Friday, 16 January 2015

Leo Tolstoy’s theory of everything

Tolstoy’s first diary, started on March 17, 1847, at the age of eighteen, began as a clinical investigation launched under laboratory conditions: in the isolation of a hospital ward, where he was being treated for a venereal disease. A student at Kazan University, he was about to drop out due to lack of academic progress. In the clinic, freed from external influences, the young man planned to “enter into himself” for intense self-exploration (vzoiti sam v sebia ; 46:3). On the first page, he wrote (then crossed out) that he was in complete agreement with Rousseau on the advantages of solitude. This act of introspection had a moral goal: to exert control over his runaway life. Following a well-established practice, the young Tolstoy approached the diary as an instrument of self-perfection.
But this was not all. For the young Tolstoy, keeping a diary (as I hope to show) was also an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self: the links connecting a sense of self, a moral ideal, and the temporal order of narrative.
From the very beginning there were problems. For one, the diarist obviously found it difficult to sustain the flow of narrative. To fill the pages of his first diary, beginning on day two, Tolstoy gives an account of his reading, assigned by a professor of history: Catherine the Great’s famousInstruction (Nakaz), as compared with Montesquieu’s L’Esprit de lois. This manifesto aimed at regulating the future social order, and its philosophical principles, rooted in the French Enlightenment (happy is a man in whom will rules over passions, and happy is a state in which laws serve as an instrument of such control), appealed to the young Tolstoy. But with the account of Catherine’s utopia (on March 26), Tolstoy’s first diary came to an end.
When he started again (and again), Tolstoy commented on the diary itself, its purpose and uses. In his diary, he will evaluate the course of self- improvement (46:29). He will also reflect on the purpose of human life (46:30). The diary will contain rules pertaining to his behavior in specific times and places; he will then analyze his failures to follow these rules (46:34). The diary’s other purpose is to describe himself and the world (46:35). But how? He looked in the mirror. He looked at the moon and the starry sky. “ But how can one write this ?” he asked. “One has to go, sit at an ink-stained desk, take coarse paper, ink . . . and trace letters on paper. Letters will make words, words—phrases, but is it possible to convey one’s feeling?” (46:65). The young diarist was in despair.
Apart from the diaries, the young Tolstoy kept separate notebooks for rules: “ Rules for Developing Will ” (1847), “Rules of Life” (1847), “Rules” (1847 and 1853), and “Rules in General” (1850) (46:262–76). “Rules for playing music” (46:36) and “Rules for playing cards in Moscow until January 1” (46: 39). There are also rules for determining “(a) what is God, (b) what is man, and (c) what are the relations between God and man” (46:263). It would seem that in these early journals, Tolstoy was actually working not on a history but on a utopia of himself: his own personal Instruction.
Yet another notebook from the early 1850s, “Journal for Weaknesses” (Zhurnal dlia slabostei)—or, as he called it, the “Franklin journal”—listed, in columns, potential weaknesses, such as laziness, mendacity, indecision, sensuality, and vanity, and Tolstoy marked (with small crosses) the qualities that he exhibited on a particular day. Here, Tolstoy was consciously following the method that Benjamin Franklin had laid out in his famous autobiography. There was also an account book devoted to financial expenditures. On the whole, on the basis of these documents, it appears that the condition of Tolstoy’s moral and monetary economy was deplorable. But another expenditure presented still graver problems: that of time.
Along with the first, hesitant diaries, for almost six months in 1847 Tolstoy kept a “Journal of Daily Occupations” (Zhurnal ezhednevnykh zaniatii; 46:245–61), the main function of which was to account for the actual expenditure of time. In the journal, each page was divided into two vertical columns: the first one, marked “The Future,” listed things he planned to do the next day; a parallel column, marked “The Past,” contained comments (made a day later) on the fulfillment of the plan. The most frequent entry was “not quite” (nesovsem). One thing catches the eye: there was no present.
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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Sophia Parnok: 'I Construckt My Soul'

Please allow this intimacy, dear reader, open to us your soul. It's counterintuitive: Sophia Parnok the poet is still very much a recovery project precisely because her work has been obscured by the thickets of literary history and biography. In reaction to Russian academic reticence and cultural taboos, the focus of western attention has been entirely on "the Russian Sappho," Tsvetaeva's erstwhile lover (1914-1916) exemplar par excellence of "women's poetry". To gain a less obstructed view of her work it is thus necessary to first clear these obstacles. 

