Tuesday, June 2, 2015

J.B.’s Jubilee

Brodsky on his balcony at Muruzi House (date unknown) / Image courtesy of brodskymuseum.com

If Joseph Brodsky were still alive, he would have turned seventy-five on Sunday, May 24th, so the web has been awash with Brodskiana. Everybody and his brother, it seems, have got something to say about the man. Me too: I wanted to post something in his honor on the jubilant day itself, but at the time—unfortunately yet quite appropriately—I was hard at work on my Brodsky contribution to a new volume entitled American Writers in Exile. (To learn how he fits into that category, read my essay when the book comes out.)

First off, in the biggest news, it looks as though the Brodsky apartment museum in Saint Petersburg is finally opening after years of fundraising, bureaucratic hoop-jumping, negotiations, and logistical troubles (including a battle against 32 types of mold). This is the space that Brodsky wrote about in his essay “In a Room and a Half,” located in the Muruzi House at the intersection of Liteyny Prospect and Pestel Street, where he lived with his parents for almost two decades. Tatyana Voltskaya notes that the famous room and a half was open last month, fittingly, for a day and a half: several hours for journalists on May 22, plus a full day for the birthday festivities on May 24. Now it’s closed again, with plans to reopen for good after renovations wrap up sometime this winter. The museum doesn’t have much of a web presence yet, especially in English, but when the apartment finally opens and stays open, it should obviously land at the top of the must-do list for all Brodsky enthusiasts. I certainly plan to visit the next time I’m in Petersburg.

Back in April, another domicile-museum opened in the village of Norinskaya (or Norenskaya), in the Arkhangelsk region, where Brodsky served out his internal exile in 1964 and 1965 for “social parasitism”—that is, freeloading (тунеядство). During his time there, he wrote and translated poems, published occasionally in the local paper («Призыв»), and worked on a collective farm. Ironically, Brodsky later called it one of the happiest times of his life. The museum is situated inside a peasant house formerly owned by the Pesterev family, with whom Brodsky stayed during his sentence. According to Lenta.ru, the exhibit includes “things that Brodsky used: a chair, a table, a couch, a kerosene lamp, a tank for developing photographs, and the plywood cover from a package sent to Brodsky by his father in Leningrad, which was found during the restoration of the house.”

Interestingly, both new museums have met with opposition from a certain hyperpatriotic element in the Russian crowd, despite the poet’s growing popularity of late. (Just last month, in fact, Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov were discussing Brodsky’s transformation from “esoteric” to “popular” poet in Russia.) In Norinskaya, a group of locals balked at the five-million ruble price tag and filed a suit demanding that the museum be closed and the regional governor be punished for supporting it:

[Brodsky] was exiled to our region for social parasitism. But instead of thanking the leadership of the USSR for his early release, he emigrated to the U.S., took a passport there under the name ‘Joseph Brodsky’ [spelled Джозеф Бродски, as opposed to Иосиф Бродский], and began to slander the Soviet people.

The suit also asks for a hundred thousand rubles in compensation for the “moral harm” the plaintiffs experienced. This whole episode reminds me of an article I posted about a few years ago, when another Norinskaya resident and loyal communist said the following:

And just who is Brodsky? A parasite, a freeloader! … How could they have given him the Lenin Prize, that lazy good-for-nothing?! … He was a smart bastard. But Russia is a fool! Gave him a prize… America, America! He’s a leech, and they put up a fucking plaque for him!

The two gentlemen quoted above are indeed different people, but they’re clearly kindred spirits.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ehrenburg's Traveler

Ilya Ehrenburg in the 1910s / Image courtesy of Чтобы помнили

In the Train Car
by Ilya Ehrenburg

The gentleman swayed and dozed in his cabin, swaying
to the right, to the left, and back again.
He swayed alone, restless.
He swayed away from life and what he’d lived.
My friend, you are on your way as well,
but where will we be bound tomorrow?
Believe me: these feeble faces,
the darkness, suitcases, and parcels,
the dawn that silently steams
among charred peasant houses
under a white sky, fleeing aimlessly,
shaking off and then absorbing
sleep, half-sleep—
everything lusts, flags, and maddens at last
for its one and only end.

