Dialogue on the Threshold

Диалог на пороге

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Fathers and Sons condensed

Based on Fathers and Sons. A Novel. Ivan Sergheïevich Turgeneff. Translated from the Russian with the approval of the author by Eugene Schulyer, Ph. D. (New York, Leypoldt and Holt, 1867)

A fat cock with variegated plumage walks gravely up and down, striking the steps with the spurs on his big yellow feet; a cat, all covered with ashes, looks at him with rather an unfriendly air from the top of the balustrade where it is crouching. The sun burns hot; from the low chamber that serves as the entry to the inn issues a smell of freshly-cooked rye bread. A fat pigeon lights on the road and runs hastily to drink in a puddle of water near the well. Several carts, whose horses are unbridled,* rapidly go over a narrow cross-road; each carries one or two peasants in unbuttoned tulupes. A vast cultivated plain extends to the horizon, and the soil rises slightly, to fall soon after. Some little woods appear at rare intervals, and ravines, curtained with scattered low bushes, wind around a little further, recalling with some faithfulness the drawings that represent them on the old maps dating from the reign of the Empress Catharine. From time to time are seen little brooks with bare banks, ponds kept in by bad dikes; poor villages, whose low houses are surmounted by black thatched roofs, half off; miserable barns, with walls formed of interwoven branches, with enormous doors gaping on empty spaces; churches, some of brick, covered with a layer of plaster that is beginning to come off, others of wood, topped by a badly supported cross, and surrounded with ill-kept graveyards. All the peasants have a wretched air, and ride little worn-out horses; the willows that edge the road,** with their torn bark and their broken branches, resemble beggars in rags; shaggy cows, lean and fierce, eagerly browse on the herbage along the ditches. All grows green, all moves gently, and sparkles with a gilded splendor under the mild breath of a warm and light wind -- trees, bushes, and grass. From all sides rise the interminable trills of the larks; the lapwings cry as they hover over the damp meadows, or run silently over the clods of ground; crows whose black plumage contrasts with the tender green of the still short wheat, are seen here and there; they are distinguished with more difficulty in the midst of the rye that has already begun to whiten; their heads hardly rise for a moment above this waving sea. A lighted samovar*** waits on a table set between large bushes of lilac. The day is rapidly declining; the sun is hid behind a little aspen wood situated half a verst from the garden, and casts an endless shadow on the moveless fields. A peasant mounted on a white horse trots along a narrow path which skirts the wood; although he is in shadow, his whole person is distinctly seen, and a patch on his shoulder is even noticeable; the horse’s feet move with a regularity and a cleanness that is pleasing to the eye. The rays of the sun penetrate into the wood, and, traversing the thicket, colour the trunks of the aspens with a warm tint which gives them the appearance of savin trunks, while their almost blue foliage is surrounded by a pale sky, slightly reddened by the evening twilight. The swallows are flying very high; the wind has entirely ceased; belated bees feebly buzz in the lilac flowes; a swarm of gnats dances above an isolated branch that stands out into the air. The soft and warm night appears with its almost black sky, accompanied by the feeble murmur of the trees and the healthy odor of a free and pure air. A table of heavy wood, covered with papers so black with dust that they look as if smoked, occupies the space between two windows; on the walls hang Turkish guns, nagaïkas,**** a sabre, two large maps, anatomical drawings, the portrait of Hufeland, a crown made of hair, placed in a black frame, and a diploma, likewise under glass; between two enormous closet bookcases of birch root is a leathern divan, well rubbed and torn in several places; books, little boxes, stuffed birds, vials and retorts are placed pell-mell on the shelves; in one corner of the room is a worn-out electrical machine. A little room exhales an odor of fresh shavings, and two crickets behind the stove sing sleepily. It is mid-day. The heat is stifling, in spite of the fine curtain of white clouds which veils the sun. Everything is silent; the cocks alone crow in the village, and their languid voices give all who hear them a singular sensation of laziness and ennui. From time to time the piercing cry of a young sparrow-hawk comes like a plaintive appeal from the top of a tree. The morning is magnificent, and fresher than the preceding days. Little mottled clouds pass in flakes over the pale azure of the sky; a fine dew covers the leaves of the trees, and the spiders’ webs shine like silver on the grass; the damp, dark ground seems still to keep some traces of the first flush of the day; the song of the larks comes down from all parts of the sky. A finch sings its ceaseless song in the foliage of a birch. A puff of wind disturbs the leaves and carries away the words. Everything in the house seems in some way to be darkened; every face is lengthened; a strange silence reigns, even in the yard; they have sent off to the village a crowing cock, who must have been remarkably surprised by such a proceeding. Winter has come; winter with the terrible silence of its frosts, the compact and creaking snow, the rosy rime on the branches of the trees, the pillars of thick smoke above the chimneys showing against a sky pale blue and cloudless, the eddies of warm air shooting out of opened doors, the fresh and nipped-looking faces of the passers-by, and the hasty trot of horses half-frozen by the cold. A January day is drawing near its end; the coldness of the evening condenses still more the motionless air, and the blood-coloured twilight is rapidly extinguished.

