cyclops cinderella

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‘from the arbat to auteuil’

I was talking to a friend the other week who said that those who grow up in rural areas either stay or get as far away as possible and never go back.

I’ve been thinking of it often since because I can’t yet tell which I am; to embrace one feels like so much of a rejection of the other.  Lately it’s been feeling much more like the latter, yet I still feel so inextricably bound to ‘the earth’ because it is all that I knew for so long.  I’m not quite sure how I’m ever meant to divorce myself from it, or even if that’s something I want to do; it’s hard to imagine there might be another way.  What’s more, the whole thing feels horribly politicised as the rural is made to represent what is “conservative”, “backwards”, and the city a site of apparent “liberation”.  Whatever my own feelings might be, or whether my affinity for one is stronger than the other, the choice feels made for me when I realise that I might never fully live the life I wish to in such a village as that in which I was raised.

Anyway.  Soon after, when I was thinking all this over, I found another gem in Utopias, an extract from an article called ‘Literature in Exile’ by Khodasevich, first published in April 1933.  I think he’s given me something of an answer.  He talks of the question of emigré literature; how and if it exists, its weaknesses, its potential. The occasional alteration of forms and ideas is not only a sign of life, he says, shortly and sweetly, it is a prerequisite of life […].  The spirit of literature is a spirit of constant explosion and self-renewal.  

It speaks for itself, and it made me realise that perhaps I shouldn’t fear such a break with the past; rather that it might enrich our writing (I feel as though I’m always using this word, enrich), in his context – for this is certainly something I think about too, how to treat “here” and “there” in my own writing – and in a broader one allow us ourselves to flourish.

Similarly, Khodasevich speaks also of conservatism in literature, which he defines (though I cannot quote verbatim, my copy being thousands of miles away!) as the preservation of traditional forms.  To this I might add that to preserve one thing in literature also might mean not simply holding onto the old but honouring it in the new; namely;

  • this allows one to go forward in their life and work without feeling that they must abandon what they do not feel they can turn their backs on, or do not want to turn their backs on,
  • we might seek fulfillment and liberation in “the new” while holding on to our pasts – that there might be a way of reconciling the two – 
  • and so perhaps to embrace one does not require the absolute rejection of the other that I had imagined. 

How wonderful: I’ve been given two books of Russian poetry by my host family.  The book on the left is the second volume of an anthology of love poetry; it goes from Briusov and Kuzmin, two of my biggest loves, up to Vysotsky, and some of the more recent poets I’ve never heard of, so they’ll be fun to discover.  

Most of all, however, I’m really thrilled about the Akhmatova; I have some of her poems scattered across some anthologies I have at home but I’ve never actually owned a whole volume of just her before. I’ve been getting her only from libraries – and this has meant that when I’ve been away from them (as now, when I cannot return to the Hemschemeyer collection at the university library I’ve been working through until Christmas!) I haven’t had any except what I can read online, so I’ve been missing her.  How lovely now to think of having her wherever I go and whenever I want; and not only that, but that it should be in Russian! – I can start memorising them properly now.  

What’s more, I know that nothing helps my Russian more than going over poems; if I’m meeting a new word or grammatical point I can better remember it and know how to use it if I can say to myself, for example, ‘you won’t mix up пить and петь any more if you know that Lokhvitskaya says поют серафимы…’ It’s been fun, also, to find those poems that I already know from having read them English and see how they match up, and see truly what was ‘actually’ written.  It makes the idea of reading something in Russian (and all the pressures that that places upon you or rather that you place upon yourself; ‘you should be better understanding this..!’) a little less daunting if you know something of ‘how it goes’. 

 So for all this I’m glad; September is nearly here, and I have what I need to go forward; I can carry on with these studies of my own. 

‘a kiss is a deep symbol’

Two favourite passages from ‘On the Cause’ in From Paris to St. Petersburg: Selected Diaries of Zinaida Hippius, trans. Temira Pachmuss.  I had never expected to find it in a library, and I’m gutted that I didn’t have time to finish it before leaving the country for four months, but it’s nice to think that I’ll still have some left, something new – words of Gippius’ I don’t already know – waiting for me when I return.

Three things, one silly and two proper:

One: While reading the first diary in the book, ‘Contes d’amour’, and as she recounted her many involvements with other men but made no mention of Merezhkovsky, I found myself wondering just when it was that the two of them had got married.  At first I said to myself ‘oh, my mistake – she must have married later than I thought’, and a little later, as the diary progressed through the 1890s – ‘she’s still not married?  I know less than I thought’.  Finally, as the diary reached the turn of the century and still she had made no mention of Merezhkovsky, I looked it up – and it turns out they wed in 1889, so that she’d been his wife the entire time.  Good grief.

