Tuesday, 23 August 2016

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. While it is true that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were both impassioned idealists engaged in a religious quest, they privately distrusted and disliked each other. Dostoevsky, for ex ample, once called Tolstoy “a sugary talent” and complained that his characters “are uninteresting to the point of strangeness.”

At the same time, a jocular amalgamation of the two authors into one “Tolstoevsky” points to an additional problem, less phil osophical, perhaps, but no less perplexing—and this time not the reader’s fault. It con cerns the endemic inferiority of the extant English translations from the Russian, most of which do little justice to the verbal beauty of the originals. Too often great Russian prose, past or present, has been “Englished” in conformity with some prevailing literary fashion, which naturally results in language lacking the personal inspiration and stylistic imprint of the original. Not surprisingly, the result is a “Tolstoevsky,” a more or less characterless composite. Ironically, this ap proach to translation has on occasion im proved upon Tolstoy, a writer who professed (and practiced) a lack of interest in formal refinement. But when applied to Dosto evsky, this procedure has had a disastrous ef fect, often aggravated by the translator’s in ability to appreciate or convey the multiple semantic and syntactical nuances that make the language of Dostoevsky’s novels so su perbly individual.

The introduction to the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov promises to remedy this fault.[1] At almost eight hundred pages, the translation was a risky and noble venture on the part of a small publishing house, North Point Press—and one cannot help being saddened by the news that North Point will no longer be publishing new books. The husband-and-wife team who translated The Brothers Karamazov anew seems well suited for the task. Richard Pevear is a poet of repute who has also translated both poetry and prose from several tongues; Larissa Volokhonsky is a Russian émigrée, a professional translator, and a student of theol ogy (a clear advantage when approaching Dostoevsky). The pair has chosen to adopt an elevated view of their craft, following in this a practice still common in Russia, where translation is considered an art requiring born talent and professionalism. The dif ficulties they faced were formidable indeed. Here it may suffice to indicate only a few.

The Russian literary language was created early in the nineteenth century largely through the efforts and genius of Alexander Pushkin, who enjoys in the eyes of Russians a status comparable to that which Shakespeare or Goethe enjoys here. This language was developed by the great stylists of the later nineteenth century, notably Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov, and in this century by those who (like Ivan Bunin or Mikhail Bul gakov) realized their stylistic aims by further refining the idiom approved by literary tradition. Insofar as their work reproduces this “classical” idiom they can be rendered accurately into standard literary English.

This must be sharply contrasted with Dos-toevsky’s writing. Drawing on the example of Nikolai Gogol, Dostoevsky fashioned a literary technique with a whole new set of priorities. Instead of working with the es tablished idiom, writers in this tradition —among them such prominent modern writers as Evgeny Zamyatin and Andrei Platonov or, for that matter, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—proceeded to explore and ex ploit unconventional layers of the vernacular: dialect, jargon, slang, cant, and the like.

Already in his very first publication, the short novel Poor Folk, Dostoevsky surprised “readers with a skillful imitation of semi-edu cated speech, and in his later work he revealed an unsurpassed mastery over his medium, employing an incredible variety of stylistic means. It remains uncertain whether Dostoevsky actually possessed—as did some of his followers—a conscious and articulate program regarding language and style. But his notebooks leave no doubt that he paid ex ceptional attention to vocabulary, register ing characteristic or unusual words, playing them out, placing them in different contexts, plagiarizing, with equal relish, from a priest or a policeman or a streetwalker.

