Monday, 27 July 2015

Mussorgsky - Night On Bald Mountain

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov

IT'S TRUE THAT CHEKHOV, gathering his work for collected editions, essentially renounced these stories by excluding all of them. But when he was 22 and trying to get The Prank (Шалость) okayed by the Moscow censor in 1882, he was mighty proud of them. By the time he submitted the book, he had published several dozen stories and skits in Moscow and Petersburg humor magazines. These dozen, with two of the best on either end, he selected and ordered, and his brother Nikolay, only two years older but already a well-known artist, contributed the spirited and risqué illustrations.
Anton was the third son, but even at 19 he was his family’s savior, arriving in Moscow from Taganrog, their hometown on the Black Sea, to join his parents and younger siblings. (While his father fled creditors, Anton had stayed behind to finish school and to tutor and earn money.) His two older brothers, talented and careless, prey to drink, couldn’t stay out of their own ways. When the censors nixed the volume twice, Chekhov gave up on it; he was already publishing in bigger humor magazines. While in medical school for five years, attending classes and clinics more regularly than most students, Chekhov wrote and published several hundred short stories and skits, supporting the entire family and eventually making his parents quite comfortable.
No doubt, when the New York Review of Books introduces its publication of this title, its pages it will include, as the original book did not, the staged photograph of Anton and Nikolay, with Anton standing and looking over the seated and studiously working Nikolay’s shoulder.
In those years, says a biographer, Chekhov’s “voice was a low baritone with a soft timbre; his contemporaries remembered especially when he was excited in a conversation, his brown eyes lit up, shone, and flashed, and on his lips twinkled a quick smile.” He was as handsome as Keanu Reeves (and, by my account, 245 times as talented).
There are few letters from those days, but he was quite himself: quick and funny, highly juiced. The excited 20-year-old, having begun to make his way in the world, tells a friend, “Move to Moscow!!! I terribly love Moscow. Whoever gets used to her will not leave her. I will forever be a Moscovite … Come!!! Everything’s cheap. Buy trousers for 10 kopecks!” Who among the pantless wouldn’t come running?
One editor who occasionally published Chekhov from 1880 to 1882 posted a note to Chekhov in the magazine’s contributors’ box (this was how freelancers heard whether their pieces were accepted or not!): “You are withering without having flowered.” The British biographer Ronald Hingley doesn’t blame the editor, however, and takes no delight in these stories:
How far Chekhov was from discovering an identity in 1880 is symbolized by the signatures to his ten short publications of that year, all in Strekoza [Dragonfly]. These have seven different pseudonyms distributed among them. Mostly variations on the Christian name “Anton” and the jocular school nickname “Chekhonte,” they include the combination “Antosha Chekhonte,” his best-known pen name.
Hingley begrudges Chekhov the pen names, but Chekhov, his identity firmly in place, thought them amusing, and so can we.
Not that Hingley or anybody else knew or cared about The Prank until the scholar M. P. Gromov found it in 1967 in an archive at the pre-Soviet Moscow censorship office. Gromov points out that Chekhov “told no one anything about his first book and never wrote about it, and its fate was left secret from even those very close to him — his sister, his wife and brothers.” Gromov was able to compare the drafts from the magazines and the manuscript, and noted that, “for the book, Chekhov reworked, strengthened, corrected and polished the stories.”
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Friday, 17 July 2015

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

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in 1821, just nine years after Charles Dickens. Despite the small difference in age, Dickens was a role model for the Russian writer, experts say.
Dostoevsky is known for his strong psychological characters that usually go through serious hardships. But looking deeper at Dostoevsky’s characters, there are obvious similarities and parallels with Dickens. 

In Dostoevsky’s novels it is difficult to find wealthy, confident and prosperous protagonists. In most cases, key characters are simple, often squalid people, trying to find their place in a harsh world. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky focuses on  ‘insulted and injured’ people, something the Russian writer seems to have largely taken from Dickens. Both writers demonstrate a desire to reform society.