Born in 1885 into a secular Jewish pharmacist's family in Chekhov's detested birthplace, the provincial capital of Taganrog on the Azov sea; lost her mother (a doctor) at age six (dead after giving birth to twins;) on miserable terms with her stepmother (father remarried the children's German governess;) chronically ill with Grave's disease; began a musical education at the Geneva Conservatory, abandoned for lack of funds; moved to Petersburg, quickly dissolved marriage, converted to Orthodoxy in 1909; like Akhmatova dishonored her family by her chosen profession (both of the younger twins also became writers), began to publish poems under her own name (changed from Parnokh, she disliked the "kh" sound,) five collections between 1916 and 1928, and highly respected criticism under a male pseudonym (Andrey Polyanin; in 1923, first to identify the so-called "big four" — Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam;) in 1917 began work on an opera libretto finally performed in 1930; forbidden to publish after 1928, survived on income from her French translations. Vladislav Khodasevich, who had called her verse "masculine" (or as we in the west would say, "muscular,") paid her the following memorable tribute at her early death of a heart attack in 1933: "Numerous books were published by her, unknown to the wider public — so much the worse for the public." First made available in a Collected only in 1979 from Ardis Publishers; Sophia Parnok: the life and work of Russia's Sappho by Diana Lewis Burgina appeared in 1994.

I would say for myself that I have found Parnok's voice remarkably congenial, with its tone of longing and suffering, themes of perseverance in the face of long odds, the values of endurance and persistence. And I do find historical and biographical background a useful preliminary; successful translation, like the essential agency of reading itself, an act of empathy, requires us to step into Parnok's shoes. In her best work, there is an intensity of personal address and deep connection with the reader and the Muse, the almost painful pathos of our relationship to the eternal that is also to be found in observing nature. Though self-admittedly lacking the ambition of Akhmtova and Tsvetaeva, in her best work she achieves the tremendous grace of the first and the intensity of the second. The great Russian poet has always identified her fate with that of the Nation and of its people, and in this capacity Zinaida Gippius may lay claim to being next in line to the title of great Russian woman poet, but Parnok, in her intimate, small lyrics is not far behind, having carved out a domain all her own. She is a minor poet with sufficient skill and ambition to have been capable of developing into a major one. 

The issue of the masculinity or femininity of Parnok's voice may be clarified in comparison of her work to that of Gippius. Both the poems and the criticism and activism of the latter is oriented to the outside world of events, to social aesthetics and politics, whereas Parnok's is directed entirely inward, even in her criticism. Not only the tone but also her sound values are "soft" in comparison to Gippius's strident consonances. What then did Khodasevich have in mind in his characterization of the "masculinity" of her lines? Acmeism, for example, has been characterized as "hard, concrete, muscular," even though Akhmatova was the movement's inspiration. Recent scholarship in gender studies has observed a certain tendency toward bi-sexualism, that is the poetic output of men associated with Symbolism had grown "softer" both in terms of aural values and emotional sensitivity and thus more feminine (Annensky, Blok, Bely, Kuzmin.) The obverse is that poetry by women migrated in to fill the void, becoming harsher-sounding and more aggressive in tone. Of course no agreement or precise definition is possible, and I suspect that Khodasevich simply meant that Parnok's lines are chiseled, as though carved from stone.

Upon the voluptuous chestnuts you yet again 
Place Sunday's wedding candles, dear spring.
I construct my soul as in the olden days
And ought to break into song, but only dirges
And lullabies sound — sleep's sweet gladdeners. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Classic literature gets a facelift in Russian bookstores

While the popularity of e-books is growing in Russia, their sales still account for less than 1 percent of the total book market. However, even in this seemingly robust market for printed books, sales of classic literature are declining. The most popular books in Russia last year included “Fifty Shades of Grey” and a collection of the lives of Orthodox saints. The only classic on the bestseller list was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which had just been made into a popular film.

Publishing houses specializing in classic literature have been quite slow to react to the market slowdown, preferring to continue a conservative approach to the look and feel of their products.

Russia’s three biggest publishers, AST, Eksmo and Azbuka, all publish a classic literature series and have tended to prefer hardback editions illustrated with a portrait of the author or a picture from the era in which the book was written.

Azbuka has been the first to change this approach, publishing a series of classic works with paperback covers that have made their books cheaper and more accessible. It has also created a new campaign to tie classic books to film adaptations, which has the tagline “Watch the film – read the book!” An edition of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” featuring the actress Keira Knightly – who starred in the title role – on the front cover saw a marked increase in sales. Following the 2013 release of Carlo Carlei’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the edition with images from the film on the cover sold more than double its traditional counterpart.

