Friday, 29 January 2016

Russian Palaces Peterhof

Peterhof is actually a series of palaces and gardens located in Saint Petersburg, Russia, laid out on the orders of Peter the Great. These Palaces and gardens are sometimes referred as the "Russian Versailles". The palace-ensemble along with the city centre is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Anna Akhmatova: A Belated Reply

My white-fingered one, my dark princess. 
Marina Tsvetaeva

My double and my jester, unseen,
You who hide at the heart of bushes,
Who nestle in the house of the stare,
Who flit among cemetery crosses.
Who call from the Marinkina Tower:
‘Here I am, I’m home today.
Cherish me, my own fields,
Because of everything I suffered.
My loved ones lost in the abyss,
My native country despoiled.’
Today we are together, Marina,
Crossing the midnight capital,
With all those millions behind us,
And never a more voiceless crew,
Walking to the sound of funeral bells,
And to the savage, Moscow moaning
Of wind and snow, erasing our steps.

Anna Akhmatova - Assessing the Russian poet and femme fatale.

Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of ­pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time, but the time was out of joint. Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, called Akhmatova, already wore the Russian literary world's most glittering French verbal decorations: Here work was avant-garde, and in person she was a femme fatale. Love for her broken-nosed beauty was a common condition among the male poets, one of whom, Nikolay Gumilev, she married. After the Revolution, Gumilev was one of the new regime's first victims among the literati: The persecution of artists, still thought of today as a Stalinist speciality, began under Lenin. Later on, under Stalin, Akhmatova included a reference to Gumilev's fate in the most often quoted section of her poem "Requiem": "Husband dead, son in gaol/ Pray for me."
In the last gasp of the czarist era, she had known no persecution worse than routine incomprehension for her impressionistic poetry and condemnation by women for her effect on their men. But the Russia of Lenin and Stalin made her first a tragic, then a heroic, figure. After 1922 she was condemned as a bourgeois element and severely restricted in what she could publish. Following World War II, in 1946, she was personally condemned by Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin's ­plug-­ugly in charge of culture. She was not allowed to publish anything new, and everything she had ever written in verse form was dismissed as "remote from socialist reconstruction."
Her prestige abroad helped to keep her alive at home, but also ensured that her life could never be comfortable: The security police were always on her case. In the 1950s she was rehabilitated to the extent that a censored edition of her collected poems was officially published. ("Requiem" was among the poems missing: Isaiah Berlin, who visited her in Moscow in 1946, was correct when he predicted that it would never be published in Russia as long as the Soviet Union lasted.) Unofficially, however, her work had always circulated, whether in samizdat or, in that peculiarly Russian tribute to greatness, from mouth to mouth, by memory. Akhmatova was the embodiment of the Russian liberal heritage that the authoritarians felt bound to go on threatening long after it had surrendered. As such, she was an inspiring symbol, but when a poet becomes better known than her poems, it usually means that she is being sacrificed, for extraneous reasons, on the altar of her own glory. In Akhmatova's case, the extraneous reasons were political. It should be a mark of reasonable politics that a woman like her is not called upon to be a heroine.
Some languages are inherently more beautiful than others, and Russian is among the most beautiful of all. For anyone learning Russian, a phrase like "lyrical wealth," from Akhmatova's essay "Pushkin's Stone Ghost," comes singing out of the page like a ­two-word aria from an opera by Moussorgsky. I noted it down as soon as I saw it. In 1968 the West German publishing house that called itself ­Inter-­Language Literary Associates produced a magnificent two-­volume collection of Akhmatova's works in verse and prose. I bought those books in London in 1978, when I was in my first stage of learning to read the language. I never got to the last stage, or anywhere near it; but I did reach the point where I could read an essay without too much help from the dictionary. (Memo to any student making a raid on the culture of another language: Essays are always the easiest way in.) Reading Akhmatova's essays, one is soon convinced that she would have been an excellent ­full-­time critic of literature if she had been given permission. But of course she wasn't, which brings us immediately to the point.
If the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution had never happened, the cafes of Petersburg and Moscow would probably have dominated this discussion. Petersburg, in particular, would have rivaled Vienna. (If the Nazis had never come to power, Vienna and Berlin would have continued to rival Paris, but that's another matter.) The Russian cultural upsurge in the years before the Revolution was so powerful that after the Revolution it took a while to slow down. Largely because the new regime took some time to purge itself of apparatchiks with a taste for the artistically vital, the Revolution, inheriting an unprecedented cultural efflorescence, spent its first decade or so looking like the benevolent guardian of a realized dream. ­Left-­leaning culturati in the West were able to fool themselves for decades afterward that a totalitarian regime had somehow opened up new possibilities for making art a political weapon in the eternal struggle to free the people's creative will. The dazzle-­painted agitprop trains and the snappily edited newsreels of Dziga Vertov were seen as signs of vigor, which they were, and of truth, which they were not.
Among the Soviet Union's apologists in the West, it was commonly supposed that, while the self-­exiled Stravinsky no doubt enjoyed his personal freedom, Prokofiev and Shostakovich gained from being thought important by the power that paid them, and that this putatively fruitful relationship between creativity and a centralized state had been established in the early years after the Revolution. In reality, the intelligentsia was already doomed, simply because Anatoly Luna­charsky, the commissar for culture, wielded absolute power over the artists. He could wield it benevolently only with the indulgence of his superiors, which was withdrawn in 1929, the year the nightmare began to unfold unmistakably even to those who had been carried away when they thought it was a dream. (Awareness could be fatal: Mayakovsky, the poet most famous for transmitting state policy through works of art, shot himself not because he was mad, but because he was mad no longer—he had suddenly woken up to the dreadful fact that his creative enthusiasm had been used to cosmeticize mass murder.)
Akhmatova, to her credit, had always tried to stay aloof from the Revolution. But the Revolution was never likely to pay her the courtesy of staying aloof from her. As early as 1922, her poetry had been correctly identified as politically unhelpful. The ban on publishing new work was relaxed temporarily in 1940, but we need to remember that Akhmatova, as a poet, was never really allowed to function. She earned her living mainly from translation and journeywork in prose. (As a consequence, a threat in 1947 to expel her from the Writers' Union was tantamount to a sentence of death.) Praising Pushkin, as she did in the essay that mentioned his "lyrical wealth," was as close as she was allowed to get to saying something subversive. It was permissible to value a poet's specifically poetic gifts as long as the poet was accepted as exemplifying—or, in Pushkin's case, heralding—the correct political direction.
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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The composer who was almost purged - Dmitri Shostakovich

