Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

Mikhail Sholokhov monument, Moscow

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I have been photographing this monument to Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize-winning author who claimed to have written the classic Soviet novel The Quiet Don, for several years now. I have never liked the photos I got. Often it was a problem of light – I usually happened upon it on very sunny days when I got nothing but black shadows and burned-out white spots. But there were other problems, too. One is the monument, which is sprawling and multifarious and, therefore, difficult to get an angle on. Another is the figure of Sholokhov. Controversial is no longer the word for him – it now seems certain that many will continue forever to call him a fraud -still another of those frauds, like the Stakhanovite shock workers or the child hero Pavel Morozov, none of whom actually existed, at least as the stories were told about them. Sholokhov may well have been one of those heroes that the Soviet state needed, but didn’t have, so chose to make up. And he turned out to be willing to play the part – why not? –  it made him rich, famous and powerful. Rumors, and not only rumors, have long posited that a certain Fyodor Kryukov, a soldier who was killed during the Russian Civil War, wrote most of The Quiet Don (English publishers traditionally have cut this work into two, And Quiet Flows the Don, and The Don Flows Home to the Sea). Over the decades other authors, or partial authors, have been put forward, including Alexander Serafimovich (who denied he wrote the novel). The 1999 discovery of the manuscript that Sholokhov first submitted for publication at the end of the 1920s gave support to those who believe in Sholokhov’s authorship. It was clearly determined that 605 of the 885 pages were written by Sholokhov, while the remaining pages were written by his wife and her sisters.
And yet, the doubt that hangs over Sholokhov’s head is just too serious to be dismissed. After all, who is to say that Sholokhov and his wife didn’t merely copy out Kryukov’s, or someone else’s, abandoned text? A highly detailed article about the controversy on Russian Wikipedia lists 17 serious accusations that have never been successfully refuted. It lists 10 detailed reasons to believe that Sholokhov wrote the novel.
I am no expert in this topic, which, as the Russians say, could easily make the Devil himself break a leg trying to maneuver the details. I did have the memorable, though, ultimately inconsequential, experience of once working with a TV producer who came from the Don region, knew the people there, the stories, the reality, and who passionately, even vehemently, supported the version that Sholokhov was a plagiarist.
Sholokhov was recently in the news again when the archives of the Nobel Prize Committee for 1965 – the year he won – were made public. You can read some details in an article in The Guardian, but here are a few tidbits: Writers passed over in favor of Sholokhov included Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Akhmatova, Konstantin Paustovsky, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Somerset Maugham, Samuel Beckett and several others. Although records show that the choice of Sholokhov was unanimous, it was, according to a piece published by Colta.ru, far more controversial than it would appear at first blush. At one point a suggestion to give the Prize jointly to Sholokhov and Akhmatova appeared to gain traction. It was apparently shot down by Professor Anders Esterling, who declared, with some reason, that such an award would be pointless since nothing, other than their native tongue of Russian, unified the two writers.

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This monument, conceived by Iulian Rukavishnikov several decades ago, but eventually created by his son Alexander Rukavishnikov, and unveiled May 24, 2007, was the second monument honoring Sholokhov to be erected in Moscow. It has been – like its subject – controversial from the very start. It is located in the garden walk area of Gogol Boulvard immediately across from house No. 10, where Ivan Turgenev occasionally lived. Many felt that if any monument were to go up here, it should have been one honoring Turgenev. This is not, however, a fully arbitrary location for the present sculptural group, as Sholokhov lived for many years on Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane, which runs perpendicular to Gogol Boulevard right in front of the monument. Sholokhov, sitting in a boat presumably navigating the Don River, looks directly down the street where he lived. Behind him is a fountain – which doesn’t always have water flowing in it, and certainly did not on the sub-freezing day I photographed it – that shows horses fording the river in the opposite direction from Sholokhov (who appears to be letting the boat float where it will as he poses for the sculptor). Across the walkway there is a two-sided bench, the backs of which bear symbolic images important to the Cossacks, the main characters in The Quiet Don (such as sabres and the Russian symbol of the two-headed eagle). Scattered around in the walkway around the benches are bronze imitations of stray sheets of manuscripts. The one I provide here (the second-to-last photo below) is of the title page from Sholokhov’s other famous novel, They Fought for their Motherland. You can’t help but wonder if this is the sculptor’s sly idea of a way to acknowledge the legend that Sholokhov came upon “his” Quiet Don as an abandoned manuscript.

