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Entries in Pasternak (9)

Thursday
Oct202016

Pasternak, "Во всем мне хочется дойти"

A work ("In everything I want to grasp") by the Russian poet more immediately associated with this famous novel.  The original of the poem is here.

In everything I want to grasp
The essence underneath the nerve;
In work and on my chosen path
The languor that my heartstrings serve.

The essence of the days long past,
What are their purpose and design?
Which principles, which roots will last,
What core within the ball of twine?

And all the while to hold this string
Of life’s events and sundry fates:
To live, to love, to feel, to think,
To enter new and uncrossed gates.

If I could but elucidate
My passion whole or just in part;
Then I’d describe in lines of eight,
What sparks reside within my heart.

Outlaws and sins would be my stars,
Pursuits and flights their lone resort;
And happenstance beguiled by scars
Would hasten palms and elbows forth.

Its law I would uncover bare
And show its source, its wellspring pure;
Its name I would repeat and wear
Upon my sleeve and soul demure.

And verse would grow in gardens mine,
A quiv’ring vein in every patch;
And there would bloom a linden line
Of single file and common back.

This verse would bear a rosy scent
And breaths of mint, and meadowed gaps;
And hay and sedge would too be lent
To scenes beneath my thunder claps.

So did Chopin infuse his staves
With wondrous life in greenest green;
Etudes of parks, of groves, of graves,
Estates which lived behind his sheen.

Both pain and joyous play arise
In all victories achieved;
A bowstring taut before our eyes,
Released in triumph unretrieved. 

Sunday
Jan262014

Pasternak, "Paul-Marie Verlaine"

An essay about this French poet by this Russian man of letters.  You can read the original in this collection.

One hundred years ago, on the 30th of March, 1844, in the city of Metz, the great lyric poet of France Paul Verlaine was born.  How can he interest us now, in our fiery days, amidst our distinct lack of humor and in light of our stunning victory?

He bequeathed a brilliant record of what he saw and experienced, similar in spirit and expression to the later works of Blok, Rilke, Ibsen, Chekhov, and other modern writers, yet connected in places by a deep kinship with the newest wave of impressionist painting in France, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia.

These artists were surrounded by a new urban reality quite different than that of Pushkin, Mérimée, and Stendhal.  The sun was setting on the nineteenth century and it drifted to its end with all its whims intact, the high-handedness of its industry, its monetary storms, and a society composed of victims and mischievous children.  The streets had just been paved with asphalt and lit by gas.  There factories took hold and grew like mushrooms just like the excessive spread of daily papers.   Railways enjoyed enough expansion to become a part of every child's existence, the only difference being whether he spent his childhood years speeding by a sleeping town on such a train, or whether such night trains sped by the town's outskirts of his own impoverished childhood.

On this newly lit street the shadows did not lie the way they did in Balzac's time, and these streets were walked in a new way; we wished to draw them in this same new way, in accordance with nature.  The main novelties of this street were not, however, the lamps or the telegraph poles, but the vortex of an egoistic element which bore with it the clarity of an autumnal wind and chased away poverty, tuberculosis, prostitution, and other niceties of that era like leaves off a sidewalk.  This vortex caught everyone's eye and became the center of the picture.  With its gust the labor movement moved into its cognitive phase.  Its breath in particular provided the viewpoint of a group of new artists.

They wrote in smears and dots, in hints and half-tones, not because they wanted to do so or that they were symbolists.  Reality for a symbolist was that dimension in which everything was in transition and development; this reality in its entirety meant, if not comprised something, as well as served if not fulfilled a symptom and a sign.  Everything was mixed and jumbled, old and new, the Church, the village, the city, and the people.  Everything was a spinning whirlpool of conventions, between the absoluteness of what remained and what had yet to be achieved, that distant presentiment of the century's most important happening – socialism – and its actual embodiment, the Russian Revolution.

And just as Blok the realist provided us with an elevated picture of Petersburg singular in its symbolic gleam, so too did Verlaine the realist, in his impermissibly personal confessions, play the main role for that time and place from where his fall and repentance would arise.

Verlaine was the son of a lieutenant who would die young.  The lieutenant was his mother's favorite as well as the favorite of all the estate's servant women, and thus Verlaine was sent at the age of four from the provinces to Paris to an exclusive institute of learning.  There is something akin to Lermontov's life in his dove-like cleanliness begotten from the circle of women, as well as in his subsequent fate among his debauched Parisian comrades.  Upon finishing school he became an official at city hall.  The events of 1870 led to his becoming a militiaman amidst the Parisian fortifications; he got married; an uprising broke out; he took part in the tasks of the Commune by working in printing; and once order had been restored, he was discharged.  It was then that he began to drink.  And fate sent him an evil genius in the form of a freak of immense talent, however surly, the eccentric adolescent poet Arthur Rimbaud.

