Book Review: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1917

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2004

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Fiction


A few weeks ago, I read my first Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. I liked it so much, that I decided to read some of Chekhov’s short stories as well, beginning with the Project Gutenberg edition of The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories.

I never know how to write about collections like this where there’s not much of a common theme, so instead, I’ll write about each story individually.

“The Lady with the Dog”

One of Chekhov’s most famous stories, it concerns a banker who feels trapped in his middle-class Moscow existence. While on a trip to the resort town of Yalta, he meets a young woman who is equally unhappy in her recent marriage. The two begin an affair that, despite their promises otherwise, never really ends, and the story closes on the two of them in a hotel in Moscow desperately trying to think up a way for them to be together. It’s a stroke of genius on Chekhov’s part, leaving us hanging with the fulfillment of our expectations indefinitely deferred, similar to the predicament of his two protagonists. Combine that with the gift Chekhov has for mapping the interior space of his characters, and you have yourself a fabulous story.

“A Doctor’s Visit”

A very socially conscious Chekhov tells us a story about a physician who is called to tend to the daughter of a rich factory owner. Upon visiting the factory, just next door to the owner’s home, the doctor is appalled by the conditions in which the laborers are forced to live and work. He sees the daughter’s physical illness as a reaction to the moral and spiritual degradation around her. Preachy? Maybe a little.

“An Upheaval”

A day in the life of a household struggling to cope with its controlling, eternally-suspicious matriarch. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book, and yet in that tiny space, the husband’s desperation and the tension of the whole house become palpable.

“Ionich”

Dmitri Ionich Startsev is young doctor who has set up a practice in a small town. He befriends the delightfully ridiculous Turkin family, and falls in love with their daughter, Yekaterina Ivanova (Kitten for short). He would marry Kitten, but she intends to study music and doesn’t want to be tied down to a house and family. Instead of moving on, Startsev lets Kitten’s rejection turn him bitter until he’s incapable of loving anyone or anything. It’s a very simple plot, but still moving, with excellent characters

“The Head of the Family”

Basically “An Upheaval,” but with the gender reversed: this time, it’s a father who terrorizes his family with constant outbursts of temper, then cannot understand why they’re all so afraid of him. It gets even sadder when you find out that the character was probably modeled after Chekhov’s own father.

“The Black Monk”

Another very famous story, about a monomaniacal philosopher’s slow descent into madness. This story made the book for me. It’s so beautifully done, so vivid (especially that ending!), and so delicately walks the line between realism and fantasy. It’s my favorite in the collection.

“Volodya”

Reading this after Turgenev’s First Love was a little bit of déjà vu, and not just because the protagonists have the same first name: a teenage boy falls in love with an older (and in this case, married) woman and her rejection sends his life into a tailspin. While I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the story, it was interesting to see how quickly Chekhov could take his reader from sympathizing with the main character to recognizing him for the petty, self-centered child he really is.

“An Anonymous Story”

This is a long one: a young man named Vladimir goes to work as a valet for a man called Georgy Orlov. Orlov is in a relationship with a married woman named Zinaïda Fyodorovna, but only stays with her because he finds her physically attractive. One day, Orlov is shocked to find that Zinaïda has left her husband and wants to move in with him. He does everything he can to make Zinaïda feel unwelcome, and when that doesn’t get rid of her, he begins lying to her, telling her that he’s going on business trips when he really intends to spend the week at his friend’s house across town. As his valet, Vladimir becomes an accomplice in these deceptions, a job he hates doing because, while Orlov was trying to get rid of Zinaïda, Vladimir was falling in love with her.

This ended up being my least favorite story in the book. For one thing, the character of Vladimir is a little odd. When we first meet him, he’s a member of a radical political organization. His whole reason for taking the valet job in the first place was so that he could get closer to Orlov’s father—a prominent politician whom Vladimir’s group opposes—and learn things about him that could later be used to blackmail him. That all seemed a little contrived to me, and the references to Vladimir’s association with that group felt like a distraction from the real story, his relationship with Zinaïda. The second thing that bothered me was the tone of the story overall. Like all of the other stories in this book, “An Anonymous Story” ends sadly; unlike the other stories in the book, it seemed Chekhov was working extra hard here to make you pity his main characters. It just felt too forced and sentimental over all.

