Posts Tagged ‘Anna Akhmatova’

In Praise of Purgatory: translator Robert Chandler writes in The Financial Times

Friday, October 1st, 2021
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Dante, Beatrice, the Eagle, and the collective voice of the just

The supreme translator honors the supreme poet. It is the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri‘s death – and Robert Chandler, who has translated Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate and Stalingrad, among other Russian stunners, turns his attention from the Russian classics to Dante’s Italian masterpiece.

A sadist? We think not.

The occasion for the article is a new translation of The Purgatorio, by poet D.M. Black, published by New York Review Books with a preface by Robert Pogue Harrison, who estimates that there are more than a hundred translations of The Divine Comedy into English already. So why do we need a new one? Because The Purgatorio is special.

If Russia seems a long way from Florence, Chandler threads the connections together in his new article, “Divinity and Damnation: Why Dante Still Matters,” at The Financial Times: “Anna Akhmatova’s last public appearance was in October 1965, during a celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.  In a moving affirmation of loyalty, she wrote in her preparatory notes that the deepest bond between her and her fellow-poets Nikolay Gumiliov and Osip Mandelstam, both killed decades earlier by the Soviets, was ‘love for Dante.’” (Mandelstam described the Divine Comedy as a perfect crystal with 14,233 facets – the number of lines in the poem.)

Readers are generally drawn to the Inferno, partly because of the set pieces like Paolo and Francesca, but also for the same reason people prefer horror films to mid-century musicals.

“Some have see Dante as a vengeful sadist, while for T. S. Eliot he was an epitome of classical restraint.  Some see Dante as a mystic visionary; others see the Divine Comedy as Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotelian Catholicism put into verse,” Chandler writes. “In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has described him, during his long exile from Florence, as ‘an itinerant diplomat and secretary for the lords of northern Italy’ and as an ’embittered asylum-seeker.’”

I’ll plump for The Purgatorio too. It has more movement. But Stanford’s William Mahrt would also point out that it is the only one of the three sections of the Divine Comedy that has music. There is no music in The Inferno – just noise and wails and grunts. The Paradiso leads us beyond music. But the Purgatorio rings with hymns and psalms and chant. Chandler adds: “The Purgatorio, however, is a more satisfying whole.  The structure is more meaningful, the verbal music more delicate – and, above all, it is more human.  In Hell and Paradise everyone is fixed in their despair or bliss; in Purgatory everyone and everything is in flux.  Sinners struggle to resolve their inner conflicts.  Above all, there is a sense of freshness and hope.”

Chandler, translator extraordinaire

Chandler concludes: “The Purgatorio is, above all, a search for meaning, and in the final cantos Beatrice enables Dante to understand that the only source of meaning is love.  One of Black’s previous publications is titled Why Things Matter: The Place of Values in Science, Psychoanalysis and Religion (Routledge, 2011).  Both in this translation and in his afterword Black shows us why Dante matters, and how, 700 years after his death, he can still help us to understand what may give meaning to our own lives.”

Read the whole thing here.

What future for literature? Thinking fondly of “The Book People” in Farenheit 451

Saturday, June 20th, 2020
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Oskar Werner meets with The Book People in “Farenheit 451”

I don’t go to movies often, but at some point in a few decades ago I saw François Truffaut‘s Farenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel of a future where books are banned and “firemen” destroy any they find.

I don’t remember much of it (lots of it seemed fairly incoherent), but the final scene was remarkable to me. And, perhaps, prophetic. We couldn’t anticipate then an era where books could be burned or banned again – now we can. The world where they are little regarded outside academia is already here. Joseph Brodsky, as always, put it well: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Truffaut’s ending for Farenheit 451 puzzled many people when it came out in 1966. It doesn’t for many people who remember the Cold War world, when Anna Akhmatova had her friends memorize her poems, and then burn them. Memorizing allows you to become what is memorized; it becomes so internalized that it is forever a part of you.

