Showing posts from December, 2015

‘The Blizzard,’ by Vladimir ­Sorokin

Russians have been trying, and failing, to make their way through blizzards for as long as they can remember, or at least as long as they have been writing. The perilous-voyage-through-the-snow novella might be the Russian corollary to the American road novel. Vladimir ­Sorokin, Russia’s most inventive contemporary author, has written one too, and called it “The Blizzard.” His book alludes to every Russian literary portrayal of snow-­threatened travel, from Alexander Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” to Alexander Blok, who wrote dozens of poems starring blizzards, to the rock group Nol (“Zero”), which in 1991 sang heartbreakingly of a man and his cat waiting for a doctor struggling through the snow to bring them healing white powder.

The protagonist of Sorokin’s “The Blizzard” is also a doctor, 42 years old, a pince-nez-wearing divorcé, unhappy, flawed, self-absorbed, well intentioned and ready for self-sacrifice in all the classic ways of the Russian intelligentsia, or its male repre…

From translator to novelist and activist - Boris Akunin

In 1970, a geography teacher in a Moscow school was distributing countries among his students for an assignment. The assignment was quite simple: The students had to collect newspaper clippings about specific countries. One of the students got Tunisia, Ecuador and Japan. Soviet newspapers regularly wrote about the first two, mostly about the heroic struggle of the local working class against capitalist exploitation. But they wrote virtually nothing about Japan, until one day the student came across the news that a Japanese writer had attempted a coup. And that’s how Grigory Chkhartishvili became interested in Japan. Or at least it’s how he explains his fascination with the country. Since then, Chkhartishvili has undergone several major metamorphoses. At first, his life looked like that of a typical Soviet intellectual in the humanities: he studied languages at Moscow State University in the Institute of Asian and African Countries and later worked as a translator. He translated from Ja…

Dostoevsky’s carnival - Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a Russian scholar, has recently found translators, expounders, and admirers in the West. In the introduction to a collection of Bakhtin’s posthumous essays, The Dialogic Imagination(Austin, Texas, 1981), Michael Holquist proclaimed him “one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century.” Bakhtin was indeed an immensely erudite, perceptive, and acute literary scholar. His first book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work (1929), was known in the Thirties and after to every student of Dostoevsky who could read Russian. Just after the publication of that book, Bakhtin was arrested and banished to a small town in northern Kazakhstan, where he was made to work as a bookkeeper. Even after he was allowed to return to central Russia and resume his studies, his dissertation on Rabelais was rejected. At last, in 1936, he was appointed to the faculty of a teacher’s college (later made a university) in Saransk, in the remote Mordvinian Republic. Only after his retirement, …

Leo Tolstoy: Papa Panov's Special Christmas

It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the shops and houses of the little Russian village, for the short winter day was nearly over. Excited children scurried indoors and now only muffled sounds of chatter and laughter escaped from closed shutters. Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone. His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.

Papa Panov did not often read, but tonight he pulled down the big old family Bible and, slowly tracing the lin…

Has any author's reputation fallen further or faster than Dostoevsky's?

My favourite Russian author is Dostoevsky, whose best books are not just profound examinations of the human soul etc, but also nasty, violent, ironic, caustic, and (at times) extremely funny. Recently I picked up Henri Troyat's Firebrand which is an old-fashioned, novelistic account of FD's life. It's a great read, so much so that I decided to ride the wave of pleasure and seize the moment to simultaneously plough through some of the heavier Dostoevsky tomes sitting on my shelves, including the selected letters and the joyless prose of Konstantin Mochulsky's critical biography. (I'm saving Joseph Frank's five-volume epic for later).

It's fascinating to observe how both the racy volume and dryly critical work were constructed from the same source materials. Meanwhile I have been reminded of Dostoevsky's dramatic life story: his father's murder; his mock execution and exile; his gambling madness; and his calamitous debut on the St Petersburg literary s…

Shostakovich's Leningrad: The symphony that brought a city back to life

On the evening of Sunday August 9 1942, the German artillery guns that had been laying siege to Leningrad for a year were temporarily silenced by a Soviet barrage.

The timing was deliberate. Through loudspeakers that had been hastily rigged up across the city’s frontline, a strange sound could be heard, a classical concert being broadcast live.

It was the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, and it was being performed by a ragtag orchestra made up of musicians who were half dead from starvation. It was an extraordinary act of defiance, given that Hitler’s forces had encircled the city and were intent on starving the population to death.

The previous winter, when temperatures had dropped to -31F (-35C), people had eaten soup made from boiled leather belts, that and “siege meat” which included not only cats and dogs but also human flesh taken from corpses lying frozen in the streets.

The siege would continue for another two years and would claim the lives of close to a mill…

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree

I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write “I suppose,” though I know for a fact that I have made it up, but yet I keep fancying that it must have happened on Christmas Eve in some great town in a time of terrible frost. I have a vision of a boy, a little boy, six years old or even younger. This boy woke up that morning in a cold damp cellar. He was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold. There was a cloud of white steam from his breath, and sitting on a box in the corner, he blew the steam out of his mouth and amused himself in his dullness watching it float away. But he was terribly hungry. Several times that morning he went up to the plank bed where his sick mother was lying on a mattress as thin as a pancake, with some sort of bundle under her head for a pillow. How had she come here? She must have come with her boy from some other town and suddenly fallen ill. The landlady who let the “concerns” had been taken two days before t…

Velimir Khlebnikov: There is that smell of honey-clover flowers

There is that smell of honey-clover flowers
Among the forget-me-nots
In which I am
My distracted strict intelligence
The square root of negative one
Melts the division’s dots
Relating that which was
Toward what will be.
At stake. Early 1922

Nikolai Lugansky plays Rachmaninov Musical Moment No.4 in E minor


'He speaks to us': why Shostakovich was a great communicator

Recently, in a little book by Colm Tóibín about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, I was struck by phrases that rang a bell: “The music or the power was in what was left out … words in which the emotion seems to be hidden, seems to lurk mysteriously in the space between … Nothing would be said but everything suggested...”

Back in the mid-1980s, I remembered, this was the kind of thing my friends in Moscow used to say about Shostakovich. Of course, such things have been said before and about many different artists. But something in the way Tóibín puts it brought the old song back.

I heard another version of the same idea in a small room in London, during an encounter between two composers who had not met before: Russia-born Alfred Schnittke and Englishman Peter Maxwell Davies.

Schnittke was describing his first visit to the west as an adult – I think in 1979 – when he attended a performance in Vienna of a Shostakovich symphony led by the famous conductor Kyril Kondrashin, who had defecte…

The Blizzard: Chillingly dystopian in true Sorokin style

Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the weather, to find blizzards and snowstorms proliferating throughout Russian literature from Pushkin’s magic tales to Vladimir Sorokin’s mysterious 2010 novel, The Blizzard. Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, published in 1856 and based on his own experience, has clearly inspired the underlying premise of Sorokin’s novella: a man rides on a sledge through a plot-less snow storm with a fatalistic driver. They lose their way, tire out the horses and get side tracked by stream-of-consciousness reminiscences. The classic 19th-century setting is overlaid by Sorokin’s characteristically disturbing, dystopian vision. His protagonist, Doctor Garin, is carrying two bags of vital vaccines to a village infected by a mysterious epidemic that turns its victims into zombies.

In this atmospheric and perplexing work, soon to be available in Jamey Gambrell’s English translation, Vladimir Sorokin has pulled off another unlikely feat of generic fusion. His bizarr…