Posts Tagged ‘“Russian literature”’

Elif Batuman: “I feel like I’m living in the country of squirrels”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Elif Batuman, author of the acclaimed The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is serving a sentence as writer-in-residence at Koç University, on the outskirts of Istanbul.  Here’s the way she describes it: “I don’t really feel like I’m living in Istanbul because I’m in this office all the time, and then I work here until late, and miss the bus that goes home, and then I walk home through this forest for 25 minutes.”

“I feel more like I’m living in the country of squirrels than the country of Turkish people.”

What’s she thinking about?

“Well, I have been thinking about how a lot of the writers that I know are incredibly good email writers and a lot of the time I find their emails more compelling than the things they are writing at the time. It is connected to this thing that I quoted from Chekhov in The Possessed, about how everyone has two lives and one is the open one that is known to everyone and one is the unknown one, running its course in secret. The email is kind of the unknown life, and the published writings are the known life.”

No squirrels in sight

Helen Stuhr-Rommereim got a chance to interview her over at Full Stop (the interview is here). Book Haven offers a few excerpts:

On writing:

For me, [writing] is about turning off the censor that says you are writing something bad, so stop writing. It’s like going to the gym. Once you go to the gym you never regret that you went to the gym. Once you sit down and write, even if you can tell that what you’re writing is bad and isn’t leading anywhere, the cognitive act of moving sentences around is making you a better writer. You just have to remember that and not censor yourself. And in writing non-fiction there were a lot of times that I was imagining the various annoying voices in my head of people who would be offended that I’d written that or annoyed that I’d written that. Learning to turn that off was useful in a broader sense. You have to make sure that it is just you and the computer screen and other people aren’t going to come into it until later.

On the ideal reader (warning! opposite p.o.v. from statement above):

I’ve been trying to think about that more. It’s something my editor told me when I was working on The Possessed. He said, “I think you should be writing this for my mother. My mother already loves this book, but she doesn’t know that she loves it. If you keep using words like ‘over-determined’ she is never going to know that she loves it.” It was about taking out the jargon without dumbing it down or removing the theory. That was actually really useful.

She hears "annoying voices" in her head

On funny academics:

… they are all pretty funny. They are all kind of marginalized from real life, and they are all aware of that. They are very self-reflective, and where there is self-reflectiveness and breadth of reading there tends to be humor. It isn’t a hard and fast rule. You meet plenty of humorless academics, especially in older generations and in other countries. But American academics have a pretty good sense of humor, and they aren’t that inhibited. If they want to do something crazy they will just go ahead and do it.

Will she ever burn out on Russian lit?

Absolutely! I absolutely think I will. When you write a book and promote a book, you really aren’t an expert on anything except having written that book. In my case it was very small and idiosyncratic book that did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of very much of anything, but they have to make you an expert on something. You find yourself on this cycle of festivals, and I was on all of these panels about Russia with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Pavel Basinski and these great guns of Slavic studies. So I imagine that my next book is not going to have very much to do with Russian literature, and then there will be another slot to put me in. I don’t think I will go down as an expert on Russian literature for very much longer.

The curious and complicated history of Lenin’s brain

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Joseph Stalin slaughtered millions, but even genocidal totalitarian despots need to catch a break.

After all, everyone needs a hobby.  And he had one.  Lenin’s brain.

It’s not like the two leaders had been the best of buddies.  The friction between the two men had become so toxic that Vladimir Lenin, dying from his fourth stroke (possibly complicated by syphilis) in 1924, warned on his deathbed that Stalin should be jettisoned as the party’s General Secretary.

Too late.  And Stalin got his brain instead.

Not exactly buddies

This riveting story is told in 2008’s  Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives.  On his way back to Houston, author Paul Gregory had pressed it into my hands as a thankee after my article on his current book, Politics, Murder and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina.  One thing I learned after listening to Paul speaking about the book last summer: He’s a great storyteller.  He summarizes the Soviet situation:

The Institute of Lenin served as a repository for Lenin’s writings and for other Lenin memorabilia.  Among its most unusual items was Lenin’s brain, preserved in a formaldehyde solution in a glass jar.  This is the story of the study of Lenin’s brain from early 1925 to 1936 as told by the sixty-three-page secret collection of documents from the Central Committee’s special files.  It is not necessarily a tale about Stalin, although Stalin’s guiding hand can be seen throughout. … Throughout the story Stalin was either acutely aware of what was going on or was guiding events.

