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

Italian Impressions by Alexander Blok is a curious example of the Russian Symbolist poet visiting Italy and returning largely unimpressed

In 1909 The Italian Impressions by Alexander Blok came out of print. Blok 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  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.

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

Critics consider Ilya Glazunov’s illustrations to An Unknown Lady by Alexander Blok to be the overall finest illustrations of Blok’s work.


An 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 by  Alexander Blok. 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 of An Unknown Lady by Alexander Blok 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, makes a 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
(or is 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  on the 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, I see.   

April 24th, 1906

Translated by Alec Vagapov

Alexander Blok – Night, A Streetlight, A Street, A Chemist’s

Recently a Russian query has led to my blog: “и повторится все как встарь аптека улица”. So here is my English translation of a well-known poem by Alexander Blok, Night, a Streetlight, a Street, a Chemist’s, where the Russian line comes from. The poem studies the life’s ennui that is persistent despite time and place.

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.

Alexander Blok – Night, a Streetlight, a Street, a Chemist’s

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.

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