Friday, 27 March 2015

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

It was for a perhaps peripheral participation in the “Petrashevist” movement that Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to four years of hard labor followed by four years of military service in Siberia; he’d circulated a letter and supported the establishment of a subversive press, all done in resistance to the established imperial power structure with the Church and Tsar Nicholas I at its head.

Dostoevsky immediately began characterizing his impending sentence as a kind of death – with the promise of resurrection to follow. He assured his brother in the most fulsome terms that if he survived his coming ordeal, he’d be reborn.

He got out of the prison portion of his sentence at the beginning of 1854 and began his military service in Kazakhstan by promptly importuning his brother for books, emphasizing “my whole future depends on this.” In this he was, at least artistically speaking, entirely right; prior to his imprisonment, he’d been the author of a listless novel and some fairly listless short stories, and on some level he must have recognized the potential his tragedy had to work as a catalyst. As Richard Pevear remarks in the Foreward of his new translation, the appearance of the resultant book, Notes from a Dead House, in 1861-62, “marked a triumphant return to literature” for its author, who never thereafter wrote a listless word in his life. The book, a lightly-fictionalized chronicle of Dostoevsky’s prison experiences – here happening to a nobleman named Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who’s sent to penal servitude for the crime of killing his wife – was a great critical and popular success. A writer was indeed reborn.

The appearance of any new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is always an event in a literary season, and any kind of event that puts great literature before a wide audience (and audiences don’t get much wider than Oprah’s, who were recommended in their millions the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina) is to be applauded. It’s true that too many critics – and far, far too many general readers – have taken the arrival of a new P & V translation as an occasion for scorning the steadfast and often quite lovely older translations of such figures as Constance Garnett, Rosemary Edmonds, and Louise and Aylmer Maude, but that was hardly our new duo’s aim and certainly not their strategy. Nations, times, and idioms change, after all; translation itself is a constantly ongoing process; it “openeth the window,” as the King James Bible translators wrote 500 years ago, “to let in the light” – and each day’s light is subtly different from the light of the day before.

Notes from a Dead House got a very good English-language translation by David McDuff for Penguin Classics back in 1985 (with the title The House of the Dead), in his Introduction to which McDuff sticks up for the most embattled and often forgotten aspect of Dostoevsky’s novel: the very fact that it IS a novel. “Yet it would be a mistake,” McDuff tells us, “to view the novel simply as a work of documentary realism.” In his own Foreward, Pevear disagrees, maintaining that “the fictionalizing was in part a mask for the censors”:
The notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal. But the mask is dropped rather quickly … Though he keeps the persona of Alexander Petrovich throughout, the narrator’s thoughts, his preoccupations, and his conscience are not at all those of a man who has murdered his wife. Dostoevsky’s personality does not disappear from view; he is present as the observer of the life around him …
But no matter where a reader stands on the question of Dostoevsky’s re-invention of himself for his book’s narration, one thing is certain about this new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of the book itself: it’s a triumph. In its beautiful new Knopf edition (given a graceful, somber design by Peter Mendelsund), our translating team have given us a Notes from a Dead House every bit as reborn as its author was – a rediscovered masterpiece, here given an intellectual and moral heft fit to set it alongside all of Dostoevsky’s later works of genius.

Like most prison memoirs (even the fictionalized kind), it’s a story composed entirely of vignettes. Our narrator visits the wretched infirmary; our narrator samples the wretched food; most of all, our narrator – a disgraced aristocrat initially despised by his plebeian fellow-prisoners – first dismisses the men around him and then gradually awakens to their depth and even subtlety of spirit. In one of the most pathetic and touching scenes of the book’s latter half, the prisoners have been keeping a wounded eagle as a chained and defiant pet in their barracks. Finally they decide to give the bird what they themselves are denied: freedom. McDuff’s translation captures something of the bittersweet momentum of the moment:
“There’s no point in trying to put him in a cage out here. Give him his freedom, give him the genuine article!”
And Mikita hurled the eagle off the ramparts and into the steppe. It was far into autumn, a cold, dark day. The wind was whistling over the bare steppe, hissing in the dry, yellow tussocks of grass. The eagle set off on an even trajectory, beating its great wings as though in a hurry to get away from us, anywhere at all. The convicts watched with curiosity as its head flickered through the grass.
“Just look at him,” said one man, thoughtfully. “And he doesn’t look round!” added another. “He hasn’t looked round once, lads, he just keeps on going.” “What did you expect, did you think he was going to come back and say thank you?” asked a third. “Freedom, that’s what it is. He can smell his freedom.”

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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Is Russian Literature Dead?