Publishers have also begun considering other ways to maximize the positive impact of film recognition on the part of readers. “Stores have started displaying these books in V.I.P. areas, so there’s a high chance that a customer who has seen the film will come across them,” said Yekaterina Alexeeva, director of Eksmo’s Classical Literature and Poetry Section.
Tying book sales to film adaptations has its limitations, however, since not every classic will be made or remade into a feature film. Also, the tactic doesn’t always work. According to trade publication, there were four different editions of “The Great Gatsby” in the list of Russia’s Top 50 fiction books by sales for 2013. The most popular edition among readers was Azbuka’s traditional version with William Orpen’s 1912 painting “Café Royal” on the cover (19th place). This edition was followed by Eksmo’s version with a colorful image of Jay Gatsby from Jack Clayton’s 1974 forgotten screen adaptation (23rd place). The edition featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby came in 31st.

Publishers who are looking for ways to promote more consistent sales have had to become even more creative to attract readers, especially younger ones. Eksmo’s series of classics for schoolchildren is the most ambitious in Russian publishing today. Its editions of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” and Alexander Grin’s “Scarlet Sails” feature covers designed in the style of Japanese manga comics.

“We knew from the very beginning that our readership is small,” said Tatyana Suvorova, director of Eksmo’s Young Adult Section, “and that the buyer in this case is not the parents or grandparents. Such a design would not attract them. We wanted to attract teenagers’ attention and use the design to show them that classics are still relevant.” According to an Eksmo representative, sales from this series were the same as those from a series with standard covers. That is in itself a success, as this target readership is smaller and has less purchasing power.

Despite reader reviews showing that young people bought the books with the manga-style covers, Eksmo recently decided to discontinue the series. This is perhaps because publishers are focusing their efforts on attracting and retaining older, more conservative readers, who are more likely to buy printed books.

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

It’s one of those enduring literary mysteries: why didn’t Joseph Stalin have Mikhail Bulgakov bumped off? True, few of Bulgakov’s works saw the light of day in his own lifetime, but that could hardly have been a help to the writer, particularly one who so fearlessly – or recklessly – paraded the absurdities of communist rule. One of the stories here – which have been translated into English for the first time (very well, as far as I can tell, by Roger Cockrell) – mocks the Bolsheviks’ well-intentioned policy of educating the masses by having a soldier tell us what he thinks of a performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata he is forced to attend (he would rather have gone to the circus). For a start, he is puzzled by the conductor:
Then this director opened some book in front of him, looked at it and started waving his white stick about ... And, indeed, this director seemed far from being the least-educated person in the place, because he was doing two things at once: reading his book and waving his stick about.
The normal procedure for a Russian writer who wanted to ridicule the system was, first of all, to get the hell out of the Soviet Union.
Bulgakov is best known for his longer, more fable-like works The Master and Margarita and The Fatal Eggs (whose title, you will learn from the long, informative afterword to Notes on a Cuff, contains a multi-layered pun so untranslatable you wonder how much of its essence can survive in English). These stories, however, were written beforehand, in the early 1920s; and, with one or two exceptions, there is little impulse to fabulism or (to use the term loosely) surrealism. Things were weird enough as they were, and all Bulgakov had to do was draw on his own experiences as a doctor and literary administrator. A recurring theme in this volume sees a medic doing his best to escape whichever local Russian conflict (there were plenty to choose from at the time) he is about to be dragged into. Stuffing a revolver into your pocket and running sometimes seems to be the wisest course of action, as is making sure there’s one remaining bullet, so that if you are captured, you can use it on yourself.
The remarkable thing about Bulgakov is that he manages to maintain a certain ironic distance in his narratives that doesn’t diminish at all the urgency or veracity of what he has to report. It reads as though he’s in a rush to get it all down, but he does so in a way that reflects the absurd black comedy of each situation. And thus Bulgakov invents his own avant-gardism: as if there is either no time for or no point to the literary conventions. “The Unusual Adventures of a Doctor” sends its narrator across the war-torn Russian continent. Chapter 5 of the story consists of nothing more than two lines of dots across the page; chapter 6 is subtitled “Artillery Barrage and Boots”, but has no more text; and the first chapter is subtitled “No Title – Just a Howl”. When the narrator sees, through his binoculars, a bentwood chair sitting on its own on top of a hill, he says, referring to the manufacturer: “The Zeiss is hallucinating!” It is the kind of detail, you feel, that could only have come from lived experience.
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Friday, 2 January 2015