On 9 August it will be 40 years since the death of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most significant musical figures of the 20th Century. Born in St Petersburg in 1906, he studied the piano with his mother from the age of nine and entered the Conservatoire aged 13, where the leading composer Alexander Glazunov kept a close eye on him. He went on to write 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, six concertos, a piano quintet, two piano trios and two string octets. His solo piano works include two solo sonatas, and two sets of preludes, one with accompanying fugues. He also wrote operas, song cycles, ballets and film music.

Forced to live for most of his life under a totalitarian regime – one moment in favour with Soviet leaders, then just as quickly out of it again – for much of his career Shostakovich was judged by political rather than musical criteria. He once described life under Stalin's regime as “unbelievably mean and hard. Every day brought more bad news and I felt so much pain. I was so lonely and afraid.” Denounced in 1936 as “an enemy of the people”, friends he had once considered loyal supporters began crossing the street to avoid him. To know him was dangerous; to associate with him, potentially fatal. He risked execution or deportation to the Gulag yet played the system just carefully enough to survive, publishing music that earned him praise for "not having given in to the seductive temptations of his previous 'erroneous' ways”; at least, that is, until his second denunciation for “formalism” and “western influences” in 1948, after which most of his music was banned.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953 in you can almost feel, in his music, the gigantic breath of relief, as he could start to publish not just the “desk drawer” works he’d kept under wraps for years, including the Fourth Symphony, but also works in which he could openly give musical expression to the brutalities he and his contemporaries had endured under Stalin’s purges. “Without party guidance,” he later said, “I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage."

That wistful comment leads me to ponder the fateful accident of timing, of geography. What might have been, had Shostakovich been born in a different time, a different place? Judged by any artistic metric, he was a genius: the real deal, writing music that occasionally verges on the grotesque but has such emotional heft it can shatter your heart.