He himself dug up this "novice" in Charleroi and summoned him in writing to Paris.  Once Rimbaud moved in with the Verlaines, their normal life came to an end, and Verlaine's subsequent existence was drowned in the tears of his wife and child.  With Verlaine's family abandoned for good, Rimbaud and Verlaine began their wanderings on the longer roads of France and Belgium in a mutual haze of alcohol, leading them to London and semi-starvation where they did menial work to stay alive, to brawling in Stuttgart, and to prisons and hospitals.

Finally, in Brussels, after a terrible row, Verlaine raced after the absconded Rimbaud and fired twice, wounding him.  Verlaine was then arrested and sentenced to a two-year prison term in Mons

After all this Rimbaud took off for Africa to fight for the new territories of Menelik II of Ethiopia, and came into the King's service.  Meanwhile, in prison, Verlaine would write one of his greatest books.

He died in the winter of 1896, not having added anything astonishing to his long-held fame and surrounded by the reverent attention of some youths and admirers.

Verlaine began to write quite early on.  The Poèmes saturniens of his first book were written when he was still in high school.  His deceptive poetry, like the titles of some of his books such as Romances sans paroles (a rather impudent term for the production of literature), provokes false notions of aesthetics.  One might have thought that the disregard for style with which he named his works was imbued with a desire for a pre-verbal "musicality" (something few if any understand), and that he is sacrificing the logical and visual aspects of poetry in favor of its sound.  This is not so; quite the opposite, in fact.  Like any great artist he needed "not words, but deeds," even from the art of words; that is, he wanted poetry to contain the actually experienced or witnessed truth of the observer.

This is precisely what he states in his brilliant work "Art poétique," incorrectly having become the manifesto of both Zaum and "melodiousness":

Tu feras bien, en train d'énergie             (You would do well, in thrall's ado,)
De rendre un peu la Rime assagie.         (To give your rhymes a conscience, too.)

And then later:

Que ton vers soit la chose envolée        (May your verse be that thing in flight)
Qu'on sent qui fuit d'une âme en allée    (We see depart a soul so light,)
Vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours.  (Towards other skies and other loves.)

Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure      (May your verse be that fortune pure,)
Eparse au vent crispé du matin              (Strewn tense against the morning wind)
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym...   (On which shall bloom both thyme and mint,)
Et tout le reste est littérature.               (And all the rest is literature.) 

Verlaine had the right to speak in this way.  He was able in his poetry to imitate bells, seize and augment the scents of the prevailing flora of his homeland, successfully mimic birds, and reproduce in his works all the flows of silence, internal and external, from winter's starry wordlessness to summer's torpor during a hot sunny midday.  He like no one else expressed the long, engulfing and irrepressible pain of lost possession, be it the loss of a god who was and then died, a woman who changed her mind, a place which became dearer than life itself but which had to be forsaken, or the loss of peace.

Who would one have to be to imagine a great and defeated artist as a spiritual crumb, a spoiled child who doesn't know what he's creating.  Our notions likewise underestimate the eagle-like sobriety of Blok, his historical tact, his feelings of earthly pertinence, inseparable from genius.  No, Verlaine knew perfectly well what he needed and what French poetry lacked in order to convey this new vortex present in the soul and in the city I previously mentioned.  And at any stage of drunkenness or mischief-induced scribbling, having expanded the sensation to the desired limit and led his thoughts into sublime clarity, Verlaine granted the language in which he wrote that boundless freedom which was his discovery in lyric poetry and which can be found only in the novels and plays of the masters of prose dialogue.  Parisian speech and cadence in all its untouchable and captivating keenness flew in from the street and slipped in its entirety into every line without the slightest crack, like the melodic material for all that was to be constructed thereafter.  This progressive ease is the finest thing about Verlaine.  Idiomatic French was impossible for him to shed.  He wrote not in words but in entire locutions, without shattering or transposing them.

Many things are simple and natural, if not all things; and yet they are simple only at their initial level, when they remain a matter of one's conscience, and one wonders only whether they are truly simple or whether one has misinterpreted them.  Such simplicity is an uncreative quantity and bears no relationship whatsoever to art.  What we are talking about is idealistic and endless simplicity, and Verlaine was simple in precisely this regard.  In comparison to naturalness, M. Verlaine is unexpectedly natural and does not give any ground: in colloquial parlance we would say that Verlaine is supernaturally natural, that is, he is simple not so that we might believe him, but so that the voice of life roaring out from within him might not be hampered in any way.  And this is all, as it were, that we can say given our limitations of time and space.

Monday
Oct282013

Pasternak, "Осень"

A poem ("Autumn"), first in a cycle of five, by this Russian author.  You can read the original here.

From those days on, a harsh October flew 
Leaf-crushing ice through the park's fulvous core:  
And throats are seiz'd and broken elbows sore 
When each flight's end was forg'd each daybreak new. 

The fogs have died.  Forgotten is the gloom.  
For hours 'twas dark; yet every eve there gazed 
A sickly skyline, in the heat unfazed,
In fever and catarrh, on courtyards' bloom. 

