Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Art of Reading Poetry

On impulse, I bought Harold Bloom's "The Art of Reading Poetry" this week -- part of its appeal was surely the brochure size of the book. I could -- and did -- read it in a matter of two or three hours. If I understand him correctly, Bloom claims that the art of reading poetry is the art of comprehending the meaning of poetry, learning the ways the meaning is constructed in poetry, and then learning to interpret the meaning. No argument from me there, except maybe Bloom's "cognitive" quality is not sufficient to characterize the ways poetry affects us on the level of sound.

I'm struggling to find English-language poetry that I could connect with on an emotional rather than intellectual level. The best way I've figured out to approach this project is to read a lot quickly, until something catches my eye, and then read that something more attentively. The line that stopped me in Bloom's book was from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses": "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Something about this line struck me as deeply familiar, and after a moment's pause -- I suppose I translated the line automatically in my head -- I realized that this line was a motto of a character from my favorite novel growing up. "The Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin was favorite to several generations of Soviet children the way children of different generations grew up with Jules Verne or Mark Twain.

The connection between Tennyson and Kaverin immediately made sense when google helped me remember that this line was used on the gravestone of the British explorer of the Antarctica, Robert Scott. Kaverin's main character, Sanya, made it his life quest to find out what happened to an explorer of the North, a fictional figure modeled largely on the British explorer of Antarctica. Scott had reached the South Pole only to discover that he had been preceded there by a Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Dispirited, Scott and his team died on the journey back to their ship. The words on his grave come from the concluding stanza to the Tennyson poem:
"One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

This phrase, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," -- or its Russian translation, "Бороться и искать, найти и не сдаваться" -- has accompanied me through life in a very literal sense. At the age of nine, I, copying my hero, Sanya, took it up as my motto and wrote it on the first page of my diary -- and have been ritualistically rewriting it on the first page of every new book I've since designated as my diary. (I am very loyal to my rituals).

I've now gone back to Tennyson and reread "Ulysses" several times -- slowly, it's starting to develop some meaning for me on the emotional level. The sentiment -- Ulysses's striving for something to do after the Trojan war and his return to Ithaca -- is colored by what I perceive as the meaning of the sentiment on Robert Scott's memorial and is colored by Sanya's quest -- it signifies to me on all of these levels, and cannot be separated from the later interpretations. Perhaps, to truly commit to this poem, I should memorize it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Post-trip randomness

Dave and I returned to San Francisco on Saturday, so technically, the trip is over. But endings are never that simple. For example, I still have about two dozen browser tabs open: research on the places we visited. Some of them I can close with no regrets: I have five tabs dedicated to microbreweries in Beijing we wanted to visit our last full day there. It turned out, most of the pubs listed online have gone out of business, and the only one we found still in business, is a Japanese company that makes beer with a Russian name, Okhotsk. Actually, Okhotsk is a town and also a sea, the sea that separates Japan from the continent, and where the group of the disputed Kuril islands is located. Just the other day, these islands were in the news again, when President Medvedev went there for a visit, and Japan temporarily called their ambassador back from Russia. Never mind, I'm supposed to be closing tabs, not opening new ones.

Two more sites we visited our last day in town: Silk Street and Pearl Market, one of the places to go in Beijing for knock off purses. I wonder what the career paths of the girls who work there will be: the place is an amazing training ground for an army of aggressive sales reps. In the evening of our last day, we ended up at Sanlitun, a neighborhood of all-American bars, restaurants, shopping. There's a mall there that reminded us very much of the refurbished downtown LA (Nokia Center). The place was mildly creepy in its blandness, so we got out as quickly as possible. A couple of days prior, we'd walked by another touristy restaurant area mentioned in many tour guides, Nan Xin Cang, built in a restored old granary. It's another Disneyfied recreation targeted at tourists, and so stripped of any real personality.

Here's a cool discovery:, a Chinese equivalent of Yelp. The website is entirely in Simplified Chinese, but thanks to Google translation tools that wasn't a problem. We searched it for some fun restaurants and also it led us to a very decent and well priced foot massage place. Meanwhile, according to, the best restaurant in Beijing is a place called ebeecake. Cake sounded good, and we decided to seek this place out -- especially since the address showed it to be located at the 798 Art Space the day we were going there. Big mistake. Turns out, the right way to read the name of the place is e-Bee-Cake, that is "electronic" cake. When we finally found the right building in the middle of the 798 Art Zone, it turned out to be a wholesale bakery, and they asked us where we wanted our cake delivered. They gave us a pretty catalog with over a dozen titles, and told us that there was a cafe next door that served ebeecake. We found the cafe, but out of all the dozen pretty cakes on the brochure, the cafe was serving cheesecake and tiramisu. We turned up our noses at that, and opted for pizza and ice cream at a cafe down the street.

My other open tabs take me all the way back to Shanghai. Here's a blog by an American guy, Jonathan, that's been really helpful to me in finding the foreign-language bookstores in Shanghai. Jonathan is studying at a university in Nanjing, and his blog is a good source for information about the expat life in China. I've added his RSS to my Google Reader.

Dave's coworker, Laura -- she's an interpreter freelancing for Dave's company -- told me the story about the Soong sisters, three very influential women of the 20th C Chinese politics. The eldest of the three, Soong Ai Ling was married to the richest man and a finance minister of China. The middle, Soong Ching Ling was married to the founder of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat Set. And the youngest, Soong May Ling married Chiang Kai Shek. I immediately wanted to know more about them. Apparently, there was a 1997 Hong Kong film made about the three, but what I'm really looking for is a good novel :) While in Shanghai, I went to Soong Ching Ling's residence and memorial, memorial being a museum dedicated to the life of Soong Ching Ling from the point of view of the Communist party. The residence itself was like a small English country house, albeit with a few oddly angled walls. One very neat thing I noticed: she had her typewriter set up in the bathroom, right next to the tub. I wonder what her writing routine was.

Also, while in Shanghai, I walked down Duolun Road, a street famous for many turn of the 20th C writers who lived there. The street is enjoying something of a renaissance these days, and features some new cafes and bookstores and even one Museum of Modern Art. I walked into this museum to discover an exhibit of сontemporary Saudi Arabian art, a part of the World Expo.

Finally (for this mishmash post), David and Cici, our gracious guides through Hangzhou, left me with a list of (popular 20th C) Chinese writers I should check out. I have no idea when I will get to this, but here at least are the names they put down in my notebook: Jin Yong, Wei Si Li, Lin Yu Tang, Zhang Ai Ling, Xiong Yao, Lao She (the only name familiar to me on this list), Ding Ling, Han Han, Bing Xin, Lei Yu, Ba Jing, Guo No Ruo.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ring 4

My nose seems capable of producing infinite amounts of goo. Both Dave and I have been sniffling all week; it's no big deal -- no other symptoms, except red noses -- but it is making it difficult for me to sleep or lie down in general, my nose gets immediately stuffed up. Yesterday, we decided to get foot massages, and I was breathing so loudly in my reclined chair, that a woman working on Dave's feet brought me some pretty gel-capsuled pills to take, presumably to clear my nose. I took some NyQuil instead, and more or less slept through the night.

On the other hand, stuffed nose is a fine symptom to have when walking through a neighborhood fire. As we were walking back to our hotel last night, having gotten our foot massages, our path took us down a street that was blocked off to automobile traffic. My first thought was that they were clearing an accident: we've already seen one accident the day before, where a motor-powered rickshaw collided with a motorcycle. With the aggressive local driving style, accidents must be frequent. As we kept walking, we started seeing fire engines on both sides of the street, and then finally passed a small crowd gathered at an entrance to a side alley: one of the buildings some ways down the alley had caught on fire.

Beijing's city plan divides the city with wide automobile streets into neighborhoods, rectangular blocks of houses separated from each other by narrow and sometimes very ancient alleys (hutongs). Many of these alleys are inaccessible to cars, and only pedestrians, bikes or motorbikes can get through. So when trying to put out a fire, the firemen had to extend great lengths of hose all the way down the alley, by which time the fire probably spread from the first building to the next and maybe to the next. The buildings are made of brick, but they are located so close to each other, that the fire, once started, is difficult to put out. As we passed that alley, we entered a cloud of smoke so thick Dave thought the cause was a smoke bomb; it was hard to imagine this kind of smoke being caused by a single house burning five hundred feet away.

Beijing is a grid city, but like Moscow, is circumscribed with several concentric ring roads. I am not sure what in Beijing is considered the first ring -- perhaps, the walls of the Forbidden City -- but most tourist sites and activities seem to be contained within the Second ring (except Summer Palace, where we haven't been yet). The residential city is much wider, extending out in all directions to 4th, 5th and 6th rings. This is where most of the millions of people inhabiting Beijing actually live: not in the historical and atmospheric hutongs of the city center, but in the Soviet-style (or post-Soviet, more contemporary) apartment blocks. I feel very much at home in these neighborhoods. Here are the shops for the middle classes: grocery and clothing mega-markets, stores selling washing machines, offices of the telecom companies, bakeries, a random pipe and tobacco shop.

We ended up in this part of town following a lead recommended by my friend Yvette (her recommendations have led us to some very unique and fascinating places this week): to find 798 Art Zone. It's an old auto factory that fell in disuse and was taken over by artist-types that converted it to their own needs. The project achieved legitimacy on the governmental level as Beijing was gearing up for the Olympic games. The old factory neighborhood was re-zoned from industrial to "artistic," and large-scale tourist-friendly construction began. Today, the area features many cafes and restaurants (most of them with some international flare, even if that simply means pizza and tiramisu), bookstores and stores with artistic souvenirs (lots of souvenirs that feature art from 798 galleries), and most importantly, a countless number of galleries, workshops, ceramic studios, etc.

