Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Marina Tsvetaeva: New Year: An Elegy for Rilke


happy new year—happy new light, new world—happy new edge, new realm—happy new haven!
a first letter to you in the next—
the place where nothing ever happens
(barely even bluffing ever happens), place where roughing,
rushing ever happens, like Aeolus’s empty tower.
a first letter to you from yesterday’s
homeland, now noland without you,
now already one of the
stars... and this law of leaving and left, cleaving
and cleft,
this claw by which my beloved becomes a name on a list
(oh him? from ’26?),
and the has-beens transform to the unhappened.
shall I tell you how I found out?
not an earthquake, not an avalanche.
a guy came over—just anyone (you’re my one):
“really, a regrettable loss. it’s in the Times today.
will you write an article for him?” where?
“in the mountains.” (the window opening onto fir branches.
the bedsheet.) “don’t you read the papers?
and won’t you write the obit?” no. “but—” spare me.
aloud: too hard. silently: I won’t betray my Christ.
“in a sanatorium.” (heaven for hire.)
what day? “yesterday, day before yesterday, I don’t remember.
you going to the Alcazar later?” no.
aloud: family stuff. silently: anything but Judas.


here’s to the coming year! (you were born tomorrow!)
shall I tell you what I did when I found out about—
oops... no, no, I misspoke. bad habit.
I’ve been putting quotation marks around life and death for a while now,
like the empty stories we weave. wittingly.
well, I didn’t do anything. but something did
happen, happened shadowless and echoless,
now, how was the trip?
how did it tear, did you bear, did it burst
your heart asunder? astride the finest Orlov racehorses
(they keep up, you said, with the eagles)
was your very breath taken, or worse?
was it sweet? no heights, no falls for you,
you flew on real Russian eagles,
you. we have blood ties with that world and with the light:
it happened here, in Rus, the world and light
matured on us. the rush is up and running.
I say life and death with a smirk,
hidden, so you’ll kiss me to find out.
I say life and death with a footnote,
an asterisk (a star, the night I long for,
fuck the cerebral hemisphere,
I want the stars).


now don’t forget, my dear, my friend,
if I use Russian letters
instead of German ones, it’s not because
they say that these days anything will do,
not because beggars can’t be choosers,
not because a dead man is a poor one,
he’ll eat anything, he won’t even blink.
no, it’s because that world, that light—
can I call it “ours”?—it isn’t languageless.
when I was thirteen, in the Novodevichy monastery,
I understood: it’s pre-Babelian.
all the tongues in one.
anguish. you will never ask me again
how to say “nest” in Russian.
the sole nest, whole nest, nothing but the nest—
sheltering a Russian rhyme with the stars.
do I seem distracted? no, impossible,
no such thing as distraction from you.
every thought—every, Du Lieber,
syllable—leads to you, no matter what,
(oh to hell with the native Russian tongue, with German,
I want the tongue of an angel) there is no place,
no nest, without you, oh wait there is, just one. your grave.
everything’s changed, nothing’s changed.
you won’t forg—I mean, not about me—?
what’s it like there, Rainer, how are you feeling?
insistent, surefire, cocksure,
how does a poet’s first sighting of the Universe
square with his last glance at this planet,
this planet you got only once?
the poet gone from his ashes, spirit left the body
(to split the two would be to sin),
and you gone from yourself, you gone from you,
no better to be Zeus-born,
Castor ripped—you from yourself—from Pollux,
marble rent—you from yourself—from the earth,
no separation and no meeting, just
a confrontation, the meeting and the separation
how could you see your own hand well enough to write,
to look at the trace—on your hand—of ink,
from your perch on high, miles away (how many miles?),
your perch of endless, because startless, heights,
well above the crystal of the Mediterranean
and other saucers.
everything’s changed, nothing will change
as far as I’m concerned, here on the outskirts.
everything’s changed, nothing is changing—
though I don’t know how to send this extra week’s letter
to my correspondant—and where do I look now,
leaning on the rim of a lie—if not from this to that,
if not from that to this. suffering this. long suffering this.


I live in Bellevue. a little city
of nests and branches. exchanging glances with the guide:
Bellevue. the fortress with the perfect view
of Paris—the chamber with the Gallic chimera—
of Paris—and further still...
leaning on the scarlet rim,
how funny they should be to you (to whom?),
(to me!) they must be funny, funny, from fathomless heights,
these Bellevues and these Belvederes of ours!
I’m listless. losing it. the particulars. urgency.
the new year’s knocking at the door. what can I drink to?
and with whom? and what indeed to drink? instead of champagne bubbles
I’ll take these wads of cotton into my mouth. there, the stroke—God,
what am I doing here? what auspices—what am I supposed to do,
this new year’s noise—your death echoes, Rainer, it echoes and it rhymes.
if such an eye as you has shut,
then this life isn’t life, and death’s not death,
it’s dimming, slipping away, I’ll catch it when we meet.
no life, no death, okay so some third thing,
a new one. I’ll drink to that (spreading straw,
strewing flowers for the 1927th thing,
bye 1926, what a joy, Rainer, ending
and beginning with you!), I’ll lean across
this table to you, this table so big no end in sight,
I’ll clink your glass with mine, a little clink,
my glass on yours. not tavern style!
me on you, flowing together, us giving the rhyme,
the third rhyme.
I’m looking across the table at your cross:
how many places on the margins, how much space
on the edge! and for whom would the shrubbery sway,
if not for us? so many places—our places,
and no one else’s! so much foliage! all yours!
your places with me (your places with you).
(what would I do with you at a rally?
we could talk?) so much space—and I want time,
months, weeks—rainy suburbs
without people! I want mornings with you, Rainer,
I want to begin the mornings with you,
so the nightingales don’t get there first.
it’s probably hard for me to see because I’m down in a hole.
it’s probably easier for you because you’re up on high.
you know, nothing ever really happened between us.
nothing so purely and simply nothing,
this nothing that happened, so apt—
look, I won’t go into detail.
nothing except—wait for the beat,
this could be big (first one to miss
the beat loses the game)—here it comes,
the beat, which coming beat
could have been you?
the beat doesn’t stop. refrain, refrain.
nothing except that something
somehow became nothingness—a shadow of something
became its shade. nothing, that is to say, that hour,
that day, that home—and that mouth, oh, granted
courtesy of memory to the condemned.
Rainer, did we scrutinize too hard?
after all, what’s left: that light, that world
belonged to us. we’re a reflection of ourselves.
instead of all of this—that whole light world. our names.