But blood did freeze. Yet it appeared that ponds  
Would not freeze. Yet it seemed – late weather meant –  
That days would not move, yet a firmament, 
Like limpid sound, was from the world now gone. 

And there began a gaze so distant; hard  
Was it to breathe, to see so painful; such 
Peace did spread, uninhabited as much 
As resonant, forgetful peace unmarred.  

Tuesday
Dec042012

Pasternak, "Зазимки"

A work ("First snow") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

An open kitchen door let in  
A monolith of airborne steam; 
For but a moment all was dim,
And old like those same childhood eves. 

The weather's dry and silent still.
Five steps away, upon the street,
Embarrassed winter waits until 
It opts to break our threshold's pleat.

Again it's our first winter time. 
November greys touch distant ground; 
White willows fade, like unled blind, 
Bereft of cane, of dog, of sound.

A river and a willow share  
The naked frozen ice across; 
A table mirror perch'd will stare, 
While darkest sky our dreams will gloss.

Like crossing roads half swept with snow,
Upon a birch-combed star it wanes; 
These branches hold the far-off glow, 
These cross'd roads crack the mirror's plane;

The birch suspects, in secret thought,
What wonders truly never cease:
A dacha winter far more fraught 
Than tallest birches at their peak. 

Monday
Jul232012

Pasternak, "Heinrich von Kleist" (part 2)

The conclusion to an essay by this Russian poet on this German man of letters.  You can read the original in this omnibus.

The consequences of Goethe's mysterious and secret dislike for Kleist extended throughout the latter's life.  Attempts to clarify the matter only exacerbated the enmity.  Kleist did not know that it was to the tactlessness of intriguers that he owed his notoriety to Goethe, who was like a sacred object to him, who could have brought him happiness, and to whom he must have seemed like a foolish copy of Werther.  In 1809 Goethe wrote a man of letters the following about Kleist: "I am right to reproach Kleist because I loved and ennobled him.  But either his development has been delayed by time, as one may notice in many nowadays, or for some other reason he has not justified his potential.  Hypochondria is killing him as both a person and a poet.  You know full well how much effort I exerted so that his Broken Jug would be performed in our theaters.  And if nevertheless he did not succeed, we may attribute this to the fact that a talented and witty scheme may be lacking in naturally developing action.  But to impute his failure to me and even, as has been proposed, to consider issuing me a challenge – this is, as Schiller says, evidence of the severe distortion of nature, excusable only by an extreme irritability of the nerves or by an illness."

Kleist's life assumed a certain quality during the time of his return from Switzerland: he was recognized and acknowledged.  Beside his innate timidity, his proud and secretive nature, arose the lack of freedom of a person noticed by his century.  This gave his unhappiness legitimacy.

He tried to establish himself somewhere, first in Königsberg then later in Dresden.  Constantly distinguishing himself in his methods, he wrote some remarkable and striking works, like his brilliant stories, The Earthquake in Chile, The Marquise of O., the aforementioned Michael Kohlhaas, and others.  As if possessed by some kind of demon he fled from the favors of any fate, woman, work, or safe haven, and the wartime chaos aided him in his mobility.  These aimless meanderings were sometimes complicated by the interference of the police.

Such was the case, for example, during his second trip to Paris when, in a frenzy, he burned his Guiscard and quarreled violently with von Phull, the future general and his friend, whom he obliged to race among the morgues of Paris the whole next day in search of his body.  Such was the case on the French coast as the army was preparing itself for disembarkation to England.  Kleist believed that it was the fate of the troops to be buried at the bottom of the ocean.  They found Kleist in Saint-Omer where he had gone to enlist as a volunteer.  Here he was arrested on suspicions of espionage; only thanks to the efforts of the Prussian emissary Lucchesini did he avoid getting shot.  Instead, he was sent back to his homeland.  In 1807, on exactly the same suspicions, he was deported from French-occupied Berlin to the French Fort de Joux, the place of the recent captivity and death of the black consul Toussaint Louverture.  This circumstance informed Kleist's fearful tale, The Engagement in Santo Domingo.          

The years which we have covered in this brief overview were a turning point for Kleist's moral structure.  He had once been ruled by fibs and fictions; his delusions had triumphed over facts.  But now this would all change.  In 1806 Prussia lost the battle of Jena-Auerstedt.  Every facet of life fell into disarray; devastation set in.  Kleist stopped receiving the financial support earmarked for him by Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.   Before him hovered the spectre of indigence.

The assumption that politics would always trump life seemed merely like the unspoken exaggeration of publicists; yet in the years of a century's upheavals it is true.  When, in 1808, Spain rose up against the French dominion, this affected countless other corners of the world.

