Posts Tagged ‘Bengt Jangfeldt’

Stanford acquires an important collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky’s papers

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
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From a postcard in the new collection. Brodsky ties a shoelace on the morning of his departure from Leningrad in 1972. (Copyright: Lev Poliakov)

When the Soviet Union expelled the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in 1972, he already had a few friends waiting for him in the West. One of them, Diana Myers, would remain a confidante until the Nobel laureate’s death in 1996. The London home she shared with her husband, the translator Alan Myers, became his English pied-à-terre.

The Hoover Institution Library & Archives at Stanford has recently acquired Diana Myers’ collection of Brodsky’s papers, including letters, photos, drafts, manuscripts, artwork and published and unpublished poems.

“We were keenly interested in adding the Joseph Brodsky papers collected by his friend Diana Myers to our vast archives on Russia and making them accessible right away,” said Eric Wakin, the Robert H. Malott Director of the Hoover Library & Archives.

“With Hoover’s significant holdings on the poet in its Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Collection, and the recently acquired Joseph Brodsky papers from the Katilius Family Archive at the Green Library, we’re honored that Stanford has become a notable center for Brodsky studies in the United States.”

The new acquisition documents Brodsky’s enormous capacity for friendship and his long love affair with the English language.

“I am a patriot, but I must say that English poetry is the richest in the world,” he once told an American student visiting Leningrad in 1970 – strong words for the man who would become one of the preeminent Russian poets of the last century.

Brodsky, who settled in the United States, was fascinated by the metaphysical poets of the 17th century. His landmark poem “Elegy to John Donne” was written in 1962, when he knew very little of Donne’s work. It brought him international attention. He began translating and writing English poetry during his 1964-65 internal exile in Norenskaya, near the Arctic Circle.

When the newlywed Myers arrived in London from the Soviet Union in 1967, she was carrying an armful of flowers to lay at the feet of John Donne’s effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The specific request from Brodsky was her first stop in her new homeland.

In a letter Brodsky wrote to Alan Myers a few months before his exile, he requested more information about George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughn. He sought guidance in finding the best editions of Ben Jonson, Henry King, Walter Raleigh and John Wilmot. An undated and unpublished poem in the collection seems to be an experiment written under their sway.

On another page in the collection, he adds his own illustrations to a few passages from Shakespeare, who anticipated the metaphysical poets.

Fifteen pages of holograph poems in the collection document the slow progression from an idea to a finished poem, with notations, corrections and amendments – all likely of interest to Brodsky scholars. “You can see how it worked, to the final version,” said archivist Lora Soroka. “It’s something that gives insight into his work.”

“It’s everyday life – everyday life when he was there, in England,” she said. “This is definitely our star collection – not big, but stellar.”

The collection also includes 70 letters from Brodsky, as well as correspondence to him from such figures as Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Swedish translator and author Bengt Jangfeldt, Australian poet Les Murray and others; 25 pages of notes and drafts; five self-portraits, a landscape, and a still life, all in black chalk; an elaborate wedding card he created and illustrated for the couple; a transcript of his 1964 Soviet trial for “parasitism;” and other records.

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Brodsky in 1988.

Friendship and hospitality

Myers, who died of cancer in 2013, was born Diana Abaeva, ethnically an Ossetian, whose prominent father had been politically purged and shot under Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. She grew up in Moscow and Tblisi, in the Caucasus Mountains – Brodsky once traveled to Tblisi to visit when he was impatient for her return to Leningrad.

Friends recalled that she was small and slender, with straight dark hair, an aquiline nose, and a radiant smile that was slightly dimmed by nicotine stains, for she smoked almost as ferociously as Brodsky did.

Like Brodsky, she lived for literature and was impractical, even unworldly. One friend recalled she had a slightly languid “Eastern” air. On one page in the collection Brodsky calls her “queen of the couch.”

She was “very intelligent and thoughtful and idiosyncratic,” said University College London’s Faith Wigzell, who had been a close friend of Brodsky’s as well as a colleague of Myers.

Her great gift was for hospitality as well as intellectual conversation: “She was the most relaxed and welcoming hostess. Her home was an international hall of residence. People came to just sit around. She was an excellent cook,” said Wigzell.

For Brodsky, Myers was a means to continue the literary and cultural conversations that had started in Leningrad. In exile, he would continue to consult her, phoning from around the world to read his latest poem and get her opinion. He said she had insights unlike anyone else’s.

