Thursday, 28 July 2016

Gatchina Palace: Catherine the Great’s lover, her son and other stories

Gatchina Palace. Source: Press photo

Gatchina Palace, the imperial residence outside St. Petersburg, is celebrating 250 years since the beginning of its construction.

Primarily associated with Paul I, who was gifted the palace by his mother, Catherine the Great, and lived there for more than 15 years, Gatchina became a stately home after Paul’s accession and maintained this status until the revolution of 1917. Initially, however, the Empress had built the palace not for her son, but for her lover.

Catherine the Great took the throne in a coup. According to the eminent pre-revolutionary historian Vasily Klyuchevsky, she undertook “a double seizure: She both took power from her husband and didn’t pass it to her son, the natural heir of his father” (for this reason, Paul is known as the “Russian Hamlet”).

One of the leaders of the coup was Catherine’s favorite Count Grigory Orlov – a stately man, both resolute and reckless. He was well-known as St. Petersburg’s Don Juan. Three years after her coronation, Catherine gave Orlov a generous gift – the Gatchina estate, a picturesque area with forests and spring lakes just 25 miles from St. Petersburg. Here, Orlov immediately started building a hunting lodge.

The construction dragged on for 15 years, and Orlov died soon after its completion, before having a chance to enjoy his gift. Catherine then bought the estate from the Count’s heirs and presented it to her son Paul on the occasion of the birth of his eldest daughter Alexandra. The frivolousness of the situation was typical of the 18th century.

Gatchina became Paul’s most beloved residence, and everything at the palace was arranged to his taste.

“The palace reflects two Paul’s strongest passions – theater and military,” said Alexandra Farafonova, the head of the Gatchina Palace Research Archive. “The best Petersburg troupes performed in the palace and sometimes even members of the imperial family and people close to them gave amateur performances.

“In addition, the Gatchina army became a model for the future reform of the Russian Empire army. The artillery received the most attention, and played an important role in the Patriotic War of 1812 with Napoleon.”

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Thursday, 21 July 2016

Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices

Svetlana Alexievich was born in western Ukraine in 1948 to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother, both of them rural schoolteachers. She grew up in Belarus and, after graduating from high school, worked at various newspapers before studying for a journalism degree at Belarusian State University. Alexievich graduated in 1972, but she eventually abandoned the journalistic strictures of chronology and contextualization in her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, which was published in Russian in 1985, the first year of perestroika. For that book, Alexievich interviewed scores of women rarely given the chance to be heard, and then edited their stories about personal and collective tragedy into a collage of voices that openly challenge the heroic Soviet myths of the Great Patriotic War. More than 2 million copies were eventually sold.

When Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, it was an acknowledgment of what she had already proved in each of her five books, collectively known as the “Red man” cycle: Her writing is sui generis, blending the force of fact with the capaciousness of fiction to create a new, vital literary compound.

In her Nobel lecture, Alexievich offered this characterization of herself as a writer: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear.” What she detects are the moments when a voice cracks, breaking through reticence and occlusion, saying something contradictory, enigmatic, strange. When T.S. Eliot was writing the poem that became The Waste Land, he gave it the working title “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a phrase plucked from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. “I ‘read’ voices,” Alexievich has written. She goes from person to person, voice to voice, hearing people talk about their lives in different voices, becoming individuals.

At a time when populism is in vogue, and populist politicians claim to speak for “the people,” Alexievich goes in the opposite direction: People should be allowed to speak freely for themselves. We need to read her, and listen to them, in all their variety.

The following interview was conducted in May in English and Russian and translated by Bela Shayevich.

When did you start gathering stories—not necessarily to write them down, but just to gather them?

I’ve been doing it since childhood. I used to live in a village, and I always loved listening to old people. Unfortunately, it was always women who were talking, because after the war very few men were around. I spent my entire life living in the village. The village is always talking about itself, people are talking to each other as the village makes sense of itself. If we want to talk about beginnings, there they are. My Ukrainian grandmother would tell amazing stories. She lost her father, and as children we would always listen to her stories.

When did you sense that you should start writing stories down?

After I graduated from the journalism department—because even though journalism is a good profession, for me it was very constraining. It focuses on the surface, banalities, events, and I wanted to spend a longer time talking to people in depth, and to ask them about truly important things, like love, death, and war.

Did you come to have this attitude before school, or during it?

Well, first of all, before my father went to the war he was studying in the journalism department, and after the war he returned there, so for me there was never a question about what I would do for a career. I was always meant to study the humanities; I was no good at math or sciences. When it came time for me to work it was Soviet times, and journalism wasn’t that free or interesting of a space. There was a lot of censorship; it was difficult.

At the end of your third book, Voices From Chernobyl, you write that the Zone—the officially designated exclusion zone around the site of the destroyed nuclear reactor—is “a world within the rest of the world.” You then write that it is “more powerful than anything literature has to say.” You make a similar remark in your Nobel lecture when you paraphrase your teacher, the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich: “You must give truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. No artist can live up to reality.” What, then, of literature?