And all of this is located in the middle of the otherwise nondescript middle class neighborhood, past rows and rows of apartment blocks. Tourists who know what they are looking for, find it, but otherwise -- forget it. You're never going to stumble upon it by chance.

Read Dave's blog for more details about the art we've found at 798.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sightseeing in Beijing

We've been walking around Beijing the last few days, took a bus ride to the Great Wall, but then came back to the city and continued viewing the sites. There are many major attractions here that are on every tourist's must-see list, and we've barely covered those yet. The Wall, for one, also the Temple of Heaven. Planning to spend half a day at the Forbidden City today, and maybe will make it to the Summer Palace on Friday. Distances are huge, and once you get to a site, it absorbs you in a multitude of pavilions, corridors, landmarks -- and soon enough it's 5 pm, when everything closes down. Sure, we're not very dedicated sightseers, we get out of the hotel very late, by noon at best, and prefer to stay out as long as we can in the evenings -- exploring the neighborhoods, getting lost in the alleys, finally finding our way to the night markets, settling down for dinner, going to shows.

I feel very ambivalent about visiting the must-see sites. I am not huge on taking pictures, and the massive hoards of tourists are frightening. The Great Wall, at least the most popular stretches of it, is a huge tourist trap; the loveliest thing about it is the ability to hike from one mountain crest to the next, and to enjoy the autumn. We don't see much of this kind of fall in San Francisco -- the Wall was covered in soft yellow glow from all the trees around it, dry weightless leaves gathering at the bottoms of each staircase and by the parapets. It really seems that the "Wall" is a misnomer -- it's not much different from the Roman road, a way to connect distant provinces to the empire center. Any army that scaled those mountains can easily take the wall, not that much higher than any wall aristocrats built around their palaces and gardens in Beijing or Shanghai.

Yesterday, Dave and I visited the Palace and the Garden of Prince Gong, similar in its vision to Yu Garden in Shanghai, but also featuring a separate mansion with nine inner courtyards. The Garden of Prince Gong is rumored to have inspired Cao Xuequin's "The Dream of the Red Chamber" (or "The Story of the Stone"), the one classic Chinese novel that I've (partially) read. The garden with its multiple pavilions and several man-made lakes was completely overrun by tour groups, so Dave's and mine vague notion of having a tea and resting a while in one of the pavilions seemed absurd. But we did meander around, climbing the rocky paths on the second and the third level above ground, and this way managed to sneak by a few particularly ugly bottlenecks. This, to me, was the most surprising discovery about these traditional gardens: their three-dimensional architecture. Somehow, from the books, this part never became apparent to me, that the traditional garden is not conceived on a plane, but also in the vertical space. This is also one aspect the smaller-scale gardens like the ones in Portland or Vancouver cannot replicate.

Beijing clearly presents itself as a much older city than Shanghai. Walking down a seemingly random alley, we've come across a sign that marked the existence of this same alley from the 13th century. Also, we've walked into a store with wooden triangle roofs and a series of courtyards, labeled with a plaque: this store was a pharmacy built in 1606 and served the emperor and the court. There were several different shops located on the premises now, but the only one still open (it was after 5 pm) was a state-run shop with traditional souvenirs, tea and candy.

My friend Yvette has been telling me of the ever-present danger in Beijing that the new bout of construction will destroy yet another historical neighborhood; that the traditional compounds will be replaced with ultra-modern office buildings and hotels. She herself has been writing fiction, short stories and novellas, that explore the changing cityscapes and social structures of contemporary Beijing. I am thinking about her stories as I walk around and look at the tremendous construction sites that border every neighborhood, that meet you every time you turn a corner from a well-trodden tourist path. Yvette's project, to reflect and remember, resonates with me: I also keep thinking about the one skyscraper, the infamous Okhta Center or Gasprom tower, that may or may not be built in the next few years downtown St. Petersburg.

Read Dave's blog for a more detailed account of what we've been up to.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Episodic imagination

I've read an essay recently by a philosopher Galen Strawson, in which he argues that people differ in ways they experience self in time. The two polarities are Diachronic and Episodic self-experiences, where a Diachronic person imagines self "as something that was there in the past and will be there in the future," while an Episodic person "has little or no sense that the self was there in the past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being." I strongly identify with this second type of experience, the Episodic.

An example: I can never pack right for the weather. I look at the weather forecast, I estimate how much hotter or colder it is than San Francisco, I advise Dave (or whomever I'm traveling with) what would be, theoretically, the right clothes to bring, and then I go on to pack my own suitcase with completely random stuff that has no relationship to what I'm going to need on the ground. I don't do this intentionally. At the outset, I firmly decide to break the pattern, to plan the trip right, to pack for all eventualities. And I always end up with the wrong clothes, trip after trip after trip. I seem to be simply unable to project myself into the future, cannot imagine ever needing or wanting to wear anything other than what I'm comfortable with at the moment.

Here, in China, I ended up with a bathing suit and sandals I haven't used once, and without a proper jacket for the low 40F temperatures in the evenings. My suitcase is filled with tank tops and summer skirts, and only three long-sleeved shirts. I did pack an umbrella and several scarves, but I didn't bring a single sweater. I'd worn my favorite sleeveless vest on the plane -- and this was the warmest piece of clothing I had with me. So one of the things we had to do in Hangzhou -- before we got to the supposedly cold Beijing -- was to buy me a jacket.

This is pretty much how I get most of my shopping done. I end up in various parts of the world without necessary articles of clothing and have to improvise. My previous jacket, I got two years ago when I ended up in Ireland over New Years without warm clothes (what kind of a person would show up in Ireland in January without a good jacket? An Episodic, unable to imagine self in the future). And last year, in Israel, I bought two skirts and a dress, because Israel in January was quite summery. In the past, I'd had to buy boots in Spain and T-shirts in Germany. The only reason I rarely buy new clothes in Russia is because I can always wear my mom's stuff there. And also, she has a tendency to plan for me and buy me clothes whether I need anything or not.

My wardrobe is a hodgepodge of uniquely patterned, brightly colored articles from all over the world (but actually probably all made here in China), most of it bought at the time of need and in a rush. A lot of it has been acquired even without my presence. Few articles fit me well, and the notion of matching is unthinkable. Even if I can wear my Israeli skirt with a plain black shirt, it's never going to look right with my purse made of complex geometrically patterned material in moss green, brick red, pale yellow and other colors, a purse I cannot give up because my mom brought for me from Armenia (even if it had been made in China or India, so what).

Here's what happened in Hangzhou. Our friend David had brought the report that Beijing was having a cold spell, that the temperatures in Beijing approximated 0 degrees Celsius (32 F). I was already feeling uncomfortable in my vest (a birthday gift from my mom several years ago, she'd mailed it to me from Israel) worn over a pair of long-sleeved shirts -- and we were still in Hangzhou, where the temperature climbed to 15 degrees Celcius in the daytime. The prudent thing to do was to buy the jacket before we left Hangzhou, especially since we had time to shop after dinner.

David and Cici took us to a few clothing stores -- luckily, they were all on the same street (did I mention I hate shopping? I blame my Episodic imagination for my inability to select what I would actually ever want to wear). Nothing fit right. Everyone was advising me to try larger sizes -- in China, the sizes are marked based on height; I am 164 cm tall, and the sizes range 160 - 165 - 170 -- and I did try 170, but it was no use. I must've tried on ten different models of sweaters and jackets, and it all just felt wrong. This is part of the problem with buying clothes in foreign countries: I never know what the right models for my body type are. The clothes were too tight and too baggy at the same time; one jacket seemed to fit fine but then it had a hood lined with bright orange fur, and even I could tell that I would never wear something like this in San Francisco.

Finally, at what I was determined to make our last stop for the night -- the exercise was getting ridiculously stupid -- Dave pointed to a nice looking men's pea-coat, just for the hell of it. "Try this." The first one I tried on was it. The shoulders were the right breadth, the sleeves the right length, I had enough room in the chest to button all the buttons and still be able to move my arms up and down. The material was thick enough for cold weather and the plain gray color classy enough to look good even when I picked up my crazy purse. The only thing about it, being a man's coat, it buttoned on the right side. I figured, I'd get used to it.

We bought the coat without further ado, and I walked out of the store wearing it instead of my old vest. Will I be able to wear it in San Francisco? I don't see why not -- but of course, I've said so about many things that are currently gathering dust in my closet. Being gray, this coat seems pretty easy to match with a lot of things -- if I were suddenly to take up matching as a hobby. The coolest part about it is the story that goes with it: Hangzhou, hanging out with David and Cici who seemed to get a kick out of the fact that the only thing that fit me right was a men's jacket. Also, the company I bought the jacket from -- Meters/Bonwe, a local chain -- is one of David's clients, and this added to the fun of the experience.

These kinds of stories are the best part of my wardrobe, the reason why I have such a hard time emptying my closets, donating anything to Goodwill. Being an Episodic, I don't have ready access to my memories as a Diachronic person, perhaps, might: to imagine (Diachronics would say "remember") myself in the past, I need the physical objects to prompt the memories. So I insist on wearing my random clothes, even if they make the task of getting dressed in the mornings extremely challenging.

