needs of an ever-growing circle of friends and family even as he continues the prodigious output that will change the shape of modern writing. And if this weren't enough, he finds time to visit penal colonies, treat gratis countless plague victims and needy peasants, and establish public libraries and schoolhouses for the underprivileged. In his final years, he finds happiness with the actress Olga Knipper, completes several masterpieces and receives international acclaim before dying at 44.

Is this Chekhov too good to be true? Until now, memoirists and biographers -- they've been legion -- have had two choices. They could keep the legend intact -- and there seemed to be little objective reason to challenge it. Or, like the critic Ronald Hingley, they could struggle to find cracks in the myth of ''Chekhov the 19th-century messiah.''

But would-be revisionists not only had to contend with the legacy of two zealous literary ''widows'': both Knipper and Chekhov's sister and lifelong companion, Mariya Chekhova, served as self-appointed keepers of the sacred flame for decades after the writer's death. They were also forced to do battle with a Soviet state anxious to preserve the purity of its prized plebeian playwright, the sharp-eyed critic of an aristocracy in decay and prophet of a brighter coming day. It kept potentially compromising parts of the Chekhov archive under lock and key, and even off-color jokes were bowdlerized out of existence in official editions of his correspondence.

Chekhov himself was no help to future chroniclers. He suffered from an acute form of what he called ''autobiographophobia'' and encouraged would-be biographers to disregard the life itself and ''write what you want'': ''If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical.''

Happily, Donald Rayfield, a widely known Chekhov scholar, has chosen not to take his subject at his word. In ''Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art'' (1975), Rayfield judged that ''all the facts we are ever likely to have for a biography of Chekhov are now at hand.'' In ''Anton Chekhov: A Life,'' he conclusively proves himself wrong. He spent five years scouring the newly opened archives of the former Soviet Union and tracking down evidence in every possible location. The result is a Chekhov radically unlike the paragon of decades past.

Revisionary biographies have become commonplace. It is now standard practice to chastise dead writers for sins committed against current norms of behavior. This is not at all the task Rayfield sets himself. His aim is not to unmask the ''real'' Chekhov -- sexist, imperialist, proto-fascist, whatever -- who lurks behind the plaster bust erected by unenlightened partisans (although the material Rayfield unearths on Chekhov's relations with women in particular could easily have been turned to such ends in less judicious hands).
The life Rayfield describes is no less impressive for having a flawed, at times unsympathetic, figure at its center. And his restraint in presenting his controversial new findings -- along with the sheer quantity of fresh material he has amassed -- is finally what makes his portrait so persuasive. His clear-eyed, critical sympathy for his less-than-perfect subject might have been borrowed from Chekhov's own writing.

What precisely is new about Rayfield's Chekhov? The story of the writer's harrowing childhood has been told before -- although never in such gripping detail. The real revelation in this biography lies not so much, as Rayfield himself writes, in the new light it sheds on Chekhov's relations with family and friends. It is Chekhov's sex life that is the major surprise here.

Chekhov's sex life? The phrase is something of an oxymoron, to judge by earlier accounts. Chekhov's American adapters -- Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, David Mamet -- have noted the sexual charge that galvanizes the plays. And certainly no Russian writer has been more sympathetic to the ways that passion can play havoc with even the most humdrum lives. But Chekhov's own life has hitherto seemed to be remarkably passion-free; he apparently had, V. S. Pritchett thought, an unusually low ''sexual temperature.''
This is not the Chekhov of Rayfield's biography. Rayfield documents what he calls the ''hedonistic elements in Chekhov's makeup'' in scrupulous detail. His evidence is largely culled from Chekhov's previously censored correspondence, and much of it is too explicit to be quoted in a family newspaper. Chekhov's guardians had good reason to fear for their ward's reputation when the unexpurgated letters finally came to light. One thing is clear: Chekhov's sexual temperature was anything but low. Tall, good-looking and witty, he was a magnet to women from an early age, and the attraction was mutual -- ''You have two diseases, amorousness and spitting blood,'' one erstwhile lover jokes -- though he resisted lasting attachments until near the end of his life.

One must be wary of reading an artist's biography directly into the work. But Rayfield's Chekhov, with his wide range of physical and emotional experience, simply makes better sense than the artist-monk of earlier accounts as the author of ''Uncle Vanya,'' ''Lady With a Lapdog'' and the other works that deal so sagely with love and sexual passion.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

Sergei Dovlatov, dissident sans idea

All but invisible in his home country, Sergei Dovlatov became something of a mythical figure among the Russian diaspora of New York. Indeed, Vladimir Yermakov compares the conundrum of Dovlatov's life as writer to the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Escher's mysterious drawing.
In the Soviet Union I was not a dissident. (Being a drunk doesn't count.) All I did was write stories that were ideological strangers. And I had to leave. It was in America that I became a dissident.
Sergei Dovlatov

Central to the primary meaning of a work of art is the person of the artist, especially if the work contains autobiographical material. Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) is a special case in this respect. The writer Dovlatov, and his character Dovlatov, are as dependent on one another as the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Maurits Cornelis Escher's mysterious drawing. This interdependence doesn't imply anything definite about their identity, however. Those who knew Dovlatov from his works merely imagined they knew the man. Those who knew him personally realized they didn't know him very well. The facts of his biography are all blurred, ambiguous, vague. This should be kept in mind when reading his books. Almost confessionary in form, their content is largely invented. As a great mystifier, he was able to unsettle his surroundings. In the field of gravitation surrounding Dovlatov, reality is distorted and loses its plausibility.