In any event, it seems likely that Dostoevsky owes much of his verbal virtuosity to intui tion rather than deliberate strategy. In every case, his word choice, however bizarre it first appears, makes the most accurate and mean ingful response to the momentary situation created by the plot or a character’s im mediate experience. A striking replacement of an anticipated commonplace is fraught with subtle implications, often recognized by the reader only in retrospect. Much of Dostoevsky’s magic spell lies in the unpredic tability of his narrative, extending from philosophical or psychological argument to matters of syntax and even grammar. The result is that the idiosyncrasies of content and style for which he was berated in his own time are things for which he is admired by posterity. In fact, reading Dostoevsky in the original, one has to fight the impression that he writes in a language that no one speaks and, very possibly, no one ever spoke. His idiom is principally derived from the vo cabulary of the period’s petty urban officials, the milieu Dostoevsky knew best. When this peculiar idiom is applied to grand, meta physical questions, it is transformed and sud denly acquires a higher significance. The ef fect is uncanny, verging on the irrational and the fantastic. This accounts in part for the peculiar ambiance, so easily lost in transla tion, of the Dostoevskian world, where characters, though graphically shaped, ap pear, as if “through a glass darkly,” both smaller and larger than life.

Several pivotal chapters in The Brothers Karamazov exhibit a complex and careful in terplay of stylistic elements alien to common speech. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s response to the challenge of these complexities makes palpable both the felicities and the failures of their new translation. Dostoevsky articulated some of his deepest spiritual commitments in those portions of the novel devoted to the elder Zosima, who was meant to portray the ideal Christian. Dostoevsky’s success with Zosima—so far as generations of Russian readers are concerned, at least—owes much to his judicious use of the archaisms and poeticisms provided by the residue of Church Slavonic that continues to function, even for present-day literature, as a source of occasional verbal enrichment. The very tenor of Zosima’s speech, his collected sayings, his “hagiography” composed by Alyosha Kar amazov, are highly stylized and permeated with Slavonicisms. The difficulty of render ing all this into English is exceedingly for midable. One promising device that has not been sufficiently exploited by translators —possibly out of the fear of sounding con trived—is adopting a pattern of allusion to the King James version of the Bible. This might sometimes create an effect comparable to that of Church Slavonic.

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Monday, 22 August 2016

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 holies – Valentina Platonovna's small study on the second floor, completely filled with shelves of books by and about Brodsky in different languages, with dozens of rare photographs of the poet hanging on the walls. Brodsky himself once visited this study. He looked at the walls with an ironic smile and said, in didactic fashion: "You're still missing a photograph, Valentina. The one of me as a baby lying on the couch without pants."

She tried to take care of him in every possible way when he was alive and came to London. Now she takes care of his and daughters and granddaughters, who also visit her welcoming home. I could not resist asking her a highly insolent question: whether she was sure she did not exaggerate Brodsky's importance.

Her reply was as follows:

"As you know, Alexander Pushkin brought French poetry to Russia. This is understandable: French was the mother tongue of the Russian aristocracy at that time. But neither Pushkin nor the poets who followed him took anything from the rich English poetry except, perhaps, Byron's romantic image of the poet. Joseph Brodsky did all of this two centuries later. This is a huge contribution to Russian poetry, literature, culture, and, finally, language. Russian needed this contribution, this new blood and it got it thanks to Brodsky. If he had not done anything besides this, he deserves a monument for this contribution alone."

After a pause, she continued: "But you know, I sometimes feel that Brodsky was the Russian language's deliberate choice."

"What do you mean by that?" I replied with surprise.

"Well, if you follow Joseph's own logic," she said, "language is something given to us from above, a certain entity that is both deeper and more extended in time than man, or even mankind. Here let us assume that this enormous living being – the Russian language – matures to the point where it needs a poet who can help record contemporary language in a perfect form – who can open up possibilities for the language's future development. And this language chooses a small Jewish boy in an anti-Semitic country, knowing that he will suffer; it breathes poetry into him, knowing that in this country a true poet either dies or is exiled. It lets him survive, become famous and fulfil the mission entrusted to him..."

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Sunday, 14 August 2016

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 a menacing Truman Show-style construct, an enclosed space, between a wall and a void, with a sun that can be switched on and off. The novel predominantly follows Voronin’s evolution, as a communist true believer, from garbage collector to “top‐ranking bureaucrat … and arbiter of human destiny.” This trajectory was what made the book so dangerous when it was first written. Voronin gradually becomes a man suspended “in an airless ideological void.” This, Boris Strugatsky writes, in the novel’s late 1980s afterword, was a trajectory the authors and many like them were familiar with: the path of an entire post-war generation.

