Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Deriev’

The Book Haven goes to Sweden’s Sigtuna Literary Festival!

Friday, August 26th, 2016
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Sweden’s oldest city…

Sweden has about 10 million people –about half the size of the New York metropolitan area. It’s language has about the same number of native speakers as the Czech language has. Compare that, however, to the plight of a noble language like Lithuanian, which has a mere 3 million native speakers. It’s something to think about in a world where the big languages are swallowing up the small – English has 340 million native speakers, by comparison, and half a billion when you include those who have it as a second (or third or fourth) language. It’s roughly the same for Hindi, though no one talks about Hindi being the universal Latin of the modern world. Both English and Hindi are dwarfed by Mandarin Chinese, with about 873 million, with more than a billion including second language.

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Ingemar Åkesson, Alexander Deriev, and Humble Moi

I ponder this as I sip my morning Gevalia (“Intensivo”) coffee and sample some Präst and Västerbotten cheese in the home of Alexander Deriev in Märsta, outside Stockholm. These smaller language groups are wise to choose to celebrate their own literary glory in the splashiest way they can. In the case of Sweden, that’s a significant literary legacy.

I’m a guest of the Sigtuna Literary Festival, based in Sweden’s oldest city (established in 970). The festival is one of Scandinavia’s largest literary festivals.  This year is its fifth consecutive year – but they don’t just celebrate their own literature; they celebrate everyone’s.

“To arrange and host a literary festival feels completely natural to us in Sigtuna. As Sweden’s first city, we have a unique history as a multicultural place with a long narrative tradition,” according to the festival’s website. “Sigtuna was an important meeting place where people from near and far gathered to network and exchange thoughts and ideas, as far back as a thousand years ago. We want to build on that. ‘Word power’ is simply in the Sigtuna soul.

“In today’s society, characterized by a fast, steady stream of information and opinions, we feel that there is a need for context to slow the tempo –  to provide scope for further thinking and not least of all, time for reflection. We need to discuss and reflect on important issues. In Sigtuna, we lean on more than a thousand years of history, so we prefer take a longer perspective. We want to continue to build on our history as a place of public debate for another thousand years.”

Sweden has a lot to celebrate: I flew in on Norwegian Airlines, which features leading Scandinavian figures on its tailfins. The nation has seven Nobelists (being the home of Alfred Nobel helps, for sure), including Selma Lagerlöf, Pär Lagerkvist, and Tomas Tranströmer – and the tailfins include writers from neighboring Scandinavians as well, such as Denmark’s Søren Kierkegaard and Norway’s Nobelist, Sigrid Undset. (I didn’t see playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg listed for the tailfin honor in my quick scan of the list – curious omissions if so.)

Clearly they have to catch up, given for the current rage for Swedish noir, the international popularity of Swedish crime fiction. Will Stieg Larsson be featured on an airplane anytime soon?

More from the festival in days to come… Previous guests include Lithuania’s Tomas Venclova and Sweden’s Bengt Jangfeldt, so I’m in good company.

A typical cat-and-a-half? You decide.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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A few days ago, we posted about the Siberian kitten named after poet Regina Derieva, and my dear friend Alexander Deriev referred to the occasion when the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called her protégé, Joseph Brodsky, “a typical cat-and-a-half.” I’d never heard this before (though both poets identified strongly with cats), and the punctuation of the sentence seemed odd, so I did a little digging.

What I found was a very good article about the relationship of the two poets by their mutual friend, Anatoly Naiman in a 1999 issue of the London Review of Books. The relevant excerpt (and yes, it does have the odd punctuation):

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From one cat…

What Derzhavin was to Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova was to Brodsky: the mentor who anointed him as the next great Russian poet. When Brodsky died, the journal Zvezda printed Akhmatova’s quatrain ‘I don’t weep for myself now’, with a new dedication to Brodsky in brackets. This is what Akhmatova used to call ‘popular wish-fulfilment’ – in other words, plain forgery. Akhmatova never dedicated a poem to Brodsky and the only excuse for thinking that ‘I don’t weep …’ might have been dedicated to him derives from the reference to ‘the golden stamp of failure’ – imagined by some to be a reference to his ginger hair.

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…to another.

Certainly, ‘we’ – by which I mean a group of four young Leningrad poets that included Joseph and me – found our way to Akhmatova in her last years, and her relations with Brodsky were on a higher level than her relations with the rest of us. She already knew what rank of poet he was in 1964, and we didn’t. A quarter of a century later, his biographer, Valentina Polukhina, interviewed me on a bus journey from Nottingham to Stratford. I was sitting by the window and the sun was broiling me, so that I associated the question, ‘When did you realise he was a great poet?’ (or even ‘genius’) with the various unpleasantnesses of the journey and snarled: ‘I still haven’t.’ Once I had cooled off, I decided that the question had been wrongly phrased. From our early twenties – or, to be more precise, starting when he was 19 and I was 22 – we had seen each other almost every day for years on end, but neither then nor later would it have been possible for me to say to myself: ‘That’s the great poet Joseph Brodsky!’ Akhmatova understood immediately that he was a great poet. Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’

regina-cat1When he died, I called Isaiah Berlin and said I’d like to talk to him about Joseph, and especially to hear what he was like when he first arrived in the West. Isaiah said that he, too, wanted to talk with me, not about that, but about what he was like ‘then, in the Akhmatova years, because everything was sown and came to fruition at that time, and the emigration years were merely the reaping of the harvest’.