Happy Halloween, everybody :)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tourist will eat

A tourist moves through a foreign city driven by desire. She is looking for an undefined, unknown experience that will somehow effect change upon her. The more unfamiliar the culture, the more opportunities it seems to offer for radical transformation of her consciousness. She yearns to study, to learn, to grow, to understand. At the very least, she's looking for some kind of human interaction that will allow her to feel less foreign in this formidable city, less alone. She finds souvenir shops and street food. Buns of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Hot dogs on sticks. Spinach dumplings. Corn on the cob. Chestnuts. Pearl milk tea. Black sesame cookies and cream-filled pastries. Hard-boiled eggs. Bowls of noodles and cabbage. Pancakes with scallions and unspecified meat. Melon on sticks. Barbecued chicken on sticks. Baked potato. Stinky tofu. She samples these by pointing and counting out coins; at the end of the day she still hasn't talked to a single human being, and if she's been in any way transformed by what she has seen, the transformation has been so minor as to go entirely unnoticed. But the desire--an undefined yearning for something extraordinary--has been successfully channeled into hunger, and the hunger satisfied. Stomach full, she keeps walking, stuffing her purse with baggies of dried fruit and nuts, hard candy, sesame balls, lychees and apples, bars of chocolate, boxes of miniature mints, gum. The desire has been transformed and satisfied, and yet it's still there, burning in the back of her mind, driving her down miles upon miles of narrowly paved roads, through crowds of goal-oriented locals, by ways of hundreds of vendors that offer more opportunities to put off the inevitable realization that what pushes her along has nothing to do with her surroundings. The desire is born of something deep within her self, and must be answered by looking inwards, not outwards. She sits down at a cafe, at a bookstore, at a curbside, leans against a lamppost or a granite facade, and starts writing. This, isn't this what she was looking for in the foreign city: the way to stop looking. This, she thinks, is freedom. This is happiness. Her thoughts are fueled by the full stomach, and the supplies in her purse will ensure that her stomach will remain pleasantly full at least until the next day.

Meantime, Dave's conference ended somewhere between 3 and 11:30 am this morning, and the touristy part of the trip has officially started. Our new friends David and Cici drove us to the nearby city Hangzhou. On the way, we stopped by what looked like a truck stop in a town called Jiaxin to try a local specialty dish, zongzi -- a bun of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with deliciously soft pork. David and Cici were telling us the tidbits from the history of this dish in Jiaxin, and while they were talking they started remembering all the wonderful Hangzhou specialty dishes: shrimp cooked in tea soup, Beggar's Chicken cooked in lotus leaves and ashes, fried tofu skins dipped in tomato sauce, fried ice cream, Dongpo pork, named after a poet and a governor of Hangzhou from the 11th century, Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi). After finishing our snack, we rushed to Hangzhou, quickly toured the famous West Lake, had tea with lotus root starch soup in one of the tea houses on the island in the middle of the lake, then took the boat back to shore, and rushed to the restaurant where we could sample all these other famed dishes. Today offered a kind of culinary experience that puts the idea of a "Chinese restaurant" to shame.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tourist, know thyself

I am not entirely unfamiliar with Chinese culture. True, I don't understand even the basics of the language and know only tidbits of history, but I've read a classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), for my Master's exam -- at least three of the five volumes. And in high school, we'd studied the history of the Chinese revolution. At that time in the evolution of USSR-PRC relations, my teachers were a lot more sympathetic to Chiang Kai-Shek's cause then they were to Mao. Oh, of course, I've seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- who hasn't?

This doesn't add up to much, but it turns out to be a decent jumping-off platform. For example, The Dream of the Red Chamber, written in 1759, gives a very detailed account of the philosophy and aesthetics behind the construction of the traditional Chinese garden. So when yesterday I found myself getting lost in the vistas and nooks of Yu Garden in the Old Shanghai, I felt like I was revisiting something very familiar. In the last few years, I've visited Chinese gardens in Portland and Vancouver, but the scale here is completely different. And size matters: Yu Garden is much more than a garden, it features, for example, a classic theatre ("Ancient Opera Stage") with a live music show of traditional china instruments ("china music is a great invention of China"). And that was just one of the two dozen pavilions and attractions.

I got a very good tour of the Yu Garden by inadvertently eavesdropping on guides speaking to German, Russian, and British and American tourist groups. Of the languages I didn't understand, I heard Chinese, French, Spanish, and Italian. It was very amusing to compare the different spins each guide put on the stories they told. For example, one American English-speaking guide pointed to a two-storied building and said: "This is called the Heavenly tower. In China, young women of noble families were not allowed to step out of the garden until they were married. And when they were married, they left the garden and went out into the world. So to prepare themselves for it, they climbed to the second floor of this tower to look over the wall into the world outside: and so this is called 'Heavenly Tower.'" The German speaking guide pointed to the same building and said (I'm paraphrasing): "Metaphorically, the second floor is 'above the clouds,' thus, the name of the tower, Heavenly." (I am unable to confirm either story on Google -- I'm finding only very bare-bones descriptions of the garden. And very basic, inaccurate maps.)

All the pavilions were very well marked in English with a few words describing their history and purpose. Since the pavilions frequently served purely contemplative, aesthetic purposes (to enjoy this view or that), the descriptions require a poetic interpretation: "Viewing the scenery of the big rockery by the wooden rails one feels carefree and joyous." Indeed, one does.

I've stuck to my decision to focus my explorations of Shanghai around literature and literary figures. One of the streets near my hotel, Fuzhou Lu, is apparently known as the Book Street. My friend Yvette has told me that most bookstores in China are owned by the publishers, and so I'm guessing that all the different bookstores on Fuzhou Lu are owned by competing publishers. One of Dave's coworkers said that the bookstores in Shanghai are having a hard time staying in business these days because most people buy books online. In any case, I've walked by several multi-storied bookstores on Fuzhou Lu, and spent time in one called "Foreign Language Bookstore" that had plenty of books in English, from popular paperbacks to textbooks for people studying Chinese to novels and nonfiction books about China in general and Shanghai in particular. I picked up and started reading Chuang Hua's "Crossings" -- it was very hard to put down, but I decided to check it out of the library back in San Francisco. English books are ridiculously expensive here, probably because they have to be imported. This little paperback cost more than $20.

And the day before yesterday, I visited a museum dedicated to Lu Xun, one of the founders of the modern Chinese literature at the beginning of the 20th Century. He is one of the rare writers who is well known (and well loved) in both US and China. I've read several of his stories before (although I'm yet to read his most famous one in English, A Madman's Diary). Lu Xun never joined the Communist party himself, but he was very much a Socialist and was friendly with many of the Communist leaders. He died in 1936, before Mao came to power, and so in a way this helped to preserve his legacy in both worlds. This museum, located in the middle of the park bearing Lu Xun's name, was a big, modern building, featuring a lot of interactive exhibits and clay models depicting scenes from Lu Xun's life. The focus of many of the exhibits was on the development of Lu Xun's political education and ideas, suggesting perhaps that had he lived a little longer, he would've become a member of the party. As it was, "He became the most loyal comrade-in-arms of the communists."

Political pathos aside, it was very touching to see some of his personal items on display: a pair of black socks, a watch, a purple woolen sweater, his cup and saucer, a graph that monitored his body temperature for several days before his death, an umbrella "with which Lu Xun attended in spite of rain the memorial meeting for Xang Quan at the International Funeral Directorate." It's been a long time since I've been to a museum dedicated to a writer; last time Dave and I tried to go to Moika 12, where Pushkin died, it was closed for a holiday.

Lu Xun died in Shanghai, a few blocks away from the memorial museum. His flat -- which is also open to tourists for a nominal fee -- is located in a very typical Shanghainese building block, it's end wall facing the street and long narrow alleys in front and back separating it from the other blocks in the development. This was a great opportunity to take a closer look at the way this system works: even if Lu Xun's place is a museum, all the other apartments in his and surrounding blocks are still very much occupied. The apartment itself consisted of three floors: living and dining room on the first floor, a bath and a toilet on the half floor between first and second, master bedroom and his study (a bed and a desk next to each other) on the second floor, and his son's bedroom on the third floor. There was also a room for visitors next door to the master bedroom, and plenty of closets on the half floors. The view was not much: all the hustle and bustle of the alleys, but as one of the stands at the memorial museum implied, this kind of setting was exactly what he needed for inspiration. In any case, I had an impression, that this was a rather upscale lodging.

Oh, another cool thing about the Lu Xun museum. The alley leading up to it was decorated with stone plaques inscribed with short quotations from love poetry by poets from all around the world (and maybe also Chinese poets, although those weren't translated to English, so I'm just guessing): Plato, Goethe, Sándor Petőfi (Hungarian revolutionary poet), Rabindranath Tagore, Omar Khayyam, Alexander Pushkin (oh that Pushkin, he gets around!), Percy Bysshe Shelly, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda ("I like for you to be still"). And one of the exhibits at the memorial museum highlighted this idea: "Li Xun had an extensive access to Western Literature and foreign friends in his earlier years. ... Meanwhile, the foreign works he read could not be numbered. Therefore, his ability of critical thinking had been improved."

Anyway, this post is hugely long and rambling, and I didn't even mention half of the things I've seen in the last two days. I've visited two museums of contemporary art -- one featuring contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, the other from Hong Kong; accidentally stumbled into a fashion show of Italian designers (catwalk and all!) on the third floor of MoCA--the Museum of Contemporary Art; two temples, one Taoist and another Buddhist (the Taoist temple featured Gods of Literature and Wealth sitting right across the courtyard from one another, God of Literature with a wily smile on his face, and God of Wealth with a stern scary look); tried lots of street foods and pastries (OMG, pastries -- delicious) and walked through all kinds of neighborhoods. More on all that in the days to come.

