cyclops cinderella

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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 (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 it really must be time soon.  I actually have a proper copy now, so there should be no more excuses! I have a few of these other Great Russian Classics I now own that I’d like to read sooner rather than later – Life and Fate, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov – all books that I’m rather ashamed to not have read yet, and what’s more with every passing day they go unread the risk of having them spoilt for me, as my studies progress further and everyone assumes that as 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, easier to pick up I suppose and 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 maximise my enjoyment of it.

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 between then and now will have helped and the experiences and knowledge gained since then will have enriched my understanding; 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 try, until I make a start.  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.

‘o pre-eminent love!’

I’ve been reading Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, a book I never would have expected to find in the public library.  It’s a rich and wonderful book to be reading – and how much I admire Faderman for having written it so many years ago! – but there is so much to mourn, also.  The chapter ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ has given me a lot to think about, in particular, most of it unbearably sad.

In particular, I was pained by –

  • The plight of intellectual women: ‘There is hardly a creature in the world more despicable or more liable to universal ridicule than a learned woman.’  I was thinking about this the other day when I read a story by Karolina Pavlova, At the Tea-table; her heroine says, ‘Do you really not know that to praise a woman’s mind is to abuse her? Is everyone not convinced that where there’s cleverness there’s no heart? Has it not been decided that a clever woman is a sort of monster who can feel nothing? Ask anyone, they’ll all tell you so.’ More than a century and a continent divide these words and nothing had changed, and with a other century and a half since passed again I wonder how much has changed again.  Not so much, I don’t think.

 

  • The lack of serious emotional, adult connections granted to women who married men, particularly those much older than they, and who subsequently led separate lives to them –

 

  • – and, for all the connections a romantic friendship might have brought (‘in place’ of marriage, we might consider it today), the inability to act upon it as one might want: the inability to live alone with one’s companion, for example, as is so often expressed in the texts.

 

  • What Faderman quotes of Patricia Meyer Spacks about the suppression of women’s emotions, particularly in England: ‘They were obsessed with innocence, concerned about the danger of passion; they were angry at men, often longed to be males or children.’  This is a generalisation, of course, but I think in my mind that makes it worse;  I know that when I’m given such a broad and relatively vague picture my imagination runs wild with it. Not quite being told as much as I like, I have to picture things for myself as if I were telling a story, and the image becomes more elaborate, more specific, and ever sadder and more unfortunate.
  • But one thing more: the gap between male perceptions of female love and affection and women’s own experiences; the former as largely sexual (something ‘paving the way’ for heterosexual love, ‘practice’), the latter something more spiritual and emotional.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since I’ve been reading The Lesbian Body, which is centered so much on the physical (and which, not very far in to, I’m already finding rather repetitive!); that physicality is something I find difficult to get used to and perhaps that says more about me than it does about Wittig’s words.

Yet I have been able, I think, to try and turn this last idea – of women’s love being ‘different’ – into something more positive; reading Faderman and the letters and lives of these women tells me that women’s love does not have to take one form. It can be more complicated, it does not have to be what we are told it should be (something so sexualised and fixated upon by others); it can take on any number of shapes and ways of being to fit our realities and our circumstances.  There are as many ways of ‘doing’ female love, female friendship, as there are women.  Even if the women whose lives Faderman recounts did not get to retire together and live in peace with just one another, as so many expressed the wish to do, they are still able to keep it, their love and affection, and protect and nurture it.  We will find a way, we will find a way, we will always find a way.

 

It’s a marvel, to me, the amount of choice there is for young LGBT readers nowadays in comparison to the time when I had greatest need of it.