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.

Six weeks old and a lot to live up to: Siberian show-cat named for poet Regina Derieva

Sunday, January 10th, 2016
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The melancholy look gave her a name. (Photo: Mikael Ågren)

I have friends who named their cat “Eliot,” after T.S. Eliot, the poet who wrote “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” I’m sure other cats have been named after, oh, Wystan Auden, or Sidney Godolphin.

siberiancat2But for the late poet Regina Derieva, this is a first. (Read about the Stanford acquisition of her archive here.)

“Just this morning I got the best Christmas gift ever – notification that a new-born kitty was named after Regina,” her husband, Alexander Derievwrote to me. And no ordinary cat by a longshot. The Swedish Society of Siberian Cats has chosen the Russian poet for its newest show cat. Derieva joined Anna Akhmatova in this unusual honor.

“The naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games,” wrote Eliot. But it doesn’t seem to have been the case for these two kittens, born on November 22. “First of all, we have a tradition of giving our cats Russian historical names,”” said Mikael Ågren, one of the directors of the 15-year-old society based in the small city of Gävle. “This time, we found these two newborn kittens looked so melancholic and poetic that started to search through Swedish Wikipedia for some special names for our sister kitten. We aren’t at all experts in poetry, but the fact that both Anna Akhmatova and Regina Derieva were born in Odessa made the decision for us. After that, we found Swedish translations of both writers’ work and read them with great interest.” It helped that Derieva spent the last fifteen years of her life in Sweden.

siberiancat3According to Alexander, who spoke with Ågren, the first ten cats were imported to Sweden directly from Russia in 2000. Now the total population of Siberian cats in Sweden is around 5,000. “The society is quite active in marketing and promoting their cats. Their ‘pupils’ participate in national and international exhibitions and cat shows every year,” he said. And so it will be for the little show-cat, Regina Derieva.

The names are fitting for another reason. Both Derieva and Akhmatova were cat-lovers and cat magnets. Derieva, in particular, identified with the lynx. And they weren’t the only reasons. Alexander recalled that in Anatoly Naiman‘s memoirs you can find the following passage: “Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’” That would be her protege, future Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, another cat lover. Akhmatova’s lifelong friend Valeriya Sreznevskaya described her friend this way: “She was a sparkling water sprite, an avid wanderer on foot, climbed like a cat…” Alexander added, “And Modigliani in his drawings of Akhmatova depicted so well her feline’s body and expression.”

Check out the baby pictures below. Notice a resemblance?

UPDATE ON 1/13: Breaking news on kittens and Derieva in the Odessa press here.

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Notice the resemblance? (Photo credits Russian State Archive of Literature and Art for Akhmatova, Stanford University Libraries for Derieva, and Mikael Ågren)

Remembering Tomas Tranströmer: in the end, only music…

Sunday, March 29th, 2015
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Transcendental moments (Photo: Alexander Deriev/Ars Interpres Publications)

I was out of town yesterday, so I’m late posting my news is late, but I did want to note the passing of Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel-winning Swedish poet (we’ve written about him here and here).  I couldn’t put it better than this reader who commented on Facebook: “It goes without saying that I liked knowing that this man was somewhere on this planet, pen in hand.”

The New York Times obituary praised the “his shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity.” He died on Thursday, March 26, at 83 years old.

With a pared-down style and brusque, forthright diction, Mr. Tranströmer (pronounced TRAWN-stroh-mur) wrote in accessible language, though often in the service of ideas that were diaphanous and not easy to parse; he could be precisely observant one moment and veer toward surrealism the next.

“The typical Tranströmer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter,” the poet David Orr wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 2011. …

His poems often had transcendental moments that led some critics to consider him a religious poet or a mystic. In “Further In,” from the 1973 volume “Paths,” the quotidian and the unfathomable collide, in both the body of the poet and in the world.

He was trained as a psychologist, worked in state institutions with juvenile offenders, parole violators and the disabled. And he was also an accomplished pianist. After the 1990 stroke that left him unable to speak and unable to use his right and arm at the relatively young age of 59, he adapted to life as a lefty. Again from the New York Times:

Mr. Transtromer’s poetry production slowed after his stroke, but he took refuge in music, playing the piano with just his left hand. As a testament to his prominence in Sweden, several composers there wrote pieces for the left hand specifically for him.

He was also an amateur entomologist. The Swedish National Museum presented an exhibition of his childhood insect collection, and a Swedish scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it for him.

