Category Archives: Literature

Les Notes Parisiennes

Et bon, mes chers lecteurs, enfin j’ai visite Paris. Pardonnez-moi l’absence des articles, mais il n’y a pas de langue francaise a mon telephone.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while will know that this was a very long-lasting dream that has finally come true. According to the French themselves, I speak their language very well, although this was the first time I really had to converse with native speakers. I managed to keep my writing skills up, while living in the UK, but I was quite fearful for the spoken language. Thankfully, there is nothing to fear about any longer.

I’ve only had two days, so I somehow chose to visit the Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, the Pere Lachese cemetery, and the Louvre. Maybe I should have made a different choice, but the positive impressions abound anyway. In addition to visiting these great sites, I ate at various lovely places where there was always good food and good service, both at good value. The majority thought I was English, if I had to “switch” the language to better express myself. I took buses and metro, I climbed 300 stairs up the Sacre Coeur to see the unforgettable Parisian panorama in broad daylight. Naturally, I chose to use the ascenseur (elevator) to visit la Tour Eiffel, for otherwise I’d overdo climbing for the day. I was still rewarded with spectacular views of Paris by night and a short illumination.

The French were generally very helpful – perhaps because they sensed the chance to practise their English. As soon as I arrived and was trying to figure out where to go, a map in my hand, a lovely French lady came up and offered me help. I always do this kind of thing in Moscow, so it looks like this was the instance of “the good you do comes back to you“.

And then there were two funny situations, both at the Eiffel Tower. First, I saw two security guards studying a small bottle of champagne they confiscated from someone. The conversation went thus:

I: “Are you going to give it back, if they ask?”
Guard: “Me? This is going to cost!” – and he made a gesture with his fingers, hinting at the money they’d have to pay to get the bottle back.

Obviously, this was a joke.

A better one followed during my own security check before going for the elevator. Our conversation:

Guard: Knives? Pistols?
I: Of course, not!
Guard: A bomb?
I: Well, I haven’t thought about it.

At one of the bistros where I stopped we had a pleasant conversation with a gentleman from Biarritz. Eventually, we arrived to a conclusion that Biarritz was even more expensive than Nice because of its exclusivity. In return, I explained the meaning of the word “issue”, and how it can be used in English language.

Prior to going to Paris I read Villa “Amalia” by Pascal Quignard. It was a Russian translation, a moving story of a woman-artist. I remember trying to read Dance, Dance, Dance by Mourakami in English years ago, and I couldn’t even wade through it because it felt like I was “reading” a film by some Asian director, Wong Kar-wai or something. As much as I love Kar-wai’s films, “reading” it in another author’s novel was too much. I didn’t get past a few opening chapters.

With Villa “Amalia” there was also a feeling that it was a very cinematographic novel, I could easily see it being adapted to the screen, and the little parts, into which the bigger chapters are broken, may in fact be separate scenes in a feature. Thanks to this, the novel is every bit a French film at its best: rich yet succinct, and always with a good “afterthought”, as in “aftertaste”. Isabelle Huppert could certainly play Anna Hidden. I guess this plainly shows me as a huge French cinema fan.

In the story, as well, “Hidden” is a pseudonym. The protagonist is half-Jewish, she took the pseudo after a suggestion from her lover, but her father has spent a lifetime escaping various things, family included. Anna herself “hides” from relationships and, at some point, from people, while retaining her privacy. And as she is not widely known by face, she remains “hidden”. Apart from everything else in the novel, this is a beautiful play on words from another language, to portray a character.

And on the way back from Paris I was again reading Les Champs Magnetiques by A. Breton and Ph. Soupault.

Donc, a bientot!

The Case For Aliens (Exercises in Loneliness-XI)

If we take George Mikes’s title literally and add to it the fact that each of us is a rather solitary figure in this world, then each of us is an alien. Either an Englishman in New York, or a Russian in Manchester, we depend on ourselves and always get back to ourselves as a point of reference.

Then another George comes to mind – that’s Orwell with his “some animals more equal than other animals”. By extension, some aliens are more equal than other aliens, provided they constitute the majority – of population, religion, sexual orientation etc.

At this carrefour originates a seeming necessity to be less alien than other aliens, and this necessity sometimes can yield unexpected results.

It was probably in 2010 that I went into a Tesco Express, one of many in Manchester city centre. The girl who was working at the till belonged to the Afro-Caribbean community and was absolutely lovely – except a typically Caribbean accent. She was trying to give me change and asked for a two pence coin. I was distracted so I didn’t hear her at first. She repeated, and I genuinely couldn’t understand. Again she said it, this time I made it out and gave the coin. She laughed:

– You’re foreign, that’s why you don’t understand my accent.