* A strange custom of the Russian peasant.

** In accordance with a ukase of the Emperor Alexander I., all the high roads in Russia are planted with willows.

*** A large vessel in which tea is made.

**** Cossack whips

Friday, 14 October 2011

Les défauts de l'esprit

Une traduction est un jugement, un commentaire, c'est un miroir où l'auteur peut comtempler à son aise les défauts de son esprit. Une traduction nous trahit, plutôt qu'elle ne trahit notre texte.

Emil Cioran, Cahiers 1957-1962, Paris, Gallimard, 1997, p. 899

A translation is a judgement, a commentary, it is a mirror in which the author may contemplate at his leisure the defects of his spirit. A translation betrays us, sooner than it betrays our text.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Ô humanité! Ô turpitude!

La Bêtise publique me submerge. (...) La Bourgeoisie est tellement ahurie qu'elle n'a plus même l'instinct de se défendre. -- Et ce qui lui succédera sera pire! J'ai la tristesse qu'avaient les patriciens romains au IVe siècle. Je sens monter du fond du sol une irrémédiable Barbarie. -- J'espère être crevé avant qu'elle n'ait tout emporté. Mais en attendant, ce n'est pas drôle. Jamais les intérêts de l'esprit n'ont moins compté. Jamais la haine de toute grandeur, le dédain du Beau, l'exécration de la littérature enfin n'a été si manifeste. J'ai toujours tâché de vivre dans une tour d'ivoire. Mais une marée de merde en bat les murs, à la faire crouler.

Gustave Flaubert. À Ivan Tourguéniev, [Croisset], mercredi 13 [novembre 1872]

I am overwhelmed by the stupidity of the public. (...) The bourgeoisie is so bewildered that it no longer even possesses the instinct of self-defence. And what will come after it will be even worse! I feel the same sadness as the Roman patricians of the fourth century. I sense an irremediable barbarism rising from the depths of the earth. I hope I will be a goner before it all gets swept away. Never have the interests of the spirit counted for less. Never has the hatred of all greatness, the disdain for the beautiful, the execration of literature been so blatant. I have always striven to live in an ivory tower. But a sea of shit is beating against the walls to make them totter.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

cette vieille canaillerie immuable et inébranlable

Et au fond toujours cette vieille canaillerie immuable et inébranlable. C'est là la base. Ah! comme il vous en passe sous les yeux! De temps à autre, dans les villes, j'ouvre un journal. Il me semble que nous allons rondement. Nous dansons non pas sur un volcan, mais sur la planche d'une latrine qui m'a l'air passablement pourrie. La société prochainement ira se noyer dans la merde de dix-neuf siècles, et l'on gueulera raide. L'idée d'étudier la question me préoccupe. J'ai envie (passe-moi la présomption) de serrer tout cela dans mes mains, comme un citron, afin d'en aciduler mon verre. À mon retour j'ai envie de m'enforcer dans les socialistes et de faire sous la forme théâtrale quelque chose de très brutal, de très farce et d'impartial bien entendu. J'ai le mot sur le bout de la langue et la couleur au bout des doigts. Beaucoup de sujets plus nets comme plan n'ont pas tant d'empressement à venir que celui-là.

