Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Pilot in the Hive: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Moscow Visit

Another Antoine de Saint-Exupéry post today, for fans of the flying comte. Recently, I've been reading Katerina Clark's excellent Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture 1931-1941 (Harvard UP, 2011), which explores the intersection of cultural expansionism and cultural receptivity in Stalinist Russia via the personal lives and global adventures of certain Russian and European intellectuals, principally Sergei Eisenstein,  Sergei Tretiakov, Mikhail Koltsov, and Ilya Ehrenberg. The walk-on cast is full of international luminaries, including Walter Benjamin, who made an 'unheroic, private trip' to Moscow in the winter of 1926-7; Le Corbusier (late 1920s); Paul Robeson (1935); Edmund Wilson (1935); and Bertolt Brecht (in 1932, 1935, and 1941). Clark's central premise - if such a richly complex book can be confined to one argument - is that Stalin's government, aware of its technical and civic disadvantages, emphasised and proselytised its cultural superiority. This involved not just the export of Soviet culture abroad but the promotion of foreign culture at home (via state-subsidized literary translation, screenings of Walt Disney films, King Lear in Moscow's Jewish theatre) and invitations to left-leaning intellectuals and foreign journalists. Saint-Exupéry belonged to the latter category, as a correspondent for Paris-Soir (he was also a commercial pilot and a publicity attaché for Air France). Arriving (by train) in Moscow on 29 April 1935, he remained there for almost a month, during which he published six impressionistic articles in Paris-Soir.

Clark calls 1935 the 'high point of Soviet internationalism'; that year, Saint-Exupéry was in Moscow at the same time as Brecht. Unlike the latter, however, he was not able to secure a coveted VIP ticket to the May Day parade; in fact, on the morning of May 1st he was officially confined to his hotel (the Savoy on Rozhdestvenka, near the Bolshoi Theatre and the modern-day Kuznetskii Most metro station). 'In an area within a kilometre of Stalin, no-one was allowed to slip through unless their civil status and their ancestors had been checked, re-checked and, for greater security, checked a third time'. Eventually escaping from the Savoy (apparently by a timely bribe), Saint-Exupéry wandered the strangely empty streets near central Moscow, repeatedly encountering a security cordon when he tried to approach the parade. The aerial display - which he described as a thousand planes flying low in formation like a single metal tool - he found unexpectedly oppressive, likening it to a machine press placing its stamp on the surface of the city. When he finally glimpsed the parade, he found the spectacle equally sinister:

The parade of an entire people, like that of the thousand planes, has the same pitiless quality that one finds in the unanimity of a jury. And this flow of black and sombre outfits, in spite of the brightness of red pennants, this march that was slow and almost blind in its strength, was perhaps still more impressive than a parade by soldiers, for soldiers do a job and, when the job is over, they become again different types of men. These people had been seized by their very roots, by their work uniforms, by their flesh, by their thoughts. And as I watched them advance the march suddenly stopped (from 'Sous le grondement de mille avions, Moscou tout entière a célébré la fête de la révolution'.)

Still of a May Day parade in Moscow from Grigorii Aleksandrov's 1936 Tsirk

For a few moments, musicians struck up a tune; couples and families began to dance; the terrifying uniformity was shattered, and the May Day marchers acquired an everyday conviviality that reminded Saint-Exupéry of Parisians celebrating the 14th of July. Someone even offered him a cigarette, someone else offered him a light; but once the pause was over, the marchers resumed their unflinching path towards Stalin.

Paris-Soir cover from 1934
Saint-Exupéry's view of Moscow was not particularly sympathetic (like Brecht's, at the time). In a previous post I discussed his relatively clear-eyed, if still over-idealistic, view of Soviet justice, and his insightful reporting of the Maxim Gorky disaster. His negative reaction to the May Day flyover was all the more surprising given that, according to his biographer Stacy Schiff, the editors of Paris-Soir had probably picked him for his competence in reporting on this very event. He did not have cultural luminaries to shepherd him around, unlike Brecht, who was ciceroned by Tretiakov and Eisenstein as well as his German theatrical friends Erwin Piskator and Bernhard Reich; even the lethargic Benjamin (who worried about slipping on ice and misreading signs in Cyrillic) was shown around Moscow by his on-again off-again lover, the Latvian director Asja Lacis. Instead Saint-Exupéry was met in Moscow by Georges Kessel, brother of a fellow literary pilot, Joseph Kessel; the family originally hailed from Orenburg. Nor did he pay for hospitality with hagiography; he wrote freely about Stalin as an 'invisible man', controlling the destinies of his people from a 'zone of desert and silence'. There, 'at the heart of the Kremlin, between the black and gilt buildings and the ramparts enclosing them, stretch lawns set like traps' (from 'Sous le grondement...').

Saint-Exupéry was well aware that foreigners in Moscow were tailed by 'guardians' who supervised their explorations ('Une étrange soirée avec Mlle Xavier at dix petites vieilles un peu ivres qui pleuraient leurs vingt ans...'). This did not discourage him from a foray into a decaying pre-revolutionary apartment block to meet an elderly French lady, one of approximately three hundred Frenchwoman formerly serving as governesses in wealthy Russian families, forgotten survivors of the Revolution, 'grey mice' who live insignificant, invisible lives off informal French lessons and small-scale black marketeering, bartering their neighbours' useless luxuries (make-up, gloves, monocles). After comical interludes with neighbours in the building and in the entrance of the collective apartment, where Saint-Exupéry, who speaks only French, endures successive interrogation in Russian, English, and Danish, he is finally claimed by Mlle Xavier, a frail septuagenarian, delighted with this visit from a glamorous compatriot. She assures him that 'Une révolution, c'est bien ennuyeux', before confiding her anecdotal experience of the Bolshevik regime:

And she described to me the darkest day of the civil war. That very morning she had been given neck-ties. Neck-ties, on a day like that! But Mlle Xavier saw neither soldiers nor women machine-gunners, nor dead bodies. She was much too busy turning a profit on the neck-ties which, she told me, were all the rage.

Or the time a little later, when Mlle Xavier was rounded up with hundreds of others and held overnight for interrogation, sleeping on a quilt she happened to have purchased just before she was arrested. Finally she was brought before the the operatives who reviewed arrestees' papers before either freeing them or sending them to the cellars to be shot; Saint-Exupéry notes that their chairman was bleary-eyed from working through the night.

And this man from whom only two paths inexorably led, towards life or towards death, this man asked her nervously, scratching his ear: "I have a twenty-year-old daughter, mademoiselle; would you like to give her lessons?"
And Mlle Xavier, pressing the quilt against her heart, answered him with crushing dignity: "You have arrested me. Judge me. We will speak tomorrow, if I am still alive, about your daughter."
And that evening she added, with a sparkle in her eyes: 
"They didn't dare look at me; they were so very ashamed of themselves."
And I respect these adorable illusions.

Saint-Exupéry compares her wilful self-deception with the admirable delusions of Cossacks at a Crimean port, who had arrived too late to catch the last boat out, which was already overloaded with refugees and wallowing dangerously in the water. Any man swimming for the boat was shot, to prevent a capsize that would drown everyone. Yet the Cossacks, indefatigably, magnificently and misguidedly, kept dismounting on the quay, killing their animals (to leave nothing behind for the Reds) and plunging into the water to be shot in their turn. (Saint-Exupéry credits this anecdote to a female acquaintance).