Maxim Gorky Brief life of a great enigma: 1868-1936

FOR MUCH of the early twentieth century, Maxim Gorky was probably the world’s most famous writer. His early romantic stories from the 1890s, with heroes drawn from the millions of peasants-turned-tramps then roaming the Russian countryside, marked him as an exciting new force in Russian letters that cut across class lines, blurring the distinction between high and low literature. His 1902 play The Lower Depths took his homeland and then Europe by storm. These works and his 1914 autobiographical masterpiece, Childhood, found millions of readers, including many Russians who had rarely, if ever, read before.

He appeared out of the blue, a contemporary critic recalled, “an emissary from the anonymous Russian masses.” Rejecting with contempt Russian literature’s traditional sympathy for “the insulted and injured” along with its glorification of the peasant as a repository of wisdom and national values, he celebrated instead action, will, initiative, creativity. “‘Man’—it has a proud ring!” he proclaimed in his most famous line. “Man” was the active center of his optimistic new faith. “Man” could do anything: “He even invented God.” Amid a widespread, if inchoate, feeling that an age was ending, Gorky offered a bracing vision of the new and beautiful world that could and should replace it, to be brought about by the harnessing of individual and collective will, the transformative power of culture, and the application of technology.

Gorky’s fame arose from his writings, but quickly threatened to transcend them as he became a celebrity in the full modern sense, his image for sale on cigarette boxes and postcards, his movements and opinions of equal interest to the public—whose commitment to revolution he sought to mobilize—and to the repressive tsarist regime. His place in Russian life and letters was unique. A prodigiously gifted autodidact who quit school at 10, he came of a once well-to-do family of artisans that had fallen into poverty; as a result, he spent his formative years in an astonishing variety of jobs before becoming a writer. An archetypal outsider, he fit none of the familiar social and cultural categories and he cultivated that image. It suited his commitment to political activism quite as much as his commitment to literature, and his activism, making good on the implicit urgings of his writing, made him a hero to many.

His was, in sober fact, a fabulous career. A brief summary reveals the fellow-hobo and chronicler of the uprooted peasantry; friend of Lenin and fundraiser for the Bolsheviks; political exile on Capri (1906-1913); outspoken opponent of Lenin’s fledgling regime (Petrograd, 1917-1918); savior of thousands of writers and scholars from starvation, and rescuer of many from arrest (Petrograd, 1918-1921); expatriate author of memoirs and dark, quasi-symbolist stories in Germany and Italy (1921-1928); returnee in the early 1930s to Soviet Russia, hailed as “the great proletarian writer,” herald of the revolution, founding father of Soviet literature and inventor of “socialist realism,” for whom his native city and Moscow’s main thoroughfare, along with hundreds of institutes and enterprises, were renamed; and finally the preacher of merciless class hatred, smothered with state honors but increasingly isolated, in effect the prisoner of Stalin, who may have had him murdered.

But the life trajectory just described is that of a pseudonym. Gorky was born Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov; he adopted the pen name (gorky means “bitter” in Russian) in his late twenties as a kind of public provocation, and it soon took on a life of its own. “A time will come,” Anton Chekhov wrote in 1903, “when people will forget Gorky’s works, but he himself will hardly be forgotten even in a thousand years.” Another contemporary noted, “[M]ore important than anything he says is what heis”—and, we might add, what he was taken to be. With the opening of Russian archives and lifting of longstanding taboos since the fall of the USSR, the ways in which Gorky’s public image was formed and propagated are at last available for serious study and reassessment. Recent Russian publications show in new and often surprising detail just how (and how far) he was indeed a key figure—at once absolutely unique and supremely representative—in the history of his times.

And the man behind all the contradictory positions and beliefs, the whole huge but wavering public image? He was notoriously reticent about his personal life, which he professed to dislike except as raw material for his writing, and odd as it may sound, he seems to have taken pains to have as little of one as possible. (The autobiographical Childhood, a critic noted, “is about everybody but himself.”) His interest in behavior, his own and others’, was not accompanied by any interest in analyzing its causes—the “anti-psychologism” of his writing is often noted; hence detailed discussions of his loves and hatreds, his finances, his relations with Bolshevik leaders and with writers of the most varied stripe, have had to wait for the disclosures now coming to light in Russia.

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