Two: One of the reasons I adored ‘On the Cause’ so much in particular is because of the way in which it reads just like a novel.  I wish I could quote to give examples but of course I won’t have it to hand until Christmas, but I think this is evident in the two passages above (and that’s why I had liked them so much).   All her actions are so serious and every word, every gesture (a kiss, for example) imbued with such a profound level of meaning. I find myself thinking again of the way in which Teffi wrote about her, her surprise at the fact Gippius and Merezhkovsky were real people who spoke of everyday things and loved crime novels.  How does Gippius manage to put forward in ‘On the Cause’ a life that is so fictional?  How does she imbue everything with such drama, everything a little beyond what we might expect of a person, and how are her relationships with Merezhkovsky and Filosofov portrayed with such intensity, as if we might watch them in a brooding period film? Is she simply leaving out everyday matters, and only writing very selectively? To a certain extent I think so, and that this is natural; she is, after all, setting out to write only about her C/church and its conception – we shouldn’t expect to find everything here. And yet I wonder, reading her, if we might all seek such things – the profound, the spiritual – in our own lives; that they are there, but we do not know it, we are not used to looking.  All our emotions have depth and perhaps Gippius is simply better at getting to those depths than us, and therefore able to better write of them and put forward her life, faith, and actions in a particular way.  If this is so, that perhaps we aren’t as attuned to such things as she, I believe it’s because…

Three: …one of the things I draw from most in Gippius’ writing is the way in which she seems to know herself; and again I wish I could quote to prove it, but those who have read her might know what I mean.  It is, to me, one of the most admirable of qualities, and one I always strive for. How can we expect to write about others – and therefore understand others – if we are not ready to try and understand ourselves?  How can those who write find the words to best describe others if we do not know the words we would use for ourselves?

To me Gippius is very good at this grappling with oneself, trying to understand oneself, as much as a struggle as it may often be.  If her emotional, spiritual, and sexual convictions change – and they often do! – they are while she holds them clear and ardent, and she is able to not only articulate them with astonishing eloquence but chart their developments, crises, and contradictions with great honesty.

I’m afraid of not being able to articulate what I mean and that my thoughts about it end up not being about Gippius any longer at all; yet perhaps it’s important that we are then able to ‘go forward’ with what a text has taught us and begin to apply it elsewhere.  So:  I think such an ability to look into oneself (rather than at oneself – for I think there is a difference) without fear might offer more than just ‘practice’ for the writer; we might use it to enrich our own lives and to heal.  By its greater insight, seeking to so deeply ‘know’ ourselves might spare us pain and confusion; for though she is able to regard her perceived shortcomings with certain objectivity, reading Gippius I see also an acknowledgement of the reality (for I hate the word ‘validity’!) of her emotions, as well as a great respect for them.  Rather than hiding from certain feelings, and refusing to examine why we hold certain beliefs, we might be able to more readily confront them: if we can say ‘I feel like x, because of y, and I know it and admit it’ then perhaps it becomes a little easier to say ‘if I wish to change this, I must seek to do z.’ – and be kinder to ourselves about everything: ‘I feel x, but this was caused by y, so it’s only natural my response should be z and I shouldn’t punish myself for it.’ 

We are always with our selves, so we must learn to understand them in order to live with them; seeking such a level of introspection and understanding of the self as Gippius’ might, I believe, allow us all a greater degree of compassion and self-love. 

Favourite Crime and Punishment characters so far, 225 pages in: Lizaveta, Katerina Ivanovna, Luiza Ivanovna.

I’ve been thinking often lately of Dorothy Whipple’s words in in The Priory: ‘Love is happy only when it is confident. When it is humble, it is full of pain and misgiving; there is hardly any happiness to be had out of it at all.’

I haven’t finished the book yet because I had a horrible feeling it would have a sad ending and I seem to have so little patience for misery these days; I didn’t like the idea of getting through all five hundred pages of it only to meet no reward at the end. Happiness and confidence are what I must learn, and I would not have wanted to reach the book’s end and only “learnt” about misery.

there are four of us

I have turned aside from everything,
from the whole earthly store.
The spirit and guardian of this place
is an old tree-stump in water.

We are brief guests of the earth, as it were,
and life is a habit we put on.
On paths of air I seem to overhear
two friendly voices, talking in turn.