Clark and others remind us that a fixture of the hagiographic literature expected from foreign visitors was the arrival epiphany: the train journey (as it usually was) into the Soviet paradise. Saint-Exupéry would have disappointed Soviet audiences. He documented a sleepless night in Eastern Europe; finding the luxury compartments almost empty, he roamed into the cheap carriages and viewed the sleeping Polish seasonal workers, leading to a tragic meditation on the ugliness of ageing humans, and our wasted potential as a species. One little boy's beauty arrested him: 'He was born to this couple like a kind of golden fruit. This triumph of charm and grace was born from the heavy-limbed herd! I bowed over that smooth brow, that sweet pucker of the lips, and I told myself: "Here is the face of a musician, here is an infant Mozart, here is a fine promise for life!" The little princes of legend were not a jot better than him. Protected, surrounded, tended, what might he not become?'  (from 'Vers l'U.R.S.S.: La nuit, dans un train ou, au milieu de mineur polonais rapatriés, Mozart enfant dormait... Les petits princes de légende n'étaient point différents de lui'). But, Saint-Exupéry concludes, 'Mozart is doomed' to the life of the herd. The lonely pilot met the little prince for the first time, perhaps, on the Moscow train in April 1935.

Any hopeful Soviet readers would have had to be satisfied with Saint-Exupéry's declaration that he had been naive to expect to appreciate Moscow all at once, to understand it as soon as he stepped on the station platform; and throughout his month there he never posted a definitive account of Stalin's city. In fact, he posted copy belatedly and reluctantly (Schiff suggests he kept running out of cigarettes, which he relied on when writing). His next excursion was to the Mediterranean for a series of aviation conferences; presumably more congenial work. Saint-Exupéry's best impression of Moscow, for better or worse, was also his first (from 'Moscou! Mais où est la Révolution?'):

The train changes course and the city appears all at once, all of a piece, like a single unit. And I count above Moscow seventy-one planes taking to the air.
And in this way the first picture I have is that of an enormous hive, fully alive, beneath a swarm of bees.

Disclaimers: all translations (and therefore errors) are my own, from Un sens à la vie, the 1956 reprint of Saint-Exupéry's early journalism. I have also used Stacy Schiff's Saint-Exupéry: A Biography (Random House, 2011), Katerina Clark's Moscow: The Fourth Rome, and Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary, which can be downloaded here with a Jstor subscription.

Friday, 14 July 2017


A riddle - the solution is the picture - sent by A.F. Vangengeim to his daughter

There seems to be a special link - a kind of reverse polarity of the imagination - between convicts and pilots. Take Oscar Wilde's famous sky envy:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky...  (The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

Or consider this paean to aviation, by a 26-year-old airman for whom time spent earthbound was already a kind of incarceration:

The earth is reassuring with her clearly divided fields, her geometric forests, her villages. The pilot dives to enjoy her all the more. From up high, the earth seems nude, dead; as the plane descends, the earth clothes herself. The woods once again cushion her; the valleys and hills undulate over her; she breathes. [...] And the noises he heard? He no longer thinks of them. This is real life, here, so close to the sun. [...] The torrential sun sweeps away under him the roofs, the walls, the trees emerging from the inexhaustible horizon. Landing is a disappointment. You exchange the flooding wind, the growling of your engine and the annihilation of the latest turn for a silent province where you suffocate, a landscape of advertisements with very white hangars, for very green carpets, for neatly cropped poplars beside which young English girls disembark, rackets under their arms, from the blue planes of the Paris-London route.

The passage above is an extract from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's short story L'Aviateur (The Aviator), first published in 1926 and posthumously reprinted by Gallimard in 1956. In the twentieth century, perhaps no-one else has written more evocatively about the air, or about air crashes. Saint-Exupéry visited Moscow briefly, in his dual capacity as a journalist and celebrity pilot, in the late spring of 1935; he wrote copy for Paris-Soir about his experience of flying on the eight-engine propaganda craft Maxim Gorky on the very day before it crashed near Moscow on May 18th. He admired the plane (at the time the largest of its kind in the world) as a triumph of skilled engineering, and also as a unique airborne community, with its own telephone lines and even a typist's office. He understood very well the moral impact of the disaster: 'Its loss is considered here as grounds for national mourning. [Besides the loss of the crew and the thirty-five factory worker passengers for whom this flight had been a reward]... the USSR loses the best evidence it had of the vitality of its youthful industry.'  What Saint-Exupéry ultimately distilled from the tragedy was its stark, Hellenistic absence of meaning: the Maxim Gorky crashed not because of equipment failure, or internal enemies, or Jewish doctors. It crashed because one of a trio of accompanying Soviet fighter planes miscalculated during an aerial manoeuvre, impacting on and shearing through the monster craft's massive flanks. '...The wings, the motors, and the fuselage separated, slowly unfurling like a black flower. Even the speed of the fall seemed controlled. The observers felt they were watching a dizzying glissade or the almost ceremonial shipwreck of a torpedoed vessel. [...] At the bloody crossroads of its peaceful path, the Maxim Gorky was struck down for entering the flight path, rigid as a bullet's trajectory, of a blind fighter plane'. 

The Maxim Gorky, painted by the artist Vasily Kuptsov in 1934
A year or two earlier, another heroic episode in Soviet flight technology had been followed by tragedy: the world's first successful balloon flight into the Earth's high atmosphere (to a height of 19,500 metres) was performed by three Soviet pilots on September 30, 1933. But the next January a follow-up flight reached 22,000 metres but crashed on descent, killing all three 'proletarian Prometheuses' (as Olivier Rolin calls them) aboard. Their State funerals were no doubt sufficient compensation for lives cut short. On January 8, 1934, three weeks before the doomed flight of the Osoaviakhim-1, one of the senior meteorologists involved in preparing the first balloon ascent had his life cut short in a rather different way. This was Aleksei Feodos'evich Vangengeim (1881-1937), a founding member of the Soviet Union's first Hydrometeorological Service, and its president between 1929 and 1934. Despite his Germanic name, his family's (possibly Dutch) origins were remote; he was born in a Ukrainian village, studied mathematics and physics at Moscow University, and worked at weather stations all over continental Russia. His French biographer Olivier Rolin writes lyrically that 'His kingdom was the clouds. [...] He represented the Soviet Union at the International Commission on clouds, he took part in All-Soviet congresses on the formation of fog, he created the Bureau of Weather in 1930 [...]'. But Rolin stresses that Vangengeim would have disowned any such lyricism; he was a pragmatist, a dedicated worker and researcher, and a Soviet patriot. Within his field, he was also a visionary: Rolin describes his subject's ambitions for a wind-chart that would unite weather reports across Russia and the whole world to create a coherent atmospheric map. If we learned to direct the renewable (and inexhaustible) energy of the wind, Vangengeim wrote in 1935, it could be used as an alternative source of heat and light energy; even for powering turbines that would distribute water to arid central Russian regions. 

Sadly, Vangengeim was one of many brilliant, avant-garde minds sacrificed to the paranoid politics of High Stalinism. Despite his influential connections (he knew, personally, Lenin's wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, the much-lionized Arctic explorer Otto Schmidt, even Maxim Gorky himself), once he was denounced as the secret ringleader of a counter-revolutionary, Menshevik clique within the Hydrometeorological Service (an imaginary terrorist ring of actual weathermen: the later American version involved real terrorists and imaginary meteorologists), his days were numbered. He was picked up by the Soviet secret police just before meeting his wife to watch a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. He would next see his wife, for the final time, four months later just before being exiled. After a relatively brief detention in the Lubyanka Prison, Vangengeim was sentenced to ten year's "re-education" in the notorious SLON prison camp on the Solovetski Islands, in the White Sea. (The camp's full name was 'Solovki Special Purposes Camp'; in Russian, its acronym is the same as the Russian word for 'elephant'). Courageously, indefatigably, perhaps even, as Rolin suggests, pathetically, Vangengeim continued to regard his accusation and sentencing as a bitter mistake. Not until the very end of his imprisonment, in 1937, did he allow himself to doubt the probity of Soviet justice or of the powerful individuals who controlled the state. From Solovki, he wrote repeatedly to friends - like Schmidt - and to politicians - including Stalin, enclosing messages for acquaintances in letters to his wife, deliberately blinkering himself with the hope that once the right person read his case notes, he would be instantly extracted and reinstated and allowed to go back to doing his bit for a glorious Soviet future. 

