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Showing posts from 2014

Marina Tsvetaeva: New Year: An Elegy for Rilke

I.happy new year—happy new light, new world—happy new edge, new realm—happy new haven!
a first letter to you in the next—
the place where nothing ever happens
(barely even bluffing ever happens), place where roughing,
rushing ever happens, like Aeolus’s empty tower.
a first letter to you from yesterday’s
homeland, now noland without you,
now already one of the
stars... and this law of leaving and left, cleaving
and cleft,
this claw by which my beloved becomes a name on a list
(oh him? from ’26?),
and the has-beens transform to the unhappened. shall I tell you how I found out?
not an earthquake, not an avalanche.
a guy came over—just anyone (you’re my one):
“really, a regrettable loss. it’s in the Times today.
will you write an article for him?” where?
“in the mountains.” (the window opening onto fir branches.
the bedsheet.) “don’t you read the papers?
and won’t you write the obit?” no. “but—” spare me.
aloud: too hard. silently: I won’t betray my Christ.
“in a sanatorium.” (heaven for hire.)
what day? “yes…

A light in a dark place: Great works of culture created in the Gulag

Among the thousands of political prisoners sent to Soviet Gulags, there were many of those who belonged to creative professions – writers, poets, musicians and artists – who secretly continued with their artistic pursuits.
Doing anything creative, like drawing or keeping notes, was strictly forbidden, to say nothing of attempts to smuggle anything out of the camps. RBTH has compiled a list of the most significant works of art, music and literature that were created in Soviet prison camps and miraculously survived to become known and remembered by modern generations.
24 Preludes and Fugues for the piano by Vsevolod Zaderatsky
The 24 Preludes and Fugues piano cycle was composed by Vsevolod Zaderatsky at a Gulag camp in the region of Kolyma in the Russian Far East in 1937-39. “He managed to find time and scribble his compositions on whatever scraps of paper he could find,” the composer’s son recalled.
“My father had a very neat handwriting, which helped. Sometimes guards gave him paper too b…

Vladimir Nabokov: The Christmas Story

Silence fell. Pitilessly illuminated by the lamplight, young and plump-faced, wearing a side-buttoned Russian blouse under his black jacket, his eyes tensely downcast, Anton Golïy began gathering the manuscript pages that he had discarded helter-skelter during his reading. His mentor, the critic from Red Reality, stared at the floor as he patted his pockets in search of some matches. The writer Novodvortsev was silent too, but his was a different, venerable, silence. Wearing a substantial pince-nez, exceptionally large of forehead, two strands of his sparse dark hair pulled across his bald pate, gray streaks on his close-cropped temples, he sat with closed eyes as if he were still listening, his heavy legs crossed and one hand compressed between a kneecap and a hamstring. This was not the first time he had been subjected to such glum, earnest rustic fictionists. And not the first time he had detected, in their immature narratives, echoes—not yet noted by the critics—of his own twenty-…

Russian Booker Prize winner Vladimir Sharov: A novel is like a child

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Russian writer and essayist Vladimir Sharov, 62, made his debut as a poet back in 1979. With his big white beard, the author bears an uncanny resemblance to Leo Tolstoy. His books are imbued with biblical motifs and attempts at rethinking Russian history.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: What does it mean to you to receive the Russian Booker Prize?
Vladimir Sharov: For me, the prize is an opportunity to be read by a much larger number of people. It will be a lot easier to form relationships with Russian and foreign publishers, because they equate receiving a prize to having a wide readership. It will also be easier to form relationships with translators, and a translator is the most important thing there is for a writer. When someone else works almost at your rate, rhythm and immersion in the text, it gives you the opportunity to simply live.
RBTH: Can you briefly explain to foreign readers what your novel “Return to Egypt” is about and how you arrived at the plot?
V.S.: At some point, I star…

Isaac Babel - Biography

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Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (according to the records of the Odessa Rabbinate, his real name was Isaac Manievich Bobel) was a Soviet Jewish writer, one of the few to achieve fame abroad. His best known works are the short story collections “Red Cavalry” (“Konarmiya”) and “Odessa Tales.”

Babel was known to have created myths around himself. In his autobiographic works he wrote many “facts” about his own life that contradicted official evidence. For example, in his “Autobiography,” he mentioned that he had been persecuted by Tsarist officials, but no evidence of this has been found in the Tsar’s security service documents.

Isaac Babel was born in Odessa into the family of a Jewish agricultural equipment merchant. The beginning of the 20th century was a time of social unrest and mass exodus of Jews from the Russian Empire. Babel himself was lucky to survive the 1905 Odessa pogrom, hidden by a Christian family. His grandfather was among the 300 Jews killed. To enter the preparatory class of t…

Doctor Zhivago, By Boris Pasternak

In his introduction to this new translation of Doctor Zhivago, Richard Pevear quotes from a letter written by Boris Pasternak in English: "living, moving reality in such a rendering must have a touch of spontaneous subjectivity, even of arbitrariness , wavering, tarrying, doubting, joining and disjoining elements". Pevear uses this quote to stress his point that Doctor Zhivago is "a highly unusual book". He argues that "to embody the 'living moving reality'", it "had necessarily to be an experimental novel".
For some reason, Pevear refuses to call it modernist, although both Pasternak's words and Pevear's own description of "a feeling of chaos, random movement, chance encounters, sudden disruptions" could very well apply to a modernist author – Virginia Woolf, for example. In the end, it's not what one calls it that matters. What is important is an acknowledgement of the unique features of the novel's structure …

