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Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

On a Certain Epigram by Anna Akhmatova

June 21, 2016 | by

Akhmatova

Detail of a portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1922.

In my village it’s a famous epigram, but I wonder how many of you are familiar with it. Here it is, complete and unexpurgated, in Anna Akhmatova’s original Russian, from 1958:

Могла ли Биче словно Дант творить, 
Или Лаура жар любви восславить? 
Я научила женщин говорить... 
Но, Боже, как их замолчать заставить!

And now here is a transliteration, with metrical stress represented by bold type, so that the Russianless—or persons like myself with only a year of Russian, the might-as-well-be-Russianless—can have at least some chance of appreciating the sounds. (Note: iambic pentameter, with an inversion in the first foot of line 2.) Read More »

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My First Visit to an Editorial Office

April 28, 2016 | by

Teffi.

Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, born in Saint Petersburg in 1872, used Teffi as her nom de plume. (“It sounds like something you’d call a dog,” she wrote, explaining that she wanted “a name that was incomprehensible, neither one thing nor the other … best of all would be the name of some fool.”) In prerevolutionary Russia, she was renowned for her satire. To celebrate two new editions of her work, here’s a 1929 piece in which she remembers her “first steps as an author.” —Dan Piepenbring

My first steps as an author were terrifying. I had never, in any case, intended to become a writer, even though everyone in our family had written poetry from childhood on. For some reason this activity seemed horribly shameful, and should any of us find a brother or sister with a pencil, a notebook, and an inspired expression, we would immediately shout out, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”

The guilty party would begin to make excuses and the accusers would hop around, jeering, “You’re writing! You’re writing!”

The only one of us above suspicion was our eldest brother, a creature suffused with sombre irony. But one day, when he was back at the lycée after the summer holidays, we found scraps of paper in his room covered in poetic exclamations, and one line repeated over and over again:

“Oh Mirra, Mirra, palest moon!”

Alas! He, too, was writing poetry. Read More »

Tolstoy Marathon

February 8, 2016 | by

More incest in less time.

Yes, the War and Peace miniseries currently airing in the U.S. makes for riveting viewing. But is it as riveting, I ask, as watching thirteen hundred Russians recite the entirety of War and Peace over a period of sixty hours?! Read More »

Notes from a Dead House

September 15, 2015 | by

This is the first in a series by Max Nelson on prison literature.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Prisoners, 1908.

No writer intends to produce prison literature. Just as incarceration involves its own awful set of debasements, drudgeries, and abuses, so it marks any writing done under its restrictions as part of a genre, one of the oldest to which new work is still added daily. The loose canon of prison literature includes novels (Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Toer’s Buru Quartet), autobiographies (Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Madame Roland’s memoirs), poems (Pound’s Pisan Cantos), erotic fictions (de Sade’s Justine, Cleland’s Fanny Hill), poetic dialogues (Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy), economic tracts (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), histories (Nehru’s Glimpses of World History) and works of philosophy (portions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus)—but with the stipulation that whoever enters it must have suffered to an extent, and in a way, for which practically no one would volunteer. No prison writing is professional, but nor is any of it exactly recreational; it comes, by definition, from environments where “any self-willed display of personality … is considered a crime.”

Those words arrive early in Notes from a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary, semi-fictionalized account of the internment he endured in a Siberian prison camp after being sentenced to four years of hard labor for his involvement in a revolutionary conspiracy—and the latest installment in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s grand, ongoing effort to retranslate the Russian canon. Episodic, rambling, full of keen and deliberately stretched-out character sketches, the book is the drama of a person working out how to reproduce prison life in prose: its longueurs, its diversions, its pleasures, traumas, and inurements. Read More »

Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

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

Soviet_Poster_1

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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