Speaking at an event in January to launch the “Year of Literature,” a series of public events and projects extolling the virtues of Russian letters, President 
Vladimir Putin laid out his mission to raise the “prestige and influence in the world” of his country’s writers. Generations of American readers weaned on Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak may see cause for hope in such a revival: They want to return to that magical land they first discovered in books — one of passion and tragedy where vast forces tumble characters like ice cubes in the 11-time-zone-wide cocktail shaker that is Russia. Yet though nostalgic for Natasha Rostova and Yuri Zhivago, those readers might struggle to name a single contemporary Russian writer.

The last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation was Doctor Zhivago, which was published the year before Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature. The most recent nonfiction book of comparable fame was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in the West in 1973. Since then, no Russian writer has enjoyed true breakout American celebrity.

Noble efforts to translate and promote Russia’s contemporary literature persist, but today in the United States, only about 4.6 percent of books translated into English were written in Russian, placing the language far behind French, Spanish, and German. “Great books are being written in Russia today,” Dmitry Bykov, Russia’s leading contemporary critic and a biographer of Pasternak, said in a radio interview. “But not nearly enough get translated.”

Putin biographer and journalist Masha Gessen disagrees, saying the reason for limited international interest is that modern Russian writers aren’t producing world-class books. Russian literature “is not as popular because there is very little to read,” says Gessen. Russia’s “general cultural rot has affected literature to an even greater extent than other cultural production.” Chad Post of the Three Percent translation project at the University of Rochester provides a more benign explanation: “poor distribution networks” in the United States. But Natasha Perova, whose famous Moscow publishing house, Glas, announced it was suspending work in late 2014, says the American market is more to blame. These days, people buying from Perova’s U.S. distributors “seem to have an allergy to everything Russian,” she says. In the early 1990s, “everything Russian was welcome because the world had great hopes for Russia. We thought Russia would be 
reintegrating into the European context. But it gradually went back to its former practices, and people turned away from us.”

A glib case can be made that characters in Russian novels are incomprehensible to a new generation of Western readers — like the chemotherapy patients in Solzhenitsyn’s 1967 Cancer Ward, changed forever by the poison they have ingested, Russians’ lives have become too grim to elicit immediate empathy. The #FirstWorldProblems suffered by the suburban protagonists of writers like Jonathan Franzen, the argument goes, are nothing like the avalanches of despair that their Russian contemporaries face. To be sure, being set in a violent, feudal, and unfamiliar world is not necessarily an impediment to a book’s U.S. sales; just look at Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell cycle. In that case, however, the reader’s guide is Cromwell, constructed by Mantel as an outsider — a man of almost modern sensibility projected into a late medieval world.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Tolstoy replays history

The first instalments of the text that would later be known as War and Peace were published 150 years ago in the journal Russkii vestnik (The Russian Herald), under the title 1805. With this title, Tolstoy emphatically shifted his focus away from the novel’s main characters or message to its temporal dimension. In fact, Tolstoy seems to have been the first major author in world history to have tried to make a year the protagonist of a novel (Victor Hugo’s 1793 appeared nine years later). Yet, as was evident to readers from the very beginning, the narrative was always destined to spill over to the following years, and thus the title of the novel was bound to change. The reader’s attention was to be focused not on the isolated period defined in the title, but on the flow of history itself.

Indeed, from the start of his work on the future War and Peace, Tolstoy was particularly eager to distinguish his venture from a conventional novel. In all three variants of the introduction that he drafted more or less simultaneously with the early versions of the first chapters, he insisted that his book defied generic categorization. Draft One: “Traditions both of form and content oppressed me . . . . I was afraid that my writing would fall into no existing genre, that it would be neither novel, nor tale, neither long poem, nor history”. Draft Two: “We Russians in general do not know how to write novels in the sense in which this genre is understood in Europe . . . . with a plot that has growing complexity, intrigue and a happy or unhappy denouement”. Draft Three:

“This work is more similar to a novel or a tale than to anything else, but it is not a novel because I cannot and do not know how to confine the characters I have created within given limits – a marriage or a death after which the interest of the narrative would cease. I could not help thinking that the death of one character would only arouse interest in other characters, and a marriage seemed to me more like a source of complication than something likely to bring about a diminution of my readers’ interest.”

With each version of the draft, Tolstoy became more and more explicit about the characteristics of the traditional novel which seemed to him incompatible with his plan. In short, he was averse to the narrative pattern so aptly recommended to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: “‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop’”. According to Tolstoy, history did not have beginnings or endings and thus, neither death nor marriage could serve as a denouement. In one of the best studies of War and Peace, Gary Saul Morson’s Hidden in Plain View (1987), this perception is seen as the main clue to the mystery of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Tolstoy’s efforts, Morson argues, were directed towards conveying a sense of the openness and unpredictability of the future, of the existence of multiple unnarrated alternatives to any single possible narrative, such that “it is this conception of characters and incidents that led . . . to the instinctive and unexplained feeling that War and Peace is more like the world in which we live than any other novel, a ‘piece of life’ rather than a piece of art”.

