Tag Archives: Russian Literature

Pro Eto-That’s What by Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky had a long, tumultuous affair with Lilya Brik who was married to the poet’s publisher, Osip Brik.  The threesome spent a lot of time together, but in 1923, during a two month separation from Lilya, the poet wrote Pro Eto (About this) and dedicated it to her.   The poem is full of pain, anger, humor, lust, confusion and torment.  In addition to writing about his love affair, Mayakovsky also mixes in his harsh opinions about Lenin and his supposed attempt to implement socialist policies in the Soviet Union.  One of the most striking images that he uses in the first part of the poem is that of a telephone.  It’s an important symbol for both the separation and connection with his lover.  He begins the poem with:

She lies in bed.

While he…

On the table

is the telephone.

“He” and “she are my ballad.

Not terribly original you say.

And he continues his dramatic metaphor by focusing on a description of the workings of the telephone as sounds squeeze through its wires:

Squeezing miraculously

through the thin wire,

stretching the rim

of the mouthpiece funnel,

a thunder of ringings

bangs through the silence,

then the telephone pours out its tinkling lava.

A screaming,

a ringing,

shots slammed into the wall

tried to blow it up.

The juxtaposition of silence with the noise of the phone reminded me of a passage in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which he describes talking on the telephone for the first time and the person to whom he speaks is his beloved grandmother. The shock of hearing her voice without seeing her elicits an unexpected emotional response:

And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all, on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost—more than any but a few human voices can ever have been—of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

After this phone conversation the narrator immediately packs his things and runs how to his grandmother. When she is sick, he understands the severity of her illness when her voice changes and he can no longer understand her.  This tension that exists between hearing the loved one’s voice yet being separated is present in Mayakovsky’s poem as well.  As I watch the grim news with people dying alone from this horrible,  invasive virus, it’s become evident that the only way to say goodbye to sick loved ones is through a phone call.  Once again, the phone becomes a symbol for a state of limbo— somewhere between closeness and separation. 

Finally, both Proust and Mayakovsky both suffer from heart sickness, but only Mayakovsky succumbs to it by committing suicide.  There are haunting passages in Pro Eto that foreshadow his tragic end:

If I sacrificed a day

I sacrificed a year

To this dreary nonsense.

I too almost succumbed 

to this delirium.

It ate up my life

with its domestic murk

and the said:

“Go on, jump

from the first floor,

the pavement’s waiting.”

 

In 1923, after its original publication in the journal LEF, Pro Eto was presented as a separate edition with photomontages done by Aleksandr Rodchenko.  Mayakovsky, Lilya and telephones prominently appear in many of the photos.  

 

 

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Filed under Poetry, Russian Literature

Women in Translation and Women Translators

I offer here some of my favorite women authors in translation from a variety of languages and periods of time. They are in no particular order:

Teffi, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea translated by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson

Karoline von Gunderrode, Poetic Fragments translated by Anna C. Ezekiel

Christa Wolf, Medea translated by John Cullen (I also highly recommend Cassandra and The Quest for Christa T. but her Medea is my favorite.)

Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart translated by Alison Entrekin (I have enjoyed all of the Lispector I’ve read but this one is my favorite)

Bae Suah, Recitation translated by Deborah Smith

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter translated by James Kirkup

Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jundl translated by Roslyn Theobald

Sappho. I like Ann Carson’s stark translations in If Not, Winter. But here are some links to my own translations that I’ve worked on this year: Fragment 16 and The Tithonus Poem

Sulpicia. Unfortunately she is an obscure Roman poet who is overlooked. The only translations of her that I have encountered are those included in the Catullus and Tibullus Loeb edition. For a previous WIT month I did a translation of her Carmen XIII.

For this year I offer my own translation of Sulpicia’s Carmen XIV “Before her Birthday.” She wants to stay in Rome where her lover, Cerinthus, dwells and celebrate her birthday with him, but her uncle has other plans for her:

My dreaded birthday has arrived, which sad event
must be spent in the tiresome country without my
Cerinthus. What is more pleasant than the city? Do I
look like a girl who is only fit to hang around some
country house, or the cold river in the Arrentium fields?
Quit thinking about me so much, Uncle Messala. Travel
is so often badly timed. You can take me away from
the city, but since your force does not allow me
to make my own decisions, I can at least choose to
leave behind my soul and my feelings.