Here are some interesting facts you might not know about him:

Shostakovich was 26 when his avant-garde opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District was first produced. An instant success, it proved hugely popular with audiences. Then on 28 January 1936, Stalin himself came to see it, with his politburo in tow. Shostakovich was also in the audience, and eyewitness accounts describe him as "white as a sheet" when he went to take his bow after the third act. Sure enough, an editorial in the Pravda newspaper the next day ran with the headline “Muddle instead of music” and denounced the work as “coarse, primitive and vulgar”. It also hinted that “things could end very badly” for Shostakovich unless he switched musical gears and toed the expected Soviet line. Shostakovich was subsequently shunned by almost everyone he knew.

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Monday, 25 January 2016

Varlam Shalamov: Someone Else's Bread

It was someone else's bread, the bread of my comrade. This comrade trusted only me - he'd gone to work on the day shift and left the bread with me in a little Russian wooden case. Nowadays they don't make cases like that - natty little cases covered in artificial crocodile-skin - but in the twenties every good-looking girl in Moscow used to have one. In the case was bread, a ration of bread. If you shook the case, the bread rolled about inside. The case lay under my head. I couldn't sleep. A hungry man sleeps badly. But what stopped me sleeping was this bread, someone else's bread, the bread of my comrade. I sat up on the boards... It seemed that everyone was looking at me, that everyone knew what I was about to do. But the orderly by the window was patching something. Another man - I don't know his name but he worked on the night shift too - was lying in someone else's place in the middle of the barrack, feet towards the warm iron stove. This warmth didn't reach me. The man was lying on his back, face up. I went up to him - his eyes were closed. I glanced at the upper tier of bed-boards - there, in the corner of the barrack, someone was sleeping or else just lying awake, covered by a heap of old clothes. I lay down again in my place, determined to go to sleep. I counted to a thousand and then got up again. I opened the case and took out the bread. It was a three hundred gram ration, cold as a piece of wood. I raised it to my nose and my nostrils caught a mysterious, barely perceptible scent of bread. I put the bread back in the case and took it out again. I turned the case upside-down and emptied a few crumbs of bread into the palm of my hand. I licked them up with my tongue; my mouth immediately filled with saliva and the crumbs melted away. I no longer hesitated. I nipped off three small pieces of bread, little ones, the size of my little fingernail, put the bread in the case and lay down. Then I nipped off little crumbs and sucked them. And I fell asleep, proud that I hadn't stolen the bread of my comrade.

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler & Nathan Wilkinson

Vladislav Khodasevich: Monument

In me is the beginning, in me the end.
What’s been accomplished by me a blink!
Yet still I am a reliable chain link:
This happiness to me has been given.

In the new but greater Russia they will
erect to me a Janus-faced idol at
the broad cross-roads of two city streets
where there's sand, time, and the wind whines….

Monday, 18 January 2016

Fyodor Sologub: : When Heaving On The Stormy Waters

When, heaving on the stormy waters,
I felt my ship beneath to sink,
I prayed, "Oh, Father Satan, save me,
Forgive me at death's utter brink!

"If you will save my soul embittered
From perishing before its hour,
The days to come, the nights that follow
I vow to vice, I pledge to power."

The Devil forthwith snatched and flung me
Into a boat; the sides were frail,
But on the bench the oars were lying
And in the bow an old gray sail.

And landward once again I carried
My outcast soul, bereft of kin,
Upon its sick and vicious sojourn
My body and its gift of sin.

And I am faithful, Father Satan,
Unto my evil hour's vow,
When from my drowning ship you saved me
And when I prayed you guide the prow.

To you descend my praises, Father,
No day from bitter blame exempt.
O'er worlds my blasphemy shall tower;
And I shall tempt — and I shall tempt.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Sergei Taneyev: Tchaikovsky's Heir or the Russian Bach?

Unfortunately for Sergei Taneyev, his music has long been held in high respect. His intellectual rigour, cosmopolitan outlook and above all his mastery of counterpoint have attached a reverence to Taneyev’s name for successive generations of Russian musicians. But love for his music has remained in short supply, and engagement with Taneyev’s Romantic expression has remained distant at best. A reputation for compositional greatness is rarely founded on craftsmanship alone, but Taneyev’s technical accomplishment has even had the reverse effect, and respect for his skill has become the greatest impediment to appreciation of his music. 

