Monday, 31 October 2016

Sergei Krylov - Vivaldi - Four Seasons, Violin Concerto No 2, Summer

Antonio Vivaldi
The Four Seasons
Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, RV 315, Summer
Sergei Krylov, violin
Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra
Yuri Bashmet
Moscow, December 2014

Nikolay Gumilev: My Thoughts

Why did you come, my thoughts, in instant, 
Like thieves to rob my quiet habitation, 
Like vultures, gloomy and malignant,              
With thirst for dread retaliation.

My hopes are gone, and ran away my visions,
My eyes were opened by fierce agitation,
And, in the sacred books of new religions, 
I read my words, my deals and plans for future actions.

For that, that I with looks so calm and quiet,
Watched them who sailed to victory and glory,
That with my lips I touched the lips in fire,
Which did not have the former sinning story,

That those hands of mine, my own fingers,
Didn’t know a plough, were so thin and pliant,
And that my songs, the rambling meistersingers, 
Could only sing, while making a sad sound,

For all this now came repudiation. 
Blind men will smash the gentle, deceptive temple,
And thoughts will come into my habitation,
And strangle me, like thieves – a shabby tramper.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Kukotsky Enigma: a sprawling philosophical epic with a Tolstoyan edge

In 2001, novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya was the first woman to win Russia’s prestigious Booker Prize. The winning book was her fourth novel, which became a popular Russian TV serial in 2005 and has now finally appeared in English as The Kukotsky Enigma.

Doctor Pavel Kukotsky devotes his life to improving contemporary obstetrics, seeing both the mundane and the mystical aspects of the female reproductive system: “the bottomless breach of the world … the true gates of eternity.” Although officially illegal from 1936, Kukotsky performs safe abortions for women who – as we witness in the novel – might otherwise undergo fatal, botched operations. Like John Irving in his 1985 novel Cider House Rules, Ulitskaya explores the moral and existential paradoxes presented by the ability to interrupt pregnancies: “to step beyond the limits of biological law … Was this not where human choice, the right to freedom, ultimately was realized?” Kukotsky is also skilled in calculating the best chances of fertility, delivering thousands of babies for couples who thought conception impossible.

Before she became a writer, Ulitskaya worked as a geneticist, and her scientific background inspired several aspects of this novel, reiterating her own questions about the boundaries between health and sickness, life and death. Kukotsky falls in love with his future wife Elena as she lies dying of peritonitis on his table. He saves her life, and much of the ensuing narrative follows their daughter, Tanya, through her unconventional work and relationships. Tanya rejects her thriving scientific career as “foolish, insane, rotten” after finding herself casually and professionally prepared to experiment on a human fetus, an incident drawn from Ulitskaya’s own autobiography.

Kukotsky’s gift of diagnostic x-ray vision is one of the sparkles of magic realism in this sprawling, multifaceted treasury of a book. The novel contains extracts from Elena’s notebooks, written as her mind begins to falter with Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, piecing together a deliberately fractured narrative. The crucial central section is a long, surreal dream that she experiences during her illness. In this section all the novel’s major characters (including some that Elena never consciously meets) are transmuted into symbolic versions of themselves. They are travelling through a shifting, timeless desert: a purgatorial landscape with ancient, biblical, connotations, which also symbolizes the erasure of memory. One character looks back to see “his own tracks quickly swept over by light drifts of sand…”

In this bafflingly allegorical interlude, Ulitskaya revisits and prefigures the thematic obsessions of her other works: religion, later explored in Daniel Stein: Interpreter, while a network of extended families that transcends death becomes the title image of The Big Green Tent. In both scientific and supernatural senses, Ulitskaya probes the perpetual motion of the world, as Kukotsky sees it “charged by the pulsating movement of living to dead, and dead to living.” An earlier version of the novel, published in Novy Mir magazine in 2000, was called Journeys to the Seventh Dimension before it became the more straightforward Case of Kukotsky. The underlying sense of mystery led translator Diane Ignashev to rebrand the title in her slightly formal English version.

Ulitskaya’s strength is in her original style and compelling characters, rather than the coherence of her plots. She gives Kukotsky and Elena strange powers and then seems ignore them for pages at a time, but their realistically erratic trajectories have transcendent moments: erotic visions fuse with medical knowledge; human lives are skillfully dissected in all their painful complexity. One woman’s biography is described as tagging behind her: “bitter, Soviet, and as ineluctable as an unburied corpse…”

The most evident literary influence, throughout the novel, is Leo Tolstoy, often present in Ulitskaya’s philosophical family sagas. Elena grows up on an agricultural commune near Moscow, where Tolstoy’s works are treated as gospel; several characters quote, reread or allude to him. The dream-version of Kukotsky actually meets Tolstoy, has a philosophical discussion with him, and praises the writer’s 1905 short story “Alyosha the Pot”, calling it “the best thing I ever read about love in my whole life.”