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1st Vladimir Nabokov flat, London

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This home at 55 Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington, London, is where Vladimir Nabokov came to rest for a short time after the long journey of emigration from Russia by way of Crimea, Turkey, Greece and France. The Nabokov family arrived in England May 27, 1919, pulling into the port of Southampton on a ship that had departed from Le Havre. Nabokov (1899-1977)  had just turned 20. Vladimir’s father Vladimir rented the home for the whole family at Stanhope Gardens in early June, although it would appear they didn’t stay long. A fabulous webpage called Nabokov’s Whereabouts, put together by the German writer and scholar Dieter E. Zimmer, indicates that, soon enough, they moved to a place nearby at 6 Elm Park Gardens. I spent some time looking for that building, but could not find it. I don’t know if the reason was my ignorance or the fact that things have changed in 85 years. The Stanhope address, however, like several other locations around London, is still there to be tracked down, perused and photographed.
Nabokov, at this time, was already an aspiring author. He had published two volumes of poetry in Russia, Poems (1916) and Miscellany: Two Paths (1918), a collection of twelve verses by Nabokov and eight by Andrei Balashov, a young man who subsequently disappeared from the historical record. By the tradition of alphabetizing, Balashov’s name stands first on the book cover and his poems are printed up front. Some of the titles of Balashov’s poems are: “Verses about Russia,” “Two Lives,” “The Death of a Man” and “Have you Really Known Parting?” I’m not trying to read too much into titles (I have never seen a copy of the book, so I have not read the poems), but there is no denying that Nabokov’s titles, at least, differ from those of his colleague. Some of the Nabokov titles are: “Dark Blue Wallpaper,” “Rain Flew Past and Burned Up in Flight,” “Admiring Mutinous Clouds,” “Birch Trees Do Battle with Rain and Wind” and “I Absolve the Wise and the Evil of Nothing.” You can see a scan of the book’s cover at this Russian website.
The eminent American scholar Simon Karlinsky (whom I had the distinct pleasure of escorting around Moscow one day in 1989 – we talked mostly about Nikolai Gogol), brings to our attention a passage in Nabokov’s autobiography Other Shores, that reflects at least one poet’s response to these early poems. Zinaida Gippius, symbolist, mystic, poet, playwright and memoirist, reportedly told Nabokov’s father shortly after the publication of Poems, “Please tell your son that he will never be a writer.” (See Karlinsky’s “Nabokov and Some Poets of Modernism.”)

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That aside, Miscellany: Two Paths is of interest for several reasons. One, it is the only book in which Nabokov shared authorship (although none of the poems are co-written). Two, it was published in Petrograd by M.S. Person (whose typography office was located at 35 Kazanskaya Street) several months after Nabokov and his family had already left the city to escape the Revolution. Three, there is the case of Balashov, about whom we know virtually nothing. The total mystery of this man, who shared a flash of poet’s glory with a friend or colleague in his teenage years, then disappeared utterly, is quite Nabokovian in itself.
Balashov and Nabokov were classmates at the Tenishev School. There is some basic information extant about Balashov’s parents and siblings, but after his graduation from Tenishev and the publication of his eight poems, there is virtually nothing of importance we can say about him. Russian Wikipedia writes that he stayed in the Soviet Union, although one wonders if any real facts exist to back that claim.
I spend some time on Balashov because Miscellany: Two Paths would still have been of some importance for Nabokov at the time he arrived at Stanhope. It was published less than a year before, and it would be the last of Nabokov’s major publications until 1926 when his first novel, Mashenka, appeared in Germany under the pseudonym of Vladimir Sirin. Standing between the publication dates of Miscellany: Two Paths and Mashenka were two translations, Russian versions of Romain Rolland’s Colas Breugnon (1922) and of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1923). This translation of Alice, incidentally, is still cherished in Russia.
Nabokov’s first stay in London was short. Whatever the amount of time he spent at Stanhope and/or Elm Park Gardens, by October 1 he was already enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge.