But before focusing on the man himself, we should decide on our criteria. The pathos typical of world literature can be seen as a defence of the human being. How do we evaluate a person? Every one of us has a scale according to which we weigh the social significance of a person. This scale runs between two generalizing definitions, namely "the great man" and "the small man". The megalomania inherent in Russian autocratic rule would acknowledge only statesmen-heroes as great men. Therefore Tsarist censorship was nettled by the entirely inappropriate respect shown for the person of Pushkin in his obituary: what value could there be in a poet, let alone one who, instead of praising absolute power, endorsed mercy toward the fallen? As for the place of the human being in Russian reality, government and society were far from seeing eye-to-eye. Russian literature turned its face from the mighty of this world and gave its heart to the poor, the luckless, penniless outsiders, whom it saw through the magic crystal of art. They were seen as true, genuine people, whereas the lords of life proved to be the charlatans of existence.

The central character in Sergei Dovlatov's prose, the author's alter ego, is a small person. A small man in a great country built by dwarfs. Here is the first confusing point: a great small person. It is a common view that the pathos at the root of Dovlatov's work is a tolerance for human weaknesses, but this is not exactly the case. It is more correct to see in the author a certain cruelty justified by his conclusions. Dovlatov's sarcasm scratches away at the encrustation of context, setting man free from the wretchedness of everyday life. But his all-engulfing satire shows none of an author's self-conceit. Basing his literary experiments on his own person, he cannot be blamed for snobbism.

The great small man is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, and indeed Dovlatov was something of an oxymoron himself, a huge walking contradiction. Physically big, but inside... not what he appeared to be. Uncertain of himself, yet full of himself. Arousing fierce opposition yet radiating a dour charm. Half Jewish, half Armenian by birth, Sergei Donatovich Dovlatov had more right to represent Russian literature at the level of global civil society than anyone else. And at this highest of levels he is unique. He is an independent thinker without a cause. A dissident without an idea. He managed to merge intellectualism with bohemianism, and life gave him a hard schooling – but he never learnt to live outside the sphere of literature. He was no macho, rather a bear; overwhelming physicality was an expression used by Joseph Brodsky to characterize him. In the bohemian literary circles of Leningrad, Dovlatov was a phenomenon. He also became one in the Russian diaspora of New York. His physical frame enthralled women, and in men his appearance aroused respect. His friendships were neither lasting nor dependable. His love affairs were mindless and unhappy. According to Valery Popov, a long-standing friend, he was touchy, suspicious, apprehensive – and cruel, deceitful and quarrelsome. A true intellectual, he was irresistible and unbearable all at once. Oh, for all those kind-hearted evil deeds that formed the canvas of his biography upon which his words wove literature... With its syncopated rhythm, his life's chronicle resembles a jazz composition. While valuing friendship, he was utterly merciless even to his nearest and dearest. He loved women, but his love stories were tragi-comic. He would marry when a relationship was beginning to fall apart, and women gave birth to children of his after totally breaking up with him.

Dovlatov came from a background of artists: his father Donat Mechik was a theatre director, his mother Nora Dovlatova an actress. Sergei was also an artist by nature, but took his time to choose his field. Nor did life give him a chance to do otherwise. He was born on 3 September 1941 in the town of Ufa, where the family had been evacuated at the beginning of the war. The years of his boyhood and youth were spent in Leningrad. At school he made no particular impression, apart from his physical stature and charm. Lacking both outstanding talent and a careerist intelligence, he chose the humanities for his field and enrolled at the Finnish department of the philological faculty of the Leningrad State University. It was during these years that he became familiar with the underground literature of Leningrad. A passionate interest in Hemingway and a close acquaintance with Brodsky were what decided his fate: he wanted to become a writer. After this, he lost interest in the foreign language he was studying and dropped out of university.

Dovlatov's reckless way of life might have landed him in prison, but instead, he found himself in the army. After three years' service he returned to Leningrad and set out to try to become a professional writer. He worked as a journalist and as an editor for several publishers. He wrote news reports and travel stories for various papers. But he failed to enter the privileged group of established authors. He was plagued by a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. He set off to look for new opportunities in Estonia, a Soviet state of a slightly different character, hoping to find more freedom there. For anyone with a more ordinary view of life, this slightly less restricted existence might indeed have sufficed, but for a great author it remained painfully limited. In Tallinn, Dovlatov almost managed to publish a collection of short stories, but in the end, the chance came to nothing. The organs of state would not loosen their grasp of the rebel. Dovlatov returned to Leningrad, as to a familiar house where he'd already run his head against every wall looking for a way out. Losing every hope of finding a job in Soviet reality, he set out to be a tour guide at the Pushkin museum reserve at Mikhailovskoye.