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Thursday, 13 October 2016

Alexander Blok: The city sleeps

The city sleeps, wrapped in the haze,
The streetlamps barely glimmer …
And I can see the morning rays
Beyond the Neva, start to shimmer.
This distant and opaque reflection,
This gleam of the awaking blaze
Conceals the nearing resurrection
Of dreary, melancholy days…

August 23, 1899

By Alexander Blok
Translation by Andrey Kneller

Monday, 10 October 2016

Unsurpassable Tolstoy

A review by Virginia Woolf of Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and Other Tales of the Caucasus (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude), published in the TLS of February 1, 1917.

It is pleasant to welcome Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks” and other tales of the Caucasus to the World Classics. “The greatest of Russia’s writers,” say Mr. and Mrs. Maude in their introduction. And when we read or re-read these stories, how can we deny Tolstoy’s right to the title ? Of late years both Dostoevsky and Tchekov have become famous in England, so that there has certainly been less discussion, and perhaps less reading of Tolstoy himself. Coming back to him after an interval the shock of his genius seems to us quite surprising ; in his own line it is hard to imagine that he can ever be surpassed. For an English reader proud of the fiction of this country there is even something humiliating in the comparison between such a story as “The Cossacks,” published in 1863, and the novels which were being written at about the same time in England. As the lovable immature work of children compared with the work of grown men they appear to us ; and it is still more strange to consider that, while much of Thackeray and Dickens seems to us far away and obsolete, this story of Tolstoy’s reads as if it had been written a month or two ago.

It is as a matter of fact an early work, written for the most part some years before it was published, and preceding both the great novels. He gathered the materials when he was in the Caucasus for two years as a cadet, and the chief character is the same whom we meet so often in the later books—the unmistakable Tolstoy. As Olenin he is a young man who has run into debt and leaves Moscow with a view to saving a little money and seeing a fresh side of life. In Moscow he has had many experiences, but he has always said to himself both of love and of other things, “That’s not it, that’s not it.” The story—and like most of Tolstoy’s stories it has no intricacy of plot—is the story of the devolopment of this young man’s mind and character in a Cossack village. He lives alone in a hut ; observes the beauty of the Cossack girl Maryanka, but scarcely speaks to her, and spends most of his time with Daddy Eroshka in shooting pheasants and talking about sport. At length he comes to know the girl and asks her to marry him, to which she seems inclined to consent ; but at that very moment the soldier to whom she is engaged is wounded, and she refuses to have anything more to do with Olenin. He therefore gets himself put upon the staff and leaves the district. When he has said goodbye to them all, he turns to look back. “Daddy Eroshka was talking to Maryanka, evidently about his own affairs, and neither the old man nor the girl looked at Olenin.” Nothing is finished ; nothing is tidied up ; life merely goes on.

But what a life ! Perhaps it is the richness of Tolstoy’s genius that strikes us most in this story, short though it is. Nothing seems to escape him. The wonderful eye observes everything ; the blue or the red of a child’s frock ; the way a horse shifts its tail ; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sown up ; every gesture seems to be received by him automatically, and at once referred by his brain to some cause which reveals the most carefully hidden secrets of human nature. We feel that we know his characters both by the way they choke and snooze and by the way they feel about love and immortality and the most subtle questions of conduct. In the present selection of stories, all the work of youth and all laid in a wild country far from town civilization, he gives freer play than in the novels to his extraordinary keenness of physical sensation. We seem actually able to see the mountains, the young soldiers, the grapes, the Cossack girls, to feel the firmness of their substance, and to see the bright colours with which the sun and the cold air have painted them. Nowhere perhaps has he written with greater zest of the excitement of sport and of the beauty of fine horses ; nowhere has he made us feel more acutely how fiercely desirable the world appears to the senses of a strong young man. At the same time the thought which unites these scenes and gives them so keen an edge is the thought which goes on incessantly in the brain of Olenin. He throws himself down in the middle of the hunt to rest under the brambles in a lair where a stag has just lain :—
And it was clear to him that he was not a Russian nobleman, a member of Moscow society, the friend and relation of So-and-so and So-and-so, but just such a mosquito or pheasant or dear as those that were now living all round him. “Just as they, just as Daddy Eroshka, I shall live awhile and die, and as he says truly : grass will grow and nothing more.” “But what though the grass does grow ?” he continued thinking, “Still I must live, and be happy, because happiness is all I desire. . . . How then must I Iive to be happy, and why was I not happy before ?” . . . and suddenly a new light seemed to reveal itself to him. “Happiness is this ! ” he said to himself. “Happiness lies in living for others” . . He was so glad and excited when he had discovered this, as it seemed to him, new truth, that he jumped up and began impatiently socking some one to sacrifice himself to, to do good to, and to love. “Since one wants nothing for oneself”, he kept thinking, “why not live for others ?”
But Lukashka, to whom he gives a horse, suspects his motives for making such a valuable gift ; and Eroshka, whom he treats as a friend and to whom he gives a gun, forgets him as soon as his back is turned. Perhaps then he is on the wrong tack after all. Here, as everywhere, Tolstoy seems able to read the minds of different people as certainly as we count the buttons on their coats ; but this feat never satisfies him ; the knowledge is always passed through the brain of some Olcuin or Pierre or Levin, who attempts to guess a further and more difficult riddle—the riddle which Tolstoy was still asking himself, we may be sure, when he died. And the fact that Tolstoy is thus seeking, that there is always in the centre of his stories some rather lonely figure to whom the surrounding world is never quite satisfactory, makes even his short stories entirely unlike other short stories. They do not shut with a snap like the stories of Maupassant and Mérimée. They go on indefinitely. It is by their continuous vein of thought that we remember them, rather than by any incident ; by thoughts such as that which comes to him in the middle of battle.