Keep up with Dave's work adventures in Shanghai here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shanghai: accidental Pushkin

Yesterday morning I walked out of the hotel with the intention of walking over to the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, supposedly located only a block and a half from the hotel. I decided to take the long way there, and turned right where I could've turned left. I used the opportunity to explore the quieter residential areas of the French Concession. Battled some school kids in line for candy and gum (I, too, it turned out, wanted candy and gum), watched men on rickshaws transporting bags of Styrofoam in all directions (recycling?), people opening market stands for the day's business.

The French Concession boasts not only platane-lined streets, but also once in a while tiny little parks at street corners. In one of these, I spotted a familiar face. "Boy, can this statue here, in the middle of Shanghai, really be a monument to the greatest Russian poet of all times, Aleksandr Pushkin?" I asked myself and crossed the street to look. The curly hair and abundant sideburns, the flamboyant collar and tie, the eyes gazing into the distance all fit the traditional Pushkin image. The name on the monument was inscribed only in Chinese characters, but the dates of birth and death were given in Roman script: 1799-1837. Pushkin!

I guess this is not surprising: Russians have a good long history of engagement with China in general and with Shanghai specifically (and I mean besides the shared Communist history), but it was really lovely to keep encountering the physical manifestations of this relationship all throughout my day. On the Bund, for example, I saw a strangely familiar-looking building that, on approach, turned out to be a former "St. Petersburg Russo-Sino" bank building, now a foreign exchange center.

(As a subset of this history, there's also a story of the Russian Jews in China -- but I haven't come face to face with it yet).

In the afternoon, I moved with Dave and his coworkers from our hotel in the French Concession to the new hotel on the Bund -- the actual site of the conference that started yesterday. This took up a big chunk of the day, and then Dave had to get back to work again, and I set out to explore the town on foot. I walked all the way back to the French Concession and spent the evening at a foreign language bookstore/ice cream parlor, Garden Books. Pushkin is great and all, but I know virtually nothing of Chinese literature (or culture, or language -- but fiction is a good place to start from), and now that I'm in love with Shanghai, the lack of information is unacceptable. My plan now is to see as much literature-related sites in the city as I can manage, more bookstores and libraries included. Sightseeing in a completely unfamiliar land is a daunting proposition, and limiting what I should try to learn and to remember makes it seem much more doable (and fun!).

Oh, meanwhile, the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts is perfectly charming. The coolest part about it is that in addition to displaying works of art (mostly 20th Century handcrafts: intricate ivory and wood carvings, silk embroidery, clay figurines, etc) they provide space for artists to work on new projects -- and to sell their work to the visitors. Almost every piece in the museum had a price tag attached to it, and some of it was very reasonable. Or, rather, the prices were conveniently arranged to match the pockets of all kinds of depth.

Dave has a contest running on his blog today. Check it out and participate!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shanghai, Day 1

Dave has been telling me all along that he finds Shanghai very charming, but the general buzz one hears about China is so filled with stories of poverty, industrialization, poor ecology, and communism, that I had trouble hearing him. Downtown Shanghai is charming. Definitely the part of town we're staying in, the French Concession (the area was maintained by the French from the mid 19th century until 1946). Dave says it's the only part of the city to feature tree-lined streets. This morning, there were also a bunch of stands selling delicious dim sum -- buns filled with spinach, purple potato, brown rice. We were on our way to a brunch place Dave's pre-approved for us, but we couldn't pass these by.

Dave took the afternoon off today, and we went to the World Expo. Dave's coworkers and my friend Yvette have been warning us that the Expo is crazy busy. The rumor had it that today was the last day the Expo is open to the general public; after today it's invitation only. Somebody said that the day before, on Saturday, there were 1,2 million people at the Expo, that it took them four hours to get into the US pavilion, that after spending a full day at the Expo, they'd only made it inside three pavilions. Yvette had advised me to go in the evening, when the crowds thin out a bit. But Dave wanted to go, and we had to fit the trip around his work schedule.

It was drizzling lightly. Exiting the subway at one of the Expo stops, we were guided through metal detectors (we'd also had to go through a metal detector to enter the subway!) -- and emerged in a sea of people. All the country stands were divided by continent affiliation. Asia and Middle East to the right, Europe, Australasia, and the Americas to the left. We made the game plan on the spot: to skip all the big, popular pavilions, and go to the ones we can get into, the ones with short or fast-moving lines. We turned to the right, and went to Sri Lanka.

Inside Sri Lanka, we found booths with blown up photographs of ancient ruins and Buddhist sites; ancient-looking vases and statuettes in glass cases; a few models of architectural structures and parks; food stand; a guy making silver anklets; lots of tea, scarves, saris, and jewelry for sale.

This proved to be the pattern of the pavilions: photographs; glass cases with artifacts; some food items; stands selling souvenirs and parts of national costuming. Usually, in every pavilion we found one creative way a country distinguished itself from all the others. In the Sri Lankan pavilion, there was that guy making silver anklets. His work was quite intricate, and he had a full set of tools in front of him, from fine saws and files to pliers to other instruments I couldn't identify. If we didn't get pushed around by all others who wanted to take a peak at his work, we could've watched him for a good long while.

In the Afghanistan pavilion (they didn't have a full pavilion, but a space within Asia Pavilion 1), a woman from Nepal painted a henna drawing on my hand. In Uzbekistan, there was a map of the world with Uzbekistan at the center of the world, and "New York" occupying a third of the United States. In Viet Nam, there was the building itself, adorned inside and outside with bamboo in gothic church-like curves. Inside, there was also an oversized statue of Buddha and a zen pond with lotus flowers that might have looked very tranquil and zen, if not for the crowd that was stepping on our heels and rushing us along. In Nepal, there was another very beautiful building with intricate wood carvings for awnings and hand rails, but after we'd waited in line to get inside the pavilion, we found another line of people waiting for their turn to climb a ladder to the top of a two-storied globe, with indefinite rewards at the top. We opted out.

The lines were intense. Dave and I stuck to our resolution to choose only the fast moving lines, but in these lines people kept moving fast right past us, as if we were completely invisible. To keep up with the crowd, we had to get aggressive, to work elbows and shoulders, to push forward or to push back, to hold our ground and inch forward. At the end of Nepal, we were completely exhausted. But we wanted to meet up with Dave's coworker Laura, and Laura's local friend. And we also wanted refreshments: we were thinking, Belgian beer, why not.

To get to Belgium, we had to walk the length of the Expo, across all the continents, to Europe. We walked by a lot of long lines. The China pavilion had a long line. The Japan pavilion (that looked like a pig about to take off into space) had what we thought was a ridiculous line. The India and South Korea had people looping around and around in wait. But then we saw the line to Saudi Arabia that seemed to dwarf all the other lines. To get into Saudi Arabia, some people waited for six hours or more. Laura's friend told us that Saudi Arabia had the best attraction: a 3D movie right at the entrance.

Belgium shared a pavilion with the European Union as a body, and there was a long line there, too. But we'd figured out how the pavilions worked by then. The food parts of the pavilion usually had back entrances, so that you could skip the pavilion and go straight for the food. We looked for that, and found an entrance to a cafe. A long staircase led us to the second floor of the pavilion, and right away we saw the blackboard with brand names of beers, the Leffes and Chimays and Duvels and Kastels and Kwaks adorned the ceiling of the long bar. We sat down -- the first time Dave and I sat down in about six hours -- and had some Belgian french fries with mayo, a second course of red snapper, and a glass of highly alcoholic sweet beer, Kastel. The ordering when like this:

Do you have this beer?
Let me check, ummm, I don't think so, no.
What about this one?
And this?
So what do you have?
What do you mean?

They are dismantling the restaurant in the next few days or maybe weeks, so their supplies were dwindling.

A receipt from the cafe got us inside Belgium pavilion -- and this is another good way to skip the crazy lines. Belgium boasted the Magritte museum, the solar plane that, judging by the movie, could lift itself 6 inches off the ground, the solar powered car for one skinny driver, and the chocolate samples that they'd just stopped giving out the minute we approached the stand. They also sold chocolate in another part of the booth, but that's not the same.

For more of Dave's adventures, check out his blog:

Friday, October 22, 2010


After I almost missed a dentist appointment on Tuesday, I've implemented a new task organization system, my third this year. I was sitting at a cafe with my friend Sarah and admiring her beautiful calendar: she keeps the handwriting tiny and neat, the tasks are color coded and prioritized in columns by days of the week, and there's also room for sketches and pretty little drawings in the margins. Sarah's calendar is an imprint of a beautiful mind, a mind that knows what her priorities are and sees a clear path to achieve them.

I wanted to have that -- I yearned for it. So I came home, and pulled out the smallest blank journal I had, and used my tiniest handwriting to enter the tasks that came to mind. Write a story. Read this, this, and that. Write a story. Edit. Revise. Do dishes. Revise, edit. Turn off the heater before I leave for China. Vote. Revise.

This is the second time I've almost missed a dentist appointment this year. In the spring, I missed one by fifteen minutes, but they called, and I said I'll be right there in five minutes, and they said okay, just be here quick, and I made it in ten minutes. This time, I was still in bed, reading a novel when they called. I couldn't have taken a shower and brushed my teeth and gotten dressed in ten minutes. The thought flashed through my head when I saw the caller ID. Luckily, this time they called ahead -- to tell me that they were running ten minutes behind. I made it with minutes to spare.