The display of Lenin’s embalmed body and the publication of this writings was a PR move to raise the fallen hero to the Immortals — but a team of physicians insisted that his brain receive scientific study.  Not surprisingly, Russians needed scientific proof that Lenin was a genius. This was decided while the body was still warm.

A specimen of the brain was sent to a leading neurologist, Oskar Vogt, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.

Embalming: A kind of immortality

Their bad:  “Whether Lenin was a genius or dullard would be decided by a foreigner!” Gregory exclaimed.  Their worst fears were realized.  In 1932, one party hack wrote that the fragment of Lenin’s brain was being kept under intolerable security conditions, without guards, and that no work was being done on the brain in Berlin.

Moreover, “Vogt’s presentations are of a questionable nature; he compares Lenin’s brain with those of criminals and assorted other persons.”  One of the “indices” associated the structure of Lenin’s brain with mental retardation.

Voices were raised against Vogt, bearing the hallmarks of Stalin’s operations. But how to get rid of Vogt without creating an international scandal?

Enter Adolf Hitler.

The Russians had been holding out for their own “Institute of the Brain” — and they got one.   A delegation was sent to Berlin, ostensibly to beg Vogt to lead the new institute – but actually, to put the kibosh on him, while blaming Hitler.

It really does look like a walnut

Vogt had already fallen into disfavor with the the Führer, and his apartment had been searched, his telephone bugged, and any visa to Moscow out of the question (not that he’d been to Russia much in the last few years).  Mission accomplished!  But don’t cry:  Vogt, too, had kind of a happy ending, as much as could be expected in the circumstances.  The German government punished him by drafting him into the army (although he was in his 60s), but he was discharged after six weeks.

Meanwhile, the Moscow Institute of the Brain had not been sitting idly on its hands.  It had managed to collect better brains from better people.  No more would Lenin’s brain be compared with the man in the street, but instead he would be ranked alongside poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Bogdanov, and even Nobel laureate I.V. Pavlov, who had died in February 1936 and whose brain could now be added to the collection.

The Institute built the case it needed to:  “Its report cites the indices proving the extraordinary nature of Lenin’s brain, while pointing out that the Institute could provide even more convincing evidence if the Politburo awarded it new funds and new premises.”  Just like academics everywhere.

Meanwhile, the 1936 report concluded with a resounding recommendation:  “The final point is an order to the Central Executive Committee to organize a specialized equipment for the the preservation of the brains of leading personalities.”

A happy ending for everyone, really.

Guest Review: “Is Everything For Sale?”

Friday, July 30th, 2010

A first at the Book Haven:  Elena Danielson reviews Debra Satz‘s Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets (Oxford) — and she takes a Tolstoyan slant.  In addition to being a whiz at Russian literature, Elena, Stanford archivist emerita and a former associate director of Hoover Institution, has been writing about the ethical dilemmas of archival practice for a quarter-century. She published the “Ethics of Access” in the American Archivist in 1989. In 2005, she won the Posner prize for an article in the American Archivist about access to East German political police files. In 2001, she also received the Laurel Award of the Polish Prime Minister for her work with the Polish State Archives. In 2004, she was named a Commander of the Order of Merit by the Romanian government for her work related to archival holdings in Romania.

Is Everything for Sale?

Debra Satz’s emphatic title could have come from one of Leo Tolstoy’s moralistic essays.

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale resonates with both sides of the political spectrum. Even MasterCard admits that some things are “price-less.” Pretty obvious:  humans and human bodies should not be put up for sale or auctioned off.

Certainly the United States outlawed the market in human slaves by 1865 and Russia outlawed serfdom about the same time, in 1861.  However, in the late 20th century, the libertarianism that sparked so much innovation and the globalization combined to produce some unintended consequences. Nearly everything has been swept onto the auction block. Satz reminds us that the clothes we are wearing were probably produced in a Third World country, and it’s likely that indentured, bonded or otherwise involuntary servitude, even child labor, helped produce the garment.

