Posts Tagged ‘Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya’

Brodsky and Donne in the Arctic: “the image of a body in space.”

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1972.

In the mid-1960s, a colleague asked George Kline  what he thought of the young, little-known poet Joseph Brodsky.  George replied that hadn’t seen enough of his work, only the odd bit of verse here and there in translation.  Then the colleague pulled out the samizdat “Elegy for John Donne from mid-way through a large stack of papers on his desk.  The poem, written when the Leningrad poet was 23, was unlike anything else coming out of Russia.


At least, this is the story that George told me in a recent conversation. George, of course, went on to play a pivotal role in the poet’s life, and he in his.  He translated the poems that made the future Nobel laureate’s reputation in the West with the Penguin Selected.

I was thinking of his anecdote today.  Then I ran across this article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website. I had saved the link in my electronic bookmarks for future readings – but then never returned to it.  How did I miss it, probably for a couple years?  The fascinating 1981 interview with Igor Pomeranzev suffered from multiple layers of neglect – mine the most recent.  The radio interview aired only recently, because Pomeranzev hadn’t yet learned the joys of sound editing.

Here are a few excerpts:

Igor Pomerantsev: Your poem “Great Elegy to John Donne” began circulating in samizdat in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Donne was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union at that time. How did you discover him?

Joseph Brodsky: I stumbled across him the same way most people did: in the epigraph of the [Hemingway] novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. [The epigraph is taken from Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” – Eds]. For some reason I felt this came from a line of verse and so I tried to find a translation of Donne. It was futile. Only later did I guess it was a fragment from a sermon. In some sense, Donne began for me the same way as he did for his English contemporaries. He was much better known in his day as a preacher than a poet.

The most interesting aspect was how I obtained a book of his. I had searched through the anthologies. In 1964 I was given five years [sentence for social parasitism], arrested, and sent to Arkhangelsk Oblast [near the Arctic Circle – CH], and for my birthday Lidiya Korneyevna Chukovskaya sent me, probably from her father’s library, a “Modern Library” edition of Donne. This was when I first read all of Donne’s poetry, read it seriously. …  I wrote it, I think, in ’62, when I knew remarkably little about Donne — in other words practically nothing, except a few fragments from his sermons and poems that I had found in anthologies. The main circumstance that moved me to undertake this poem was the possibility that it seemed to me existed at that period, the possibility of the centrifugal movement of a poem…well, not so much centrifugal… like a stone falling into a pond… and the gradual ripple outwards… a device more from cinematography, yes, when the camera moves back from the center.

So, in answer to your question, I would say it was more the image of the poet. Not so much the image even as the image of a body in space. Donne is English, he lives on an island. And starting with his bedroom, the perspective steadily widens. First the room, then his neighborhood, then London, the whole island, the sea, then his place in the world. At that time, this didn’t so much, I would say, interest me as gripped me at the moment when I was composing it.

Pomerantsev: My next question is more to you as a translator than a poet. You’ve translated several of Donne’s poems. They say a translator is always in competition with the author he translates. How did you feel translating Donne — like a competitor, ally, pupil, or colleague?

Brodsky:  Well, absolutely not as a competitor. Competition with Donne is absolutely out of the question thanks to Donne’s qualities as a poet. He is one of the greatest figures in world literature…A translator, simply a translator, not an ally…Perhaps more of an ally, since a translator is always to some extent an ally. A pupil, yes, because I learned an awful lot by translating him.

The thing is that Russian poetry is overwhelmingly strophic; that is, it operates through extraordinarily simple strophic units – four-line stanzas. While in Donne’s verse I encountered a much more interesting and thrilling structure. He creates extraordinarily complex strophic constructions. I found it very interesting, and very instructive. So, consciously or unconsciously, I began doing the same but not as a competitor – as a pupil. That was probably the main lesson. And then again, when you read or translate Donne you learn from his view of things. What I really liked about Donne was the translation of the heavenly to the earthly – i.e., the translation of the eternal to the transient… Is this too long?

Pomerantsev: No.