If Saint-Exupéry had been available at this point (his visit to Moscow was still a year in the future), he could have set Vangengeim straight about the meaning of his sentence. Saint-Exupéry had rather less time to become acquainted with the Soviet justice system, but he understood it better. In a smart article called 'Crimes and Punishments: Up Before Soviet Justice', he quoted an anonymous Soviet judge's statement that justice 'was not a matter of punishment, but of correction'. In France, long prison terms were routinely assigned for major crimes: 'the old lag of fifty is still paying for the youth of twenty who killed in a fit of anger'. In Russia, Saint-Exupéry noted, the death sentence was used freely but no term of imprisonment greater than ten years was ever allotted (it was not yet obvious to foreign observers that camp sentences were as renewable as wind energy). 'The dissident, if he is to reform, will reform within ten years. So why extend a punishment that would no longer be purposeful?' And punishment, Saint-Exupéry discovers, can be made doubly purposeful in Soviet Russia: the correction process can also be practically useful, as in the construction by convict labour of that great white elephant, the Belomor Canal (1930-2). 'Here is the miracle. These thieves, these pimps, these killers are drawn from jails as if from a reservoir and sent, at the point of several rifles, to dig out a canal which will join the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. There they will find adventure, and what an adventure! There they are ordered to plough, like worker giants, a deep ravine-like furrow between two seas, a furrow built for ships. To plant cathedral-sized scaffolding on collapsing ground and to throw up against their walls logs from the felling of entire forests, which part like straw as they dig underneath. At night, they join their comrades under the sights of rifles. [...] And little by little the game takes hold of them. They live in teams, directed by their own engineers, their own overseers, for in a prison every type can be found. They are governed by those amongst them who know best how to impose their natural dominance.'

Saint-Exupéry seems to have fallen, like Gorky before him, for the myth of the Belomor Canal as a triumph of rational, humane re-education, when in fact working conditions were inhumane to an extreme degree, and many of the prisoners were criminals only in the political sense. Nevertheless, he raises another thorny point with his anonymous (possibly composite) Soviet judge: How can Soviet people live with constant scrutiny, with subjection to the collective, with internal passports? But this too is explained to him. Soviet society expects that 'men not only respect its laws, but live them' [my italics]. Soviet justice must be internalized by individuals. Given that many Russians share what Saint-Exupéry calls a 'nomad spirit' that pushes them beyond the confines of social norms as well as geography, they must be taught by the benevolent state to re-orient their aspirations and affections to the local and the concrete. 'Thus they build houses to entice the caravan-dwellers. Apartments are not rented, but sold. The internal passport is introduced. And those who raise their eyes too much to the dangerous portents in the sky are sent to Siberia, where winters sixty degrees below zero will laminate them. And thus they may create a new man, who is dependable, who loves his factory and his social circle, as a French gardener loves his garden.'

One of those 'new men' who had been re-educated building the Belomor Canal was Dmitri Sergeevich Likhachev, the future academician and world authority on the origins of Russian culture. Although Likhachev was not among the Herculean diggers envisaged by Saint-Exupéry (he was employed as an administrator, supervising rail deliveries of construction cargo), he worked on the project for over a year and benefited from Stalin's general amnesty to all prisoners (criminal and political) who had contributed to the canal's early completion. In 1928, Likhachev had been sentenced to five years in Solovki for belonging to a supposedly monarchist and anti-semitic student association at Leningrad University known, jokingly, as the 'Space Academy of Sciences'. (His great crime had been to present and publish a paper which decried the Soviet administration's decision to reform old-style Russian orthography). A much younger man than Vangengeim (Likhachev was born in 1906), he had been and gone from Solovki by the time the latter arrived. They would have shared, however, many of the same camp experiences, from the disorienting end of their long train journey in the coastal town of Kem (briefly, during the Civil War, a bastion of British, Finnish and Serbian anti-Bolshevik troops), and the dangerous journey to the Solovetsky Islands themselves: 'A strange country. No earth - stone and scrub', as Likhachev recorded. Thence followed days, months and years of casual brutality, exposure to extreme cold, inadequate food, inadequate everything, and the terrifying random selections of inmates for execution. Likhachev's secret prison diary and later memoirs also preserve some of the more positive aspects of the camp experience: the survival of protective networks of intellectuals and Orthodox believers (who were sometimes the same people), the existence of limited medical care in the prison infirmary, and the educational opportunities furnished by the many scientists, teachers, and university professors who tasked themselves with organizing evening classes, running the camp library and even publishing a SLON journal. Besides those letters to former colleagues and politicians, which were never answered or even acknowledged, Alexei Vangengeim managed the library, gave lectures on meteorology and mentored younger inmates; and he wrote personal letters to his wife and his daughter, who was only three years old at the time of his imprisonment. His letters to little Elena include delightful pedagogic aids, the parts of a flower intricately coloured and labelled to help her learn numbers, pictures of leaves and deer and Arctic foxes to teach her about Siberian nature. While all prisoners numbered their letters and constantly checked with their loved ones ("Did my ninth arrive?"), Vangengeim asked his growing daughter additional, tender questions: "Have you had your second blue fox?" Meaning, has the chain of illustrations - all he could share with his lost daughter - held? It did, until his death.

Likhachev was unusually lucky at Solovki; firstly, because his parents were allowed to visit him (actually staying in a room they rented from a camp guard), and secondly because their visit saved his life, as he would much later tell a young novelist called Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then compiling a monumental exposé of the Soviet camps (The Gulag Archipelago). Likhachev spent an evening away from barracks with his parents; meanwhile, a selection of 300 prisoners for immediate execution was underway. Guards knocked on Likhachev's door but didn't find him because he was with his family. Later, a friend tipped him off that he was on the list; he spent the night hiding inside a woodpile while others were chosen to make up the required number of victims. Likhachev suffered no repercussions for this act of stealthy disobedience, except that from that moment on he vowed to live two lives: his own, and one for the man who had died in his place. Vangengeim was not lucky at Solovki. On October 9, 1937, in Moscow, in response to a new order from Nikolai Yezhov, the head of Stalin's secret police, to 'clean up' the camps by dispatching more political prisoners, Alexei Vangengeim's name was entered on a list of those condemned. And within a month, with over a thousand others, he was shipped back to the mainland at Kem, transported south in a cattle car in the general direction of a Karelian town with the quaint name of "Bear Mountain" (Medvezhegorsk), shot in the back of the head and buried in the forest.