Satz champions "weak agents" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Immoral market mechanisms are not a new problem. Satz does not go into this long history, but it is the silent backdrop to her work. The issues she addresses have concerned some of history’s most thoughtful writers. Back in the 19th century, Lev Tolstoy was troubled by the legacy of serfdom that had enriched him and his family. Before the official emancipation of the serfs, he tried to liberate his own human holdings, but they were too suspicious or too savvy to take him up on the offer. Even after the Tsar liberated the bonded peasantry, Tolstoy continued to rail against the evils of private property and the ad hoc enslavement that goes with it.

Last winter at a Stanford “Ethics at Noon” brown bag talk, Satz analyzed the sale of body parts, especially the black market for human kidneys. Selling body parts is illegal, right? Well, in the United States human blood is certainly routinely bought and sold. Human eggs are purchased, often for large sums. This creates a “value forum.” A young woman attending Stanford may be able to command a higher price than a high school dropout. All the while the medical consequences for the seller are not yet clear. In Great Britain, such sales are illegal, the “donation” of body parts must be done altruistically without a purchase price. The sale of kidneys is still illegal in the United States, but the pressures are growing to create a legal market, just as there is for blood and human eggs.

He would have liked Project Gutenberg

As a social philosopher, Satz emphasizes the need to identify cases of “weak agency,” the vulnerable in society who will agree to almost anything for subsistence wages. As citizens with less clout, women often fall into the category of “weak agents,” forced into marketing sexual and reproductive labor.

The great Russian moralist was greatly disturbed by moves to detach sexual pleasure from the family-centered rituals of childbearing, making it a marketable commodity. The evils of prostitution in what we might call asymmetrical relationships are the subject of his highly moralistic, and nearly unreadable, last novel, Resurrection.

Satz points out cases of well-educated woman in the United States who have other options, but still sell their attractions to the highest bidder. Tolstoy also knew well that women of means could be caught up in this kind of marketing. The stunning and cunning character Hélène in War and Peace tells her husband she has no intention of having children. She takes up with powerful and wealthy men and then dies mysteriously at the hands of a French doctor after refusing to be treated by a good Russian doctor. The other great beauty in Tolstoy’s work, Anna Karenina, confidently tells her lover she has no intention of bearing any more of his children. She must also have had medical advice. In his essays, Tolstoy rants about the women and doctors who work against the will of Mother Nature. Modern medical technology has further detached desire from childbearing at each step in the process. Imagine what Tolstoy would think of the marketing of human eggs for substantial sums of money, and the use of surrogate mothers, who are often poorer women paid by wealthier couples.

The late 20th century era of great medical advances coincided with a time of great enthusiasm for the “invisible hand” of the marketplace as the best value forum for determining prices for just about anything. That naïve enthusiasm for deregulation has pretty much crashed, along with the market for hugely overvalued junk bonds, derivatives, and junk real estate loans. Satz points out that the same misplaced trust in financial markets crept into other areas of our American experience, and these need to be re-examined. As financial markets get re-regulated, other areas also need moral limits, some as legal measures and some as ethical standards.

Amazon has new copies for $16.47, used for $9.98, and a kindle version in between at $14.27.  I paid list price of $35 at the Stanford bookstore so I could have a copy that had been autographed by the author. Tolstoy, who opposed private property, would have wanted me to check it out of the library. While her writing is much more accessible than his, if you have the time, read both. His work is in the public domain, as free e-text on Project Gutenberg. He’d like that.

San Francisco’s “finger man”: Zborowski revisited

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Michelangelo painted the original "finger man"

I’m preparing for an interview with nonagenarian historian and poet Robert Conquest on Monday.  To that end, I purchased a battered $2.44 copy of his classic work, The Great Terror, from amazon.  I expected it to be a dry exhalation of facts and statistics.

Not a chance.  It’s rather a 500-page thriller.  Naturally, given my post of a few days ago about San Francisco’s Mark Zborowski, a medical anthropologist at Mt. Zion Hospital, I checked for Zborowski’s name in the index.