Overseeing the Experiment are the equally mysterious “Mentors”; some characters believe their captors are aliens, watching them as “in a fish tank or … zoological garden”. Voronin is convinced that they are “human beings from a different dimension”, benevolently aiming “to create a model of communist society”; others that they are future colonizers of earth, studying the psychology of their slaves. The characters spend hours debating the nature of the Experiment and the city they find themselves in, arguing about war and politics, morality and religion. In places the novel feels like a surreal dream; elsewhere it is a thinly veiled account of bureaucratic reality. An old man compares their city to scenes by Hieronymus Bosch and Dante; their discussions produce some of the novel’s comic moments: “You’re a Manichean!” the old man interrupts. “I’m a Komsomol member!” Voronin protests.

Russia has a rich tradition of philosophical novelists, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Viktor Pelevin, but The Doomed City also prefigures global trends in speculative fiction. The pioneering writers built up an agenda of moral, social, and ethical problems, which has influenced the genre since, from Star Trek’s dilemma-based episodes to Ursula K. Le Guin’s explorations. The subjects’ helplessness and the chillingly allegorical quality of their situation is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s unfortunate clone-students in Never Let Me Go. At other times, with the violent streets full of inexplicable baboons or “shark wolves” and controlled by sinister overlords, the scenarios resemble Suzanne Collins’ dystopian fantasy series, The Hunger Games.

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

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 illnesses would be successfully treated. He was lying, of course. A cure for asthma didn’t exist. Years later Kirill’s daughter, Masha, died of asthma at the age of eighteen.

At the time the Soviet Union was engaged in a war with Afghanistan. We all had heard rumors that the newest recruits, young boys without any experience, were immediately sent to the front line as cannon fodder, while experienced soldiers, already known to their superiors, were kept behind, protected. In addition, my son was very nearsighted and terrible at any fighting.

Hiding from the army, my son and his family rented a temporary residence. I began to receive visits from patrolmen who would spend nights in my kitchen, waiting for Kirill to show up.

I asked for help—at the theaters, where else? I’m a playwright. I knew that prominent theater directors managed to save their young actors from the draft through their connections among recruiting boards.

None of them were interested in helping me. I had a dreadful reputation as a forbidden author, an anti-Soviet author. My plays were regularly shut down, even though theaters fought for them with intermittent success and a one-act play, Love, was running in seven different theaters. I knocked on office doors, begged, cried. During that time Kirill’s wife became pregnant with a second child. By Soviet law, a father of two children couldn’t be drafted. But Kirill was still tracked down by the draft board (probably through his phone) and was handed a summons to be at the recruitment office the next day at seven in the morning.

Around that time the Moscow theater Lenkom had accepted my new play, Moscow Choir, on a sensitive subject: the return of political exiles who had been sent to the gulag by Stalin in 1937. Lenkom’s chief director, who had seen nothing but trouble from associating with me—my previous play, Three Girls in Blue, was shut down for four years and the theater was regularly inspected by the authorities—refused to help my son.

Moreover, no one from Lenkom’s higher management showed up for the read-through of the new play. Instead, it was attended by unfamiliar young men of nontheatrical appearance, with crew cuts. I asked who they were and was told that they had come on an unrelated matter, to discuss stage designs. I got up and left, taking with me my play.

(I suspected I was followed by the KGB and that my phone was bugged. That suspicion was confirmed years later, when the KGB’s archives were opened and the papers published lists of those under physical and phone surveillance. My name was on both lists.)

I set out on my final quest. The next day my son was to be taken from us; he was to be sent to the slaughter. I went to our country’s leading theater, the Moscow Art Theater, to seek an audience with its chief director, Oleg Yefremov. By an incredible stroke of luck, he was in his office and agreed to see me. A star of screen and theater, Yefremov was always traveling—shooting or rehearsing.