Bringing early Chekhov to an English-speaking readership

Beloved by audiences the world over for his plays, Chekhov’s short stories are less well known outside Russia, and his earliest works – some 528 of them – have never been systematically translated into English. The prolific Russian translator Constance Garnett published 144 between 1906 and 1922, and others have since added to this tally, but no definitive anthology has yet been produced. 
These stories date from the period 1880-1888, when Chekhov was supporting his family mainly through writing, publishing in periodicals under various pseudonyms such as “Man Without a Spleen” and “My Brother’s Brother.” Often darkly comic and satirical, the stories explore profound issues of human existence without becoming judgmental.
The Anton Chekhov Foundation’s project is the first to translate these early stories and arrange them in chronological order, allowing readers to trace the development of the writer’s style over time and providing a valuable resource for scholars and Chekhov enthusiast…

The Exile Returns - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

On the morning of January 7, 1974, the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union convened to draw up battle plans against a grave threat to Communist ideology and power—a writer and his manuscript. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Party, sat at the head of the conference table and opened the meeting. “Comrades,” he began, “according to our sources abroad and the foreign press, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has published a new work in France and in the United States—‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ ”

By then, Brezhnev’s health was beginning to fail. He worked only four or five hours a day, his burden soothed by frequent naps, massages, saunas, and snacks, and by round-the-clock attention from his doctors. His speech was slow, slurred. “I am told by Comrade Suslov that the Secretariat has taken a decision to develop in our press a debunking operation against this work by Solzhenitsyn and its appearance in bourgeois propaganda,” Brezhnev went on. “No one has had a chance …

Joseph Conrad: Turgenev: A Study. By Edward Garnett

Dear Edward, I am glad to hear that you are about to publish a study of Turgenev, that fortunate artist who has found so much in life for us and no doubt for himself, with the exception of bare justice. Perhaps that will come to him, too, in time. Your study may help the consummation. For his luck persists after his death. What greater luck an artist like Turgenev could wish for than to find in the English-speaking world a translator who has missed none of the most delicate, most simple beauties of his work, and a critic who has known how to analyse and point out its high qualities with perfect sympathy and insight.
After twenty odd years of friendship (and my first literary friendship too) I may well permit myself to make that statement, while thinking of your wonderful Prefaces as they appeared from time to time in the volumes of Turgenev’s complete edition, the last of which came into the light of public indifference in the ninety-ninth year of the nineteenth century.
With that year o…

Vladimir Sharov: Before and During

"Russian history is, in fact, a commentary to the Bible," Vladimir Sharov said in a recent interview. Coming from an historian, this statement calls for certain facts to be revised in its light; illustrated in a work of fiction, it makes for a complex, thought-provoking and controversial book.
On its first publication in Russia in 1993, Before and During did cause some controversy: editors of the very magazine where it appeared criticised the author for taking too many liberties with facts, while a proportion of readers found its links between Orthodox Christianity and Bolshevism hard to digest.
The novel starts at the tail end of the Soviet era, with its narrator, known only as Alyosha, working on his Memorial Book, where he intends to record the lives of people he has known. He suffers mental blackouts and is admitted to the dementia ward of a psychiatric hospital in Moscow. There his project takes on a new dimension: he resolves to include his fellow patients in the book an…

Dread and Wonder The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee. She certainly has the stature. Translated into many languages, the winner of multiple major awards, not only is she Russia’s leading dramatist by wide agreement, she is also its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women’s writing in the country. In the words of Anna Summers, her English translator, “She is the only living Russian classic. No one comes near.” Students study her in high schools. Scholars write their dissertations on her both in Russia and abroad. Her seventieth birthday was marked by an official national celebration. As for her plays, which are staged around the world, a handful are typically running in Russia at any given time, and one, Moscow Choir, has been a staple of the White Nights cultural festival in St. Petersburg for over twelve years. Still going strong at 75, an accomplished singer, performer and painter to boot, she is also co-scenarist …

A Belated Apology to Anton Chekhov

For a man who died at 40, Anton Chekhov left an astounding legacy. Though he worked full-time as a physician—which in 19th-century Russia meant driving horse-carriages around the frigid countryside to visit badly suffering people in the middle of the night—Chekhov completed an unthinkable 600 short stories and 13 plays in his lifetime. His work inspires adoration from readers, including writers as different as Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver. When asked about his influences, a representative devotee named Tennessee Williams famously said:
"What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!"
Yet Chekhov's charms are subtle, and some readers find themselves underwhelmed after the first encounter. One contrite member this of this camp is essayist and short-story writer Steven Barthelme, who wrote what he told me is an "Apology to Chekhov": an admission that he initially shrugged at a writer who later became an …

At the Top of His Voice - Mayakovsky

There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a 'youth relaxation complex', which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man's name.

All this toponymy goes to suggest something of what Pasternak called Vladimir Mayakovsky's 'second death' in 1935, five years after his suicide. In response to a plea from Mayakovsky's lover Lili Brik, Stalin famously declared that 'Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his works and memory is a crime.' After that, …

Nikolai Leskov

“I calculated once,” Vladimir Nabokov told an audience at Cornell University in the spring of 1958, “that the acknowledged best in the way of Russian fiction and poetry which had been produced since the beginning of the last century runs to about 23,000 pages of ordinary print.” Readers with a basic grounding in Russian literature will be able to reel off many of the writers in Nabokov’s notional anthology: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. But there was no place for Nikolai Leskov, of whom, the occasional beautiful image aside, Nabokov didn’t think much. Those who disagree have made numerous attempts, over the last hundred years, to install Leskov in the Russian literary pantheon. The pantheon itself approved: Dostoevsky published him, Chekhov acknowledged a debt to his work, and Tolstoy admired it. Yet he has fallen, repeatedly, into obscurity. Last year saw the launch of another offensive in the long war over his reputation: Richard Pevear and Lar…