While I read Olivier Rolin's Le météorologue (2014), which has just been published by Penguin in Ros Schwartz's translation as Stalin's Meteorologist, I was discovering, in parallel, another recent book which links the themes of imprisonment and aviation in a very different yet still more explicit way: Evgenii Vodolazkin's 2016 novel The Aviator (watch this space for Lisa Espenschade's forthcoming translation, which will no doubt be as magisterial as her version of Vodolazkin's Laurus). Cryofrozen in a secret experiment in a prison camp laboratory on the Solovki Islands during the early 1930s, Innokenty Petrovich Platonov is found and revived in a private clinic near St Petersburg. Miraculously, Platonov seems to be both physically and mentally sound, although his memories are fragmentary and elusive. Born in 1900, he retains in the year 1999 the appearance of a man in his early thirties.Very gradually, Dr Heiger and nurse Valentina negotiate the impossible task of explaining to Platonov just what happened to him: '"Was I in an accident?" "One could say that."' (He eventually discovers just how long he has been unconscious by reading the best-before date on a container of pills accidentally left in his room). Dr Heiger encourages him to keep a diary for both returning memories and day-to-day events. That diary becomes The Aviator: in the second half of the book, Platonov's notes are joined by those of both Dr Heiger and Nastya, the granddaughter of Platonov's great love, who dies in the geriatric ward of a public hospital a few weeks after his return to St Petersburg. As Platonov's closest companions (Nastya is carrying his child), both Heiger and Nastya begin to share or even anticipate his memories, even unlocking the terrible secret set to destroy his second chance at life. This is a book about the Solovki experience - its recreation of the journey from Kem and of the camps is terrible and accurate - but it is also about aviation. As a boy, Platonov loves playing at flight so much that his family nickname him "Aviator Platonov" (and the nickname lingers like an echo, so that he asks his doctor if he had actually been a pilot in his previous life). He loves visiting the aerodrome and admiring the pilots, even though they smell of the castor oil that lubricates their engines: his bedroom walls are covered with pictures of famous early aeronauts, such as the French fighter ace Adolphe Pégoud and the Russian Pyotr Nesterov, the first pilot to perform a loop (and who died in the first month of the First World War, bullishly ramming an Austrian plane). Platonov quotes Blok's 1912 poem 'The Aviator': 'But here, in the trembling heat, / In the haze fuming over the meadow, /Hangars, people, everything earthly - / Might have been crushed unto the earth'. Platonov reflects that his earthly life has been well and truly crushed, whereas aviators live by different, glorious, aerial rules. He admires them: he aspired to be one. He might have quoted Yeats' 1918 lines, 'A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds', had they been circulated in peri-revolutionary Petrograd. But, like the narrator of Blok's poem (and the pilot of Saint-Exupéry's short story), the child Platonov also witnesses a plane crash, and even sees the dead aviator up close. Indeed, Blok's poem suggests that the aviator crashes because he sees his own dark avatar approaching: 'Night flyer, in the turbid gloom / Bearing dynamite to earth'. As the reader discovers, Platonov's darker self bears dynamite of its own devising; and the narrative ends, appropriately, mid-flight. 

Despite its darkness, The Aviator is not a novel about death. It is, perhaps primarily, about resurrection. It is significant that its protagonist, aging with the century, is little older than Dmitri Likhachev; and perhaps also that he comes back to life in 1999, the year following Likhachev's death. Both young Mitya Likhachev and little Platonov spent joyous summers at their families' dachas in Kuokalla, now Repino, in the Karelian forest near St Petersburg. Both learned to cherish their families' cultural connections and intellectual heritage. Both are sentenced to camps on apparently trumped-up pretexts. But where Alexei Vangengeim died, and Dmitri Likhachev lived twice, Innokenty Platonov simply stops. He volunteers as an experimental subject at a secret laboratory on one of the remotest Solovetskii islands, because he is aware that the only alternative open to him is slow, brutal death from malnutrition, overwork and cruelty. Thus he is recruited for the LAZAR: another punning acronym, this time on the name Lazarus (since the laboratory studies cryogenic procedures with a view to freezing and eventually resurrecting Soviet grandees such as Stalin himself) and the word lazaret, which means 'infirmary'. When Dr Heiger resurrects him in 1999, Platonov becomes the only known survivor of the procedure, a true contemporary Lazarus. And yet his resurrection, his flight over the darkest half of the twentieth century, cannot be forgiven; he cannot be allowed to bypass history. After returning from Solovki, Likhachev lived through a sequence of horrors and persecutions that would have crushed other men: continued police surveillance and political persecution, threatened exile from Petersburg, the Siege of Leningrad with all its privations and suffering, the hypocrisy and corruption of the Brezhnev era, the death of a beloved child, grave illness. Of these tribulations, the years in SLON may not have been the worst. By comparison, Platonov can only live the years since the early 1930s vicariously, like Saint-Exupéry's pilot looking down at naked, dead terrain from high above. Likhachev, with whose life Platonov's is entangled, resurrected his own Solovki years and the sufferings of many others through his memoirs and his official work to expose the horrors of the Gulags, a task continued today by organizations such as Memorial. Perhaps this is a truer resurrection than Platonov's miraculous return. Vodolazkin, a specialist in ancient Russian literature, worked at St Petersburg's famous Pushkinskii Dom under Likhachev; The Aviator is, at least in part, an homage to his mentor. Memorial have resurrected Alexei Vangengeim too: just after finishing Rolin's book I bumped into his subject, in a manner of speaking, on the very last day of a Russian Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I squeezed into an audiovisual booth in the last room of the exhibition and jadedly watched a slideshow of mugshots of Gulag victims, snapped in identically rigid poses by the OGPU and later the NKVD. Every image hung on the screen for forty seconds or so, with a one-line summary of the subject's sentence (and afterlife - if any). Suddenly, Vangengeim was on the screen: stouter, more sedate, more ponderous than I had expected. We looked at each other. Then he was gone: the slideshow proceeded, and new visitors sat down beside me. 

A.F. Vangengeim in 1934 at the time of his arrest
There are two epilogues I would like to offer to the above. First, Likhachev's verdict on his four years in the camps, taken from his memoirs:

What did I learn on the Solovki? First and foremost I understood that every man is a man. My life was saved by the domushnik (apartment burglar) Ovchinnikov, who travelled with us to the Solovki for the second time (he had been brought back from an escape he had heroically achieved in order to see his "Marukha" once again), and the king of all lessons taught on the Solovki was a robber called Ivan Yakovlevich Komissarov, with whom I shared a cell for a year or so. [...] From all this strife I emerged with a new knowledge of life and a new spiritual identity. The good which I had succeeded in doing for hundreds of adolescents, by saving their lives, and many other people's too, the good that I received from my fellow inmates, and the experience of everything that I saw - these created in me a very deeply rooted calm and spiritual health. I did not cause evil [zla], I did not endorse evil, I managed to develop in myself an ability to observe life, and I even managed inconspicuously to carry out my academic work.

That final line is undoubtedly a sincere victory of human dignity over impossible conditions. It is a fitting note to conclude this essay on (and also a useful daily checklist even for those of us not confined in camps). But, somehow (it must be my mother's Diplodocus blood talking) more of me wants to end with the final paragraph of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Aviator. Here there is no reconciliation, no resignation, no dignity, and no evil: only the blind, inevitable collision of human aspiration against nature. Not everyone has the skills or genius to be a Prometheus; but perhaps, at times, we are all Icarus.

The horizon, in one motion, slips over his head like a sheet. The ground enfolds him, turning like a carousel, spinning its woods, bell-towers, meadows... The pilot sees a white villa pass by as if flung from a slingshot... The ground floods towards the slain pilot, like the sea towards a diver.

Disclaimers: All translations are my own (also all mistakes). I have excerpted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's fiction and essays from his posthumous collection Un sens à  la vie (Gallimard, 1956). Information on Dmitri Likhachev's biography comes from Vladislav Zubok, The Idea of Russia; The Life and Work of Dmitry Likhachev (I.B. Tauris, 2017). A useful source for A.F. Vangengeim's life (and his wonderful pictures) has been compiled here. I haven't read Ros Schwartz's translation of Rolin's Le météorologue, which has already won a PEN translation award, but I can recommend another recent translation of hers which I have just read and enjoyed - Jean-Paul Didierlaurent's charming The Reader on the 6.27.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Burning Umbrella: Krzhizhanovsky's Epigrams

I wanted to call this blog post 'the unreadable in pursuit of the untranslatable'. Then I wanted to call it 'the weeping translator', since that describes me trying to Anglify the Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's cryptic fragments. And then, as he will, Krzhizhanovsky himself gifted me a title: the burning umbrella.