I told him everything. I didn’t cry. He heard me out, then picked up the receiver, dialed a number, and began a conversation with “It’s me—again.” He listed my son’s illnesses and complications, that Kirill’s wife was in her third month of pregnancy with a second child. He ended the conversation with “Got it. Take care.” Then he told me this: “Let him get a doctor’s note saying that his wife can’t have an abortion for medical reasons.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was in the presence of a man who immediately, without preamble, set out to protect me and my son. My gratitude was beyond expression.

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Saturday, 6 August 2016

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 Fyodor Dostoevsky and his characters experienced: stupor, frothing at the mouth, loss of consciousness, and even long spells of near-insanity.

The standard medical classification of epileptic seizures is as follows:
The manifestations of epilepsy depend on the area of the brain where the abnormal discharge occurs . . . . An attack of grand mal (tonic-clonic) epilepsy usually begins with bilateral jerks of the extremities or focal seizure activity. There is loss of consciousness and both tonic and clonic type convulsions . . . . Complex partial seizures, as in psychomotor (temporal lobe) epilepsy, usually, but not always, originate in the temporal lobe of the brain, often with a preceding aura . . . . Simple partial seizures, called also focal seizures, result from a localized cortical discharge. The symptoms may be either motor, sensory, autonomic, or any combination of the three.
Dostoevsky had “grand mal” seizures; mine were the simple partial ones. And they may have made me a much more discerning reader of the very same Nabokov who was the subject of the conference where my first seizure took place. I write about Nabokov and teach him every year, which means that I constantly re-read him (“One cannot read a book”, Nabokov famously advised his students; “one can only re-read it”). And certain passages in his autobiographical and fictional writings – amounting overall to a kind of obsession – started to come into sharper focus: he, too, must have suffered from some form of epilepsy.

Nabokov is, in fact, as generous in distributing epilepsy among his characters as was Dostoevsky who, as I will discuss below, may have been the main reason why the author of Lolita was not more open about his affliction. Nabokov’s personal testimonies do, however, at times approach the confessional. Thus in the second chapter of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he writes:
As far back as I remember myself . . . I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical . . . . Just before falling asleep, I often become aware of a kind of one-sided conversation going on in an adjacent section of my mind, quite independently from the actual trend of my thoughts. It is a neutral, detached, anonymous voice, which I catch saying words of no importance to me whatever – an English or a Russian sentence, not even addressed to me . . . . This silly phenomenon seems to be the auditory counterpart of certain praedormitory visions which I also know well . . . . On top of this I present a fine case of coloured hearing.
Nabokov shared his synaesthesia – “coloured hearing” and seeing letters in colours – with his mother; it occurs, we are told, in at least 4 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsies. He also apparently shared with her, as he reveals in the same chapter, “double sight . . . premonitions, and the feeling of the déjà vu”, all three definitely characteristic of epileptic seizures. Nabokov further elaborated on these strange sensations in “Inspiration”, an essay written late in 1972 for the Saturday Review (January 6, 1973; see Edmund White’s article in this issue). In this piece he even uses the notion of “an epileptic attack” to describe what is taking place: “A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life . . . . [It] has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret. In the meantime . . . a window has opened, an auroral wind has blown, every exposed nerve has tingled”.

When Nabokov reveals the effects of epilepsy on his characters who suffer from it, the accuracy is uncanny. In Pale Fire, the poet John Shade, who, if we are to believe his “annotator” Charles Kinbote, has “a mild form of epilepsy”, gives the following account of his childhood fainting fits:

There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand . . .
During one winter every afternoon
I’d sink into that momentary swoon.

