Tag Archives: Alexander Blok

Alexander Blok – The Italian Impressions (Translation, An Extract)

In 1909 Alexander Blok wrote an essay that trailed his impressions of visiting Italy. He wasn’t impressed to say the least, and his sentiments, in spite of his support of the revolutionary efforts of his own country, were rather negative towards the industrial development of Italy or, indeed, any other country. Below is an extract of my translation of this essay.

Alexander Blok, The Italian Impressions.

The Preface.

Time flies, civilization grows, mankind progresses.

19th century is the Iron Age. This is the age when a train of heavy-loaded carts runs along the cobbled road, drawn by exhausted horses pushed by people with mellow, pale faces. Their nerves are ruined by hunger and need, their open mouths extort swear words, and yet neither swearing, nor cries are heard. Only whips and reins can be seen, and every sound sinks in the deafening noise of the iron lines loaded on carts.

This entire century shakes, trembles and rumbles – like the same iron lines. People, these slaves of civilization, tremble in terror in front of its very face. Time flies; with each year, day and hour it becomes clearer that civilization is about to come down upon its own creators and to crush them; yet this doesn’t happen. Insanity continues: everything is forethought and predestined, and death is inevitable but it doesn’t hurry to arrive. What must be is not; what is ready is not happening. Revolutions strike, then calm down, then disappear. People always tremble in terror. They used to be human but no longer are they, only appearing such. They are slaves, animals, reptiles. What was called people is no longer protected by God, groomed by Nature, or pleased by Art. Those who were people no longer demand anything from God, Nature, or Art.

Civilization grows. At the start of the century Balzac spoke of “human comedy”. In the mid-century Sherr spoke of “tragi-comedy”. Today we have a street spectacle. The farce began when the first airplane took off.

The air has been conquered – what a magnificent sight to behold! One pathetic dandy whirled up in the sky. So a hen decided to fly: she spread her wings and flew over a pile of shit.

Do you know that every nut in the machine, every turn of a screw, every new technical achievement produces the masses of plebeians? Of course, you don’t know this, for you are “educated”, and “nobody compares to an educated person in his shallowness”, as your kind-hearted Ruskin once blurted out.

Translated into English © Julia Shuvalova 2012.

An Unknown Lady – Alexander Blok, Ilya Glazunov and Alec Vagapov

Alexander Blok

The monument to Alexander Blok stands in Spiridonovka St in Moscow. Blok is easily unnoticed as he stands under the trees, and perhaps this manifests our perception of classical poetry today.

Unknown Lady (Ilya Glazunov)

You could already have read my translation of Blok’s famous poem, Night, a Streetlight, a Street, a Chemist’s. Today I want to acquaint you with translation of another celebrated poem, An Unknown Lady. A basic translation under the title “An Unknown Woman” is quite well-known on the web. What makes me particularly happy and proud to present to you a different translation is that it has been done by a Russian Professor of Linguistics who lives and teaches in the city of Pskov. The basic translation not merely pales in comparison, it makes one wonder how on Earth other translators didn’t attempt to render the work in a poetic form.

This translation by Alec Vagapov (who specialises in translating Russian poetry into English) is accompanied by an eponymous painting by Ilya Glazunov. The fact that it was painted in 1980 makes it even more beautiful in my eyes. We are told that critics consider Glazunov’s illustrations to Blok’s Verses about the Beautiful Lady to be the overall finest illustrations of Blok’s work.

The heated air in the restaurants Is  wild and dull as anything, The drunken  hails are ruled by  restless And noxious spirit of the spring.   Far off, beyond the dusty alley Over the boring   country side There is a bakeshop,  and the valley Resounds with crying of a child.   And every night, beyond the barriers, Parading, cocking their hats, Amidst the ditches the admirers Perambulate with dear  hearts.   Above the lake the creak of ore-lock And women”s screams impale the place, And in the sky, the moon disk warlock, Inanely smiling,  makesa face.   And every night, my friend appears As  a reflection in my glass, Like me, he”s stunned  and  set at ease By magic liquid, drunk en mass.   The  footmen, true to their habits, Relax at tables next to us, And drunkards, staring  like rabbits, Exclaim:  In vino veritas!   And  every evening  at this  hour (oris it just a dreamy  case?) A waist in satin,  like a flower, Moves past the window in the haze.   Without drunken men to hinder, Alone, she walks across the room And settles down by the window Exhaling fog and sweet perfume.   There is a kind of old times flavour About her silky clothes and things: Her hat, in mourning plumes as ever, Her hand and fingers, all in rings.   I feel her close (a strange emotion), And looking through the veil,  I see The  vast of an amazing ocean, The coast of an amazing sea.   I am informed of inmost secrets, Somebody”s sun is now all  mine, My  body, heart and soul, in sequence, Have all been pierced by the wine.   The  ostrich plumes, desired and welcome, Are gently swaying in my mind, And  dark  blue eyes, as  deep as welkin, Are blooming  onthe distant side.   Deep in my soul I have  some riches And I”m the one who has the key! You”re right, you heady monstrous creature! In vino veritas,  Isee.    April 24th, 1906

