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Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?

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A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later? Read More »

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The Known Unknown: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

November 15, 2013 | by

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on holiday in Italy in 1912.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on holiday in Italy in 1912.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family on February 11, 1887. At university, he studied law. In 1912, age twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, and Milan—for the young Krzhizhanovsky was the pure apprentice intellectual. After the First World War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to Kiev, where he taught at the Musical Institute and the Theatrical Conservatory. In 1922, age thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. He also worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater. Meanwhile, he wrote novellas and stories, which were never published—either due to economic problems (bankrupt publishers) or political problems (Soviet censors). Twenty years passed in this way until, in 1941, with Krzhizhanovsky now fifty-four, a collection of stories was finally scheduled for publication—but then the Second World War intervened, preventing even that collection from appearing. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year. (His works—almost all of them unpublished—were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment: in her clothes chest, under some brocade.)

Almost no one knew that Krzhizhanovsky was writing fiction, since the state never allowed its publication. They knew him in other guises—as a lecturer on theater, or essayist, or occasional playwright. In 1939, Krzhizhanovsky, despite his restricted publication history, was nevertheless elected to the Writers’ Union—which meant that posthumously he was eligible for the process of “immortalization.” In 1953, Stalin died, and three years later Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress instituted a revisionist anti-Stalinist thaw. In 1957—the same year as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—a commission was set up to examine Krzhizhanovsky’s literary legacy. It lasted two years and was then disbanded, having drafted a publishing plan that was never implemented. Then, in 1976, Vadim Perelmuter, a poet, literary historian, and essayist, discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive. He had to wait until 1989 and the full thaw of perestroika before he could publish one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. Between 2001 and 2008, Perelmuter finally edited a handsome five-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s works. Read More »

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Substituting Russian Literature for Sex Ed, and Other News

September 20, 2013 | by

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Film still from Anna Karenina (1935).

 

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The Only Ones Left on the Island

July 16, 2010 | by

The final installment of a four-part review.

5:56 P.M. Another break. As sometimes happens with people under duress, our biological systems have warped into synch and pretty much all 400-odd culture lovers seem to have to pee this time. “Five-minute call!” I’m still in line on the trailer steps, where a faint but palpable ripple of panic passes through the crowd.

6:02 P.M. Back in the theater, I ask the LA Times critic how he is doing. “So-so,” he says. “Hanging in there.” He asks me whether anyone has ever tried to stage the dramatic poem written by Stepan Trofimovich in the first part of Demons. I don’t know that they have, but what a marvelous idea! The description of this lyrical drama is one of my favorite passages in Dostoevsky’s novel:

It is some sort of allegory, in lyrical-dramatic form, resembling the second part of Faust. The scene opens with a chorus of women, then a chorus of men, then of some powers, and it all ends with a chorus of souls that have not lived yet but would very much like to live a little… Then suddenly the scene changes and some sort of “Festival of Life” begins, in which even insects sing, a turtle appears with some sort of sacramental Latin words, and, if I remember, a mineral—that is, an altogether inanimate object—also gets to sing about something… Finally, the scene changes again, and a wild place appears, where a civilized young man wanders among the rocks picking and sucking at some wild herbs, and when a fairy asks him why he is sucking these herbs, he responds that he feels an overabundance of life in himself, is seeking oblivion, and finds it in the juice of these herbs, but that his greatest desire is to lose his reason as quickly as possible (a perhaps superfluous desire).

I am filled with a desire to see a turtle uttering sacramental the Latin words, and a mineral that somehow gets to sing about something. It strikes me as criminal that Peter Stein didn’t include these highlights in his performance. What excuse did he possibly have—there hadn’t been enough time?

6:05 P.M. I count seven empty seats behind me, and eleven to my right.

6:18 P.M. Nikolai has gone to confess to a monk that he once seduced a fourteen-year-old girl and drove her to suicide. This chapter was omitted from the first editions of Dostoevsky’s novels.

6:23 P.M. Nikolai confesses to the monk that he really did secretly marry the pretty retarded lame girl. The monk totally has Nikolai’s number. I hadn’t realized before how much this conversation resembles the exchange between Raskolnikov and the detective in Crime and Punishment.

6:40 P.M. Still confessing. “On my conscience is a premeditated poisoning that no one knows about.”

6:47 P.M. The confession shows no sign of ending. If this was a plane we would be in France by now. I glance at the program notes to see what else has to happen before the dinner break. The mayor has to explode in a fit of jealousy. I wonder how long that will take.

6:48 P.M. Nikolai is weeping in the monk’s lap. Read More »

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