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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A light in a dark place: Great works of culture created in the Gulag

Among the thousands of political prisoners sent to Soviet Gulags, there were many of those who belonged to creative professions – writers, poets, musicians and artists – who secretly continued with their artistic pursuits.

Doing anything creative, like drawing or keeping notes, was strictly forbidden, to say nothing of attempts to smuggle anything out of the camps. RBTH has compiled a list of the most significant works of art, music and literature that were created in Soviet prison camps and miraculously survived to become known and remembered by modern generations.

24 Preludes and Fugues for the piano by Vsevolod Zaderatsky

The 24 Preludes and Fugues piano cycle was composed by Vsevolod Zaderatsky at a Gulag camp in the region of Kolyma in the Russian Far East in 1937-39. “He managed to find time and scribble his compositions on whatever scraps of paper he could find,” the composer’s son recalled.

“My father had a very neat handwriting, which helped. Sometimes guards gave him paper too because they valued him as a storyteller. He was like a TV set for them,” he said. The world premiere of the cycle took place 75 years after it was composed, at the Moscow Conservatory on Dec. 14.

Poems and plays in verse by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn wrote his world-famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago after he had served his term in the Gulag (1945-1953): While in prison, he had no opportunity to work on long prose.

However, in the labor camp, using just small scraps of paper, he composed and learnt by heart (with the help of a rosary he had made himself) several poems and plays in verses: Dorozhenka (‘Little Road’), Plenniki (‘Prisoners’), and Pir Pobeditelei (‘Victors’ Feast’).

As Solzhenitsyn himself wrote in Part V of The Gulag Archipelago, by the end of his prison term, he held some 12,000 lines of poetry in his head. However, Solzhenitsyn decided to publish that early poetry only after he turned 80.

“Those works were my breathing, my life at the time. They helped me to survive,” he explained.

‘Kolyma Notebooks’ by Varlam Shalamov

Shalamov served two terms in prison camps, in 1929-1932 and in 1943–1951. The first was in the northern Urals, while the second, and far more horrendous, was in Kolyma.

It was there, in 1949, after he had managed to escape hard labor to work as a medical attendant at a hospital for inmates, that he began to write the poetry that became the foundation of the future Kolyma Notebooks.

Having read them in 1956 in samizdat, Solzhenitsyn, as he himself later recalled, “trembled as if I had met a brother.”

Boris Pasternak too had a very high opinion of Shalamov’s Kolyma Notebooks.
However, Kolyma Tales, a tough and uncompromising account of life in the camps, once again turned Shalamov into an outcast and an alien for the literary establishment.

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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Vladimir Nabokov: The Christmas Story

Silence fell. Pitilessly illuminated by the lamplight, young and plump-faced, wearing a side-buttoned Russian blouse under his black jacket, his eyes tensely downcast, Anton Golïy began gathering the manuscript pages that he had discarded helter-skelter during his reading. His mentor, the critic from Red Reality, stared at the floor as he patted his pockets in search of some matches. The writer Novodvortsev was silent too, but his was a different, venerable, silence. Wearing a substantial pince-nez, exceptionally large of forehead, two strands of his sparse dark hair pulled across his bald pate, gray streaks on his close-cropped temples, he sat with closed eyes as if he were still listening, his heavy legs crossed and one hand compressed between a kneecap and a hamstring. This was not the first time he had been subjected to such glum, earnest rustic fictionists. And not the first time he had detected, in their immature narratives, echoes—not yet noted by the critics—of his own twenty-five years of writing; for Golïy’s story was a clumsy rehash of one of his subjects, that of The Verge, a novella he had excitedly and hopefully composed, whose publication the previous year had done nothing to enhance his secure but pallid reputation.
The critic lit a cigarette. Golïy, without raising his eyes, was stuffing his manuscript into his briefcase. But their host kept his silence, not because he did not know how to evaluate the story, but because he was waiting, meekly and drearily, in the hope that the critic might perhaps say the words that he, Novodvortsev, was embarrassed to pronounce: that the subject was Novodvortsev’s, that it was Novodvortsev who had inspired the image of that taciturn fellow, selflessly devoted to his laborer grandfather, who, not by dint of education, but rather through some serene, internal power wins a psychological victory over the spiteful intellectual. But the critic, hunched on the edge of the leather couch like a large, melancholy bird, remained hopelessly silent.
Realizing yet again that he would not hear the hoped-for words, and trying to concentrate his thoughts on the fact that, after all, it was to him and not Neverov that the aspiring author had been brought for an opinion, Novodvortsev repositioned his legs, inserted his other hand between them, said with a businesslike tone, “Now, then,” and, with a glance at the vein that had swelled on Golïy’s forehead, began speaking in a quiet, even voice. He said the story was solidly constructed, that one felt the power of the Collective in the place where the peasants start building a school with their own means, that, in the description of Pyotr’s love for Anyuta there might be imperfections of style, but one heard the call of spring and of a wholesome lust—and, all the while as he talked, he kept remembering for some reason how he had written recently to this same critic, to remind him that his twenty-fifth anniversary as an author would fall in January, but that he emphatically requested that no festivities be organized given that his years of dedicated work for the Union were not yet over….
As for your intellectual, you didn’t get him right,” he was saying. “There is no real sense of his being doomed….”
The critic still said nothing. He was a red-haired man, skinny and decrepit, rumored to be ill with consumption, but in reality probably healthy as a bull. He had replied, also by letter, that he approved of Novodvortsev’s decision, and that had been the end of it. He must have brought Golïy by way of secret compensation…. Novodvortsev suddenly felt so sad—not hurt, just sad—that he stopped short and started wiping his lenses with his handkerchief, revealing quite kindly eyes.
The critic rose. “Where are you off to? It’s still early,” said Novodvortsev, but he got up too. Anton Golïy cleared his throat and pressed his briefcase to his side.
He will become a writer, there’s no doubt about it,” said the critic with indifference, roaming about the room and stabbing the air with his spent cigarette. Humming, with a raspy sound, through his teeth, he drooped over the desk, then stood for a time by anétagère where a respectable edition of Das Kapital dwelt between a tattered volume of Leonid Andreyev and a nameless tome with no binding; finally, with the same stooping gait, he approached the window and drew the blue blind aside.
Drop in sometime,” Novodvortsev was meanwhile saying to Anton Golïy, who bowed jerkily and then squared his shoulders with a swagger. “When you’ve written something more, bring it on over.”
Heavy snowfall,” said the critic, releasing the blind. “By the way, today is Christmas Eve.”
He began rummaging listlessly for his coat and hat.
In the old days, on this date you and your confrères would be churning out Christmas copy….”
Not I,” said Novodvortsev.
The critic chuckled. “Pity. You ought to do a Christmas story. New-style.”
Anton Golïy coughed into his fist. “Back home we once had—“ he began in a hoarse bass, then cleared his throat again.
I’m being serious,” continued the critic, climbing into his coat. “One can devise something very clever…. Thanks, but it’s already—“
Back home,” Anton Golïy said, “We once had. A teacher. Who. Took it into his head. To do a Christmas tree for the kids. On top he stuck. A red star.”
No that won’t quite do,” said the critic. “It’s a little heavy-handed for a small story. You can put a keener edge on it. Struggle between two different worlds. All against a snowy background.”
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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Russian Booker Prize winner Vladimir Sharov: A novel is like a child