Kleist was then in Dresden.  He nurtured personal enmity towards Napoleon of the kind he had only experienced towards Goethe.  The events in Spain animated and inspired him.  With his usual prolificness Kleist wrote, in a little more than a year, three five-act dramas: Penthesilea, based on themes from Greek mythology; The Trial by Fire, a dramatic fairy tale about German knights in the Middle Ages; and The Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a patriotic drama glorifying medieval German warfare.  But what was Kleist supposed to feel when in the spring of 1809 one of the German states, Austria, following Spain's example, emerged from its thrall to its conqueror?  Kleist rejoiced and, abandoning his affairs and job, sought to enlist in active duty in the Austrian army.  In a camp near Aspern some acquaintances of his, as well as unpleasantries experienced twice before, awaited him.  He seemed suspicious.  With some difficulty he wriggled his way out of this confrontation and left to Prague.  It was here that he learned of the catastrophe at the Battle of Wagram – a blow from which he would never recover.

In order for the last chapter of his life to stand out more prominently, no further information on Kleist will be provided at this time.  Some are convinced that during these months he was preparing an assassination attempt on Napoleon; rumors spread about his demise; and this is precisely when he arrived in Berlin.

He came in coldest winter.  He was no longer the odd crank of before, who even in good times saw everything in the blackest of hues, but a level-headed warrior against the true iniquities of fate.  In cold and desolation, regardless of what means it required, he would develop a reality that now seems incredible.   He wrote The Prince of Homburg, his very best work, an historical drama realistic in its performance, concise, witty, flowing and well-paced, a mix of the fire of lyric poetry and a clear sequence of events.  He took the reins of an evening paper for which he would compose an endless amount of small articles and stories over a period of several months.  Only a negligible part of these writings has been identified amidst the pile of anonymous material in which it appeared.  He finished a novel in two books that vanished without a trace in a Berlin print shop, and prepared for publication the second volume of his peerless stories.

All this time his destiny did not abate.  Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, his protectoress, died.  The ministry that had been so lenient to him and his newspaper was replaced.  The new cabinet began imposing limitations on the paper, devaluing the business enterprise itself, which finally collapsed.  Kleist ended up in debt.  The Prince of Homburg did not get published.  The stories already in print no longer interested anyone.  Then in February of that terrible winter of 1811 for which no end seemed in sight, Kleist remembered his first distraction, his first conscious steps towards a calling, his childish game of playing soldier, penned a farewell to his illustrious name, and reenlisted in the army.  His request would soon be met, but it proved impossible to get him into uniform.  He beseeched the king anew to loan him money for equipment and awaited a reply.  Summer passed by and no answer had been received.  Autumn came with strong evidence of the return of that winter without end.

Kleist had a female acquaintance, the terminally ill musician Henriette Vogel.  One time when they were playing together as lovers might, she said that if she could find a partner she would like to part with this life.  "Why then did we even start all this?" said Kleist, and offered himself up as a companion on this treacherous road.

On November 20, 1811 they went out to the Wannsee near Berlin, a site for long strolls outside the city.  They took two hotel rooms by the lake and spent the evening and a part of the next day there.  All the morning through they strolled; after lunch they asked that a table be taken out to the dam on the same side of the creek.  From there two shots were heard at dusk.  One Kleist discharged into his girlfriend, the other he used to end his own life.

Had our interest in Kleist arisen recently it would have been an inexplicable anachronism.  Kleist began to be studied before the war.  In 1914 together with Sologub and Wolkenstein, I translated The Broken Jug.  The remaining translations of The Prince of Homburg, The Family Schroffenstein, and Robert Guiscard were completed between 1918 and 1919.

Getting to know Kleist's work was abetted by the publications in Vsemirnaya Literatura and Academia.  The first is prefaced by a marvelous article by Sorgenfrei; the second supplemented by interesting commentary by Berkovsky.  The translations of Kleist's stories by Rachinsky and Petnikov remain above any possible praise.

Thursday
Jul192012

Pasternak, "Heinrich von Kleist" (part 1)

The first part to an essay by this Russian poet on this German man of letters.  You can read the original in this omnibus.

In my collection of translations the publishing house Sovetskii pisatel' decided to include a drama by Kleist; another publishing house put out his comedies.  And so here it behooves me to say a few words about him.

Heinrich von Kleist is one of the most interesting German writers of the past century.  The realm of his fame is not nearly as wide or as unquestionable as the world of Schiller, Goethe, or Heine, and for that reason he should not be compared to them.  Yet everything he has ever written brims with force and exceptionality, placing him in the first rank right after the abovementioned triptych. 

Kleist is distinguished by a level of materiality unusual in German literature, as well as by a restrained wealth of passionate, bright, and original language.  He bequeathed us eight dramas and just as many stories.  These are the sole existing expressions for his particular flights of human passion.  For example, one's instinct for justice in its blind embodiment. In Kleist we see when, under the influence of perceived offense and with a thirst for vengeance rising in one's throat, what would otherwise be a beneficial gift is transformed into a source of numerous evil deeds and crimes committed without accountability.  When we read about arson and murder in Kleist, crimes committed at the height of emotion and enragement, we cannot rid ourselves of the impression that Pushkin might have known Kleist when he wrote Dubrovsky.

