Showing posts from June, 2015

Russian soul reawakened: startling revelations in a new anthology of Russian poetry

Russia has always been big news and, after a period of what seemed like quiet, is again big news. But it has never quite gone away. The country has, after all, produced a vast and important literature of which we have not been – could not be – ignorant, from Pushkin and Lermontov through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and the rest. Big news and politics are not entirely ­detached from literature. Penguin’s first anthology of Russian-language poetry, The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, appeared at the height of the cold war, in the middle of the Cuban crisis, in 1962. Books by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky followed. Then came Brodsky and Ratushinskaya. Daniel Weissbort’s Post-War Russian Poetry appeared in 1974. These books – these poets – defined our sense of Russia in that era. We watched Russia carefully, searching for clues to its nature and its inclinations. We were in awe of “the Russian soul”, heroic, revolutionary, slumbering, tragic. Russia was a giant in action. Times change.…

Vasily Grossman:Life and Fate

In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s 1960 novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, dozens of characters are linked to one man, Viktor Pavlovich Strum, a high-ranking Jewish physicist. Early in this book of nearly 900 pages, Viktor’s mother, Anna Semyonova, writes to him from behind barbed wire in the Jewish ghetto where she awaits her death. The brief, passionate letter stands out like a single note amid the cacophony of war: 

"When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me. I’m not always strong in spirit, Vitya – I can be weak too. I often think about suicide, but something holds me back – some weakness, or strength, or irrational hope." 

Anna’s letter was staged recently as a dramatic monologue in Paris and in New York and recorded on film by veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It’s a letter for the ages, and the massive narrati…

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

By the late 1990s, Svetlana Alliluyeva was living in sheltered accommodation in Redruth. Few of the visiting tourists would have given this old woman walking the Cornish coastline a second glance. She had almost no money, almost no friends and had, in her own words, become “an English derelict”.
Yet in her room were four photographs that gave testament to an extraordinary life. They were of her daughter, who now lived in the United States; her mother, who shot herself when Svetlana was six; her grandmother, whose family was largely killed or imprisoned by Svetlana’s father; and her childhood nanny, who she’d say was the only person who truly showed her love. What was notably missing was a photograph of the man whose shadow had caused her to end up on these Cornish hilltops: her father, Joseph Stalin.
Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, but this can rarely be as directly true as for Svetlana. Her mother shot herself after being publicly humiliated by her husband, …

Ludmila Ulitskaya: Poor Lucky Kolyvanova

The red girls’ school stood opposite a grey boys’ school, built five years after it as if to proclaim the rational symmetry of the world, but also so that the spirit of competition should not spill out aimlessly over the entire district but concentrate above their roofs and, dove-like, glow above the girls’ school, proclaiming it the more distinguished, excelling, as it invariably did, in academic achievement, the behaviour of its pupils and (inversely, of course) in its accident statistics.

There was general agreement that the staff in the red school were better qualified, that the dinner lady did less thieving, that the caretaker in winter broke up the ice more energetically, and in summer chased dust along the drive more assiduously.

Its headmistress, Anna Fominichna, was also distinguished, having worked in the 1920s alongside Nadezhda Krupskaya, and was eager that the school should bear the name of Lenin’s wife. That honour, however, went instead to a nearby maternity hospital. Ann…

Anna Akhmatova: Everything

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

Dreams and Anna Karenina

We do not think of Tolstoy as a comic writer, but his genius permits him to write farce when it suits him. There is a wickedly funny scene in Anna Karenina that directly precedes the painful scenes leading to Anna’s suicide. It takes place in the drawing room of the Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who, almost alone among the novel’s characters, has no good, or even pretty good, qualities. She embodies the kind of hysterical and coldhearted religious piety that Tolstoy was especially allergic to. “As a very young and rhapsodical girl,” he writes, she had been married to a wealthy man of high rank, a very good-natured, jovial, and extremely dissipated rake. Two months after marriage her husband abandoned her, and her impassioned protestations of affection he met with a sarcasm and even hostility that people knowing the count’s good heart, and seeing no defects in the ecstatic Lydia, were at a loss to explain. Though they were not divorced, they lived apart, and whenever the husband met the wife…

Daniil Harms: I'll tell you, in all frankness

I'll tell you, in all frankness,
how it is made, our thought,
how appear the roots of conversations,
how words fly from one speaker to another.
One has to sit still for some time,
trying not to miss even a smallest star,
to have, so to speak, a reason to untangle one's neck
so it could be turned towards kind acquaintances and unfamiliar
After the greetings, to present the hostess with a handful of boulders,
or some other stashed valuable
in the form of a pin, or a southern fruit, or a little yawl
for a row on the lake on quiet sunny days,
so rare in our frugal northern clime,
where the spring is always a good deal late,
so much so that in June the house dog sleeps under a blanket,
like a human - man, woman or child,
and still shivers from the chills.
At times the ire at the order of change
between hot and cold overtakes all.
But the lunar time is in alternation young and old,
it is much clearer than the abracadabra of seasons.
The scientists observe from year to year
the ways of cyclo…

Old Russian Waltzes


Natalia Goncharova: Gardening

Natalia Goncharova(b Lodyzhino or Negayevo, Tula province, 4 [16] June or 21 June [3 July] 1881; d Paris, 17 Oct. 1962). Russian-French painter, designer, printmaker, and illustrator, born into a distinguished family (she was related to the poet Pushkin). In Moscow in 1900 she met her fellow student Mikhail Larionov, who became her lifelong companion. In the years leading up to the First World War they were among the most prominent figures in Russian avant-garde art, taking part in and often helping to organize a series of major exhibitions in Moscow. Her early paintings were Impressionist, but from 1906 she began to develop a primitivist style combining her interest in peasant art and icon painting with influences from modern French art, particularly Fauvism and Cubism, to which was later added Futurism. By the time of the Target Exhibition of 1913 she was painting in a near-abstract Rayonist style (Cats, 1913, Guggenheim Mus., New York).

Elena Chizhova: The Time of Women

Elena Chizhova

Russian Booker Prize 2009
Shortlist Russian Booker Prize 2003, 2005
Award Journal Zvezda 2001
Severnaya Palmira 2001

Born in Leningrad in 1957, Elena  Chizhova worked as an economist, teacher and entrepreneur until a rescue from a burning cruise ship in 1996 inspired a change in her life focus. Since that time she has been overcome  by the longing for writing. Elena Chizhova made her debut with "Children  of  Zaches" in the magazine “Zvezda” (“The Star”) in 2000. She has gone on to be nominated for and to win several prestigious literary awards, including  the Shortlist Russian Booker Prize in 2003 and 2005,  and the Russian Booker prize for The Time of Women in 2009.  Chizhova’
s  prose shuns trickery in favour of emotional honesty in order to probe the weeping sores of Russian history that contemporary  culture would sooner forget.  ...
Elena Chizhova's book “The Time of Women” weaves together the personal and historical struggles of mothers, daughters, g…