Taneyev’s reputation as a teacher has been a contributing factor. He succeeded Tchaikovsky as director of the Moscow Conservatory and his pupils included Lyapunov, Glière, Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Advocates for the music of these last two composers have struggled to maintain for them reputations for academic rigour, and Taneyev’s erudition has been repeatedly called into service on their behalf. Taneyev himself studied with Tchaikovsky, and his music forms a stylistic link between the works of his more famous teacher and pupils. Tchaikovsky’s voice can be heard in Taneyev’s classical approach to form and his cautious engagement with Russian folk idioms. His legacy to Rachmaninov is manifest in the maximalist approach both composers take to large scale forms, particularly the symphony and the cantata. His musical influence on Scriabin is open to question, but the two composers were close friends, and the tendency of each composer to pursue esoteric and often megalomaniac projects can only have been mutually reinforced through their friendship. 

But Taneyev’s music also stands apart from its historical context. Structural thinking dominated Taneyev’s work, and the composition of individual works would usually begin with the planning of a structural scheme, filling in the details, the orchestration, phrase structures and foreground textures at a later stage. This approach is almost unique in the history of Russian music, and owes more to Taneyev’s study of German music than to any of his Russian predecessors. It has led to his being called ‘the Russian Brahms’, at least by his advocates, who have been keen to promote the surety of his compositional technique and his ability to apply techniques learnt from his study of musical history without compromising the individuality of his work. 

Traditions of church polyphony were the historical models closest to Taneyev’s heart. The skill with which he wove polyphonic intricacies into his own music led Tchaikovsky to an even more prestigious comparison, dubbing him ‘the Russian Bach’. And Bach had been one of Taneyev’s earliest inspirations, although from his later student years his attentions were increasingly drawn to the polyphonists of the Renaissance, in particular to Ockeghem, Josquin and Lassus. He was an avid student of this music and its techniques at the Moscow Conservatory and later an influential teacher of it at the same institution. His magnum opus on the subject Podvizhnoy kontrapunkt strogogo pis'ma [Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style], secured his reputation within his lifetime as Russia’s leading expert on polyphony. Kousevitsky later described the work as ‘one of the greatest musical treatises ever written’, although more recent readers, especially of the English translation (tr. G. Ackley Brower, Boston, 1962), have found it somewhat dry. 

Taneyev’s life story is also something of a disappointment compared to some of his more flamboyant contemporaries. He never married and was cared for throughout his adult life by his childhood nanny. He was a model staff member at the Moscow Conservatory, and his career there was neither tainted nor enlivened by even the suggestion of scandal. One incident of celebrity love entanglement is associated with his name, but it appears to have occurred without any impropriety or even knowledge on his part. In 1895, Taneyev became acquainted with Tolstoy, and in the following years was a regular visitor to Tolstoy’s country estate Yasnaya Polyana. During one of these visits, Tolstoy’s wife became briefly infatuated by the composer. The incident had painful resonances for the author, whose recent story The Kreutzer Sonata covered very similar ground. Taneyev’s ignorance that any of this was taking place around him corroborates his honourable reputation, but also suggests a certain naivety that may explain the straightforward nature of his other personal and professional relationships. 