In vain is Kleist clustered with the Romantics.  Despite their contemporaneity and his friendship with some of the more notable in the movement, between them lies a gaping abyss.  In contrast to the penchant for amateurishness of which all Romantics were proud, and the formless fragmentariness for which they strove, Kleist battled his whole life with being undereducated and irrelevant, qualities he had long since suspected in himself.  And although not everything created by him can be rightly deemed perfection, everything was infused with the sullen seriousness of a genius who knew in life neither peace nor satisfaction.

He was born on October 18, 1777 in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder.  Being a member of the old clan of Kleists meant that from the cradle he was destined for a military career.  At the age of fifteen he became a member of the rank and file guard; at eighteen he participated in the Rhine campaign against revolutionary France.  When he returned home his parents had already passed away.  He then served for two years in the Potsdam garrison.

A new period of his life began.  Napoleon, an omnipresent, magical, and, before long, hated name, became his inspiration and then his victim.  Amidst the daily changes to which the borders, mores, duties, and notions of these states were subjected, a new societal division assumed the form of a middle estate or stratum for whose sake a declaration of rights would feature articles about personal freedom, and which the Petersburg nihilists of the 1860s would call the intelligentsia.  Schiller spoke about the realm of aesthetic ideas; the nineteenth century was in the palm of his hand complete with its own future lexicon; the expression "the development of one's own I," which indicated an education in the humanities, came rather easily to Fichte; in this way Kleist was encircled in pedagogical fever.  As a result he enrolled as a student at the University of Frankfurt.

This decision lowered him in the eyes of his kin and forced him into lifelong justifications before the highest judgments of the old house of Kleist by the quay, a location of a future post office.  Kleist imagined that once he had taken the world by surprise and done something no one had ever done before, he would again rise in their estimation.  This pathologically intensified his self-esteem and imbued his works with both hyperbole and violence.  

A certain receptibility bordering on mediumism speckled his life with signs of everything in his environs.  In his works one detects traces of Schlegel's unfinished Shakespeare, the meanderings of time and its sensations.  He mined Schiller's The History of the Revolt of the Netherlands for a Germanized version in The Broken Jug, and the South American travels of Alexander von Humboldt for an exotic tale that would not involve cutting off an ear and calling it a national custom.  In those days Kant was not only the main event of the intellectual world, he was also the pride of Eastern Prussia.  An exposure to contemporary trends and ideas settled Kleist's choice on mathematics and moral philosophy. 

In order to cease the ordeal and approach a certain degree of solemnity vis-à-vis his relatives, Kleist decided from his initial foray as a student that he should prepare himself for a career as a professor; he even ordered a professorial chair from a joiner and proceeded to regurgitate what he had learned in a series of lectures to a modest number of ladies, wives from a circle of officers whom he knew.  The main visitors among them were Wilhelmine von Zenge and his half-sister Ulrika.  She was the envy of her gender and, in the manner of the cavalry-maiden, Nadezhda Durova, would walk around in breeches with a long hunting crop.  She understood her brother and would later become privy to his secrets, his companion when he traveled, and, to a certain degree, his sponsor whenever he became impecunious.

Kleist soon cooled to the theories of speculative reason and dropped out of university, at which point his relatives set him up with a job in one of the ministries.  He left for Berlin.  Soon people began getting alarming messages from him: something had happened to him which had driven him to deepest, then persistent melancholy.  This matter was never explained or named and has lent itself to widespread speculation among biographers.  In Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, in a way a German Pugachev, one has to read pages and pages about child heroes so as to understand how influential Kleist's heredity was.  Yet another facet that would cost him dearly.  Kleist was temperamental, mistrustful and impatient.  Unexpectedness offended him and made him, having revolted against everything on earth, into an enemy of society.

In reply to his letters full of despair, grandiosity, and strange preteritions, Ulrika came to see him in Würzburg, where he had gone into hiding.  In order to calm him down, it was decided that he would be sent on a long trip abroad.  Ulrika accompanied him.

In 1803, after a long stay in Paris, Kleist ended up in Switzerland near Lake Thun.  Beyond his window loomed the Schreckhorn and the Finsteraarhorn.  Smoke rose towards the sky from the villages ensconced in the valley.  He was surrounded by winter Alpine beauty, pure lines, pure mores, and people who believed in him and who were devoted to literature.  Not long thereafter the gift of creativity awoke in him.  Until this point he had never even contemplated poetry.    

Here he gave his will over to his inspiration.  It poured out into three very different works: the first is The Schroffenstein Family, his rather feeble debut, a helpless and protracted tragedy replete with silliness; the second is Kleist's short comedy, The Broken Jug; and the third, the crown jewel of his efforts, Robert Guiscard, a fragment of a tragedy which occupied Kleist his whole life and which was destroyed in several published versions.