“The Husband”

Ah yes, the good old Russian trope of the bitter old man who feels that he is unworthy of happiness, and therefore tries to destroy it every chance he gets. As a character study, I think it’s one of the stronger stories in the collection: very simple and straightforward, but still compelling and real.

That’s all for today. If you have any other recommendations for short story collections, Russian or not, leave them in the comments below.

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Thoughts on the Nobel Prize

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature is going to be announced tomorrow. I know not everyone is interested in or cares about literary prizes, but I for one find it interesting to see the implications they have both on the literary world and the world at large. For one thing, a well-known and prestigious prize like this one can lift an underappreciated writer out of obscurity. That was the case in 1980, when the Nobel was awarded to Czesław Miłosz, who, at that time, had been erased from Polish literature by the Soviet authorities and had not found an audience anywhere outside of Poland. Other times, by elevating a particular author, the prize also draws attention to important social concerns. In 2000, for instance, the prize was awarded to the Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian, who, from the very beginning of his career, had struggled against the Chinese government’s strict censorship. This, of course, helped highlight human rights issues in China, especially where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are concerned.

Of the names that are mostly frequently mentioned as possible future Nobel Laureates, there are three whom I especially would like to see win. And yes, they’re all poets.

Adonis

For years now, Adonis (pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber) has been a favorite of Nobel speculators, and for good reason: his work is absolutely stunning and he greatly deserves such an honor. In addition to that, I think he would also make good use of the platform that the Nobel would give him. Though he now lives in France, Adonis is originally from Syria and has written extensively about Arab culture. He’s especially outspoken about the oppressive nature of the theocratic regimes that dominate much of the Middle East today. Of course, Adonis isn’t exactly an obscure writer now, but a Nobel might help to increase his visibility even more outside of the worlds of French and Middle Eastern literature.

Adam Zagajewski

Zagajewski is, of course, one of my favorite living poets. He has his detractors, but I personally find his work captivating and beautiful, for reasons that I partly outlined in this post.

Don Paterson

The betting site Ladbrokes gives Paterson 100/1 odds. It’s not very likely, but I would be happy if it was. Though Paterson and I might not always see eye to eye on a philosophical level, there’s no denying that he is an absolute master of his craft. Few, I think, can match the ease of his style and the subtle musicality of his language.


Image of Adam Zagajewski (left) by Frankie Fouganthin and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. (Source)
Image of Adonis (center) by Bahget Iskander. (Source)
Image of Don Paterson by Freddie Phillips and licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Source)

Bookish Links — September 2017

Image by Florian Klauer.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski

There are some poets who, no matter how many great poems they write, are always associated with one particular work. That work becomes their signature, the poem that even non-poetry readers know them for. For Seamus Heaney, it was “Digging,” for Gwendolyn Brooks, it was “We Real Cool” (which is actually a work of virtuosic genius, but I digress), and for the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, it appears to be “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Of course, “Try to Praise” did get more attention in the press than most poems do: following the September 11th attacks, The New Yorker printed this poem on the back cover of its next issue. The poem was then picked up by several other media outlets, all of them feeling, like The New Yorker, that it spoke to what America was feeling at the moment.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

[Translated by Clare Cavanagh]

A few writers have commented on what appears to be a trend in Americans’ taste in poetry: after any major political shift or national disaster, Polish poetry becomes very popular. I won’t speculate on what others see in this nation’s poetry, but for me, one of the main things that draws me to Polish poets is their willingness to be dead serious about things that many people generally do not take seriously. Begin with the title of the poem: though some choose to believe that the world is pointlessly cruel and devoid of meaning, Zagajewski goes against that nihilistic grain by describing the world as “mutilated.” It’s a disturbing word, but in a way, it expresses hope too: a thing can’t be “mutilated” if it was not once whole, and if it was whole once, maybe it can be made whole again.

In addition to wholeness, another thing this poem wants is immutability. It seems poets are often distressed by the indifference of nature, wondering how there can be an ultimate good when their cries of pain are met by a planet that simply keeps turning. This speaker, on the other hand, turns that problem on its head: he tries to find solace in a world that is indifferent to human woes, and therefore unchanging: “The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Nettles, of course, don’t care about exiles or their homes. They exist only to keep growing, and grow they do. There is an order to their behavior and that behavior remains constant, no matter what happens to the speaker. Like the word “mutilated,” it’s a depressing scenario, but not entirely hopeless: whatever tragedies may befall mankind, at least they can’t keep the world from spinning or the plants from growing. Life can still go on.

