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I am thinking of one artist. Like him, I am not interested in goblins and airy castles. Certainly, there is certain beauty in all this, but I need real people. And it is them whom I want to write about. 

Schnittke was prepared to break his neck but to find the fusion of classical and popular music. “A Paganini” sounds even more Paganini than the latter’s work. 
Mario Vargas Llosa writes cinematic novels. Kurt Vonnegut was the master of telegraphic style. Peter Greenaway makes films like a painter. 
“Art is a lie”. “All art is quite useless”. “Culture neither saves, nor justifies anyone”. “This illusion is the only reality”. 
In reverse order, these phrases belong to Maugham, Sartre, Wilde, and Picasso. But art and culture is the mirror in which the man looks. It is the portrait of Dorian Gray that grows older, while its sitter remains youthful. Mankind constantly rejuvenates itself, every day it becomes younger; meanwhile the paintings perish and statues lose body parts in fires, floods, and bombings. We admiringly gaze at the heads without noses and armless torsos. Is there any wonder that Death exists not only because its mystery is unfathomable but because it remains unnoticed?  
Original Russian text
Я вспоминаю одного художника. Как и ему, мне не интересны гоблины и воздушные замки. Безусловно, во всем этом есть своя прелесть, но мне нужны живые люди. И писать я хочу о них же. 
Шнитке собирался свернуть шею, но найти-таки способ соединять классическую и популярную музыку. “К Паганини” звучит еще более как Паганини, чем все произведения последнего. 
Марио Варгас Льоса пишет кинематографичные романы. Курт Воннегут – мастер телеграфного стиля. Гринуэй снимает кино, как живописец. 
“Искусство – ложь”. “Все искусство практически не нужно”. “Культура никого ни от чего не спасает, да и не оправдывает”. “Вот эта-то иллюзия и есть единственная реальность”. 
Это сказали, в обратном порядке, Моэм, Сартр, Уайльд, Пикассо. Но культура и искусство – это зеркало, в которое глядится человек. Это портрет Дориана Грэя, стареющий по мере того, как сохраняет молодость модель. Человечество все время обновляется, каждый день оно становится моложе; а в это же время в пожарах, наводнениях и бомбежках погибают картины и теряют части тела статуи. Мы восхищаемся, глядя на головы без носов и безрукие торсы. Стоит ли удивляться, что Смерть существует не только потому, что ее тайна непостижима, но и потому, что ее не замечают?
Image credit: Wikimedia

Carmarthen Cameos – 6 (Books: Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science)

We’ve got an enormous home library in Moscow, which contains many rare editions of Russian classical authors, 19th c. books, revolutionary newspapers, and the Large Soviet Encyclopedia. The library has grown at least twice since 1997, once I went to the University. For the biggest part it consists of reference books, poetry, and prose. There are history books in the collection, of course, but their quantity is nowhere near the number of literary works.

A large number of books are crowding in my current abode, and going to Carmarthen helped to add a few more: a collection of Sir T. S. Eliot’s poems; a book about Dylan Thomas; an edition of (nearly) all major novels by W. S. Maugham; a collection of writings by Peter Kapitsa, a Russian physicist; and the 29th (1867) edition of Art Journal.

Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science: Addresses and Essays by Albert Parry was the first publication of Kapitsa’s non-technical speeches and writings and was aimed at American readers, introducing to them ‘one of the great minds of our century’. In addition to Kapitsa’s speeches and addresses, the collection includes ‘two highly revealing interviews, through which run two main currents: his concern that Russia’s students specialize too much, without the broadening interest in general science that would make them truly well-versed scientists or engineers; and his fear that even when they turn out to be well-rounded experts in science and engineering, they shun a deep-enough acquaintance with the world’s art and humanities, and thus cannot be true leaders of tomorrow’. From my experience at the Moscow State University, these concerns and fears have been taken on board, and a good proof may be that many members of the MSU’s Grand Choir are students and teachers of the Sciences. I find this book interesting to read also because my grandmother’s cousin, a professor of Physics herself at the MSU, was blessed with the chance to work with Peter (Pyotr) Kapitsa and, in particular, to travel to England.