What did I read when I was thirteen, fourteen, and beginning to seek out in books a reflection of ‘what I was’?  Julie Anne Peters and Annie on my Mind are the things I remember, mostly, because I am a walking cliché.  Was there more? I don’t doubt it.  There were a few other things; Sarah Waters saw me through my GCSEs.  But though there may have been more out there, it was just that – there, somewhere else, not here, never nearby.  Never in my own village library, which was so small; never in any of the other libraries in the borough, where it seemed to take years for newly-released books to trickle down to the shelves; never within my reach.  And so by fifteen I had given up on YA altogether because I felt that there was nothing there for me, nothing of myself (admittedly, there is ‘nothing there’ in Zweig or Singer or Szerb – but I don’t expect there to be – it’s more removed from my life than reading about other young people with lives that could have been mine).

It wasn’t even so long ago that I was reading Keeping You a Secret alone at night, when I was sure I was out of everyone’s way, and relieved at the recent introduction of a computerised system so that I had not had to bring it before the librarian; only some six or seven years.  It’s easy to become disheartened about the way things are, and to feel that all the wrongs we face can never be righted, but I must try and remind myself how fast things are moving; just as I think those younger than me are fortunate, a woman ten years my senior must also think the same thing about me.  I must compare now to my early adolescence and I must try and think of these small changes; I must think of the books that or are on the shelves where in the past I saw none or so few.  You can even, these days, seek out a book because its plot and its characters appeal to you, rather than reading it purely because it’s a ‘gay book’.  So many books for teenagers on such themes have been published this year alone: how many more will the next year bring, and the next?

All these small things I must bear in mind.   Even if things do not improve for me, I must believe that they do and they will for others – and then will improve for those who come after further still.

 

I’ve been slowly working my way through the anthology Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, and with the worst of my exams over I had some time this weekend to finish it off.  It’s such a rich and rewarding book; the sort that, when I found it, seemed too good to be true; the sort that I had always wanted but didn’t know I could have.  I can’t even remember how I came across it – if I had heard of it somewhere and set out to find it, or just came across it on the shelves while I was after something else – but how glad I am that I did.

One of my favourites from the collection is Svetlana Boym’s essay Loving in Bad Taste: Eroticism and Literary Excess in Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘The Tale of Sonechka’. There are so many urgent and important things she touches upon, but one of the first things she speaks of is the way in which women’s writing is dismissed and derided, and just why:

Why is it that “women in love” produce what has been often conceived as “bad writing,” or writing in bad taste? What are the aesthetic preconceptions that turn a female lover’s discourse into something akin to kitsch?

We could long think of answers to these (though perhaps there’s no need; Boym answers them excellently herself!), but these questions most of all give me questions of my own: namely, what can being in love add to our writing? In what ways is it enriched?

In some ways we are always associating women with their emotions – women’s writing so often being seen as something sentimental, something silly – but so often do these associations seem to be negative. Writing while in love, or about love, is seen to take away from our work rather than add to it.  I think Chekhov is at his best when he writes about love, for example, but for me to say the same thing about a female writer – what would that invite?  What image would that create of both the writer and of me, as the reader?

What if women’s take on love were appreciated instead? What if men as well as women looked to women’s writing on the matter to find insight and comfort and be guided?

As usual these are questions I don’t have answers for; all this would be another way of being, an alternate world, and we don’t know it.

 

 

‘of course the only part that I want to read/ is about her time spent with me/ wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen?’

 

Reading Tristia, my second Mandelstam after reading Voronezh Notebooks about a year ago, and I’m doing my best to like it it but it’s hard work.  He’s simply too clever for me! It’s just like reading Cavafy; I love them both but I’m always so aware that three-quarters of what they’re saying must just be going over my head, that there is probably so much more to their poems than what appears to me.  Mandelstam is always talking about the past (the classical past, specifically), about mythology, lost cities and dying cities, and making references to the dead, to gods and ghosts and other people I don’t know! And just like Cavafy, these are all themes that I’m interested in, but he speaks of these things and because I don’t know them for myself their full significance is lost to me.  I want to know how Mandelstam approaches and deals with them, the specifics of the questions he’s asking, but I feel like I’m watching from the other side of a glass, or maybe that I’m listening in from the next room; I know there’s a conversation taking place, and I can hear the voices, but I can’t quite make everything out.