Russian writer and essayist Vladimir Sharov, 62, made his debut as a poet back in 1979. With his big white beard, the author bears an uncanny resemblance to Leo Tolstoy. His books are imbued with biblical motifs and attempts at rethinking Russian history.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: What does it mean to you to receive the Russian Booker Prize?

Vladimir Sharov: For me, the prize is an opportunity to be read by a much larger number of people. It will be a lot easier to form relationships with Russian and foreign publishers, because they equate receiving a prize to having a wide readership. It will also be easier to form relationships with translators, and a translator is the most important thing there is for a writer. When someone else works almost at your rate, rhythm and immersion in the text, it gives you the opportunity to simply live.

RBTH: Can you briefly explain to foreign readers what your novel “Return to Egypt” is about and how you arrived at the plot?

V.S.: At some point, I started to think that the entirety of Russian life and history in the 20th century, and even in the second half of the 19th century, was an attempt to finish Dead Souls – the second part that Nikolai Gogol burned and the third one that was never written. There were attempts by writers, and later attempts by the authorities, which ended with an enormous amount of blood and much else besides.

That became people’s understanding of Gogol – people who were distanced from him by two or three generations, who saw and lived through many things. 

RBTH: Would it be fair to say that your work – particularly “Return to Egypt” – is only for intellectuals, rather than everyone?

V.S.: It’s hard for me to say. When someone is writing a novel they possess a certain amount of power within its bounds. But once a novel is published, the author is the last person who matters. And I think that they shouldn’t even comment on the text. They should just listen to the people who read it. There is a huge difference between what you write at the time and what you have actually written.
RBTH: Who is your readership? Do you write for anyone in particular?
V.S.: I don’t write for any particular reader. For me, the process of writing a book is an attempt to understand the things that remain obscure to me. By the end it seems that I have started to at least partially understand some things, although that feeling does fade rather quickly. It’s that kind of tool for me: if I write for anyone, it is only for myself.

But, of course, it’s always a gift to me when someone else reads my work and talks to me about it, or draws, translates, or publishes something I have written.

A novel is like a child. You understand some things about it when it is still inside you, but as soon as the umbilical cord is cut, another life begins, and you just want it to turn out well. You no longer have any control and must modestly step aside.

RBTH: Do you identify with any particular literary movement?

V.S.: For me, Andrei Platonov is most important 20th-century writer – and not just in terms of Russian literature. But whenever I really like something, I don’t want to duplicate it. I simply take a step back and admire it. I just have some questions and confusion, and I try to deal with them.
I would rather like to think that I am partially a chronicler of times I didn’t live in but am trying to restore. A huge part of that time was simply lost in the Civil War. It wasn’t recorded, put into an archive, or even burned in stoves. And, just like a hunter tracking an animal can determine what type of animal it is, or like a paleontologist can rebuild an entire animal from a bone, what I write is an attempt to restore the life not captured in the archives – simply the fluid, unwritten human life.

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Isaac Babel - Biography

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (according to the records of the Odessa Rabbinate, his real name was Isaac Manievich Bobel) was a Soviet Jewish writer, one of the few to achieve fame abroad. His best known works are the short story collections “Red Cavalry” (“Konarmiya”) and “Odessa Tales.”

Babel was known to have created myths around himself. In his autobiographic works he wrote many “facts” about his own life that contradicted official evidence. For example, in his “Autobiography,” he mentioned that he had been persecuted by Tsarist officials, but no evidence of this has been found in the Tsar’s security service documents.

Isaac Babel was born in Odessa into the family of a Jewish agricultural equipment merchant. The beginning of the 20th century was a time of social unrest and mass exodus of Jews from the Russian Empire. Babel himself was lucky to survive the 1905 Odessa pogrom, hidden by a Christian family. His grandfather was among the 300 Jews killed. To enter the preparatory class of the Odessa commercial college, Babel had to overcome the quota for Jewish students, but, despite the fact that he received passing grades, he was turned down in favor of another boy, possibly due to a bribe. Babel had to start home schooling and succeeded in completing two years of education in one. Aside from the traditional disciplines, he studied the Talmud, music and languages – he knew English, French, German and Hebrew; his first short stories were written in French. After that, he studied at a commercial college, receiving a business education and obtaining a Ph.D. in economics.

