Thursday, December 14, 2017

`His Attitude Suited Me Very Well'

Chief among the teachers in my continuing education is Boris Dralyuk, editor, poet and translator. This week Boris posted his translation of “The Tram” by Yuri Kazarnovsky, a Russian poet whose name I had encountered (see below) but whose work I had never read. Written in 1932, “The Tram” reads like a celebration of all that is speedy, efficient and, above all, modern. Boris calls the poem “sprightly,” and adds:

“It reverberates with wit and the joy of invention. The poem’s lightness and brightness seem so incongruous with the cruel facts of Kazarnovsky’s life, but might in fact explain how he managed to withstand those facts.”

Successive catalogs whimsically tally the contents of the tram: “eleven meetings, / a lady’s purse, / a separation’s grief, / seven briefcases, / eight belated greetings, / and a beetle / on a jacket’s sleeve.” Remember, this is Stalin’s Russia Kazarnovsky is describing, the unhappiest place on Earth in 1932. Here is the ecstatic bustle of urban life, the reveling in technological marvels. Think of John Dos Passos’ city scenes in The 42nd Parallel (1930), the first novel in his U.S.A. trilogy:

“The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking, eyes greedy for warm curves of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench, blood tingles with wants, mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging . . . People have packed into subways, climbed into streetcars and buses, in the stations they’ve scampered for suburban trains; they’ve filtered into lodgings and tenements, gone up in elevators into apartment-houses.”

But that is the U.S.A. As Boris tells us, by 1932 Kazarnovsky had already spent four years in the Solovki prison camp, and would be arrested again in 1937, and later spend four years in Kolyma. In 1938, he was among the last people to see Osip Mandelstam alive, in a transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok. That’s how I knew Kazarnovsky’s name. He shows up in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974), translated by Max Hayward. In the first volume, in the chapter titled “The Date of Death,” Kazarnovsky tells the widow her husband “`did well to die: otherwise he would have gone to Kolyma.’” In 1944, when Kazarnovsky was released from the Gulag, he met her in Tashkent:

“He lived there without a permit or ration cards, hiding from the police, terrified of everybody and drinking very heavily. He had no proper shoes, and I gave him some tiny galoshes that had belonged to my mother. They fitted him very well because he had no toes on his feet—they had become frozen in the camp and he had chopped them off with an ax to prevent gangrene. Whenever they were all taken to the baths, their clothes froze in the damp air of the changing room and rattled like sheets of tin.”

Mandelstam describes Kazarnovsky as “the first more or less authentic emissary I had met from the `other world.'’’ She learns that he and her husband had occupied beds in the same barracks. Nadezhda is desperate for information about Osip’s final days, but skeptical, as always: “[Kazarnovsky’s] memory was like a huge, rancid pancake in which fact and fancy from his prison days had been mixed up together and baked into an inseparable mass.”

In Hope Abandoned, Mandelstam refers to Kazarnovsky as a “minor Moscow poet”:

“From him I got the first reliable information about M.’s death—which was not easy to extract because of his endless prattle about the good old days in Moscow . . . and about poetry—French, Russian, and Muscovite. But in speaking of M. he was much less inclined to romanticize, if only because he saw nothing very glamorous about such a fate. In this respect his attitude suited me very well.”

1 comment:

Robert Chandler said...

Thanks very much for this very helpful blog. It is many years since I read Nadezhda Mandelstam. At the time, I knew nothing of Kazarnovsky and so I had entirely forgotten what she writes of him.