- Fact: a minor independent publishing house known as the Central Intelligence Agency published the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago in 1958. It was printed in an edition of 1,160 as part of an effort to undermine the USSR. Boris Pasternak “was irritated and disappointed, because the copy the CIA had published (and also presented to the Nobel Prize committee) was not complete in its editing and was full of errors … The CIA-Mouton editions were bound in nondescript, blue cloth covers, and the CIA surreptitiously distributed copies among Soviet visitors to Expo ’58, the Brussels World’s Fair. The rationale was that not only would the novel’s content cause outrage among Soviet citizens, but that also seeds of doubt would be planted when it came to light that the government had refused to allow publication of a novel by Russia’s most respected and celebrated writer.”
- The public stage today cries out for figures like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, examples of an extinct class of “celebrity intellectual.” Their 1968 debates qualified as a legitimate TV event, and the medium hasn’t seen anything like it in decades: “Vidal and Buckley were both patrician in manner, glamorous in aura, irregularly handsome, self-besottedly narcissistic, ornate in vocabulary, casually erudite, irrepressibly witty, highly telegenic, and by all accounts great fun to be around … Also, they warmly hated each other … The antipathy was personal at root, perhaps even psychosexual.”
- Yeah, the Internet’s cool and fast-paced and totally au courant, but at the physical level it’s not terribly different from telegraphy. A map from 1877 shows the locations of copper telegraph cables around the world; it bears more than a passing resemblance to a map of the fiber-optic cables that connect the Internet. “Everybody thinks global technology is wireless … But it’s only wireless to the nearest base station or cell-phone tower. The rest of the way, it’s happening at the physical level. There’s wire and cables that link back to all these massive servers. The Internet is not a cloud … it’s under the ocean.”
- Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric doesn’t seem a natural candidate for adaptation to the stage. But Stephen Sachs has adapted it nonetheless, and it opens next month in Los Angeles: “My stage adaptation of Citizen is not a play … Like Claudia Rankine’s book, it’s a collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes, and streams of consciousness that blend poetry, prose, movement, sound, music, and video images. An ensemble of six actors. Each is both a single citizen, and all citizens, interweaving. No conventional linear story, yet a powerful emotional arc. Fast-moving. Stylized … I hope the play makes our highly educated, professional, and privileged patrons uncomfortable in the best possible way. I hope it gets them thinking, gets them talking, opens their eyes, like the citizen in Claudia’s book who needs to put on her glasses to see what is really there.”
- The Guggenheim’s Storylines series has writers—among them John Ashbery, Helen DeWitt, Ben Lerner, and Mary Ruefle—respond to works of art. Lerner, for instance, takes on Gabriel Orozco’s 2012 print Astroturf Collection: “The schematic arrangements (grids) of carefully sculpted ritual objects … points to what Anita Singh has called ‘the surrender of science,’ a declining belief in the adequacy of existing regimes of knowledge in the face of planetary upheaval.”
“As usual, the love plot is the least convincing aspect of the book,” said my friend, handing me a crumbling, loved-to-death copy of Barbara Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves. It is not clear to me which part my friend found unconvincing—the growing attraction between the meek, widowed rector Tom and the awkward anthropologist Emma, or the obstacles to their match. (E.g.: Tom’s dreary sister, a visit from Emma’s old flame Graham, or the Oxfordshire village full of aging gossips who have nothing better to do than monitor the hand-delivery of casseroles to local bachelors.) At any rate, I bought the whole thing, and I believed that Emma did, too. As Pym’s narrator observes, “Even the most cynical and sophisticated woman is not, at times, altogether out of sympathy with the ideas of the romantic novelist.” —Lorin Stein
The weather yesterday was awful; this incessant wintry-mix business has got to stop. It has me thinking about Russian poems set during the siege of Leningrad, and last night my brain produced one of the most incredible jump shots since 2001: A Space Odyssey—from Boris Pasternak to Guns N’ Roses. The former has a poem that begins “February. Get ink and weep! / To write and write of February / like bursting into sobs, with thundering / slush burning in black spring.” Naturally, that led to “So never mind the darkness / We still can find a way / ’Cause nothin’ lasts forever / Even cold November rain.” The latter seems somehow right today—it’s a song, after all, about the vagaries of love. In fact, the classic Guns N’ Roses catalogue is brimming with Valentine’s Day–appropriate songs: charged lyrics for lovers (“Said, woman, take it slow / And it’ll work itself out fine / All we need is just a little patience”) and the lovelorn (“To think the one you love / could hurt you now / Is a little hard to believe / But everybody darlin’ sometimes / Bites the hand that feeds”). —Nicole Rudick
Some advice: Run, do not walk, to your love’s home. Take her by the hand and recite this Restoration-era poem about premature ejaculation: “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a legendary libertine who slept his way around the Royal Court and succumbed, at age thirty-three, to venereal disease. Here, in words as lewd and depraved as anything uttered in 2014, he recounts one of his less inspiring performances. Making love, he can’t quite contain himself, and “In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er, / Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.” His lady unsatisfied, he finds himself unable to get it up again, and lambasts his errant penis. “Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most, / Through all the town a common fucking-post.” If that doesn’t make her swoon, gents, nothing will. —Dan Piepenbring
When Dan asked us to recommend love-themed staff picks, I was all set to talk about one of my favorite films, the 1945 Powell-Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going! Then I saw it described by Vanity Fair as “a cult among poetic bluestockings” and my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat. But it deserves whatever following it has—incidentally, Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese are in the cult, too—and I can’t think of a more romantic movie than this tale of a willful young woman stranded in the Scottish Hebrides. (When I describe it like that, I can see why the poetic bluestockings are so excited, but don’t let that put you off!) —Sadie Stein Read More
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
In March 1975, a couple of weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday, I accompanied my girlfriend Tina on a trip to Russia. At the time Tina was a graduate student at the University of Essex pursuing a thesis on “Dostoyevsky and the Russian Orthodox Church,” under the benign supervision of the eminent scholar and translator Angela Livingstone. Londoners both, we had been living together for almost four years in the village of Wivenhoe near its estuary, close to the college campus, far from the big city and the disapproving glare of our respective widowed mothers.
My mother, a conscientious objector to interfaith relationships, had long ago banned Tina from visits to her home. “It’s bad enough you have to go out with someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said, “but why did you have to pick a girl with Christ in her name?”
“Her name’s Tina,” I had replied.
“And what do you think that’s short for, idiot?”
For her own part, Tina’s mother, dressed always in Greek Orthodox widow’s black, was opposed to our living together on moral grounds, which had, I could see, a superior logic.
Our workman’s cottage in Wivenhoe featured no bathroom, a decidedly unpoetic outside toilet, and walls so thin that the neighbors’ voices came through no softer than our own. The wife could be harsh. “Pick, pick pick,” we heard her yell at her husband as we sat down to eat. “You stick your finger so far up your nose that you’re gonna pick your bloody guts out one of these days.” Our kitchen table doubled as a work desk, and was covered with books by obscure (to me) Russian saints and philosophers, Tikhon of Zadonsk and Vladimir Solovyov among them.
Angela Livingstone was already in Russia working on a translation project, and she invited Tina to come and visit her. I tagged along for the ride. We booked onto a group tour through Intourist, the Russian travel agency: it was not easy in those days to move without an official guide in the Soviet Union. We planned a few days in Leningrad, to be followed by a train journey to Moscow, where Angela would meet us at our hotel and, we hoped, spirit us away from our minders. Read More