All this is, of course, true. However, it is against this background that we should see the thing that is so evident that it is rather rarely mentioned. As the Russian scholar Sergei Bocharov perceptively pointed out, contrary to everything that Tolstoy says in all versions of his introduction about the general conception of the book, War and Peace is a conventionally structured novel that has its denouement in marriage.

Tolstoy introduces his male hero in the first extended episode of the novel. The female protagonist appears in the second, and in the final episode they find each other and reunite after the enormous calamities they have had to endure, including Pierre’s unhappy marriage, Natasha’s unhappy engagement with Prince Andrei and even more unhappy infatuation with Anatole Kuragin, wars, battles, duels, political intrigues and assassination attempts. As in ancient Greek romance, the ordeals of the characters include the sudden captivity of one of the lovers. This lasts only several months, much less than in, say, Daphnis and Chloe, but still long enough to disentangle all the knots that separate them, to leave them free and yet to change their personalities completely.

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Saturday, 21 March 2015

Anna Akhmatova: Solitude

So many stones are thrown at me

That I no longer cower,
The turret’s cage is shapely,
High among high towers.
My thanks, to its builders,
May they evade pain and woe,
Here, I see suns rise earlier,
Here, their last splendours glow.
And often winds from northern seas
Fill the windows of my sanctuary,
And a dove eats corn from my palm…
And divinely light and calm,
The Muse’s sunburnt hand’s at play,
Finishing my unfinished page.

The Diary of Lena Mukhina

"People are not born brave, strong and smart. These qualities must be acquired through perseverance and with determination, like the ability to read and write."

When Lena Mukhina wrote this stern reminder to herself, she was a Leningrad schoolgirl of 16 with two great worries - her end-of-year exams and her secret crush on a boy in her class. Her diary of the summer of 1941 is sprinkled with Soviet pieties, teenage problems and a blithe disregard for anything concerning politics.

All this changed on June 22, when the radio announced that the Germans had invaded. By mid-September, Leningrad was encircled, and its two and a half million inhabitants were under bombardment. The blockade was to last an incredible 874 days, but that first winter was the most harrowing of all. Until late November the city was completely cut off; then a single, fragile line of supply known as "the Road of Death" opened up over the ice of Lake Ladoga. People starved in their hundreds every day.

Throughout it all, Lena continued to keep her diary. She wrote of the terror of the air-raids, the lack of sleep, her exhausting labour building the city's defences and her observations on the transformed city - all interspersed with the anxieties and dreams of a young girl. No wonder that when her notebook was discovered recently in an archive in Moscow, she was hailed as "the Russian Anne Frank". Before discovering from relatives that Lena lived until 1991, the publisher had concluded from the diary's abrupt end that its author had died, one of around 800,000 siege victims.

Lena's family consists of the beloved aunt she calls Mama, and an elderly housekeeper, Aka. Mama works in the theatre and receives the higher "worker's" rations, while Lena and Aka are "dependants". I broke off from my reading to weigh 125g of bread, Lena and Aka's daily portion by November 1941 - one thickish slice, which would have been heavily adulterated with wallpaper dust, wood cellulose and bran. And yet how philosophically Lena managed on this diet. "I'm listening to piano music on the radio and nibbling tiny crumbs of bread, to prolong my pleasure." She sets down long, vivid daydreams of food and life after the war, when she and Mama will look back on these hardships as memories. "Everything we have to endure is temporary."

The Wehrmacht, meanwhile, has dug into its positions. Unknown to Leningraders, the order has gone out that "any requests for surrender arising as a result of this action will be categorically rejected". Why? Because they had "no interest in saving any part of the civilian population of the city". This whole section of northern Russia was to be emptied for future resettlement by Aryans. "The delirious fantasies of a madman," remarks Lena. "Yet because of this we are suffering…"

By December they are forced to kill and eat their "dear puss". "I never thought cat meat would be so tender and tasty," Lena writes, beyond all pretence at sentiment. She is still attending school, occasionally going to the theatre, and she enjoys the New Year party for the city's children arranged by the authorities - yet she is so weak, she observes, "it's making me unsteady on my feet". Any food now seems tasty: the wallpaper-paste bread appears "golden and delicious, better than any before the war". "What joy, what joy!" she exclaims on December 25 - the bread ration is to be increased by 75g.

