Friday, 20 February 2015

The sad story of Tolstoy’s favorite daughter

When you know the life story of Tolstoy's second daughter, Maria, you are particularly touched by her father’s words about her in a letter to his aunt, Alexandra Andreyevna:
“The fifth, Masha is two years old, the one whose birth nearly cost Sonya her life. A weak and sickly child. Body white as milk, curly white hair; big, queer blue eyes, queer by reason of their deep, serious expression. Very intelligent and ugly. She will be one of the riddles; she will suffer, she will seek and find nothing, will always be seeking what is least attainable.” [Translated by George Calderon for the book “Reminiscences of Tolstoy”]

The birth of Maria Lvovna Tolstaya (1871-1906) was the cause of the first serious conflict between Leo Tolstoy and Sofia Tolstaya. While breastfeeding one-year-old Lyovushka, Tolstoy's wife realized she was pregnant again, which she was not pleased about. She was tired of giving birth and breastfeeding; she was tired of feeling like a breeding animal rather than a woman. She then suffered from childbed fever after Masha’s premature birth, nearly dying. The doctors advised her against having any more children, but her husband was categorically opposed to this idea: he could not conceive of a married life without the birth of children, which nearly led to their divorce.

In his book “Tolstoy’s Children,” Sergei Mikhaylovich Tolstoy writes that Masha’s childhood “passed unnoticed in the noisy crowd of older siblings: Sergei, Tatyana, Ilya and Lev, who treated her like Cinderella, leaving her all the most difficult chores.” This childhood taught her not to dodge hard work.  

Half-jokingly, half-seriously, people would say that Masha was suffering from a mental disorder encapsulated in the English phrase “as you like it.” In other words, you always do what other people want from you, rather than what you yourself want.

Maria followed Tolstoy everywhere like a shadow from a very young age. As a teenager she shared all his new views, renouncing her social life and becoming a strict vegetarian. She transcribed Tolstoy’s texts and managed his correspondence, serving as a link in all practical matters with his pupil and publisher, Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov. She often came into conflict with Chertkov, however, out of jealousy towards her father’s close relationship with him. For her part, Tolstoy's oldest daughter, Tatyana, was jealous of her father's close relationship with Maria.

Masha was the only grown-up child with whom Tolstoy could be sentimental, allowing her to be sentimental with him too. Lev Nikolayevich was never tender with his other children. This was largely due to Masha's nature: she was always sympathetic, cheerful, and always ready to help.

In addition to serving her father, Maria helped all the peasants on the Yasnaya Polyana estate. Intelligent, sophisticated, and fluent in several foreign languages, Maria made hay with the peasants, milked their cows, put out fires, re-roofed burned houses, taught the peasants' children to read and write, treated peasant women and delivered their babies...
The peasants adored her. Indeed, there was probably not a single person who would not have been charmed by her; she may not have been outwardly beautiful, but she had an incredibly beautiful soul.

Although she had given up social life, Masha did not renounce all of life’s joys; she sang and danced with her family and the peasants, and took part in amateur theater productions at Yasnaya Polyana.

And yet... her story was similar to Tatyana’s. No matter how hard she tried to renounce her feminine nature for the sake of serving her father and ordinary people, nature prevailed. Her first love interest was Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov, a follower of her father and exceptional person who was much loved by the Tolstoy family. They seemed to be heading quickly towards a marriage that many people were certain would happen. However, Tolstoy refused Biryukov and talked his daughter out of marrying him. We can safely assume that he was afraid of losing a valuable assistant.

Masha’s second serious love interest was Petya Rayevsky, the son of Tolstoy’s friend Ivan Ivanovich Rayevsky. But Tolstoy was adamant this time too. “Has the whole world been reduced to this one person for you?” he wrote to his daughter. “From the outside, I can see that this one person is blocking the world from you, and the sooner he leaves, the brighter and better things will become for you.”

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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Victor Serge: Midnight in the Century