Alan Myers, who died in 2010, became an important early translator for Brodsky’s poetry and prose, publishing in the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement. In one letter, Brodsky told Myers that he would be paid “substantially, I think” for his New Yorker work, and he reminded his translator that he was looking after his interests.

Brodsky’s “In England” cycle is dedicated to the couple. In the “East Finchley” section, both make an appearance in their London home. In addition, the sections “York: In Memoriam W.H. Auden” and “Stone Villages,” recall trips the three took to W.H. Auden’s birthplace in the northern city of York, an ancient Roman stronghold. (Auden had been Brodsky’s mentor, protector, and friend – and another vital link to England.)

“Joseph found our sleepy residence very relaxing,” Alan Myers recalled in an interview from 2003-04. He remembered him as “a radiant source of wit, generosity of soul and exaltation.”

“No one who knew him well thought it other than a privilege to share the planet with him,” he said.

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A selection from the Joseph Brodsky papers is included in the current exhibition Unpacking History: New Collections at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibition Pavilion until February 25, 2017. For more information about hours and access to the collections, visit the Hoover Library & Archives website.

 

Why Mayakovsky killed himself.

Saturday, October 1st, 2016
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The poet with Lili Brik in 1915

Vladimir Mayakovsky was the celebrated hero poet of the Russian Revolution. His suicide in 1930, at the age of 37, rocked the Soviet world. What had happened? Had he become disillusioned with the new order he had championed? Or was it foul play? The Soviets put forth a different story – romantic disappointment. But the truth, as always, is more complicated.

Enter his biographer Bengt Jangfeldt, perhaps the foremost Mayakovsky expert in the world. I had the good fortune to visit Bengt in Stockholm this summer. He is one of the foremost authors in Sweden, and undoubtedly one of Scandinavia’s most generous spirits. He was not well that day, however, so we had to postpone a whirlwind tour of Stockholm for another visit and chat over coffee at his apartment in the old part of the city.

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Biographer Bengt

Before I left, he pressed the English translation of his Mayakovsky: A Biography (Chicago) into my hands. It hadn’t been published at the time of Bengt’s short visit to Stanford three years ago (I wrote about his lectures here and here). According to Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff“this biography is essential reading not only for students of modernist poetry but also for anyone interested in the relationship of literature to life in the former Soviet Union.”

I haven’t yet had a chance to read the 600+ page volume, but I share my guilty secret: I flipped to the end to see how Bengt would tell how the poet came to end his life with a bullet through the heart. An excerpt, which includes Bengt’s correspondence with Mayakovsky’s lover Lili Brik:

“How many times did I not hear the word ‘suicide’ from Mayakovsky,” Lili wrote. “That he would take his own life. You’re old at thirty-five! I shall live till I’m thirty, no more.” His terror of becoming old was closely connected to his fear of losing his attraction for women. “Before the age of twenty-five a man is loved by all women,” he stated shortly before his suicide to a twenty-five-year-old fellow writer. “After twenty-five he is also loved by all – except the one he is in love with.” …

mayakovsky2The urge to commit suicide is the dark sounding board in Mayakovsky’s life, and the theme of suicide the leitmotif of his writings, from the first line to the last. The tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poem “Clearance Sale” (“Years and years from now/in short, when I am no longer alive – / dead from hunger,/or a pistol shot –/professors […] will study/me/how,/when,/where I came from”). “The Backbone-Flute” (“More often I think:/it might be far better/ to punctuate my end with a bullet” [trans. George Reavey]), “Man” (“The heart longs for the bullet/ and the throat hallucinates about a razor”), the film Not Born for Money, “About This,” the film script How Are You?, the unfinished play Comedy with Suicide, The Bedbug. The list of works and quotations is almost endless.

“The idea of suicide,” Lili declared, “was a chronic disease with Mayakovsky, and like all chronic diseases it grew worse in unfavorable circumstances.” Underlying the urge to suicide was not only the fear of aging but also the feeling of not being understood, of not being needed, of loving as few are capable of loving without feeling that he was loved in return.

Mayakovsky was a maximalist: he gave all that was in his power and demanded much in return. “Countless numbers of people loved him and were fond of him,” Lili wrote, “but that was just a drop in the ocean for someone with an ‘insatiable thief’ in his soul, who wanted everyone who didn’t read him to read him, all those to come who didn’t come, and that the one he thought didnt’ love him should love him.” Love, art, revolution – to Mayakovsky, everything was a game with life as the stake. He played as befitted a compulsive gambler: intensely, without mercy. And he knew that if he lost, the result was hopelessness and despair.

