Friday, February 24, 2017

`But I Still Don't Know Where I Should Send It'

I’ve learned that Donald Rayfield, author of the best Chekhov biography in English, and of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him (2004), and translator of Gogol’s Dead Souls, is now preparing a new translation of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. John Glad translated a selection of the 147 stories Shalamov wrote in samizdat between 1954 and 1973 as Kolyma Tales (1980) and Graphite (1981). In English we know him, as we know Solzhenitsyn, principally as a chronicler of the Gulag, where he spent fourteen years, but Shalamov is not a literal documentarian. He wrote fiction as artfully poised as Chekhov’s. In him, witness and artist maintain a rare balance. In his 1980 review of Kolyma Tales, Irving Howe writes:

“. . . the tension here between aesthetic and moral standards is good for our souls, if not our literary theories; let it remain, that tension, so that we will not rest too easily with mere opinion. But in the case of Varlam Shalamov it is also worth saying that one reason his work achieves high literary distinction is precisely the moral quality of his testimony. The act of representation yokes the two.”

From The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (2015), edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, I learned that Shalamov was also a poet. Chandler writes in his introduction that Shalamov’s stories are “a masterpiece of Russian prose and the greatest of all works of literature about the Gulag.” Shalamov’s poems are little read, he says, perhaps because “we tend to pigeonhole writers; it is hard to imagine that the author of the bleak and sober Kolyma Tales could also have written poems of such ecstatic joy.” Here is Chandler’s version of “Purple Honey”:

“From a frost-chilled
line of poetry
my anguish will drop
like a ripe berry.

“Rosehip juice will dye
fine crystals of snow –
and a stranger will smile
on his lonely way.

“Blending dirty sweat
with the purity of a tear,
he will carefully collect
the tinted crystals.

“He sucks tart sweetness,
this purple honey,
and his dried mouth
twists in happiness.”

Shalamov often writes about the impulse to write and its futility:

“I went out into the clear air
and raised my eyes to the heavens
to understand our stars
and their January brilliance.

“I found the key to the riddle;
I grasped the hieroglyphs’ secret;
I carried into our own tongue
the work of the star-poet.

“I recorded all this on a stump,
on frozen bark,
since I had no paper with me
in that January dark.”

In one of the Kolyma Tales, “Sententious,” the narrator says: “Little flesh was left on my bones, just enough for bitterness – the last human emotion; it was closer to the bone.” Shalamov’s poems, too, are stripped-down and elemental, and in this, presumably, they resemble life in the camps. As Chandler says, there is joy and even gratitude in the poems, but the more typical note is baffled stoicism:   

“And so I keep going;
death remains close;
I carry my life
in a blue envelope.

“The letter’s been ready
ever since autumn:
just one little word –
it couldn’t be shorter.

“But I still don’t know
where I should send it;
if I had the address,
my life might have ended.”

Shalamov lived his final years in poverty. He was blind, deaf and suffered from Huntington’s disease, but continued composing poems until his final months, when visitors took his dictation. He died in 1982 at age seventy-four. “Somewhat like Paul Celan and Primo Levi,” Chandler writes, “Shalamov seems in the end to have been defeated by the destructive forces he withstood so bravely and for so long. His own life story may be the most tragic of all the Kolyma tales.”

[Chandler writes about Shalamov’s poetry here and here.]

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I hope they spell Shalamov's name correctly on the book jacket, this edition.