In the same novel one of the rare astute observations by Kinbote in his commentary to Shade’s poem can be found in the description of “what physicians call the aura, a strange sensation both tense and vaporous, a hot-cold ineffable exasperation pervading the entire nervous system before a seizure”. And then there is the hapless but lovable Timofey Pnin, from the eponymous novel, whose seizure in a park in an unfamiliar town is depicted through the overwrought reaction, immediately recognizable to all epileptics, to this inexplicable occurrence:
that eerie feeling, that tingle of unreality overpowered him completely. . . .Was it a mysterious disease that none of his doctors had yet detected? . . . He felt porous and pregnable. He was sweating. He was terrified. A stone bench among the laurels saved him from collapsing on the sidewalk. Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For nonce I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it . . . . Pnin felt what he had felt already on August 10, 1942, and February 15 (his birthday), 1937, and May 18, 1929, and July 4, 1920 – that the repulsive automaton he lodged had developed a consciousness of its own and not only was grossly alive but was causing him pain and panic. He pressed his poor bald head against the stone back of the bench and recalled all the past occasions of similar discomfort and despair . . . . The seizure had left him a little frightened and shaky . . .
When the narrator steps in to “doubt” that Pnin’s seizure stemmed from a heart attack, he appears to give us a clear indication not only as to what this “mysterious disease” was not, but also as to what it was. I believe the narrator’s diagnosis here was based on Nabokov’s own medical history.

Since there are no medical records available, the best sources of relevant clues are of course Boyd’s biography and Nabokov’s personal letters. Boyd lists the following known health problems that the writer apparently suffered from: “adenoma . . . concussion . . . heart palpitations . . . influenza/pneumonia . . . intercoastal neuralgia . . . lumbago . . . lung damage . . . nervous strain . . . pleurisy . . . psoriasis . . . shadow behind the heart . . . sunstroke . . . urinary tract infection . . .”.The “nervous strain” is particularly intriguing, since it is so vague. “Volodya has had a kind of nervous breakdown, due to overwork”, Edmund Wilson wrote in 1946 to their mutual friend, Roman Grynberg, the editor of Russian émigré journals. In 1952 Nabokov himself wrote to Grynberg, that his state of health was such that his nervous system only just then “had stopped resembling tangled barbed wire” (“перестала походить на спутанную колючую проволоку”), which is quite reminiscent of Kinbote’s characterization in Pale Fire of Shade’s clusters of epileptic seizures as “a derailment of the nerves at the same spot, on the same curve of the tracks, every day, for several weeks, until nature repaired the damage”.

“I was so joggy and jittery and buzzy with insomnia and so forth”, Nabokov complained to Wilson the following year, “that I decided to lay aside Pushkin for a few months.” “Pushkin” was his translation of Eugene Onegin, and he was already working on Lolita by then as well. There was definitely enough labour and anxiety there – as there had surely been in 1946, and in 1952 – to cause much general stress, but the way he describes it – “joggy and jittery and buzzy” – is also a perfect characterization of epileptic events.

As to Nabokov’s heart problems, he once suggested to Grynberg, who in 1950 was recovering from a mild heart attack, that when “one’s diaphragm presses onto one’s heart” it can by itself cause “seizures and faintings”, therefore revealing that he at that point must still have preferred to attribute those in his own experience to his heart troubles rather than to epilepsy. By the time he came to depict poor Pnin’s seizure in a strange city park, Nabokov seems to have already ruled that possibility out. While Pnin, like his creator, also suffers from “heart palpitations”, the “mysterious disease” here is obviously of an epileptic nature. Nabokov actually liked to apply the attribute “mysterious” to epilepsy. “Dostoevski . . . from his early years . . . had been subject to that mysterious illness, the epilepsy”, he stated in his Lectures on Russian Literature.

