Thursday, February 09, 2017

`To Reach the Heart of Politics'

To Jerusalem and Back is a chatty, rambling, digressive book by Saul Bellow, based on a visit he made to Israel late in 1975 and published in 1976, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s early late Bellow, with the celebrated author upstaging Abba Eban, Teddy Kollek, Henry Kissinger and Hubert Humphrey. Much of it amounts to sometimes amusing, other times dull and irritating, gossip. I remember reading the book shortly after it was first published and finding it thin, unlike the best of Bellow’s fiction. It’s a long way from Augie March. Reading it again with hindsight can be awkward. Bellow is accompanied to Israel by the fourth of his five wives, the Romanian mathematician Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea. She comes off as an aging writer’s “trophy wife.” They would divorce a decade later.

Bellow can be petty and vain but seldom stupid. He seems to have read and remembered everything, and his literary judgments are pungent. This passage early in the book redeemed much of the subsequent triviality:

“The bravest of modern writers are the Mandelstams and the Sinyavskys. Before he died of cold, hunger, and exhaustion in Siberia, Osip Mandelstam recited his poems to other convicts, at their request. Andrei Sinyavsky, in his prison journal, concentrates on art. Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. Then human feelings, human experience, the human form and face, recover their proper place—the foreground.”

Politics tends to kill writers – if not literally, then figuratively by snuffing out whatever gift they possess. Politics is a corrosive. In the 1921 essay “The Word and Culture” (trans. Sidney Monas, Selected Essays, 1977), Mandelstam writes:

“Social distinctions and class antagonisms pale before the division of people into friends and enemies of the word. Authentically, sheep and goats. I sense, almost physically, the unclean goat smell issuing from the enemies of the word. Here, the argument that arrives last in the course of any serious disagreement is fully appropriate: my opponent smells bad.”

And this from “Fourth Prose,” written in 1929-30 (trans. Clarence Brown, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1986):

“I divide all of world literature into authorized and unauthorized works. The former is all trash; the latter – stolen air. I want to spit in the face of every writer who first obtains permission and then writes.”

The “prison journal” Bellow refers to would be published in English later in 1976 as A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward). At the time he was writing To Jerusalem and Back, Bellow had read only the French edition of Sinyavsky’s book. He translates several passages:

“`. . . no longer men but great sweeps. Space, fields, not characters,’ he says, speaking of his fellow prisoners. `Human frontiers blur where they touch the infinite. Beyond biography. When you try to support your weight on “personal characteristics” you sink up to the waist. Personality is a ditch covered lightly by a growth of psychological traits, temperaments, habits, ways of doing things. I have no sooner taken a step toward an approaching stranger than I find that I have fallen into a hole.”

In a passage from 1966, in the Fitzlyon/Hayward version of A Voice from the Chorus, Sinyavsky writes:

“I have no time to read books, but think of them constantly, with wonder and gratitude. And never cease marveling at a book’s capacity to absorb and then conjure up on demand a whole world for you to see.

“In childhood a book resembled a folding screen. A heap of animals and plants would suddenly pop out at you from behind dreary grey covers and when you shut it, everything vanished again. A book has something of the `magic cap,’ or the `magic table-cloth.’”

The translators add a footnote to the phrases in quotes: “The reference is to Russian fairy-tales in which he who dons a magic cap becomes invisible and where a magic table-cloth becomes instantly laid with plates, cutlery and food.”

Good news: Columbia University Press has just published a new edition of Strolls with Pushkin, one of the three books Sinyavsky/Abram Tertz wrote while a prisoner in a Soviet forced-labor camp. The translators are Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski, both of whom died in 2015. Their version was first published by Yale University Press in 1994. The new volume contains an essay by Sinyavsky previously unavailable in English, “A Journey to the Black River,” translated by Yastremski, Michael M. Naydan and Olha Tytarenko. Black River refers to the place in St. Petersburg where Pushkin was fatally shot in a duel in 1837. 

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