The problem with keeping task lists is that if I don't want to do something, I'm not going to do it, no matter how many times I have to carry the task over from one page of my calendar to another. I'm much more likely to abandon the journal (so new, so attractive today) because I can't face all the tasks I'm carrying over. Task lists intimidate. They scare the hell out of me. The failures embodied by a task list dwarf all possible future and past accomplishments.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Aron Zinshtein

On Sunday, I got a phone call from a legendary underground Leningrad painter, Aron Zinshtein. I'd met him in St. Petersburg this summer -- my friend and editor, Galina, introduced us, she'd brought him to my presentation in Bookvoed. In the 1960s and 70s, Aron had been a part of the world that's mostly familiar to me through stories: the world of artists who wanted to exist independently of the Communist party, and thus were unable to sell their art through the official channels, forced to earn their living by sweeping streets and operating furnaces. (I actually don't know how Aron himself had earned his living back then, I should ask him).

In any case, Aron's is having a show of his work in the Bay Area this coming weekend -- the show starts on Friday, in San Jose, and he is staying with friends about 50 miles away in Richmond (the town north of Berkeley). His friend who lives in Richmond doesn't drive on the highways, and the friends who are helping him organize the show in San Jose work during the week. So he needed my help to deliver the paintings from one place to another -- which I was happy to do, especially because I'm going to miss his show this weekend -- I'll be in China.

Theoretically, I've always known that there exists a sizable community of Russian immigrants in the Bay area, but I had no idea where they were or how to find them, especially the artists and the writers. Aron introduced me to a very friendly couple, who until a year or two ago published a Russian-language magazine Terra Nova (they even did a bilingual issue once), a magazine of interviews and essays written by the local Russian-speaking physicists, mathematicians, poets, musicians, architects and other "people of the arts and sciences." They generously gave me copies of the back issues: it felt like receiving a treasure chest. I signed up to their mailing list as well. Even though the magazine is temporarily defunct, the community is going strong with art shows and lectures and talks with all kinds of visiting Russian (and, if I'm not mistaken, particularly St. Petersburg) celebrities. The only problem: they meet in San Jose.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Home alone

Dave left for Shanghai on Saturday morning. The day before, my parents, who'd been visiting with us for three weeks, went back to St. Petersburg. My brother is working in Israel this week. I need a computer just to keep track of the time zones. I've spent the weekend reading. I've read from a few books about China, some magazines, a couple of novels, I've even picked at some poetry books and started Dead Souls again -- I must've started this book a dozen times already, and I never make it past page 50. I find it painfully boring. But then, I always run into the Dead Souls enthusiasts who make me think I'm missing something. Last week, I was talking to a person who not only lavishly praised Dead Souls, but also told me Marcel Proust has changed her life. Luckily, my weekend is almost over.

In the spirit of international travel, I had lunch yesterday at a Korean BBQ at a food cart a block away from my house. Check out San Francisco Street Food Cart project. The neighboring cart sold pretty awesome cupcakes.

Last week, my Russian book Keys From the Lost House went on sale at the Russia's largest online bookstore, (if "ozon" sounds like "amazon," I'm sure the similarity is intended). Check it out here:

Two Sundays ago, I read my story "Sweet Dreams" at the Barely Published event, a part of Litquake. The crowd was very friendly and laughed a lot, so I count the reading as a success. Our local literary reporter Evan Karp wrote up the event and filmed all of it on video available through youtube. Here's Evan's article: Scroll down to Barely Published and click on my name to see and hear my bit. But all the readers were excellent, and I highly recommend listening to all of them.

And here's a link to Marie Houzelle's story "Égalité" that is now featured on Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week. Marie is my friend from a writing conference I attended at Skidmore college over a year ago, and I'm very proud to be able to link to her story. Her writing is profound and hilarious at the same time, there's an unmistakable voice in everything she writes. This story, like much of her writing, is set in Paris in the 1970s, in the middle of all kinds of social and personal turmoil. So good!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ключи от потерянного дома, presentation

Every book related event seems to be as different from another as are the books themselves. At least the four or five events I have been involved in seem to belong to entirely different genres. They have ranged from a theatricalized production during the book release party for Kofe-Inn, my first Russian-language collection, to the game show format last week in Moscow.

This one today, in Bookvoed in St. Petersburg, most closely resembled a typical book reading that I've seen in the US. And still, I didn't simply read from my book, but first talked for about twenty minutes with one of my editors, Galina, about the evolution of the book, about my path as a writer, about my editing work, etc. Only then did I read one of my stories. And afterward took some questions and signed copies. I was on stage for about an hour altogether, talking for most of the time. This is probably the largest amount of public speaking I've done as an adult. It was stressful, but also invigorating. There were many friends and family members in the crowd -- and there was a small crowd -- and this helped to make my talk very warm and personal, despite the fact that this wasn't really a talk. Since I'm so inexperienced as a public speaker, I chose to read most of what I had to say -- I had good notes, and I had practiced reading them a number of times so I could react to Galina's questions by skipping a paragraph here and there or by changing the order of things.

As a huge bonus to this event, I've met some new exciting people. Two of them are planning to be in San Francisco in the next month or so: an artist who is going to have a gallery show, and a journalist who is going to California to write about Fort Ross, but might also be around for part of Litquake. I've even got to talk German today for about five or so minutes! My old country-house friend Masha who now lives in Germany happened to be in town today with her German friend Ron -- and we got a bit of a chance to talk after the presentation.

Now comes the sad part. I'm packing. The trip is effectively over -- I'm leaving at noon tomorrow morning. I've said good-bye to all of my friends, promising many to write letters or call on skype. I should know better by now: back to San Francisco, I don't make time to write letters or talk on the phone anymore. I can even disappear from email for months at a time. I guess, what I can do is write more stories. This is what I do these days: part of the reason I write is to keep up connections with the people I love. Writing and calling is good too.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ключи от потерянного дома, St. Petersburg Presentation

Book-related events are proceeding full speed ahead. At 7 pm on Tuesday (Sept 14), I'm going to present it in St. Petersburg at a new branch of a prominent citywide bookstore chain, Bookvoed (Буквоед) -- the name roughly translates as "Eater of books" or "Eater of letters (of alphabet)" and references a cultural image of a voracious reader as somebody who "consumes books." The new store is located in the middle of Nevsky prospekt (Невский 46), and is rumored to have three floors full of books, glass walls and elevators, a standard cafe, and a bunch of brand new managers who don't know the inventory yet. The store opened last Wednsday, and my aunt was one of their first customers. She reports that the store was empty, "but it's not surprising because they'll need at least 5,000 people to fill that place up! It's a stadium, not a bookstore! What were they thinking??" We're not going to try to fill it up for my presentation, but we're inviting all friends and family members to participate.

The presentation at the Moscow book show was very low-key on my part. I didn't really have to do anything except hang out and meet people. We had a trivia contest going at our stand: passers-by had to answer questions slightly related to my book. Who was President of the USA in 1992? How long does it take to fly from San Francisco to St. Petersburg? What ocean does the aircraft cross on the way? Winners got the book as a gift. Everyone who stopped by got postcards with the book art and info, links to my brand new Russian website ( I smiled and chatted with a couple of friends who stopped by.

The event in St. Petersburg is going to be entirely different. I'm preparing a talk -- trying to figure out what I can tell my friends and family about myself that'll be new and interesting to them. It will probably have something to do with my life in San Francisco, with San Francisco Writers Workshop and the amazingly supportive San Francisco writing community; with the work I've done over the last few years as a reader and an editor at literary magazines in the US; the ways of dealing with rejection -- and with acceptance; with all the choices I keep making that allow me to go on writing -- and writing, somehow, in two languages. The presentation will be structured as a conversation between me and my friend and editor Galina, and hopefully she'll help me to streamline my thoughts and stop me from rambling. I'm planning to write as much of it down as I can, and, if I need to, read from my notes. I am a very nervous public speaker, and particularly so in Russian. And with a microphone! Yikes. I'll probably read the Russian version of "My Mother at the Shooting Range," too. I'm scared, but I'm also looking forward to it. I've invited a lot of friends and family members, and it'll be fun to be able to share with them some part of my world and my work. It's a rare opportunity, indeed. Do wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy 5771

My cousin, his girlfriend and I went to the St. Petersburg synagogue today for Rosh Hashanah services. There is only one functioning synagogue in St. Petersburg, the Grand Choral Synagogue; there's another synagogue at the Jewish cemetery, but the last time I saw it (a few years ago), it was still in ruins. Since my family is not religious, I had never been to the synagogue before, but nevertheless I knew exactly where to go. The building is located between the two stages of Mariinsky theatre -- I've seen the dome many times on my way to the theatre. The synagogue was constructed at the end of 19th Century in a bizarre mix of Moorish, Byzantine and Arabesque styles; renovated completely in the 1990s, today it struck me as one of the best maintained buildings in the city. The dome, the mosaic walls, the cast iron fence all sparkled brightly in the light of the setting sun.

My cousin had been at the synagogue once when he was ten years old, with his father. He remembers a decrepit building, completely deserted: in his memory, there were four or five people present during the service. My main memory connected with the synagogue is of our grandmother who made the trek downtown every spring -- for Passover -- and brought home matzah. This memory is very vivid because my grandmother, when she grew older, usually didn't travel very far from our neighborhood. Moreover, she always went to the synagogue alone. She brought us along when she went out grocery shopping, to visit relatives, to the doctors' offices, she took us to the swimming pools and music and painting classes, but she never took us with her when she went to the synagogue. Perhaps, she thought we wouldn't understand it. Or perhaps it was safer this way. I'm not sure I can authentically reconstruct her way of thinking about it. But she brought back matzah, and to us, the matzah itself was a big deal, very exciting -- it was so different from our regular food, and then she used to fry it and made a cake out of it.