As part of a larger project to translate the author's non-fiction, I was asked to tackle selections from Krzhizhanovsky's 'writer's notebooks'  for a new anthology of his non-fiction prose. There are three such notebooks, preserved by the writer's common-law wife Anna Bovshek, plus other miscellaneous jottings, all published online by Vadim Perel'muter, the poet (and chief architect of Sigizmund Dominikovich's literary legacy). The notebooks contain jottings, story ideas, bad puns, and other momentary inspirations recorded by Krzhizhanovsky; some were reworked into stories, others recycle themes (including the word 'theme') which preoccupied him throughout his life, and still more preserve ideas in amber: embryonic plots, throwaway lines, acidic quips and bitter social commentary. Translators involved in this project have been asked to keep footnotes to a minimum, so in my work for publication I must pass over the most obscure, the context-specific, and the untranslatable. And yet, as SDK (let's call him that) would surely appreciate, it's the untranslatable that I most wish to share. For example: this one-liner: Gori, zont. All SDK has done is break the Russian word gorizont, or 'horizon', into its semantic units (or, split semantics at the seams - I've been reading too much of this stuff) to create two new words that make no sense. Gori, zont means Burn, umbrella. Or as my colleague mischievously suggested: burn, brolly, burn. The blazing brolly makes no more sense in Russian than it does in English, but in translation even its semantic prehistory is lost: it reads like sheer nonsense, unless I intrude a forbidden footnote to explain that the words, reunified in Russian, mean 'horizon'. SDK loved building stories by literalizing metaphors ("In The Pupil", "The Unbitten Elbow", "The Runaway Fingers", for starters) but here we see him at his other favourite activity, unlocking individual words to let out the stories hidden inside them. Lear meets Joyce, with libretto by Lewis Carroll.

Here are more pun-puzzles, SDK thinking aloud:

Daughter of vision (Dochka zreniia). The world is the daughter of vision. (This is a play on the phrase tochka zreniia, literally 'point of view'; but since 'daughter' is not assonant with 'point', the harmony is lost in English.)
We wailed. Did you? (My vyliVy li?). (Fun with that uniquely Russian vowel, ы, and the Russian interrogative particle li.)
Welcome and Priam (Priyom i Priam.)
Dumb [speechless]. Not mine. (NemoiNe moi.)
The crown [as in the kind broken by Jack and Jill] of the theme. (Temya temy.)

If all this sounds too casual, SDK wakes us up by combining an untranslatable word (toska - ennui, longing) with a neologism (toskizm) to announce, 'I have fallen into miserabilism' (Ya vpal v toskizm).  And the notebooks contain much, much more than wordplay: Kozma Prutkov and other less well-known figures from the 19th century comic grotesque (such as Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin, playwright and satirist) stalk through these epigrams. Other aspects (such as his idea for a play called John and Jeanne, about Falstaff and Joan of Arc) relate to his critical essays on Shakespeare. But the translator's life is never made easy. SDK is enthralled by the idea of a fish learning things off by heart (in Russian, na zubok, by the tooth); which allows him to make the groaning joke, 'On znaet eto na zubok, no tolk'ko zubov u nego netu' ('He knows this by the tooth, although he's toothless'). Wonderful: except that, as far as I know, fish do have hearts, so the obvious English translation misses, to say the least, a beat: 'He knows this by heart, although he's heartless'.  Even more dispiriting for the translator are paragraph-length jokes that founder, literally in this case, on a single syllable:

The girl was very lazy. “So what will it be: yes or no?” he asked her. “Yes,” she answered, because “no” was one letter longer. They married. When her time came to give birth, she was too lazy to make an effort. Things dragged out, and when, finally, at the urging of her doctor and husband she overcame her laziness, the child emerged perfectly grown-up, with a beard and whiskers, just like you.

Before anyone points out that I made a mistake - that 'yes' is one letter longer than 'no' - may I point out that the reverse is true in Russian. It's just easier to say 'da' then 'net' (which makes Russia's low birth rate even more mysterious). 

Or take his one-line sketch of a 'character for a comedy', which is actually a rather scary exercise in Soviet biography: 'In childhood they scared him with pipe-cleaners (trubochisty), in old age with a purge (chistka)'.  As a literal translation clearly won't cut the mustard here, I've played it safe by substituting 'purgative' for 'pipe-cleaner'. Very occasionally, SDK's punning works better in English: 'A spare pair of parents' has more assonance going on than SDK's 'zapasnaya para roditelei'; it's also a nicely reverse-Bracknell situation ('To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness; always carry a spare pair'). 

A shock revelation: SDK could be banal. He penned truisms like 'We are all mortal: we will all die', or uninspired description such as ''An unshaven cheek, rough as sandpaper (nazhdak)' is one of the tossed-away lines recorded in the First Notebook. But then he catches you out with a slow-burning witticism: 'He speaks six Russian languages' - and what sounds like a compliment peels away into a verdict of incoherence (or possibly sycophancy) on an individual who speaks his native language six different ways. Or the splendid, doubtless autobiographical aphorism: 'Luchshe uzh krasnyi nos, chem nos po vetry' - literally: 'Better to have a red nose than a nose by the wind'. The first half of this proverb references the inebriation to which SDK ultimately succumbed; the second half  derives from a Russian sailing expression, derzhat' nos po vetry, to steer the nose (of a ship) by the wind. Better to be three sheets to the wind, than to trim your sails to it? Thus changing the bogies of metaphor from the human face to the high seas. SDK can also be off-colour - there are some unoriginal, locker-roomish quips about virginity, and this odd 'reported anecdote' from a Soviet-era collective apartment:

A man in a collective apartment catches his finger on a nail in the bathroom – a bloodstain on the floor. He goes to his room, then hears quarrelling female voices through his wall: “Why don’t you clean up after yourself? Are you too lazy to clear up once a month?”  “I’m perfectly clean. That’s your blood. Mine finished five days ago…” And the man with the bound-up finger learns the hidden truth.

These scraps, however, were not written for publication. They were written as aides-memoire and bons mots by a man who couldn't even publish what he did write for publication. (This is an excellent article on SDK's life and woes by Adam Thirlwell). He called himself 'a crossed-out person', and enjoined those who were similarly crossed-out 'to believe' (zacherknutomu: verit'), although what they should believe in was not clear; certainly not Soviet literature. In a sense, all his work was already crossed-out; why blame him for a few dodgy extemporizations genuinely not meant to be seen? The real 'wonder' ('wonderful adventures inside a textbook of logic' writes SDK, apropos of nothing in particular) is that these notes, independently of his finished prose, present so much that is cogent and immanent. As Krzhizhanovsky reflected in his Second Notebook, 'As a writer, am I with the majority or the minority? If counted by the number of heads, I’m in the minority; but if we go by the number of thoughts, surely I’m in the majority?'

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Called Back: Chasing Convicts in Siberia

One of my minor hobbies (very well, obsessions) is collecting detective fiction, especially Golden Age mysteries. The British Library recently made collecting these a whole lot easier by republishing the best of a very long backlist with adorable covers adapted from period British Rail posters. I also hoard the Detective Club series of reprints. Basically, if Martin Edwards has written a preface for it, I'll collect it. I'll accumulate retro detective series by contemporary authors too - provided the perspective is ironic, not twee. (Hence Ian Sansom's The County Guides and James Anderson's Inspector Wilkins mysteries are welcome; Posy Parker and Rose Simpson less so).