One of the Swiss acquaintances with whom he stayed, the Bernese publisher Gessner, put out The Schroffenstein Family without including Kleist's name.  In Der Freimutige, August von Kotzebue's publication which relentlessly sought out opportunities to spite Goethe, there appeared a eulogistic critique of the tragedy under the headline, "The Birth of a New Poet."

Friday
May042012

Pasternak, "Nikoloz Baratashvili"

An essay on this Georgian poet by this Russian man of letters and translator from the Georgian.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

Among Baratashvili's poems is "Georgia's Fate."  Its hero, the last Georgian Tsar Heraclius II, is on the cusp of letting his war-plagued homeland fall under Russia's protection.  He excuses such a desire with the understanding that he can spare his country further incursions by its Eastern neighbors.  Once free from violence it could, he imagines, finally enjoy the fruits of peacetime diligence and enlightenment.

This was the Georgia into which Nikoloz Baratashvili, the greatest Georgian poet of the new era, was born.  The Georgian nobility married into the Russian nobility and, in so doing, entered the arena of Russian governmental concerns and the highest intellectual interests of both Petersburg and Europe.  The previously existent Western influence was now strengthened.

The circle of several princely families in which Nikoloz Baratashvili grew up was the same progressive circle where, thanks in all likelihood to Griboedov, both Pushkin and Lermontov ended up in the Georgian Caucasus. 

In addition to this motley eastern foreign land, which Tbilisi certainly offered its visitors, they also encountered a powerful, kindred leaven which evoked life in their souls, propelling to the surface the most natural, the most slumbering, and the most repressed elements from within them.  Everything in this circle was much like it was in Petersburg: wine, cards, razor-sharp wit, French conversation, skirt-chasing, and that audacious pride ever ready to parry the slightest slip into arrogance.  The circle was just as well-acquainted with debts and creditors, hatching plots, and landing in military jails as it was with endless blather, plaintive tears, and the composition, at the age of eighteen, of burning, impetuous verse of unrepeatable spiritualization – and, after all this, with dying young.

The father of Nikoloz Baratashvili was an impoverished marshal of the Georgian nobility who had squandered his fortune on receptions and banquets.  The life of his son Nikoloz was marked by few happenings and spent in penury and obscurity, the price for his father's luxuries.

Baratashvili was born on November 22, 1816 in Tbilisi.  He studied at a parish school and finished gymnasium.  His dreams of a military career were dashed just like the leg he had broken as a boy, leaving him lame his entire life.  His other wish – to complete his education at a Russian university – similarly did not come true.  His father's troubles and the need to support his family forced him to look for work as a government official.  After having served in minor positions with various administrative duties he was appointed as the assistant to a district commander in Ganja in 1845.  On the trip there he fell ill from a particularly pernicious form of malaria that was rampant in the area and died on October 9 of the same year. 

This series of bureaucratic positions diametrically opposes our notions of Baratashvili; in fact, it seems more like his reflection in a crooked mirror.  His true traits were sharp and significant.  These traits persisted in the minds of his contemporaries and were preserved with devotion.

As a child Baratashvili was a mischievous and venturesome lad; in school he was a good chum.  As an adult he would infuriate Tbilisi society with his pranks and the venom behind his mockery.  His habit of telling the truth to people's faces made him seem deranged.

It was the sister of Nino Griboedova, Princess Ekaterina Chavchavadze, whom he really loved.  But she married another man.  He would spend his whole life beset by this festering wound, a wound he salted with the tenderness and zeal of his lyric poetry and the scores he had to settle with the upper echelon of the Georgian aristocracy.  For him the sovereign Mingrelian Princess Dadiani was the beloved, the brightest star that could ever grace his firmament.

Baratashvili was surrounded by literati: Grigol Orbeliani was his uncle; Alexander Chavchavadze a friend of his father's. 

Yet his own writings were accorded so little significance that he could scarcely hope to see them in print in the near future.  His further projects were foiled by his premature demise.  Perhaps the way in which his poetry lies before us does not represent its definitive edition; perhaps the author would have preferred to subject his works to further selection and polishing.  The trace of genius that remained in these poems, however, is so great as to imbue them with perfection arguably more final, more significant than if the author had actually had more time to tend to their appearance.

Baratashvili's lyric poetry is distinguished by its notes of pessimism, motifs of solitude, and the general mood of Weltschmerz.

Happy days and their belief in man and the receptivity of posterity allow artists to express only the main idea in their works, almost not touching upon secondary matters, all in the hope that the reader's imagination alone will fill in the missing details.  Hence we can explain the imprecision in language and fecundity found in the classics, so natural in the ease of their very general and abstract problems.

Artist renegades of a gloomy stripe love talking to the very end.  They are meticulously clear from a lack of faith in the powers of others.  Lermontov's intelligibility is insistent and arrogant.  His details conquer us with almost supernatural force.  Between his hyphens we discover what we should have been left to figure out by ourselves.  This is the magical reading of our thoughts from a distance.  The secret to such an effect was possessed by Baratashvili.

