Wednesday, July 20, 2016

`One Wave in an Ocean of Millions'

Do young people still fall bookishly in love with Rossiya-Matushka, Mother Russia, and stay up too late reading Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy? Are they still smitten with Natasha Rostov or Prince Andrei? Saul Bellow wrote of his youth in Chicago with Isaac Rosenfeld: “We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were practicing to be writers.” A writer I couldn’t read today on a bet, Dostoevsky, was my first crush, at age twelve. It had something to do with pervasive melancholy, an incipient spiritual light, the melodrama of everyday living and probably hormones. The Russians seemed to feel more than the people in my neighborhood. The affliction may be genetic. My middle son, who just turned sixteen, is teaching himself Russian, and War and Peace is calling to him. His closest friends at boarding school, his boxing partners, hail from Россия-Матушка.

I’m enjoying The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015), edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski. Chandler has already translated Pushkin and Leskov for us, and one of the last century’s great novels, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, but he reminds us in his introduction: “Almost all Russians see Pushkin, rather than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as their greatest writer. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva are loved at least as passionately as Bulgakov, Nabokov, Platonov, Sholokhov and Zoshchenko.” I hadn’t known that Varlam Shalamov, author of The Kolyma Tales (trans. John Glad, 1980), described by Chandler as “a masterpiece of Russian prose and the greatest of all works of literature about the Gulag,” was a poet before he wrote his stories. Here is “Baratynsky,” written in 1949 and named for Pushkin’s contemporary Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky:

“Three Robinson Crusoes
in an abandoned shack,
we found a real find –
a single, battered book.

“We three were friends
and we quickly agreed
to share out this treasure
as Solomon decreed.

“The foreword for cigarette-paper:
one friend was delighted
with a gift so unlikely
he feared he was dreaming.

“The second made playing cards
from the notes at the back.
May his play bring him pleasure,
every page bring him luck.

“As for my own cut –
those precious jottings,
the dreams of a poet
now long forgotten –

“it was all that I wanted.
How wisely we’d judged.
What a joy to set foot in
a forgotten hut.”

In a note, Chandler writes: “This poem records a real incident. Shalamov describes how playing cards were made from paper, saliva, urine, a little chewed bread and a tiny piece of crayon.” The final section of the anthology is inspired: “Four Poems by Non-Russians.” Most interesting and most pertinent to our literary love of Mother Russia is “Learning the Letter Щ by Nancy Mattson, a Canadian-born poet who lives in London. Щ is the Cyrillic letter usually transliterated shcha. The sound resembles the English sh, but is prolonged: “It is basically a long, palatalized version of English’s `sh’ as in `ship.’” Mattson’s poem is a wash of Щ’s. See the final stanzas:

“I remember the shooshch
of my grandmother’s tongue and teeth
sucking her tea through a sugar cube
telling her stories in Finnish

“Hush now, it’s the one about her sister
in Soviet Russia, how she barely survived
on watery cabbage soup:   ЩИ
but was finally crushed     lost      she

the sound is a soft shchi
one wave in an ocean of millions
that receded but never returned”

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