As you can imagine, I'm in seventh heaven when one of my mysteries unexpectedly sports a Russian connection. Normally, it's just a throwaway geopolitical remark by a bobby - as in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1907), where a policeman charitably ascribes 'those chance dynamite outbreaks from Russia' to 'the outbreaks of oppressed, if mistaken, men'. (This book is also notable for the presence of a Polish anarchist called Gogol). Or take this longer excursus from R. Austin Freeman's short story "The Moabite Cipher" (1909), often anthologized to exemplify the talents of his 'medical jurispractitioner' hero, John Thorndyke. The plot opens with a visit to London by a Russian Grand Duke: the police, with proto-Trumpian enthusiasm, are seeing Jewish anarchist terrorists everywhere (although the mystery will eventually be prosaically explained as a burglary).

A large and motley crowd lined the pavements of Oxford Street as Thorndyke and I made our way leisurely eastward. Floral decorations and drooping bunting announced one of those functions inaugurated from time to time by a benevolent Government for the entertainment of fashionable loungers and the relief of distressed pickpockets. For a Russian Grand Duke, who had torn himself away, amidst valedictory explosions, from a loving if too demonstrative people, was to pass anon on his way to the Guildhall; and a British Prince, heroically indiscreet, was expected to occupy a seat in the ducal carriage.
Near Rathbone Place Thorndyke halted and drew my attention to a smart-looking man who stood lounging in a doorway, cigarette in hand.
"Our old friend Inspector Badger," said Thorndyke. "He seems mightily interested in that gentleman in the light overcoat. How d'ye do, Badger?" for at this moment the detective caught his eye and bowed. "Who is your friend?"

"That's what I want to know, sir," replied the inspector. "I've been shadowing him for the last half-hour, but I can't make him out, though I believe I've seen him somewhere. He don't look like a foreigner, but he has got something bulky in his pocket, so I must keep him in sight until the Duke is safely past. I wish," he added gloomily, "these beastly Russians would stop at home. They give us no end of trouble."

A thought no doubt often voiced by Boris Berezovsky's neighbours on Belgrave Square when he popped round to borrow yet another cup of sugar.

When I began Hugh Conway's 1883 bestseller Called Back, I was in for something special: not every British hero travels to Siberia to solve a murder (and clear his wife's name). This short novel was, according to Kenneth Harper and Bradford Booth, translated into Russian quite fast - within a decade of publication, not unusual celerity for popular British novels at that time. Its Russian title was, apparently, 'The Hallucination'. Hugh Conway (or Frederick Fargus, as his mother called him) died two years later of typhoid fever, and although his book would enjoy long-lasting success (a translation into Finnish; plagiarism by Emily Dickinson; screen versions in 1914 and 1933), his own star gradually sank below the horizon - at least until Martin Edwards wrote a preface about him. Called Back is highly sensational, but not, except for one major plot twist, very interesting today.

The hero, Gilbert Vaughan, goes blind as a young man because of cataracts; he wanders into the wrong house, overhears a murder, then gets overpowered and drugged by the murderers; unable to prove the strange incident ever happened, he tries to forget it. He then undergoes such unsafe and counterintuitive cataract surgery I almost wanted to stop reading and research 19th-century ophthalmology on the spot, but he does regain his sight - and the lure of the promised plot development pulled me on. Gilbert falls for a beautiful yet mute, almost catatonic girl; hastily marries her with the consent of her enigmatic Italian guardian. Later, holding his wife's hand, Gilbert experiences a waking dream that vividly re-creates the murder; clearly, he and the girl are both witnesses of the deadly deed; but what was the nature of her relationship with the murdered man? As his wife finally shows signs of returning sanity, Gilbert decides he must clear up the secret of her past before they can live together. The only way to clarify her background is to track down her guardian, a mysterious Italian called Ceneri who has previously boasted of spending his ward's entire inheritance on revolutionary activity. So far, so The Woman in White: but Gilbert soon leaves conventionality (and credibility) behind as he traces Ceneri, who has been implicated in a plot to assassinate the Czar of Russia. 'Although he called himself Italian, he was, in truth, cosmopolitan. One of those restless spirits who wish to overturn all forms of government, except that of republican'. After languishing several months in the Peter & Paul fortress in St Petersburg, Ceneri has been sentenced to twenty years' hard labour and dispatched in the general direction of Siberia. Gilbert hightails after him. (It might have been slightly easier to ask his wife, now she can talk again, whether she had a fiance before she went mad, but of course a fanatical republican terrorist man is more reliable than a hysterical woman any day of the week).

The following chapter reads pleasingly like an abbreviated travelogue, as the hero takes the train to 'Moscow the colossal', passes 'the old picturesque but decaying town of Vladimir', steams along the Volga and Kama rivers to Perm where a 'tarantass' ('a sort of phaeton') is acquired, as well as a 'yemshik' to cajole the post-horses. Gilbert offers the odd thoughtful meditation on Russian ways - the importance of correct paperwork, the way the 'rigid and careless despotism' of the Czar is reflected in the ruler-like straightness of the railway, even a private interview in the Hermitage with Alexander II ('a tall noble-looking man in military attire...[...]. Two years ago when the news of his cruel death reached England, I thought of him as I saw him that day - in the prime of life, tall, commanding, and gracious - a man it does one good to look at. Whether - if the whole truth of his great ancestor Catherine the Second's frailties were known - the blood of a peasant or a king ran in his veins, he looked every inch a ruler of men, a splendid despot'). Although the chapter title ('A Hell on Earth') rather betrays his conclusions about Siberia, he reserves criticism for the conditions created there by men rather than the land itself: 'The weather was glorious, almost too glorious. The cultivated country we passed through looked thriving and productive. Siberia was very different in appearance from what is usually associated with its name. The air when not too warm was simply delicious. [...] The wild flowers, many of them very beautiful, grew freely; the people looked well and contented. Altogether my impressions of Siberia in summer were pleasant ones'. On he goes, past Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk, all the way to Irkutsk -  described as charming towns except for the presence in each one of an 'ostrog' or jail, for convicts in transit: 'a gloomy square building, varying with the size of the place, surrounded by a tall palisade, the gates of which were barred, bolted, or sentried'. Gilbert recounts with horror the overcrowded cells where prisoners were housed 'like sardines in a box', with high mortality rates and extra pressure on space during spring floods: 'Men, sometimes unsexed women with them, huddled into rooms reeking with filth, the floors throwing out poisonous emanations - rooms built to give but scanty space to a small number, crowded to suffocation'. Eventually, Gilbert catches up with his particular convict, elicits the information he needs, and returns reassured to his bride - not without a pang or two of conscience at leaving the Italian revolutionary behind to penal labour in the mines at Nertchinsk (an important trading station on the Amur river, which was visited by Jeremy Bentham's brother Samuel in the previous century).

Engraving by Fritz Eichenberg (Resurrection)
I wish I knew whether Conway visited Russia, or which accounts by British travellers (there are surprisingly many) he read. What impresses me is his enthusiasm for describing the injustice of the Russian penal system sixteen years before Tolstoy got to grips with the same theme in Resurrection (1899). Compare this passage from the latter (in the Maudes' translation) with Conway's comments on overcrowding and disease:

The strictness of the inspector was chiefly due to the fact that an epidemic of typhus had broken out in the prison, owing to twice the number of persons that it was intended for being crowded in it. The isvostchik who drove Nekhludoff said, “Quite a lot of people are dying in the prison every day, some kind of disease having sprung up among them, so that as many as twenty were buried in one day.”