About halfway through this novel, we find ourselves at the head of a queue for cigarettes in the no-horse town of Chernaya (or “black-waters”). It’s , essentially a penal colony. There are two other queues, for bread and kerosene, but, as the novel puts it: “Right now the third queue, for cigarettes, is the most interesting since the cigarettes are there.” Anyway, Rodion – a young, self-educated man who’s ended up in Chernaya for innocently making the Communist party look ridiculous by, among other things, quoting from a year-old issue of Pravda – hands over his money, which the clerk just sweeps up and says “Next” without handing over the goods. And why should he? “The counter-revolution,” as someone else in the queue explains, “has no right to them.”
Elsewhere, a friend tries to look on the bright side; the sun is shining.
“Remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.”
“And thought?” asked Rodion. “Thought?”
“Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?”
“Midnight’s where we have to live then,” said Rodion with an odd elation.
Victor Serge certainly knew about living in the century’s midnight. In the mid-30s, in the grip of Stalin and Hitler, a significant chunk of the world was not allowed to think freely. Serge, although a committed revolutionary and admirer of Trotsky, managed, by my reckoning, to live slightly less than one-fifth of his life neither in prison or exile; his death in 1947 of a heart attack in the back of a taxi in Mexico is considered by some to have been an assassination. He had enraged Stalin, and although much of his writing was not published until after his death, this novel did come out in 1939, when Stalin came down on anything that was not the outrageous praise expected from the citizenry – and Midnight in the Century is very much less than that. It’s an insider’s view of life in the Soviet Union: the constant (and usually justified) fear of arrest; the networks of corruption and corrupt allegiances; what it’s like to have everything in your life gone through with a fine-toothed comb by the secret police. One character is sent to London, Paris and Berlin to see how the west makes tractors. In Paris he finds a copy of Trotsky’s opposition newspaper and in a panic conceals it in a semi-pornographic magazine. A couple of days later, he tears it up and flushes it down a train toilet, but his belongings have already been searched, and a cold welcome awaits him when he returns home.
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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Other Tolstoy and the Book of Night

It seemed like sensational news to me. I’m not sure why it hasn’t become more of a high-profile issue in literary circles. I found it to be—in the words of Mary McCarthy’s awestruck review of Nabokov’s Pale Fire—“A bolt from the blue.”

After all, this is a revelation about the mind of Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy. That Tolstoy, you know, the Russian novelist? Conventionally credited with being the greatest illuminator of the human experience in literature? The same one who—and fewer readers are aware of this—late in his life turned into a sex-hating crank who (seriously) argued that the extinction of the human species would be a small price to pay for the immediate cessation of all sexual intercourse. Everyone, everywhere. You there, hiding in the shadows: Stop fucking now!

And fewer still are aware of Tolstoy’s devastating “consolatory” response when it was pointed out to him that cessation of all sex would mean the rapid extinction of the human species.

He replied with what might be the single worst attempt at “consolation” in all of literature, perhaps all of life. What’s the problem with human extinction? Tolstoy asked. After all, science tells us the sun will eventually cool and all life on Earth will die off anyway. Sure, billions of years in the future, probably. But there’s actually a bright side to near-term extinction, he said: It will mean the human race will be spared billions of years of shame, billions of years of further degradation in what he charmingly called the “pigsty” of sex.

Glass half-full!

Seriously. Yes, it’s shocking, especially from a novelist whose works are known for their superb vitality, bursting with the love of life. And yet, far less well-known are his late anti-sexual novellas: The Devil, Father Sergius, and, most vicious, venomous, and sex-hating of all, the 100-page The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s a deceptively innocent title for the heartwarming story of a madman wife-murderer who delivers an interminable monologue on an interminable night-train journey across the Russian steppes. Who horrifies his captive audience—the passengers in his compartment—with a denunciation of men, women, and sex. Who thereby—in his mind—justifies the bloody murder.

Oh it must be ironic, said the Moscow-to-Petersburg Acela corridor chattering class of the time. He was portraying a character. True, his protagonist was a wife-murderer who’d been freed on judgment that he'd been driven to kill by justified defense of his "honor." But Tolstoy himself was not justifying the murderer’s rationale for his act. Impossible!

No, NO! thundered Lev Nikolaevitch in a “Postface” he insisted be added to Kreutzer to clear things up: He stood behind every word of the madman’s rationale, if not his final bloody act. Lev converted to a radical form of “primitive Christianity” in the 1880s and found an affinity with an anti-sexual sect that advocated voluntary castration. (He did not volunteer.) He hadn’t gotten around to killing his own wife, but clearly he could understand, he could empathize with the logic of the deed. Human love and sexuality were irredeemably evil; women were sinister provocateurs of male murderousness. (I am generally opposed to biographical criticism, but it’s worth reading The Last Station, Jay Parini’s historically based novel about the last days of Tolstoy’s bitter marriage—just to see how emotionally murderous that marriage was in the decade before he died in 1910.)