I know August is dedicated to female authors who are translated into English, but what about female translators themselves? Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Enard’s Compass, Shelley Frisch’s translation of Stach’s three volume Kafka biography, and Sophie Wilkins’s translation of Musil’s A Man without Qualities are two wonderful examples that come to mind…

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Poetry, Russian Literature

I Could Not Keep Your Hands in My Own: Two Poems from Osip Mandelstam’s Tristia

The Building of the Trojan Horse. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. 1760. National Gallery, London

What do Ovid, Dante and Mandelstam all have in common? All three men were exiled from their homes for political reasons and infuse their poetry with the sadness, pain and loneliness of that separation. I was reading Mandelstam’s essay on Dante in the NYRB edition of his Selected Poems when I decided to linger on his Tristia verses which are included in the collection. Tristia is the name that Ovid gives to his collection of writings that are composed Ex Ponto, in the Black Sea region to which place the Emperor Augustus condemned him to live out his remaining years. I have always found it extremely difficult to translate Ovid’s Tristia; gone is the vigorous, lively poet we know of from the Amores and the Metamorphoses and in his place we encounter a melancholy man desperately longing to see his home, his family and his friends once again.

Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is a fitting title for Mandelstam’s collection which he wrote in self-imposed exile while in the Crimea in the early 1920’s. The dire and desperate personal consequences of war and revolution drove him to this region of Russia which was more isolated from civil war. His time away from the north inspired him to produce these poems that are filled with images of separation, loss, darkness and exile. It is chilling that the poems also serve as a glimpse into the poet’s future which will include arrest, torture, and forced exiles to the Urals and Voronezh. He must have known, deep down in his soul, that his first, temporary, voluntary exile was a harbinger of tribulations to come in later years.

The first poem I share is numbered 116, and is filled with images of bees and honey. I see allusions to both Vergil and Tolstoy for whom the workings of a beehive are metaphors for the life and activity of humans working as a group. (I’ve written about this in more detail here.) Aeneas (an exile) encounters Dido (also an exile) and her fellow citizens building Carthage—they are as busy and industrious as an active beehive. Lucretius metaphorically uses honey to sweeten the rim of a cup of medicine from which his readers drink in his didactic poetry. And Tolstoy inverts Vergil’s beehive metaphor to describe the dying and deserted Moscow as Napoleon’s troops are marching on the city and destroying it. Mandelstam’s poem, I think, incorporates aspects of both Vergil, Tolstoy and even Lucretius—he reminds us of the energy of a beehive and the sweetness of its honey, but laments the death of such an active, supportive community:

Take from my palms, to sooth your heart,
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
that die when they leave the hive.

Deep in the transparent night they’re still humming,
at home in the dark wood on the mountain,
in the mint and lungwort and the past.

But lay to your heart my rough gift,
this lovely dry necklace of dead bees
that once made a sun out of honey.

The line that keeps haunting me is “You can’t untie a boat that was never moored.”

The second poem I wish to share is numbered 119, also from the Tristia selections. I was naturally drawn to it because of the classical references and, in particular, I see allusions to Vergil Aeneid 2 in this poem:

I could not keep your hands in my own,
I failed the salt tender lips
so I must wait now for dawn in the timbered Acropolis.
How I loathe the ageing stockades and their tears.

The Achaeans are constructing the horse in the dark,
hacking out the sides with their dented saws,
Nothing quiets the blood’s dry fever, and for you
there is no designation, no sound , no modelled likeness.

How did I dare to think you might come back?
Why did I tear myself from you before it was time?
The dark has not faded yet, nor the cock crowed,
nor the hot axe bitten wood.

Resin has seeped from the stockade like transparent tears
and the town is conscious of its own wooden ribs,
but blood has rushed to the stairs and started climbing
and in dreams three times men have seen the seductive image.