It’s not that I got frustrated with literature per se, it’s just that the relationship one has to literature as a young reader changes. And don’t forget that I did end up working as a journalist for seven years and listening to people’s stories. When I heard those stories, they were more powerful than anything that you would read in fiction.

It’s not just me; it’s other kinds of artists, musicians—everybody is searching for new forms. It’s because of the nature of our times: So many things are happening and changing at the same time. It’s not a time when literature is only about great heroes. The little man has taken center stage, and there needs to be new ways of talking about that. When I was traveling around to all the villages, talking to people when I was a journalist, I really fell in love with the everyman, the ordinary people. They became more important to me. It’s not that I don’t socialize with the intellectuals—I talk to them too. But the so-called ordinary people took center stage. They’re just regular people, but they are absolutely amazing.

This little man, these ordinary people—who are they? When did they appear on center stage, and what would new forms allow us to understand about them?

The little man or woman, they’re not heroes. They’re not great leaders. They are everyday men and women—ordinary people. I was thinking of little people, because I was thinking: Why do ordinary people disappear without a trace? Why doesn’t anyone ask them anything? Nobody asks them what they think about grand ideas. They’re just asked to die for them.

When I started asking them, I realized how stupid it was to call them “little people.” We’re all equal heroes of our own life. The stories of many of them shake you to the core. Their human experience is great experience. I can’t speak for art as a whole, but in my genre, they expand the human knowledge. And after working for so many years, I never say “little person.” I never think in those terms. And I think they took center stage during World War I, when masses of people took part in history.

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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Marc Chagall’s bittersweet impressions of Russian life

Marc Chagall was born on July 6, 1887 in Vitebsk (now in Belarus) into a poor and traditional Jewish family. During his childhood and youth, anti-Semitism and pogroms were common in the Russian Empire. In My Life, which was written in the early 1920s, the artist provides a lighthearted look at his life in Russia.

Chagall shared many pleasant memories and there are interesting historical anecdotes from his childhood, including the time Tsar Nicholas II visited Vitebsk to review regiments that were about to go to the Far East to fight in the Russo-Japanese war.

“Hosts of boys, excited and sleepy, were met along the way, and headed in long lines towards fields covered with snow,” he wrote.

After waiting for hours in ankle-deep snow, the boys saw the train carrying the entourage. From a distance he saw the tsar who wore a private’s uniform and looked “very pale.”

At age 19 Chagall moved to St. Petersburg, where he was a student of renowned Russian painter and theater designer Leon Bakst. He struggled materially during his student days and could only afford to rent half a room. He described an incident when he witnessed a drunken roommate forcing his wife to have sex with him at knifepoint.

“I realized then that in Russia, Jews are not the only ones who have no right to live, but also many Russians, crowded together like lice in one’s hair,” he wrote.

The artist was relieved to experience more freedoms when he moved to Paris in 1910. Although he was happy in the French capital, Chagall craved to be back in Russia. But his love for the works of European artists kept him in France. After a visit to the Louvre, which had the works of Manet, Delacroix and Courbet, Chagall “wanted nothing more.”

“Here in the Louvre… I understood why I could not ally myself with Russia and Russian art,” he wrote. “Why my very speech is foreign to them.”

In the autobiography, Chagall describes meeting his future wife Bella Rosenfeld.

“Her silence is mine, her eyes mine,” he wrote. “It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me.”

In 1914, he visited Vitebsk to marry Bella. What he expected to be a short visit turned out to be an eight-year stay as the outbreak of the World War I forced Chagall to remain in Russia.

Over the next few years, the artist became famous throughout the country and his works were displayed in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, he became the Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk and founded the Vitebsk Art College. Chagall later moved to Moscow with his wife, but experienced little professional success. Facing poverty and a difficult life in the Soviet Union, he applied for an exit visa in 1921. He began penning his memoirs as he was waiting to move back to France.

Despite the harshness of Russian life and the discrimination that Chagall faced, from his autobiography it was obvious that he harbored little ill will towards Russia. His greater attachment, of course, was to his hometown Vitebsk, but nonetheless on the page there is a clear yearning for acceptance by his native country.

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Monday, 4 July 2016

Why Nabokov’s Speak, Memory Still Speaks to Us

Earlier this year, when the New York Times asked novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt to name the best memoir he’d read recently, he was unequivocal in his reply. “Speak, Memory, recently or ever,” Rosenblatt told the Times.

He was referring to the classic account by Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) of his idyllic Russian childhood in a family of colorful aristocrats, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that banished him to exile, and the path that would eventually lead him to live in the United States.

Rosenblatt is far from alone in hailing Speak, Memory as a gem. “To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available,” literary critic Joseph Epstein once observed. “Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful autobiography requires. Vladimir Nabokov was among them.” After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away. “Nabokov has never written English better than in these reminiscences; never has he written so sweetly,” he declared. “With tender precision and copious wit . . . inspired by an atheist’s faith in the magic of simile and the sacredness of lost time, Nabokov makes of his past a brilliant icon—bejewelled, perspectiveless, untouchable.”