The tale of Dovlatov's sufferings becomes an ironic chronicle of his times. Later, in America, the Ardis publishing house published his first book, aptly named Nevidimaya Kniga (1977), The Invisible Book (1979); in his own country, he had only been seen by those whose duty it was to see everything. The organs of state undertook to take care of his fate. After Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, Dovlatov too was sentenced, but his vanity was wounded by the sentence being merely for hooliganism – an outrageous gesture, he felt. After the sentence, with reproaches and threats ringing in his ears, he decided to leave his home country.

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Mikhail Lermontov’s 13 demons

Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Demon” was never published during his lifetime due to its excessive “diabolism.” This year, however, “Demon” was published in Moscow in 13 European languages.

“Demon” is based on the biblical myth of the fallen angel who rebelled against God – a story that has been incorporated into the work of many European poets, including John Milton, George Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Lermontov put a new spin on this age-old tale, describing the Demon’s love for the earthly beauty Tamara. It is a love that proves deadly for her. 

Lermontov started writing the poem when he was just 14 years old. The first version described a demon and an angel who were in love with the same nun, but the poet later modified the concept to make the demon fall in love with the nun and kill her out of hatred for her guardian angel. The work was originally set in Spain; the unwritten poetic code demanded that a romantic poem should take place in a faraway land, and the young poet was taken with Spanish motifs because he imagined he was descended from the ancient Spanish Duke of Lerma. It was only years later that he learned of his true roots in the Scottish Learmonth clan.

Lermontov had finished working on his earlier versions of “Demon” by 1834, but he did not consider the work ready for publication. He achieved a breakthrough after his first exile to the Caucasus (1837-1838) for the poem “Death of the Poet,” in which he blamed the court aristocracy for Alexander Pushkin’s death. Just a few months of regimental service in the Caucasus had a strong influence on Lermontov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he set about rewriting the poem again, replacing his weak Spanish motifs with images of the Caucasus, adding powerful descriptions of its wild nature and Georgian feudal life. In the first “Caucasus” version, completed in 1838, the poem was widely distributed and became famous among the high society in Moscow and St. Peterbsurg. However, Lermontov rewrote the ending to avoid censorship; in the new version, Tamara was saved by the angel instead of dying. Even the empress read the poem in this form, and it was approved by the censors in March 1839 – yet it was never published. The “diabolical” subject matter was partially to blame: in an era when the Orthodoxy was the state ideology, such a text raised too many questions. Lermontov’s character also played a part – he was a duelist and a freethinker who was out of favor with the authorities.

Today “Demon” is recognized as a classic. In honor of the poet’s 200th birthday, the Moscow-based Rudomino Book Center under the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature has produced a unique publication. In addition to the original text, it also contains rhymed translations of the poem in 13 languages: English, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Latvian, Macedonian, German, Polish, Slovenian, French, and Swedish. The publication is illustrated with the works of Mikhail Vrubel from the “Demon” series and prints of a handwritten copy of the poem. “Lermontov’s creative work is quite well-known in Europe today,” the publisher’s executive editor Yury Fridstein said. He went on to explain: “In Britain they know him as a Russian poet with Scottish roots. In Poland and Germany they pay great attention to our literature – one should not forget that Lermontov ‘transferred’ the works of Heine and Goethe into Russian. His creative work has a certain German element. Plus, ‘Demon’ was first published in Germany.” Lermontov is also famous in France because an enormous quantity of his poetry has been translated into French. In 2012, on the eve of the poet’s 200th birthday, the Rudomino Book Center released a three-volume collection of his writings translated into three European languages: French, English, and German. The book has a separate section dedicated to French translations of Lermontov by the great poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

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Robert Chandler on Russian Poetry

A friend, not a Russianist but a well-read poet and editor, once told me how astonished he had been to discover, many years after first reading him, that Mayakovsky—the Poet of the Russian Revolution—always wrote in rhyme and metre. Every translation my friend had seen was in free verse. And he had taken it for granted that a revolutionary poet would want to be free of the constraints of traditional form . . . Russian poetry, however, has developed differently from the poetry of most other European countries.

In the development of a culture, as in the life of an individual, poetry comes before prose. In the life of a country, the oral epic comes before the novel; in the life of an individual, nursery rhymes come before stories. And poetry arises from many sources. Lyric poetry springs from prayers, charms, and magic spells; narrative poetry from the need to preserve important myths in a memorable form.

In most of Europe, the invention of print made it seem less important that a work of literature be easy to commit to memory. The decline of a magical or religious worldview also did much to encourage the rise of prose and the decline of poetry. Russia, however, has never seen the full emergence of a rational and secular culture—the official ethos of the Soviet era, though avowedly secular, was supremely irrational—and poetry has, throughout most of the last two hundred years and in most social milieus, retained its importance. Almost all Russians see Pushkin, rather than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as their greatest writer. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva are loved at least as passionately as Bulgakov, Nabokov, Platonov, Sholokhov, and Zoshchenko.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, poetry's pre-eminence was unchallenged. There was no prose fiction as important as the work of Derzhavin, Krylov, or the poets of the 'Golden Age'—that is, Pushkin and his contemporaries. Only for a single brief period—the second half of the nineteenth century—did poetry become secondary to prose. The serfs were liberated in 1861. The Trans-Siberian Railway was built in the 1890s. A Russian middle class was coming into being, and the novel, at least for a while, seemed better able than poetry to answer its political and social concerns. Early twentieth-century Europe, however, saw a general collapse of belief in reason and progress. In Russia this was more sudden, and more complete, than in most other countries. The realistic novel now seemed oddly unreal. Poetry again became dominant, and most of the poets of this 'Silver Age' held to a magical view of the world. A poet's business was to listen to the music of other worlds—not to interpret this world. Most of the poetry of Alexander Blok and his fellow Symbolists is incantatory; rhyme and rhythm draw more attention to themselves than in the work of Pushkin or Lermontov.