One of Zagajewski’s great strengths as a poet is the incredible subtlety of his work, and there’s perfect example of it in this poem. While the speaker is encouraging his listener to think back to happier times, he tells the person to “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Such a vague reference, and yet, so evocative of the sort of comfort that this speaker is hoping to get from the world.

It’s impossible to be sure what went on in that room. It appears that only the speaker and his listener really know. Maybe the speaker and listener are lovers and this was their bedroom? Or maybe it’s a dark, dreary sickroom brightened by the sudden intrusion of sunlight? In either case, the result is the same: these two people are suddenly reminded that there is a world outside of them. For the lovers, they get to wake up beside each other and find that their happiness will continue. For the sick person and his/her companion, the sun provides a brief distraction from their worries and fears. The sun causes a break in the private universes constructed by these people—whether those are universes of pleasure or of pain—and pushes the couple out toward a world that is even bigger than the two of them.

And ultimately, I think that’s what this poem wants us to do: to think outside of our own heads for a change. To realize that there is more in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I think all good poetry exists to make us think outside of ourselves and the vision of the world that we’ve come to accept. For me, Polish poets in general and Zagajewski in particular are especially good at doing that.

“Hurrahing in Harvest” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This Friday is the first day of fall, so naturally, the literature blogs and poetry Twitter are going all out with the autumnal poems. Keats’s “To Autumn” deservedly gets a lot of praise, but my favorite fall poem is one I discovered just recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Hurrahing in Harvest.”

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
     Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
     Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
     Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
     And éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
     Majestic – as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! –
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
     Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart réars wíngs bold and bolder
     And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

The poet Tiana Clark wrote (on Twitter), “Poems are bodies that remind us of our bodies.” I like that, but what I really like is for a poem to remind me not just of my body, but of my whole person—my spirit as well as my body. Hopkins can do that.

{PD-1923}

Hopkins, of course, is well-known for poems that use the beauty of nature to point to a benevolent and all-powerful Creator, suggesting that beauty only exists in the world because God loves us and chooses to favor us with it. What I love about this poem is how Hopkins pushes us beyond mere intellectual acknowledgment of this spiritual reality by invoking bodily experience. God’s love, as demonstrated through the beauty of autumn, is compared to a look or a greeting from a lover, and found to be “realer” and “rounder” than what is perceived by the senses. The hills are identified as Christ’s “world-wielding shoulder,” reminding us that Jesus too had a body, whose destruction and resurrection brought about our salvation. And finally, when the riches of God’s love begin to dawn on this speaker, he is so overcome that he feels as if the very earth under his feet has been taken away. By bringing this spiritual wisdom to us in such physical terms, Hopkins challenges us to think of God not just in abstract, but as a real, living presence, as much apart of the world around us as the hills, the trees, and our own bodies.

Six Poets Who Actually Give Good Readings

There’s a long-standing stereotype in the poetry world that says that poets always give terrible readings of their own work. And while this generalization does bear out for some poets (looking at you, Eliot), this is by no means the rule for all. On the contrary, I’ve found quite a few poets who not only give pleasant readings, but sometimes actually add something to their poems by the way they read them. I’ve compiled a small list of these poets below.

1: Seamus Heaney

My favorite poetry reader. His speaking voice, of course, was beautiful, but this is merely a complement to his real strengths: an impeccable sense of timing, perfect rhythm, and a willingness to let the poem occupy its own space, which is surprisingly rare. Another part of the reason I enjoy Heaney’s readings so much has to do with the man himself: his quiet, unassuming demeanor belies the power, even the brutality, of some of his work.

Harvard has a large collection of Heaney’s readings online, but there are plenty of them elsewhere as well.

2: Sylvia Plath

Between that Mid-Atlantic accent and her skill as a voice actress, Plath was quite a unique reader. Listen here to how she hits the beats in this very sound-heavy poem. Notice those little dramatic flourishes too, like the mock pity on the line, “Daddy, I’ve had to kill you.”