Today, the building and the courtyard were very crowded. My cousin ran into somebody he knew from school, a sister of his classmate, and I was recognized by one of my mother's friends -- even though she didn't come up to acknowledge this on the spot, but later called my mom to tell her she saw me. I came to the service quite late, maybe halfway through, and had to climb to the second floor because this synagogue maintains the gender separation law. This, too, I had known before entering. I found my cousin's girlfriend up there, on the "Choral" level, and she pointed out a tableau next to the cantor's stand that displayed the current page of the Machzor, the Rosh Hashanah prayer book.

Russian translation of the Hebrew prayers is written in an elevated language with slightly old-fashioned diction. It was sweet but also somewhat amusing, like reading a century old newspaper article. The prayers were in Hebrew, but the sound was completely unfamiliar to me from what I've heard of various services in American synagogues (although I have never been to a Rosh Hashanah service in the US). Here, the prayers sounded a lot like "Ay-yay-yay-yay, Ay-yay-yay-yay" repeated for many minutes at a time. At the end of the service, the prayer seemed to turn suddenly into a popular song as the cantor turned to the crowd, and everyone interrupted their casual conversations for a moment (at least on the second floor people had been ceaselessly mingling with one another) and joined him in singing "Shalom Aleichem" and clapping along.

The service was followed by a reception with cakes and cookies and Coke. We partook of a few treats, and then proceeded to everyone's favorite restaurant Teplo for a lovely meal and more dessert. We played scrabble while waiting for our food, and my cousin's girlfriend won the game by composing words like "Challah" and "Tsahal" (Хала and Цахал in Russian).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book sillyness

Friday night, as I was posting the previous blog entry featuring the cover of my book, I had a scare: I discovered a spelling error right there on the back cover. It was three o'clock in the morning, and I had to get up at five to make it to the train to Moscow. The books had been printed earlier in the week, and a stack of them had already been sent to Moscow for the book show. The only thing I could do was send an email. "Wow, I can't believe we missed this!" As I lay in bed, I tried to find the ways to turn this situation into a joke. In the morning -- an hour and a half later -- it turned out that I was posting an old image: the mistake I discovered had already been corrected during one of the steps in the editing process, the step I'd apparently missed.

Today, flipping through one of the books from my own stack, I discovered that the text inside the book was printed backwards. Inside the front cover, I found the last page of the last story in the collection, upside down. I feverishly started opening all the other books in the stack: could this be a singular fluke? But no, the next one was also backwards. And the next one? The next one started properly, from the beginning. Whew. The next one after that was also okay. In total, there were two backwards books in the stack of twenty. Why only two is hard to guess, and what about all the other stacks? My mom suggested that I should turn this into a game: anyone who happens to get a backwards book wins a prize. A special signature, for example: the person who reads this book is a very special reader.. The thought needs further development, but the main idea stands: to turn a silly printing error into a happening :)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ключи от потерянного дома

My second Russian-language short story collection, The Keys to the Lost House, is getting released in Moscow on Sunday. The publisher is St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press, and the book is being presented at a Moscow book show ММКВЯ on Sunday, September 5, at noon. Here's how to find it in case you happen to be in the neighborhood: Зал B, стенд E-4; F-3 :)). The book show is taking place in Moscow's largest trade show center, VDNKh, that has several permanent museum pavilions and vast grounds with fountains and gardens. I don't know if I'll get to play tourist there over the weekend, but I'll report back on the things I do get to see. My book's presentation alone promises to be eventful; already people have reported sightings of an oversized "Olga Grenetz" balloon flying around the pavilion. (Oh yeah, my book in Russia is being published under my code name Olga Grenetz. It's confusing.)

Here's the link to the online catalog listing for the book on the Limbus Press's website: Check it out!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Protest and art

I walked by the Dissenters' March today. Apparently, in Moscow the police beat up and arrested a bunch of people. In St. Petersburg, they arrested a bunch of people as well, but on a smaller scale. What I saw from across the wide Nevsky prospect was a group of 300 or so people (including some parents with young children) hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the shopping center Gostiny Dvor, surrounded by the busloads of policemen. I hung about for a few minutes -- there were lots of onlookers from across the street, including traffic cops and a man with government tags on the windshield of his car -- he was on the phone, perhaps giving orders. A fire engine arrived and parked right next to the protesters. The firemen in full gear unraveled the hose and stood by waiting for the word from the top to unleash the water. I'm not sure what happened next, but according to the reports online, it seems nothing much happened in St. Petersburg except some of the protesters were arrested by the special police. A breakaway protest started nearby, in the square in front of the Winter Palace (that houses the Hermitage), a few dozen of people walked around a commemorative column and chanted slogans. Many of them were arrested as well.

The organizers of the March have promised to gather protests on a 31st of every month that has 31 days. And if Putin has his way, they'll keep getting beaten each time: he said so himself. Here's a Yahoo News article on the matter that translates his quote this way: "You will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that's it." Fun stuff.

I walked by the protest by accident. My friend Polina and I had gone to see the Picasso exhibit at the Hermitage, and I was on my way to meet my parents at their office. The Hermitage owns a few Picassos (I remember the early works, a mandolin and a guitar), but the exhibit was a very special opportunity to see Picasso en masse: an exposition of 280 works from all periods, including sculpture and photographs. It came from the Picasso museum in Paris that is currently being renovated, and was displayed in the main ceremonial halls of the Winter Palace, in the spacious halls around the emperor's throne. Unfortunately, the halls seem to have the same infrastructure as during the emperor's times -- there's no air conditioning or air circulation of any kind. It was hot and stuffy -- and huge crowds of tourists didn't help. I spotted one museum attendant who was fanning herself with an old-fashioned ladies' fan, and asked her what it was like when the temperature in the city climbed to record-breaking heights for three weeks in a row, over 100F.

"Awful," she said. "Just awful. Many of us were having heart problems, and stayed home. The crowds were enormous, and we barely survived the experience."

"I'm sure the heat is damaging the art as well," I said thoughtlessly.

"Art! Everyone cares about art, not about the people who work here!" She pointed out the tactlessness of my statement -- I had spoken from the point of view of a tourist, who associates museums only with the art and not with the people who work there. I rushed to correct my mistake.

"You're right, it must've been much harder on people," I said. "Did anyone get a heat stroke?"

"Mostly people stayed home, they took sick leaves. But," and she came closer to me and lowered her voice to a whisper, "one woman died. One of the cleaning staff."

"From the heat?"

"Yes, this summer."

This was grave news, and I wanted to know more details about the incident, but the attendant went on to talk about what was on her mind. "Art!" she scoffed. "This is not art," she said referring to the Picassos hanging all about the large hall, "this is a bunch of smears."

"You're not a fan?"

"We send abroad good paintings, real art, and they send us this!"

Picasso, it seems, is still challenging and very controversial with many of the locals. Later, Polina and I found a guest book and read some of the notes that previous visitors had left there. By and large, they were very positive, expressions of gratitude and excitement at the opportunity to see so much of Picasso at once. But here and there, people wrote: "This is degenerate art! Picasso should've been examined by the psychiatrists. He's mental" or "Your museum is criminal for bringing this rubbish into the country, the only country where there still remains a tradition of good, realist art." And of course a bunch of curses, variations on "Picasso sucks."

Polina and I enjoyed the exhibit immensely, even though the flow of traffic was not very well marked, and we had to walk six times through one hall and climb several sets of stairs to find all the parts of the exhibit. It was very interesting to see how wildly experimental Picasso's art was from the early 1900 until the mid 1930s, and how in the later years he moved towards minimalism and abstraction. Polina made a fascinating discovery: she pointed to a painting of a vase and a plate with two apples perched on top of the vase, and said: "Later, he would've called this 'Portrait of a woman'." Indeed, every later abstract painting of a woman featured two round balls of various colors, and usually a vase-shaped curve somewhere on the canvas. So do his sculptures. I, a Salinger fan, was on the lookout for the paintings from Picasso's Blue period, but saw only one in one of the far galleries: a painting of an old woman (Celeste?) with one blind eye. I spend a good amount of time in front of it. I wondered if the museum attendant from earlier had seen this painting -- if she thought this, too, was a bunch of smears. That conversation bothered me deeply -- the woman's fierce anger at Picasso in combination with her story about another woman dying from the heat at the museum bother me still. And somehow these experiences are connected with the Dissenters' March I saw later in the day, but I am not sure how yet. To figure this out, I must transform these experiences into fiction.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Meet the Internet

On Friday, I visited with my aunt. For her birthday in May, my parents gave her her first computer, and she's learning how to use the Internet. She wants to be able to use skype, and she was also hoping to shop for books online. I want to help.

I used the Internet for the first time in 1996, at RIT. When I was leaving Russia for the first time, my dad told me that I could send letters to him at the office using fax and this new technology called "electronic mail." He tried to explain to me how it worked, but I stuck index fingers in my ears and said Stop-Stop-Stop, I can't listen to this right now, I don't want to know, too much new information, I don't get it, maybe I'll use fax, but I don't want to know anything about anything else. By this time, I had been using computers for five or six years. I'd played Formula One Grand Prix game and strip poker on our home computer, I knew how to program a growing snake game and asteroids in Basic and Pascal. I had earned a certificate at school qualifying me as a trained "computer operator." Nevertheless, computer was a black box, infinitely breakable, and thus hardly approachable. Every new thing I had to learn about it seemed like too much. Windows was a program I accessed from Norton Commander -- and I didn't really see the point of it. Did our home computer even have a mouse?