Crime and its retribution is another motif close to both writers. It is noticeable particularly when Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is compared with Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1865). Dostoevsky’s novel was written exactly one year after Our Mutual Friend, which may explain some features in its protagonist Raskolnikov. Both Bradley Headstone (from Our Mutual Friend) and Raskolnikov are not sure whether they have a right to murder; both of them also feel guilty for the crimes.

Dostoevsky and Dickens experts Philip V. Allingham (Canada) and Irina Gredina (Russia) notice the impact of Dickens on Dostoevsky: “The comparison of the two criminal characters, Bradley Headstone and Raskolnikov, in terms of investigating the root cause of their criminality, and of each character's psychological development demonstrates how deeply Dostoevsky had grasped Dickens's psychological conceptions, transforming and enriching them in his imagination”.
Furthermore, both Bradley Headstone and Raskolnikov have so-called polysemantic names. ‘Raskolnikov’ is derived from Russian roots meaning ‘connected with doubts, mistakes, uncertainty and despair’ which really resembles the meaning of ‘Headstone’.

Moreover, the Russian writer takes from Dickens not only motifs, but also characters’ fates. Examining Dostoevsky’s novel The Insulted and the Injured (1861) and Dickens' The Old Curiosity shop (1841) it is noticeable that central to the plots of both are little girls who grow up too fast. They even have practically the same names: Nelly (The Insulted and the Injured) and Nell (The Old Curiosity shop). Both girls lose their parents in early childhood, stray far and wide and meet bad people. Both of them die in the prime of life. Obviously, Dostoevsky’s image is more complicated and desperate: At 13 Nelly is forced to work in brothel, she is absolutely abandoned, an utter orphan, unlike Dickens' Nell who at least has a grandfather. Nevertheless, from Dickens' image of a strong and precocious little girl, Dostoyevsky made his own similar character, supplementing it with his distinctive features. Childhood as a theme is another motif that both Dostoevsky and Dickens frequently employ.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Chekhov: A Writer For Grown Ups

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

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

And for all of their surface plainness, their apparent accessibility and clarity, Chekhov’s stories—especially the greatest ones—still do not seem so easily penetrable by the unexceptional young. Rather, Chekhov seems to me a writer for adults, his work becoming useful and also beautiful by attracting attention to mature feelings, to complicated human responses and small issues of moral choice within large, overarching dilemmas, any part of which, were we to encounter them in our complex, headlong life with others, might evade even sophisticated notice. Chekhov’s wish is to complicate and compromise our view of characters we might mistakenly suppose we could understand with only a glance. He almost always approaches us with a great deal of focussed seriousness which he means to make irreducible and accessible, and by this concentration to insist that we take life to heart. Such instruction, of course, is not always easy to comply with when one is young.

My own college experience was to read the great anthology standard, “The Lady with the Dog” (published in 1899), and basically to be baffled by it, although the story’s fundamental directness and authority made me highly respectful of something I can only describe as a profound-feeling gray light emanating from the story’s austere interior.

“The Lady with the Dog” concerns the chance amorous meeting of two people married to two other people. One lover is a bored, middle-aged businessman from Moscow, and the other an idle young bride in her twenties—both on marital furlough in the Black Sea Spa of Yalta. The two engage in a brief, fervid tryst that seems—at least to the story’s principal character Dmitri Gurov, the Muscovite businessman—not very different from other trysts in his life. And after their short, breathless time together, their holiday predictably ends. The young wife, Anna Sergeyevna, departs for her home and husband in the provincial town of S_ _ _, while Gurov, with no specific plans for Anna, travels back to his coolly intellectual wife and the tiresome business connections of Moscow.

But the effect of his affair and of Anna (the very lady with the dog—a Pomeranian) soon begin to infect and devil Gurov’s daily life and torment him with desire, so that eventually he thinks up a lie, leaves home and travels to S_ _ _ where he reunites (more or less) with the pining Anna, whom he encounters between the acts of a play expressively titled The Geisha. In the weeks following this passionate lovers’ meeting, Anna begins a routine of visiting Gurov in Moscow where, the omniscient narrator observes, they “loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages.”