Did I say two?…There 
by the east wall’s tangle of raspberry,
is a branch of elder, dark and fresh.
Why! It’s a letter from Marina.
November 1962 (in delirium)

Anna Akhmatova (trans. Judith Hemschemeyer)

It would be silly of course to say that men shouldn’t write about women but sometimes ‘their’ approach to ‘us’ in their work can be very difficult for me to look past.  When I read I often bear the gender of the writer in mind – it’s one of those inescapable things about us, that’s all, something too big to opt out of – but that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it has to get in the way.   The other weekend, however, I read Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy and it was the most jarringly ‘male’ book I had read in a good long while.

I knew what I was in for from the prologue (though the cover was something of a clue..!); twice in the first ten pages or less Hansen draws attention to the characters’ breasts.  At this I sighed inwardly (‘oh dear, it’s one of those…’) but ‘church books’ are one of my biggest weaknesses and you take what you can get.  So I read on, and this didn’t go away; about halfway through, increasingly irritated by Hansen’s fixation on the female body, I started counting; in the last seventy pages he mentions breasts no less than six times.  Thighs and stomachs I did not count, but of these there were plenty also; twice in the space of very few pages, on two separate occasions, does he draw attention to a nun’s skirts pulled up around her thighs while she’s gardening.  Who is this for, exactly?  Why is he showing us this woman, a part of her body often hidden, and what are we meant to gain from it?  Reviews of the book repeatedly draw attention to its ‘eroticism’ , the presence of ‘the sexual’ – yet there is no sex.  Just what is it meant to be doing, and who, when we deal with such passages, is doing the looking?  Often, rather than this action being performed specifically by a character, it is the reader who is made to look; rather than seeing through the eyes of another character (‘so-and-so watched as…’) it is simply given to us (‘In her dream Mariette is pregnant and her great breasts ache with milk’, ‘a short passage of tangled wire […] that is taught enough to ingrain itself in the skin underneath her breasts’).  It’s not a case of ‘x was looking at y’s breasts’, but sometimes quite the opposite (‘Mariette unseeingly washes […] her insignificant breasts’).   If she isn’t looking, who is?

I wonder if this is how certain men think we think, if that’s the logic behind their approach and their descriptions – women are fixated on their bodies, so I must portray them as such.  If this is so, that we are constantly aware of our physical selves, watching them (and it would be dishonest, I think, to say otherwise; I am reminded of John Berger’s words, ‘a woman must continually watch herself…’, etc), then I think it is because of the way this is forced upon us.  Women aren’t occupied with their bodies innately, fundamentally, biologically (such logic might be seen to require a portrayal that reflects that, supports what’s ‘already there’, if that makes sense).  Rather we are occupied with them because we are taught to be, and I think it’s writing such as Hansen’s that does part of the teaching.  When our attention is repeatedly drawn to a character’s breasts, her weight, her thighs, the motion of the fabric of her clothes against her skin (as if these things are relevant to the story..!), they are in a way detached from the whole of herself; and how, when confronted with such writing, can we not begin to turn it on ourselves? Parts of our bodies, separated from us, we are taught to evaluate and appraise with apparent objectivity, as we might inspect goods; a split is forged between the self (the mind, what’s ‘inside’) and the body, which becomes an object attached to us, a home to be occupied, burdening us; we become alienated from ourselves.

It would take an exceptional strength of will to shut such things out.  We read, we internalise, we learn; and so it goes.  Hansen’s words and fixations do not exist in a vacuum but rather remind me of all the other ways in which I am watched, and by whom.

Am I being unfair?  Would Hansen describe his male characters in such a way if there were more of them?  I wonder, but somehow I doubt it, for so rarely in comparison do I see this very specific attention paid to men in other media.  I shouldn’t say any more; I’ve already, by writing all this out, given writer and book too much of my time.

Catriona Kelly’s Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905-1940 is my anthology-of-the-week and of what I’ve read so far one of my favourite passages has been a little extract of Bakhtin on Rabelais, translated by Hélène Iswolsky. In particular I like what he has to say about fear – I think his idea of fear being born out of or fuelled by isolation rings true.  I wish I could read more of him on the topic to see if he might elaborate on that question a little more; his words in the extract are relatively few but they are laden with meaning, for the past and the present both, and there’s so much to unpack!

Carnival, with all its images, indecencies and curses, affirms the people’s immortal, indestructible character.  In the world of carnival the awareness of the people’s immortality is combined with the realisation that established authority and truth are relative.