– No, – I replied, – I’m British.

I didn’t mean to be nasty, and I wasn’t really offended. After all, I was foreign in Manchester once. I suppose the whole conversation was a matter of fact, at least as far as I was concerned. It was strange and funny yet that we – both actually foreign in one way or another – engaged in guessing the “degree” of alienness, one of us ultimately losing.

Now, on my recent visit to Edinburgh I went into one of many souvenir shops . An owner with a recognisable European accent was selling ladies’ kilts to a group of Italian donne interpreted by an 11-year-old girl. “I can tell you, ladies”, he was confidently telling them in a high voice, “almost all souvenir shops here are taken by the Indians, there are only 5 or 6 authentic shops”. His was evidently one of the authentic shops.

I was attended to next. I think for the best of his business I shall omit the reference to the exact country of his origin. The point, however, is that he was as much alien to Scotland as the Indians (or Pakistani). And yet – be it due to skin colour or merely parroting what he might hear in pubs and from other vendors – he considers himself superior to people who at any rate have been associated with the UK for longer than his country of origin.

The stories are quite similar, as you can see. People assume superiority over their neighbour by assuming that the neighbour is alien. Greeks did the same when they called the rest of the world barbarians. They couldn’t understand that rather imperfect language, but it was the barbarians’ fault anyway. And as if the realisation of one’s solitary existence and loneliness in this world was not enough, there comes, sooner or later, the understanding that there are aliens who are more equal.

Poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (To the Purse and Counsel)

Geoffrey Chaucer

To the majority of readers Geoffrey Chaucer is known as the author The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida. But there were smaller poems he composed, and here come the two of them. In the first, Chaucer addressed his purse; the second he was said to have written on his deathbed, “lying in anguish”.

The Complaint Of Chaucer To His Purse
To you, my purse, and to none other wight,
Complain I, for ye be my lady dear!
I am sorry now that ye be so light,
For certes ye now make me heavy cheer;
Me were as lief be laid upon my bier.
For which unto your mercy thus I cry,
Be heavy again, or elles must I die!
Now vouchesafe this day, ere it be night,
That I of you the blissful sound may hear,
Or see your colour like the sunne bright,
That of yellowness hadde peer.Ye be my life!
Ye be my hearte’s steer! rudder
Queen of comfort and of good company!
Be heavy again, or elles must I die!
Now, purse! that art to me my life’s light
And savour, as down in this worlde here,
Out of this towne help me through your might,
Since that you will not be my treasurere;
For I am shave as nigh as any frere.
But now I pray unto your courtesy,
Be heavy again, or elles must I die!
Chaucer’s Envoy to the King.
O conqueror of Brute’s Albion,
Which by lineage and free election
Be very king, this song to you I send;
And ye which may all mine harm amend,
Have mind upon my supplication!
Good Counsel Of Chaucer
Flee from the press, and dwell with soothfastness;
Suffice thee thy good, though it be small;
For hoard hath hate, and climbing tickleness,
Press hath envy, and weal is blent o’er all,
Savour no more than thee behove shall;
And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
Paine thee not each crooked to redress,
In trust of her that turneth as a ball;
Great rest standeth in little business:
Beware also to spurn against a nail;
Strive not as doth a crocke with a wall;
Deeme thyself that deemest others’ deed,
And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
What thee is sent, receive in buxomness;
The wrestling of this world asketh a fall;
Here is no home, here is but wilderness.
Forth, pilgrim! Forthe beast, out of thy stall!
Look up on high, and thank thy God of all!
Weive thy lust, and let thy ghost thee lead,
And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.

Quotes On the Front Page: Arbus On Picture, Quignard On Joy

For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated. – Diane Arbus.

Человеку дарована лишь одна радость – ощущение жизни, когда она достигает своего апогея. И другой жизни у нас нет. – Паскаль Киньяр.

New Story By Francis Scott Fitzgerald – Thank You For the Light

A New Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Thank You for the Light

A beautiful synopsis from Scribd:

“This newly discovered short story by one of the greatest writers of twentieth-century American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald, will surprise and delight. Thank You for the Light is a masterfully crafted story—spare, strange, and wonderful, albeit a departure from Fitzgerald’s usual style. A widowed, corset saleswoman, Mrs. Hanson, whose chief pleasure in life is cigarettes, discovers that social disapproval of smoking is widespread in her new sales territory. Deprived of this simple comfort, she receives solace, and a light, from an unexpected source. Fitzgerald originally submitted the story to The New Yorker in 1936, four years before his death, but it was rejected. The editors said that it was “altogether out of the question” and added, “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him and really too fantastic.” Almost eighty years later, Fitzgerald’s grandchildren found the story among his papers and the Fitzgerald scholar James West encouraged them to send the story to the magazine once again. This time around the magazine decided to publish it, and now it is available in this special eBook edition”.