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Friday, 20 March 2015

A brief history of the short story: Varlam Shalamov

“I hate literature,” wrote Varlam Shalamov in a 1965 letter. “I do not write memoirs; nor do I write short stories. That is, I try to write not a short story but something that would not be literature.” Despite Shalamov’s misgivings, his collection of short stories, Kolyma Tales, contains some of the greatest writing to emerge from the gulag.

What he was expressing, in agonised terms, was that everything in his writing serves a purpose. As in the gulag, where survival could come down to receiving the thicker part of the soup or an extra ration of bread, or simply owning your own bowl, there is no room in his stories for the non-essential. What he is also stating, purposefully or not, is that his writing is unique.

The gulag was a vast concentration-camp network that spread across some of the most inhospitable regions of Russia, and of all these regions Kolyma was the most extreme. “In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps,” the historian Anne Applebaum writes, “so too has the word ‘Kolyma’ come to signify the greatest hardships of the gulag.” Shalamov’s translator John Glad describes the region as “an enormous natural prison bounded by the Pacific on the east, the Arctic Circle on the north and impassable mountains on the third side of the triangle”. The temperature can reach minus 45 degrees centigrade, cold that, in Shalamov’s words, “crushed the muscles and squeezed a man’s temples”.

First arrested in 1929 for trying to distribute a suppressed letter by Lenin, Shalamov was released in 1932 after three years’ hard labour. Rearrested in 1937, at the outset of the great purge, he spent the next 17 years in Kolyma. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of him that his imprisonment “was more bitter and longer than mine, and I say with respect that it fell to him, not to me, to touch that bottom of brutalisation and despair to which the whole of camp life dragged us”. For his part, Shalamov was largely dismissive of Solzhenitsyn, whose fame he envied: he refused Solzhenitsyn’s offer to co-author The Gulag Archipelago, and once described the camps as a subject “that can freely accommodate a hundred writers of Solzhenitsyn’s rank, and five Tolstoys”.

Between 1954 and 1973, Shalamov wrote 147 stories about Russian prisons, transit camps, the mines of Kolyma, life in the camp hospitals, and the troubled experience of returning home. It is tempting, at first, to consider the stories autobiographical, if not straight memoir. This impression is only strengthened if you have encountered Shalamov’s stories quoted as primary source material in historical works by Robert Conquest and Applebaum, or by the political philosopher John Gray. It is a judgment his prose style supports: “Shalamov holds himself in severe check as an artist”, wrote Irving Howe, “he is simply intent, with a grey passion, upon exactitude.”

Yet the more you read, the less documentary-like the experience becomes. Unusual repetitions occur, such as the selection of a work crew described from different perspectives across three separate stories: three discrete pathways that unexpectedly intersect. Similarly, particular images and phrases repeat; objects exhibit a strong symbolic power; meanings double, as accounts of daily camp life take on aesthetic and philosophical dimensions. As Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson describe:
A reader who knows only a few of the stories may well imagine the Kolyma Tales to be simply a factual account of Shalamov’s experiences. The events described in each individual story seem entirely real. Only when we read further, when we try to grasp the whole of this epic cycle, do we begin to realise that its truth can never be grasped: we begin, at last, to sense the terrible unreality of the survivor’s world. Successive narrators suffer identical fates, their stories intertwine impossibly, and time stands still. This fusion of realism and the surreal endows Kolyma Tales with extraordinary power.
Shalamov’s work is often described as “web-like” in its complexity. The stories are quite capable of standing alone (several are outright masterpieces), but ideally they should be read as a totality, arranged in the order Shalamov intended. Unfortunately, because the stories were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published piecemeal in the west (none of them appeared in print in Shalamov’s home country before 1989, seven years after his death), and because to date only a third of the stories have been translated into other languages, non-Russian speakers are unable to experience their intended effect in full.

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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Sergei Diaghilev: ballet, beauty and the beast

In August 21 1929 a funeral barge set off from the Grand Hotel on the Lido for the little island of San Michele, where the city of Venice has buried its dead since the beginning of the 19th century. The body in the barge, bound for the Greek Orthodox section of the cemetery, was that of Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, founder and leader of the Ballets Russes and one of the most influential pioneers of modern art in the 20th century.

In the course of a 23-year career, Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before, or since. From 1896 he was active in Russia as a critic, exhibition organiser, publisher and art historian. Through his journal Mir iskusstva and exhibitions, he brought Russian art out of years of stagnation, championed international symbolism, art nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement and Russian neonationalism, and revived forgotten aspects of Russia’s artistic past.

He set up a privately financed ballet troupe that performed in the most famous venues in Europe and the US, and for nearly a quarter of a century it would be the world’s leading dance company. Its early productions fed the craze for Slavic and oriental exoticism, shooting the Ballets Russes to instant fame. Shortly before the First World War, Diaghilev reinvented his company as a laboratory and platform for the avant-garde, working with artists such as Picasso, Cocteau, Derain, Braque and Matisse, as well as Russian modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Naum Gabo.