None too surprisingly, Tolstoy’s wife, Sofiya, took his tale of a wife-murderer personally, especially since it seemed to her it was inspired by the “issues” in her own marriage. The Kreutzer narrator—a Tolstoy-like landowner—fantasized an adulterous tryst between his wife and the violinist she played duets with. Mad sexual jealousy. And then when he comes home one night and unexpectedly finds the two dining together, he imagines the worst and stabs her to death.

t was fair to say Sofiya was humiliated and incensed when the novella was published and her marriage to The Great Man became suspect, subject to nationwide speculation. (And yet such was her devotion she made a special plea to the Czar to allow its publication after Orthodox Church objections banned it. In an unusual moment in the annals of censorship, the church objected not so much to a surplus of sex in Kreutzer, but rather to its denunciation of even church-sanctified marital sex as legitimized depravity.)

For a long time, it had been thought Sofiya kept her dismay to her private diary. But now—and this is the revelation I first saw reported in the New York Times last summer—it turns out she wrote an entire novella of her own that has languished unpublished and untranslated in the depths of the archives of the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow for more than a century.

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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Vladimir Mayakovsky - Biography

'When I woke up Mayakovsky/ he was a lot more prompt,” complains the sun to the American poet Frank O’Hara in his poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”. The less-than-prompt O’Hara draws an ironic contrast between his own poetic persona – a Fifties New York aesthete who dashed out verse during his lunch breaks – and Mayakovsky, the whirlwind Russian who composed grandiose, sprawling poems about revolution, romantic love, the Soviet Union and himself.
The 1920 poem in which Mayakovsky “gossiped” with the sun is described by Bengt Jangfeldt, his Swedish biographer, as “a much-needed break from the poetic emergency service he had devoted himself to since the outbreak of the First World War”. Mayakovsky contained at least two poets. One was the intensely individual, avant-garde visionary who burst into genius with the early poem “A Cloud in Trousers”. The other was the patriotic, Left-wing agitator who willingly put his talent for rhyme and wordplay to the service of the rapidly collectivising Russian state.
In Jangfeldt’s pioneering account, the public story of Mayakovsky’s life is interwoven with the private stories of his poems, which multiply that life through metaphor, as in a house of mirrors. Mayakovsky was a great self-dramatiser in everything he did, whether falling in love, writing and starring in films, or giving histrionic readings that gripped his listeners with – in the words of one translator, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan – his “scooping and pouncing mastery of pause and emphasis”.
He made his debut at 19 in a Futurist anthology called A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, and one of his earliest works was titled “Vladimir Mayakovsky: a Tragedy”. Jangfeldt suggests there is something Walt Whitman-like about the preening way in which Mayakovsky presents himself. But the Russian makes the American look demure in his self-mythologising, which is more likely to remind modern readers of the braggadocio of hip hop.
The amazing thing is that, by all accounts, he does seem to have warranted the acclaim. The impression he made on his first literary admirers was a rude, provincial youth with rotten teeth and a cigarette permanently rooted in the side of his mouth. But when he read his poems, he was quickly declared a genius.
The young man had, it seems, the essential poetic talent of digesting language voraciously (as a politically radical teenager, he had eaten a notebook to keep it from the police). Like many poets, he was also fascinated by games of chance, and became a compulsive gambler.
A group of brilliant bohemian Muscovites soon gathered around Mayakovsky, bringing him into their lives and homes. His biographer’s dry wit – and that of his English translator, Harry D Watson – asserts itself in sentences such as: “It was a pancake day with undreamed-of consequences for the development of Russian literary studies.”
The poet’s volatile personality pinballs tragicomically around the milieu where Jangfeldt deftly sets him down. The group included Lili Brik, a charismatic woman who became the “sole heroine” of Mayakovsky’s poems and the love of his life. Orbiting her circle were two men – Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovsky – who are remembered for their influential critical writings, which radically emphasised the formal, linguistic nature of literary texts. There is a dark comedy to the scene where Shklovsky, hiding from the Bolshevik authorities, is advised by Jakobson to “pretend you’re a piece of paper and rustle” if they search the house.
It was a dangerous time to be an experimental poet but, after initially failing to impress Lenin with his epic work “150,000,000” (the population of the country at the time), Mayakovsky eventually emerged as a celebrated “poetic journalist”, seemingly in tune with Communist Russia. “Do not go into production until you are conscious of a clear social demand,” he advised apprentice poets in the essay “How Are Verses Made?” No one should fiddle about making “poetic cigarette lighters”.
The standard English translations used here don’t convey the gusto of Mayakovsky’s socialist satire as well as Edwin Morgan’s Scots versions: “Stick in, douce folk. – Pineaipple, feesant’s breist:/ stuff till ye boke, for thon is your last feast,” runs a rhyming squib “To the Bourgeoisie”. He was not able, however, simply to hack out “boy-meets-tractor” literature (as Theodor Adorno called it), and later came to feel that he had set his heel “on the throat/ of my own song”.
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