Their union, while hot-burning, soon seems to them destined to stay furtive and intermittent. And in their secret lovers’ room in the Slaviansky Bazaar, Anna cries bitterly over the predicament, while Gurov troubles himself in a slightly imperious manner to console her. The story ends with the narrator concluding with something of a knowing poker face, that… “it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”

What I didn’t understand back in 1964, when I was twenty, was: what made this drab set of non-events a great short story—reputedly one of the greatest ever written. It was, I knew, a story about passion, and that passion was a capital subject; and that although Chekhov didn’t describe any of it, sex took place, adulterous sex no less. I could also see that the effect of passion was calculated to be loss, loneliness and indeterminacy, and that the institution of marriage came in for a beating. Clearly these were important matters.

But it seemed to me at the story’s end, when Gurov and Anna meet in the hotel, away from spousal eyes, that far too little happened, or at least too little that I could detect. They make love (albeit offstage); Anna weeps; Gurov fussily says, “Don’t cry, my darling… that’s enough… Let us talk now, let us think of some plan.” And then the story is over, with Gurov and Anna wandering off to who knows where—probably, I thought, no place very exciting were we to accompany them. Which we don’t.

Back in 1964, I didn’t dare to say, “I don’t like this,” because in truth I didn’t not like “The Lady with the Dog.” I merely didn’t sense what in it was so to be liked. In class, much was made of its opening paragraph, containing the famously brief, complex, yet direct setting out of significant information, issues and strategies of telling which the story would eventually develop. For this reason—economy—it was deemed good. The ending was also said to be admirable because it wasn’t very dramatic and wasn’t conclusive. But beyond that, if anybody said something more specific about how the story made itself excellent I don’t remember it. Although I distinctly remember thinking the story was over my head, and that Gurov and Anna were adults (read: enigmatic, impenetrable) in a way I wasn’t, and what they did and said to each other must reveal heretofore unheard of truths about love and passion, only I wasn’t a good enough reader or mature enough human to recognize these truths. I’m certain that I eventually advertised actually liking the story, though only because I thought I should. And not long afterward I began maintaining the position that Chekhov was a story writer of near mystical—and certainly mysterious—importance, one who seemed to tell rather ordinary stories but who was really unearthing the most subtle, and for that reason, unobvious and important truth. (It is of course still a useful habit of inquiry to wonder, when the surface of reputedly great literature—and life—seems plain and equable, if something important might not be revealed upon closer notice; and also to realize that a story’s ending may not always be the place to locate that something.)

Now, what I would say is good about “The Lady with the Dog” (and maybe you should stop here, read the story, then come back and compare notes) and indeed why I like it is primarily that it concentrates its narrative attentions not on the conventional hot spots—sex, deceit and what happens at the end—but rather, by its precision, pacing and decisions about what to tell, it directs our interest toward those flatter terrains of a love affair where we, being conventional souls, might overlook something important. “The Lady with the Dog” demonstrates by its scrupulous notice and detail that ordinary goings-on contain moments of significant moral choice—willed human acts judgeable as good or bad—and as such they have consequences in life which we need to pay heed to, whereas before reading the story we might’ve supposed they didn’t. I’m referring specifically to Gurov’s rather prosaic feelings of “torment” at home in Moscow, followed by his decision to visit Anna; his wife’s reasonable dismissal of his suffering, the repetitiveness of trysts, the relative brevity of desire’s satiation, and the necessity for self-deception to keep a small passion inflamed. These are matters the story wants us not to skip over, but to believe are important and that paying attention to them is good.

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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Mikhail Zoshchenko: Dogged

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

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

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

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

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

Fyokla sank to her knees before the officer.

'Yes,' she says, 'I'm guilty. Can't deny it. Five tubs of yeast,' she says, 'yes. And a still — it's all true. Everything,' she says, 'is in the bathroom. Arrest me.'