Three of the essays are Kapitsa’s reminiscences of Ernest Rutherford, whose genius had once shone at the University of Manchester, where he was the Chair of Physics between 1907 and 1919. Under his tuition in Manchester studied and worked, among others, Niels Bohr and Hans Geiger. Kapitsa, subsequently a 1978 Nobel Prize Winner himself, came to Cambridge in 1921, to work on the project that had already been initiated by Rutherford and Geiger. Kapitsa writes affectionately and with respect about Rutherford in the letters to his mother. When he’d only just started his work in 1921, he was worried ‘about my work in Cambridge, how it will go, just how well I will be able to work with Rutherford, what with my weak knowledge of the English language and my rather crude manners’. Kapitsa was indeed concerned about his English, and soon upon arriving and settling in Cambridge he wrote: ‘My feeble knowledge of the language hampers me in the expression of my ideas’ (p. 123). Nevertheless, it is the outstanding talent and devotion to work that earned Kapitsa Rutherford’s sincere respect. Within a few months of beginning to work at the Cavendish Laboratory Kapitsa was given a room of his own – ‘this is a big honour here’ (p. 126), he says.
Rutherford was a man of ‘kind of charm, although at times he is rude’ (p. 124), Kapitsa wrote after his first scientific conversation with his tutor. A few months later he noted:

Rutherford is increasingly pleasant to me. He greets me with a bow when he sees me and inquires about the progress of my research. But I’m a little afraid of him. I work practically next to his study. This is bad, since I must be careful about my smoking: should he see that pipe in my mouth, there would be trouble. But thank God, he is heavy-footed, and I can tell his steps from those of others…‘ (p. 125).

From the start of his work at Cambridge Kapitsa had been calling Rutherford “Crocodile”. As Parry explains in the Introduction, this was ‘”a symbol of Rutherford’s scientific acumen and career”, because “this animal never turns back” but always pushes forward; “the crocodile is regarded in Russia with mingled awe and admiration”‘ (P. 8). This can also be reinterpreted to mark some of Rutherford’s personal traits. ‘Rutherford is satisfied’, writes Kapitsa, this can be seen in his attitude toward me. He always says friendly things to me when he meets me. But… when he is displeased, hold onto your seat. He will cuss you out the worst way ever. But what an astonishing cranium! His mind is absolutely unique: a colossal sensitivity, intuition. I have never been able to imagine anything like it in existence. He states his subject very lucidly. He is a completely extraordinary physicist and a very singular personality…’ (pp. 125-126). In 1922, Kapitsa once again noted Rutherford’s ‘devilish intuition’: ‘Ehrenfest in his latest letter to me calls him simply a god. It’s very amusing here: if the Professor is pleasant to you, everyone else in the laboratory is affected – they also become attentive to you… I am not timid, but I lose my nerve before him…’ (p. 129).

As awe-inspiring as he was, Rutherford was honest and generous to his students. ‘Once, in a frank conversation with me, Rutherford said that the main thing for a teacher to learn was not to envy his students’ successes, and he confessed: “How difficult this becomes with the years!” This profound truth made a bid impression on me. The teacher’s uttermost quality should be generosity. Doubtless Rutherford could be generous. This apparently was the chief secret behind the fact that so many prominent scientists came out of his laboratory – that it was always possible to work freely and well in his laboratory, in its good businesslike atmosphere’ (p. 111). Rutherford was also gregarious, and Kapitsa writes about a dinner of the Cavendish Physics Society in December of 1921, when ‘after the toasts, all present mounted their chairs, held hands in a crisscross manner, and sang a song in which they recalled all their friends… It was very amusing to see such world-famous men as J. J. Thompson and Rutherford standing on chairs and singing at the top of their voices…’ (p. 127).

Ernest Rutherford and Pyotr Kapitsa biographies at NobelPrize.org.
Ernest Rutherford – Scientist Supreme – the website created and maintained by John Campbell, author of Rutherford Scientist Supreme (Christchurch, New Zealand, 1999).
It is striking, but upon a consultation of COPAC website, it seems that Peter Kapitsa on Life and Science: Addresses and Essays (collected, translated and annotated with an introduction by Albert Parry) (The Macmillan Company, 1968) is held in but three British libraries: at Nottingham, Aberdeen, and London. It is available on Amazon, so if you’re interested, this may be the place to visit.