After graduating in 1915, Babel traveled to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) with a fake passport and no money. It was during this time that he met his first wife, Evgenia Gronfein, who later moved to France. He entered the fourth grade of the Faculty of Law at the Petrograd Psycho-neurologic University, which gave him the right to receive a residence permit. There he met Maxim Gorky, the famous Soviet writer and political activist, who supported the capable youth and helped him publish two of his short stories. Thus Isaac Babel began his literary career. He wrote for Gorky’s magazine The Chronicle (Letopis in Russian), which united authors who were against nationalism and World War I. His short stories were recognizable by their specific expression, acuteness and depth. Although short, his works often had a very detailed plot. The topics, though, were rather uniform: bandit Jews of pre-revolutionary Odessa, everyday life of Jews in Odessa and the Western Ukraine before the October Revolution and during the Soviet-Polish War of 1919-1921. His approach to the material for his works was rather romantic and biased; he only chose to describe the moments he himself found striking or extraordinary.

Babel then interrupted his literary activity and tried many different occupations. He worked at the People’s Commissariat for Education and in a printing office. He was also a reporter and fought in the 1st Cavalry Army (Konarmiya in Russian), the same army that lent its name to one of Babel’s most famous short story collections. Babel also served in the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage, or simply Cheka - the predecessor of the legendary KGB.

Babel made a comeback to literature in 1923. After the Civil War of 1918-1920 between the Red Army and the White Guard, his first works were about the 1st Cavalry Army, of which he had gained first-hand knowledge. His first short stories of the period appeared in 1924. They were “Salt” (“Sol”), “The Letter” (“Pismo”) and “The King” (“Korol”), and together with those written later they comprised two collections: “Red Cavalry,” published in 1926, and “Odessa Tales,” published in 1931. Babel’s works on the 1st Cavalry Army made him one of the most popular Soviet authors. The freshness of his material, taken from life revolving around the Revolution of 1917, and not yet reflected in fiction, made his short stories extremely significant. They are narrated by the reporter Lutov (the name under which Babel himself served in the Cavalry Army). However, “Red Cavalry” was received in varying degrees by Babel’s contemporaries. Critics were delighted but Semyon Budenny, the Red Cavalry commander, called it “slander” and “old wives’ tales.” Maksim Gorky tried to protect Babel from unjust criticism. “Red Cavalry” was translated into several languages, and soon Isaac Babel became one of the best-known Soviet authors abroad.

In 1928 Babel wrote the play “Sunset” (“Zakat”), thematically connected to the “Odessa Tales.” In the 1930s he tried to reflect the post-revolutionary reality in a number of new short stories. In “The End of the Poorhouse” (“Konets Bogadelni”), 1932 and “Froim the Rook” (“Froim Grach”), 1933, he described the brutal murder of Staraya Moldovanka (a street in Odessa) residents by Cheka agents. Such works did not fail to attract the unpleasant attention of the authorities. A storm cloud started to gather above the “unreliable” author. His interest in French culture and his repeated trips to Paris fueled gossip in literary circles. He was torn between France and Moscow, as his family lived abroad, and this caused the authorities even more irritation. Suspicion towards Babel increased when in 1935 he went to Paris to take part in the International Congress of Writers to Protect Culture, and, defying caution, mixed with the Russian émigrés there.

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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Doctor Zhivago, By Boris Pasternak

In his introduction to this new translation of Doctor Zhivago, Richard Pevear quotes from a letter written by Boris Pasternak in English: "living, moving reality in such a rendering must have a touch of spontaneous subjectivity, even of arbitrariness , wavering, tarrying, doubting, joining and disjoining elements". Pevear uses this quote to stress his point that Doctor Zhivago is "a highly unusual book". He argues that "to embody the 'living moving reality'", it "had necessarily to be an experimental novel".

For some reason, Pevear refuses to call it modernist, although both Pasternak's words and Pevear's own description of "a feeling of chaos, random movement, chance encounters, sudden disruptions" could very well apply to a modernist author – Virginia Woolf, for example. In the end, it's not what one calls it that matters. What is important is an acknowledgement of the unique features of the novel's structure and style, which combine to create the poet's vision of the Russian Revolution and its consequences.

Pasternak sees this great upheaval as a clash between the inhuman abstractions of a ruthless political order and the indomitable might of life-force. The surname "Zhivago" has the same root as the Russian adjective "zhivoy" –"live", "alive". This sums up the tragedy of the novel's hero, who welcomes the revolution in the hope that it will put an end to injustice, but dies in 1929, unable to live beyond "the year of the great turning-point", as Soviet textbooks would later label it.

Even in 1956, in the atmosphere of Khrushchev's "thaw", the novel was rejected by Soviet publications. However, the manuscript got out and appeared in Italian in 1957. Pasternak's Nobel Prize, in October 1958, led to his expulsion from the Writers' Union, a smear campaign in the Soviet press, and his forced refusal of the prize. This persecution precipitated his death in May 1960, and delayed the novel's publication in Russia for 30 years.

To have an English version ready in time for the award of the Nobel, the translators, Max Hayward and Manya Harari, had to work extremely fast, which led to omissions and simplifications. Moreover, the need to make the book readable often made them replace the rhythm and style of Pasternak's prose with plain, lively English which at times verged on banality.

Their version, published in August 1958, remained the only English Zhivago for 52 years. The blurb of this new translation claims that Pevear and Volokhonsky "have restored the rhythms, tone, precision and poetry of Pasternak's original". They try to follow Pasternak in everything.

Sometimes, especially where the effect depends on the rhythm of the sentence, it works well. Here is the opening: "They walked and walked and sang 'Memory Eternal', and whenever they stopped, the singing seemed to be carried on by their feet, the horses, the gusts of wind". The tone, impersonal and rhythmical, heightening everyday detail, is recognisably Pasternak's. The first sentence of the old translation could be anyone's: "On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory', and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing."