His teaching reputation aside, Taneyev was best known in his lifetime as a pianist. He was an early champion of Tchaikovsky’s piano works, giving the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, premiering the Second and completing the one movement version of the Third, which had been left unfinished at Tchaikovsky’s death. Taneyev had first come to public attention on the piano, accompanying the celebrated violinist Leopold Auer. The pair toured Russia in 1876, the year after Taneyev’s graduation, and many of Taneyev’s works for solo violin were written at the behest of his early collaborator. His Suite de Concert Op. 28 was written to showcase Auer’s virtuoso talents. The work is a concerto, in function if not in form, the violin backed by a full Romantic orchestra, yet performing a series of movements based on baroque dance forms. Contemporary and baroque are combined here without even the suggestion of neo-classical irony, in stark contrast to Stravinsky’s later use of similar Baroque forms. Tchaikovsky’s Variations of a Rococo Theme better demonstrates the type of engagement with the 18th century that Taneyev seeks; formal elegance and a conformity to generic expectations of tempo and meter, but phrasing, orchestration and scale that are unmistakably late Romantic. The Suite has recently been recorded on the Chandos label by Lydia Mordkovitch with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Neeme Järvi (CHAN10491). It is coupled with the Rimsky-Korsakov Violin Concerto, and both are fully deserving of the increased attention the disc has brought. It is to Taneyev’s credit that his work gets star billing on this disc, a rare example of his work superseding that of his counterpart at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The range of comparisons that the performance has drawn demonstrates the subtle variety in Mordkovitch’s performance, but also the number of influences, both Russian and European, that Taneyev had absorbed by the time of his later works. Composers invoked by reviewers include Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and even Paganini. 

Such a cosmopolitan approach came easily to Taneyev. There was no antagonism between himself and the Russian nationalists of his day - the Mighty Handful, their pupils and successors - but Taneyev’s interest in Russian folk culture and folk music was less passionate and less political. Like Tchaikovsky, he included Russian folk melodies in his works, but as a lingua franca, a shared musical inheritance without any specific political message. He also collected folksongs in the (non-Slavic) Caucuses in the 1880s, publishing transcriptions on his return to Moscow. In terms of technique, the strongest international influence on Taneyev’s music came from Germany, his minutely planned thematic relationships and movement forms (especially large-scale sonata forms) drawing on the legacy of Beethoven and its refinements in Brahms.. He had an interest in mythology, but that of ancient Greece rather than pagan Russia. His only opera, and the grandest musical project of his career, was a treatment of The Oresteia of Aeschylus. It occupied him for seven years, but the effort was rewarded by the considerable success of its premiere production at the Marinsky in 1895. Admirers included Stanislavsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote in his autobiography ‘for all its strict premeditation [The Oresteia] was striking in its wealth of beauty and expressiveness’. The proviso is telling, and the meticulous formal structuring that Taneyev applied to all his music leaves little scope for a narrative to unfold at its own pace. Unfortunately, modern audiences have had little opportunity to decide for themselves as the work has been neglected since the composer’s death. A Deutsche Gramaphon LP by the Belorussian State Opera (2709 097) was issued on CD but has since been deleted. Unevenness of musical invention was the complaint raised most frequently by contemporary commentators, and the modern assumption that worthy musical material is let down by weak dramatic treatment has led to the overture surviving in the repertoire longer than the opera itself. The overture is well represented on CD, the most recent recording by the Philharmonia under Neeme Järvi (CHAN8953). 

Järvi couples the overture with another of Taneyev’s better known works, the Fourth Symphony. He was an unconfident symphonist, initially numbering this work as his first, thereby relegating the earlier three to the status of student exercises. Taneyev’s reticence to promote his earlier symphonies stems, perhaps, from his close association with Tchaikovsky, one of the greatest symphonists of the 19th century. Nevertheless, Taneyev’s Fourth in particular has had a continuous performance history (at least in Russia) ever since its premiere in 1898. When Rimsky-Korsakov set his composition pupil Igor Stravinsky the task of composing a symphony, his advice was to study Taneyev’s recently published Fourth for guidance. The Fourth remains popular on record, Rozhdestvensky has recorded it twice (Chant du Monde LDC278 931 and Melodiya CM 04117-8), and recordings are also available by the London Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Ahronovich (RL30372 NLA) and the prosaically titled Moscow Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra under Peter Tiboris (Bridge 9034). These recordings span the 1970s to the early 1990s, but in terms of both sound quality and availability are superseded by the Järvi release. The First and Third Symphonies have proved a popular pairing in recent years, comfortably occupying the duration of a compact disc. Thomas Sanderling has recorded the pair for Naxos with the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra (8 570336), as has Valery Polynasky with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (CHAN10390). The Second Symphony is incomplete, but the two finished movements are available as a coupling with the Fourth Symphony on the Polyansky recording and on the Marco Polo release by Stephen Genzenhauser with the Warsaw Philharmonic (223196). Of the first three symphonies, the Third is probably the most worthy of attention. Its most distinctive feature is the first movement, which derives its momentum from a cross-accented triple metre. It is not a completely original idea (Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony is its notably German inspiration), but in combination with Taneyev’s structural planning and carefully orchestrated textures it gives the ideal balance of rigour and energy. 