The days before my first trip to the US, I was overwhelmed by all the things I had to remember at the time: what to say to the customs officers if they had questions about my student visa, the names of the people who were going to meet me in New York and give me my tickets for the airplane to Rochester, the name and address of my host family in Rochester, the days when I had to show up at RIT for orientation, whom and in what order to contact in case of emergency, etc, etc. Everything seemed complicated and scary. But three days later, I was already emailing my dad from my host family's home computer: "Wow, this electronic mail, how amazing!" And another week later, I had an RIT vax account, and two dozen computers at the library with Netscape Navigator and webcrawler and lycos, and later yahoo, altavista, then metacrawler, google, and the entire history of the web.

Fourteen years later, the Internet seems to have gotten more complex and easier to use at the same time. For one thing, it's way faster. There are online bookstores in Russia and in Russian. But what we used to call "mystery meat" dominates the computer screen. Icons big and small come with either unfamiliar words or no words at all. Letter "S" for skype -- but what does "skype" mean? My aunt, who doesn't know English (she'd studied German), reads it as "scooreh." The only way to remember that this is the program she needs to use to call me is to write it down in a notebook. Letter "E" for Internet Explorer -- at least it says Internet, and this word is familiar enough to get by. Inside skype, it's easy to see where one types a text message (the cursor is blinking there), but how do you send a text? The blue button next to the box with the cursor has no words on it, but only a dialogue bubble with three horizontal lines. How can anyone know that this is a button, anyway?

Some things become clear almost right away: a word underlined in blue is a link, and moves you to another page. But how can you find what you're looking for on a page? There's text and pictures, some of them are flashing, and all of them seem to be located on a page randomly, in no particular order. I explain the menus, the navigation bars, the content field, what information is located where. A page entitled "Theatre Calendar" ends with "September" -- so where is the calendar for September? To get to it, you need to scroll down, I explain, but I don't remember the Russian word for "scroll," and so I say "press on this gray column over there, no not on the arrow part, on the light gray part above the arrow -- it's faster." Dragging and dropping is difficult, because it all goes by in a flash, and you have no idea where you're going to end up.

We go to -- one of the biggest Russian online bookstores -- and immediately become overwhelmed by advertising that grows to take up the third of the screen. We use the left-hand column to navigate the catalog: books -> literature -> foreign literature -> English, Australian and New Zealand Literature -> Contemporary English, Australian and New Zealand Literature -> and, finally, get a listing: Marina Levitskaya "A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian," Tom Stoppard "The Coast of Utopia," Peter Ackroyd "The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein," Joe Dunthorne "Submarine," etc. With the exception of A Short History of Tractors, these are all the books that my aunt has seen in the bookstores around the city. A Short History of Tractors? Really? So this is what the Internet has to offer! No wonder people have been saying all these years that there's nothing on the Internet but trash. And it's so much easier to go to the bookstore!

My aunt is almost ready to cry Stop-Stop-Stop, this is too much, I don't need to know any of this, when I get an idea to show her Wikipedia. Wikipedia is one of the "cleanest" sites I can remember: there are almost no icons or pictures, it's mostly all text. We choose a language, Russian, and search for Handel. My aunt has recently been to a Handel concert, and he's on her mind. There are many Handels on Wikipedia, the program reports, but we're searching for George Frideric, the composer. We press on the blue underlined text and go to the right page. "Now I see why people like the computer so much," my aunt says, "It's talking to me!" This is good: Handel's biography is there, his portrait, a list of all his works. My aunt is particularly interested in Handel's oratorio "Messiah," and we go to the right page -- and voila (if we remember how to get to the bottom of the page), there are music clips there, and we're listening to the arias! The lesson is a success.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gulf of Finland

St. Petersburg is located at the easternmost end of the long and narrow Gulf of Finland, a shallow appendage of the Baltic sea. On the north, the gulf is bordered by Finland, and on the south by Estonia; the entrance to the gulf is guarded by their capitals -- Helsinki and Tallin. Approximately 400 kilometers or 250 miles separate Helsinki and St. Petersburg, the distance of 40 minutes in flight time. Fifteen minutes to climb to altitude, fiften minutes to land, which leaves about ten minutes in the air. Just enough time for the flight attendands to serve packages of apple juice and pick up the empty cartons.

This was the last leg of my journey yesterday, and I did it twice - after we climbed to altitude and had our juice, the pilot announced that there was a glitch in the navigation computer, a problem that would not affect our flight, but without solving which the plane could not take off again, and this problem could not be fixed in St. Petersburg, but only in Helsinki, and so to Helsinki we were returning. The flight plan monitors hanging above the chairs all throughout the cabin showed our plane making a u-turn right in the middle of the blue triangle formed by Helsinki, Tallin and St. Petersburg.

Finnair planes are supermodern: they are equipped with cameras at the front and the bottom of the craft, allowing the passengers the view of the runway as the plane runs to take off, and then quickly switches to show the trees and the houses under the plane's belly. This was particularly cool a feature on the previous leg of my journey, as we were taking off from JFK airport in New York. The clear skies allowed us to see the cityskape of Queens, and then far into the fields of Connecticut -- before the displays were switched to the flight entertainment program (a wide selection of TV shows and movies, Avatar being the highlight). Watching the runway disappear under the nose of our plane during take off was exhilirating, a feeling not unlike I experience when I fly in my dreams, especially when the camera suddenly switches from the view of the sky and the clouds straight ahead to show the land receding below.

I think this is a great stress relief for those of us who might feel tense or scared during take-off -- take-off becomes a show, the experience looped through the camera eye loses a degree of immediate sensory details (we pay less attention to noises and vibration, and more to the visual experience of it), and acts upon us in much the same way as a videogame or, a better analogy, a 3D ride in an amusement park. The only problem, in Helsinki the cloud cover hangs so low that the second and third times I got to enjoy the view, it only lasted moments before being obscured by white mush.

My parents were shopping the entire time -- all while I took off in Helsinki, turned around over the Finland Gulf, landed back in Helsinki, waited for the computer to be fixed, was moved to another plane, and took off again. My parents went to Lenta, one of the giant local megasupermarkets, and shopped for everything from pears and watermelon and chocolate waffle cakes to dish soap and toilet paper and the new dish drying rack for the country house. And after they picked me up from the airport two hours after my scheduled time of arrival, we went home and had a giant feast. You can only go so far on two small cartons of apple juice for breakfast, and I was starving. We spent the afternoon chatting and reading and watching Volker Schlöndorff's 1984 rendering of Swann's Way, Un Amour de Swann, with Jeremy Irons and Alain Delon -- and not napping. Okay, maybe napping just a little bit.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travel mode

Once again, I'm staying up all night to pack. This is not just because I didn't make time to pack during the day, but also because it gives me a slight advantage on battling jet lag the first few days in St. Petersburg. I did put the most important things into my purse earlier today -- my passport and itinerary -- earlier, before the delirium set in. Just now I remembered to pull out my small cache of Russian currency (what is the exchange rate these days?). To forget it would not have been a big deal since there are ATMs at the airport and everywhere in the city, but definitely an annoyance. Do I have Euros? My second layover is in Helsinki, a few Euro coins for a cup of coffee would be nice.

I experience lack of sleep as a state of altered consciousness not unlike being drunk on a bottle or two of wine, even to the point of nausea. I don't practice staying up till dawn often anymore, but I do enjoy it whenever I can justify the loss of time the next day. I am so much more aware of my surroundings at night -- dogs barking across the street, cars speeding by on the highway a quarter mile away from the house, the noise of my computer fan. I can almost hear the cogs in my brain rotating slowly: did I pack underwear? did I pack running shoes in case I decide to exercise? did I pack an umbrella? No, I didn't pack an umbrella. Should I? The rain is inevitable (what a strange notion, I haven't seen rain since early June!), but my mom might have a spare I could use, and I can save myself half a pound of luggage.

Packing is always a feat of imagination. They've had a crazy hot summer in St. Petersburg this year, weeks worth of record breaking temperatures. But now google tells me the temperature is in the low sixties, with rain expected every day of the week ahead. Will I need sandals? Jeans jacket or a warmer (and nicer) corduroy? Sweaters? Bathing suit? I would love to get a chance to swim in a country lake this trip, but wishful packing is not likely to guarantee the best results. What about theatre clothes? Should I bring jewelry that I never wear? Oh, alright, I'll bring a dress and a baggieful of earrings. I've brought them on every other trip before, no reason to leave them behind now.

MP3 player! Check.

Can I do with only one novel on this 20-hour, 2-layover trip? I shouldn't pack more books. I have lots of things to read on my computer, and Dave says my plane from New York to Helsinki will come with a power plug.

I've been stuffing my suitcase with food all day -- I'm bringing edible souvenirs this time. Maple syrup. California wine. Fancy chocolates. On the way back, these will hopefully be replaced with books. And maybe a box or two of chocolate muesli. How come chocolate muesli remains an exclusively European know-how? Chocolate granola has become available in the States in the recent years, but chocolate muesli is still nowhere to be found.

Yay blogging -- I have to take with me the contents of my gift drawer, a few random things I've set aside for friends and family during the last few months. A kid toy. A bandanna. More chocolate. What's the point of collecting this stuff, if at the end of the day I forget it at home? Not quite, not this time. This time it's all coming with me. Anything else? Anything else? Maybe. But I'm rambling.