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Bringing early Chekhov to an English-speaking readership

Beloved by audiences the world over for his plays, Chekhov’s short stories are less well known outside Russia, and his earliest works – some 528 of them – have never been systematically translated into English. The prolific Russian translator Constance Garnett published 144 between 1906 and 1922, and others have since added to this tally, but no definitive anthology has yet been produced. 

These stories date from the period 1880-1888, when Chekhov was supporting his family mainly through writing, publishing in periodicals under various pseudonyms such as “Man Without a Spleen” and “My Brother’s Brother.” Often darkly comic and satirical, the stories explore profound issues of human existence without becoming judgmental. 

The Anton Chekhov Foundation’s project is the first to translate these early stories and arrange them in chronological order, allowing readers to trace the development of the writer’s style over time and providing a valuable resource for scholars and Chekhov enthusiasts. Due to the large number of stories, there are several volumes planned for publication, beginning with the very earliest works for Volume 1. 

The project was born out of the success of a week-long festival in 2010 to raise funds for the White Dacha museum in Yalta, where Chekhov lived towards the end of his life. “We were overwhelmed by the response,” says Elena Michajlowska, a trustee of the foundation, “particularly given that the festival’s program was based on the short stories and early comic vaudevilles rather than the well-known plays.” 

The idea to go back to Chekhov’s very origins and create a chronological anthology came from Rosamund Bartlett, a renowned Russian translator who has just completed a new translation of “Anna Karenina.” She is the founding director of the Anton Chekhov Foundation and has published extensively on the writer, including a 2005 biography “Chekhov: Scenes From a Life.” 

For Bartlett, it is vital that the project is inclusive and democratic. “We wanted to involve as wide a range of people as possible,” she explains. “So we have retired academics and students who are still learning Russian, alongside professional translators.” The project has a global reach as well, with participants from as far afield as Bulgaria, Australia and China. They can all use a dedicated Facebook page to ask translation questions or share ideas. 

This grassroots approach is a nod to Chekhov’s character and attitude. A modest man from humble origins – he was the son of a poor merchant and the grandson of a freed serf – Chekhov often treated patients for free and claimed a few months before he died that his stories would only be read for another seven years. 

“His own stories encompass a huge range of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Michajlowska explains, “I’d like to think he would have been keen to encourage an inclusive project that encouraged the study of Russian, the language he loved and found so beautiful.” 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Exile Returns - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

On the morning of January 7, 1974, the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union convened to draw up battle plans against a grave threat to Communist ideology and power—a writer and his manuscript. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Party, sat at the head of the conference table and opened the meeting. “Comrades,” he began, “according to our sources abroad and the foreign press, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has published a new work in France and in the United States—‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ ”

By then, Brezhnev’s health was beginning to fail. He worked only four or five hours a day, his burden soothed by frequent naps, massages, saunas, and snacks, and by round-the-clock attention from his doctors. His speech was slow, slurred. “I am told by Comrade Suslov that the Secretariat has taken a decision to develop in our press a debunking operation against this work by Solzhenitsyn and its appearance in bourgeois propaganda,” Brezhnev went on. “No one has had a chance to read the book, but its essential contents are already known. It is a filthy anti-Soviet slander. We have to determine what to do about Solzhenitsyn. By law, we have every basis for putting him in jail. He has tried to undermine all we hold sacred: Lenin, the Soviet system, Soviet power—everything dear to us. . . . This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control.”

Yuri Andropov, the chief of the K.G.B. at the time and a future successor to the Party throne, did not wait long before offering his recommendation. He was by far the most intelligent of the Politburo members, and it is plain from reading the minutes of the Politburo session (a stack of classified documents stamped “Top Secret” in the Party archives) that Andropov’s was the decisive voice. Better than anyone else, he understood the threat Solzhenitsyn’s work posed to the regime. Back in 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev approved the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” as a way of discrediting the Stalin era, a great cultural thaw had already begun—one that so unnerved the Communist leaders that they eventually called it off, banned Solzhenitsyn from print, and, in 1964, “retired” Khrushchev “for reasons of health.” But Solzhenitsyn’s literary mission, the process of giving voice to the sixty million victims of Soviet terror, went on secretly, and even collectively. Much of “Gulag” was based on the hundreds of letters and memoirs that former prisoners had mailed to Solzhenitsyn after “One Day” was published. Andropov had an intuitive sense that this new work could do as much, in its way, to undermine Soviet power as all the nuclear arsenals in the West.

“I think Solzhenitsyn should be deported from the country without his consent,” Andropov said, according to the Politburo minutes. “Trotsky was deported in his time without getting his agreement. . . . Everyone is watching us to see what we will do with Solzhenitsyn—if we will mete out punishment to him or if we will just leave him alone. . . . I maintain that we must take legal action and bring the full force of Soviet law against him.”

Andropov then fuelled the already evident anger of the other members with terse descriptions of Solzhenitsyn’s “impudence”—his meetings with foreign correspondents, his brazen flouting of Party control over literature and over publication abroad. (The manuscripts of “Gulag” and other works had been microfilmed by Solzhenitsyn and his wife in Moscow and smuggled by friends and other contacts of theirs to publishers in the West.)

Nikolai Podgorny, the chairman of the Presidium, was furious, and indignantly defended Andropov’s proposal to suppress Solzhenitsyn against any prospect of a righteous response abroad. “In China, there are public executions,” he said. “In Chile, the Fascist regime shoots and tortures people! In Ireland, the English use repression on the working people! We must deal with an enemy who gets away with slinging mud at everybody.”

“We can send Solzhenitsyn away to serve his sentence in Verkhoyansk,” beyond the Arctic Circle, said Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Premier, a “liberal” in the eyes of many foreign analysts. “Not a single foreign correspondent will go visit him there, because it’s so cold.”

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Joseph Conrad: Turgenev: A Study. By Edward Garnett

Dear Edward,
I am glad to hear that you are about to publish a study of Turgenev, that fortunate artist who has found so much in life for us and no doubt for himself, with the exception of bare justice. Perhaps that will come to him, too, in time. Your study may help the consummation. For his luck persists after his death. What greater luck an artist like Turgenev could wish for than to find in the English-speaking world a translator who has missed none of the most delicate, most simple beauties of his work, and a critic who has known how to analyse and point out its high qualities with perfect sympathy and insight.

