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Showing posts from August, 2016

Marina Tsvetaeva: Night.—Northeaster

Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood. Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place. Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles. The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned. Feodosia, the last days of October 1917 •Translated by Boris Dralyuk.

Musical version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to open in Moscow

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina features passionate love, abject misery and a hundred emotions in between. The epic romantic saga does not, traditionally, involve any inline skating, but that will change when a new musical version hits the Moscow stage this autumn.

Anna Karenina the musical will open at the Moscow Operetta theatre in October, with specially written music and a new libretto. The producers say that although the whole of Tolstoy’s sprawling novel cannot fit into a two-hour show, they remain faithful to the text throughout. The cast will wear costumes that are “of the period, but with elements of haute couture”.

Not all the musical takes place on inline skates, which are used in place of ice skates for winter scenes. At a rehearsal this week, the cast went through a scene set at a Moscow ice rink, in which wealthy landowner Levin proposes to Kitty. She turns him down as couples around them perform acrobatic skating routines.

Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted for screen an…

Dostoevsky’s idiom

The name of Russia’s greatest writer is Tolstoevsky—or so goes an old, and still popular, academic joke. The joke does, however, have a point. It satirizes a certain vague idea about Russian literature that is shared by many American readers: the idea that Russian literature is a confusing and ex otic, if not entirely alien phenomenon, a tan talizing exposure to the “mysterious Russian soul,” perpetually centered on what used to be known as “the ultimate problems of hu man existence”—those problems, at any rate, that are beyond the reach of our every day cares and concerns. This stereotypical perception allows for little difference be tween the individual authors, be they Ivan Turgenev or Boris Pasternak, and accounts for a telling comment made by one of my ac quaintances: “Why don’t all these guys [he meant typical characters from a Russian novel] just start looking for a job?”

As for the joke about “Tolstoevsky,” it cer tainly would have offended the author of The Brothers Karamazov.…

Celebrating a tireless champion of Joseph Brodsky's poetry

There are numerous Joseph Brodsky experts, but the scale of Valentina Polukhina's work in this field eclipses them all. She has interviewed nearly 100 of the world's best-known poets, writers, translators, scholars, artists, filmmakers and philosophers who knew Brodsky, were friends with him and understood the value of his poems and essays. The result was three books, collectively called Brodsky Through the Eyes of his Contemporaries. They are fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in Brodsky and his texts.

There is more to Valentina Polukhina than this, however. She was friends with Brodsky and he held her research in high regard. He frequently visited London, loved the city and often stayed with Polukhina and her husband Daniel, a Brodsky translator. This cozy house in the north of the British capital has long been a driving force in Brodsky research, producing numerous texts on his life and work.

I also stayed with Daniel and her. I was admitted into the holy of hol…

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Doomed City finally published in English

The Strugatsky brothers, Boris and Arkady, were celebrated Soviet science fiction writers; their best-known book, Roadside Picnic inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Many of their novels have been available in English for years, but The Doomed City, audaciously dystopian, finished secretly in 1972, and widely thought to be their greatest novel, is out for the first time in English, using Andrew Bromfield’s skilful translation. The book was so controversial that the Russian version did not see the light of day until the more tolerant perestroika era of the late 1980s.

Andrei Voronin, whose everyman viewpoint the novel follows, is a 1950s Soviet astronomer; he finds himself in a mysterious sociological “Experiment” with a selection of other people from different countries and decades. All these characters have been abducted and assembled in the eponymous city, as part of an endless, incomprehensible experiment with their lives: a metaphor for Soviet communism.

The characters live in…

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: Our Savior

My eldest son, Kirill, was expelled from Moscow State University in 1983. In a flare of youthful maximalism, he had announced to his English instructor that she possessed no knowledge of her subject, which happened to be entirely true.

Now, imagine if someone had told me I didn’t know how to speak Russian—I’d simply laugh. But insecure people don’t forgive such statements. The English instructor happened to be good friends with the provost and the matter was settled swiftly—my son was expelled. To provide for his family, wife and little daughter, he took work as a janitor and orderly at a hospital. According to Soviet law, as he no longer studied in any college, he was going to be drafted.

I was summoned to the local draft board. I produced Kirill’s medical history, which listed asthma and chronic pneumonia. In principle, that diagnosis freed him from the draft. But the chief recruiting officer laughed in my face: They had hospitals in the army, he informed me, where my son’s illnesse…

Nabokov and epilepsy

The first time I had what was later determined to be a mild epileptic seizure – acute anxiety in the pit of my stomach and in my chest, accompanied by a dazed sensation, and followed by a bewildering and alarming sense that I was entering a kind of a parallel, déjà-vu universe, where I knew exactly what the person I was talking to (and whom I had just met for the first time) was going to say before he said it – was at a Nabokov conference organized by Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, in New Zealand, in January 2012. It lasted no more than a couple of minutes but left me feeling nauseous, disoriented and scared. After my return to the United States, similar episodes started occurring every thirty days or so. They were always brief, and were preceded not just by dazedness and disorientation, or “cephalic auras” as they are called, but also by “olfactory auras”, a very sharp and acrid smell. Finally I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I was stunned. To me, epilepsy was what Fyo…

Thomas Mann: The Stature of Anton Chekhov

When Anton Chekhov died in Badenweiler in July 1904 of tuberculosis of the lungs, I was a young man who had embarked upon literature with some short stories and a novel which owed a great deal to the art of fiction in nineteenth-century Russia. Yet I seek in vain today to recall the impression made upon me then by the death of the Russian writer only fifteen years my senior. My mind is a blank. For, like the rest of my countrymen, I was little familiar with Chekhov’s work.

What were the causes of this ignorance? Speaking for myself, it was probably because I was under the spell of the magnum opus, fascinated by those monumental epics, which are the fruit of sustained inspiration for I worshipped the great achievers like Balzac, Tolstoy, and Wagner, and it was my dream to emulate them if I could. Whereas Chekhov (like Maupassant, whom by the way I knew much better) confined himself to the modest dimensions of the short story; and this did not call for heroic endurance throughout the yea…