3: Anne Sexton

Ms. Sexton was also quite the performer: the rolling of her eyes, the dramatic toss of the head punctuating certain lines. Admittedly, both her voice and her manner can seem a little overwrought at times. Still, I’ve found that, on a good day, her readings can be captivating things.

4: W. H. Auden

A matter of taste, perhaps: I happen to like Auden’s readings very much, though some people have called them flat and stilted. See for yourself:

5: Dana Gioia

A staunch believer that poetry is just as much for the ear as for the eye, Gioia is careful to give his poems time to hang in the air. He leaves you time to take in what he’s saying, as he says it. Plus, as he mentioned during the reading I’ve linked below, he usually recites his poems from memory, which is cool.

6: Philip Larkin

Personally, one of the things I like about Larkin’s poetry is his droll and somewhat dark sense of humor. So it helps that his voice too has a droll, depressive sound to it. I especially enjoy his reading of “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” where, I think, he transitions perfectly from the sardonic to the heartfelt.

Are there any poets (or actors, teachers, whoever) whose readings you especially like? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: First Love by Ivan Turgenev

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1860

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: The University of Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Download the ebook here or buy the paperback here. (Disclosure: I use affiliate links.)


I’m on a bit of Russian literature kick lately. Maybe you noticed. After sampling a bit from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, I next set my sights on Turgenev, having heard him described as one of the greatest Russian novelists who ever lived. The first thing I read from him, though, was not a novel but a novella. There’s apparently some division among book bloggers as to the worth of the novella as a form: while many people prefer the shorter format that eats up less time than novels do, others find novellas too brief to allow the reader to form an attachment to the characters. I for one love novellas, and especially ones like this, that, for all their brevity, still have you feeling with, and hurting for, the characters.

Like many of Turgenev’s stories, this one begins with a frame story: three men are all sitting around the fireplace one evening, where they’ve all been asked to tell the story of their first love affair. After two of them deliver lackluster stories about how they met their wives, the third man, Volodya Voldemar, asks for time to go home and write his story out. He returns the next day and reads to his friends the story of how, when he was sixteen years old, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Zinaïda. So captivated is Volodya with Zinaïda that he barely even notices how cruel she can be, or that she’s merely amusing herself with him and her five other suitors. His dreams of loving her, however, come crashing to the ground when he discovers that Zinaïda is secretly having an affair with his father.

***

There was a long time where I was reading mostly nonfiction and poetry, and when I tried to read fiction, I would quickly lose interest. After reading so many poems where practically every word contributed in palpable ways to the meaning and the effect of the piece overall, prose just seemed too … prosaic. I was disappointed by fiction because it didn’t have that same (or similar) intensity of language. As it turns out, Turgenev is just the sort of fiction writer I wanted: his prose is rich and lyrical. His words flow effortlessly. His ability to create a mood and an atmosphere too is breathtaking:

The air blew in a gust for an instant; a streak of fire flashed across the sky; it was a star falling. “Zinaïda?” I wanted to call, but the word died away on my lips. And all at once everything became profoundly still around, as is often the case in the middle of the night. … Even the grasshoppers ceased their churr in the trees—only a window rattled somewhere. I stood and stood, and then went back to my room, to my chilled bed. I felt a strange sensation; as though I had gone to a tryst, and had been left lonely, and had passed close by another’s happiness. [From Chapter 16. Ellipsis in the original.]

Turgenev, in a photo by Félix Nadar.

Not only is the prose beautiful and vivid, the characters are as well. One of the things I love most about Russian books (the ones I’ve read, anyway) is that, while they may not always fit the modern-day criteria for “realism,” their characters still feel more real than most. By that I mean, though the circumstances that these characters find themselves in may sometimes seem very dramatic, there’s a core of truth in these characters that lets the reader form a deeper connection with them. Their actions and circumstances might not be “reality” for most people, but the emotion and the feeling behind them is universally human. Maybe it’s because First Love is so heavily autobiographical—Turgenev himself wrote that it was his favorite of his own work because “it is life itself, it was not made up”—but the characters have an emotional richness to them that is hard to find elsewhere.

That’s all for now. Which other Russian books or authors would you recommend? And how do you feel about novellas? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — August 2017

Image by Asgeir Pall Juliusson.