His ventures, which often met with strong resistance from those closest to him, entailed huge personal and financial risks. Diaghilev’s company did more for the prestige and scope of the European avant-garde than any other single entity. Diaghilev achieved all this with an improvised organisation that had no official headquarters for its first 10 years and, even more incredibly, no regular funding. He himself had no home and almost no possessions.

He roamed the world with his manservant and a couple of suitcases, staying at expensive hotels (which he sometimes left without paying the bill).

Financial crises were the leitmotif of his life. He often teetered on the brink of ruin, and at least once he actually had to flee his creditors. Yet at the same time he was the feted guest of kings, noblemen and captains of industry.

Diaghilev spent his youth in Perm, at the foot of the northern Urals, where his family had their roots. No one who knew him failed to say how Russian he was and how attached he was to his homeland, from which he was virtually exiled by the First World War. Despite this, his relationship with the Russian establishment was a troubled one. The courtiers of Tsar Nicholas II frequently tried to frustrate and sabotage Diaghilev’s success in Western Europe. By the time of the Soviet regime, Diaghilev was regarded as a has-been and ultimately as an enemy of the state. Yet in Europe and the US his death was front-page news, and in the wake of his passing the papers were full of reminiscences and necrologies.

In his own country his death merited only a solitary mention: a brief obituary on page 15 of the Red Panorama, a journal of art and literature.

Diaghilev’s dedication to the arts was complete; moderation was out of the question. Without total commitment there could be no art; indeed, life itself would be incomplete. As far as he was concerned, life was work, interspersed with brief intervals of rest. He squeezed every last drop out of life, living in the eye of a whirlwind of joy and sorrow, conflict and reconciliation, a personal cloud of turbulence that left those around him breathless.

If we look beyond the conflicts, the legendary charm, the dictatorial tendencies, the unparalleled eye for talent, the cunning and deceitfulness, the self-assurance and prophetic gifts, we see a man driven by an overpowering need to explore the mystery of human creativity in its highest form.

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry

Russia's proud poetic heritage is revived brilliantly in English in this new anthology from Penguin Classics, which has been edited and translated by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski.

Russian poetry had its so-called 'golden' (nineteenth century) and later 'silver' age (early-to-mid twentieth century), the latter marked by a brave defiance of censorship and repression by poets whose work is valued to this day. Some paid the ultimate price.

But the lives of the best-known poets in the 'golden' age also ended tragically, even if literature may have little to do with it. In 1837, a year after the publication of his much-celebrated verse novel, Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel.

His fellow poet, Mikhail Lermontov was killed in a duel in 1841, one year after publication of his classic novel, A Hero Of Our Time. Moving forward to the 'silver' age, in 1930, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide.

In 1946, Anna Akhamatova and Mikhail Zoschenko were expelled from the Writers Union. In 1958, Boris Pasternak declined the Nobel Prize for Literature under pressure from the Soviet authorities.

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky - a long-time friend of the late Seamus Heaney - won the Nobel Prize. He accepted it, on this occasion, despite appalling treatment at the hands of the Soviet authorities. In June 1972, he was forcibly put on board a plane to Vienna, from where he later emigrated to the United States. In 1991 Brodksy was appointed US Poet Laureate, three years after he had been guest at the International Writers Conference in Dun Laoghaire in 1988. He died of a heart attack, aged 55, in January 1996.

The first two of the four poems included here by Brodksy are inspired by his lover Maria Basmanova. He addresses his son by Maria, from whom he was separated by exile, in the third of the poems, Odysseus To Telemachus:

Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong./Only the gods know if we will see each other again.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is afforded generous space in this 572-page collection. Mandelstam’s story is one of constant defiance and attendant persecution throughout the 1930s. He made no secret of his contempt and hatred for Josef Stalin. He called Stalin ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’ in one of his poems, comparing the tufts of his moustaches to `cockroaches.’

His 1933 epigram about the Russian dictator was read at small gatherings in Moscow. “Executions are what he likes best./ Broad are the highlander’s chest, “ goes the concluding couplet, in Alexandra Berlina’s translation.

Six months after its first readings, Mandelstam was arrested. He could have been shot, but was sent to the Urals instead, because Stalin was interested in Mandelstam's case and aware of his standing and influence in the literary community. After the poet attempted suicide, his sentence was changed to banishment from the main cities of Russia. He and Nadezhda settled in the city of Voronezh in Easter Russia and the poet died in a transit camp near Vladivostock in December 1937.