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Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

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I got into the mood for this little excursion today by re-reading a Facebook post that many of my friends posted in recent days. You see, I will unleash a bit of bile myself before this is all over, so we might as well make this whole thing a journey down a ragged road. Actually, I’ll start with my own grievances. They have to do with this monument unveiled by Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov in 1995 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ivan Bunin’s birth in Voronezh. (For that event this little park located at the meeting of Plekhanovskaya and Ordzhonikidze streets, right in front of the local Oblast court, was renamed Bunin Square.)
Burganov is an ubiquitous sculptor in Moscow. It would appear that he is a good friend of that blight on Moscow culture Zurab Tsereteli, because, after Tsereteli himself, no one seems to get as many commissions to slap up monuments as Burganov. The latter’s work – like so many “official” Russian “public” artists, including Tsereteli and the abominable Soviet-era painter Ilya Glazunov – is simplistic and cartoony. Look at Bunin’s face here; you can’t see a feature anywhere that is not generic. There are the requisite attributes – a beard, cheekbones, ears, a nose, a mustache – but they look like they come from that kids’ game we used to play, remember? the one with the plastic parts of a body and a face that you slapped together on a slick surface to create different images of a human being? Look at the mustache and beard in the second photo below – they’re stuck on there like plastic strips. You almost suspect that if Burganov were to have received a more lucrative assignment while he was working on this one, he could have just used the basic carcass and slapped different features on it in order to have a quick turn-around time.
The dog, we’re told by Russian Wikipedia, symbolizes isolation and the fading of the noble class in Russia… What the hell? I’ll tell you what I think the dog is doing here: Burganov finished the sculpture (or, at least, the drawing and model) with just Bunin sitting there, and he realized, Holy Moses! this is boring! Just at that moment, Burganov’s dog ran up and licked his hand, or he heard a dog bark in the distance – and, voila! the monument was saved. Sort of. It’s like when a theater director doesn’t know how to end a scene and so he just turns the volume of the music up really loud. The dog is like bling. It sprinkles sparkly dust in your eyes so you don’t think too much about how vapid Bunin looks. You can just hear people coming up to the monument:
MAN: Aw! Isn’t he cute?
WOMAN: Coochie-coochie-coo!
MAN: Look at him stretching! Here, let me give him a rub on his butt!
WOMAN: Who is this guy here?
MAN: I dunno. Who cares?
Okay, so I made up the details, but not the essence. This monument succeeds in being pompous and bland all at the same time. That, of course, is an accomplishment, although not one you look for in your public art.
But, enough of that. Let me return to Bunin.

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I don’t know the original source, but the poet Andrei Permyakov posted an informational chart about Ivan Bunin on Facebook on Oct. 23 that really made the rounds. As of midday Oct. 28, it had been “liked” nearly 1700 times and had been “shared” nearly 200 times. (For the record, I include a screen shot of it after the last photo below.) This chart shows 16 nasty comments that Bunin, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature, made about illustrious colleagues.
Isaac Babel was “one of the most despicable heretics.”
Alexander Blok was “an unbearably poetic poet” who “hoodwinks the public with gibberish.”
Vladimir Nabokov was “a charlatan and a phrasemonger (often merely tongue-tied).”
Mikhail Kuzmin was “a pederast with a half-naked forehead and a funereal face painted up like a prostitute’s corpse.”
Mikhail Voloshin was “a fat, curly-haired aesthete.”
Of those Bunin rakes over the coals, the great experimental poet Velemir Khlebnikov seems to have come off relatively well amidst the insults: He was “a rather gloomy youth, silent, perhaps hungover but at least not pretending to be hungover.”
On Andrei Bely: “There’s nothing left to say about his simian furies.”
He wasted few words on Leonid Andreev (“drunken tragedian”) and Maxim Gorky (“monstrous hack”).
Of the 16 targets, only two are women. I don’t know if that means Bunin was more appreciative of women writers or less. In any case:
Marina Tsvetaeva is singled out for her “unending, lifelong flow of wild words and sounds in her poetry.”
Zinaida Gippius was merely “an uncommonly repulsive harpy.”
And to think that a man so bursting in personality, passion and opinion should be condemned to sit forever in front of a court building in his birth town with a blank, empty expression on his face, upstaged by a dog.
God works in wondrous ways.