His dreaminess commingled with fragments of life and everyday activity.  In his oeuvre one finds an individual imprint unique to him alone, in which nevertheless the particularities of his age are registered.  His descriptions in "Dusk on Mtatsminda" and "Nights on the Kabakhi" would not have exerted such a magical effect upon us if, along with being descriptions of the state of the soul, they had not been even more astonishing descriptions of nature.  The bursts in the visual element in his peerless, mad, and inspired "Merani" cannot be compared with anything else.  This is the symbol of the faith of a great personality in the throes of struggle, convinced of his immortality and that aim and meaning mark the movement of human history.  

Baratashvili's best verse has already been mentioned above: namely, the poems dedicated to Ekaterina Chavchavadze as well as all those from the final two years of his life, including the stunning "Blue flower."

In 1893 his ashes were transferred from Ganja to Tbilisi.  On October 21, 1945, following the lead of Georgia, his homeland, the entire country solemnly celebrated the centennial of his death.

Saturday
Aug062011

Pasternak, "Весна"

A work ("Spring") composed by this Russian poet in April 1944.   You can read the original here.

paster_2.jpgTrue meaning lurks within this spring,
More lively than the sparrows' sweep,
Unvoiced the song that my soul sings,
Untouched the light that my soul keeps.

And thinking, writing, otherwise,
In octave loud amidst the choirs,
A booming  voice in wintry guise,
Shall liberate once-captured shires.

My homeland's breath in springtime shift
Shall wash away the winter's trace,
And blackest lines of tears shall lift,
From Slavdom's crying eyes and face.

Each blade of grass is primed to stir,
As ancient Prague owns silent streets,
So sinuous these streets confer,
But they will play as ravines meet.

Moravian tales and Czech respite
And Serbs that talk of springtime swoon,
Have ripped away the shroud of might,
And buds beneath the snow shall bloom.

And all shall bathe in glorious haze,
Akin to tendrils on wall panes
Of gilded chambers, Boyar days,
And Fool Basil, blessed in chains.

For nightowls and for dreamers past,
Our Moscow has no peer on earth.
It is our home, our first and last,
Our century's light, our endless birth.

Wednesday
Dec292010

Pasternak, "Chopin"

An essay on this Franco-Polish composer by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

It is easy to be a realist in painting, an art so visually oriented towards the outside world.  But what does realism in music mean?  Nowhere does one part with conventionality and evasiveness as one does in music; and no creative field is so imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, that ever-achieving and yet in no way verifiable beginning of whimsicality.  All of this is based, however, on exceptions.  There are many of them, and they constitute the history of music.  There are also exceptions to exceptions, and of them there are two: Bach and Chopin.   

To us, these creative pillars of instrumental music do not seem to be heroes of imagination or fantastic figures.  They come off instead as the embodiment of trust in their own contours.  Their music abounds in detail and produces the impression of a chronicle of their lives.  More than in the works of anyone else, reality surfaces through sound.  When we speak of realism in music, we do not at all mean the illustrative inception of music, be it program music or opera.  No, we are dealing with something very different.

Everywhere, in any field of art, realism does not seem to represent a definite direction but rather a certain degree of art, a higher level of authorial precision.  In other words, realism is that decisive measure of creative detailing which does not require any general aesthetic rules on the part of the artist, his contemporary listeners or his audience.  Here is where the art of Romanticism always remains, and in this it takes satisfaction.  How little it needs to bloom and flourish!   At its disposal gather a stilted pathos, a false depth and an obsequious affection  all the forms of artificiality to do with them as it will.

In an entirely different position is the realist artist.  His reality is a cross and a predetermination; therein lies not a shadow of willfulness or fancy.  How could he play and amuse himself when his own future plays with him, when he is its toy!  First of all, what makes an artist into a realist, what creates him?  An early impressionability in childhood, the thought occurs to us, and an opportune conscientiousness in his vision.  Precisely these two forces put him to work, work that would be both unknown and unnecessary to a Romantic artist.  His own memories drive him into that realm of technical discoveries that is so vital for their reproduction.  Artistic realism, as it seems to us, is the depth of biographical imprint left by the primary motive force upon the artist, which then pushes him towards novelty and originality.     

Chopin is a realist in the same way that Leo Tolstoy is a realist.  His creative oeuvre is thoroughly original not because of its dissimilarity to those of his rivals, but because of its similarity to the temperament with which he wrote.  It is always biographical, not because of any egocentrism but owing to the fact that Chopin, like other great realists, considered his life a tool of knowing all life on earth, and led namely this extravagant personal way of life, this wasteful and lonely type of existence.

2.

