April 25, 2013 | by Sophie Pinkham
May 22, 1929
I was sitting on the roof of the State Publishing House, making sure that everything was in order, because no sooner do you overlook something than something happens. You can’t leave the city unwatched. And who will keep an eye on the city, if not me?
A Watchman has the right to:
2. Shoot at whomever comes along.
3. Invent and compose, also make notes, and recite in a low voice, or learn by heart.
4. Look over the panorama.
5. Compare life below to an anthill.
6. Contemplate book publishing.
7. Take a bed along.
—Daniil Kharms, Boris Levin, and Yury Vladimirov, from I am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary : The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms; translated by Peter Scotto and Anthony Anemone
I go to Serbo-Croatian class, where we learn how to say “he gave her three piglets as a gift,” and “in Dalmatia there are many stones.” I look forward to the day when I will use these sentences in a conversation.
I go home to read Turgenev, but watch the news all day instead. My friends and I are proud to be among the only Americans to know the whereabouts of both Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan, and the very real difference between Chechnya and the Czech Republic.
but there’s something happy
there’s dignity even
in the idea
that not all the world’s monsters
—Vsevolod Nekrasov, “I Live I See,” translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich
On Saturday, I attend a panel titled “The Russian Avant-Garde Goes Underground.” On Monday, I attend a reading of the work of three Russian poets. (I reject linear time and treat these two events as one.)
Saturday’s discussion is focused on Oberiu, the “Association for Real Art” founded by Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky in Leningrad in 1928. Oberiu dissolved in 1930, after one of its signature poetry reading/magic shows attracted the attention of the authorities. It was the last Soviet avant-garde to live in the open. (Watch a cartoon version of Kharms’s absurdist writing here.)
Eugene Ostashevsky, who translated the first English-language collection of Vvedensky’s poetry, quotes Nietzsche: “I am afraid we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar.” Read More »
March 6, 2013 | by Sophie Pinkham
The September after I finished college, I moved to Orange County with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had decided to become a famous writer, though I had no idea how to go about it. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be the kind of writer who gets shipwrecked on a South Sea island, and not the kind of writer who gets an M.F.A. in the Midwest. I belonged to the Melville school, I told myself. I was going to have a lot of adventures. Southern California didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it was closer to the South Sea than New York. At least, I thought so. I had a poor grasp of geography.
Unfortunately for me, I also belonged to the Alvy Singer school. (Would Melville and Alvy Singer get along?) I was a native Manhattanite who had rarely ventured west, and I soon found that Southern California didn’t suit me one bit. With no seasons, no job, and no driver’s license, I felt that I was going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. Time seemed not to pass, and books were my only friends. Read More »
December 28, 2012 | by Sophie Pinkham
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
At three in the morning, Almaty’s tiny airport is no match for the crackling expanses of sky and snow. As we rise from our seats, the local women shrug on their fur coats, shape shifters assuming animal form. New York hasn’t seen much winter lately, and I’m glad of evidence that the seasons still exist—even if I had to come on a business trip to Kazakhstan to find it.
The long smooth road from the airport is lined with luxury-car dealerships and dilapidated beer shops, their signs askew. “Double beer!” one sign cries, sounding drunk. The streets are named after poets, heroes, and Soviet institutions. (Meet me at the intersection of Goethe and Komintern. Sentences like these are the reward for time spent in the former Soviet Union.) We pass a fluorescent Eiffel Tower standing sentry in front of a shopping center. “What’s that?” I ask the driver. “The Eiffel Tower,” he answers, matter-of-fact. I’m reminded of a Kyrgyz woman who told me that the Great Wall of China did not exist. Though she herself had visited the wall, she insisted that the section she’d seen was the only real part, built recently to dupe foreigners. “But you can see it from space,” I protested. “The Chinese are very clever,” she answered. “And those Buddhas in the caves? You think those are a thousand years old? All from the eighties. Trust me.”
November 30, 2012 | by Sophie Pinkham
One afternoon in 1943, just before a lunch date with Picasso, Dina Vierny was arrested in Paris. Three months later Picasso received her note, smuggled out with the prison laundry, saying she wouldn’t be able to make it.
Vierny, the well-rounded young muse of Maillol’s twilight years, had spent several months in 1940 leading refugees through the mountains from France to Spain. She met her charges at the train station, in her red dress, and they followed her, in silence, all the way to the Spanish border. She was arrested in 1940 and soon released, but by 1943 the Gestapo had the idea that she was some kind of Mata Hari, or perhaps a gold smuggler. During repeated interrogations, over the course of six months, she insisted that she loved hiking (which was true) and that she had been in the mountains buying cooking oil (which was false).
Born in Chisinau, Vierny was raised in a family that was both musical and politically radical. Her father, an Odessa Jew, was a pianist who lost his virginity to an anarchist during exile in Siberia, and her aunts were what Vierny calls “demoiselles nihilistes.” Vierny had sung in the radical performance group Octobre, under the leadership of Jacques Prévert, and with the famous Dimitrieviches, émigré Roma cabaret singers. In prison, she sang for those about to be executed, every Saturday. She had a large repertoire, and she took requests: in her memoirs she says that one young Communist waiting to be shot asked her to sing Edith Piaf through the cell window. She never saw his face.Read More »
October 9, 2012 | by Sophie Pinkham
One cold March day in St. Petersburg, I paid a visit to Vladimir Ignatievich Deriabkin, whose apartment does double duty as the Museum of Gramophones. Above me was a gramophone wearing red and white clown shoes, perched on a unicycle. A samovar walked a tightrope across the room, holding a stick to help it keep its balance. Train tracks stretched across the ceiling. Brightly painted, blooming wide, the gramophones were like a garden of enormous morning glories.
I was in St. Petersburg, the city once called the “Russian mirage,” doing research on criminal songs of the Soviet period. My investigations had already taken me to such exotic places as the St. Petersburg Record Collector’s Club, a set of subterranean rooms full of grizzled, toothless men in caps and striped sailor shirts. Escorted into the back room, where the head honchos were celebrating International Women’s Day by drinking cognac from metal jiggers, I suspected that I was the first woman ever to enter the building. One man asked me to marry him, saying that he didn’t want to live in New York but wanted to live as if he were in New York. This intriguing rhetorical turn was the central finding of that day’s research; the men were too busy celebrating to answer my questions.
A helpful friend had told me that Vladimir Ignatievich was someone I absolutely had to meet before I left town, and I hoped that my interview with him would be more fruitful than my trip to the record club. Armed with my dictaphone, notebook, and tattered map, wearing my too-thin, too-short New York coat and my cracked, leaking New York boots, I tramped through the drifts of snow. (The St. Petersburg city administration is lax in clearing the streets—but they do better than Kiev, whose mayor was said to have proclaimed, “Let whoever put the snow down clean it up!”) The Museum of Gramophones was clearly marked and above ground, just off a major thoroughfare, and from the moment I entered it was clear that there was no risk, as with some of my previous research subjects, that I would be invited to consume multiple liters of vodka in the course of my interview.
January 5, 2012 | by Sophie Pinkham
As Kim Kardashian recently reminded us, marriage is no longer the inevitable result of a wedding; the ritual is easily divorced from the institution. This is a source of some comfort to the single person approaching thirty, bombarded by engagement announcements and Facebooked wedding photo albums. Just a few more years of this, you tell yourself, and people will start getting divorced.
So this fall I was tickled to receive an invitation to a fake wedding in New Orleans. With all the phoniness announced up front, there was no need for jealousy (I’ll die alone!), anxiety (She’s making a terrible mistake!), or expensive gifts (But I can’t even afford health insurance!). Read More »