Gustave Flaubert, À Louis Bouilhet, Constantinople, 14 novembre 1850

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

le cimetière oriental

Le cimetière oriental est une des belles choses de l'Orient. Il n'a pas ce caractère profondément agaçant que je trouve chez nous à ce genre d'établissement. Point de mur, point de fossé, point de séparation ni de clôture quelconque. Ça se trouve à propos de rien dans la campagne ou dans une ville, tout à coup et partout, comme la mort elle-même, à côté de la vie et sans qu'on y prenne garde. On traverse un cimetière comme on traverse un bazar. Toutes les tombes sont pareilles. Elles ne diffèrent que par l'ancienneté seulement. À mesure qu'elles vieillissent, elles s'enfoncent et disparaissent, comme fait le souvenir qu'on a des morts (dirait Chateaubriand). Les cyprès plantés en ces lieux sont gigantesques. Ça donne au site un jour vert plein de tranquillité.

Gustave Flaubert, À Louis Bouilhet, Constantinople, 14 novembre 1850

three exclamations

Mets ton masque Sokolov, que tes fermentations anaérobies fassent éclater les tubas de ta renommée et que tes vents irrépressibles transforment abscisses et ordonnées en de sublimes anamorphoses!

Don your mask, Sokolov, that your anaerobic fermentations may set the tubas of your fame blaring and that your irrepressible flatus may transform abscissae and ordinates into sublime anamorphoses!

[...]

Vente, Sokolov, sur ce monde luxueux et dérisoire, et quand dans ces miroirs brisés par tes tracés se dessinent en surimpression les nymphettes se refaisant les lèvres, que ton ubiquité soit le reflet multiplié des vices de la terre. Ô Sokolov, ton hyperacousie fait sursauter ta main. Regarde aux hublots de ton masque embués par ta fièvre paludéenne et créatrice se dessiner épures et graphiques tandis qu'oscilloscopes cathodiques et vu-mètres vascillent, serpentent et fluorescent sur les atonalités de Berg et Schönberg dont le dodécaphonisme s'allie à tes gaz contrapuntiques!

Flatulate, Sokolov, at this opulent and derisory world, and when in these mirrors shattered by your skidmarks there coalesces an overlay of nymphettes redoing their lips, may your ubiquity be the multiplied reflection of the world's vices. O, Sokolov, your hyperacousia causes your hand to flinch. Peer through the goggles of your gas mask misted by your malarial and creative fever to draw preliminary sketches and diagrams while the cathodic oscilloscopes and VU meters flicker, snake and glow to the atonalities of Berg and Schönberg whose twelve-tones combine with your contrapuntal gases!

[...]

Tu as vécu Sokolov, me disais-je en inhalant mes gaz, tu as vécu ton inavouable destin. Mais que craindrais-tu de la mort, toi qui ne fus ta vie durant que ferments et putréfactions, signalés, codifiés, séismographiés à jamais par ta main prophetique!

You have lived, Sokolov, I said to myself as I inhaled my own gas, you have lived out your shameful destiny. But why should you fear death, you whose whole life was nothing but ferment and putrefaction, revealed, codified and seismographed by none other than your own prophetic hand!

Serge Gainsbourg, Evguénie Sokolov. Récit, Paris: Gallimard, 1980

Friday, 2 September 2011

Hypnos


L'homme se plaît à exercer les forces de son corps & de son intelligence ; il sent que l'oisiveté est contraire à son être , & que pour son bonheur , il doit désirer & agir ; mais lorsque la nuit , en éteignant la clarté du jour , efface tous les objets , pour ne présenter à leur place qu'une obscurité générale , & l'image de l'ancien cahos (sic.) , il sent diminuer insensiblement ses forces. Bientôt ses idées s'obscurcissent , sa vigueur s'éteint , ses yeux se ferment... Il dort.