Nabokov knowing or suspecting he had epilepsy may also explain why he never drove a car. Back in the 1940s when the Nabokovs bought their first American automobile, people diagnosed with any form of epilepsy, including the mildest, were routinely prevented from having a licence. I should note, however, that it is probably equally likely that – as most Nabokov memoirists and biographers suggest – he simply proved to be a talentless learner and, in general, preferred to be chauffeured by his wife, Véra, just as he and his family had been chauffeured in St Petersburg and Vyra, where they spent the summers.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

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 years and decades but could be tossed off by some happy-go-lucky artist in a day or two or a week or two, at most. I felt a certain disdain for this, hardly realizing then that genius can be bounded in a nutshell and yet embrace the whole fullness of life by virtue of a brevity and terseness deserving the highest admiration. Such works attain to full epic stature and can even surpass in intensity the great towering novels which inevitably flag at times and subside into noble boredom. If I understood that better in later life than in my youth, this was largely owing to my growing intimacy with Chekhov’s art; for his short stories rank with all that is greatest and best in European literature.

Speaking more generally, it seems to me that Chekhov was under-estimated for so long in western Europe, and in Russia too, because of his extremely sober, critical, and doubting attitude towards himself—a most disarming quality which however, far from inspiring respect, set a bad example to the world at large. For the opinion we have of ourselves is not without influence on the picture which our fellow-men make of us; it colors their notions and may falsify them. This short-story teller was for too long convinced of the slightness of his gifts and of his lack of artistic distinction. Until the end he had nothing of the literary grand seigneur about him, still less of the prophet or the sage, unlike Tolstoy who looked down on Chekhov amicably and, according to Gorki, saw in him “an excellent, quiet, modest creature.”

There is something disconcerting in such praise from a man whose colossal conceit did not fall short even of Wagner’s. Chekhov would probably have repaid it with a calm polite, ironical smile. For politeness and dutiful veneration mixed with some irony characterized Chekhov’s attitude to the great man of Yasnaya Polyana; and at time the irony developed into open rebellion; not of course in his personal intercourse with that overpowering personality, but in letters to third persons. On his return from his self-sacrificing journey to the exiles’ island of Sakhalin (a descent into hell if ever there was one), he wrote:

What a sour and sullen fellow I should be now if I had remained between my four walls. Before my journey for instance I regarded Tolstoy’s Kreutzersonata as a great event; now on the other hand it seems to me silly and absurd.

Tolstoy’s imperial but also questionable prophetic airs got on his nerves. “may the devil take this philosophy of the great ones of this earth!” he wrote. “All the great sages are as despotic as generals, and as uncivil as generals, too, because they are convinced of their impunity.” That was chiefly aimed at Tolstoy’s abuse of doctors as worthless scoundrels. For Chekhov was a doctor, a doctor by passionate conviction, a man of science, and of faith in science; he believed science to be one of the forces making for progress, the great antagonist of scandalous conditions, since it enlightens the heads and the hearts of men.

In short he was a positivist—from modesty; a simple servant of remedial truth, who never for a moment laid claim to any of the liberties taken by the great.

His long-persisting doubts of himself s an artist extended, in my opinion, beond the self to literature altogether. Literature, to use his own words, was his mistress; whereas science was his lawfully-wedded wife, in whose presence he felt guilt of unfaithfulness because of his love for the other. Hence the exhausting journey to Sakhalin, endangering his already weakened constitution, and his report of the fearful conditions prevailing on the island, a report which caused a sensation and actually resulted in some reforms. Hence, too, his tireless activity as a country doctor which kept pace with his literary work; the administration of the district hospital of Svenigorod near Moscow; the fight against the cholera which he conducted in Molichovo, his own small property. Meanwhile his fame as an author was growing, but he viewed this skeptically, with conscience-stricken modesty. “Am I not bamboozling the reader,” he asked, “and throwing dust in his eyes? For after all I am unable to answer the really vital questions.”