Brodsky:  It’s quite interesting, because there’s an awful lot to be said about this. In fact, it’s like Tsvetaeva said: “The voice of heavenly truth against earthly truth.” Except it isn’t so much “against” as the translation of heavenly truth into the language of earthly truth, i.e. of eternal phenomena into transient language. And both win as a result. It is merely the bringing nearer…how to put it…the expression of the seraphic order. Once it is spoken of, the seraphic order becomes more real. And this wonderful interaction is actually the essence, the bread of poetry. …

 And for him there was no such thing as antagonism. I mean that antagonism for him existed as an expression of antagonism generally, in the world, in nature, but not as a specific antagonism…There’s so much that could be said about him. As a poet, he was fairly uneven stylistically. Coleridge said something remarkable about him. He said that when you read Donne’s successors, the poets of around a century later, Dryden, Pope and so on, everything comes down to counting syllables and feet, while reading Donne you measure not the number of syllables but time. That’s exactly what Donne was doing in his verse. It’s akin to Mandelstam’s drawing out the caesura, yes, holding back an instant, stopping…for something which seems wonderful to the poet for one or another reason. Or the other way around, like in his Voronezh Notebooks, there you have unevenness, jumps, and truncated feet, truncated meter, feverish haste – so as to hasten or eliminate the instant which seems terrible. …

Pomerantsev: And yet the poets of the ’20s and ’30s, like Eliot, managed to see in Donne…

Brodsky:  Yes?

Pomerantsev: … the spirit of their time.

Brodsky:  Certainly. Because Donne, with the themes that he raised, with his uncertainty, with the fragmentation or duality of his consciousness is, of course, a poet of our times. The problems he raises are those of mankind as a whole, and especially of man living at a time of excess information, population…

Read the rest here.  It’s never too late, apparently.


The “scale of appraisal”: Woolf, Tsvetaeva, and Inspector Javert

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Cause of death?

Last night, I finally made the trek to see Les Misérables with my daughter and her friend.  The film has many nice touches – among them, Russell Crowe, as the solitary Inspector Javert, reviews the row of slaughtered boys the day after the 1832 uprising is quelled.  Moved by the sight of the very young Gavroche in the macabre line-up of bodies, he gently pins one of his military medals on the dead child.  Javert leaps to his death in the Seine a few scenes later.  (My daughter sent me a youtube video of Crowe being interviewed about his interpretation of the role – it’s below.)

Although my memory of Victor Hugo‘s book has faded over the years, I don’t recall any account that has linked Javert’s suicide with these useless and unnecessary deaths, in addition to the inspector’s  confusion at Jean Valjean’s unexpected act of mercy.  But the connection with warfare is an obvious one – some producer or artist should have thought of it before now – and it brought me back to my post of a few days ago, discussing Virginia Woolf‘s last letter, before her own suicide.  I had never connected her death with the German bombing of Britain, but her husband had.

According to Leonard Woolf, “319 days of headlong and yet slow-moving catastrophe” preceded her death in March 1941. Two of their homes were bombed in succession, and this may have triggered a recurrence of Virginia’s mental illness.

“Gavroche” by Gustave Brion

So it was, also, with Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whose suicide was preceded by German attacks on the two cities she loved most, Paris and Prague.  (I wrote about her final days for the Los Angeles Times here.)

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya related this August 1941 conversation, which took place in Chistopol in Tatarstan, the evacuation destination for many writers:

“Tell me, please,” here she came to a stop, stopping me also, “tell me, please, why do you think that it’s still worth living? Don’t you really understand what’s coming?”

“Worthwhile or not – I stopped debating that long ago. They arrested people close to me in ’37, and in ’38 they shot my husband. Of course, life’s not worth living for me, and in any case it doesn’t matter any more how and where I live. But I have a daughter.”

“But don’t you really understand that everything’s over? For you, for your daughter, and altogether.”

We turned onto my street.

“What do you mean – everything?” I asked.

“Altogether – everything!” She made a large circle in the air with the strange little bag she carried. “Well, Russia, for example!”

Tsvetaeva, 1917

“And the Germans?”

“Yes, the Germans too.”

In her excellent book The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, author Irma Kudrova writes:

I’ll risk taking this thought to its conclusion. In Tsvetaeva’s eyes the catastrophe that was going on was worse than the nightmare of war. A disaster of global proportions was underway, swallowing Russia too. The dark forces of the world had incarnated into ‘nonhumans’; they held absolute power and were pitiless toward man. The swarm of Hitler’s army, which was swallowing the Russian land, was only one of the faces of triumphant evil. It seems to me that it was precisely this – and nothing less – that Marina Ivanovna [Tsvetaeva] was talking about on 26 August 1941, four days before her death.

She was speaking to the only person she had met since leaving Moscow in whom she could sense a person like herself. She spoke, at last, in her own voice, without caution. Because it was her scale of appraisal, her characteristic viewpoint about what was happening: “from the roof of the world,” as she wrote in one of her poems.