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Showing posts from July, 2015

Mussorgsky - Night On Bald Mountain

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The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov

IT'S TRUE THAT CHEKHOV, gathering his work for collected editions, essentially renounced these stories by excluding all of them. But when he was 22 and trying to get The Prank (Шалость) okayed by the Moscow censor in 1882, he was mighty proud of them. By the time he submitted the book, he had published several dozen stories and skits in Moscow and Petersburg humor magazines. These dozen, with two of the best on either end, he selected and ordered, and his brother Nikolay, only two years older but already a well-known artist, contributed the spirited and risqué illustrations. Anton was the third son, but even at 19 he was his family’s savior, arriving in Moscow from Taganrog, their hometown on the Black Sea, to join his parents and younger siblings. (While his father fled creditors, Anton had stayed behind to finish school and to tutor and earn money.) His two older brothers, talented and careless, prey to drink, couldn’t stay out of their own ways. When the censors nixed the volume…

What the Dickens? Did Dostoevsky borrow his themes from English novelist?

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in 1821, just nine years after Charles Dickens. Despite the small difference in age, Dickens was a role model for the Russian writer, experts say. Dostoevsky is known for his strong psychological characters that usually go through serious hardships. But looking deeper at Dostoevsky’s characters, there are obvious similarities and parallels with Dickens. 
In Dostoevsky’s novels it is difficult to find wealthy, confident and prosperous protagonists. In most cases, key characters are simple, often squalid people, trying to find their place in a harsh world. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky focuses on  ‘insulted and injured’ people, something the Russian writer seems to have largely taken from Dickens. Both writers demonstrate a desire to reform society.
Crime and its retribution is another motif close to both writers. It is noticeable particularly when Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is compared with Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1865). Dostoevsky’s novel was w…

Chekhov: A Writer For Grown Ups

Until I began the long and happy passage of reading all of Anton Chekhov’s short stories for the purpose of selecting the twenty for inclusion in The Essential Tales of Chekhov, I had read very little of Chekhov. It seems a terrible thing for a story writer to admit, and doubly worse for one whose own stories have been so thoroughly influenced by Chekhov through my relations with other writers who had been influenced by him directly: Sherwood Anderson. Isaac Babel. Hemingway. Cheever. Welty. Carver.

As is true of many American readers who encountered Chekhov first in college, my experience with his stories was both abrupt and brief, and came too early. When I read him at age twenty, I had no idea of his prestige and importance or why I should be reading him—one of those gaps of ignorance for which a liberal education tries to be a bridge. But typical of my attentiveness then, I remember no one telling me anything more than that Chekhov was great, and that he was Russian.

And for all of …

Mikhail Zoshchenko: Dogged

Someone went off with merchant Yeremey Babkin's coonskin coat. 

Yeremey Babkin let out a howl. He was upset, you see, about his coat.

'Citizens,' he says, 'that was a damned good coat. I'm upset. Cost what it may, I shall find the criminal. I'll spit in his face.'

So Yeremey Babkin called out a police sniffer dog. A man turns up in a peaked cap and puttees. With a dog. Or rather a damned great hound. Brown, a sharp snout, and none too friendly. The man pushed this dog of his towards some footprints by the door, said Pst, and stood back. The dog sniffed the air, looked round the crowd (a crowd, of course, had gathered), then goes straight up to Granny Fyokla from number five and sniffs the hem of her skirt.

Fyokla goes to the back of the crowd — the dog goes for her skirt. Fyokla tries to slip away — the dog follows. Grabs her by the skirt and doesn't let go.

Fyokla sank to her knees before the officer.

'Yes,' she says, 'I'm guilty. Can't d…

The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad

Germany's siege of Leningrad was one of the Second World War's worst atrocities. Lasting two and a half years, it killed 700,000 to 800,000 people, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the city's entire civilian population. Atrocities on such a scale are best understood through individual accounts, and this diary, newly emerged from the archives, is one such. It was written by Lena Mukhina, a plain, prim sixteen-year-old living in the city centre with her adoptive mother and an older woman nicknamed Aka - possibly, according to the editors, a retired English governess.

When the diary opens in the spring of 1941, Lena's preoccupations couldn't be more ordinary: she is irritated by her mother, anxious about her end-of-term exams and has an unreciprocated crush on a boy in her class. But from 22 June, when the German invasion is announced on the radio, her world turns upside down as Leningrad stiffens its defences, suffers its first air raids, then spirals into m…

Marina Tsvetaeva: From "Swans' Encampment"

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Marina Tsvetayeva (1892–1941) was one of the four great poets of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. Her long poem of the Civil War, 'Swans' Encampment', was finished in Moscow in 1921, though it remained unpublished until 1957. It is composed in the form of a journal, beginning on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917 and ending late in 1920 with the final surrender of the White Army. The poem intends to honour those who fought against the Communists – the 'swans' of the title refers to the men of the White Army, in which the poet's husband was an officer – but its sympathies are extensive, as this extract suggests.

Elaine Feinstein is the foremost translator of Tsvetayeva's poems into English. The version below was published in the TLS of October 10, 1980.

From "Swans' Encampment"

Little mushroom, white Bolitus,
my own favourite.
The field sways, a chant of Rus’
rises over it.
Help me, I’m unsteady on my feet.
Thi…