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Vasily Pushkin house, Moscow

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I attended an event at the new Teatr.doc yesterday, which is located at 3 Spartakovskaya Street just two doors down from Razgulyai Square. It was a concert organized to take place simultaneously with protests occurring in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg in response to the banning of the opera “Tannhauser” at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s not my point today. My point is Alexander Pushkin and his uncle Vasily. You see, Vasily Pushkin lived just a few doors up, and across the street, from where the new Teatr.doc is located. In fact, if you head back in the other direction along Spartakovskaya, going past Teatr.doc, you quickly come upon the imposing Church of the Epiphany in Yelokhovo where itty-bitty baby Pushkin was christened when he was two days old in 1799. There are other “Pushkin places” around here, most of which I’ll end up writing about in this space one day or another.
For that reason it seems entirely fitting that yesterday’s concert at Teatr.doc – a literary recital, during which actors, writers and directors recited various Russian poetry that has been banned over the last 200 years – began and ended with poetry by Pushkin – “Ode to Liberty,” and “Deep in the Siberian Mines.” After all, as little Pushkin ran around this area in his early years, he would have seen the 18th-century building that now serves as the 21st-century Teatr.doc. The walls of this small building witnessed the extraordinary sight of little Pushkin running up and down the street.
Vasily Pushkin was a poet himself, and not a bad one. Of course, he has been eclipsed entirely by his nephew. So it is that on the house he occupied in the first years of the 19th century, there are two plaques proclaiming the presence of Alexander and two proclaiming the presence of Vasily. The nicest one, with crude lettering on white marble states: “Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin used to spend time in this house of his uncle, the poet V.L. Pushkin” (see below). There is also a fancy golden plaque at the gate leading into the courtyard which proclaims this building at 36 Staraya Basmannaya Street the Vasily Pushkin House Museum. Although in small letters above you see that this is an affiliate of the greater Alexander Pushkin complex of museums around Moscow. For the record, this is a relatively new museum in Moscow – it was opened in 2013.

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Vasily Pushkin (1766-1830) was a well-known man-about-town in his time. He served in the army, wrote lyrical poetry and satires, hosted great parties and took part in the great debate about changes occurring in the Russian language at the turn of the century. He came down on the side of Nikolai Karamzin, who was a progressive, if you will, and against Alexander Shishkov, an admiral and government official who imagined himself a writer and struck a bold pose against allowing Russian to grow and change with the times. Guess who won that argument? However, Vasily Pushkin was dead set against any attempt among Russian writers to give in to the inclination to write in the vein of the Romantics. Being progressive was one thing, but succumbing to all that romantic balderdash was another! Vasily’s best-known work is a satirical narrative poem called “The Dangerous Neighbor,” about a rake’s visit to a brothel. The well-known poet Yevgeny Baratynsky, a good friend of Alexander’s, was of such a high opinion of “The Dangerous Neighbor” that he suggested the elder Pushkin, not particularly accomplished before this time, must have made a pact with the Devil suddenly to begin writing with such talent.
Thus are we encouraged to believe that the whole legend of the great bluesman Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi and selling his soul to learn how to play the guitar, has its roots in Russian literary history. Doesn’t this make the whole legend of Alexander Pushkin being of African descent take on new sheen?
Anyway, even the grumpy critic Vladimir Nabokov afforded “The Dangerous Neighbor” faint (or is it feint?) praise. “The immodest poem,” Nabokov reportedly said, “is more properly gallant, in the French sense of the word, than ribald (although it is full of rough-and-tumble little words in the vernacular).
Vasily was an important person in Alexander’s life. It is often said that Vasily “taught” Sasha how to write verse – although it might make more sense to say he was the one to encourage him to do it. As the plaque suggests, Sasha hung out here from time to time as a child, and Alexander was one of the first people, to whom Vasily entrusted “The Dangerous Neighbor” when it was completed. It is worth noting that this poem, written in 1811, remained banned in Russia until 1901. Alexander introduced the character of Buyanov from “The Dangerous Neighbor” into his great novel-in-verse Yevgeny Onegin as a minor figure. And when Alexander was exiled from St. Petersburg to Moscow in connection with the revolt of the Decembrists, it was to Vasily’s house – the one pictured here – that he immediately came.
According to Alexander’s father, the young future poet learned several of his uncle’s poems by heart and “thereby quite pleased the venerable relative.” It was the uncle who first espied talent in the nephew and it was he who brought Pushkin to the famous Lyceum where he began his studies in 1811. The younger Pushkin identified the elder as a “tender, subtle,  keen” poet. However, he did know that they were separated by a gulf. In an epigram to his uncle the young Alexander wrote, in part:

…No, No, you’re not at all my brother; 
Even on Parnassus you are my uncle.

