Sunday, May 07, 2017

`And if They Don't -- the Knife'

“You know that your talent is precious to me and that every one of your books affords me great pleasure and excitement. Maybe it’s because I’m a conservative.”

In common with writers as diverse as Ford Madox Ford and Anthony Hecht, Anton Chekhov was an enthusiastic booster of writers deserving encouragement and praise, whether tyros or veterans. In a letter dated May 7, 1902, he writes to the poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who has sent him his latest collection, Buildings on Fire, and his translation from the Spanish of Pedro Calderón de la Barca. The translators of the passage above are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973). In his notes, Karlinsky helps sort out the convoluted and poisonous politics of late nineteenth-century Russia, literary and otherwise. Chekhov had little use for Russia’s Symbolists, including Fyodor Sologub and Zinaida Gippius, but admired Balmont’s “festive and life-affirming poems.” Chekhov met Balmont and his wife in 1898, and they became his frequent guests at Yalta. Karlinsky’s footnote to the passage above reads:

“The vividly colorful, imaginative and joyous poetry of Balmont was seen by many critics of his time as a betrayal of the mournful, civic-minded traditions of Nekrasov and Nadson (present-day American university students have been known to describe Balmont’s poems as `psychedelic’). Chekhov ironically calls himself a conservative for daring to like Balmont’s poetry despite the absence in it of social themes that utilitarian critics required Russian poets to treat.”

Art is difficult; politics, simple. Politics pollutes poetry, in nineteenth-century Russia and twenty-first-century America. Our streets crawl with “mournful, civic-minded” poets unable to write memorable poetry, and politics serves as their surrogate for talent and hard work. Balmont was hardly apolitical in other areas of his life. Karlinsky tells us he was “genuinely radical in his personal politics.” Balmont was forced to emigrate during both the Czarist and Bolshevik regimes, and Karlinsky lays on the irony thick:

“In the 1920s, after the October Revolution forced him to emigrate for the second time, Balmont published an article in a French journal in which he documented the suppression of all literary freedom in the Soviet Union. His disclosures were answered by Romain Rolland, who chided Balmont in print for being a tsarist reactionary trying to block humanity’s progress toward freedom and equality.”

Little of Balmont’s work seems to be available in English. Odessa-born Boris Dralyuk, an industrious translator from the Russian (please see his versions of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, published by Pushkin Press) recently gave us Balmont’s 1901 poem about a “small sultan” from Turkey, which closes with these lines:

“He thought and thought, and then addressed the crowd:
‘Speak words, if you can speak, inspired by the spirit’s breath.
All those who are not deaf must hear those words.
And if they don’t — the knife.’”

Some things never change. 

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