Tuesday, July 07, 2020

'A Single Refill for a Ball-Point Pen'

“For my birthday I was given a present. A prisoner, almost a complete stranger to me, handed me a little paper bag and in it there was a single refill for a ball-point pen.”

There could be no more suitable a gift for a writer, especially one sent to a Soviet labor camp for what he had written. The giver remains nameless. The recipient is Abram Tertz, aka Andrei Sinyavsky, in A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, 1976). Sinyavsky spent 1966 to 1971 in Dubravlag, a labor camp in Mordovia, some three-hundred miles southeast of Moscow. The entry is dated Oct. 13, 1969, five days after his forty-fourth birthday. The passage continues:

“Oh, that onion! How many times it has saved me! I would allow all who ever gave me one to climb up to heaven on it, as on a ladder.”

Here, a footnote from the translators is helpful: “Reference to the legend (told by Grushenka in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov) about an evil woman whose only good deed in life had been to give an onion to a pauper. She tries (but fails) to clamber out of the pit of Hell by holding on to this onion proffered to her by her guardian angel.”

Let's hope Boris Dralyuk never runs out of pens – or onions. Boris was born thirty-eight years ago today, in Odessa. Give yourself a present in his name. Read his translations of Babel, Zoshchenko, Ozerov, Osipov and Tolstoy, among others. Read his poem “My Hollywood: a Triptych.” Here is his translation of “The Jolt” a poem by Anna Semyonovna Prismanova, dating from the late 1930s or early 1940s and collected in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015):

“The jolt must come from far away:
the start of bread is in the grain.
A stream, although still underground,
aspires to reflect the sky.

“A future Sunday’s distant light
reaches us early in the week.
The jolt must come from far away
to trigger earthquakes in the heart.

“A shoulder alien to me
controls the movement of my hand.
In order to acquire such strength,
the jolt must come from far away.”


Tim Guirl said...

I recently purchased Boris Dralyuk's Lives and Deaths, (Pushkin Press, 2019) his translations of Tolstoy stories.

Tim Guirl said...

I neglected to note in my previous comment that along with the Tolstoy stories, I ordered a CD of the master Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov performing Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart (Deutsche Grammophon, July 2020). Those of your readers who have a taste for this music, should give hear Sokolov, whose playing can take your breath away.

Don said...

Saw Sokolow in a solo performance at the Berliner Philharmonie in 2018. Truly amazing. Six encores.