Popular-festive forms look into the future.  They present the victory of this future, of the Golden Age, over the past.  This is the victory of all the people’s material abundance, freedom, equality, brotherhood. The victory of the future is ensured by the people’s immortality.  The birth of the new, of the greater and the better, is as indispensable and as inevitable as the death of the old.  The one is transferred to the other, the better turns the worse into ridicule and kills it.  In the whole of the world and of the people there is no room for fear.    For fear can only enter a part that has been separated from the whole, the dying link torn from the link that is born.  The whole of the people and of the world is triumphantly gay and fearless.


то было раннею весной (it was in early spring)

То было раннею весной,
Трава едва всходила,
Ручьи текли, не парил зной,
И зелень рощ сквозила;

Труба пастушья поутру
Ещё не пела звонко,
И в завитках ещё в бору
Был папоротник тонкий.

То было раннею весной,
В тени берёз то было,
Когда с улыбкой предо мной
Ты очи опустила.

То на любовь мою в ответ
Ты опустила вежды —
О жизнь! о лес! о солнца свет!
О юность! о надежды!

И плакал я перед тобой,
На лик твой глядя милый,—
Tо было раннею весной,
В тени берёз то было!

То было в утро наших лет —
О счастие! о слёзы!
О лес! о жизнь! о солнца свет!
О свежий дух берёзы.

To read or not to read War and Peace this summer?  As a treat for myself during an essay-based hell period before Easter I bought myself the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation as motivation so it really must be time soon.  I actually have a good copy now (having previously only owned a really old version where all the names are anglicised; how can I read how many hundred pages of a character called “Prince Andrew” in Napoleonic Russia and take it seriously?), so there should be no more excuses! I now have my own copies of a few other such Great Russian Classics™ that I’d like to read sooner rather than later, all books that I’m rather ashamed to not have read yet – Life and Fate, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov –  and what’s more with every passing day they go unread the risk of having them spoilt for me grows greater, as my studies progress further and everyone assumes that for me to be a Good Student™ I should be familiar with them.  I must get there first!

So it must be soon, then.  And it only makes sense to tackle such a book during the holidays, now that exams are out the way and I have two months before me to just sit down and plough through it.  And the conditions for this most long and arduous of literary voyages are good; I am in a better frame of mind to attempt it now, I think, than past-me, because of the way in which my attitude towards originally serialised books has shifted quite radically (another post for another day).  But there are two things, still –

1) if I am to read it this summer I wonder if I ought to work up to it first.  Since Easter especially I’ve been getting through a lot (having perhaps prior to that been in a reading slump without realising it?) but reading The Piano Teacher a couple of weeks ago I realised that very few of these books have been novels; TPT was my first in a good long while, the rest all having been poetry and essays and anthologies, asking less of me during exam season.  Do I need to ‘get back into’ reading novels – get my mind used to working on something longer, that requires greater devotion and more loyal attention – before launching into one so long? I wonder if that would make things a little easier.

2) That’s my main problem, I think, that I haven’t even picked it up off the shelf and already I’m fretting about my enjoyment of it.  How I want to like it! It is a book so famous and so acclaimed that I can think of nothing worse than beginning it and finding I don’t like it.  To confess “I haven’t read it yet”, while embarrassing, is perhaps less shameful than admitting “I couldn’t finish it” – horror! – or “I hated it!”, and having to defend that.  Everyone else likes it*; and it’s not to fit in with others, necessarily, that I want to like it too, but because it would feel like a personal failing; it’ll be my fault if I do not like it, there will be something about me that has ruined it for my own self.  Not “you should like it to have the right opinion/fit in/look clever” but rather “everyone else has enjoyed it, what’s wrong with you that you don’t?”

I’m obsessed, also, with the idea of reading books at the right or the wrong time; I realise now that there were books I read at a younger age and didn’t appreciate as fully as I might have had I waited a little, and I fear with any classic I start that it’ll be the same.  Yet I must stop thinking like this!; I used it to put off reading certain books in my early teens, and just as I say it now at twenty I could still be putting off the same works at thirty or forty. Then where are you?

What’s wrong with me?  I don’t know what I’m afraid of; I read Anna Karenina when I was seventeen and I enjoyed it, so why should this be any different? The years and the new knowledge and experiences between then and now will have helped; all this I know, sensibly.  I suppose it’s just that I’ve emerged out the other end of Anna and I simply won’t know about War and Peace until I make a start, and there’s no going back then.  Seven hundred words I’ve spent agonising over all this and such navel-gazing won’t bring me any closer to what I must do.


*I said as much to my mother, ‘everyone else likes it,’ and she said, ‘do they? I thought no one could get through it’, so I’m glad that I spend all my time in a little Russianist bubble where everyone knows and loves it.