His allotted span of life was short. He was only twenty-nine years of age when the first symptoms of tuberculosis declared themselves; he was a doctor; he knew what that meant, and one cannot help wondering if his foresight as to the brevity of his guest performance here below did not contribute its quota to that strange modesty of his, that skeptical, infinitely winning and unobtrusive humility which continued to characterize his spiritual and artistic bearing as a whole, including even the instinct to turn it to account as a typical feature of his art and as the peculiar magic of his existence. Twenty-five years—that was roughly the time allowed him for his creative life; and truly he made full use of it; for a good 600 stories bear his name, not a few of which have the compass of the long short story; and there are masterpieces, such as Ward Number Six, among them. In this tale a doctor, sickened by the stupidity and wretchedness of the world of normal men, becomes so friendly with an interesting madman that the world judges him to be mad himself and locks him up. This story of eight-seven pages, written in 1892, makes no direct accusation; but it is so frighteningly symbolic of the debasement of autocracy that young Lenin said to his sister:

When I had finished that story yesterday evening, I found that it positively haunted me. I couldn’t stay in my room. I got up and went out. I felt as if I myself were locked up in Ward Number Six.

But, if references are to be made and praises bestowed, then I must certainly mention A Tedious Tale, for it is my favorite among all Chekhov’s stories, an outstandingly fascinating work which for gentleness, sadness, and strangeness has no equal in the literary world. It is an astonishing production; if for no other reason, because this tale, allegedly “tedious’ yet actually overwhelming, is put into the mouth of an old man by a young man of thirty with the utmost sympathy and understanding. The hero is a world-renowned scholar with the rank of a general, an Excellency, who often calls himself by that title in his confessions. “My Excellency,” he says, adding, as it were, an inaudible “Good Lord!” or “Dear me!” For, high though he stands in the official hierarchy, he stands high enough spiritually for self-critical and altogether critical mind to regard his fame and the veneration shown to him as ludicrous; and to despair in the depths of his soul because his life, so full of honors, has always lacked a spiritual center, a “central idea,” and that therefore at bottom it had been a life without sense and without hope. He writes:

Every feeling and every thought lives an isolated existence in my mind; and the most experienced analyst will not discover in my judgments on science, the theatre, literature, etc., etc., what people call a central idea, or the God of living men. And if that is lacking, there is nothing but the void…It is not in the least surprising therefore that the last months of my life have been darkened by thoughts and feelings worthy of a slave and a barbarian and that indifference is now my portion. For if something higher and stronger than all external circumstances does not inform the life of a man, then indeed a common cold is enough to disturb his equilibrium; and all his pessimism or optimism together with his great and little thoughts are merely symptoms and nothing else. I am defeated. Why, then, should I continue to think or to argue? No, I shall simply sit and wait for what is coming in silence. “And my ending is despair”; Prospero’s last words keep on recurring to the mind when reading the confessions of Nikolai Stepanovitch, so old and so famous, who says: “But as it happens, I fail to love the popularity of my name. I am afraid it had deceived me.” Anton Chekhov was not old, he was young when he put those words into the mouth of the general; but he had not very long to live; and perhaps that was why he was able to anticipate the mood of old age with such incredible, uncanny prescience. “I fail to love the popularity of my name.” For Chekhov, too, did not love his increasing fame; he felt “for some inexplicable reason uneasy about it.” Was he not deceiving his readers by dazzling them with his talent, since he was “unable to answer the really vital questions”? “A conscious life without a definite philosophy of life,” he wrote to a friend, “is no life at all, but a burden and a nightmare.” In A Tedious Tale, Katya, the ward of the famous scholar, turns to him in vain. She has suffered shipwreck as an actress; and she, the one human being whom he still cares for, loving her with the secret tenderness of old age, asks him in her helplessness and distress: “What shall I do? Answer me, Nikolai Stepanovitch, I implore you. What shall I do?” And the only answer he can give is this: “I don’t know, Katya, Upon my honor, I don’t know.” Then she leaves him. The question: “What is to be done?” haunts Chekhov’s writings at every turn in a deliberately confused way which even borders on the ludicrous because of the odd, helpless, stilted manner in which his characters indulge in fruitless speculations on the subject of this vital question. The truth about life which this author felt it his bounden duty to proclaim devalues the very ideas and opinions which he has his figures argue and fight about. That truth is by nature ironical.

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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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