Adam as always…

What is the answer? Adam Zagajewski told me years ago, when I asked him about a world that now longer turns to great literature, and specifically poetry, as it attempts to come to grips with the world and the self. What future for literature? “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

In his introduction to Edward Snow’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. he elaborated:

“We have a new sorrow today: after the terrible catastrophes of the twentieth century, after the disasters that entered both our memory and imagination, we tread gingerly at the point where poetry meets society; “Don’t walk beyond this line,” as the sign on every jetliner’s wing warns us. And yet the central issue for us is probably the question of whether the mystery at the heart of poetry (and of art in general) can be kept safe against the assaults of an omnipresent talkative and soulless journalism and an equally omnipresent popular science—or pseudo-science. It also has a lot to do with the weighing of the advantages and vices of mass culture, with the influence of mass media, and with a difficult search for genuine expression inside the commercial framework that has replaced older, less vulgar traditions and institutions in our societies. In this respect, it’s true, poets have less to fear than their friends the painters, especially the successful ones, who, because of the absurd prices their works can now command, will never see their canvases in the houses of their fellow artists, in the apartments of people like themselves, only in vaults belonging to oil or television moguls who don’t even have time to look at them. Still, the stakes of the debate and its seriousness are not very different and not less important than a hundred years ago.”

There will be a future, for books and for reading them. See Ray Bradbury’s notion of it in his 1953 novel, Farenheit 451. Or watch Truffaut’s ending in the video clip below. (And let me know which book you would become… I’m curious…)

 

Dostoevsky’s dream of a worldwide plague

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020
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The great poet Anna Akhmatova wrote of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The prisoner of Omsk understood everything and gave up on everything.” But did he see our future, too? In Crime and Punishment, René Girard notes: “Raskolnikov has a dream during a grave illness that occurs just before his final change of heart, at the end of the novel. He dreams of a worldwide plague that affects people’s relationship with each other. No specifically medical symptoms are mentioned. It is human interaction that breaks down, and the entire society gradually collapses.” 

From Crime and Punishment (trans. Constance Garnett):

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.

Does good literature inoculate us against lies? Poet Tomas Venclova thinks so.

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
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“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I was one of the few people to review Magnetic North, the great Baltic poet Tomas Venclova‘s book-length Q&A with poet and translator Ellen Hinsey certainly in the West, when I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year. The book was never going to get a huge commercial audience, certainly, but seeing the long excerpt in the current Music & Literature makes me wonder if the book will have a second (and maybe third and fourth) life in excerpts.

I’m willing to help the process along, so here is an excerpt of the excerpt in the tony online journal (and if you don’t know Music & Literatureyou should): 

Before we go on to speak about other poems, I’d like to ask about poetic inspiration. In her book Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that for poets “auditory hallucinations” are a reoccurring occupational hazard, and that Osip Mandelstam experienced poetic inspiration as a musical phrase insistently ringing in his ears. Early on, did you notice any particular sensations that heralded the onset of a poem?

I’m not a very musical person. My imagination is more visual than aural: I admire (and, I hope, understand) architecture and painting, and I love Bach, Handel, and Purcell primarily because they remind me of architecture. Thus, the phenomenon of auditory hallucination described by Nadezhda Mandelstam comes to me not so much as musical phrases sensu stricto, but rather as rhythmic units that can also be understood in spatial terms. But yes, I experience an insistent and intrusive, even irksome feeling of something constantly repeating itself and demanding a liberating effort. It is frequently preceded by a general feeling of unease and a bout of bad mood. In my youth, I learned to understand this as the signal: “A poem is coming.”

Interlocutor

The passage above was the first that caught my eye in the Music & Literature article, but then another further dow, picked up a theme I’d discussed only a few days ago in The Book Haven post, “’Bro – he lives!’ Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to ‘switch off’. The Lithuanian poet Venclova’s work, from the beginning “constituted his own specific universe,” as his interlocutor, said his translator, Ellen Hinsey. 