During the Soviet period, poetry became even more dominant. Even Soviet politicians had a magical belief in the power of the word. The Bolsheviks found it difficult to bring into being the new world they had promised; it was easier simply to proclaim its existence through speeches and slogans. As for poetry, it remained unapologetically itself, insisting on the formal features that distinguish it from prose. Mayakovsky wrote 'agit-prop' slogans; it was crucial, of course, that these be memorable, and so, like most Russian poets before and after him, he used strong metres and prominent rhymes—both for these and for his more complex poems.

As for such poets as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and others who were disaffected with the new reality, they were soon living in what Akhmatova called a 'pre-Gutenberg' age. They could no longer publish their own poems and it was dangerous to write them down. Akhmatova's confidante, Lydia Chukovskaya, has described how writers would memorize one another's works. Akhmatova would write out a poem on a scrap of paper. A visitor would read it—and Akhmatova would burn the paper. 'It was,' according to Chukovskaya, 'like a ritual. Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.' Mandelstam died in a prison camp in 1938. Had his handling of rhyme, metre and other formal devices been less perfect, his widow might have been unable to preserve his work in her memory and much might have been lost.

Russian poetry has, again and again, been forced to return to its oral origins. This is most evident of all with regard to the Gulag. There are many accounts of how people survived, and helped their fellow prisoners to survive, through reciting poetry. The poet and ethnographer, Nina Gagen-Torn, has written how, in 1937, she and a cellmate were between them able to recite most of Nikolay Nekrasov's Russian Women, a poem of at least two thousand lines about two aristocratic women who, in 1826, chose to follow their husbands—participants in the failed 'Decembrist' rebellion—to exile in Siberia. Ten years later, imprisoned for a second time but with no one in her cell to help her remember this poem, Gagen-Torn recited Blok, Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelstam, Gumilyov, and Tyutchev. Every day her cellmates would ask her to recite more. Afterwards, it was—in her words—'as if someone had cleaned the dust from the window with a damp sponge—everybody's eyes now seemed clearer.' Gagen-Torn goes on to reflect on the role of rhythm: 'The shamans knew that rhythm gives one power over spirits. He who had power over rhythm in the magic dance would become a shaman, an intermediary between spirits and people; he who lacked this power would fly head over heels into madness. Poetry, like the shaman's bells, leads people into the spaces of "the seventh sky".'

The greatest of all works about the Gulag is Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, a long cycle of stories set in Kolyma, a vast area in the far northeast of the USSR. Through most of the Stalin era this was, in effect, a mini-State run by the NKVD. 'Athenian Nights,' one of the Kolyma Tales, begins with a discussion of what the Renaissance humanist Thomas More saw as the four essential human needs—for food and sex, and to be able to urinate and defecate. After referring to the need for verse as a fifth such need, Shalamov describes a series of late-evening meetings, during his last, relatively tolerable, years in the Gulag between 1949 and 1951. When he was on night duty in a camp hospital, he and two other medical assistants—all still prisoners—regularly spent two or three hours together, sharing all the poetry they could recall; these meetings are the 'Athenian Nights' of the story's title. Remarkably, the 'anthology' they compiled even included an early version of Akhmatova's 'Poem without a Hero,' a long poem first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s; one of the other prisoners, a former scriptwriter, had been sent a copy by a friend. The Kolyma Notebooks, the five poem-cycles Shalamov wrote during these years, constitute a short critical anthology of world literature in themselves. There are poems not only about all the most important Russian poets but also about Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and the Song of Roland. In one poem Shalamov describes himself as constructing another Inferno 'out of thin air', with no tools but a pencil and notebook. He evidently owed his survival, at least in part, to his creative power, to the command of rhythm that, as Gagen-Torn tells us, gave him 'power over spirits.'

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Saturday, 11 October 2014

Anna Karenina – the devil in the details

Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven's Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It's all about the detail.