April 1915

Friday, March 6, 2015

Where the Black Sea Breaks Its Back

Column of White ships fleeing to Constantinople (1920) / Image courtesy of Сегодня.ua

Much has been made of the way that Vasily Aksyonov’s 1979 Sci-Fi novel “The Island of Crimea” predicted Russia’s takeover of Crimea last year (for instance, in this New Yorker piece), but a new essay in НГ Ex Libris claims that one can find similarly prophetic moments in poetry too. Mikhail Epstein, the author of the essay, focuses on two Crimea-themed poems—one by Osip Mandelstam and one by Andrei Voznesensky. Mandelstam’s untitled 1916 poem describes a visionary moment during a walk he took with Marina Tsvetaeva in the Alexandrov Kremlin, the fortress from which Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia and where he killed his own son:

Doubting the miracle of the resurrection,
we strolled in the cemetery.
– You know, the land all around us
reminds me of those hills.
Where Russia breaks away
above a black and silent sea.

(Не веря воскресенья чуду, / На кладбище гуляли мы. / – Ты знаешь, мне земля повсюду / Напоминает те холмы. / …………………………. / …………………………. / Где обрывается Россия / Над морем черным и глухим.)

The reference to Crimea in the last two lines is so clear that Mandelstam struck from his draft the two previous ones, whose outright naming of the peninsula he must have felt too obvious and unnecessary. Epstein even thinks that the long ellipses are better than the missing lines, since they “demonstrate more vividly than any words the blackness and silence into which the country breaks away.”

Epstein says that what unifies Crimea and the cemetery in the poem is “the presentiment of death.” After all, Russia was about to begin killing its own sons in a civil war, and the Crimean peninsula would play a key role: in 1920, just a few years after the poem was written, the last White forces left from Crimean ports, taking 100,000 refugees with them. Somehow, Mandelstam had foreseen his country’s violent end in that place. “There,” Epstein writes, “pre-Soviet history broke away. But where and when will post-Soviet history break away?”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Patchwork with Tyutchev

Photograph of Fyodor Tyutchev by Andrei Denier (1864) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I don’t often translate nineteenth-century Russian poetry, but since the Tyutchev poem that follows is one of two key intertexts for Timur Kibirov’s “Historical Cento” («Исторический центон»), from a 2009 book I’ve been translating, I decided I needed to make my own English version of it. That way, I could lift the pertinent pieces from Tyutchev for my Kibirov translation.

‘Cento’, by the way, is a term that was new to me but which I learned that Dr. Johnson defined as a “composition formed by joining scraps from other authors.” So says the OED, which also gives the more general definition for ‘cento’ of a “piece of patchwork; a patched garment.” Kibirov’s other patches, besides the lines from Tyutchev, come from Blok’s infamous revolutionary romp “The Twelve.” Quite a pairing!

Anyway, if you’re going to make patches, you’ve got to have cloth to cut from. Here’s one of mine:

With your impoverished settlements
by Fyodor Tyutchev

With your impoverished settlements,
With your most meager natural gifts,
My native realm of sufferance,
You are the realm where Russia lives!

You can’t be grasped or noticed by
The proud outsider’s fleeting gaze:
It misses hidden lights that shine
Within your humble naked scapes.

All over you, my native land,
Bearing the burden of His cross
In peasant’s rags, our holy King
Meandered, blessing all He saw.

August 13, 1855

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

(See below for Tyutchev’s Russian original.)

In case you’re curious, here are the first two stanzas of my translation of Kibirov’s cento, which might give you a sense of where he’s going with his ostensibly post-Christian pastiche:

All over you, my native land,
blessing each place, dressed in white,
a crown of roses on his head,
walked, I’m sad to say, not Christ.

No. Christ, of course, also wandered
through this Russian hell of ours,
but—never doubting for a second—
we said, “He doesn’t meet the standard!
He’s much too crucified for us!”

So who, you might ask, is not too crucified for Russia? I’ll give you a hint: he doesn’t wear white, but waves a red flag. 

Yep, you guessed it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Nativity Poem by Boris Pasternak

Cover for the 1st Italian edition of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago / Image courtesy of the Hoover Institution

[NOTE: As I have done in previous years, I'm posting a nativity poem for the Christmas season. I've translated this one (into a lazy vers libre) from the selection of Zhivago poems at the back of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel.]

*     *     *

Star of the Nativity
by Boris Pasternak

Winter had set in.
Wind blew in from the steppe
and the child was cold in a dark den
on the slope of a hill.

He was kept warm by an ox’s breath.
Other beasts also
stood in the cave.
Above the manger floated a warm haze.

After shaking bits of straw and millet
from their thick furs,
herdsmen gazed sleepily
into the midnight distance from a cliff.

Far off lay a snowfield and churchyard,
fences and headstones,
a plank in a snowdrift,
and a sky full of stars above the graves.

