Wednesday, February 24, 2010

To love poetry

Lydia Chukovskaya explains:

"If you love poetry, you commit poems to memory right away, and if you cannot memorize them right away -- you won’t let the book out of your hands until you’ve learned by heart the lines that touched you, so that from now on you never have to part from them again: they will be with you while you’re working at the kerosene stove or at the washtub, on the street, in a tram, in a prison cell -- you will continue to repeat them to yourself over and over."

I have not memorized a poem by heart in a long time. Perhaps I don't love poetry enough. Contemporary American poetry seems too intimidating for memorization -- and when you memorize you lose all the complex graphic layout of it. Some of contemporary poetry seems to be meant only to exist on paper. And what would be the point of memorizing poetry? When I was in school, my friends and I used to read poems to each other on the way home from school. I used to read poems to them on the phone, at night. We memorized poetry for Russian and English lessons, and then also performed them at school evenings, birthday parties, etc. When I was very little, my parents coaxed me to read poetry out loud at parties for their friends -- it was a skill to show off.

One thing I'm growing more and more confident about is that to become a better writer, I need to read more English-language poetry. It teaches you to read and use language in a different way -- focus on different types of structures and different ways of producing meaning. Perhaps, it's not just a matter of reading poetry, but of memorizing it and repeating it to myself while I wash dishes or walk to the gym -- until the words and structures become my own, until they become a part of my own vocabulary. It's an intimidating task. I won't start right away.

It's also interesting to note how "the prison cell" is always at the top of Chukovskaya's mind. She speaks from experience.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chukovskaya on scientists

One of the things that make Chukovskaya's memoir particularly interesting is its porousness, the way it incorporates many aspects of what constituted "culture" at the time (1930s), what a certain class of people--the Leningrad intelligentsia--were interested in, what concerned them. She had made it her life goal to record this culture, to give its possibility of transcendence, and she stuck with this project from one text to another, from Akhmatova diaries to her own poetry and fiction to her political essays in defense of Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky.

The passage below is particularly interesting because it shows the impact of the current breakthroughs in theoretical physics on the life of the society at large; she underlines that even people who were very far from understanding the meaning of the new discoveries in physics were nevertheless involved in public discussions of the implications and practical applications of these discoveries. Physicists, young physicists, were people to know, to socialize with. Hence, her own meeting with a physicist Matvej (Mitya) Bronshtein -- not accidental at all.

"The vague reports of Bronshtein’s rising celebrity had preceded our meeting. I met him for the first time in the spring of 1931. Everyone around me was talking about Matvei Petrovich then, and the kinds of things they said! I’d heard all kinds of tall tales about this rising star, Bronshtein! He was a scientist, a man of letters, a theoretical physicist, an expert in the history of science, a public speaker. He had had a special status in high school as a non-resident student, and every year had passed exams for two or three school years at once. Wunderkind! At the university, too, he had completed his coursework faster than usual. He had started publishing his papers in the Soviet and international journals possibly as early as seventeen years old. They said he studied languages: every month a new language. He had taught himself four languages, but if he wanted to—within a month he could pick up a fifth and a sixth. Fantastic memory. Now Matvei Petrovich was no longer a student, but worked at the Institute of Physics and Technology, was a full-time participant of their famous seminars. In addition to purely scientific work at the Institute known as the Ioffe Institute, he wrote popular articles in the journals of natural history. In a word, not a man—a phenomenon. “The seventh wonder of the world.”

People talked about the formation of the new school of theoretical physics… Alongside Bronshtein, the names of the young—Gamow, Landau, Ivanenko, Ambartsumyan— intermingled with the names of the older, distinguished scientists—Ioffe, Frenkel, Fock, Tamm. The people of letters were uninitiated in the formal sciences and had only vague understanding of who was exactly who and what was exactly what, and where the heart of the matter lay, but they did like to chitchat about science. According to their interpretations, it was not clear whether the young physicists learned from their elders or overthrew their findings, whether the two groups were at war with each other or bound by loving friendship. As it were, everyone expected the young to produce radical discoveries.