Delandine, L'Enfer des peuples anciens, ou Histoire des dieux infernaux (1784)

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

L’incommensurable goujaterie

C’était le grand bagne de l’Amérique transporté sur notre continent ; c’était enfin, l’immense, la profonde, l’incommensurable goujaterie du financier et du parvenu, rayonnant, tel qu’un abject soleil, sur la ville idolâtre qui éjaculait, à plat ventre, d’impurs cantiques devant le tabernacle impie des banques !

Eh ! croule donc, société ! meurs donc, vieux monde ! s’écria des Esseintes, indigné par l’ignominie du spectacle qu’il évoquait ; ce cri rompit le cauchemar qui l’opprimait

Ah ! fit-il, dire que tout cela n’est pas un rêve ! dire que je vais rentrer dans la turpide et servile cohue du siècle ! Il appelait à l’aide pour se cicatriser, les consolantes maximes de Schopenhauer ; il se répétait le douloureux axiome de Pascal : « L’âme ne voit rien qui ne l’afflige quand elle y pense », mais les mots résonnaient, dans son esprit comme des sons privés de sens ; son ennui les désagrégeait, leur ôtait toute signification, toute vertu sédative, toute vigueur effective et douce.

Il s’apercevait enfin que les raisonnements du pessimisme étaient impuissants à le soulager, que l’impossible croyance en une vie future serait seule apaisante.

J.-K. Huysmans, À rebours (1884)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Days of the King



Filip Florian's novel The Days of the King (Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt, 2011) is at Read This Next for the week of 11 July 2011


Interview with author Filip Florian

Interview with translator Alistair Ian Blyth




.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Dies caniculares



The cockroach in Russian literature (3): Gogol (3)


Покой был известного рода, ибо гостиница была тоже известного рода, то есть именно такая, как бывают гостиницы в губернских городах, где за два рубля в сутки проезжающие получают покойную комнату с тараканами, выглядывающими, как чернослив, из всех углов

Мертвые души. Поэма, глава первая

The room was of the familiar kind, as the inn, too, was of the familiar kind, which is to say, like the inns to be found in provincial towns, where for two rubles a day travellers receive a quiet room with cockroaches gazing from every cranny, like prunes.

Dead Souls. A Poem. Chapter One

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Cockroach in Russian Literature (2): Gogol (2)

Огромный, величиною почти с слона, таракан остановился у дверей и просунул свои усы.

Полное собрание сочинений в 14 томах (1937-1952), Том второй: Миргород (1937), Вий: Варианты, стр. 574

A huge cockroach, almost as big as an elephant, came to a stop in the doorway and thrust its whiskers inside.

From the first version of the story "Viy", published in Mirgorod (1835), but omitted from the Collected Works (1842) and all subsequent editions


See also: The Cockroach in Russian Literature (1): Gogol (1)

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Gogolian piles (4)

(v)

If only you knew how sorry I was to find not you but rather the note you left on my desk. Had I returned but a minute earlier, I might still have been able to see you in person. The other day I wished to pay you a visit without fail, but it was as if everything conspired to thwart me: a cold got it into its head to conjoin itself to my haemorrhoidal virtues and so now I have an entire horse collar of kerchiefs around my neck. It looks like this illness will sequester me for the week. Nevertheless, I have decided not to sit around idling and instead of verbal presentations to sketch out my thoughts and teaching plan on paper.

Letter to A. C. Pushkin, 23 December 1833, Petersburg


Если бы вы знали, как я жалел, что застал вместо вас одну записку вашу на моем столе. Минутой мне бы возвратиться раньше, и я бы увидел вас еще у себя. На другой жедень я хотел непременно побывать у вас; но как будто нарочно все сговорилось идти мне наперекор: к моим геморроидальным добродетелям вздумала еще присоединиться простуда, и у меня теперь на шее целый хомут платков. По всему видно, что эта болезнь запрет меня на неделю. Я решился, однако ж, не зевать и вместо словесных представлений набросать мои мысли и план преподавания на бумагу.
А. С. Пушкину. 23 декабря 1833, г. Петербург


Gogolian piles (3)

(iv)

"Cat's mint" (i.e. catsfoot). Glechoma hedera terrestris, alleviates piles.