Or take this bitter observation on the "justice" meted out to political prisoners in the aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II (which Ceneri had ostensibly pursued):

Terrible and endless as were the torments which were inflicted on the criminals, there was at least some semblance of justice shown them before and after they were sentenced, but in the case of the political prisoners there was not even that semblance, as Nekhludoff saw in the case of Sholostova and that of many and many of his new acquaintances. These people were dealt with like fish caught with a net; everything that gets into the nets is pulled ashore, and then the big fish which are required are sorted out and the little ones are left to perish unheeded on the shore. Having captured hundreds that were evidently guiltless, and that could not be dangerous to the government, they left them imprisoned for years, where they became consumptive, went out of their minds or committed suicide, and kept them only because they had no inducement to set them free, while they might be of use to elucidate some question at a judicial inquiry, safe in prison. The fate of these persons, often innocent even from the government point of view, depended on the whim, the humour of, or the amount of leisure at the disposal of some police officer or spy, or public prosecutor, or magistrate, or governor, or minister.

Tolstoy was, as we know, fond of reading British sensational novels (often aloud in the bosom of his family) - and his heroine Anna Karenina read a mysterious British bodice-ripper on the fateful train journey back to St Petersburg. But could he have read Conway too? Could Gilbert's whistle-stop tour of Siberian jails have inspired Resurrection? Sadly, there's no evidence of the book ever having crossed the threshold of  Tolstoy's home, Yasnaya Polyana. But who knows? Conway's novel was translated as 'The Hallucination', after all - perhaps Tolstoy just dreamed he read it.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Twenty-Six Men and a Dinosaur

Last week I caught myself recommending a student to read "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl". 'Easy to find in translation,' I assured her, then I wondered: was it really? In a second-hand book-cave at the weekend, a shabby Heinemann school edition from 1992 fell into my hands: The New Windmill Book of Nineteenth Century Short Stories. A slightly chewed-looking cover with an out-of-focus print of Frith's The Railway Station; a short and almost exclusively Anglophone contents list, skewed aggressively in favour of female proto-modernists (Olive Schreiner, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her eternally yellow wallpaper). This story by Gorky, with Maupassant's "Country Living", solitarily represented all literature by furriners throughout the 19th century. 

Today, twenty-five years later, Gorky's stories are no longer automatically anthologized: it's hard to imagine an anthology that would pick his fiction over Chekhov's or the revitalised translation of "The Queen of Spades". Socialist realism is no longer recent history; Gorky's importance as its gatekeeper has lapsed. Yet, in an excellent 1993 short book on Gorky's early writing, Andrew Barratt suggests that "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl" is 'arguably the best of his early stories', and still one of the best-known. 

Barratt's book is suffused with limpid wit that makes me regret the almost inevitably small circle of readers for such a finely focused academic study. The chapter on "Twenty-Six Men" is subtitled "Sex and the Russian Baker"; my other favourite section is called "Games Tramps Play". Beyond these jabs at the mystique of Gorky and Soviet gor'kovedy (Gorky scholars), Barratt makes a serious case for considering this story outside of its usual context as pathetic naturalism.

Gorky's insight into his subject matter - twenty-six men earning slave wages in a cellar, endlessly turning out pretzels that they can't bear to eat - comes from his own experience as an assistant baker, in the troubled period of his earliest revolutionary activity and teenage poverty leading up to his suicide attempt. The men are so enfeebled mentally and spiritually by their situation and the universal contempt in which they are held  ("we all had yellowish-grey faces, three of us had syphilis, some had skin disease [...] we wore filthy rags, with down-at-heel shoes or bast-sandals on our feet, and the police would not allow us in the park") that they greet the daily appearance of Tanya, a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old seamstress from upstairs, with anxious veneration. It doesn't matter, as Barratt points out, that Tanya is not actually very nice to them and possibly not very nice at all - she only visits them to collect their ritual offering of freshly baked pretzels, and scornfully laughs down one man with the temerity to ask her to stitch his torn shirt. Tanya becomes their goddess of chastity precisely because they are outcasts, because they need someone to admire and not least, as the narrator admits, because she is beautiful to look at (although the men strictly avoid sexualising her in any way, even in her absence). Hence the story is valuable both as a naturalistic account of poverty and as a study in human nature - even in extreme humiliation, Gorky shows us, we still glorify someone or something which we perceive to be better than ourselves. I was struck, re-reading "Twenty-Six Men", by an extra refinement of Gorky's naturalism: the detail that the windows of the bakery had been barred by the boss "with close-meshed grilles" not to prevent the bakers from climbing or seeing out, but to stop them from giving any bread through the windows "to the beggars and those comrades of ours who were unemployed and starving". This is interesting because of the assumption that the very poor, that is the bakers, will still give to those worse off than themselves; and because of the boss's cynical device to stymie any such philanthropy at his expense. One man's theft is another man's charity, but there are no Robin Hoods in Gorky's Russia.

Barratt departs from standard readings by arguing that the story is most significant when read as a psychodrama, a 'case study in perverse psychology' (124). The men's relationship with Tanya is perverse; it is not sentimental worship, but unhealthy abasement. The gifts of pretzels are ritual 'acts of idolatry' (128). When a handsome ex-soldier starts work as a higher-status bread-baker upstairs,  he threatens to depose Tanya as the men's ruling idol by offering a charismatic masculine alternative for adoration. It is thus inevitable that the men will test the new idol against the old by daring the soldier to seduce Tanya - even while they comfort themselves that Tanya is unapproachable. And it is equally inevitable that the soldier will ruin their illusions by deflowering Tanya. 

Barratt calls the scene of Tania's seduction the 'most memorable in all Gorky's writing' (129), primarily because it re-establishes Tanya's moral irreproachability in the face of her apparently very immoral behaviour. Crudely, cruelly, the twenty-six men reject Tanya, pouring on her the calumny and sexualised insults they had reserved for all other women (some of whom, the narrator comfortingly suggests, deserved it); and with unflinching dignity, Tanya rejects them right back. She walks out of their lives serenely, confirmed in her womanhood; they retreat to their cellar. Which underlines, as Barratt argues, one of many eloquent gaps in Gorky's narrative: the story describes an inescapable, dead-end situation for the men, yet one of them has clearly escaped to tell the tale. How can this be? Barratt probes further: Tanya's final attitude of righteous contempt is not just an expression of confident femininity, but an analogue to Gorky's own complex attitude to the very poor. He had lived among them, but like Tanya with her apron full of pretzels, he was able to withdraw and shut the door; his 'narrating consciousness' (134) (not just in this story but in much of his fiction) is a troubled combination of sympathy and contempt for his subjects. Gorky can empathize, but he is more inclined to judge. Ultimately, therefore, in Barratt's reading, this story is a window not just on 19th-century labour conditions, or on the construction of femininity, but on Gorky's contradictory relationship with the topic of poverty, on which his own success and reputation were built.

Despite my reservations about the "New Windmill" anthology, I was pleased to see that the editors picked the 1981 Penguin translation of "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl", which is by D. (D.J.) Richards, former Head of Russian at Exeter. The students' magazine from 1977 describes him as 'a prolific author and partial to a pint of a dinnertime, when he is to be seen sitting in the Ewe with another member of staff who shall remain nameless'. I like to think of my predecessors in Russian sitting together in a bar that no longer exists, discussing the complexities of Gorky's prose over pints, pies... and pretzels.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Opportunity, Glory, and Doom: Married to Tolstoy