All this chocolate is making me hungry. I have an hour to go before my taxi arrives. Time for breakfast. I'll make it simple: chocolate granola and yogurt.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mice Might Help

Once, a woman had a son sick with epilepsy. He experienced seven to eight seizures a day. She cured him by brewing several mouse pups (or two to three grown mice) in a half-liter of vodka for one week. She gave her son a tablespoon of this mixture before every meal. Now he no longer has seizures.

Baptize your daughter, and with God in your heart, begin the treatment. Cross the medicine before taking it and bless it with a prayer.

(folk medicine, a recipe from a newspaper cutout posted on a Russian blog, and forwarded to me by my brother).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I am at a writers conference in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, CA. It's a Wednesday in the middle of the conference week, and we were given the afternoon off. Most people are outside, exploring the surrounding area -- the mountains and the valley. Some are resting in their rooms, some are partying with their housemates and workshop mates, others are reading. I should be doing one of those things, but instead I'm sitting in the empty conference hall, trying to work on non-conference related writing and editing projects. I'm really not doing much; I'm brain-dead. The building has been locked up from the outside, and the sun is setting. The house where I'm staying is two miles away, and I don't have a car. I should leave now before the stars and the bears come out. Why can't I leave?

There's a comfort that comes from being always in front of something -- in front of a computer screen, in front of a book, in front of a sheet of paper. The tasks are stacked up and organized (I've developed a brand new prioritization system last month, at a previous writers conference, and I'm still excited about it) -- it's easy to know what to do next. Outside are pine trees and fir trees and aspen trees -- I can see them in the window from where I'm sitting, but outside there are more of them. And outside I can smell them. Outside, the wind brings whiffs of the musty smell from the creek that runs through the valley, the dry cool air from the mountain peaks, the sweet fragrance of wildflowers. None of this has anything to do with St. Petersburg, even pine trees and daisies are all wrong. I'm tired; this week has been exhilarating, the never-ending conversation about writing and literature is not only a very emotional experience, but challenging in the way it constantly requires me to be able to articulate my emotions. I have been going on very little sleep this week, and the preceding months have been equally rough. All I can see ahead is more work; however creative it is, I experience writing is work.

There is, I suppose, an objective reason for me to be thinking about St. Petersburg -- I'm going there again in a couple of weeks. Thinking of it is partially a comfort; in my mind, I see my aunt's dining room table with stacks of books and a glass bowl full of chocolate bonbons in colorful wrapping, endless cups of tea, and I hear the warm cadences of my aunt's voice. I picture the kitchen of my parents' apartment, and the warm spot between the table and the fridge, by the window and the radiator below the windowsill. I picture myself there, with my parents and my brother all gathered together, or myself alone, reading a book, or looking out of the window at the graffiti-covered walls and the yard of the secondary school, abandoned for the summer. I wish I could stop my thoughts there, in the territory where my memories are so pleasant and comforting. But even this indulgence -- or especially this indulgence, allowing myself to write about St. Petersburg, to blog it -- feels ugly and obsessive. For a long time now, thoughts of St. Petersburg have not been a pleasure without also being a self-flagellation. And I have not done anything wrong.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Galich on Pasternak, my translation

José Manuel Prieto's essay on Mandelshtam in The New York Review of Books, about which I blogged earlier, reminded my of Aleksandr Galich's famous poem dedicated to the memory of Boris Pasternak. I searched for it online and found a YouTube of Galich performing this song. I decided to translate it here. I'm not sure what English translations of Galich exist out there; he does have an English-language Wikipedia page. Galich's own biography runs the gamut from writing and performing benign love songs to openly political pieces -- and being forced into an exile in 1974, and dying in a freak accident in 1977, raising rumors of KGB or CIA assassination and suicide.

Galich's work is unique in genre. He wrote long poems and performed them to music of his 7-string guitar (a traditional instrument of the Russian stage). It's hard to say that he's singing them -- in terms of the American stage, Galich's performance style is probably the closest to Bob Dylan's. The songs were recorded on large reel-to-reel tape decks. My mother, who had discovered the protest music in the 1960s, had some copies in the house -- but when I was growing up, things were hectic, we lived in tight quarters with my grandparents, and there was never an occasion to pull the large tape player from the closet. I think the first LP appeared in the late 80s, and that's probably when I first heard these songs.

To me, Galich was particularly interesting, because he was one of the few authors I knew who spoke openly about the Jewish experience. Galich himself came from a Jewish family in what is now Dnepropetrovsk; his last name at birth was Ginzburg, and he changed it in college (he studied drama with Stanislavksi for one year before Stanislavski's death in 1938). One of his long songs is dedicated to a Polish-Jewish writer Janusz Korczak, who died in the Holocaust. The song is called "Kaddish" -- I'd never heard the word until I heard Galich's song.

But to return to his poem about Pasternak, here's a YouTube video of Galich performing this song:

This song was written after Pasternak's death in 1960. As I wrote in my earlier post, Prieto is not the first one to bring up Pasternak's death "in his own bed"as a charge against the poet, as a lesser death compared to that of his fellow poets. I wrote earlier that these words were said in very bad taste, and this is precisely what Galich lashes out against in his poem. Galich references these comparisons directly in the second stanza: Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in Yelabuga, Mandelshtam was rumored to have died at a camp near river Suchan, in Siberia. The leitmotif of Galich's song is this line: "How proud we, the scum, are that he has died in his own bed!" This line lashes out with anger at "us" for implying the insufficiency of suffering in Pasternak's mode of death.

Pasternak died of lung cancer in his country house at Peredelkino, near Moscow (Pasternak wrote many poems of country life, the snow and fir trees, which Galich also references in his song). Many believe that the cancer was if not directly caused by then certainly indirectly influenced by the stress of the scandal following the award of Nobel Prize (for Doktor Zhivago), his forced refusal to accept it, and the subsequent exclusion from the Union of Soviet Writers that effectively robbed him of income and opportunity to see his work in print (almost any article written on Pasternak today, especially in English, mentions this story, i.e. Wikipedia, Nobel Prize section).

The central image of Galich's poem is the meeting of the Union of Soviet Writers when the writers voted unanimously to expel Pasternak from the Union. Galich claims that "We [his contemporaries] will remember by name everyone who raised a hand" to cast a "yes" vote in those proceedings. And indeed, to this day the reputation of Soviet authors includes as a byline their actions during this meeting. To vote "No" was to commit a political and personal suicide (withdrawal of income, potential incarceration or withdrawal of citizenship) -- and nobody dared. The way to abstain was to not show up, which 26 people did (some said they were sick, others didn't give a reason). Veniamin Kaverin, one of those who didn't show up, always wrote about this with regret, a lapse of judgment--he felt in retrospect that he should've been brave enough to protest publicly. But nobody was brave enough. At the very least, writers could abstain from giving an insulting speech, but 29 writers speechified ("all the yakking," says Galich). I can't easily find the info of these proceedings online in English, but here's the official Russian memo: Google.translate does an adequate job to get the gist.

I'm taking the original Russian text of Galich's poem from this website:

A few more contextual notes about the poem. If something remains unclear, please let me know -- this translation is a work in progress.

LitFund -- the Literary Fund -- was an insurance organization, to which Pasternak still belonged at the time of death.

The opening of the poem (the "wreaths," "the funeral banquet") refers to Pasternak's public funeral, attended by hundreds of people, despite the fact that the poet was officially non-grata.

The indented quotes are lines from Pasternak's own poems.

Aleksandr Galich
In memory of B. L. Pasternak

". . . the board of the Literary Fund [A Society for Assistance to Writers and Scholars in Need] of the USSR reports that a writer Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, a member of LitFund, died on May 30th of this year. He was 70 years old and died after a long and serious illness. The board expresses condolences to the family of the deceased."

The only notice that appeared in newspapers -- in the one newspaper, "Literaturnaya Gazeta," -- on the death of B. L. Pasternak.

We have taken the wreaths apart for brooms,
we were saddened for half an hour,
How proud we are, his contemporaries,
that he has died in his own bed!

And Chopin was tormented by wannabes,
And the farewell proceeded with ceremony . . .
His neck didn't soap the noose in Yelabuga,
He didn't lose his mind in Suchan!

Even the members of the Kiev Writers' Union
arrived in time for his funeral banquet! . .
How proud we are, his contemporaries,
that he has died in his own bed!

And it's not like he was only in his forties;
Exactly seventy -- the age for dying.
And it's not like he was some poor bastard;
A member of LitFund -- budgeted for!

Ah, the fir trees have shed their snow,
the tolling of the blizzards has ceased . . .
How proud we, the scum, are
that he has died in his own bed!

           "A snowstorm swept, it swept across the land, in all its reaches
          A candle was burning on the desk, a candle was burning . . ."

No! It was no candle,
a chandelier!
The glasses on the headsman's snout
twinkled brightly!
And the audience yawned, the audience was bored --
all the yakking!
"Why, the prison or Suchan aren't even on the agenda,
And neither is the supreme penalty."

And not with the crown of thorns
broken on the wheel,
But chucked with a brick in the face --
the hand count!

And somebody, soused, was asking his neighbor:
"What for? Who this time?"
And somebody chewed loudly, and another chuckled
over an idle joke . . .

We won't forget this laughter
and this boredom.
We will remember by name everyone,
who raised a hand.

          "The humming has ceased. I've stepped on the stage.
          Leaning against the doorway . . . "

Finally, the smear campaign and the arguments are over,
As if we've taken a leave from the eternity . . .
The raiders are standing by his tomb,
and carrying out the honor guard.