Out of the starless night of the Uncreated, that was before the stars, a soul begins to grope back to light. It gropes its way through strange, half-lighted chambers of Dreams, where in a brown and gold twilight, it sees many things that are dimly significant, true stories twisted into new and amazing shapes, human beings whom it knew long ago, sitting at the windows by dark sunsets, or talking in dim meadows. But the awful invading Light grows stronger in the dreams, till the soul in one last struggle, plunges into a body, as into a house and wakes up within it. Then he rises and finds himself in a wonderful vast world of white light and clear, frankly coloured shapes, an inheritor of a million stars. On enquiry he is informed that his name is Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

This amuses him.

  • And finally, readers are rediscovering what our great-great-grandparents knew years ago—memorizing poetry is awesome: “You can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.”

“Personal Helicon” by Seamus Heaney

Today, on the fourth anniversary of Seamus Heaney’s death, I thought I’d share this recording of a reading he gave in New York in 1971, and in particular his reading of one of my favorite poems of his, “Personal Helicon.”

“Personal Helicon”
by Seamus Heaney

for Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Book Review: “A Gentle Spirit” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1876

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: The University of Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Find the ebook here and the paperback here. (Disclosure: that last one is an affiliate link.)


So, remember a few months ago when I published a review of Dostoevsky’s novella “White Nights”? The one where I fawned over the hero and his unselfish concern for the woman he loved? “A Gentle Spirit”* is almost the exact opposite of that story.

It concerns a pawnbroker (unnamed throughout the story) who marries one of his more frequent customers. She (also unnamed) is sixteen years old, an orphan, and living in abject poverty with her two abusive aunts. He is forty-one, not rich but well-off, and the only person who has ever proposed marriage to her save for the drunken slob next door. The girl agrees to marry him and tries her best to be a good wife, but this pawnbroker is not satisfied to be merely loved by his wife. No, he wants to feel superior to her. He also believes that her love is not true unless it comes unmerited: unless she continues to love him even when he’s given her no reason for doing so. He begins a regime of strict rules—about their money, their house, everything—and harangues his wife when she can’t meet his exacting standards. He is cold and distant with her, not wanting to get too attached until she has proven herself. Once he’s convinced that his wife really does care for him, the pawnbroker begins to treat her kindly again, professing his love and promising her that things will be better in the future. It’s shortly after this that his wife jumps out of the window of their second-story bedroom to her death. The story, then, is narrated by the pawnbroker as he tries to make sense of all that happened.

Portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872.

At this point, my knowledge of Dostoevsky is still fairly limited: two novellas, parts of novels, and a handful of short stories. Even so, I think Dostoevsky is the keenest observer of human nature that I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. Not only do his characters feel spectacularly real (despite whatever bizarre things they might say or do), they also reveal things in the reader that he/she may have chosen to overlook up until now. Even in a character as strange and outlandish as the pawnbroker, there are times where he seems, in an odd way, almost relatable: not in his actions, of course, but in his attitude toward them, and toward the people around him. His conclusions are ridiculous, but the self-centered, pride-centered reasoning by which he reaches those conclusions sounds uncomfortably familiar. Dostoevsky is one of those writers—similar, I find, to Flannery O’Connor—who is merciless in his portrayal of human evil, and not just on a large scale: in these stories, the petty grudges, the unreasonable anger, the idolatrous self-consciousness, and the insipid arrogance to which most of us give way practically every day are presented as the deeply destructive forces they really are.

To elaborate on that, I find it interesting that, despite all of the deprivations that the pawnbroker’s wife suffered before marrying—losing her parents, being beaten and starved by her aunts, etc.—she didn’t kill herself until she was living in a physically safe, relatively comfortable home. I also find it interesting that she killed herself not while her husband was abusing her, but when he began to be kind to her again. This tells me two thing: first, that withholding love does more damage to the soul than any physical deprivation can do to the body, and second, that without a firm grounding in that love, life is impossible. True, she lived without love under her aunts’ roof as well, but what she suffered with the pawnbroker was, in a way, even worse because the denial of love was compounded by uncertainty: she never knew where she stood with her husband or whether his newly-proclaimed love would last. And as a result, she threw herself out of a window, clutching the last of her parents’ belongings—a cheap icon of the Madonna and Child—to her chest. Is it always the case in real life that selfishness and pride produce such a dramatic result? No, but it does make you think about the effect that one’s pride has on the people around him/her and how it destroys the potential for love.