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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Zuleikha opens her eyes: Love and survival in Siberia

Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (Elena Shubina Publishers, 2015) has won several literary prizes. In the 1930s, dispossessed Tatar peasants have been sent to Siberia; they have landed on the banks of the river Angara and left in the taiga (boreal forest) without any means of subsistence. Led by their commandant Ivan Ignatov, they make a dugout and wait for a seemingly inevitable death. here is an excerpt from the book, which has not yet been translated into other languages.

He is staring at the bluish gray, smudged horizon. This is where the next barge will come from. But when? Kuznets promised it would be soon. They spent three days getting here; it took Kuznets less than a day in his motorboat. If the journey back takes a day, plus a day or two for bureaucratic prevarication and a new barge, that’s three days to return to Ignatov. A week in total.
They have to hold out for a week.

But what if Kuznets is delayed? And that bastard won’t be in any hurry. He could easy take a week-and-a-half, or two. Close to the end of August. But it’s been snowing today already, as if it’s late fall, rather than summer.

How far are they from Krasnoyarsk? It took them two days to get down the Yenisei – that must have been 175 miles, maybe more. Then they travelled up the Angara for a whole day, that’s another 75 miles. Some 250 miles in total. There’s 250 miles of river separating them from Kuznets. And the endless taiga. There was the occasional village along the Yenisei, but Ignatov couldn’t tell if they were inhabited. There were none along the Angara: it was a place devoid of human life.

Ignatov angrily flicks off a bug that has crawled on to the gray boulder, sending it tumbling into the precipice. He stands up and readjusts his military shirt, which is still wet down to the hem. Why did he go into the water like an idiot? To get soaking wet for nothing.

He should have got his thoughts together earlier, on the boat. He should have grabbed that bastard Kuznets by the neck, by the hair, and not let him go no matter what. Sure, they would have tied Ignatov up, sent him to Krasnoyarsk under armed guard and charged him with abusing his authority, but anything would be better than being stuck here.

“A week,” Ignatov sternly tells the precipice, wagging his finger at it. “I’m waiting for exactly a week, not a day longer. Just you watch me.”

The precipice does not reply.

The black grouses are fat and stupid here. They stare at Ignatov from round black eyes under thick red eyebrows and don’t fly away. He approaches until he is just a few steps away and fires at point-blank range. Their soft bodies explode into fountains of black feathers, there is a belated flap of wings and their small crested heads fall to the grass. Meanwhile others watch with curiosity from nearby trees. What’s happened, hmm? We want to watch too, we’re … He kills six of them, as many bullets as he has in the gun. He ties their necks together with a piece of string he found in his pocket and makes two heavy bundles. Then he sets off back to the riverbank.

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Osip Mandelshtam: For Akhmatova

Grief sorrowing — indifferent
glances — half-turning. Her
shawl, a pseudo-classic on her
shoulders — like stone ossifying.
A dark voice — ill-omened, bitter-
tasting hops-intoxication — the soul
spirited, split heart-deep — indignantly.
In this way Rachel once played Phaedra.
3 January 1914, Petersburg

Monday, 4 January 2016

From Voronezh Notebooks - Osip Mandelstam

When the goldfinch, in his airy confection,
Suddenly gets angry, begins to quake,
His spite sets off his scholar’s robes,
Shows to advantage his cute black cap.
And he slanders the hundred bars,
Curses the sticks and perches of his prison—
And the world’s turned completely inside out,
And surely there’s a forest Salamanca
For birds so smart, so disobedient.
December 1936

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Socialism on its deathbed - Olga Grushin