Tropic of Cancer by HENRY MILLER

The story of my discovering Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn; notes on literary and historical aspects of the works.

I started reading Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronimus Bosch by Henry Miller, and the waves of admiration engulfed me, which I had to share. For most people in the world Tropic of Cancer is synonymous to scandal and filthy language.
Image courtesy: okudugumkitaplar.blogspot.com

I discovered Miller’s prose in 2001, thanks to my mother who’s got a knack for *discovering* things. On her way home from work she bought three books by him – Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn. I vividly remember that I was sleeping when she came home, because when I woke up I saw my mother reading one of the books. I enquired. She was reading Tropic of Capricorn, but quickly admitted that she wouldn’t be able to read it in full. I think I was reading something else at the moment (it was Maugham, probably), so I suggested she’d give the books to my granny, who was always an avid reader.

We expected a fiasco, and we had it. Usually not avert on using an occasional strong word, my granny was deeply offended to read all sorts of four- and five-letter obscenities and their derivatives in the text of Tropic of Cancer. She literally threw the books back to me, and I had no choice but to finish off with Maugham as quickly as possible, so as to start reading this horribly offensive Henry Miller.

The fact that it’s a “dirty” and “filthy” narrative cannot be refuted. But what about the context of the work? Miller was leading a life of an ex-pat in mid-war Paris, most of the time literally from hand to mouth, trying to see through the mist of people and events. That Paris was no longer strictly “bourgeois”, but the imminence of another war was palpable, which made people hide behind chimeric hopes and images. That mid-war reality needed a new language, neither too complicated, nor too refined. The swearing words have always been used in the literary works to create a certain impression or effect, but on my then memory they have never been used so beautifully, sumptuously and ruthlessly as in Tropics. Miller used slang as a living language, which in Russian translation was subjected to all relevant grammar rules. And that made me adore the books and the author ever more, because for all its “filth” the book was marked by an unrivalled artistic taste.

As I was still a student, I was reading the book mostly on the bus and on the metro, sometimes standing in a crowd during the rush hour, sometimes sitting between two men, almost always squeezed, which meant that anyone with a habit of reading over the shoulder would have read all those “dirty” words. What would they think of me? Did I honestly care? No.

If anything else, Tropics must have been the ultimate books that taught me a lesson of the necessity to delve deeper into the narrative, instead of being instantly offended by its exterior. The first lesson was definitely in the reading the works of marquis de Sade, especially 120 Days of Sodom. From the point of ‘offensivity’, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn simply took de Sade’s initiative further.

One thing, however, I feel some readers may be missing about Tropic of Cancer is that it was written in the 1930s Paris, which was the Mecca for all innovative tendencies in art, especially surrealism. The book in fact carries a strong spell of surrealism. Some readers observe that the book has no structure, but by the time he embarked on it, Miller was already able to use the modernist technique of ‘stream of consciousness‘ and the surrealist technique of automatic writing. Throughout the book he is preoccupied, among others, with the topics of sex and death, Eros and Tanathos, which again were deeply explored by surrealists. And the breakneck speed of the narrative, when everything seems to be happening at the same time, strangely reminds one of the simultaneity of events in medieval paintings, from which surrealism had often taken its inspiration. In this light, the sumptuous, disturbing and revelatory descriptions and passages in Tropic of Cancer are very much like the otherworldly panoptical visions of Hieronimus Bosch.

I devoured Tropics and Black Spring, then I read The Time of the Assassins: The Study of Rimbaud, and shortly before I came to England I started The Rosy Crucifixion. I still haven’t finished it. Partly, I didn’t have much time for it because of everything I had to do before leaving for another country. In part, however, it had to do with my coming across another book, much smaller in size, which presented Miller from a totally different angle. It was The Colossus of Maroussi, and, God knows, it is probably one of my favourite travel books, if not the favourite.