Conquest didn’t fail me.  Far from “colorless,” Zborowski sounds positively Shakespearean.  Here’s Conquest on the murder of Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov:

The next NKVD agent to penetrate Trotsky’s political family was the extraordinary Mark Zborowski, of whom it has been said that he everywhere “left behind a trail of duplicity and blood worthy of a Shakespearean villain,” and who, after establishing himself in the United States as a respectable anthropologist at Columbia and Harvard, was finally exposed and convicted on charges of perjury in December 1958, getting a five- to seven-year term.

Zborowski had managed to become Sedov’s right-hand man, and had access to all the secrets of the Trotskyites. He was responsible for the robbery of the Trotsky archives in Paris in November 1936. Although he never committed any murders himself, remaining a finger man, he seems to have played some role in the killing of Ignace Reiss. He also nearly procured the death of Walter Krivitsky in Spain. The young German Rudolf Clement, secretary of Trotsky’s Fourth International, seems also to have been conveyed into his murderer’s hand by Zborowski, in 1938.  A headless body found floating in the Seine in Paris was tentatively identified as Clement’s; in any case, he has not been seen since.  On 14 February 1938 Trotsky’s son Lev Sedov died in suspicious circumstances in a Paris hospital. Since Zborowski was the man who rushed him there, there is a very strong presumption that he informed the NKVD killer organization of the opportunity which now presented itself.

Just the man you want working in a hospital. One pressing question remains: Qu’est-ce que c’est un finger man?  That’s what google is for.

From FINGER MAN: – noun Slang.  a person who points out someone to be murdered, robbed, etc.  Origin: 1925–30, Americanism

How did a Oxford-educated Englishman run across 1920s American gangsta lingo?

Life in exotic Palo Alto

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Avowed Tolstoyan

Palo Alto is often portrayed as a boring and staid address, the southernmost fringes where hip San Francisco fades into the dull heart of Silicon Valley.  The most recent Times Literary Supplement to arrive in my mailbox makes it seem positively exotic.

Andrew Kahn reviews Elif Batuman‘s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.  He notes that Batuman is an “avowed Tolstoyan” who nevertheless gets drawn into situations of Dostoevskian hysteria.  Her book is filled with the “unlikely stories and eccentric characters that populate a post-Soviet globalized world from her doorstep in Palo Alto to Samarkand.”

“Few satirists since David Lodge’s campus novels have captured so sparklingly and sometimes cruelly the degree to which human banality (vanity, pettiness, spite, grumpiness) and idealism (selfless sacrifice, steadfastness, loyalty) vie in academic life”:

René Girard

“Her final chapter, initially an essay about Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, his twisted satire of Russian provincial life and nihilist conspiracy, becomes a group portrait of fellow graduates at Stanford who, just like that novelist’s characters, suffer from wasting passions, religious fervour and fits of torpor.  Behind their trysts lies the theory of the Stanford guru René Girard that a relationship between two people is mediated through an Other. His views were based in part on his reading of none other than Dostoevsky.  To be gripped by higher education in Batuman’s The Possessed is to be possessed by lovers possessed by Girard possessed by Dostoevsky.  Palo Alto might seem like an unlikely hothouse for a phalanstery of existentialists.  But who could possibly fault (well-funded) graduates for living out the texts they read?”

Nikolai Bukharin: The Movie

Monday, July 5th, 2010

A torn picture of Nikolai Bukharin is the only original photo of him at Hoover archives. After his execution, the government confiscated all his records. (Photo: Hoover Archives)

July 1928.  Nikolai Bukharin rose to contradict Stalin at every point.  Stalin’s extraordinary measures had caused grain output to plummet wherever they had been implemented.  Eventually they resulted in a famine that would cost 6-7 million lives, but the immediate effect was unrest among the peasants.  The kulak — Stalin’s favorite scapegoat — was not to blame. The popular leader Lenin had dubbed the “Golden Boy of the Revolution” concluded:

BUKHARIN:  “We must immediately remove extraordinary measures which were historically justified and correctly enacted. They have outlived their time. But we now face a wave of mass unrest. There have been some 150 different uprisings throughout the union and dozens of terrorist acts [he described them].  Middle peasants are deserting to the camp of the kulaks. … We were victorious in gaining Soviet power, but we can also lose it.”

