Monday, October 28, 2019

Light, motley, whimsical

Korney Chukovsky, one of Russia’s most popular writers for children, died 50 years ago today. He was also an influential literary critic and analyst, a translator of English classics, and a supporter of writers persecuted under the Soviet regime. He kept a detailed diary almost all his life, but this was only published in the post-Soviet era. The diary’s editor calls it ‘a cultural document of major importance’, but it’s also one of the best kinds of literary diaries, ranging widely in content from dark self-analysis to playfulness (‘light, motley, whimsical’), from political commentary to personal revelation (‘My soul is empty. I can’t squeeze a line out of myself.’).

Nikolay Vasilyevich Korneychukov was born in 1882 in St. Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a peasant woman from Ukraine (whose name he was given) and a wealthy Jewish man whose parents forbade him to marry her. The mother moved to Odessa with Nikolay and his sister, where Nikolay studied at the local school. After being expelled, apparently for being illegitimate, he earned his diplomas through correspondence courses. He published a first article for the newspaper Odesskie novosti, and continued contributing a wide range of culture items. During this time, he reworked his pen name to Korney Chukovsky. Around 1903, he married Mariya Goldfeld, and they would have four children. 


Having taught himself English, Chukovsky went to London from where he worked as correspondent for Odesskie novosti between 1903 and 1905. Back in Russia, first in St Petersburg but then in Finnish Kuokkala (now Repino in Russia), he launched a satirical magazine (Signal), started translating works from English (such as those by Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, O. Henry, and Mark Twain) which became very popular. He also wrote analyses of contemporary European authors, publishing From Chekhov to Our Days (1908), Critique Stories (1911) and Faces and Masks (1914).

However, Chukovsky is best remembered for his children’s books: Krokodil (Crocodile, 1916), Moydodyr (Wash ’Em Clean, 1923), Tarakanishche (The Giant Roach
, 1923), and Mukha-tsokotukha (Fly-a-Buzz-Buzz, 1924). Some of these were famously adapted for the theatre, animated films, opera and ballet. After returning to St. Petersburg, he started to observe and write down the way children speak. This led him to publish From Two to Five (1933), a popular guidebook to the language of children. 

During the Soviet era, Chukovsky also edited the complete works of the influential Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov. From the 1930s, he lived in the writers’ village of Peredelkino near Moscow. Often at odds with the establishment throughout his life - using his popularity to help authors persecuted by the regime, not least Solzhenitsyn - he won favour with the Soviet government later in life, and was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1962. He died on 28 October 1969. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Russiapedia.

Chukovsky was a committed diarist throughout his life, and left behind many notebooks. A two-volume Russian edition of his diaries only appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991-1994 (edited by Elena Chukovskaya and Victor Erlich); and an English one-volume translation (Michael Heim) in 2005 entitled simply: Diary, 1901-1969 (Yale University Press). In his introduction, Erlich calls the diary ‘a cultural document of major importance’. Some pages of the book can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.

A note from the publisher gives some details on Chukovsky diaries.’ The diary of Kornei Chukovsky is an immense document spanning seven decades and three generations, starting in prerevolutionary Russia and encompassing almost the entire Soviet era. Although little could be considered unimportant or uninteresting, about one-quarter of the original text had to be cut to make a book of readable length for the nonspecialist. The diary, kept with some irregularity from 1901 to 1969, is contained in twenty-nine notebooks. Because of the scarcity of paper in the 1920s some entries were scribbled on reverse pages of letters to Chukovsky or on separate sheets that were later stapled into appropriate notebooks. In an entry dated 27 May 1957, Chukovsky says that dozens of his diaries were lost. In the diaries that survived a number of pages had been torn out. Some years are barely or not at all represented. There are no entries dated 1915 or 1938 and very few entries for the years 1916-1917 or for the late 1930s. In this volume, the reader will find two kinds of ellipses: those originally made for the Russian edition, by Elena Chukovskaya, Kornei Chukovsky’s granddaughter (marked with < . . . >), and those made specifically for this edition (marked with [ . . . ]).’