I think Brodsky had in mind not just Soviet reality, but reality as such. True, Soviet reality was grimmer than most. After the nightmare of the camps and executions, from which we were trying to awake (to quote Stephen Dedalus, whose experience was milder than ours), we were confronted by an ugly and monotonous present that promised no further change. We were surrounded by the absurd. And that was only a part—one of the worst parts, to tell the truth—of the chaos and nonsense of life. Poetry—and art in general—was a way of resisting that chaos, holding it at bay. This also had political consequences. Politics, seen from this perspective, was something transitory (even if one had to make decent choices in everyday life). On the other hand, it would be an overstatement or even a distortion to assert that we were totally apolitical in our work. The stifling Soviet atmosphere, aggravated by the smug audacity of the authorities, provoked not only disdain, but resentment and indignation that could not help but find its way into our verses. …

Everything possible

Akhmatova frequently speaks about how the Soviet period robbed individuals of the chance to live out their own destinies. In your “A Poem about Memory,” and elsewhere, you reflect on “such a shortage of authentic fate—”

In her magnificent poem, the fifth “Northern Elegy,” Akhmatova speaks about all the things she was denied due to the circumstances of her era. She nevertheless states that she perhaps did everything that was possible in the only life left to her. I was stunned by these proud words. Naturally, our situations were not comparable, but in “A Poem about Memory,” I attempted to understand the way to “do everything possible.” …

He loves architecture.

All literature of quality provides the reader with patterns and insights that enable him or her—perhaps not systematically, but frequently enough—to resist false doctrines. Poetry, in particular, is somewhat mysteriously linked to ethics; and poetic discipline to the fortitude of the spirit. Many poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Akhmatova—and her protégé, Joseph Brodsky—insisted that refusal to succumb to evil is primarily a matter of taste. I was of the same mind. …

Thus the human quality of tenacity also becomes an important component of personal and poetic ethics. Or as you described in “A Poem about Friends,” dedicated to Natasha Gorbanevskaya, and written after the 1968 demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square: “And those who live are chosen by the fog, / Deserted houses, journeys into the distance, / Their weapons are staunchness, abstinence from speech”—

During this period, it seemed as though the course of events were governed by laws of raw power, that is, by statistics. The force of words and human solidarity were our means to counter this, even if this meant prison or exile, as was the case for many of my friends. Speech—or, at least, a silent refusal to lie—was the axis of their existence. I tried to convey this in the very title of my book.

And the title of the book is Magnetic NorthRead the Music & Literature piece here

Joseph Brodsky on Anna Akhmatova: “Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards.”

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018
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“You do not know what you were forgiven.”

A link for a radio discussion of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – the interview is with the Irish journalist Mary Russell, one of her many fans, and it aired on RTE Europe here.

Akhmatova’s protégé was Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was drawn to her circle in 1961, a few years before she died. He speaks for a few moments at the beginning of the clip, but to my ear the timber isn’t quite right, a bit tinny (and Russell calls him “Joe Brodsky,” which jars, because no one ever did).

He speaks about Akhmatova this way:

“She’s the kind of poet whose lines you unwittingly mumble to yourself, especially when you’re in trouble. I remember several times, when I would be sick in hospital, surgery, this and that, et cetera et cetera. I would find myself mumbling, completely unrelated to the situation, a few of her lines. Well, they are very memorable.”

Then Akhmatova’s own voice breaks in, reading a few lines in Russian, before he continues: “She was simply, physically, visibly, beautiful. Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards – you know those eyes, ya? Tremendous nose. She was one of the most beautiful women of the century, I think. Tremendous head. Just … absolutely majestic.”

Russell describes her hours of on the train from Leningrad to Komarova, where Akhmatova is buried. Deep snow in countryside. Accompanying her, a woman who had attended the funeral in 1966. They walked through the darkening, forest to the cemetery. She brought flowers, and found the grave already covered with bunch of fresh, red carnations. (It reminds me of my own trek to Pasternak‘s austere, snow-swept dacha outside Moscow – I mentioned it here.)

But which lines did he mumble to himself? I wondered. Perhaps he gives a hint when he reads this 1919 poem, in Russian (it’s better in Russian, trust me):

Has this century been worse than those that went before?
Surely so, that in a fog of fear and grief
It has probed the blackest sore,
And yet has failed to bring relief.

In the west the setting sun still blazes,
And city roofs are gleaming in its light,
But here Death scrawls crosses on the houses,
And calls the ravens, and the ravens fly.