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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Marina Tsvetaeva: On Parting

   Mein Herz tragt schwere Ketten.
     Die Du mir angelegt.
     Ich mocht mein Leben wetten
     Dass Keine schwerer tragt

     Frankfurt song

     Teasing and tempting and playing
     We loved like children, us both
     But somebody, hiding a smile,
     Set up the ungentle nets -
     And here we are at the harbor,
     Not seeing the wished-for abodes,
     But knowing that I will be yours
     In the heart, without words, until death.

     You told me of all things - so early!
     I guessed them so late! In our hearts
     A wound is eternal, a silent
     Question exists in our eyes,
     The desert on earth is so endless,
     The heaven, so high, has no stars,
     Revealed is the tender secret,
     And frost rules for centuries.

     I will talk to shades! O my dear,
     To forget you I do not have might,
     Your visage can't move under shadow
     Of eyelids gone over my eyes...
     It's darkening... Shutters have closed,
     On all things descending is night...
     I love you, one ghostly-eternal,
     And only you - and always!

Translated by Ilya Shambat

The Real Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with its grand opening chords, is one of the most recognizable and popular pieces in the classical music repertoire. Van Cliburn’s recording of the concerto, made after his victory at the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war, became the first classical album to go triple platinum, and the first LP that many classical music lovers owned. For many, the concerto is the sound of classical music. Yet the piano’s famous opening chords are not, in fact, what Tchaikovsky wrote at all. The actual musical text of the composition, as Tchaikovsky notated and conducted it on numerous occasions, has been distorted by interventions almost certainly introduced after his death. This year—both the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth and the 140th anniversary of the concerto’s premiere—the Tchaikovsky Museum and Archive in Klin, Russia is publishing a new scholarly edition of the First Piano Concerto, a text that will enable us to hear for the first time the version of the composition that Tchaikovsky himself conducted.

 There are three versions of the concerto. Tchaikovsky himself was responsible for the two versions of the piece dating from 1875 and 1879. The third version was published posthumously after 1894. It is this third version that has been most commonly performed for over a century—for instance, this is the version that Van Cliburn performed—and it varies significantly from the two earlier versions. But the question of whether Tchaikovsky authorized the changes, or if they were the work of other musicians or editors, has until now gone largely unanswered.

At the end of 1874, Tchaikovsky showed a final draft of the first version of his piano concerto to his supporter, one of the foremost Russian musicians of the time, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. Not a concert pianist himself, the composer wanted to consult on the playability and effectiveness of the piano writing in the concerto. Rubinstein was scathing about both. Tchaikovsky describes this occasion in a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, and recalls Rubinstein telling him that the concerto was unacceptable, full of clumsy, trivial passages, and many stolen ideas. At the end of the meeting, Tchaikovsky wrote, Rubinstein said
that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my piece at his concert. “I shall not alter a single note,” I answered, “I shall publish the work exactly as it is!” This I did.
Tchaikovsky completed this first version in February 1875 and dedicated the concerto to the great German pianist Hans von Bülow, an admirer of his music. Von Bülow responded to the concerto with great enthusiasm and premiered it in Boston in October 1875. A student of Tchaikovsky’s, the pianist and composer Sergey Taneev, gave the first performance in Moscow in December 1875 with the now less doubtful Rubinstein on the podium.

Shortly after these early performances Tchaikovsky decided to make some alterations to the piano part, making it more sonorous and playable while leaving both the musical material and the overall structure intact. With these changes incorporated, the second version of the concerto was printed by his publisher, P. Jurgenson, in 1879. From then on, it was this 1879 version that Tchaikovsky conducted, right up until his very last performance in St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893, days before his death.

It is impossible to know for certain just who is responsible for the posthumous version. The name of Alexander Siloti, a student of Tchaikovsky’s, is most commonly mentioned in association with the changes in Tchaikovsky’s text. Siloti is quoted by Olin Downes in a New York Times article of October 13, 1929:
Some time after the first and second editions had appeared, Mr. Siloti informs us, he ventured to speak to Tchaikovsky about these matters. The young musician played the opening chords on the piano. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” “Why, yes,” replied the composer, astonished, “it’s what I’ve written, isn’t it?” “No. That’s just the point. It’s what I’ve played.” Siloti had transposed the chords of the right hand an octave higher than Tchaikovsky had written them—transposed them as they stand today. Siloti suggested other changes, and a short cut in the last movement.
There is documentary evidence that Siloti and Tchaikovsky discussed a proposed cut in the last movement, and that some further changes to the concerto were contemplated. However, the existing correspondence between them does not mention changing the opening chords, nor other alterations that actually ended up in the posthumous version.

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko: 'You shouldn’t rush to call people lost'

I spoke in St. Petersburg a few days ago, and a wonderful girl from the Pushkin Museum was in the audience. I asked her whether it had ever occurred to her that there is a sector of our society that would kill Pushkin on the spot simply for the color of his skin. She said that, unfortunately, this had crossed her mind, and began to cry.