Take chapter eight of Part Six. By this stage of the novel, Anna and Vronsky have returned from their sojourn in Italy and have retreated to the country, having been ostracised by St Petersburg high society. Levin and Kitty are also spending the summer in the country, surrounded by family and friends, and in one of the novel's most charming interludes, spread over six chapters, Levin takes two of his house guests and their dogs on a snipe-hunting trip in the marshes. Before they start out, Tolstoy lovingly describes what they are all wearing. The nouveau-riche young upstart Vasenka Veslovsky is clearly not at home in the countryside, but has gone to some trouble to look the part, appearing in a pair of expensive new boots that reach half-way up his plump thighs, a stylish green smock and a fashionable Scotch cap with trailing ribbons. The old world aristocrat Stiva Oblonsky, by contrast, looks like a tramp: torn trousers, short coat, the remnants of a hat on his head, while on his feet – well, what exactly is he wearing on his feet? How does the translator cope with porshni and podvertki, the two words Tolstoy uses to complete his vivid picture of Oblonsky's scruffy apparel? Both words are drawn from colloquial peasant vocabulary and present a challenge to the conscientious translator wishing to emulate the author's precision in describing Oblonsky's effortless shabby chic, which he combines with a state-of-the-art firearm (as the hapless Veslovsky enviously notes for future reference).
Constance Garnett, whose translation of the novel was published in 1901, has him shod in "rough leggings and spats", the latter word being an abbreviation for "spatterdashes",(either short cloth gaiters covering the instep and ankle, or long leather ones). In 1918, Louise and Aylmer Maude inverted the word order and gave Oblonsky "raw hide shoes [and] bands of linen wound round his feet instead of socks" (similar to the "rough leggings and raw-hide shoes" in Rosemary Edmonds's 1954 translation). Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky settled on "brogues and leggings" in 2000, while Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, translators of the most recent 2008 version, opt for "putties and rawhide shoes". Brogues were originally rough leather peasant shoes of Gallic origin whose perforations allowed the water to drain while the wearer crossed bogs, but it is surely the smart modern shoes with ornamental perforated patterns that will be summoned up in the reader's imagination first. Puttees, which derive from the Hindi word for band or bandage, are strips of cloth wound round the leg from ankle to knee for protection, and have an undeniable association with the Raj.
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Friday, 10 October 2014

Ulyana Lopatkina - Biography

Ulyana Lopatkina is a renowned ballet dancer and the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg. She has received numerous awards and prizes and is known throughout the world.

Ulyana Lopatkina was born in Ukraine, in the small city of Kerch on 23 October 1973. Her father was a production manager at a shipbuilding facility and her mother was an economist.

When Ulyana was small, her parents decided to send her to an artistic gymnastics and a dancing group. Ulyana’s mother wanted her daughter to become a ballerina and went to great lengths to fulfill her life-long dream.

Ulyana’s interest in ballet developed quite suddenly - she was fascinated by photographs of legendary ballet dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya and Galina Ulanova. Young Ulyana fell in love with the striking beauty of the holds, the graceful movements and the airy tutus and gowns. But looking at the pictures was not enough for the future ballerina and she spent days reading avidly about ballet and studying the biographies of famous choreographers such as Didlo and Glushkovsky. Enthusiasm of this sort yielded fruit – Ulyana decided to try out for a choreography school.

When Ulyana was 10 she moved to St. Petersburg by herself. Her mother completely supported her daughter’s desire to become a ballet dancer and was probably aware of the long-term advantage the sacrifice would create, but Ulyana’s father was horrified to think of his daughter leaving her home in Ukraine at such a young age. Still, the girl left Kerch in search of her dreams.

In Saint Petersburg Ulyana passed the entrance examination at the Vaganova Academy, but her future teachers were not particularly impressed by her abilities. The verdict of the admission board was not flattering - Ulyana had quite an average faculty for ballet. The evaluation affected Ulyana greatly – she shrank into herself and became reserved, fearing she might be expelled at any moment. She always tried to be the best and remembers that once she danced with a high fever; her eyes were streaming and she felt sick, but she said nothing to her teacher, as she could not stand the thought of someone else dancing in her place.

Ulyana was in luck’s way; all her teachers were talented and vivid personalities. During her last two years of school she studied with Natalia Dudinskaya. The professor and the pupil did not always manage to arrive at an understanding: Ulyana was a strong-willed student and did not agree with her teachers; their standards often failed to satisfy her.

Ulyana lived in a boarding school and was desperately homesick, but she was determined to become at least a prima ballerina. In her free time Ulyana loved to draw. This hobby grew into a favorite pastime even after she finished the choreography school.

In 1990 Ulyana, an intermediate level student at the time, participated in the Vaganova-Prix contest. She performed the part of the Queen of Water from the ballet “Konyok-Gorbunok” (нужен перевод названия балета, тем более это достаточно известный балет), a “Silfida” variation and a pas de deux from the second act of “Giselle” with Alexander Mishchenko. Ulyana took first prize. Only then did her professors finally understand that the girl they considered to be “nothing out of the ordinary” was indeed a highly gifted young ballerina.

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Leningrad: Siege and Symphony

The Siege of Leningrad, the pitiless epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement of the Soviet Union’s second city, is a story that has drawn many chroniclers — each with a special kind of bravery to attempt a fresh recounting. Brian Moynahan’s entry point is the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the starving and brutalized city on Aug. 9, 1942, Day 335 of the siege and “perhaps the most magnificent, and certainly the most moving, moment ever to be found in music.”

In “Leningrad: Siege and Symphony,” Moynahan weaves back and forth among descriptions of the battlefield around Leningrad, the horror visited upon the starving city, and the galvanizing and piercing work of music Shostakovich wrote to honor his home town (now called St. Petersburg). The first two movements were written before Shostakovich and his immediate family were evacuated in October 1941 to a city on the Volga, and the complete score was flown back in nine months later, the pilot skimming Lake Ladoga to avoid detection by German fighters.