After twenty odd years of friendship (and my first literary friendship too) I may well permit myself to make that statement, while thinking of your wonderful Prefaces as they appeared from time to time in the volumes of Turgenev’s complete edition, the last of which came into the light of public indifference in the ninety-ninth year of the nineteenth century.

With that year one may say, with some justice, that the age of Turgenev had come to an end too; yet work so simple and human, so independent of the transitory formulas and theories of art, belongs as you point out in the Preface to Smoke “to all time.”

Turgenev’s creative activity covers about thirty years. Since it came to an end the social and political events in Russia have moved at an accelerated pace, but the deep origins of them, in the moral and intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded in the whole body of his work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer. The first stirrings, the first gleams of the great forces can be seen almost in every page of the novels, of the short stories and of A Sportsman’s Sketches— those marvellous landscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.

Those will never grow old. Fashions in monsters do change, but the truth of humanity goes on for ever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the variety of its disclosures. Whether Turgenev’s art, which has captured it with such mastery and such gentleness, is for “all time” it is hard to say. Since, as you say yourself, he brings all his problems and characters to the test of love, we may hope that it will endure at least till the infinite emotions of love are replaced by the exact simplicity of perfected Eugenics. But even by then, I think, women would not have changed much; and the women of Turgenev who understood them so tenderly, so reverently and so passionately — they, at least, are certainly for all time.

Women are, one may say, the foundation of his art. They are Russian of course. Never was a writer so profoundly, so whole-souledly national. But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev’s Russia is but a canvas on which the incomparable artist of humanity lays his colours and his forms in the great light and the free air of the world. Had he invented them all and also every stick and stone, brook and hill and field in which they move, his personages would have been just as true and as poignant in their perplexed lives. They are his own and also universal. Any one can accept them with no more question than one accepts the Italians of Shakespeare.

In the larger, non-Russian view, what should make Turgenev sympathetic and welcome to the English-speaking world, is his essential humanity. All his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressed and oppressors, are human beings, not strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions. They are human beings, fit to live, fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit to win, fit to lose, in the endless and inspiring game of pursuing from day to day the ever-receding future.

I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in a sense. But one ends by having some doubts. To be so great without the slightest parade and so fine without any tricks of “cleverness” must be fatal to any man’s influence with his contemporaries.

Frankly, I don’t want to appear as qualified to judge of things Russian. It wouldn’t be true. I know nothing of them. But I am aware of a few general truths, such as, for instance, that no man, whatever may be the loftiness of his character, the purity of his motives and the peace of his conscience — no man, I say, likes to be beaten with sticks during the greater part of his existence. From what one knows of his history it appears clearly that in Russia almost any stick was good enough to beat Turgenev with in his latter years. When he died the characteristically chicken-hearted Autocracy hastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the tomb it refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionists went on for a time flinging after his shade those jeers and curses from which that impartial lover of all his countrymen had suffered so much in his lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Every page of his writing bears its testimony to the fatal absence of callousness in the man.

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Monday, 8 December 2014

Vladimir Sharov: Before and During

"Russian history is, in fact, a commentary to the Bible," Vladimir Sharov said in a recent interview. Coming from an historian, this statement calls for certain facts to be revised in its light; illustrated in a work of fiction, it makes for a complex, thought-provoking and controversial book.

On its first publication in Russia in 1993, Before and During did cause some controversy: editors of the very magazine where it appeared criticised the author for taking too many liberties with facts, while a proportion of readers found its links between Orthodox Christianity and Bolshevism hard to digest.

The novel starts at the tail end of the Soviet era, with its narrator, known only as Alyosha, working on his Memorial Book, where he intends to record the lives of people he has known. He suffers mental blackouts and is admitted to the dementia ward of a psychiatric hospital in Moscow. There his project takes on a new dimension: he resolves to include his fellow patients in the book and begins jotting down their stories, not realising at first that his subjects “needed to be loved and saved, not analysed.”

Not only does Alyosha fail to redeem them by merely transcribing their accounts – in retrospect, he thinks that his intervention may have brought about the catastrophic finale.
As the novel’s threads multiply, it grows into a phantasmagoria centred around the character of Madame de Staël, a French author famous for her stance against Napoleon. Possessed of an ability to prolong her life, she settles in Russia after her first reincarnation, a “Pythian priestess” who can see into the future and whose actions eventually determine the country’s fate (the similarity between her name and Stalin’s is no coincidence).

Powerful erotic currents are created by descriptions of de Staël’s relationships with her many lovers, among them the philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, one of the founders of Russian cosmism, and the composer Alexander Scriabin, who saw music as a way of building a new universe. His unfinished opus, “Mysterium”, conceived as “a sublime orgy, a rite, a kind of global frenzy”, has never been traced.

Sharov offers an intriguing scenario where Scriabin performs it for none other than Lenin, who transcribes its principal themes in a code, thus producing some of his best-known works, including The State and Revolution. These writings, when deciphered, turn out to portray the events that shook the world in 1917: “One part of a nation leads another to slaughter and the smell of the offering, the fragrance of the offering, brought with faith in truth and justice, with unwavering readiness, goes up into the sky.”

