Saturday, May 05, 2018

`A Kind of Mighty, Heavy Tread'

In 1989, Elizabeth Jennings published a collection titled Tributes (Carcanet), in which she devotes poems of gratitude to George Herbert, Philip Larkin (“The last thing you would have wanted— / A poem in praise of you”), Charles Causley, Goya and Caravaggio, her father and Alec Guinness. Nine years later she published another, titled Praises. I thought of Jennings and the impulse to express thankfulness for the work of others while reading Gennady Aygi’s Time of Gratitude (trans. Peter France, New Directions, 2017). Aygi (1934-2006) was born in Chuvashia, an autonomous non-Russian republic about five-hundred miles east of Moscow. He wrote in both Chuvash and Russian. The present collection, from the Russian, includes essays and poems, and its title is borrowed from a cycle of poems Aygi wrote in 1976-7. Until the advent of perestroika in the late 1980’s, he lived “underground” in Moscow, in poverty and unable to publish. When young, he was a protégé of Pasternak, about whom he writes:

“At our second meeting he asked me a question with some embarrassment, slowly and hesitatingly: `Tell me…you are a man…of the people…forgive me for talking like this!…Tell me, does my novel seem to you not to be ours?’

“I was staggered—it was as if all the depth of the suffering of my incredible interlocutor was revealed to me. `Boris Leonidovich, what are you saying! It’s ours, it’s ours absolutely!’ in the ardour of my reply I was almost choking. Pasternak threw his arms around me.”

Aygi pays homage to Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Norwid, Khlebnikov, Kafka, Max Jacob, Celan, Malevich and others. Especially fine is “An Evening with Shalamov,” about his relations with Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), the poet and author of Kolyma Stories who survived seventeen years in the Gulag. Aygi first reads a Shalamov story in manuscript in 1965:

“I don’t like the word `shattered’ – it’s an overused word. What happened to me was something different; a kind of mighty, heavy tread invaded me, my space, my destiny… the powerful steps of Great Prose, unprecedented in the Russian prose of our time.”

Aygi meets Shalamov once, in December 1967. The former zek was a damaged man. He was at work on the Kolyma cycle when they met:

“I attempted (twice, as I recall) to tell Varlam Tikhonovich about the impression I had received much earlier from that work, and from his prose in general. He remained silent. Then he said a few words, without any special intonation: `I have been thinking about prose all my life, and I know I have found the right form for what I write.’”

The calmness and clarity of Shalamov’s observation is devastating – to think that he had been “thinking about prose” all of his life. Aygi likens it to Kafka’s prose and says, “I believe that Varlam Shalamov achieved this kind of simplicity in his own way. There is no work in which the tragic element in the recent history of our people is rendered in a language as appropriate to this lofty tragedy as that of the great Book of the author of Kolyma Tales.”   

Aygi includes one of his poems, "Degree: Of Stability," dedicated to Shalamov.

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