Then there is what happened in Armenia, where, in spite the long-standing friendship between the Russian and Armenian people, our soldier committed a terrible act [a Russian soldier shot an entire family in the city of Gyumri in January]. Of course, he can’t have been in his right mind; he had lost his humanity and was striking out at all mankind. But what shook me most of all was an awful discussion I overheard about this event when I was traveling to a meeting.

This was an episode that was already full of hatred, but the people I heard were doing nothing but adding to their own accumulated, internal hatred – blind and directionless. Such people are so full of frustration at life that the only answer they can ever see is combating hatred with hatred.

We need to defuse violence, anger and hatred wherever we find them. The Internet is a breeding ground for such emotions; you just have to see the immensely offensive online arguments to realize this.

I remember how shocked I was when Nelson Mandela died. He was one of the best and most righteous people on the planet; he did not bear a grudge against all white people, despite having been kept in solitary confinement for 27 years. When he was freed and the situation was about to blow up, he realized how much responsibility for his own people, for their future, for mankind, lay on his shoulders.

He extended a hand to his foe to help escape the cycle of seemingly unrelenting bloodshed. Had he not done so, racism could have engulfed the whole of humanity.

I remember an image from my childhood. In 1944 I saw the Germans leaving Stalingrad. There were about 30,000 of them. Suddenly, some Russian women who were standing nearby broke through the cordon of soldiers and rushed towards the German convoys. Just when it seemed like something terrible was about to happen, they suddenly started pulling out their rations of bread, seeing those wounded teenage soldiers with puttees bound around their legs. I will never forget that: it was a great lesson about what lies in the soul of the Russian people.

With respect to the general philosophical embodiment of all this, we must turn to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. When discussing Pushkin, his favorite poet, he said his best quality was his “responsiveness.” This is an amazing Russian word [otzyvchivost] that is, unfortunately, difficult to translate with literal accuracy.

I think we writers keep searching for some sort of new Russian idea, when a great Russian idea already exists: universal responsiveness [which also contains the meanings sympathy, kindheartedness and sensitivity].

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Friday, 6 March 2015

The House That Stalin Built

ANYONE UNFAMILIAR with the quality of Stephen Kotkin’s four earlier books on the Soviet Union might well question whether we need a new, voluminous tome about the first fifty years of Joseph Stalin’s life. Stalin, like Hitler, has been the subject of numerous biographies, ranging from Boris Souvarine’s pioneering work to Robert C. Tucker’s multivolume study. Is there anything important to add?

The answer is an emphatic yes, and not just because Kotkin’s Stalin is the product of a careful review of how a tyrant gained control of a country and exercised power. It dispenses with the myth that he was an intellectual dullard, showing that he was quite shrewd as well as forceful. What’s more, it contains essential background information for policy makers in the world today, illuminating some of the causes of the strife that persists despite the end of the Cold War.

In order to explain Stalin, Kotkin (a former valued colleague of mine at Princeton University) provides a brilliant political history of Russia in the early twentieth century. By casting his research net widely and examining evidence that has only recently become available as a result of the opening of Soviet archives, he illustrates the complexity of motives and fundamental unpredictability of events as they unfolded during the 1920s. In addition, Kotkin has supplemented the main text with 120 pages of notes containing relevant commentary of great interest, along with source citations. The level of detail is microscopic and the judgments crackling. This is a landmark achievement that is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.

Pace theoreticians of every school: history does not move in predictable patterns. Human beings make history, but the makers and shakers often fail to understand the potential effects of their actions. The most carefully planned projects can bring results that are the opposite of those intended. Once in a while, the wildest gambles pay off, but the payoff may not resemble the prize that was sought.

Stalin, whose party nickname was Koba, succeeded, against incalculable odds, in helping to create a Bolshevik dictatorship in the world’s largest country; through adroit maneuvering, he positioned himself in absolute control of that dictatorship. The result, however, bore no resemblance to the proletarian utopia predicted by Karl Marx. In fact, the Bolsheviks were turning Marxism on its head by launching a revolution in Russia. Marx always thought that the revolution would come in Western Europe. The notion that a Communist revolution would emerge in Russia, where there was no real proletariat, would have dumbfounded him. According to Kotkin, the Russian empire’s dissolution in wartime meant that “the revolution’s survival was suddenly inextricably linked to the circumstance that vast stretches of Russian Eurasia had little or no proletariat.” The regime scrambled to come up with a theory justifying tactical alliances with local “‘bourgeois’ nationalists,” a term that had as much bearing on reality as did the later employment of “kulak,” which implied that any peasant who owned a cow or two was somehow part of the exploitative class.