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Vladimir Lenin apartment, London UK

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I’m cheating a bit today. I do that from time to time. Vladimir Lenin was not a writer (although his complete collected works fill 55 volumes with over 3,000 documents). He was not a cultural figure in any strict application of that term. But you don’t need me to tell you that Lenin’s influence on Russian art, literature, music and other cultural activities after the beginning of the 20th century was enormous. If you look at the list of tags to the left you will see I have “preferred” Joseph Stalin when writing about the state’s effect on Russian art. Isn’t it time Lenin got his due?
Lenin, like that ever-buzzing gnat Stalin, is on one’s mind a lot today. There are so many reasons for that, I will end up skipping most. But here are a few:
1) Lenin lived in London. as the plaque above shows, in 1908. He lived at 21 Tavistock Place (the building is now numbered 36) while he was – yes – writing one of his essays, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism.” Not exactly beach reading, but, hey – neither is anything I do. London and Russian culture are deeply intertwined. I’m not talking about Roman Abramovich and the Chealsea football team, I’m talking about Herzen and his group of intellectuals and revolutionaries in the 19th century. Vladimir Nabokov spent time in England as a young man, matriculating at Trinity College in Cambridge. That experience was reflected in at least two of his novels, Glory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. These days its not culture but politics, dirty politics, that dominates the Russia-England connection. The murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, probably at the orders of Vladimir Putin, stands at the center of that.
2) As these words are typed into my computer, the world is on a Vladimir Putin watch. He disappeared on March 5 and it is currently March 14. Where did he go? Nobody knows. There are lots and lots of rumors, but one of them is that the guy who oversaw the murder of Litvinenko has masterminded the “disappearance” of Putin. Probably not, but it’s one of the rumors out there, and it’s got me thinking about London. You see, as things have gotten worse and worse in Russia for thinking people over the last three years, we see definite signs that the Russian state, under the tutelage of Mr. Putin, is returning more and more to policies, attitudes and practices originally put into place by Mr. Lenin and his wayward pupil Mr. Stalin. We are currently seeing an outflux of intellectuals and writers that may soon match the peak emigrations of the 1980s, 1970s and 1920s. It was Lenin who codified “emigration” as a useful government policy when he oversaw the so-called “philosopher ships” in 1922 and 1923. That was sort of his attempt to be humane. Rather than arrest, torture and murder them, like he was doing to many “lesser” people, he had great Russian minds put on boats and sent abroad. A book was written about this in 2007: Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia.

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3) Lenin’s tastes in literature and art were quite simple and direct. He liked the Russian classics such as Tolstoy, but was suspect of classics like Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, in fact, after the Russian Revolution, went into a period of 40 or 50 years in eclipse. He never quite disappeared – he was too strong for that – but his works were hard to find and were not “appreciated” by official critics. Dostoevesky, by the way, owes a certain debt to one of England’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, and there is a Dickens-Lenin connection, as reported by none less that George Orwell, who satirized Lenin’s ideas brutally in his novels Animal Farm and 1984. In his essay “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun,” Orwell wrote that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was read “to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications.”
4) Lenin was the guy who honed, if not perfected, the use of chaos, confusion, misinformation, lies, fear, terror and violence as a basis to build a political power base. (The “perfection” he left to Mr. Stalin and we are seeing this method revived in new forms under Putin – or his successor? – today.) This is why Russia inseminated world literature with such an embarrassment of riches throughout the 20th century. Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Yevgeny Zamyatin (Orwell’s biggest direct influence) and Marina Tsvetaeva are just a few of the major figures who left or were driven out of the Soviet Union in the early years. It’s easy to see why these individuals skipped town. Look at the list of some who didn’t – Osip Mandelstam, Isaak Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold were all murdered in prison. Tsvetaeva chose to come back home and ended up hanging herself. That is work Mr. Lenin can take credit for.
5) Lenin liked Maxim Gorky. Gorky liked Lenin sometimes, and even liked Stalin sometimes. Solzhenitsyn hated Gorky. I often don’t trust Solzhenitsyn (while admiring him greatly), but I share his dislike of Gorky. Does that put me within the six degrees of separation with Lenin?
Whether it does or not, I feel entirely safe in stating that I and my contemporaries in Russia today are grappling with the living legacy of Vladimir Lenin. It is a world of madness, suspicion, evil plots, dastardly deeds, death and assassination.
I feel as safe saying that as Lenin surely felt safe cozying up to his books and working on his revolutionary essays in his London abode. Thanks, London. Thanks a lot.

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