Swedish author Jangfeldt: Russia must deal with its past to face its future.

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
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Biographer Bengt

Bengt Jangfeldt – the eminent Swedish author of recent books on Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, World War II Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky – talks to Russia about Russians in a great interview for Novaya Gazeta a week ago here. We’ve written about Bengt before here and here and here. The only problem is: the new interview is in Russian. With trepidation, I offer a translation of a few excerpts below:

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“Friendship with China – it’s perfect for Russia, but … this is not the past of Russian culture nor its future. Russia and the West have  interconnected cultural values. This relationship is inevitable.”

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jangfeldt“Russia, unlike in Germany, did not deal with its past. Wallenberg is just one of the many victims of the Stalinist terror and the Soviet regime. To understand this fact today is not very easy: the archives are still not readily available, and because of this, these books are always relevant. I think that Russia will have difficulty moving forward without such proceedings. It’s like a stone that pulls downward. For example, the recent history with ‘Memorial’ suggests that this problem still affects the life of the country.”

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“I once had a conversation with Brodsky about Russia, we often talked about it. It was in the 90s. And Brodsky made the following statement: ‘Do not underestimate the inferiority complex of my former fellow citizens.'”

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He took the bait.

Jangfeldt: “To take one striking example of his [Mayakovsky’s] life, when he changed his attitude to the Soviet regime and the Soviet regime to him. It happened in the winter of 1922, when Lenin said of his poem ‘Prozasedavshiesya’: ‘As for poetry, I do not know, but from a political point of view, it’s good’ – and Mayakovsky was very happy. It would be impossible for us. If someone said to me: ‘You know, the Prime Minister is very fond of your book, and so now we are going to print large runs of it’ – that would be terrible!

Inteviewer: Why is that awful?

Jangfeldt: Because he should not play any role either in my life or in the life of the publisher.”

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Read the rest – either in Russian or with Google Translate – here. (And a hat tip to Andrius Katilius for the article.)

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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Raoul Wallenberg: quick-witted heroism and the long silence afterward

Sunday, October 27th, 2013
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Jangfeldt’s biography of Wallenberg will be out next year. (Photo: Steve Gladfelter)

Bengt Jangfeldt  hesitates over the word “hero”: “I don’t particularly like to use it, it’s a cliché, but he was a hero,” he finally said. At any rate, the Swedish author won’t be able to duck the word now. The Hero of Budapest is the title of the forthcoming English edition of his biography on Raoul Wallenberg, the man who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Hungarian Holocaust.  The book should be available in February 2014.

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Hungarian Jews arriving at Birkenau, 1944

He spoke about Wallenberg at a late-afternoon event in Stauffer Auditorium at Hoover last Wednesday.  In particular, he discussed “Swedish passivity” in responding to Wallenberg’s disappearance.

Wallenberg grew up in a wealthy banking family – akin to the Rothschilds and Rockefellers in reputation and wealth.  His 23-year-old father, a naval officer, died of cancer before Wallenberg was born in 1912, and the boy was raised by his mother and a grandfather, diplomat Gustaf Wallenberg, who was as adventurous as young Raoul.

He studied in Paris and then, of all places, my own alma mater, the University of Michigan (we’ve written about that before, here) – his grandfather wanted him to attend a public university, somewhere in the heartland of America.  Ann Arbor was the ticket.  He took a degree in the university’s new architecture program.  He also fit in time to hitchhike, drive, and bus around the country, venturing as far as Mexico.  His grandfather told him it was the “best away to learn – never use your name, and never show off.”

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Wallenberg in Swedish uniform

After graduation in 1935, Wallenberg took brief jobs in South Africa and Haifa, and then the footloose Swede began working for a Hungarian Jew in a import-export business in Stockholm. His boss was also part of an effort, backed by the Americans, to rescue the Hungarian Jews.  Wallenberg was itching to travel to Budapest under diplomatic cover and lead the rescue operation.  “It was a chance to prove to his banking family he was worthy of something.  He was a loquacious, funny guy,” Jangfeldt said, “not good for banking boards, but he impressed the Americans.” He got the job.

“The Germans were increasingly dissatisfied with Hungary,” Jangfeldt said, as the Hungarians resisted their ally’s Final Solution. German tanks rolled into Budapest in March 1944 and, with the support of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party, the atrocities resumed, continuing furiously even after the Soviets crossed the border a few months later.  Winston Churchill wrote on July 11, 1944, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

Wallenberg arrived in July 1944, just as the massive deportations of over 400,000 Jews to death camps had, briefly, hit the “pause” button, soon to resume.