Arzamas region medicinal herbarium

Кошечья мята. Glechoma hedera terrestris, уменьшает почечуи

Лекарственный арзамасский травник.
Полное собрание сочинений в 14 томах. (1937 - 1952). Том девятый: Наброски. Конспекты. Планы. Записные книжки. (1952). стр. 416.


Gogolian piles (2)

(iii)

Having ordered a very light supper, which consisted of only a sucking pig, Chichikov straight away undressed and, climbing under the bedclothes, fell deeply, soundly asleep, he fell into the wonderful sleep such as is slept only by those fortunate men who know nothing of haemorrhoids, fleas, or overly powerful intellectual faculties.

Dead Souls (1842)

Потребовавши самый легкий ужин, состоявший только в поросенке, <Чичиков> тот же час разделся и, забравшись под одеяло, заснул сильно, крепко, заснул чудным образом, как спят одни только те счастливцы, которые не ведают ни геморроя, ни блох, ни слишком сильных умственных способностей.

Мертвые души (1842)

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Gogolian piles (1)

(i)

"Would you like to take some snuff? It chases away headaches and gloomy moods; it is even good for treating haemorrhoids."

Saying this, the clerk offered Kovalev his snuffbox, rather deftly flipping up the lid, which had a portrait of some lady in a hat.

This thoughtless behaviour exceeded the limits of Kovalev's patience.

"How you find it appropriate to joke about it I do not know," he said indignantly. "Can't you see I do not have the wherewithal to take snuff?"

The Nose (1836)

- Не угодно ли вам понюхать табачку? это разбивает головные боли и печальные расположения; даже в отношении к геморроидам это хорошо.

Говоря это, чиновник поднес Ковалеву табакерку, довольно ловко подвернув под нее крышку с портретом какой-то дамы в шляпе.

Этот неумышленный поступок вывел из терпения Ковалева.

- Я не понимаю, как вы находите место шуткам, - сказал он с сердцем, - разве вы не видите, что у меня именно нет того, чем бы я мог понюхать?

Нос (1836)


(ii)

I sit down to my task, about which you already know, I have written to you about it, but my work is sluggish, it lacks that former animation. The ailment, for whose sake I set out on my travels and which, it seemed, had found alleviation, has now intensified once more. My haemorrhoidal illness has turned back onto my stomach. It is an unbearable illness. It parches me. It tells me about itself every minute and prevents me from being busy.

Letter to M. P. Pogodin, Naples, <14 August 1838>

Сижу над трудом, о котором ты уже знаешь, я писал к тебе о нем, но работа моя вяла, нет той живости. Недуг, для которого я уехал и который было, казалось, облегчился, теперь усилился вновь. Моя гемороидальная болезнь вся обратилась на желудок. Это несносная болезнь. Она меня сушит. Она говорит мне о себе каждую минуту и мешает мне заниматься.

М. П. Погодину. Неаполь. <14 августа 1838.>

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

исполинский образ скуки

Хотя бы только пожелать так, хотя бы только насильно заставить себя это сделать, ухватиться бы за этот <день>, как утопающий хватается за доску! Бог весть, может быть, за одно это желанье уже готова сброситься с небес нам лестница и протянуться рука, помогающая возлететь по ней.

Но и одного дня не хочет провести так человек девятнадцатого века! И непонятной тоской уже загорелася земля; черствей и черствей становится жизнь; всё мельчает и мелеет, и возрастает только в виду всех один исполинский образ скуки, достигая с каждым днем неизмеримейшего роста. Всё глухо, могила повсюду. Боже! пусто и страшно становится в твоем мире!

Собрания сочинений Гоголя, Полное собрание сочинений в 14 томах (1937—1952), Том восьмой: Статьи, Выбранные места из переписки с друзьями, Светлое воскресенье, стр. 416


If only one might so desire, if only one might force oneself to do it, to clutch at this [day], like a drowning man clutches at a plank! God knows, perhaps for this desire alone a ladder is ready to drop down to us from the heavens and a hand is ready to extend to us, helping us to soar up it.

But the man of the nineteenth century does not wish to spend even one day like this! And with an incomprehensible anguish the earth is already burning; life is becoming ever more callous; everything is becoming pettier and shallower, and before all our eyes only the single gigantic image of boredom rears up, and with every passing day it attains an immeasurable height. All is dull, everywhere the tomb. O, God! it grows desolate and terrible in Your world!