Where is Troy, the beloved? The royal, the queenly roof.
Priam’s high bird house will be hurled down
while arrows rattle like dry rain
and grow from the ground like shoots of a hazel.

The pin-prick of the last star vanishes without pain,
morning will tap at the shutter, a gray swallow,
and the slow day, like an ox that wakes on straw,
will lumber out from its long sleep to cross the rough haycocks.

The penultimate stanza brings to mind the scenes in Aeneid 2 where Aeneas is making his way through the ruined city of Troy and witnesses the destruction of the palace and the death of King Priam. All this will result in the long exile of Aeneas—dawn and a new day will bring a completely different reality for the hero and his lost city.

This poem is especially reminiscent of Ovid’s first book of his Tristia which touches on his very personal losses suffered because of exile. He grieves over the distances that now separate himself and his friends, family and his wife. In Mandelstam’s poem the personal becomes that hand which he is not able to hold on to, and that haunting question, “How did I dare to think that you might come back?” The poem describes not just exile, but any personal loss—death, separation, estrangement—that results in grief.

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Filed under Classics, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry

Zosima’s Rotting Corpse: More Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

I keep thinking about Alyosha’s test of faith in The Brothers Karamazov when his mentor, Father Zosima dies.  This monk is considered an elder in his monastery—the word staret is used for him in the Avsey translation—with special powers of healing, prophesy and spiritual guidance.  People flock from all around for the privilege of approaching this monk, similar in my mind to worshippers visiting the god Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi; they seek healing—-one woman brings her crippled daughter, they ask advice—-another woman questions whether or not she should hope that her son, a soldier, is still alive, and they look for spiritual guidance—a mother worries about the soul of her deceased child.  All of these people, some of the other monks included, who so highly praised Father Zosima during his life of service, are bitterly disappointed when, only a few hours after his death, his body begins to rot and putrefy in his coffin.  This entire episode displays Dostoevsky’s brilliance in creating a religious dilemma that shines a light on those who are truly spiritual versus those who are merely superstitious.

Those who believed in Father Zosima’s powers as a staret gather around the monastery expecting miracles to happen after his death but instead that get a rotting corpse.  They become angry and question his entire religious life as that of a highly respected elder.  Some of the other monks who were jealous of Zosima’s elevated status among them are secretly happy that the dead monk’s body is starting to stink.  Alyosha, too, was hoping for miracles and awe inspiring events to occur when his mentor died because this holy man truly deserved to recognized as a great religious leader.  But Alyosha’s anger is different than the other onlookers because his is one of indignation at the insults being thrown around about his dead mentor.  The decaying and fetid corpse is the perfect metaphor for Dostoevsky to deal with the darker sides of the human soul; in this central piece of the story, after lingering for many chapters on the extraordinary religious journey of this holy man, he uses the end of his physical life to expose the rot in the spirits of these so-called believers.  The very minute these worshippers are disappointed and don’t get what they want, their opinion of someone they revered turns bitter and ugly.

One of my favorite narrative techniques is when Dostoevsky uses the first person to address his audience and this is employed at great length to describe Alyosha’s spiritual turning point in the novel.  Dostoevsky feels a great need to explain that his hero’s crisis of faith and reaction to Zosima’s rotting body is very different from everyone else’s  This is Dostoevsky, I think, at the pinnacle of his writing:

You see, even though I stated earlier (all too hastily, perhaps) that I would not offer any explanations, excuses or justifications on behalf of my hero, nevertheless I realize that some clarification is called for in order to understand properly the story that is to follow.  Let me put it this way: it was not just a question of miracles.  It was by no means a case of frivolous expectation of the miraculous.  Alyosha needed miracles neither to confirm any particular convictions of his (that least of all) nor to bolster the triumph of any deep-seated, preconceived theory over other theories—not that either; in his case I was first and foremost a question of love and veneration of one individual person, that and nothing else—the person of his beloved starets, his mentor.  The point to bear in mind is that at that particular time and throughout the whole of the preceding year, all the love that he had borne in his pure young heart towards ‘all and sundry’ had appeared on occasion and particularly at times of spiritual crisis to be concentrated, however mistakenly, on one single individual, that is on his beloved starets, who was now dead.  In fact, this being had been an unquestionable paragon for him for so long that all his youthful energy and all his aspirations were channeled perforce towards that same paragon, on occasion even to the exclusion of ‘all and sundry.’