Stalin’s stooge Lazar Kaganovich, party head where much of the Ukrainian unrest occurred, protested that the Bolshevik leader was exaggerating.

BUKHARIN:  I could cite still more such examples given at the Central Committee plenum of Ukraine.

KAGANOVICH:  There were other speeches there.  You should cite them as well.

VOICE FROM THE CROWD, A BUKHARIN ALLY:  And the former general secretary of Ukraine, Comrade Kaganovich, comes here and doesn’t say anything about this?

KAGANOVICH:  Give me two hours like Comrade Bukharin, and I will tell you all and cite speeches.

BUKHARIN:  When Lenin encountered panic-mongers, he said they must be shot to maintain a united front.  But he never said that we should keep quiet about facts. … I don’t know whom I am contradicting.  I only know that I learned about this widespread peasant unrest yesterday.

This is an excerpt from Paul Gregory’s Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin, which I wrote about here.  If it sounds like a screenplay — well, you’re not the first one to think so.

“Almost without exception, readers, including my editor, came independently to the conclusion that their story would make a great film — a kind of Darkness at Noon/Zhivago combination,” Paul Gregory told me.  “I sent the book to two producers, both of whom read the book and concluded it should be a movie. An appealing feature for filmmakers is that at least two of the roles — Anna and Stalin — would be exceptional roles for major actors. Their concern, however, was that Hollywood was not financing ‘good’ films these days and was only interested in sequels, comic books, and special effects. They felt it would either have to be made as an independent film or by cable TV concerns like HBO or SHO.”

The reason for the astonishing transcripts, said Paul, is the emergency of a huge amount of formerly secret documents, released from the Soviet archives beginning in the early 1990s; many exist on microfilm at the Hoover Institition, where Paul Gregory did his research.  They include the transcripts of Central Committee plenums (like the excerpt above), stenograms of the Politburo, transcripts of interrogations, correspondence.  (Irma Kudrova’s compelling Death of a Poet also made use of new documents — I reviewed it here.)

“This story is non-fiction fiction. It seems too good a story to be real,” he said.   “I have ten years of experience and could not have written this book without that ten years.  I may have been the only one with sufficient patience to make my way through all these records. I would classify among the more important finds the original transcript of Bukharin’s last statement to the court with Stalin’s edits in pencil, the official record of the carrying out of his execution, his ‘hunger strike’ speech before the Central Committee in February of 1937, his arrest warrant.”

Not new is his final letter to his beloved wife, Anna Larina, which she received 50 years late.  Neither of them ever lost faith in the revolution that executed Bukharin in 1938.

Anna Larina got his last letter 50 years late

Dear Sweet Annushka, My Darling!

I write to you on the eve of my trial…with a special purpose, which I emphasize three times over: no matter what you read, no matter what you hear, no matter how horrible these things may be, no matter what might be said about me or what I might say–endure everything courageously and calmly. Prepare the family. Help all of them. I fear for you and the others, but most about you.

Don’t feel malice about anything. Remember that the great cause of the USSR lives on, and this is the most important thing. Personal fates are transitory and wretched by comparison. A great ordeal awaits you. I beg you, my dearest, muster all your strength, tighten all the strings of your heart, but don’t allow them to break…. Regardless of what happens and no matter what the outcome of the trial, I will see you afterwards, and I will be able to kiss your hands.

Good-bye my darling, Your Kol’ka
January 15, 1938

“Poetry is the only hope”: Voznesensky remembered

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Voznesensky, with an attitude

Andrei Voznesensky died on Tuesday, June 1, at the age of 77.  The New York Times obituary is here.

Voznesensky’s heyday was in the 1960s, when he was, with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the “officially left-wing” poet, allowed to tweak the Soviet masters, but only to a point.  They were intended to be proof that the Soviet powers allowed “freedom of speech” — but again, only to a point.  The two were famous for their theatrical readings to the masses, who filled sports stadiums to hear them.