Nils Bohr, Rutherford, Dirac… The atomic nucleus, the age and evolution of stars, atom fission, positrons, neutrons, demons, the devil… And of course—Einstein.

At the time, I mingled only within the literary circle. A daughter of a versatile man of letters, myself an editor of a publishing house."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Translating Chukovskaya

Let me try to post here a few excerpts from the translation I'm working on, Lydia Chukovskaya's posthumously published text -- a long essay, a memoir -- the title of which I think is best rendered in English as "N/A." In Russian, the title is Прочерк, a long dash one puts in an official form when the answer is unknown. Chukovskaya comes to writing this piece from trying to capture her memory of her husband, Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, who was shot to death in one of Stalin's purges in 1938.

I welcome all comments about the language, the phrasing. This translation is very much a work in progress, and one of my reasons for posting it here is to facilitate the editing process.

Here's Chukovskaya writing about the impossibility of her own writing:

"I started writing this book without any formal goals in mind. Altogether without any goals. This is not an essay, not a novella, not lyric poetry, not journalism… What is this? Memoir? Perhaps. I simply wanted to remember and write down everything I know about my husband, theoretical physicist, Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, who perished in 1937.

However, the moment I picked up my pen, it turned out that this “simply” is not at all simple.

Anna Akhmatova used to say: “One shouldn’t write memoirs about a person whom one knew barely or not at all, only from afar.” She is probably right. But a person whom one knew not only from afar is also very difficult to represent on paper. For the opposite reason. Too close—you can approach, but you cannot grasp the form. His entirety closes in on you, encompasses you, pushes you aside. The task is particularly difficult if you’re writing decades later. And not at all because time has erased his features from your memory. Nothing like that. The dead differ from the living in that they never die. They are always with us. The years pass—they inhabit our souls all the more securely. Looking back, you ascertain that the one you’ve lost cannot be captured or represented, because he cannot be separated from you. He has coalesced with you. The two of you are inseparable. In the years that have passed, he has inhabited your memory so securely that you can no longer distinguish what part of it is you and what is he. This is all the more astounding because as long as the two of you were both living, you were not at all alike. Still, the years of separation, when the memory was constantly at work within you, have completed their task. Trying to remember him, you inevitably remember yourself. Peering into the distance, straining your eyes in order to see him more clearly, in order to remember, to represent—you stumble upon your own life. I want to write about Mitya, but instead write about myself. I want to write about him—and write about others. A reader expecting a straight-forward memoir under the heading “Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein” will be disappointed. I do not have the right to use his name as the title of what I am now writing. I remember myself with him, him with me, I remember my memory of him, but not Bronshtein on his own."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Zoshchenko, a prelude

More links. Sean Lovelace of HTMLGiant writes on Mikhail Zoshchenko. I'm actually reading and writing on Zoshchenko myself at the moment, so I should be posting more on him later. 1920s in Soviet Russia was a time of rapid change and social turmoil, and the literature that reflects this time is quite rich. Zoshchenko -- a beloved writer by all generations since -- is one of the few authors from the period whose stories have been translated multiple times and continue to be translated. The problem -- an opportunity for translators -- is that his language is grounded in the colloquial idiom, analogues for which in another language are devilishly hard to find.

Coincidentally, Dave and I just watched a silent movie from the same era, entitled in English Bed and Sofa. The script for it was written by a Formalist literary and film theorist Viktor Shklovsky (who was friends with Zoshchenko at the time and together they belonged to a writer's group known as Serapion's Brothers). The movie was very controversial at the time, as it portrays a non-monogamous relationship between a married couple and their friend. One of the actors, Nicolai Batalov, is a very famous uncle of an even more famous post WWII Soviet actor, Alexei Batalov. The movie also features fascinating scenes of old "wooden" Moscow, a view from the Bolshoi Theatre on the old Kremlin, the wooden streets and houses, the old Cathedral of the Christ the Savior (Храм Христа Спасителя), before it was demolished in 1931 and then rebuilt again in the Putin times.

Completely unrelated: Genine Lentine, a San Francisco poet whom I admire very much, released a collection of poems, Mr. Worthington's Beautiful Experiments on Splashes. A poem from this collection was featured on Verse Daily.