Marshak of the Soviet Union: To Samuil Marshak’s 125th Anniversary

The famous Russian poet and translator Samuil Marshak was born on November 3, 1887. This year marks his 125th anniversary. He is particularly known to the Western audience and scholars as a translator who made Shakespeare’s sonnets and Robert Burns’s poetry available to the Russian readers. What is less known is his contribution to the tradition of children’s poetry in Russia, and this post will look at precisely this.

This wonderful person was once called “Marshak of the Soviet Union”. Indeed, together with Kornei Chukovsky, Agniya Barto, and Sergei Mikhalkov, he was the main children’s poet, and it would be hard to single out any one of the four. Possibly, Marshak and Chukovsky would stand apart since they had not merely drawn inspiration from the everyday life of Soviet children, but also from the endless well of world literature. And still Marshak stands out in his own right with his beautiful, melodic poems and plays in verses in which he reconstructed a magical world of childhood.

So below are links to the previous posts on this blog where Marshak work featured, as well as several books from my home library.

Samuil Marshak – In the Van (Translated into English by Margaret Wettlin)

Samuil Marshak – In the Van

Marshak’s translation of Love and Poverty poem by Robert Burns that became a famous song in the Soviet adaptation of Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas.

Another translation of Robert Burns, this time The Little Black Boy.

Samuil Marshak – Cat’s House (in Russian)
A beautiful fairy tale about the feline couple who once declined taking two orphaned kittens in the house. Then their house burnt down, and they had to look for shelter which they found with the kittens. A story of compassion, friendship, and the need of the family.

Samuil Marshak – Cat’s House

Samuil Marshak – The Tale of a Hero Nobody Knows (English translation by Peter Tempest)
A poetisation of the Soviet youth: a “hero” is a guy who acts according to circumstances, saving people, and shuns recognition.

Samuil Marshak – The Tale of a Hero Nobody Knows

Samuil Marshak – Petits d’animaux derriere les barreaux (French translation by Catherine Emery) 
Short poems about animal cubs.

Samuil Marchak – Petits d’animaux derriere les barreaux


Russia’s Favourite Fairy Tale (By the Will Of the Pike)

A few months ago I came across an article in the Russian media about the favourite fairy tale characters among Russians. Turns out, ladies still prefer a Cinderella story, waiting for a Knight-in-Shining-Armour to sweep them over and away to his beautiful castle. And gentlemen relish another fairy-tale – that of Yemelya guy who sat on the Russian oven and by chance caught a pike that subsequently provided him with many a marvel and a good wife as a bonus.

As you can see, the two tales are poles apart, and there is little wonder that often people cannot make either dream come true. A man is happy to sit and wait for his pike, while a woman waits for the Prince Charming.

You may ponder as to how true this rings to your own country, but here is the Russian fairy tale in English.

By the Will Of the Pike. A Russian Fairy Tale

Thoughts on Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange

I think the “good” film adaptations are mainly those of Shakespeare’s work. I didn’t analyse yet as to what exactly makes them good, i.e. faithful and accurate, but I announced my impression.

I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess when I was still in Russia. I didn’t then plan to go to Britian, and I didn’t even imagine I’d end up living in Burgess’s native Manchester. Having lived there for a number of years, seeing the notorious yobs and hearing crime reports, I certainly would envisage a different kind of screen adaptation. But even if Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971) is fascinating as far as cinematography is concerned, as a kind of “translation” it is incomplete – and this is now I explained on Reddit the other day.

Re: A Clockwork Orange – don’t judge the film before you read the book. For all the visual beauty, the film is incomplete. Also, it’s an adaptation, hence it’s a kind of cinematic translation. Burgess, having come from Manchester, must’ve known well the kind of lads he was writing about – and they still inhabit Manchester, even though Burgess had gone. I lived in Manchester and Salford in 2000s, there are still gangs of youngsters who speak their own language and are ready to knife, rob and rape anyone they like. Sad but true. What happens in the novel, though, is that after all his tribulations Alex returns home where he’s not wanted and at some point realises that he no longer wants to be in a gang. He wants to have a place, a home, a family, a boy… who will probably end up making the same mistakes – because he’ll be from the same background as Alex. He doesn’t merely find the golden middle, he realises that the values and actions he thought had belonged to him are in fact completely alien to him. And it’s this latter part that Kubrick didn’t bring to screen, and it’s for this reason I think the adaptation is incomplete. It’s like if you translate a book and think “hang on, I’m not going to translate this because I think it will make a wrong impression” – and so you lose an integral part of the author’s plot“.