And Dostoevsky continues:

But again it was not miracles he needed; rather, some ‘supreme justice’ that he believed had been violated, and as a consequence of which violation his heart had been so cruelly and unexpectedly wounded.  Is it any wonder, therefore, that by the very nature of things Alyosha should expect this ‘justice’ to take the form of the instant miracle expected from the bodily remains of his beloved erstwhile teacher?  After all, this was just what everyone at the monastery thought and expected, even those whose intellect Ayosha venerated—Father Paisy, for instance—and hence Alyosha, untroubled by the least doubt, had begun to nurture the same dreams.  He had long since accepted in his heart, a year’s life at the monastery had accustomed him to such expectations.  But it was justice he yearned for, justice, and not just miracles!

What will Alyosha learn from this wounded heart and will he lower his expectations?  How will Alyosha apply all of these lessons outside of the monastery when his faith and his morals are truly tested?  Dostoevsky seems to be hinting that, unlike others, his hero will come out stronger and perhaps even get the justice he is seeking.

 

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A Colossal Drama: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

Set design for The Brothers Karamazov for Jacques Copeau’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier by Louis Jouvet.

I found it a bit baffling at first that my reading experiences with  The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace have been equally sublime and edifying even though they are written in such different styles.  I couldn’t quite grasp the difference between these novelists until I read George Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in which he compares the narrative of Tolstoy’s novels to epic and Homer and Dostoevsky’s to tragedy and drama.  For my mind these are the perfect analogies to describe the uniqueness of these Russian greats:

…More, perhaps, than those of any novelist of comparable dimension, Dostoevsky’s sensibility, his modes of imagination, and his linguistic strategies were saturated by drama.  Dostoevsky’s relationship to the drama is analogous, in centrality and ramification, to Tolstoy’s relationship to the epic.  It characterized his particular genius as strongly as it contrasted it with Tolstoy’s.  Dostoevsky’s habit of miming his characters as he wrote—like Dickens’s—was the outward gesture of a dramatist’s temper.  His mastery of the tragic mood, his “tragic philosophy,” were the specific expressions of a sensibility which experience and transmuted its material dramatically.  This was true of Dostoevsky’s whole life, from adolescence and the theatrical performance recount in The House of the Dead to his deliberate and detailed use of Hamlet and Schiller’s Räuber to control the dynamics of The Brothers Karamazov.  Thomas Mann said of Dostoevsky’s novels that they are “colossal dramas, scenic in nearly their whole structure; in them an action which dislocates the depth of the human soul and which is often packed into a few days, is represented in surrealistic and feverish dialogue…” It was recognized early that these “colossal dramas” could be adapted to actual performance; the first dramatization of Crime and Punishment was produced in London in 1910.  And referring to the Karamazovs, Gide remarked that “of all imaginative creations and of all protagonists in history none had been claims to being presented on a stage.”

When we read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, we are not just experiencing the events of a day in the life of this father, son, husband and king; but we are witnessing all of the character traits of the House of Atreus, good and bad, that have seeped into his blood and his soul.  We are also given a hint as to the nature of his son’s soul which has equally been affected by these familial ties.  Similarly, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky immediately launches us into a detailed account of the father, Fyodor, and his history of drunken and sexual debauchery.  And anytime one of his sons drinks excessively, seduces a woman, or is quick to anger Dostoevsky reminds us that this is a characteristic of a Karamazov.  I am not quite half way through the book yet, but I suspect that the inability of one or more of his sons to break from the father’s soul-destroying patterns will result in tragedy.

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Filed under Classics, Essay, Russian Literature