Gogol, Selected Passages from the Correspondence with Friends (1847), Holy Sunday



Sunday, 15 May 2011

The proscenium of eternity

Creation sometimes pours into the spiritual eye the radiance of heaven. The green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet bloomy east; the moon opening her golden eye, or walking in brightness among innumerable islands of light, not only thrill the optic nerve, but shed a mild, a grateful, an unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twilight of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow and no night. After all, I doubt not but there must be the study of this creation, as well as art and vision; tho' I cannot think it other than the veil of heaven, through which her divine features are dimly smiling; the setting of the table before the feast; the symphony before the tune; the prologue of the drama, a dream of antepast and proscenium of eternity.

Samuel Palmer, 1828

Letters, ed. Raymond Lister. Oxford, 1974. Vol. 1, p. 50

Monday, 18 April 2011

Сон и Явь

Даниил Иванович говорил: надо подойти к пропасти, стать на самом краю ее, взглянуть вниз и не упасть.

Чинари
глава из книги Якова Семеновича Друскина (1902-1980)
Сон и Явь, 1968


Daniil Ivanovich used to say: it is necessary to go up to the abyss, to stand on its very edge, to look down and not to fall.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Before Brezhnev Died


Iulian Ciocan, Înainte să moară Brejnev (Before Brezhnev Died). Polirom: Jassy, 2007. 173 pp.

Before Brezhnev Died by Iulian Ciocan is a dense, multi-layered novel of everyday life in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova, a land at the periphery of both the USSR and the communist Eastern Bloc. It is a novel that is in many ways different to the more subjective “autobiographical fictions” of the communist past which have been published by Romanian writers from the western side of the Prut in recent years.

The novel consists of ten chapters: nine interlocking short stories and a penultimate meta-chapter that explores the book’s methods and technique. In this explanatory chapter, entitled “An Elucidation”, Iulian Ciocan tries to answer the question put to him by an indignant older writer, who is working on a novel of post-Soviet, transition-period Moldova: “Why do you keep raking up the Soviet past? How much longer are you going to be its prisoner?” This reinvented writer of the old guard, who has “liberated himself from the tyranny of the Soviet past”, suspects Ciocan of trying somehow to revive “socialist realism”. However, socialist realism and the reality of socialism are two very different things. The “reality” of the Soviet period, in the sense of everyday life during that time, is still largely unexplored territory. The stories of the Gulag and the Terror are well known, but less has been written about the real life behind the “absurd, grotesque, sometimes comical” ideological façade created by socialist realism as propaganda for both foreign and domestic consumption. Of course, post-Soviet writers such as Victor Erofeev, Vladimir Sorokin and Ludmila Ulitskaya have described everyday Soviet life in their different ways. But Soviet reality was not only a Russian reality. The USSR was by no means the monolithic entity it is sometimes imagined to be. As Iulian Ciocan points out, “there was not a single Soviet everyday, one that was the same for a Russian, a Moldovan and a Tungus, for the centre and the periphery.” Moreover, the reality of Soviet Moldova itself, “the Latin periphery of the Empire,” was by no means homogenous; that reality was more complex than the perspective to be found in a Ludmila Ulitskaya novel, for instance, where Moldovans are merely men with “droopy moustaches” who dump mounds of rubbish on the coast of the Black Sea.

