Sunday, June 25, 2017

Tarkovsky father and son

Arseny Tarkovsky, born 110 years ago today, was a prominent Soviet poet and translator, but he was also the father of the internationally famous film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Andrei left behind personal diaries covering the 1970s and 1980s which often mention his father and their sometimes strained relationship.

Tarkovsky was born on 25 June 1907  in Elisavetgrad, then part of Russia now Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine. His father was a bank clerk, but also an actor and revolutionary. In 1921, after the civil war in Ukraine and the establishment of Soviet power, Arseny and several friends published a poem critical of Lenin. They were arrested but Tarkovsky managed to escape. He is said to have wandered around Ukraine trying several trades; but other sources have him simply moving to Moscow in 1923 to live with his father’s sister. From the mid-1920s, he worked for Gudok, a newspaper for railroad workers, but was also studying literature. From 1931, he worked for a radio station, and from around 1933 began translating poetry. During the Second World War, he volunteered as a war correspondent, but then served as a soldier. He was wounded in 1943, and contracted gangrene which led to one leg being amputated.

After the war, Tarkovsky was due to have his first book of poems published but at the last minute it was blocked for political reasons. For nearly a decade, his poetry remained unpublished. Instead, he worked at translating poetry from Turkmen, Georgian, Armenian and Arabic, sometimes travelling abroad. As a young man he had married Maria Ivanova Vishnyakova, and they had had two children, Andrei and Marina, but after the war they divorced. Tarkovsky married twice more, to Antonina Alexandrovna Bokhonova and then to Tatyana Ozerskaya. 

Tarkovsky’s first book of poems -  Before Snow  - was published in 1962, and more collections followed every few years. In the early 1980s, he went to Italy to work with his son, Andrei, a film maker, on Nostalgia, but he disagreed with Andrei’s decision not to return to the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky died in 1989, three years after the death of Andrei. Although there is plenty of information online in English about Andrei Tarkovsky, there is very little about his father. However, there is a little at Wikipedia, The Culturum and the Russia Info Centre; and more can be gleaned from an English translation of the Russian Wikipedia entry on Andrei.

Arseny Tarkovsky is mentioned fairly frequently in his son’s diaries. These were translated from the Russian into English by Kitty Hunter-Blair and published in 1994 by Faber and Faber: Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986 by Andrei Tarkovsky. The whole book is freely available to read online at Monoskop. Here are several extracts in which Andrei reflects on his father, Arseny.

12 September 1970
‘I haven’t seen my father for ages. The longer I don’t see him the more depressing and alarming it becomes to go to him. It’s patently clear that I have a complex about my parents. I don’t feel adult when I’m with them. And I don’t think they consider me adult either. Our relations are somehow tortured, complicated, unspoken. It’s not straightforward, any of it. I love them dearly, but I’ve never felt at ease with them, or their equal. I think they’re shy of me too, even though they love me. [. . .]

All the same, I must go and see my father before I leave for Japan. It’s a torment for him too, our relationship being as it is. I know that for certain. I just can’t imagine how things would develop if I were the one to break the ice. And it’s so difficult. Perhaps I should write a letter? But a letter won’t decide anything. Afterwards we would meet and both pretend the letter had never happened. It’s a kind of Dostoievskyism, or Dolgorukyism. We all love each other and are shy, afraid of one another. For some reason it’s far easier for me to relate to total strangers . . .

Now I shall go to bed and read Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I’ve been tracking it down for ages, and today, at last, it has actually reached me. How scared I am of funerals. Even when my grandmother was being buried it was frightening. Not because she had died, but because I was surrounded by people who were expressing their feelings. I can’t bear seeing people express their feelings, even sincere ones. I find it intolerable when my nearest and dearest give expression to their feelings. I remember my father and I were standing by the church, waiting for the moment when we could take grandmother’s coffin away (the service and burial were in different places) and my father said (it doesn’t matter what it was about), ‘Good is passive. And evil is active.’ [. . .]

I remember when I was still quite small and was visiting my father in Party (!) Street, Uncle Leva (I think it was) appeared. My father was sitting on the sofa wrapped in a blanket, I suppose he was unwell. Uncle Leva stopped in the doorway and said, ‘You know, Arseniy, Maria Danilovna has died.’

My father sat there for a moment, not taking it in, then he half turned away and started to cry. He looked terribly unhappy and alone, sitting on the sofa in a blanket. Maria Danilovna was my paternal grandmother. My father hardly ever saw her. He seemed somehow ill at ease as well. Perhaps it runs in the family, anyhow on my father’s side? Or maybe I’m mistaken about my father and grandmother Maria Danilovna. They may have had a quite different sort of relationship from my mother and me. My mother has sometimes said that Arseniy only ever thought about himself, that he was an egoist. I don’t know whether she’s right or not. She’d have every right to say that I’m an egoist, too. I must be. But I do love my mother, and my father, and Marina, and Senka. Only a stupor comes over me and I can’t utter my feelings. My love is not active, somehow. Probably all I want is to be left in peace, even forgotten. I don’t want to count on their love, nor do I demand anything from them, apart from freedom. But there is no freedom, nor will there be. Then they blame me for Ira, I can feel that. They love her, normally and simply. I’m not jealous, only I don’t want them to torment me and think I’m a saint. I’m not a saint and I’m not an angel.

What I am is an egoist, who is afraid more than anything else in the world of pain suffered by those he loves.

I’m going to go and read Hesse.’

17 November 1970
‘My father has had a heart attack. He categorically refuses to go into hospital - he’s got a thing about hospitals altogether. He doesn’t want to see the doctor. And there he is with his aneurysm!

I think he has a contract - or if he hasn’t got it yet he will any minute now - for another book. Marvellous. I so want him to write more poetry now. Only - God grant him health.’

24 March 1979
Someone asked my father, ‘What do you think of Pasternak?’ He said, ‘I have always felt as I might of a woman - adoration one moment, hatred the next, now admiration, now contempt.’

6 June 1981
‘Father rang. He is in Moscow, and Tyapa and I are going to see him tomorrow. Just like me (or rather, the other way round) he has those spasms in the head which stop him seeing properly. Does that mean it is hereditary?’

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