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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Day in the Life of Anna Akhmatova by Elaine Feinstein

Author of Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova, Elaine Feinstein imagines a day in the life of the poet during her exile in Tashkent, when she lived in a small room on the top floor of the ‘Hostel for Moscow Writers’ at 7, Karl Marx Street 

It was already mid-morning. Anna Akhmatova, her whole being formed in Leningrad, lay dreaming in Tashkent. Against the pillow her profile was as sharp as a metallic image on a coin. She awoke with a jolt, her heart thumping loudly and out of rhythm.

Her small, almost childlike hands threw off the faded pink blankets and reached for her pills. er hert clicked back into rhythm Too much vodka the night before with Faina Ranevskaya. As she sat up and cautiously rubbed her numb feet, she smiled think of Ranevskaya’s droll face: Charlie Chaplin, she called her. She was the most famous comic actress in Russia.

Anna began to pull on an old gown of Chinese silk with a black dragon embroidered on the back. One of the seams was torn from under the arm to the knee, as it had been for months. But the air was warm against her skin. How much easier it is to be poor in a warm climate, she thought. Bits of her dream returned to her. She was walking over a Tartar wasteland: frozen mud, a plank over a puddle of melted snow. Below her, she made out a woman in ragged clothes, a village hut, a nail, a hank of rope …

Was it a sign? Anna was superstitious about dreams.

She had come south on a train more than a year ago, from Chistopol in the frozen North, where the Writers’ Union had first evacuated her. Lydia Chukovskaya, a loyal friend from her Leningrad days, was with her; Anna always found people to look after her. And Lydia was a courageous woman – she had memorised the lyrics of Requiem when it was too dangerous to write them down – and a generous woman, too. She had spent hours standing in line for rations, or queuing to hand in parcels at Kresty Prison.

Anna sighed. There had been a break between them. Lydia disapproved of her drinking so heavily. It was not sensible, with a bad heart. More than that, she disapproved of Ranevskaya, whom she found vulgar. Perhaps she was a little jealous. Anna shrugged. What will be will be.

But the dream stayed with her. She must have been thinking about the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, the only woman Anna recognised as her equal. Tsvetaeva had hanged herself in Yelabuga, across the river Kama from the Writers’ Union headquarters in Chistopol. Anna had only met her once, not in the far North but in Moscow, just before the German invasion. By then, all of Tsvetaeva’s family were in the camps except for her son Georgiy, whom she adored. She had killed herself in Yelabuga, even so. Remembering it, Anna crossed herself. It was never good fortune to dream of death, still less a suicide. And her own son, Lev, was in the Gulag now – a brilliant boy who might have been a fine historian.

She would not think of that, or of the words in his last letter, which had hurt her so much. His interrogators had jeered at him: ‘Your mother is so famous, she could get you released with a word, but she doesn’t care.’ How could he believe that? She had tried every trick to win his release. Didn’t he understand she was helpless? She shook the thoughts out of her head. One day he might forgive her. If they both lived long enough.

Tashkent was a city of almond and apricot trees, markets piled with fruits, brown-skinned girls. Sometimes there was a majestic caravan of camels. In the dry heat, she had learned to value the shade of a tree as much as sunshine. She had lived her whole life in a city of sea and rain. Water had coloured all her poetry, water and ghosts. Now she lived among wide steppes in a Muslim world.

That Tashkent was a Muslim city did not trouble her. Hadn’t she taken her pen name from an ancestor said to be a khan? She liked the ancient, alien customs. It did not displease her that she had a reputation for wisdom among Muslim women. She enjoyed it.

But the dream. What did that presage?

Someone was knocking at the door.

It was Ranevskaya, her drinking companion of the night before. Anna cheered up whenever she approached. Even in Tashkent, the children called catchphrases after her. She had lit Anna’s stove when it died the previous winter. Stole the wood for it, too. Today she brought fresh aromatic peaches … and something else, held behind her back.

‘You have forgotten you are reading tonight,’ Faina reproached her. ‘Have you anything to wear?’

‘All my life I have been able to look however I wanted, from a beauty to a hag,’ Anna replied indifferently. ‘What are you holding?’

Ranevskaya gave her a letter, and Anna looked at it without seizing it. It was from Garshin, her lover in Leningrad, whose wife had died in the streets. It was not what she was waiting for. He wrote so often she knew what he would say.

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