The real star power, at that time, was meanwhile, shovelling manure in the far north — Archangelsk, near the Arctic Circle, where he was serving time after a show trial that described him a parasite on the state.  Joseph Brodsky went on to get a Nobel prize.  Of course, Voznesensky had the wisdom not to haul off and sock KGB agents, as Brodsky had … but still…

Brodsky’s umbrage against the dynamic duo of Voznesensky and Yevtushenko wavered in intensity over the years.  As with all mentors who shape one’s tastes and sensibilities, I’ve inherited his prejudices along with his predilections.  Death, as always, provides an opportunity to review both.  Easy to judge others’ reactions to a totalitarian regime when one is sitting on one’s bed with a computer on one’s lap, the California sunshine streaming in through a window.  Frankly, I don’t think I have Brodsky’s guts.  Voznesensky knew how to negotiate his survival.  It doesn’t always command respect, but it certainly commands my sympathy.

In Solomon Volkov’s questionable memoir, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, Volkov draws out Brodsky’s opinions (Brodsky offhandedly says he had memorized 200-300 lines of poetry from each, despite his distaste; his memory was phenomenal), and gets this comment:

These boys were throwing stones in the officially sanctioned direction, knowing they’d land half a step ahead of the ordinary guy, who went nuts over it! That’s their entire historical role.  All this is very simple, banal even! Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had friends in the Central Committee of the Party all along the way — second, or third, or sixteenth secretaries — so they were always more or less in the know about which way the wind would blow tomorrow.

In Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (I reviewed it in the Kenyon Review here), Ludmila Shtern defends her friend Voznesensky against her other friend, Brodsky. She recalls  Voznesensky insisting on meeting her in Italy, although “Soviet émigrés were considered ‘untouchable’ by the Soviet government and any contact between them and Soviet citizens while on business trips could destroy a citizen’s career … When people were getting their permissions to go abroad, they were always warned by the KGB about avoiding émigrés in no uncertain terms, and they took these warnings seriously.”  Visits involved a great deal of risk and subterfuge:

Despite all these troubles he spent the evening with us, read his poetry, and even offered to take some letters and clothing back to our friends in Moscow.  We went to the flea market and bought enough used clothes to fill a whole suitcase.  To each piece I attached a note saying who was supposed to get what.  The suitcase came with a broken zipper, and when Andrei took it from a luggage claim in Moscow, it opened and all these dresses, blouses and shirts fell on the floor.  Andrei was crawling on the floor picking it up under the malignant cameras of journalists and reporters.  The next day one of the Moscow papers ran a big picture of this scene with the following caption: ‘The poor famous Soviet poet bought half of Italy.’

The Stanford University Libraries, by the way have Voznesensky’s papers; they were acquired six years ago.  They already have Yevtushenko’s papers — and Hoover has the papers Boris Pasternak, Abram Tertz (Sinyavsky), and others (I recently wrote about the extraordinary Pasternak collection here.)

Perhaps it’s the post-heyday years that say the most about the man.  From the New York Times:

In 1986 he published “The Ditch: A Spiritual Trial,” a work of prose and poems that centered on a German massacre of Russians in the Crimea in 1941 and the plundering in the 1980s of their mass graves by Soviet citizens. Mr. Voznesensky, tackling a subject long suppressed by the authorities, made clear that most of the 12,000 victims were Jews and implied that the looting of their bodies was tolerated for that reason.

At a poetry reading two years later, he took written questions from the audience. “All of you are Jews or sold out to Jews,” one note said. Another said, simply, “We will kill you.” Mr. Voznesensky read the unsigned notes aloud and demanded that the authors identify themselves. His challenge was met with silence.

In the 1990s Mr. Voznesensky disclosed a reluctance to go abroad. “I cannot leave the country,” he said in an interview with The International Herald Tribune in 1996. “I belong to the people. Now that they are in terrible trouble, they need me.”

“Poetry is the only hope,” he added. “Even if you do not believe it, you have to do it.”

POSTSCRIPT:  Tim Rutten writes the Los Angeles Times obituary here.  Bestest quote:  “We are born not to survive but to put our foot on the accelerator!”