The characters in the novel, whose lives can be seen to intersect in dramatic and unexpected ways in each chapter, range from Grișa Furdui, a lowly collective farm worker, to Pavel Fiodorovici Kavrig, a highly placed Party apparatchik. In between there are factory workers, war veterans, pensioners, schoolteachers, hooligans, and the seemingly model communist pioneer Iulian, a semi-autobiographical portrait of the author. Ciocan consciously rejects subjectivity as a narrative technique, however, preferring to make use of multiple perspectives, which allow the same event to be simultaneously comic and tragic, absurd and amusing, depending on the viewpoint of the particular character. Reality shifts according to the perspective of the protagonist of each individual chapter. For example, in one chapter we are introduced to Ion Pîslari, a factory worker who lives with his wife and child in the grotesque squalor of a cramped communal apartment block. In the next chapter, these soul-destroying conditions seem like a veritable paradise on earth to Pîslari’s cousin, Grișa Furdui, who is visiting Kishinev from the country, where he leads an even more dehumanising life of grinding toil on a state collective farm. His “nostrils anaesthetised by rural dung,” Grișa avidly inhales the “comforting reek of boiled onion/borsht/urine/bleach” that pervades the building of his more fortunate city cousin. Even the filthy communal toilets, with the sounds of someone straining in the next cubicle, are “a revelation” after his native village and the “rudimentary back-yard pit where you freeze your arse off in winter”. To cynical city folk, Grișa Furdui is the incarnation of “bucolic ignorance”, a “messenger of rural eternity.” On the other hand, the culture shock of seeing the city for the first time convinces Grișa that the utopia of communist propaganda really does exist. It also makes him realise that his fellow peasants, or rather collective farm workers, are “sleepwalkers”, reduced to a mindless, vegetative existence by never-ending toil and abject poverty. Again, this bleak picture of rural life contrasts with the official socialist reality, which is presented in the following chapter in the form of inserts within the narrative, culled from the voiceover to an idyllic episode of Po zayavkam rabotnikov zhitonovodstva (At the Requests of the Animal Husbandry Workers) about Stakhanovite cow-milker Frasîna Paierele.

Throughout the novel, there are other similar inserts, drawn from Soviet-era propaganda and providing striking, even disorienting contrasts with the squalid reality of the characters’ everyday lives. The effect of these diametrically opposed discourses and shifting perspectives is one of defamiliarisation or estrangement—the ostranenie theorised by Victor Shklovsky. Indeed, as a fictional approach to the Soviet period, Ciocan recommends Shklovsky’s method in the chapter “An Elucidation”, rather than falling prey to maudlin self-pity about the hardships and horrors of the past. Ultimately, it is better to bring out the comical, bizarre or absurd side of events, because in any case the glut of human tragedies on the nightly television news bulletin has wholly numbed us to horrors.

The grotesquely absurd, random violence of some events in the novel is reminiscent of Daniil Kharms’ sluchai or “accidents”. For example, pensioner Dochia Barbalat is crushed by a falling crane as she returns home from the market with laden bags. Her husband, Nicolae Barbalat, encounters utter indifference, mockery and even aggression on the part of the authorities when he tries to seek justice. In another chapter, widower and war veteran Polikarp Feofanovici is hit on the head by a rotten tomato, thrown from the roof by a communist pioneer, quite possibly the young Iulian himself. The event provokes an existential crisis, forcing him to confront, in disbelief, the degeneration of Soviet society and morals, the ineluctable failure, lies, poverty and decay of the system itself. This decay was embodied in the person and crepuscular rule of Leonid Brezhnev. For Iulian, the death of Brezhnev—itself played out amid the initial denials of a system for which lying was a reflex, and then amid the grotesque, tragicomic rituals of insincere mourning—finally shatters the illusion of Soviet invulnerability and perpetuity.

Before Brezhnev Died is unsettling and hilarious by turns. It is a novel that provides a unique and unfamiliar—for readers outside the Republic of Moldova, and even for readers in Romania, with their own different experiences of everyday life under communism—perspective on the former Soviet Union.

Alistair Ian Blyth

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Beckett Bowel Books

Samuel Beckett, letter to Mary Manning Howe, sent from Hamburg on 14 November 1936

... I am exhorted to ablate 33.3 recurring to all eternity of my work (1). I have thought of a better plan. Take every 500th word, punctuate carefully and publish a poem in prose in the Paris Daily Mail. Then the rest separately and privately, with a forewarning from Geoffrey, as the ravings of a schizoid, or serially, in translation, in the Zeitschrift für Kitsch. My next work shall be on rice paper wound about a spool, with a perforated line every six inches and on sale in Boots. The length of each chapter will be carefully calculated to suit with the average free motion. And with every copy a free sample of some laxative to promote sales. The Beckett Bowel Books, Jesus in farto. Issued in imperishable tissue. Thistledown end papers. All edges disinfected. 1000 wipes of clean fun. Also in Braille for anal pruritics. All Sturm and no Drang.