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Friday, 5 December 2014

Dread and Wonder The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee. She certainly has the stature. Translated into many languages, the winner of multiple major awards, not only is she Russia’s leading dramatist by wide agreement, she is also its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women’s writing in the country. In the words of Anna Summers, her English translator, “She is the only living Russian classic. No one comes near.” Students study her in high schools. Scholars write their dissertations on her both in Russia and abroad. Her seventieth birthday was marked by an official national celebration. As for her plays, which are staged around the world, a handful are typically running in Russia at any given time, and one, Moscow Choir, has been a staple of the White Nights cultural festival in St. Petersburg for over twelve years. Still going strong at 75, an accomplished singer, performer and painter to boot, she is also co-scenarist ofTale of Tales, repeatedly selected as the greatest animated film of all time. In The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, only two post-Stalinist writers are given sections of their own. One is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The other is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
That we are still so unfamiliar with her in America is partly her own doing, in several senses. Her writing is insistently colloquial and conversational, a record of the voices that she hears around her on the streets and in the subways, in Moscow’s arid offices and overcrowded flats. Her prose, as a result, is highly idiomatic, and therefore highly problematic for translation. When The Time Is Night, the novella that’s regarded as her masterpiece, was published in an execrable version twenty years ago, she forswore further translation into English. More recently, through Summers’s efforts, she has been persuaded to relent. A first selection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, appeared in 2009; a second, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, in 2013. This fall will bring a third: a trio of novellas, including The Time Is Night and Among Friends, her most controversial work of prose.
“Father and Mother,” one of the pieces in Sister’s Husband, concerns a girl who grows up in a house of unrelenting squalor and conjugal hatred. “Everything that happened to her afterward,” the story ends—and “everything” means homelessness, to start with—“all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” The tale provides a clue to Petrushevskaya’s resilience, vitality, even optimism. Nothing she would face in later life could measure up to what she dealt with as a child. Conceived out of wedlock (a huge taboo back then), denounced by her father before she was out of the womb, Petrushevskaya was born to a prominent Bolshevik family that was in the midst of going under in the Great Purge. Some were shot or exiled; the rest were classified as enemies of the people, which meant that they had no official right to food or shelter—and Petrushevskaya grew up during the war, when it was hard enough to survive even with official right to food and shelter.
Widowed young and with a child, Petrushevskaya did not begin to write until about age 30. A couple of stories were published in 1972, another handful in the decade and a half to come, but for the most part she was banned. Her pieces were too dark, too frank, too much of a challenge to the authorized picture of Soviet life. She turned to the theater instead, staging performances with student groups, at factory clubs, in makeshift rooms. Gradually, her reputation grew. In 1988, with glasnost, she was finally allowed to publish the prose that had been accumulating for twenty years. The resulting book, Immortal Love, became a signal cultural event, greeted by her audience—Russia’s ordinary struggling urbanites, and in particular its impoverished intelligentsia—with a shock of gratitude and recognition. All this time, as Summers puts it, all those years, someone had been writing down what they were going through. Someone had been bearing witness to their lives.
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A Belated Apology to Anton Chekhov

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

"What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!"

Yet Chekhov's charms are subtle, and some readers find themselves underwhelmed after the first encounter. One contrite member this of this camp is essayist and short-story writer Steven Barthelme, who wrote what he told me is an "Apology to Chekhov": an admission that he initially shrugged at a writer who later became an all-time favorite.

With brothers Frederick and the late Donald, Steven Barthelme is one-third of the most influential literary sibling trio since the Bronte sisters. His latest collection is Hush Hush (Melville House), which brings to its stories of the damaged and downtrodden Chekhov's precision and hugeness of heart. With Frederick, he wrote an unusual memoir of gambling addiction, Double Down, in the first-person plural. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, and McSweeney's, and he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Steven Barthelme: I first read Chekhov's "Lady With Lapdog" when at an embarrassingly advanced age I had to teach it in a sophomore lit class at a rot-gut university in Louisiana where I had gotten an instructor job. I thought, What's so great about this? In other words, I missed it utterly.

I wish I could tell you how I became enlightened, but I don't remember the process, truth be told. It was probably just happening onto other, simpler Chekhov stories like "The Lament," "Kashtanka," and "The Kiss" where even I could see what was so great about this. Anyway, somehow I came around.

As many writers more noble than I have remarked, "Lady With Lapdog" is a stunning thing, full of memorable bits of business. I admire for instance all the things Nabokov admires, the business where Gurov is slicing up his post-coital watermelon while his companion is theatrically weeping over her virtue, the headless statuette inkstand at the provincial hotel, etc.
There's a special place in my heart, too, for the moment in the story when he has snuck off to her little town and, standing on the street where she lives with her husband, sees the little dog, and wants to call to it, but can't remember its name. Also the moment when Gurov is back in Moscow and finally can't stop himself from baring his soul—"If you only knew what a fascinating woman I met in Yalta"—to a vaguely drawn friend with whom he has been eating and playing cards. The man listens to his ecstatic exclamations and then says, "You're right, that sturgeon was a bit off," responding to some earlier, unreported and trivial remark concerning dinner. Listener indifference, which is reader indifference, is a trademark joke in Chekhov.

But the passage I remember best is in among a half-dozen breathtaking things near the end, when the now ex-philanderer is reflecting about his own aging and the women he has known:
Why did she love him so much? He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man whom their imagination created and whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they saw their mistake, they loved him all the same.
This is wonderful—that is, full of wonder—but still not outside the capability of most our best writers today, the sort of psychological irony that any good thoughtful liberal could observe and recognize the value of reporting.

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Thursday, 4 December 2014

At the Top of His Voice - Mayakovsky

There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a 'youth relaxation complex', which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man's name.

All this toponymy goes to suggest something of what Pasternak called Vladimir Mayakovsky's 'second death' in 1935, five years after his suicide. In response to a plea from Mayakovsky's lover Lili Brik, Stalin famously declared that 'Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his works and memory is a crime.' After that, the commemoration machine cranked into action, Mayakovsky was elevated to the position of premier Soviet poet and his work started to be forcibly distributed, like 'potatoes in the time of Catherine the Great' (Pasternak again). If you look at Brik's original letter, you see that Stalin's decree is scrawled firmly and rapidly across it, and the speed of change was equally radical and decisive: the letter is dated 24 November 1935; Triumph Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square on 17 December.