A Russian Literature Reading List – Where to Start

Some time ago on Reddit someone asked where they could start with Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Russian Literature in general. Good advice was given even before I joined, and obviously I added my two pence. I thought I’d share my recommendations with you, in case you also want to start on your Russian reading list. I’m sure you know it anyway, but recommendations are based on my personal reading experience.

I can also say that I’m in the process of making ready a project dedicated to Russian children’s books, tales, poetry, illustrations. What I’m finishing is just a preliminary stage, and ahead lies a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get a glimpse of Soviet/Russian childhood through the words and images.

So, first come the advice for those who are interested in Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“my suggestion re: Dostoyevsky would be to try his shorter stories first: Nevsky Prospect, Belye Nochi, Netochka Nezvanova. From there I’d go to The Idiot, this is the work that is most often cited, studied and mentioned by Western writers.

Crime and Punishment is on Russian school curriculum, but it might require a bit of acquaintance with Russian philosophy of the time. Dostoyevsky was a spokesperson for “pochvennichestvo”, a current in philosophical thought after 1860 that invested Russian people with a messianic role in saving the mankind from the rotten bourgeois morals, and instructed intelligentsia to embrace the masses through religion and ethics. I’m not discarding C&P, just saying that it contains some very specific commentary.

Also, Dostoyevsky had a soft spot for gambling, and I read that he actually earned some of his money through that. The best thing, he wrapped the entire experience in a novel The Gambler.

One last thing about Dostoyevsky: he’s mostly read as a very serious writer, very concerned with the harsh reality of life. But I tend to agree with those critics who say he’s often very ironic, and that even very serious things could be written with tongue in cheek”.

Speaking of the latter passage, about Dostoevsky’s humour: I recently read a collection of his unfinished work, all short stories. One of them tells a very peculiar story of a Russian civil servant who got swallowed by a crocodile. I may tell it in another blog post.

And now, the Russian Literature reading list:

  • Alexander Pushkin, The Little Tragedies (one is about Mozart and Salieri)
  • Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, The History of a Town (a very satyrical take on Russian history)
  • Leonid Andreev, Judas of Iskariot (the story was written long before The Last Temptation of Christ or Jesus Christ Superstar, but has certain similarities)
  • Maxim Gorky, The Life of Klim Samgin (the story of Russian intelligentsia from the end of 19th c. through the first two Revolutions)
  • Nikolai Gogol, The Government Inspector (a play about the pervasive corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy)
  • Alexander Griboyedov, Woe from Wit (a play in verses; good if you can read Le Misanthrope by Moliere before this one, b/c then you can compare)
  • Anton Chekhov, short stories and plays (Seagull is best-known, so try Ivanov and The Cherry Orchard)
  • Alexander Hertzen, What to Do? (a novel)
  • Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (a novel)
  • Ivan Bunin, The Cursed Days (a diary of the build-up to the October Revolution and a few years after, until Bunin’s emigration)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Vassilievich Changes the Occupation (play, was turned into a brilliant film)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Days of the Turbines (play, adapted to screen)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Flight (play, adapted to screen, starring Mikhail Ulyanov and Alexei Batalov)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (a short novel, adapted to screen)
  • Isaac Babel, Konarmia (a short novel about a Jewish journalist (Babel) accompanying and narrating the accomplishments of the Red Army in Poland and Ukraine)
  • Vladimir Mayakovsky, My Discovery of America (notes on the voyage to America, 1925-1926)
  • Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (I don’t know if it’s translated; if you manage to find it, it’s a kind of continuation of WE by Zamyatin, in the sense that Chevengur is a dream communist place where things sadly don’t go as “communist” as they should; quite a surrealist story)
  • Mikhail Sholokhov, The Fate of a Man (WW2, adapted to screen, directed by and starring Sergei Bondarchuk)
  • Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (the life of cossacks from approx. 1912 through the Civil War; adapted to screen 3 times!)
  • Boris Vassilyev, Tomorrow Was the War (WW2, adapted to screen)
  • Boris Vassilyev, The Dawn Is Silent Here (WW2, adapted to screen)
  • Alexander Kuprin, The Garnet Bracelet (a short story)
  • Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
  • Leo Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata (a short novel studies the position of a man and a woman in the society; a Russian Symbolist poet Konstatin Balmont was unhappily married when he read this Tolstoy’s novel, and it impacted him so that he tried to commit suicide; he survived and went on to become a really great lyrical poet).

As I said on Reddit, I have hard time enjoying contemporary Russian Literature, however, Andrei Bitov, Anatoly Rybakov, Grigory Gorin, Joseph Brodsky, Andrei Voznesensky are a must.