As for the writing itself, fans of unusual or unreliable narrators will likely be intrigued by the pawnbroker’s erratic storytelling. In the original preface to the story (sadly, not included in that ebook I linked above), Dostoevsky explains that the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” is not meant to refer to the story’s events, but instead to the way in which the story is told: Dostoevsky imagines the story as coming from the notepad of a stenographer who is recording the pawnbroker while he speaks to the policemen investigating his wife’s death. I like this framing for the story because it highlights the pawnbroker’s eccentricities even further. At times, he seems to be trying to save face with the officers, trying diligently to avoid saying anything that might implicate him, while at other times, he pours his heart out, telling the officers everything about his late wife and how he felt about her. He’s obviously an ill man: repeating himself, contradicting himself, even telling the officers directly that he’s mad (only to backtrack later and say that he’s not mad anymore). This story is sometimes pointed to as an early example of stream-of-consciousness writing, and it does have a certain disjointed, free-associating feel to it. Taken all together, both the story and its form give a penetrating portrait of a man driven insane by his own self-obsession.


* This story generally has a slightly different title depending on who’s translating it. Constance Garnett chose to render the original title (“Кроткая”) as “A Gentle Spirit,” but elsewhere it’s called “A Gentle Creature” or “The Meek One.”

Book Review: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

Year of Publication: 2004

Number of Pages: 56

Publisher: Tupelo Press

Genre: Poetry

Note: this post contains an affiliate link.


The first thing to strike me about Ilya Kaminsky: that he could be so well-known after publishing only one book. Dancing in Odessa is Kaminsky’s first and, to date, only full-length poetry collection, with his second book Deaf Republic due out in 2019. But for several years now, it seemed like everyone who knew poetry knew this poet, raved about him, and believed that he was one of the best and most promising poets currently writing in America.

Having read that one poetry collection, I can now say that they were all right.

Kaminsky was born in Odessa in the late 1970s and immigrated to America with his family in 1993. Though Russian is his first language, he writes in English because, as he put it, “no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

And “insanely beautiful” is exactly what these poems are: ethereal and visceral, sometimes joyful, but sometimes dark, holding the things of heaven in one hand and the things of earth in the other.

The book is divided into four sections, with a poem proceeding the first and ending the last. That first poem, “Author’s Prayer,” is one of Kaminsky’s most famous, and for good reason. Here are the first two stanzas:

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body.

I must write the same poem over and over,
for a blank page is the white flag of their surrender.

This poem puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”: it’s that perfect piece of writing that lets you know who this poet is, where he’s coming from, and what his aims are for his art.

The first section of the book, “Dancing in Odessa,” focuses on poems of war, family, and homeland. These can be very bleak, disturbing poems, especially as the speaker describes the ways in which civilians are brutalized by an opposing force, and yet, there is a bit of light shining through all the darkness:

. . . The city trembled,
a ghost ship setting sail.
At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.
We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream. [“Dancing in Odessa”]

The second section explains itself: “Musica Humana: an Elegy for Osip Mandelstam.” Combining verse and prose, as well as the voices of a few different speakers, this section tells of the life of the great Russian poet and his struggle to survive under Stalin’s regime. Being only passingly familiar with Mandelstam’s poetry, I’m probably not this section’s ideal reader. Even so, the beauty of Kaminsky’s lyric isn’t lost on me, as he describes the plight of this “modern Orpheus” and his journey to becoming a poet.

The third section, “Natalia,” is a sequence of love poems. Like “Musica Humana,” it is written in both verse and prose and uses multiple speakers. I’ll be honest, I found it a little difficult at times to tell who was saying what to whom; nevertheless, these are gorgeous poems, full of passion and containing some of my favorite lines in the collection:

I want her to imagine our scandalous days in Odessa when we will open a small sweets shop–except for her lovers and my neighbors (who steal milk chocolate in handfuls) we will have no customers. In an empty store, dancing among stands with sugared walnuts, dried carnations, boxes upon boxes of mints and cherries dipped in honey, we will whisper to each other our truest stories. [“Natalia,” 1]