In Budapest, Wallenberg’s office was situated in the same building as the American Embassy. Wallenberg was daring and inventive in his efforts to save the Jews who remained, about 200-250,000 of them.

He began issuing provisional passports to any Jews who had a connection to Sweden, through business or family ties.  “Suddenly, many people had ties to Sweden,” Jangfeldt said. Wallenberg, who was proud of being 1/16th Jew, recorded them all in his “Book of Life.” He may have saved as many as 8,000 Jews from deportation, but Jangfeldt emphasized that he saved many more in other ways.  He provided food for the Ghetto inhabitants – “there was always food for the tens of thousands of people.”  He ran networks that helped others escape or find shelter.  He began a Swedish hospital in his private flat.  He housed about ten thousand Jews in more than thirty extraterritorial buildings that he rented.  (A denizen from one of the safe houses was in the audience at Hoover – more on that tomorrow.)

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Passport photo

Using Russian and Swedish archival sources previously not available, Jangfeldt has been able to reconstruct Wallenberg’s eventual capture and death.  In January 1945, Wallenberg tried to meet with the Soviet leaders on the Ukrainian front, urging them not to bomb the Jewish ghetto. Wallenberg’s Russian would have been fluent – “I know he went to my high school, and I had lots of Russian,” Bengfeldt said.  It was a bad move on Wallenberg’s part.

“It’s something of an enigma why he was arrested,” Bengfeldt said. Abducting a diplomat is a violation of international law. Wallenberg was, ironically, accused of spying, or otherwise working for the Germans.  Perhaps it’s not entirely a surprise; Wallenberg regularly met with top Nazi leaders, including Eichmann, and their names were in his confiscated possessions. Altruism?  The Soviets simply didn’t believe it, and they didn’t believe the story about saving Jews.  “From a Russian point of view, it must have been suspicious to see someone coming voluntarily to them with the story of saving Jews.”

Jangfeldt’s research revealed a startling fact: Wallenberg had at least 15 kilograms of gold and jewelry in his car when the Red Army arrested him in 1945. Again, why?  Jangfeldt suggests that this was the amassed fortune of many of the Jewish victims Wallenberg had helped, who had left their valuables with him for safekeeping. He wished to return them at the war’s end to help them rebuild their lives. It seems like a reckless risk, but perhaps he had gotten away with so much, so often, that he had begun to feel invulnerable.  In any case, the decision may have been the fatal one.

jangfeldtIn April 1945, Averell Harriman, acting on behalf of the U.S. State Department, offered the Swedish government American help in making inquiries about Wallenberg’s fate. His offer was declined.  Jangfeldt called this “a symbol of Swedish passivity.”  The Swedes persuaded themselves that Wallenberg had been killed in Hungary – “the assumption that he had been killed in Budapest was very cynical,” Jangfeldt said. We now know he was taken to the Soviet Union’s notorious prisons, Lefortovo and later the Lubyanka.

The Soviet foreign service reassured the Swedes that they had conducted an investigation, and that they knew of no one named Wallenberg in the Soviet prison system.  In a sense, it may have been true. Soviet security forces operated as a state within a state, and it’s more than possible they kept secrets from their own diplomats. In fact, Wallenberg was jailed within 500 meters from the Kremlin.  Throughout 1945 and 1946, Bengfeldt said that very little was done on the Swedish side – with a jaw-dropping inaction also from the banking side of the Wallenberg family, which had the power and influence to make mountains move.

Why did the Swedes turn their backs?  Jangfeldt notes that a trade agreement was being negotiated between the Soviets and Sweden in March 1946.  “It’s not impossible that Sweden wanted to get Wallenberg off the table for economic reasons.”  Cynical?  “Fifty years makes one cynical,” Jangfeldt said.  Well, it’s been more than that now. One potential source of help was long gone. Gustaf Wallenberg had died in 1937 – “if he had lived, things would have been different.”

Though it’s commonly accepted that Wallenberg died in 1947, rumors and purported sightings continued into the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s.  In 1989, “all of a sudden the Wallenberg belongings, from when he was arrested, had fallen off a shelf”; his address book, calendar, car registration, cigarette case, diplomatic passport and stacks of old money in a variety of currencies were returned to Wallenberg’s immediate family. His mother, stepfather, and two half-siblings never gave up hope of finding him alive.  The Yeltsin era brought more transparency – access to archives and interviews – but no definitive answers. The question remains: “Wallenberg never returned home and we ask ‘Why?'”