Updike was writing in 1966, the year that the definitive version of Speak, Memory, subtitled An Autobiography Revisited, was published. That edition is 50 years old this year, still in print after half a century, and still attracting new readers. Perhaps no one would be more surprised at the book’s longevity than Nabokov himself. He pronounced the memoir “a dismal flop” after its release, lamenting that it brought him “fame but little money.”

The work that had made Nabokov a lucrative author and ensured his financial security was—you guessed it—his controversial novel Lolita, which became an international sensation in 1955 with its tale of a shrewd pedophile’s relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

Lolita looms so largely over Nabokov’s literary legacy that the more quietly observed Speak, Memory is destined to lie in its shadow. But if Nabokov had never written Lolita —indeed, if he had never written the novels Mary, or Pnin, or The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, or Pale Fire, or any of the poems or works of criticism that won him an international audience—then he would still deserve to be remembered for Speak, Memory, his exquisite paean to memory itself.

The sly illusion in Nabokov’s memoir resides in the very title, Speak, Memory, which evokes the idea of an earnest scribe waiting for the mythical Greek goddess Mnemosyne to talk so that he can scrupulously transcribe the past. But Speak, Memory, we learn in Nabokov’s foreword, wasn’t the book’s first name. His memoir was initially published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence, though that choice proved problematic. “Unfortunately, the phrase suggested a mystery story,” Nabokov explained, “and I planned to entitle the British edition Speak, Mnemosyne but was told that ‘little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose name they could not pronounce’ . . . so finally we settled for Speak, Memory.”

Yet the declarative certainty within the premise—Mnemosyne as an infallible arbiter of one’s personal history—is quickly betrayed by the interior logic of the narrative. Nabokov’s 1966 version of the book, we learn, was intended as a corrective to the earlier work, a revision meant to clean up flawed recollections in the first edition. “I revised many passages and tried to do something about the amnesic defects of the original—blank spots, blurry areas, domains of dimness,” he reports. “I discovered that sometimes, by means of intense concentration, the neutral smudge might be forced to come into beautiful focus so that the sudden view could be identified, and the anonymous servant named.”

Some of Nabokov’s revisions occurred after he returned to Europe following a 20-year absence, connecting with relatives who helped him realize that “I had erred, or had not examined deeply enough an obscure but fathomable recollection.”

Therein lies the central tension of Speak, Memory. Its prose is meticulous, suggesting memory as an exercise in exacting dictation from an omniscient oracle, yet its message points to memory as mutable, prone to the passage of time and the vagaries of imagination. “Fairly early in the book Nabokov spends pages and pages creating an exquisite picture of the vast figure of Mademoiselle, his childhood nanny, everything detailed, from her voice to her chins,” Rosenblatt notes. “Then he reverses course and says: Did I get her all wrong? Is she a fiction? Who but Nabokov could get away with a stunt like that—to make us believe all he has written about the woman, and doubt every word, and not care.”

This delicious ambiguity starts right away, in Nabokov’s reference to his birth, which was April 10, 1899, according to the Old Style calendar, largely derived from the Julian calendar, used in Russia at the time. It was generally 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar in widespread use outside Russia, which would make Nabokov’s birthday April 22 once he left his homeland. But “with diminishing pomp, in the twentieth century, everybody, including myself, upon being shifted by revolution and expatriation from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, used to add thirteen, instead of twelve days to the tenth of April,” he confesses.

It’s a seemingly small point, yet a profound one. Without self-pity or bitterness, Nabokov reveals how exile can disrupt the underlying realities of personal identity—even something as basic as one’s birthday.

The theme of dislocation subtly informs the rest of Speak, Memory. In a particularly lovely passage, Nabokov fondly recalls his mother’s return from hunting mushrooms, when she would lay out her trophies on a garden table to sort them:
As often happened at the end of a rainy day, the sun might cast a lurid gleam just before setting, and there, on the damp round table, her mushrooms would lie, very colorful, some bearing traces of extraneous vegetation—a grass blade sticking to a viscid fawn cap, or moss still clothing the bulbous base of a dark-stippled stem. And a tiny looper caterpillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child’s finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged. This is vintage Nabokov: everything bright and beautiful, then the sudden lurch of disruption—in this instance, as an innocent creature struggles valiantly to reclaim the familiar home from which it’s been so casually uprooted, inviting an obvious comparison to Nabokov’s own exile.
Born at the dawn of the twentieth century, Nabokov encountered a life that seemed destined to register, as vividly as a seismograph, the titanic political and social upheavals of his age.

After Vladimir Lenin came to power in Russia, Nabokov’s family escaped to Europe in 1919. In subsequent years, Nabokov would study at Cambridge and live in Berlin and Paris. He met his wife, Vera, a fellow Russian émigré, during his Berlin period, and a shared love of literature grounded their relationship. Their son, Dmitri, was born in 1934. Nabokov struggled to support himself as a writer, and his life became more complicated when the family’s presence in France coincided with the Nazi advance. They fled to America in 1940, just in time to escape danger.

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