I’m not fond of this online translation, but too many of my books are still in boxes to hunt for something better. Perhaps Solomon Volkov cuts to the heart of the matter when in Conversations with Joseph Brodsky:

“We did not go to her for praise, or literary recognition, or any kind of approval for our work. […] We went to see her because she set our souls in motion, because in her presence you seem to move on from the emotional and spiritual – oh, I don’t know what you call it – level you were on. You rejected the language you spoke every day for the language she used. Of course, we discussed literature, and we gossiped, and we ran out for vodka, listened to Mozart, and mocked the government. Looking back, though, what I hear and see is not this; in my consciousness surfaces one line from the same ‘Sweetbriar in Blossom’: “You do not know what you were forgiven.” This line tears itself away rather than bursting out of the context because it is uttered by the voice of the soul, for the forgiver is always greater than the offense and whoever inflicts it. This line, seemingly addressed to one person, is in fact addressed to the whole world. It is the soul’s response to existence. It is this, and not the ways of verse-making, that we learned from her.”

Joseph Brodsky the Artist – now at Hoover Archives

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017
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Brodsky’s sketch of his parents in Leningrad. (Hoover Institution Library & Archives)

 

Last fall, Lora Soroka, archivist extraordinaire at the Hoover Institution’s Library & Archives, told me to come quick, quick, quick to the Hoover Pavilion. She had a surprise for me. Hoover had just acquired an important collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky papers, which had been gathered by his close friend, Diana Myers, the wife of one of the poet’s translators, Alan Myers. It was not only a surprise, it was a wonder – letters, notes, photos, manuscripts, but perhaps most surprising of all, five self-portraits, a landscape, a still life, drawings in ink and chalk, and inevitably doodles.

Brodsky illustrated almost everything he wrote, often with self-portraits in the margin, or cats, which Yuri Leving of Dalhousie University, in an unpublished manuscript, Joseph Brodsky the Artist, called “acts as a metonymic self-representation of the exiled writer, easing the pathos of the message and translating it into a comic register.”  When I spoke to John Wronoski of Lame Duck Books about the collection, the man who is an expert on modern European literature and who has appraised many Brodsky archives said it was “totally exciting”— the letters alone, he said, would be “jewels in any collection.”

I wrote about the Brodsky papers at Hoover here, but I have a longer article up at the current Hoover Digest, “Brodsky and His Muses.” An excerpt:
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In 1962, the high-voltage poet met a dark-haired artist, a woman of silences. He was almost twenty-two, she was nearly two years older. The rest was destiny. Their love, suffering, and final separation forged a poetic identity for the young poet, who would go on to face trial, internal exile, forced labor, psychiatric prisons, and eventually exile.

For decades after the liaison ended, Brodsky immortalized Marina Basmanova in a series of poems eventually published as New Stanzas to Augusta. And what did she give him? A son. But surely a less-observed aspect of the liaison is this: she fostered the poet as artist.

Basmanova lit the fire, but the kindling had been prepared by others. His father was a photographer, and Brodsky learned early how to compose an image in a viewfinder, to develop a “camera eye.” His own photographs show the influence of the father on the son. Moreover, the classical architectural lines of his hometown, the former and future Petersburg, imprinted themselves on his aesthetics almost from birth and found expression in almost everything he wrote. Brodsky certainly would have known of Pushkin’s similar habit of illustrating what he wrote. His parents particularly prized the drawings of Pushkin, and pored over Pushkin albums—which also must have made an impression on the future poet who had been compared to Pushkin for his restless daemon and poetic equilibristics.

On his last day in Russia, June 1972. (Photo: Lev Poliakov)

The great poet Anna Akhmatova took note of her protégé’s drawings in a1965 letter: “When I see them, I always think of Picassos illustrations to the Metamorphoses,” she wrote, recalling the Spanish artist’s deft black lines and the classical motifs that intrigued both Brodsky and Picasso. Other Brodsky drawings have been compared with the work of the French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, another painter he admired. 

In America years later, in 1981, Brodsky acknowledged his debt of gratitude to the great love of his early years in “Seven Strophes”:

I was practically blind. 
You, appearing, then hiding,
gave me my sight and heightened it.
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 Read the whole Hoover Digest article here.
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