KOTKIN’S STALIN provides many examples of other logically perverse sequences of events. None is more striking than the success and durability of Vladimir Lenin’s seizure of power in Russia on November 7, 1917 (under the current calendar). Nobody expected it to last, not even Lenin himself, it seems, unless it sparked a successful revolution in Germany—which, of course, it failed to do. A full-scale uprising was simply not in the cards: after Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, there were the violent Spartacist uprisings, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, as well as an abortive Bavarian Soviet republic. But the German revolutionaries couldn’t hold on. Bolshevik rule did not look much more secure.

Kotkin points out that Lenin’s “regime” initially consisted “at the top, of just four people: Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin, each of whom had a criminal record for political offenses and none of whom had any administrative experience.” He considers their creation of “one of the world’s strongest dictatorships” as “beyond fantastic,” and notes that the whole Bolshevik enterprise would almost certainly have been thwarted if just two people, Lenin and Trotsky, had been assassinated in 1917 or 1918. Lenin’s leadership was not that of typical transformative leaders, who “almost always” succeed “by cobbling broad coalitions.” Lenin did the opposite, “refusing cooperation and creating ever more enemies.”

The Bolsheviks did not succeed by organizing or managing an effective administration, but rather by implementing policies that virtually guaranteed war and chaos. They clung to power initially by “denying others a role in presiding over chaos,” but it was more than that, as Kotkin’s account demonstrates. In the cauldron of civil war and foreign invasion, the Bolsheviks forged a system of repression designed to eliminate not only active opponents but also presumed future adversaries. As he worked to establish a Bolshevik dictatorship over what, from 1922, was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Stalin systematically maneuvered to eradicate any potential rival from the Communist Party leadership. By 1928, when this volume ends, Stalin was poised to conduct the forced collectivization that would result in millions of deaths and an agricultural system unable for decades to feed the country.

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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Baddies in books: Woland, Bulgakov’s charming devil

Two men, an editor and a poet, walk through Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds one afternoon in Stalinist Russia. As the editor lectures his friend on the non-existence of Jesus Christ, a foreigner appears, introducing himself as Professor W, and tells them what he insists is the true story of the meeting of Christ and Pontius Pilate. The man has one eye that is blank and completely black, another that is crazed. What happens next is a mirror of these two eyes: within minutes, the editor is dead; by morning, the poet is mad and locked in an asylum.
From the moment we meet the “enigmatic professor” Woland in The Master and Margarita, he is a disorienting figure. Witness reports of the opening accident describe his appearance in confusing, varying detail – “one says he was short, had gold teeth, and was lame in his right foot. Another says that he was hugely tall, had platinum crowns and was lame in his left foot. Yet a third notes laconically that he had no distinguishing features whatsoever.” Though we come to understand that Woland is the devil, Bulgakov is rarely explicit, preferring to use other titles, as if to feed the idea that to meet him will drive you insane. Throughout the book, Woland is “a stranger”, “a visitor”. Then, after he mysteriously acquires a gig at the Variety Theatre, he is “a visiting celebrity”, “a famous foreign artiste”, a “magician”. Only the Master, the poet’s neighbour in the asylum, sees who he truly is. “He’s unmistakeable, my friend!”
Bulgakov’s devil is no demon with a forked tail but a man with a deep tan and expensive tailoring, come to test the people of Moscow and their weaknesses. He is fond of philosophy, mentioning that he once had breakfast with Kant, who by the opening of the book has been dead by a century, and offering what he calls “the seventh proof” of his own existence. Woland is a social devil, living the lifestyle of a wealthy gentleman, and travelling with a riveting gang of cackling servants, including a talking cat and a vampire maid. While he provides pensive commentary, his underlings act out most of the mischief. It is only at Satan’s Ball that we observe the full range of Woland’s power, and see that the havoc wreaked in Moscow is petty crime compared to the precise tortures he prescribes the occupants of Hell.
In a book full of bureaucratic mortals, the devil and his crew provide some much-needed honesty. I love the vividness of Woland – his wardrobe changes, his nostalgia about the cads who have eaten at his table, and, ultimately, his strange and unerring sense of honour, which sees self-righteous citizens punished for their hypocrisy, and the cheating wife Margarita, true in her love for the Master, granted anything she wants. Of all the living characters, Margarita alone enjoys an affinity with Woland, and is instinctively kind when meeting Hell’s inhabitants, a group of “assorted kings, dukes, cavaliers, suicides, poisoners, gallows birds and procuresses, jailers and cardsharps, executioners, informers, traitors, detectives” and “corrupters of youth” who seem to be having more fun than the crashing bores of Moscow’s literary elite.
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