I replied, dear agente provocatrice, that I would not have a finger laid on the section entitled Amor intellectualis etc., nor on the Thema Coeli, nor on Endon's Affence, nor on the last will and fundament, but that so far as the rest was concerned I would willingly remove all ties and supports, dripstones, keystones, cornerstones, buttresses, and, with especial pleasure, the entire foundations, and accept full and entire responsibility for the ensuing detritus. The owls, cats, foxes and toads of the higher criticism could be relied on to complete the picture, a romantic one. ...

(1) The at the time unpublished novel Murphy


The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Volume 1: 1929-1940, eds. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 382-383


Sunday, 6 February 2011

The ruins of Babel

Babylon is a towne not very great but very populous, and of great traffike of strangers, for that it is the way to Persia, Turkia and Arabia : and from thence doe goe Carovans for these and other places. Here are great store of victuals, which come from Armenia downe the river of Tygris. They are brought upon raftes made of goates skinnes blowne full of winde and bordes layde upon them: and thereupon they lade their goods which are brought downe to Babylon, which being discharged they open their skinnes, and carry them backe by Camels, to serve another time. Babylon in times past did belong to the kingdome of Persia, but nowe is subject to the Turke. Over against Babylon there is a very faire village from whence you passe to Babylon upon a long bridge made of boats, and tyed to a great chaine of yron, which is made fast on either side of the river. When any boates are to passe up or downe the river, they take away certaine of the boates untill they be past.
The Tower of Babel is built on this side the river Tygris, towardes Arabia from the towne about seven or eight miles, which tower is ruinated on all sides, and with the fall thereof hath made as it were a litle mountaine, so that it hath no shape at all: it was made of brickes dried in the sonne, and certaine canes and leaves of the palme tree layed betwixt the brickes. There is no entrance to be seene to goe into it. It doth stand upon a great plaine betwixt the rivers of Euphrates and Tygris.
The voyage of M. Ralph Fitch marchant of London by the way of Tripolis in Syria , to Ormus, and so to Goa in the East India, to Cambaia, and all the kingdome of Zelabdim Echebar the great Mogor, to the mighty river Ganges, and downe to Bengala, to Bacola, and Chonderi, to Pegu , to Imahay in the kingdome of Siam , and backe to Pegu , and from thence to Malacca, Zeilan, Cochin, and all the coast of the East India: begunne in the yeere of our Lord 1583, and ended 1591, wherein the strange rites, maners, and customes of those people, and the exceeding rich trade and commodities of those countries are faithfully set downe and diligently described, by the aforesaid M. Ralph Fitch.
Richard Hakluyt. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation Made by Sea or Overland to the Remote & Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at any time within the compasse of these 1600 Yeares.

Monday, 17 January 2011

British grossièreté

In a most curious and rare tract, entitled A Joco-serious Discourse in two Dialogues, between a Northumberland Gentleman and his Tenant, a Scotchman, both old Cavaliers, 1686, p. 32, we read:

“To horse-race, fair, or hoppin go,
There play our cast among the whipsters,
Throw for the hammer, lowp (leap) for slippers,
And see the maids dance for the ring,
Or any other pleasant thing;
Fart for the pigg, lye for the whetstone,
Or chuse what side to lay our betts on.”


We find notes explaining the word “Hoppin” by “annual feasts in country towns where no market is kept,” and “lying for the whetstone,” I’m told, has been practised, but farting for the pigg is beyong the memory of any I met with; tho’ it is a common phrase in the north to any that’s gifted that way; and probably there has been such a mad practice formerly. -- The ancient grossièreté of our manners would almost exceed belief. In the stage directions to old Moralities (1) we often find “Here Satan letteth a fart.”

Henry Ellis, Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain chiefly illustrating the origin of our vulgar and provincial customs, ceremonies and superstitions, Second edition, H.G. Bohn, London, 1853

(1) I.e. morality plays