The symphony had been performed in Moscow, London and New York before it returned to Leningrad, where it was played by a makeshift orchestra of emaciated musicians for an audience whose “stick-insect limbs” were hidden beneath their prewar finery. “The Seventh might have been performed better in some places but never has it been performed the way we played,” said an orchestra leader. The radio broadcast was carried by propaganda loudspeaker to the front lines and heard by Russian and German troops alike. The music proclaimed that the city Hitler had planned to level instead endured.

The piece came to embody Soviet valor and sanctify the wartime anti-Nazi alliance. “The allies wanted, badly, to believe in the Russians, in their survival, and in their decency,” Moynahan writes. “Leningrad still lived, and fought, and, in drowning out the mechanical squeal and clang of the enemy’s tank tracks in a creative storm of music, it seemed to the anxious watchers to confirm Russia’s resilience and humanity.”

Moynahan, an English journalist and historian, is a vivid writer, and his account bulges with the reminiscences and contemporaneous accounts of participants; the accumulation of individual experience sears his narrative while sometimes threatening to overwhelm it. He reaches into the guts of the city to extract some humanity from the blood and darkness, and at its best “Leningrad” captures the heartbreak, agony and small salvations in both death and survival.

After launching the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis had by mid-September cut off the last land route out of Leningrad. The German advance was relentless, and Soviet resistance was often futile, but in the mountains of Soviet dead, and with the arrival of the Russian winter, the seeds of the Nazi defeat, still four years away, became visible. Moyna­han’s descriptions of the battlefield, which also draw from the diaries of the cold, lice-ridden, hungry combatants, are haunting.

Life inside the city deteriorated as food stocks dwindled to near-nothing. Moynahan depicts all the raw desperation — the willingness to eat anything, including, in some cases, human flesh. “And from its depths, the wails ‘Bread!’ rising up to the seventh heaven,” the poet Anna Akhmatova wrote. “But this firmament is without mercy. And from all the windows, death looks out.”

The residents were traumatized not only by the German bombing and shelling, as well as hunger and despair, but by the terror of the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB. Moynahan sometimes lingers too long on the interrogation transcripts of prisoners held for alleged defeatism, espionage and other mostly fabricated sins. Here, and in some other parts, the book could have been strengthened by some judicious slimming.

The thinnest weave in Moynahan’s construction is Shostakovich himself. For long stretches he vanishes from the story, and I never quite felt I understood him, perhaps because he was dwarfed in the narrative by the scenes of battle and the agony of the city on its deathbed.

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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Galina Ustvolskaya - Composition №1 'Dona mobis pacem'

Music under Soviet rule: Galina Ustvolskaya

Until very recently, the music of reclusive St Petersburg composer Galina Ustvolskaya (born 17th June 1919) had hardly been heard in Russia, let alone in the West. Five years ago, it was impossible to obtain any of it on compact disc; indeed only two of her works had been recorded in the Soviet Union by 1970 and these were known solely to connoisseurs of the nether regions of the Melodiya catalogue. Ironically both of these pieces have since been repudiated by the composer.

Things began to change in 1992-3 with the earliest foreign recordings and the simultaneous appearance of the first Western documentation of her controversial relationship with Shostakovich. To date, Ustvolskaya's compact discography shows her to be an artist of stubborn self-will uniquely unsuited to a career in the Soviet music service. Quite apart from its individual integrity, her work is driven by a spiritual ideal which would have placed her in diametrical opposition to the Communist state.

For one reason or another, the pursuit of her personal vision excluded Ustvolskaya from mainstream musical life in the USSR. Her music was performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival during the late Fifties but, at home, she tended to be bracketed with Andrei Volkonsky (a cosmopolitan enfant terrible modernist) as largely beyond the pale. Not that this exclusion was total. For example, her Violin Sonata of 1952 seems to have been officially adopted as a token of the acceptable face of Soviet modernism, being played in 1958 to a visiting American delegation (including the composer Roy Harris who found it "kind of ugly") and trotted out again in 1962 to a party headed by Stravinsky, Robert Craft, and Nicolas Slonimsky. Nor was Ustvolskaya otherwise quite as heroically neglected as some Western idealists have fondly hoped.

Here, as in other aspects of foreign acquaintance with Soviet life, misapprehensions abound. For example, Mark Swed's liner note for David Arden's disc on Koch attempts to portray Shostakovich as an evasive "neurotic" scared openly to challenge the Socialist Realist status quo, as compared with the supposedly uncompromising Ustvolskaya, who was allegedly always "direct and boldly dramatic" and whose art "pulls no punches". Taking a similar line in his notes to Reinbert de Leeuw's hatART CD, Art Lange claims "no evidence of Ustvolskaya compromising with the Party line - she never stooped to writing secular cantatas or programmatically accessible music for theatre or films, or to using recognizable folk material in glibly popular ways".

Had Ustvolskaya really maintained such a stand throughout her career, she would have been unique in the world of Soviet music (not to mention uniquely hungry, in that she would have had no income). In fact the truth, like Soviet reality, was harder than most Western pundits are used to imagining. Ustvolskaya, like any other artist in the USSR needed to live, and to live she had to come to an arrangement with the state.