The crowd, of course, gasped.

'But what about the coat?' they ask.

'About the coat,' she says, 'I know nothing at all. But everything else,' she says, 'is like I've said. Take me away. Execute punishment.'

So Fyokla was taken away.

The detective got hold of his hound again, pushed its nose at the footprints again, said Pst, and stood back.

The dog looked round, sniffed empty air — and goes up to the citizen house manager. The house manager went white, he fell flat on his back.

'Tie me up,' he says, 'good people. Class-conscious citizens,' he says, 'I took money off you for water,' he says, 'but I spent that money on pleasure.'

So, of course, the tenants leapt on the house manager and began tying him up. The hound, meanwhile, goes up to the citizen from room seven. And tugs at his trousers. The citizen went white, he fell down before the people.

'Guilty,' he says. 'Yes, I'm guilty. I fiddled my year of birth,' he says, 'in my labour record. A young colt like me,' he says, 'should be serving in the army, defending the fatherland, but here I am in room seven, making use of electrical energy and other communal services. Arrest me!'

People began to get flustered.

'This dog,' they think, 'is amazing!'

And merchant Yeremey Babkin blinked, looked round, took some money out of his pocket and handed it to the detective.

'To Hell,' he says, 'with your son of a bitch. Get that dog out of here. Who cares about a coonskin coat?'

But the hound was onto him. Standing in front of him. Tail twitching.

Merchant Yeremey Babkin got flustered. He tries to get away, but the dog follows. Goes up to him and sniffs his galoshes.

The merchant went pale, he began to stammer.

'Well,' he says, 'it seems God sees the truth. I'm a bastard,' he says, 'and a cheat. As for the coat, my friends, it's not my coat at all. I pinched that coat off my brother. I'm crying, I weep and shed tears.'

The crowd fled this way and that way. The hound had no time to sniff. Just seized two or three people at once — whoever was closest — and hung on.

They confessed. One had lost state funds at cards, another had done his spouse in with a flatiron, a third said things I'd be ashamed to repeat.

The crowd was gone. The place had emptied. There was just the dog and the detective. All of a sudden the dog goes up to the detective. Twitches its tail.

The detective goes pale, he falls down before the dog.

'Bite me,' he says, 'citizen dog. I get thirty roubles a day for your dog food, but I keep twenty back for myself...'

After that, I don't know. I got out of harm's way. Quick. 

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler

First published 1924

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

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

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

When the diary opens in the spring of 1941, Lena's preoccupations couldn't be more ordinary: she is irritated by her mother, anxious about her end-of-term exams and has an unreciprocated crush on a boy in her class. But from 22 June, when the German invasion is announced on the radio, her world turns upside down as Leningrad stiffens its defences, suffers its first air raids, then spirals into mass starvation. Around 100,000 Leningraders died in each of the first three months of 1942, the death rate only beginning to fall off when there were fewer mouths left to feed and supplies started coming in across Lake Ladoga, to the city's east. Lena's passage to adulthood was swift and brutal.

Initially, the war brings her nothing worse than hard physical work. She helps clear flammable lumber from her apartment building's attic, unloads bricks from barges and in mid-July is sent out to the countryside to join in the building of new defence lines. For six weeks she lives in an evacuated village school, trench-digging, gossiping under haystacks during breaks (another girl has been 'kissed three times: on her forehead, the back of her neck and her cheek') and watching dogfights between German and Soviet fighters in the summer skies overhead. One evening, three planes crash in a nearby field.

By the time she returns to Leningrad at the end of August, the city is surrounded. On 8 September, the same day that the last road out of the city was captured, the Germans launched their first raid. Lena's diary becomes a Blitz-like record of sirens, midnight dashes to a basement shelter and long, frightening hours spent listening to the thunder of explosions and anti-aircraft fire outside. Having earlier uncritically regurgitated Sovinform assurances that the Germans were surrendering en masse, she starts questioning government propaganda, scoffing at a radio report that fires are being 'quickly extinguished': 'Quickly indeed, they were burning for five hours!' News of the fall of Kiev shocks her into her only direct criticism of the leadership: 'I'm no longer sure they're not going to surrender Leningrad ... So many loud words and speeches: Kiev and Leningrad are unassailable fortresses! ... But now this.'