After the apotheosis, the backlash: what Bengt Jangfeldt calls the 'third death' happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mayakovsky was removed from the school curriculum and was no longer published or promoted, was no longer used as a symbol of whatever values the country wanted to promote. Second-hand bookshops were clogged with his work: I bought the thirteen-volume 1955 Complete Works in 2001 for 130 roubles, slightly over two pounds sterling. Mayakovsky has become an object of academic study rather than of popular acclaim. He is present, but largely ignored: his imposing granite bust is still on display at the corner of Nekrasov and Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, but the last time I was there it was heavily Gorbacheved with bird shit.

Jangfeldt's biography therefore has two obvious and possibly contradictory tasks: to humanise the Soviet icon and also to suggest to us why we should still be interested in this relict of the 20th century. The first task is the harder. By any standards, Mayakovsky's life in broad outline is the stuff of socialist hagiography. Mayakovsky's father died from blood poisoning when his son was twelve. Mayakovsky, his mother and two sisters moved from Kutaisi in Georgia to Moscow and made their living as best they could, taking in lodgers and painting decorative boxes and Easter eggs. Mayakovsky joined the Bolsheviks when he was about fourteen. He was expelled from school and spent a couple of years engaged in political activity, radicalising the Moscow bakers. He claimed to have eaten an address book during a police raid to prevent sensitive information falling into their hands.

Later, at art college, he started writing poetry. He travelled round the country in an attempt to bring Futurist poetry to the masses, predicted the Revolution in his early masterpiece 'A Cloud in Trousers', welcomed it when it finally arrived, and handed himself over to the victorious Communist Party to serve it and the new regime as best he could. He wrote a 3,000-line poem on Lenin's death and legacy and continued to support and dedicate himself to the cause right until his death. His last major poem, 'At the Top of My Voice', contains lines such as:

When I appear
before the CCC
of a more enlightened future
I will
lift up
over the heap of poetic robbers
like a Bolshevik membership card
all hundred volumes
my party books.

Mayakovsky sometimes seemed to want nothing more than to be the spokesman of the Soviet Union: he wrote a very long and bad poem called '150,000,000', which has as its protagonist the whole 150-million-strong population of the Soviet Union, locked in a final battle against capitalism, as personified by Woodrow Wilson. Even Lenin found this too much and wrote an angry memorandum to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet cultural commissioner, calling the work 'rubbish, stupid, stupid, beyond belief, and pretentious'. Setting Lenin's misgivings to one side, with so much evidence in favour of Mayakovsky's ideological bent it is unsurprising that the Soviet regime should have found it easy to promote a case of the poet as nothing more than a larger-than-life voice of the regime.

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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Nikolai Leskov

“I calculated once,” Vladimir Nabokov told an audience at Cornell University in the spring of 1958, “that the acknowledged best in the way of Russian fiction and poetry which had been produced since the beginning of the last century runs to about 23,000 pages of ordinary print.” Readers with a basic grounding in Russian literature will be able to reel off many of the writers in Nabokov’s notional anthology: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. But there was no place for Nikolai Leskov, of whom, the occasional beautiful image aside, Nabokov didn’t think much.
Those who disagree have made numerous attempts, over the last hundred years, to install Leskov in the Russian literary pantheon. The pantheon itself approved: Dostoevsky published him, Chekhov acknowledged a debt to his work, and Tolstoy admired it. Yet he has fallen, repeatedly, into obscurity. Last year saw the launch of another offensive in the long war over his reputation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current powerhouse of Russian-to-English translation, published a collection of his stories named for one of his great masterpieces, The Enchanted Wanderer. But despite the latest round of articles and reviews, there is no reason to believe this revival will be any more lasting than those before.
Why? What is it about Leskov that refuses to settle into consensus? Various reasons have been advanced, the most credible one being, as Robert Chandler maintains, “we English have always expected our Russian writers to be unambiguously serious. We want to be shown a character’s spiritual development; we want to be given truths to live by. But what Leskov gives us is something else: story matters more than character, and all we get by way of metaphysical insight is a sense that life’s horrors and beauties are so intermingled as to be beyond all understanding”. As Richard Pevear notes, Leskov’s first significant champion was the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum, who wrote in the 1920s that Leskov equalled Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy “not by resembling them, but by being totally unlike them”. A few years later, in his study of Russian literature, DS Mirsky captured the quality of this difference when he wrote, “If Turgenev’s or Chekhov’s world may be compared to a landscape by Corot, Leskov’s is a picture by Breughel the Elder, full of gay and bright colours and grotesque forms”. His stories offer few of the pleasures we find in the great Russians, but so do theirs lack many that we find in his.
Leskov writes about peasants, household domestics and their employers; about soldiers and officers and priests, pilgrims, monks and merchants’ daughters; about schoolboys, czars, Tatars and gypsies. “No one,” VS Pritchett maintained, “catches so truthfully the diversity of national character in his time.” Unlike almost every other famous Russian writer of the period, Leskov was not a member of the landed gentry; he said he came to know the Russian people by living among them, not through “conversations with Petersburg cabbies”. His settings range from his central southern home town of Orel (Turgenev’s home, too) to the Eurasian Steppe, the lakes of the north, Ukrainian Kiev, the metropolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. As a young man, working for a firm that managed several large estates, he travelled all over Russia gaining knowledge that he would fully exploit in his fiction. At the outset of his story The Pearl Necklace, he reflects on the way travel generates writing material, “there’s simply no getting away from impressions. And they sit thick in you, like yesterday’s kasha stewing – well, naturally, it came out thick in the writing as well.”
Leskov’s stories are often close to folktales, moving at the sort of speeds that can be achieved when psychological analysis is jettisoned (which isn’t to say his stories lack an often acute understanding of psychology). In his masterful essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin draws a distinction between storyteller and novelist, asserting, “it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it”. Leskov, Benjamin writes, “is a master at this”. Indeed, so consummately did Leskov disguise himself as the traditional storyteller that many readers believed his work to be a mere updating of much older folk material. Leskov played with this idea, prefacing one of his most successful stories of this type, Lefty, with the note, “I have transcribed this legend”. In fact the story was almost entirely his own invention, but his metafictional flourish was so widely accepted that he subsequently wrote a letter asserting himself as the story’s author, and not, as one reviewer put it, merely its “stenographer”.
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