As for my granny, after a year and a half of my paeans to Henry Miller, she finally gave in and agreed to have another go. I saw her one summer day in 2003, fallen asleep, but keeping a page of the book with her finger. When she was half-way through Tropic of Cancer, I carefully asked her opinion.

‘Well, my girl’, she said, ‘there’s nothing that he writes about that I didn’t know, but, of course, he’s a good writer’.

And I know she liked The Colossus of Maroussi.

More on Henry Miller – http://www.henrymiller.org/

Exercises in Loneliness – III

Generally, I love sleepless nights. I love the time when I can read or write, without being disturbed. There is only one exception – I prefer when I am actually enjoying either writing or reading. At the moment, I’m about to embark on a very lengthy text on the topic of martyrdom in Sikhism. And although I already know and understand how the text should be written, I find it daunting to write because – God knows! – I’d prefer to write about something else. More inspiring. More creative.

To stay up in the night has never been difficult for me. I don’t even know how I came to develop such ability. When I was a student, however, my mates at the Uni used to ask me (quite seriously!), what to do in order to stay awake. The question would normally rise during the exam session. I could never give any sound advice, and from what I know, they never actually stayed up.

Writing daunting texts is also nothing new. Back in 2000, I was in my third year and had been writing an essay on Soviet literature between 1925 and 1935. Or, I’d better say, I’d been trying to write such essay. I knew the topic very well, but, strangely, the knowledge had put me off writing the text. The final day of submission was 15 May. 14 May was my mother’s birthday, and we had guests. They left at about 9pm, and I went to the computer. Ten hours later I had written 30 pages – exactly what was required. I took it to the tutor. A week later she told me that she absolutely loved my work and couldn’t find words to express her regret that we hadn’t discuss my essay in our seminar. Well… Perhaps, I’ll rework it for an article one day. :))

The text I need to write now is exactly a half of those 30 pages. The topic – martyrdom – borders on history, philosophy and religion, and I’m looking at the whole of the 17th c. Of course, Asia is not Europe, but the 17th c. is not something totally inconceivable. I think it’s because of him. He is Pascal Quignard. Ever since I read ‘Terrace a Rome’ I wanted to find and read as many of his works, as possible. I couldn’t start reading, but I actually found the Russian translation of ‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ (All the World’s Mornings/Все утра мира) and a couple of extracts from his essay ‘Le Sexe et L’Effroi’ (Sex and Terror/ Секс и страх). And it’s because I’d rather read these works that I find it difficult to write about those Sikh martyrs.

In my life as a reader I went through a series of very intense ‘love affairs’ with different authors. Those whose works I most hungrily devoured were Gorky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, de Sade, Henry Miller, Maugham, Sueskind, Marquez, Llosa, and Vonnegut. Oh, yes, also Wilde, Prevert, and most Russian poets. I’ve got to stop here, otherwise martyrdom will be completely forgotten.

Anyway, I know what I’m going to add to my birthday/Christmas/New Year list. It’s the works of Pascal Quignard. In English, French or Russian, it doesn’t matter.

And an extract from one of his interviews. You can read the article in full here.

Wandering Shadows or the insecurity of thinking
I certainly was not planning to embark on anything so long, I wanted to write books that did not exceed the capacity of my head, if I can put it that way, that I could skim through panoptically. But something like a wave began to get bigger and bigger and to engulf me, as though it was saying to me “Don’t be so cautious with your own life.”
Les Ombres Errantes is the book that has the greatest biographical content. It is important to me that a thought is totally involved in the life you are leading. In this book, I make clear my determination to create a hermitage within the modern world where I praise insecurity of thinking, while the societies in which we live advocate the opposite. The same thing happened at the end of the Roman Empire: in order to counter the return of religious monotheism and imperial pacification, many hermitages were created. The values that are now coming back are all the ones I detest. The return of faith terrifies me and I am filled with despair to see my own friends becoming believers and doctrinarians. We are living in 1571. This St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre atmosphere had to be described. The Wars of Religion are beginning again. Woman is being deified. Death adored. Democracy more violent and inegalitarian than in Pericles’ day. Technology, the object of all worship, and the all-pervasive cult of youth is worse than primitive – it is untamed, psychotic.
Interview conducted by Catherine Argand

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