A recent rummage through the remoter shelves of the Russian literature section of the University of Exeter caused me to acquire (as happens all too often) two obscure, charmingly crumbly volumes not on my list: Lady Cynthia Asquith's Married To Tolstoy (Hutchinson of London, 1960), and The Life of Tolstoy by "Paul Birukoff" (Pavel Biryukov), published in an anonymous translation in 1911. The temptation to read them in counterpoint was irresistible: to vicariously retrace the great conflict of Tolstoy's mature life, between the 'Dark Ones' (Countess Sofya Andreyevna's nickname for the Tolstoyan acolytes) and the Countess herself, or simply "Sonya", as Tolstoy always called her. In real life the Tolstoyans, or, in Gorky's words, 'the pestering parasites who fed on his mind' may have had the best of the struggle; but in the field of biography, Sonya wins hands down.
Asquith's light-touch literariness and deft style - she wrote fiction (I have long admired her ghost stories) besides biography - lend the Sonya camp a major advantage. "Marriage to a genius can seldom be easy; to be married to one as immense and self-contradictory as Tolstoy was proportionately difficult": Asquith's first sentence delicately echoes the famous opening line of Anna Karenina. She generally takes the side of Tolstoy's wife against the husband and media who jointly condemned her; citing, for instance, in Sonya's support the frequently ignored medical evidence that the Countess was ill with stress even before Tolstoy fled on his quixotic final journey in 1910. Asquith calls herself "a self-appointed Counsel for the Defence", relying on diaries by both spouses and other family members, as well as records left by other family friends (Urusov, Turgenev, Gorky) to vividly frame "the story of the woman whose opportunity, glory, and doom it was to be married to Tolstoy" (16). She coins regular well-cut phrases which demystify some of that portentous "glory and doom", referring to the younger Tolstoy's moral fixations accompanied by rather less than moral behaviour as "curdling themes". 

Like Rosamund Bartlett, whose Tolstoy biography I discussed in a previous post, Asquith brings the tensions and shenanigans of the Yasnaya Polyana household vividly to life: the hideous, uncomfortable and supposedly character-forming clothes which Tolstoy wanted his eldest children to wear became mockingly known in the house as the "philosophical garments", while these same children enjoyed traditional family games such as their father's impossible challenge to stand in a corner while not thinking of a white bear - or the much-loved chase known as the Charge of the Numidian Cavalry. One of Asquith's many astute psychological asides is her observation that Sonya, in late middle age, was tired of endlessly following Tolstoy's lead; she was worn out charging with the Numidian Cavalry. She intelligently assesses Tolstoy's existential 'Arzamas' crisis as physical and emotional reaction to finishing War and Peace, and in this context, her assertion that Tolstoy's passionately expressed aptitude for Ancient Greek (which Sonya fiercely opposed) was a form of psychological "dope", makes perfect sense. (Next time you want a re-up of Herodotus, call your local Loeb dealer). 

Two more Tolstoy insights are worth repeating here: "Tolstoy [unlike Dostoevsky] could not sin his way to God. Painfully, laboriously, he had to reason his way to him" (85). On Tolstoy's reaction to the 1891 famine in central Russia, and even earlier to urban poverty in Moscow, Asquith observes: "As a man he seemed less able than others to conceive of anything which he had not been an eyewitness. Not until he was shocked by the actual sight of some horror did the thought of it ever greatly concern him. Than his imagination would be so fired that all sense of proportion vanished" (100). The tellingly titled chapter "The Sky Darkens" indicate the marital crisis exacerbated by the Tolstoys' first extended move to Moscow, where his wife and daughter Tanya indulged a carefree materialism that now alienated him. After the birth of Sasha, whom Sonya had emphatically not wanted, her role as Tolstoy's literary agent adjusted from a source of pride and connubial partnership to a lonely, burdensome task. Tolstoy had made it too plain that he gave her the rights to market his work has a concession to her cupidity and pragmatism rather than as a gesture of respect and affection; now, partly in revenge for his contempt, Sonya's literary work became an explicit excuse not to feed the unwished-for baby (another weapon in their complicated strife). 

Biryukov's biography, which might (in contrast, and in view of his failed courtship of Masha Tolstaya) have been titled 'Not Married to Tolstoy's Daughter', simply cannot compete. It lacks personal detail; letters and diaries are cited only occasionally, and as extensions of the generally hagiographic approach to Tolstoy's personal life and public achievements. Sonya's dangerous enemy, the opportunistic Vladimir Chertkov, appears here only as 'Tolstoy's friend, V.G. Tchertkoff', [who] gave a great deal of moral and material assistance' to the Intermediary publishing project. As an unpaid assistant and later editor of Intermediary, the former naval cadet and ex-physicist Biryukov could have revealed much about the stress of everyday interaction with the ambitious and Machiavellian Chertkov; but his account is both vague and neutral. Asquith, on the contrary, suggests that Chertkov manipulated the Intermediary specifically to supplant Sonya as Tolstoy's publisher; and she regales us with this rather splendid anecdote: 

"It was a very hot night and [the Tolstoy family, with Chertkov] were having dinner on the verandah. [...] All were in a happy mood, joking, and laughing. The only drawback was the swirling haze of mosquitoes. After a quick amused glance at Chertkov's lofty head, Tolstoy, grinning like a boy, adroitly swatted its bald top. A smear of blood and the crushed remains of a huge mosquito showed how good his aim had been. Everyone roared with laughter, including the swatter, but Tolstoy's laughter abruptly died when gloomily affronted, without a flicker of a smile, Chertkov portentously said: 'Lev Nikolaevich, what have you done? You have taken the life of a fellow living creature. Are you not ashamed?' Stifled giggles continued to escape, but everyone felt uncomfortable" (139).

Asquith's clear-sightedness occasionally fails her: she has a (very English) mistrust of excessive emotional vulnerability, and draws attention to Sonya's self-pity and supposed lack of a sense of humour. On the short story "Whose Guilt Is It?" written by Sonya in reaction to her husband's radioactive The Kreutzer Sonata, Asquith feels it was "fortunate" that this "self-exonerating" response was never published (146). (It has since been both translated and published with Sonya's other short fiction in a new edition by Michael R. Katz). When, shortly after the birth in 1881 of Alyosha, her eleventh baby, Sonya writes despairingly to her sister that "bending over the flushed face of my new baby fourteen times a day, I almost faint from the pain in my breasts", Asquith ripostes unsympathetically, "Why, it may be asked, did she need to nurse her baby fourteen times a day [...]?" (113). Now I know the answer to that one, and I'm not even a mammal. The incident certainly explains why the breastfeeding of babies became a political football in the Tolstoy family long before the Daily Mail invented the Breastapo. Thankfully, Tolstoy never met Benjamin Spock (whose ideas about feeding infants at set intervals probably influenced Asquith); both men might have spontaneously combusted. All that Biryukov offers on the topic of familial discord at this period of the Tolstoys' lives is a cautious observation that "The strenuous activity of the seventies, his family cares and duties, the question of the education of the children, his successful literary career, his beneficent social work - all these did not fully satisfy Tolstoy" (87). Of course, as a long-time friend of the family, Biryukov would not have wished to embarrass any of them.

Biryukov's book necessarily closes with Tolstoy's death ("With contented, happy thoughts the great teacher of life had passed into eternity [...]. It is our duty to strive with all our strength to realise his ideal of Love and Reason" (155-6)). Asquith also gives surprisingly little space - just one brief chapter - to Sonya's last nine years. Her sources for this part of Sonya's life are limited, although she cites Tolstoy's daughter Sasha for a glimpse of Sonya at table in 1918, consuming a formal meal served by an elderly Yasnaya Polyana manservant with silver plate and a starched tablecloth, although the meal itself consists of boiled beetroot and black bread. Every day, she walked to Tolstoy's grave and she spoke constantly, if silently, with her departed "Leovochka" [sic]. Just before her death, she confessed to Sasha that she felt her bitterness in Tolstoy's final year had "killed" her husband (281). I like to think that this was just one last flicker of the melodramatic instinct that made Sonya such a successful actress at the early, happy Yasnaya Polyana family parties; and that v tom svete - in the other world - Sonya and Lev no longer glower out from plates fixed to opposite sides of a leaf, as they do in Asquith's biography. I hope that they finally fit on the same page, side by side.