A film about Anna Akhmatova…

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Akhmatova's famous portrait by Nathan Altman

Some time ago, I read Anatoly Nayman’s Remembering Anna Akhmatova — or at at least I started to.  My reading was interrupted by commissioned review, but I had read enough to understand that I had run across that rare phenomenon: in Akhmatova, Nayman had found someone whose every word, gesture, or action was of utmost importance, and must be recorded.

So when Elena Danielson, Hoover Archivist extraordinaire, told me that Helga Landauer’s  A Film About Anna Akhmatova was being shown at Wallenberg Hall on February 4, I was keenly interested.

Unfortunately, I was also in a wheelchair at the time, and the weather was miserable and the parking far away.  Elena told me later that even in the torrential rain, the auditorium was packed.


Akhmatova's funeral: Brodsky at right, with Nayman behind him. Rein is at left.

I can see why.  Helga, a Moscow-born writer and filmmaker who lives in downtown Palo Alto, kindly sent me a DVD.

The same urgency comes across in the film, which features unusual footage of pre-revolutionary Russia, as well as Nayman’s testimony.  As Joseph Brodsky said of Nayman’s book, it’s “chief virtue … is the intensity of the author’s attention to his subject.” The film also features, unforgettably, Akhmatova reading her own poems.

Nitpicking:  some of the clips are used somewhat repetitively.  And unless I missed it, there’s no explanation of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the soundtrack — it was one of Akhmatova’s favorite pieces of music, and became so for her protégé Brodsky as well.  Better translations of Akhmatova’s poetry into English are available than the ones used here.

The film takes a birth-to-death approach to Akhmatova’s life, rather than focusing on Nayman’s firsthand experience of Akhmatova in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He was, after all, on of Akhmatova’s famous Pleiad, her “magic choir” — including poets Yevgeny Rein and Dmitry Bobyshev as well as Nayman and Brodsky (Nayman does show a few of Brodsky’s photos from the time — as I recall, the only mention of the Nobel laureate). Irena Grudszinska Gross, writing of the importance of literary friendships in the careers of young poets in Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: A Fellowship of Poets, notes that the cloudless period of this net of friendships lasted five years —  “In this history of literary friendships, it will endure forever.”

Well, if one wishes to be filled in on that part of the picture, one can always find his book.

The film also includes some memorable formulations from Nayman, a poet himself — I think particularly of his remark that poetry is the process by which word becomes law.

A trailer is here.

“A lesson in how couples should get along”

Friday, March 26th, 2010
Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joseph and Marguerite Straus Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

One of the more memorable images from the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky talk earlier this month:  Joseph Frank, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Fyodor Dostoevsky, listening attentively in the front row, leaning forward, chuckling, hugging his cane, with his wife, Marguerite Straus Frank, at his side.

I caught Joe before his last class with a small group of a  half-dozen or so students, and asked him what he thought of the translation duo’s gig.  “I knew them twenty years ago in Paris.  He was a translator from the French – of Bonnefoy,”  he recalled.  “I saw him on and off during the Paris years.  Suddenly, he showed up as a translator of Russian with a wife.”

The class asked him about his own latest, a condensation of the thousand-page Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time — Mary Petrusewicz was recruited to condense the book, he said, since “I couldn’t bear the idea of cutting it myself.” He recalled it was “the heaviest book at the book celebration.”

What do you think of Steven Cassedy’s Dostoevsky’s Religion? Do you know him?” another student asked.

“Yes, Stephen Cassedy was once my T.A.,” he said, and gave a characteristic cackle.

He remembered the young Irish-American teaching assistant — also the author of To the Other Side: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America and Building the Future, Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and the Making of Tsukunft — taking the trouble to learn Yiddish.

“I was impressed by that fact, since his name is ‘Cassedy’” — commented the Jewish nonagenarian from New York City.

And Joe disagrees with me, regarding my earlier remarks about the effectiveness of translating in rhyme and meter.  “Rhymes highjack the poetry,” he said.  (Not so:  Think Richard Wilbur.  Think Anthony Hecht.  Think Sir Charles Johnston, who inspired Vikram Seth‘s masterful novel-in-Pushkinian verse, The Golden Gate.)