A more informed commentator, Boris Schwarz, observed in 1972 (Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, p. 404) that while Ustvolskaya's Violin Sonata was then regarded as "proof that modernism can survive and coexist with Socialist Realism", the truth was that "her dissonant writing is counterbalanced by some perfectly charming pieces in the best Socialist Realist tradition". Among these "charming" pieces are some occasional cantatas - Stepan Razin's Dream (1948), Hail, Youth! (1950), Dawn Over The Homeland (1952), Man From The High Mountains (1952), Song of Praise (1961) - and several symphonic poems, includingYoung Pioneers (1950), Children's Suite (1955), The Hero's Exploit (1957), Sports (1958), and Fire on the Steppes (1958). There are also a number of songs and even some cinema music.

The existence of these works is no scandal in itself. Every other "Soviet" composer has similar embarrassing necessities to his or her name. True, Ustvolskaya packed an unusual quantity of these monstrosities into the early part of her career - she seems to have offered up more sops to the Soviet state in one decade than Shostakovich did in five - yet the scorching intensity of her personal "for the drawer" composing is more than sufficient to show that she can only have submitted to these compromises because she had to. Moreover in Ustvolskaya's case there remains a special point of interest. The reason why Mark Swed, Art Lange, and other Western commentators have overlooked her many reluctant contributions to Socialist Realism is that, unlike Shostakovich, who kept his forced concessions in his opus list for all to see, Ustvolskaya has chosen to eliminate hers in order to keep her oeuvre ostensibly pure.

Speaking of her Clarinet Trio of 1949, the composer has said that "all my music from this composition onward is 'spiritual' in nature". Whatever else this implies, it means that all but one of the ten manifestly unspiritual works listed above are, by definition, not her music. This is both understandable and fair. No one of creative spirit wishes to dwell on hackwork done under political duress - and nor should they be made to. (The fact that, until recently, the Children's Suite and Fire on the Steppes were the only works of Ustvolskaya which Melodiya deemed worthy of recording must have added insult to injury, notwithstanding the much-needed roubles accruing to her thereby.)

What remains significant is that the composer could so little tolerate sullying her list with these pieces that she took the quasi-Stalinist step of erasing them from her personal history. A reflection of her fierce intensity of spirit, this simultaneously reveals a streak of absolutism which, by all accounts, functions naively in her personal dealings. She nurses ethical standards of an unworldly exaltedness, breaks off relationships at the merest hint of bad faith, and is in general as elusive and unbending as her music suggests. While not conventionally introverted, hers is the work of an artist travelling relentlessly into the heart of a private vision, with no distracted (or forgiving) glances in any other direction - a sort of musical edition of Simone Weil.

It is not difficult to imagine the disgust someone of Ustvolskaya's temperament must have felt at having to filthy her hands with concessions to the Soviet Communist Party. Referring to her slab-like sonorities delivered with piledriving staccato attack, Dutch critic Elmer Schoenberger has called her "the lady with the hammer". Perhaps more accurate would be "the lady with the flail". The puritanical lashing fury of her music often suggests the image of Christ flogging the moneylenders from the temple, while several writers have remarked on the "Old Testament" vengefulness they hear in her work. There is a pounding masculinity in many of Ustvolskaya's scores - few men, let alone women, have written music as violent as this - which bespeaks an affinity more for Jehovah than for Jesus, for the railing prophets of the Exile rather than the Gospel message of love. (Not entirely coincidentally, she dislikes having her music performed by women.)

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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Vasily Grossman’s fate: From Stalingrad and Armenia to the West

The translation of Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook, by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, was included in the shortlist for this year’s Read Russia Prize. A memoir written during a trip to Armenia in the early 1960s, the book is an unusually personal perspective on his journey through the country, offering reflections on its people and landscapes as well as nationalism and illness.

An Armenian Sketchbook, an account of a trip Vasily Grossman made to Armenia in the early 1960s, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, was made one of the nominees for this year’s Read Russia Prize, which is awarded for the best translations of Russian literature into foreign languages. The most recent translation of Vasily Grossman’s works by the pair, An Armenian Sketchbook (New York Review Books Classics, 2013) is a short memoir written in early 1962 that was not published during Grossman’s lifetime, and which translator Robert Chandler believes offers a rare glimpse into the writer’s inner world.

“There is not a lot of reliable information about Grossman’s life,” says Chandler, who explains that this account of the two months Grossman spent in Armenia in late 1961 is of particular interest since it is his only autobiographical work.  “From it we get a clear sense of Grossman’s sense of humor, of his reluctance to take himself too seriously, and of his constant curiosity about other people,” says Chandler of An Armenian Sketchbook, which also features “vivid evocations” of the country’s barren landscape, “lucid, witty discussions of nationalism,” a description of a village wedding, and what Chandler describes as “several unforgettable pages about a night when Grossman thought he was dying.” 