The primary means of expression, the language which expounded everything that Chopin wished to say, was his melody, probably the most genuine and powerful of all melodies known to us.  This is no short, melodic motif returning in couplets, nor the repetition of some aria with a voice ringing endlessly in the same tones, but a gradually developing thought similar to the pace of a riveting story or the contents of a historically important narrative.  It is powerful not only in its effect upon us, but also because Chopin experienced himself the traits of its despotism, pursuing in this harmonization a refinement of his art in every possible subtlety and twist of its demanding and subduing formation.   

Take, for example, the theme of the third Étude in E-Major.  It would have bestowed upon the author fame akin to the best song collections of Schumann, and in more general and moderate resolutions.  But no!  For Chopin this melody was his emissary for reality; behind it stood some real image or event (once, when his favorite student played it, Chopin raised his clasped hands and exclaimed: "O, my homeland").  And so, having exhausted the modulations, Chopin was obliged to sort out seconds and thirds of the middle voice up to the last semitone, so as to remain faithful to all the purlings of this flowing theme, this prototype, and so as not to stray from the truth. 

Or in the eighteenth Étude in G-sharp Major, in thirds with a winter path (this composition is more commonly termed the tenth Étude in C Major, number seven), the mood can be likened to one of Schubert's elegies, and could have been achieved through minor exertions.  But no!  Expressed here are not only the dives into the potholes upon a sled's course, but also the white flakes which fly in from every angle and reduce visibility.  From another angle one sees the leaden black horizon, and this painstaking pattern of separation could only be conveyed in such a chromatically fleeting and irretrievable, lifelessly ringing, and freezing minor.

Or in the Barcarole in F-Sharp Major, similar to Mendelssohn's "Venetian Gondola Songs," there could have obtained an impression of more modest means, for precisely here one would have found the poetic nearness which one usually associates with such titles.  But no! Oily fires turn and flow about the embankment in the black, curving water; waves, people, talk and boats all collide; and in order to further the impression, the entire barcarole itself, with all its arpeggios, trills, and grace notes, had to rise and fall like a pool of water, fly then tumble onto its own pedal point, softly announcing its major key with the minor shudders of its harmonic elements.

Before his eyes there is always a model of a soul (but this, too, is sound) which we should approach, listening, perfecting ourselves and then selecting.  Hence the tapping of drops in the D-flat Major Prelude; hence the cavalry squadron in the A-Flat Major Polonaise trotting atop the listener; hence the cascading waterfalls upon a mountain road in the last part of the B-Minor Sonata; hence the inadvertently flung open window on a country estate during a nighttime storm in the middle of the quiet and serene Nocturne in F major.

3.

Chopin traveled, gave concerts, and spent half his life in Paris.  He was known by many: about him we have accounts from such leading lights as Heinrich Heine, Schumann, George Sand, Delacroix, Liszt, and Berlioz.  In these reviews there is much to be valued, but even more conversations about undines, golden harps and love-wrought feathers that are designed to give us a notion of Chopin's compositions, how he actually played in concert, as well as his appearance and character.  So incorrectly and incongruously sometimes does man express his ecstasies!  This man was inhabited by few mermaids or salamanders; on the contrary, magnificently worldly parlors were teeming with hives of Romantic moths and elves as he would rise from the piano and cross through their parting ranks  this phenomenally distinct, brilliant, and almost comically restrained man, mortally exhausted from writing at night and giving lessons to his students by day.  It is said that right after such evenings, so as to draw out of its stupor the guests upon whom he had just heaped his improvisations, Chopin would sneak off to a mirror in the foyer, disarrange his tie and hair, and, having returned to the parlor with this altered appearance, begin to perform humorous numbers with a text of his own composition: the distinguished English traveler; the ecstatic parisienne, the poor old Jew.  It is clear that the force of tragedy is unthinkable without the sense of objectivity; and yet the sense of objectivity cannot be circumvented without the vein of mimicry.   

It is remarkable that whatever Chopin might show us and wherever he might lead us, we always give ourselves over to his imagination without concern for the feeling of appropriateness, without any intellectual embarrassment.  All his tempests and dramas touch us closely, and they occur in the age of railroads and the telegraph.  Even in his fantaisie, a part of his polonaises, and in his ballads, a legendary world appears, in subject matter partially connected to Mickiewicz and Słowacki, and yet even here threads of a certain plausibility extend from him to contemporary man.  These knightly legends are in the treatments by Michelet or Pushkin, but do not involve a shaggy, bare-legged fairy tale in a horned helmet.  A particularly great imprint of this seriousness can be found in the most Chopin-like of Chopin's works, his Études.

Chopin's Études, named for their technical mastery, truly resemble "studies" more than textbooks.  They are musically expounded investigations on the theory of childhood and separate sections of the forte-piano introduction to death (how amazing that half of it was composed by a twenty-year-old!), and they instruct us in history, the building of the universe, and whatever else might be more distant and commonplace than playing the piano.  The significance of Chopin is broader than music.  His reality seems to us to be a repeated discovery.

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