If only I’d had a good girls’-school sort of education my whole childhood and I could have done Latin and Greek and all the rest!  If only to better ‘get’ Tristia; for then I would know.

‘i sensed a different existence/ elusive and unfathomable…’

I

I got into a lot of new writers over Easter, I think because I’ve been reading so many anthologies; it’s been such a good way of discovering people I might not have otherwise.  So many such discoveries are those who are seldom translated into English, except for these little bits and pieces – a poem here, a short story there – in order to contribute to a bigger picture of an era or a movement. I must take all of them that I can get, no matter how little it might be.

One such new discovery, and one of the best, has been Zinaida Gippius.  The library has volumes and volumes of her – her diaries and essays, mostly – but they’re all in Russian, and though I tried one of the diaries I realised that having to look up so many words would only make me feel bad for not being ‘good enough’ and would take all the fun out of it.  So how glad I was to find her in the anthologies.

I had long wanted to read her. I remember her once being mentioned in class and thinking what an interesting woman she sounded, and how it must have taken something, some kind of strength I suppose, to have become known as a poetess at that time (this was before I had read much Russian women’s writing and known who else there was, so she must have been one of the first I had heard of). Yet for some reason I wasn’t expecting to actually like her.  I think of it now and I’m not quite sure why; perhaps because, a long time later, my first proper meeting with her was in a portrait by Teffi, ‘The Merezhkovskys’ in the collection Rasputin and Other Ironies, which I read at the start of this year.  She seemed to me a woman somehow cold, difficult, most of all strange (for a lack of a better word) –  and we are taught not to like strange women.

Yet now that strangeness, the sense of her not being quite of this world, is what makes her voice and her work so appealing to me.  I was sold on her very quickly; the lines that did it were these from Швея (‘The Seamstress’)

А кровь – лишь так того, что мы зовем

на бедном языке – Любовью

Любовь – лишь звук…Но в этот поздный час

того, что дальше – не открою.

Or –

‘Love’ is our paltry word 

For the blood language cannot name.

‘Love’ is a meaningless sound…

but I shall see no more now, it is late.

That was all it took; I was converted.  I liked this idea that there is something beyond, and here, more specifically, the way it pertains to language.  I feel as though I spend a lot of time thinking about how we fit ourselves into language and how there might not be the words for what we need to say; but she gave me the idea that perhaps there is something outside of language, and that that’s what we should be seeking instead.

Not only is it this idea of the ‘beyond’ that strikes me, for this is something you can find in many other Symbolists.  What is unique perhaps is that I find myself able to believe in it.  There’s a difference between simply listening to what a writer has to say, to being told of something and no more – and allowing yourself, however briefly, to be absolutely convinced of it.  Reading Gippius (for I don’t feel as though I can use her first name, as if I’m somehow not qualified; for its beauty and nobility I don’t want to touch it, Zinaida)  is like listening to Russian church music; to me, at least, she speaks to the heart rather than the mind; in the time it takes to read a poem I find myself sold, eyes for a moment on another world, all questions set aside.

I like this beyond, or these beyonds (so I keep calling it, because I don’t know how else to explain it! – but if you read her you’ll know just what I mean), and I think I find them so convincing because they are made to seem so natural.  Innate.  To connect with what we don’t have language for, for example, is not portrayed not simply a departure but a return.  That though we might look for our ‘true’ selves in the next life (or whatever that mysterious place is that she writes of), we shouldn’t necessarily have to, and perhaps they are within us already; perhaps we have lost our way a little, or have not learnt to listen to them, that’s all.  That makes it all easier, I think; we don’t have to go after things if they are already within us, and the mystical becomes less frightening.

My favourite of her poems at the moment, which touches upon so many of these questions, is Домой (‘Homeward’) –

Мне –
о земле –
болтали сказки:
«Есть человек. Есть любовь».

А есть –
Лишь злость.
Личины. Маски.
Ложь и грязь. Ложь и кровь.

Когда предлагали
Мне родиться –
Не говорили, что мир такой.