 

bless one woman’s brows, her lips
and their salt, bless the roundness
of her shoulder. Her face, a lantern
by which I live my life. [“Envoi”]

The fourth and last section is titled “Traveling Musicians” and consists of poems about and to four writers: Paul Celan, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel, and Marina Tsvetaeva. This is another section where I think some more background knowledge might have been helpful (I’ve only read Celan, and him just barely), but I still enjoyed these poems too, in large part because of the author’s skill at rendering characters. I often feel that people in poetry seem very airy and insubstantial. I can’t imagine meeting these people in the flesh because I don’t really know what they are like: I only know how the poet feels about them. The poems in “Traveling Musicians,” however, feel like meeting actual people, instead of imaginary beings. In these poems, Kaminsky exhibits not only a capacity for praise (these are his heroes, after all), but also an insight into people themselves that allows him to put them down as living, breathing beings on the page. Not all poets can do that.

Finally, the book ends with a long poem called “Praise,” tying together all of the main threads running through this book: childhood, family, love, outsiderdom, Kaminsky’s own growth as a poet, and finally, peace and gratitude. After putting our emotions through the ringer, Kaminsky saw fit to give us this little respite, and send us off feeling emotionally and spiritually refreshed. Or at least, that’s how I felt reading these final lines:

I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation–

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.

But you asked
for a story with a happy ending. Your loneliness

played its lyre. I sat
on the floor, watching your lips.

Love, a one-legged bird
I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.
O the language of birds

with no word for complaint!–
the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness
drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see past as Montale saw it,
the obscurer thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats,
over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

You can count me among those who wait eagerly to see what Kaminsky does next.

A Few Authors for Women in Translation Month

In an event created by blogger Meytal Radzinski, August has become “Women in Translation Month.” In the last several months especially, I’ve made a point of reading more translated literature—especially translated poetry—but even so, my knowledge of translated women authors is still very limited. So, here are a few translated women authors I’m hoping to read more from in the future. I can’t promise I’ll read all of them during the month of August; they’re just some names I want to keep in mind.

Christa Wolf
Translated from German

Two bloggers whom I greatly admire—Melissa from The Book Binder’s Daughter and Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed—both recommend Wolf highly. Her work consists primarily of novels, often inspired by mythology or history. Recently, Melissa reviewed Wolf’s novel No Place on Earth, based on the lives of the German Romantic poets Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode. It sounded fascinating (although tragic), and the excerpts Melissa quoted were incredibly beautiful. Wolf’s autobiographical works sound intriguing too, such as the novel City of Angels which more or less traces the shape of Wolf’s life as a writer and scholar in East Berlin shortly after the reunification of Germany.

Anna Swir
Translated from Polish

As I’ve been reading more about Czesław Miłosz, I’ve gotten to know a lot more about his Polish contemporaries, including the poet Anna Swir. Similar to Miłosz, she was an eyewitness to the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of 1943, and even volunteered as a nurse in a makeshift hospital for the resistance fighters. Her war experiences leave a definite mark on her poetry, however she is also known as a poet of the body, taking the female body as a subject long before such writing was considered acceptable in mainstream literature. I’ve read just about everything of hers I can find online, so I’m eager to get some of her collections before long, including the two translated by Miłosz, Talking to My Body and Happy as a Dog’s Tail.

Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian

By now, Ferrante has been talked up so much that I wasn’t sure I wanted to read her: I worried she couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Nevertheless, Fariba’s recent BookTube review of My Brilliant Friend piqued my interest. She rated this book very highly, and I trust her judgement, so I might give Ferrante a try anyway.

St. Julian of Norwich
Translated from Middle English

In addition to writing one of the most influential religious books in Western Christianity, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian is also noted as the first known woman writer of the Middle Ages. I’ve actually already starting reading Revelations in the Project Gutenberg edition translated by Grace Warrick, and I find it both fascinating and uplifting.

Simone Weil
Translated from French

Another Christian mystic, though her work is considerably more recent than Lady Julian’s. Weil was a French philosopher, social critic, and theologian who is counted as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. At the moment, her book Gravity and Grace looks especially interesting.

Which translated women authors would you recommend?


Image of Christa Wolf (left) by SpreeTom and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image of Simone Weil (center) is in the public domain (source).
Image of St. Julian’s statue by rocketjohn and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.