Olga Grushin's first novel is the sort of book where you can see what is going to happen from page three; the only question is how. Sukhanov, successful, rich and cynical, is riding the crest of the wave in Moscow in 1985. He has just been invited to weekend in the Minister of Culture's dacha, no less. Since the texture of the writing is dense with irony so heavy it seems to have been forged on an anvil, it is a foregone conclusion he will have lost everything by the end of the book.
The year 1985 is crucial to understanding this story. In its first quarter, Konstantin Chernenko, a Brezhnev protege, was in power, and the USSR apparently as incapable of progress as Lenin's embalmed corpse. Grushin quotes the phrase 'socialism with a human face' early on, and we are meant to remember that this was the slogan of the Czech liberal reformer Dubcek, which inaugurated the fragile 'Prague Spring' and brought Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968. But at the time this novel is set, Mikhail Gorbachev has been at the helm for a few months. Unknown to the apparatchiks, everything is set to change, including the rules for survival.
Grushin has a number of serious points to make. One is about the place of memory in a totalitarian regime capable of decreeing that Stalin should be forgotten and of convincing its citizenry that the price of survival is the development of selective amnesia, even within individual families. Sukhanov's mother never talks about his father and, for all his complacency, Sukhanov is aware with respect to his wife and children that 'their family map shone with uncharted white spots of terra incognita'.
When the novel opens, Grushin's hero is the editor of a state-controlled journal, The Art of the World. For 20-odd years, he has manufactured articles judiciously sprinkled with quotations from Lenin which execrate decadent capitalist art and praise socialist-realism. Once, he had been a young painter of real ability, but his first public exhibition was in 1962 and he was one of the artists Khrushchev denounced as amoral and anti-Soviet. He chose survival. Now he is a party hack, complacently tallying the symbols of his success: lovely wife, two brilliant children, car with chauffeur, dacha, tickets for the ballet. But the price seems to be that he can't remember anything, not even his chauffeur's name.
In Sukhanov's youth, he had been a Surrealist, a movement he now regularly abuses in the pages of his journal. He praises the representation of the real, while his life embodies the rational materialism of the Soviet dream. Surrealism, conversely, embodies a belief in the significance of dreams and links the creative impulse firmly with the subconscious. It is inevitable, since this is a modern morality play, that this man who has suppressed both his talent and his actual memories will be taught to believe in dreams. He will see his wife sprouting swan's wings and flying away (flight and winged figures proliferate in this novel). He will enter a series of fugal states in which random words or actions in the present ineluctably release a flood of buried memory which rises to overwhelm him.
Since Sukhanov was a man of profound creative impulses in the first place, he will, in short, discover that Surrealism is an aspect of reality and that the attempt to live without imagination and memory is not only its own punishment, but unsustainable. The novel sets his amnesiac progress up the ladder of success as itself a kind of dream and the bizarre fantasies of his last few days as an alternative. Both are products of madness, one collective, the other individual.
The painter whose work infuses these pages is Marc Chagall (who died in 1985), Russia's most significant exile for art's sake. We are given more than a hint in this direction when we are told that Sukhanov's only real teacher is a former pupil of Chagall's; this old man resurfaces at the end of the novel as an implicit contrast to Sukhanov, an impoverished hermit who makes his own pigments. Sukhanov's downfall begins when a wish is expressed from on high that the journal should start covering modern Western artists, starting with Dali. He assumes he is meant to condemn them. But Sukhanov's Dali-denunciation is spiked to make room for an obituary of Chagall. Things are changing.
Two other artists who provide compass-points in the narrative are Sukhanov's father-in-law, Malinin, who is a straightforward commercial artist producing advertising art on behalf of the state, and his polar opposite, the great 15th-century icon painter, Andrei Rublev. Both worked successfully within belief structures, but to opposite ends; painters of the material and the spiritual world.
The problem with this novel is that its ideas about the moral purposes of art are more interesting than its characters. It is hard to care very much about Sukhanov, since he is as two-dimensional as one of his father-in-law's paintings. That is perhaps inevitable, but the other character who is troublingly undeveloped is his wife, Nina, Malinin's daughter. We learn eventually that she gave up her one true love to marry Sukhanov because she believed in his talent, but her yearning for the luxuries of her cosseted childhood then put pressure on him to give up and conform. This makes her an interestingly grey-tinted character in an otherwise black-and-white cast, but Grushin does nothing with her except to suggest her intrinsic virtue by causing her to reject Sukhanov for his shallowness and retreat to the dacha to grow marigolds.
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