Translated by Alec Vagapov


Cherchez-Vous la Traduction de Blok?

“и повторится все как встарь аптека улица”

Вы искали стихи Блока – найдите же мой перевод.

Night, a streetlight, a street, a chemist’s,
All in a dim and useless light.
In the next twenty-five years
They’ll still prevail, against one’s plight.

And you may die, but then, returning,
You’ll see again the same old night,
The icy canal’s waters running,
The street, the chemist’s, the streetlight.

The end of May is wonderful, mostly warm, sometimes windy, but ever so hopeful. I recall the moments when I felt down, and I smile because I have since well learnt the wisdom of Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Wherever I happen to be, is the best place on Earth – because I choose it to be. Manchester was good for many years, now it is Moscow, the place where I was born but that I seem to have barely known. Not to mention Russia – I don’t think I know it at all.

Everything I planned to do between February and May has been accomplished. Of the things I planned for May and June, I’m well on track to accomplish those, too. There’s still a lot more to do until the end of the year. Obviously, when you don’t have to worry about providing every single thing for yourself it becomes easier to do whatever you set your sights upon.

In France, they discovered the mysterious “carnet” of Balzac, with sketches and plans for the Human Comedy.

More than ever before I agree with Picasso, it is futile and unnecessary and, in fact, dangerous to create something that is “beautiful”, especially today. Beauty is a compromise between the artist’s vision and the audience’s sensibilities. We are creating something that has good artistic taste; whether it is beautiful or not, is decided by a point of view.

I nearly wrote “no more statements”, but that’s a statement in itself. In one way or another, over the past few years, I managed to let life become too small, too complex, but it’s pointless to think, why, or how it happened. Perhaps, it had to happen. I do believe that certain things happen to us to teach us a lesson. The past months show that I’ve probably learnt mine.

You see, when you have so many gifts you have to carve your own niche in every field, even life itself is just another place to be different. So, it’s hard to be me, really. But I wouldn’t give up any of it.

Night, A Streetlight, A Street, A Chemist’s (Alexander Blok)

This poem by Alexander Blok, one of the seminal poets of the Russian fin-de-siecle, is greatly loved all over the world: so much so that in 1990s it was chosen, along with the poems by Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, and Khlebnikov, to represent Russian poetry in the Leiden-centred project, Poems and Walls (1992-2005). I decided to translate it, as well.

Night, a streetlight, a street, a chemist’s,
All in a dim and useless light.
In the next twenty-five years
They’ll still prevail, against one’s plight.

And you may die but then, returning,
You’ll see again the same old night,
The icy canal waters running,
The street, the chemist’s, the streetlight.

Original Russian text

Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века –
Все будет так. Исхода нет.

Умрешь – начнешь опять сначала,
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.


As befits an approaching full Moon…

They say that full Moons and the periods that lead to them are the moments of heightened emotion and restlessness. Indeed, despite a heavy rain outside, I feel like I’d like to catch a train somewhere. Of course, “to catch a train somewhere” also entails taking a camera – but how much are you really going to snap, if it’s raining cats and dogs? I’m also waiting for a delivery from Graze – thanks to the amazing generosity of Paul who shared a promotional code and waxed lyrical about how good the products were. But now I have to wonder, of course, at what point during the day I am going to lay my hands on this natural goodness. On another hand, I’d feel immensely deprived, if the door bell woke me up at 6am. Yet if it woke me up at 7.40, I wouldn’t mind because I was already awake then.

So, as you can gather, I’m anything but certain about what to do, and the fact that I took a couple of days of holiday at work doesn’t help make things clearer. I also know that I need to buy a book for a good friend, although I could possibly do that in any Waterstone’s.

Perhaps, the best course of action forms itself as I drink my morning coffee.