Как же
Я мог
Не согласиться?
Ну, а теперь – домой! домой!

and in English:

They babbled

fairy tales to me

about the earth:

‘Man lives there.  And love.’

But, in truth – 

there’s only evil, 

disguises.  Masks.

Lies and filth.  Lies and blood.

When they suggested 

I be born  – 

No one told me the world was like this.

How

was I

to disagree?

Now, all I want is – home! to go home! 

II

Having got to know Gippius properly over the last couple of weeks, and having all this in mind, I can see explanations for why she and Merezhkovsky are as they appear in Teffi’s depiction, and having revisited the chapter this week I find myself able to appreciate both it and her much more.  The ‘utter detachment from everyone else, a detachment that seemed innate and which they had no compunctions about’ that she speaks of makes much more sense to me now.  I can barely imagine Gippius in the world of war and of exile in which Teffi wrote of her; I read of her dealings with hot-water bottles in a hotel in Biarritz and I think, no wonder. 

Things that had only made them seem strange (again!) to me before I now found oddly moving; ‘when the Merezhkovskys felt frightened, they briskly sought the help of holy intercessors.  They decorated their statuette of Saint Theresa with flowers and, with neither faith nor divine inspiration, mumbled their way through their invocations.’  Some things I even found quite endearing: ‘The Merezhkovskys led strange lives and were so out of touch with reality that it was positively startling to hear them come out with ordinary words like “coal”, “boiled water,”  and “macaroni”‘.  I too found it odd to imagine Gippius speaking these words; and I was delighted to be reminded of the ‘piles of cheap French crime novels which they read diligently every evening.’  Is this really my same poet? – it must be.  Perhaps more of this comes through in her diaries; I look forward to the day I might read all of this that’s still out of my reach.

Concept: a future-me version of the ‘why is my sister called…’ meme that goes ‘enough questions, Anna Zinaida Sofiya Marina Adelaida’

‘when at night i wait for her to come…’

I wish I were articulate enough to talk about Akhmatova and the Muse.  In all that I have read of hers, the Muse seems to be the female figure of the most importance, and who appears the most often.

I have so many thoughts about her devotion to this female figure, the praise she gives to her, and how nice (refreshing, nourishing, comforting) it is to read.  I say ‘her’ rather than ‘it’ because as in poems such as Muse of 1924 and sections of Part II of A Poem Without a Hero (verses XX-XXIV, specifically) the Muse is a figure so alive.  I love seeing the way that female writers interact with other women – spiritually, intellectually, emotionally – for so often when we direct our work towards a you it is towards someone of the opposite sex.  It’s a breath of fresh air to have Akhmatova step outside that, redirect her gaze and her words, so that there is something of her work just ‘between women’ (I feel the very same way about Tsvetaeva’s poems to her, which when I discovered them seemed too good to be true).   And I think the way that Akhmatova writes to or of the Muse (‘what is glory, youth, freedom, in comparison/with the dear welcome guest…’) is the closest I might ever get, in her work, to an equivalent for women of the romantic way in which she addresses male subjects, so I must be grateful for it.

 

 

‘sanctified love i have not known’

A poem by an anonymous ‘patient-poetess’ I found today  in Dan Healey’s Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: the Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent, there quoted from Evgenii Krasnushkin’s Преступники психопаты of 1929 –

 

Sanctified love I have not known, 

Nor have I known maiden’s tears,

I have not sought offspring through marriage,

And I have never woven wreathes of roses…

 

From afar, encounters have always lured me,

Brilliant sin beckoned wickedly,

The passion of girlfriends, the tears

And their heavy, hidden laughter…

 

To their circle I was devoted,

Drank their caresses – with caresses, their bodies,

Brunettes captivated me more than once,

And often my sin with blondes was bold.

 

I loved them day and night,

And in the weaving of our bodies,

I loved their eyes filled with languor 

And on their breasts I loved sleep.

 

But all is past, all irretrievable, 

I now know, it’s all deceit

I cannot go back by this same path,

For life is but an intoxicant!