I dropped a line to my Stockholm correspondent Alexander Deriev to ask if he had any memories to share, and he wrote this: “Alas, I don’t have many personal memoirs of Tomas. I meet him only a few times and communicated mostly through his wife Monica Tranströmer. As you know after suffering a stroke in 1990 he was almost unable to speak (only through Monica). At that Fourth Ars Interpres poetry festival that I arranged in 2010 (a year before he was awarded Nobel Prize), Tomas played Joseph Haydn‘s ‘Allegro ur Sonat F dur’ and Reinhold Glière‘s ‘Impromptu for the left hand op 99’ together with Swedish-Italian pianist Lucia Negro. And two actors in his presence recited his poems in Swedish and English.” At any rate, Alexander contributed this photograph (above right) of the Swedish poet at the festival in 2010, the year before he won the Nobel. The Swedes were reluctant to name one of their own, anticipating charges of favoritism; he waited years for the award, although he is hugely popular in Sweden.

Below, two short poems, relatively early in his career: one on death and the other on music. And at the bottom, a youtube video Alexander shared with me. In the end, the poet spoke through music, unmediated by words.

After a Death

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside.  It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from Bells and Tracks, 1966

Allegro

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready.  Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag.  The signal is:
“We do not surrender.  But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from The Half-Finished Heaven, 1962

Postscript on 3/30: No sooner posted than Artur Sebastian Rosman alerted me to this video below, produced by another Book Haven friend, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in Northumberland.

Writ on water: Regina Derieva in this week’s Times Literary Supplement

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
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derieva4I’ve written about the Russian poet Regina Derieva since her death last Decemberhere and here.  According to our mutual friend, the prominent Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt, she was a poet “who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.” I have been fascinated by this utterly unique and uncompromising poetic voice since I learned of the poet’s existence, a few days after her death, from her husband. Now I am thrilled to announce that her papers have come to Stanford. I tell the story in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

The Russian poet Regina Derieva was born on the Black Sea in Odessa, and enjoyed the shifting rhythms of the sea: “Water is the ideal apparel. However many times you get into it, it’s the same”. Her passion for water was shared by her epistolary friend, Joseph Brodsky, who grew up alongside St Petersburg’s canals and spent as much time as he could in Venice, where he is buried on the cemetery island of San Michele. Derieva, whom Brodsky called “a great poet”, viewed a very different landscape, however: from the age of six, she lived obscurely in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, “perhaps the most dismal corner of the former Soviet Union – once the centre of a vast prison camp universe, later just a gloomy industrial city”, according to the distinguished Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. For him, Derieva’s precise, epigrammatic poems limn “the concentration camp zone, where space is turned into emptiness, and time turned into disappearance”.

A few days after Derieva’s sudden death last December at the age of sixty-four, I received a letter from her husband, Alexander Deriev, and our ensuing correspondence eventually led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of this astonishing poet’s archive. A single cardboard box postmarked Märsta, Sweden, is all that remains of a long and productive literary life, augmented by a few files of unpublished manuscripts, photographs, letters and drawings Deriev brought with him to California in his backpack.

There is a reason for the paucity of papers in a lifetime that should have left a mountain of them. Derieva’s life encompassed the upheavals of the past century, but she added an idiosyncratic twist: at each fork in the road, this outcast among outcasts made a choice – and that choice, or as often necessity, took her even farther from the pack.

I’ll have more about her in future posts – but meanwhile, please read the rest of the story in the TLS here.

“The alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature”: Bengt Jangfeldt on Regina Derieva

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014
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Bengt Jangfeldt delivered the eulogy last month at the Stockholm memorial for the Russian poet Regina Derieva, “who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.” I had hoped to get an English copy – but it looks like The Guardian beat me to it. Bengt writes in today’s paper:

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Her most recent book in English (2011)

Of Russian poets born in the Soviet era, the first to speak seriously about metaphysics was Joseph Brodsky, in whose poetry this alloy occurs quite often. Brodsky called Derieva “a great poet”, stressing that her poems are hers “only by name, only by her craft”.

“The real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself. I have not met anything similar for a long time, neither among my fellow countrymen nor among English-speaking poets.” …

To say that I knew Derieva would be wrong. I translated her poetry into Swedish, and helped her to get Swedish citizenship, and we met on several occasions, though rarely in the last few years. Her means of communication was not through personal contact, but through poetry. According to her husband, I was one of the few people she ever confided in; her main interlocutor was God.

Read the rest here, and I include a poem in my earlier piece on her here.  Out of the photos her husband Alexander Deriev sent me, I liked the one above the best. It looks like someone one might see in a Berkeley bookstore. However, I include the 1972 Karaganda photo he favored below. Apparently, it was a favorite photo of the poet’s as well: “She thought it displayed her wild cat’s inner nature the best. She always, from her early youth, associated herself with a lynx, and her nickname was ‘Lynx.'” In fact, here’s a poem, translated by Daniel Weissbort, that is dedicated “to my Singaporean friends who believed implicitly that I was a lynx.” And the 1973 photo below that, smelling a lilac … I like it, too.

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