Nearby, unknown until that night,
more timid than a candle
in a watchman’s window,
a star glimmered on the road to Bethlehem.

It flared up like a dry hayrick, apart
from God and heaven,
like an arson’s gleam,
like a farm and threshing-floor in flames.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Strain of Constant Contact

Poster for the premiere of Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Art Theater (1899) / Image courtesy of apchekhov.ru

[This fall, the theater program at Saint Martin’s University, headed by David Hlavsa, put on a fantastic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Now that the show has wrapped, I think it’s fair to share with readers of this blog the program note that I wrote in my capacity of “cultural advisor” to the play. Enjoy!]

*     *     *

As a playwright, Chekhov’s aesthetic method was to toss his characters into a pressure cooker and crank up the heat. In each of his major plays, individuals from different backgrounds are assembled in a single household, and gradually the strain of constant contact brings out the worst in them. (Really, isn’t this a definition for all drama—a mix of characters forced into view for a fixed span of time?) Even in Uncle Vanya’s subtitle, “Scenes from Country Life,” Chekhov prepares us for his method of concentrated engagement: the countryside, unlike the city, gives the characters nowhere else to go. Social interaction must occur on an isolated estate.

In this play, two unwelcome outsiders, Professor Serebryakov and his young wife Yelena, have come into the household and upset the status quo. Early in the first act, Uncle Vanya and the servant Marina go right to the crux of the problem: he complains that the old professor and Yelena have caused things to go “topsy-turvy,” and Marina replies, “We used to have lunch at one o’clock, like normal people… now we eat at six or seven.” Nothing is as it should be. The samovar is set out for tea in the morning, but the professor sleeps until noon. Astrov, the doctor, goes even further in his critique: “You and your husband,” he scolds Yelena in the final act, “have infected us all with your uselessness.” While their presence may in fact have stirred up his passions, Astrov longs for their departure so that he can again annihilate his ego through work. Like the others, he needs its diversion to get himself by.

The disruption of routine underscores the frustration of the characters. No one is fulfilled. No one seems certain what his or her purpose in life is. In this respect, Chekhov differs from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others in the generation of Russian writers that preceded his, who would have offered clear moral guidance for their audience. But in Uncle Vanya, even those characters who may have once felt a sense of purpose—for instance, Astrov with his forestry projects—seem incapable of making real progress or changing much of anything. They are ineffectual. So they drink. They drink out of a sense of futility. And they drink the wrong thing at the wrong time: they should be sipping tea at the appointed hour, but instead they rely on vodka to cope whenever they like. “When I’m drunk,” says Vanya, “life seems more like life.”

Only in routine can these characters find solace—only in the numbness of modern life, tediously doing the books to keep the estate afloat or sleeplessly trudging about the countryside, treating an unending line of sick patients. What is the meaning of these struggles and sacrifices? Why make them? These are the questions that Chekhov poses to us. We may wonder whether our tribulations have any purpose at all, but in the end we hope that they will move us, God willing, closer to the ultimate “rest” invoked by Sonya in her final lines.

Jamie Olson
Saint Martins University

*     *     *

Besides wonderful performances by the actors, the SMU production also featured our family samovar, pictured here in an onstage photo by my wife Anna:

As anyone who has seen or read the play knows, this was no bit part!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Three by Kibirov

Image courtesy of Asymptote

I'm happy to report that the fall issue of Asymptote includes my translations of three theological poems by Timur Kibirov, along with the audio recordings of them that I made in his Moscow kitchen this summer. Have a look, have a listen! And don't miss the sound of Ossetian plov crackling on the stove in the background.

The theme of the issue is mythology, and the editors have fit Kibirov neatly into it: "You'll find an aging Minotaur transplanted to Amsterdam's red-light district, Hamlet's Norse ancestor reincarnated in operatic form, and biblical vine-growers at a corporate event schmoozing up to their ultimate shareholder, God." (Yep, that last one is Kibirov's.)

For those of a Slavic bent, highlights of the issue include a profile of Kharkiv poet Serhiy Zhadan, an interview with Polish translator Danuta Borchardt, and an essay on Russian poetry by the ever-prolific Robert Chandler. Another item not to miss is Erik Langkjær's reminiscence of kissing a soft-lipped Flannery O'Connor, who was then suffering from lupus: "I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death."

Lastly, I love how the editors have picked my favorite Kibirov line to excerpt on the issue's main page: "Glory to God in the highest! Hee-haw, hee-haw!"