Right now, though, I feel like reflecting on the fact that most of the posts – indeed, most of my texts, be they literary, scholarly, or professional – are not pre-drafted. Very often they’re not even preconceived. Which makes me wonder about the nature of literature, and from where we take our ideas about it. I am convinced – partly being guilty of this myself – that we often dance from a given image. The given image of an author, e.g., would usually be a guy in specs sitting in a room of his own; or someone enlightened by inspiration, as on this portrait by Fragonard (left). Then Woolf comes along with her essay – and if you visit Heaton Hall and observe claustrophobic boudoirs, you will begin to see why no Shakespeare’s sister could be an author.

So, gradually we begin to think of an author – or writer – as someone who must live in certain conditions, surrounded by certain things. Further, it begins to appear as if he also must write in specific conditions. Again, this may be taken from contemplating the 17th c. paintings (right) or photographs in modern magazines. And at the same time we absolutely love the fact that the poet Blok or the painter Modigliani were producing their masterpieces in a bar. Thus is formed the image of an inspirational setting. Add to this Henry Miller’s protagonist who composes his texts between having sex and looking for money – and the lovely image of a poor promiscuous artist is shaped.

There is nothing wrong with this image, as such. But there’s a rub, and I will illustrate it on a less demure example. Like many people out there, I am fascinated by the idea of sex on the beach. It’s awesome, and I can’t quite choose between the action taking place when the sun is in full blaze, or at the sunset. Either way, my ideal setting would involve some rocks in the distance, the gentle roaring of the ocean, the pleasant warm wind, seclusion, and the soft sand.

There’re soft sands, in Majorca, for example. But, minus this, the dream place could be found somewhere closer to home, and back in the day when I read the article that shattered the dream I was in Russia. One day I came across an article that unveiled the sad truth of life to me. “So, you’re dreaming of sex on the beach?” – it read. – “Then brace yourself, for there is nothing romantic about it. The sand is nothing like that luxurious white powder you see on the screen. On a real beach the sand is coarse, and your skin will be burning, and your body will be aching, and there’ll be no pleasure or satisfaction – unless you lie on a big towel. But that isn’t remotely romantic“.

I said this article has shattered the dream. It hasn’t really; instead, it inadvertently pointed out to a gap between the ideal and reality. As much as we may question the reality, one thing is certain: the sand IS coarse, and if you don’t want your romantic time on the beach to turn into a nightmare of applying plasters, you have to take precautions.

Same with writing. Try and do some writing in a bar where you are deafened by music, laughter, and loud voices. What we probably don’t understand is that both the poet and the painter were eating, drinking, and meeting their friends at those bars. Writing came as a bonus; it was a natural consequence of a stimulus. I very much doubt that Blok would go to the bar with a precise idea of composing The Unknown Woman. The visits to the bar, however, made the poem possible.

And then there were Surrealists with their automatic writing. Everything you read in this post or elsewhere on the blog is automatic. The editing is usually minimal and mostly concerns the structure of the phrase, plus adding links, pictures and other media. At the moment, I don’t even know what it is that I’m going to write next. It is correct to say that I wasn’t even going to contemplate our understanding of writing in this post, but as I am contemplating it, I state that I didn’t have a precise idea of what I was going to write. This feels somewhat surreal, and the fact that it’s raining outside and I feel both relaxed and restless makes this post a strong reference to Surrealist study of dreams, hypnosis, and automatic creativity. Yet even though I don’t know what I’m going to write, I feel myself in control of the flow of the piece, even though there is no precise structure for this piece. As one of the speakers at Futuresonic said, blogging made him produce short pieces, half-related to one another, which in turn affected the fluidity and coherence of his oral presenations. For me, real-time blogging is a perfect illustration to the flow of thought, provided this is what you pursue and don’t mind sharing. Many texts were written on the subject of “how I write”, but little do we know, unless we go to the archives, about exactly how the process goes (check out Sholokhov’s draft of Quiet Flows the Don, for example). The beautiful thing about blogging for me is that it can show just that.

It’s taken me an hour to write this post. The delivery from Graze still hasn’t arrived; my slumberish yet creative state of mind is growing stronger; and by all accounts it looks like I’ll spend the day indoors. Although I may somewhat object to pre-writing blog posts, I don’t mind pre-publishing them. And I know that the mood like the one I’m in is precious and has to be caught and used to the full.


Jean-Honore Fragonard, Inspiration (1769)
Jan Brueghel Younger and Peter Paul Rubens, Allegory of Sight (1618)