Joe noted the upcoming Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (can we wait?)  And perhaps Nicolai Leskov is in their future, as they mentioned in a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:

Barnes & Noble:  Is there any writer in that period in Russia who readers of English don’t know about at all?

Volokhonsky: Well, it’s not that you don’t know him at all. He is known but only a little in the West, and partly owing to the fact that he is very difficult to translate. His prose is so rooted, so bound with the element of Russian language that it really is hard to convey its qualities in English.

Pevear: Do you have a name?

Volokhonsky: Yes, the name! [LAUGHS] Nikolai Leskov. He has been translated. He has been translated, inevitably, very poorly, and his translations go out of print, then someone revives them, and the cycle repeats itself.

Pevear: It’s the same book that keeps moving from publisher to publisher. If he’s known, it’s for the story that is the basis of the Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s a great story.

Barnes & Noble: Are you going to rectify Leskov’s neglect in the West?

Pevear: We are going to try.

Barnes & Noble: Is there one book in particular that represents his best work?

Pevear: No. He wrote short stories. Well, he wrote longish short stories. And one big chronicle called Cathedral Folk. Slavist teachers are always in agony, because there’s no Leskov for them to use with their students. For Russians, he’s almost equal to Tolstoy. He’s very high. Some people like him even more.

Volokhonsky: But I think it’s exaggeration.

Pevear: He’s the least Western. He’s the least open to Western influences. He’s very Russian. But he’s an extraordinary writer. We’re going to try.

Back to Joe, recalling the visit of the husband-and-wife translating team:  “I was very impressed with their act,” he said.  “A lesson on how couples should get along.” One might say the same of the Franks, pictured here.

“Don’t compare yourself to Tolstoy, young lady!”

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Elif Batuman

Who knew that comp lit scholars take so much abuse?

Elif Batuman (I wrote about her here and here and here) gave a reading of her The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, at Kepler’s Thursday night, and spilled about the angry letter-writers who attack her.  The subject came up as she was reading her introduction, and paused after the passage that gave away the ending of Eugene Onegin.  She apologized to her audience, and then described one correspondent who had written to complain.

“Why did you have to ruin Madame Bovary?” the writer whined. Commenting on Batuman’s well-known expertise in Russian lit, the irate penpal said she expected Batuman to ruin the endings of Russian novels — “that’s your job” — but why the French ones?  “I know you think that everyone has already read it because it was published in 1867, but I personally was doing other things and only got around to it now.”

Batuman, an appealing author with a slightly goofy manner and the self-deprecating slouch tall girls acquire in adolescence (she’s six-feet tall), seem an unlikely target for anyone’s wrath.  But she also recalled a peeved listener at a reading who interrupted when she compared the “horrible traumatic story I wanted to recreate for the reader”  to the episode in Anna Karenina where the heroine thinks she will die in childbirth, but doesn’t — a variant of Chekhov’s warning about the gun that had better go off by the last act.  “Don’t compare yourself to Tolstoy, young lady!” she was angrily admonished.

Explaining books came naturally to Batuman, whose career began, in a sense, with her Turkish mother asking her to tell her what these great novels “meant.”  Although her mother was thoroughly fluent in English, she was haunted by the sense that there was something missing in her understanding of books she read in English.

Batuman, whose book includes a large section on Samarkand, was interviewed by the Uzbek National Radio last week.  “Maybe I’ll get a lot of angry calls,”elif2 she worried.

During the question-and-answer period, she was asked if Russian novel-lovers fall into Dostoevsky-Tolstoy camps, where does she place herself?  Batuman answered that Dostoevsky is the literary equivalent to theater, with “allegory intensified 10,000 times.”  Tolstoy is the stuff of movies, with costumes, elaborate scenery, and orchestral score.  She falls for Tolstoy.  “Tolstoy is girlie — he wouldn’t like my saying that, but he’s not here anymore, any more than the the Uzbeks are.”‘

She was also asked if she is going to write a Russian novel.  “The Russians already did that,” she replied.

But Batuman is thinking about a novel next.  “Maybe see you all in another 15 years!”