In November the schools reopen and Lena returns to her studies. Mid-month, she complains of hunger for the first time, and indulges in her first food fantasy. When things are back to normal, she and her mother will eat fried potatoes, 'golden and sizzling, straight from the pan', salami 'thick enough to really sink your teeth into' and hot, buttery blinis with jam ' 'Dear God, we're going to eat so much we'll frighten ourselves.' On 20 November, the day before her seventeenth birthday, the city authorities make their final and deadliest ration cut, reducing the daily bread allowance for all but manual workers to 125 grams. The corresponding ration card was nicknamed the smertnik, after the word for death.

This was also when Leningrad's infrastructure began to fail. Electricity was cut as power stations ran out of fuel, trams ground to a halt and water and sewage pipes froze. Amazingly, Lena's school stayed open: lessons continued in a shelter during air-raid warnings and through December she was still handing in essays and scolding herself for getting poor marks in algebra tests. She mentions in passing that the family are eating their pet cat; enough is left 'for two more meals'. The discretion is typical: for reasons of psychological self-defence or political caution she leaves out a great deal, never describing the ghastly physical appearance of the starving, or the sight of corpses on the streets, or muggings for food, or the obvious fact that some had much better access to food than others.

In the depths of the siege winter, many households disintegrated emotionally as well as physically. Lena's held together. Her mother continued to walk to her workplace daily, bringing home and sharing whatever she was given for 'lunch'. A windfall was sheets of carpenter's glue, which could be boiled up and turned into edible jelly. Aka queued at the bread shops, for hours at a time, in temperatures that dipped into the minus thirties. Both adults turned a blind eye when Lena hid the pathetic quantities of 'meat jelly' she brought home from school. By the end of the year, though, Aka was too weak to leave her bed. 'Aka', Lena records on 28 December,, 'is just an extra mouth to feed. I don't know how I can even bring myself to write such things. But my heart has turned to stone. The thought of it doesn't upset me at all... If she is going to die I hope it happens after the 1st, so we'll be able to get her ration card.' Aka obliges, dying on New Year's Day. A few weeks later Lena's mother follows suit: a one-line entry for 8 February reads, 'Mama died yesterday morning. I am all alone.' From then on, Lena fights as much against despair as against hunger: 'When I wake up in the morning, at first I can't believe that Mama has really died ... But then the awful reality sinks in. Mama has gone! Mama is no longer alive! ... I feel like howling, screaming, banging my head against the wall and biting myself! How am I going to live without Mama?'

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Friday, 3 July 2015

Marina Tsvetaeva: From "Swans' Encampment"

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

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

From "Swans' Encampment"

Little mushroom, white Bolitus,
my own favourite.
The field sways, a chant of Rus’
rises over it.
Help me, I’m unsteady on my feet.
This blood-red is making my eyes foggy.

On either side, mouths lie
open and bleeding, and from
each wound rises a cry:

One word is all I hear, as
I stand, dazed. From someone
else’s womb into my own:
– Mother!

They all lie in a row,
no line between them,
I recognise that each one was a soldier,
But which is mine? Which one is another’s?

This man was White now he’s become Red.
Blood has reddened him.
This one was Red now he’s become White.
Death has whitened him.

– What are you? – Can’t understand.
– Lean on your arm.
Have you been with the Reds?
– Ry-azan.

And so from right and left
behind ahead
together. White and Red, one cry of
– Mother!

Without choice. Without anger.
One long moan. Stubbornly.
A cry that reaches up to heaven,
– Mother!

MARINA TSVETAYEVA; translated by Elaine Feinstein