Russian writer Vasily Grossman (1905 – 1964) was little-known to British audiences until 2011, when a BBC drama serial based on Grossman's epic novel of Stalingrad, Life and Fate (1959), aired on Radio 4. After that, the novel, first translated to English by Robert Chandler in 1985, became a huge success in the UK, topping Amazon’s bestseller list at one point. Military historian Antony Beevor has named Life and Fate, whose manuscript was confiscated by Soviet authorities in February 1961, the best Russian novel of the 20th century. One of possible reasons reason for the ban on the book’s publication was the unprecedented honesty and courage of the author, who wrote about the Second World War not in the polished, patriotic style of many accounts, but instead poured out all the truth about the hardships and bitterness of life at war. In 1941, Grossman, already 36 at the time, worked as a war correspondent, dispatching articles straight from the front about the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. His novel People are Immortal was among the first and still the best first-hand accounts of the historical feat of the Soviet people.

“Vasily Grossman was a man of unusual courage, both physically and morally,” Robert Chandler said to RBTH. “He spent longer than any other Soviet journalist in the thick of the fighting on the right bank of the Volga, in the ruins being fought over building by building and even room by room. And then, within months of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, he was writing some of the first articles and stories published in any language about the Shoah. His mother – to whom he later dedicated Life and Fate – was one of the 12,000 Jews shot by the Nazis in a massacre outside the town of Berdichev.”

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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lyudmila Ulitskaya - The Weight of Words

About three-quarters of the way through Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, “The Big Green Tent,” set in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, a character named Mikha stays up all night reading. In the morning, when he arrives at work late, overemotional from the night of reading and from the discovery that his colleagues have covered for him, Mikha is compelled to share his reading with an older co-worker. It is a set of photographs of manuscripts that could not be published in the Soviet Union, and one look at it is enough for the older man to grasp the gravity of the crime that is being confessed. He reports Mikha to the authorities, setting in motion a series of events that will end Mikha’s career and, ultimately, his life.

Back when many books were banned in the Soviet Union, books had that kind of power. The official publishing houses printed vast quantities of a tiny selection of titles. The underground canon—the samizdat—was also small, chosen nearly at random with questionable literary taste and eclectic political beliefs: retyped manuscripts of recently written unpublishable books; facsimile copies of rediscovered books from an earlier, freer era; and printed volumes smuggled into the country by proselytizers of various kinds. In another scene in “The Big Green Tent,” which will be published in the United States next year, a character comes across an entire discarded home library of unapproved books and discovers, to her disappointment, that she has already read all of them—meaning that she has read these physical copies, which once belonged to the parents of a friend.

A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon. Ulitskaya is fascinated by these transformations, but even more so by the peculiar trajectories that create fate—the travels of a person, a picture, a book. If there is a strange journey to be traced, she cannot resist the retelling. On a warm July Saturday afternoon in Moscow, she gave a talk about an anthology of pieces devoted to the memory of the dissident poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, her lifelong friend, who died last year. She noted Gorbanevskaya’s political activism and the persecution she faced. Gorbanevskaya was first arrested at the age of twenty, for associating with people who protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary, in 1956. She spent two years in a psychiatric hospital for daring to document the dissident movement, having helped found a newsletter that tracked arrests and dissident activities. In 1975, she was forced to emigrate. But the focus of Ulitskaya’s talk was Gorbanevskaya’s nonlinear private life. The poet never married but, like her mother, adopted a girl; she also had two biological sons. Both of her sons had children out of wedlock before marrying women who were not the children’s mothers. It fell to Gorbanevskaya to create connections among all these people. “She made friends of everyone; she made everyone love one another,” Ulitskaya said, and an extended family took shape. She died a happy death, sudden and peaceful. But she was penniless. As one of her sons sat in her Paris apartment trying to figure out how to pay for her burial, a friend’s widower called to offer his condolences—and ended up offering a cemetery plot as well, which he had bought for himself before remarrying. “And so she lies next to her friend, in a gifted grave,” Ulitskaya concluded.

It’s a great story. It also showcases the human qualities that Ulitskaya seems to prize most: personal loyalty—not to be confused with niceness, which Gorbanevskaya did not possess—and a boundless capacity for inclusion. Ulitskaya speaks of her friend with admiration as if for a member of a higher caste. “I wasn’t a dissident,” she explains. “I was a girl who washed the dishes in the kitchen while they talked. I remember all of them, but hardly any of them remembered me.” Now, at seventy-one, she has become a voice of moral authority for differently minded Russians, and one of Russia’s most famous writers.

In recent years, as Russia has grown politically repressive and culturally conservative, Ulitskaya’s fiction, which addresses both religion and politics, has moved in for a confrontation. Increasingly, Ulitskaya has also become a public intellectual. During the anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012, Ulitskaya joined the board of the League of Voters, which tried to coördinate and direct the disparate components of the protests. She continued speaking out even after the protests were crushed; by the end of this past summer, she, along with a handful of other writers and a couple of musicians, had been branded a traitor for her opposition to the war in Ukraine. The musicians in the group have had their concerts cancelled all over the country. The writers’ punishment may be slower in coming, but already Ulitskaya is the object of regular assaults by Kremlin mouthpieces in such venues as the newspaper Izvestia, which apes the rhetoric used against writers who were excommunicated by Soviet authorities, half a century ago. Like some of those writers, she is widely read outside Russia. She has amassed many of Europe’s most prestigious literary prizes, even as she has come under attack at home.

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