Archive for the 'Russian literature' Category

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

Do you really need another reading list?

April 12, 2020

One or two bloggers whom I follow have posted lists of books they recommend during the current lockdown. I haven’t done this, but felt moved to revisit one of my ‘pages’ (as opposed to ‘posts’) where I listed my favourites way back in 2013, to see if I still agreed with what I said way back then. Here we have my listing of world fiction, which is of writers who hadn’t originally written in English:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this, and it still blows me away every time. The magical rise and fall and eventual disappearance of the city of Macondo and the Buendia family sweeps you along, and the final section is, for me, a tour-de-force almost on the level of the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. However, Marquez’ other great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, has grown on me and crept up to become an equal, as I’ve found myself in my later years reflecting on what exactly I understand by love, and what it means/has meant to me.

Günter Grass: The Tin Drum. I was fifteen when I first visited Gdansk, then behind the Iron Curtain, and as we went on a boat trip out to Westerplatte, where the Polish forces heroically held out for days against the Nazis in September 1939, I noticed graffiti, which my father translated for me: “We have not forgotten, and we will not forgive.” I was pretty shocked. Gradually I learned about what the Second World War had done to Eastern Europe, and I understood a little more; a couple of years later I came across this novel, which is another I have regularly re-read. It recreates a loved and totally vanished world. Some ten years ago a relative took me around some of the sights and places Grass writes about: it’s now a much-followed tourist-trail. Grass opened my eyes to what many Germans have tried to do by way of understanding and trying to come to terms with what they or their forbears did in those awful years.

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. This one is often top of my list, Eco’s absolute best, filmed well and also a reasonable TV series. I think it’s what Eco does with time that moves me most, with the aged Adso looking back after so many years to his days with William of Baskerville, unravelling the mysteries and murders at the abbey, a forerunner of our beloved Sherlock Holmes. We are connected both to eternity and to our own mortality through Adso’s reflectiveness, and the beautifully created mediaeval setting.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment. Russian novels can be a slog, more of a duty than a pleasure, although they are usually worth it, and this one certainly is. The murder is quickly done, and it’s the aftermath that grips you: the man who thought he was so strong he could kill and not be affected by the deed, and how his conscience and the police investigator reduce him to an ordinary human who must suffer, repay his debt to society and redeem himself. And he does.

Giovanni di Lampedusa: The Leopard. Here’s another novel that lyrically recreates and recalls a vanished past, this time of Italy before its unification in the late nineteenth century. It must be coming up to time for a re-read because I remember very little other than the powerful impression it has on me; I had a copy of Visconti’s film for years, intending to watch it and not got round to it yet.

To be continued…

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

August favourites #12: Russian novels

August 12, 2018

41GnrrcFxKL._AC_US218_Russia is a huge country and it has gone in for more than its fair share of huge – as in door-stopper size – novels, a number of which are rightly classics. I could nominate War and Peace, although lately I’ve found myself preferring Anna Kerenina if I’m thinking about Tolstoy. I’ve a soft spot for Crime and Punishment, which was the first Russian ‘classic’ I read, and have frequently returned to. In the twentieth century, it’s the horrors of Stalinism which have preoccupied many writers, and in my younger days I really liked Solzhenitsyn’s work. Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy is not very well known, but is very powerful and convincing, but for me the epic choice has to be Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which I’ve often mentioned in these posts: he wrestles with Stalin and Stalinism, as well as the horrors of the Second World War and the Battle of Stalingrad. It truly is an astonishing novel.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

Svetlana Alexievitch: La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme

May 27, 2017

I wrote about her most recent book here, and recall how I was stunned by it; this one is no different. And I find myself thinking hard about what exactly it is that she does so well. She doesn’t write fiction, and she doesn’t write history – at least not in the sense we usually expect history: with names, dates, places, facts, figures and accuracy. She listens, and records; she questions; she selects. And some question what her ‘selecting’ what to include does to what she writes about…

How is this ‘literature’, worthy of the Nobel Prize? How is it different from what we usually think of as literature?

Alexievitch captures the power of witness: these women lived the war, experienced it, suffered it; Alexievitch is collecting voices to preserve forever. And although even to read some of the things they describe is so horrifying I find myself thinking nobody should read this, yet none of this must ever be forgotten.

And here is where Western notions of literature and criticism part company with the Eastern. I read – very angrily – an American critic complaining, taking Alexievitch to task because she was editing, not reporting words verbatim, was re-arranging accounts, as if in some way this was ‘fake’ reportage, and therefore of dubious validity…

A woman focuses on women’s experience of war, during the Great Patriotic War. Women flock voluntarily to the war effort, girls lie about their age, resort to all kinds of subterfuge to take part in combat; they are partisans, resistance fighters, sharpshooters, snipers, aviators, as well as the more ‘traditional’ nurses and stretcher-bearers. Their bravery and selflessness is astonishing – no less than that of their menfolk, it is true – but in the West we do not understand this, we have no comprehension of what the war was like in those places. Here is real feeling, along with names, dates, places, some facts and some figures which somehow are not that important in what her interlocutors really have to say…

Many of the women recount the war in Belarus, and it beggars description. They return home to villages, towns where there are no males… I have not forgotten the experience, more than thirty years ago, of seeing the premiere of Elem Klimov‘s film Go and See at the London Film Festival. At the end, the entire audience – 1500 people or so – left in stunned silence. Not a word was said. The final caption on screen told us that 97% of Belarusian males between 18 and 45 did not survive the war.

Alexievitch is a different kind of writer, a listener and a recorder who lets her subjects talk; she presents testimony of times and places. There is no commentary, although occasionally she reflects on what she is doing or someone she has met, in a few paragraphs. And then the listening recommences. It’s incredibly powerful and important stuff. And be warned: you need a strong stomach.

Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?

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I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?

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I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

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