Here are several extracts.

24 February 1901
‘Curious! I’ve been keeping a diary for several years and I’m used to its free form and informal content - light, motley, whimsical: I’ve filled several hundred pages by now. Yet coming back to it, I feel a certain reticence. In my earlier entries I made a pact with myself: it may be silly, it may be frivolous, it may be dry; it may fail to reflect my inner self - my moods and thoughts - granted, so be it. When my pen proved incapable of giving bold and concise expression to my hazy ideas, which the moment after they came to me I was unable to make out myself, when it ended up merely reflecting commonplaces, I bore it no particular ill will; I felt nothing more than mild frustration. But now, now I am ashamed in advance of every clumsy formulation, every sentimental outburst and superfluous exclamation mark; I am ashamed of the careless bumbling, the insincerity so characteristic of diaries, ashamed for her sake, for Masha. I categorically refuse to show this diary to her. < . . . >

Heavens, the rhetoric! Can I show this to anyone at all? [. . . ]’

27 November 1901
‘Novosti has published a long feuilleton of mine, “A Perennial Issue” signed Kornei Chukovsky. The editors identify me as “a young journalist with paradoxical but highly interesting opinions.” I feel not the slightest elation. My soul is empty. I can’t squeeze a line out of myself.’

9 September 1907
‘Had a visit from Repin today. He is very polite. His beard is grayish and -  you’d never know it from his portraits - grows straight into his mustache. He is unassuming. No sooner did he arrive than he climbed up on the couch and took down Vrubel’s portrait of Bryusov. “Good show. That’s Bryusov, all right.” Somov’s portrait of Ivanov. “Good show. That’s Ivanov, all right.” He called Bakst’s portrait of Bely “painstaking.” His comments on the engravings of Byron’s portraits: “banal” and “clich├ęd.” He approved of Lyubimov’s caricature of me. Then he took a seat and we talked about Rossetti (he is too academic) and Leonid Andreev (“Red Laughter” represents the insanity of war today; the governor is a combination of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Andreev). < . . . > When I showed him his Alexei Tolstoy, he said, “That was after his death. It influenced me. Some rotter touched it up. It’s terrible!” Then we went downstairs for tea, pears, and plums. < . . . > He had left his coat upstairs and ran up to get it so as not to be thought an old man. I saw him out to the gate and watched him depart, a hunched old man in a cape. [. . . ]’

16 June 1917
‘I nearly drowned yesterday. I jumped into deep water from the boat, swam a bit, and felt myself being pulled down. I couldn’t cry out to Kolya, I forgot how to speak; I could only show him with my eyes. (From childhood I was certain I’d die in the water like the Russian critics Pisarev and Valeryan Maikov.) At last Kolya caught on. [ . . . ]’

14 February 1918
‘With Lunacharsky. I see him nearly every day. People ask why I don’t try and get something out of him. I answer I’d feel bad taking advantage of such a gentle child. He beams with complacency. There is nothing he likes more than to do somebody a favor. He pictures himself an omnipotent benevolent being, dispensing bliss to all: Be so good, be so kind as to . .. He writes letters of recommendation for everybody, signing each, with a flourish, Lunacharsky. He dearly loves his signature. He can’t wait to pick up his pen to sign. He lives in a squalid little flat off a nauseating staircase in the Army and Navy House opposite the Muruzi House. There is a sheet of paper (high-quality, English) on the door that says “I receive no one here. You may see me from such-and-such a time to such-and-such a time at the Winter Palace and at such-and-such a time at the Commissariat of Education, etc.” But no one pays the slightest attention to it: he is constantly barraged by actors from the imperial theaters, former emigres, men with harebrained schemes or out for easy money, well-meaning poets from the lower classes, officials, soldiers, and more - to the horror of his irascible servant, who rages each time the bell rings: “Can’t you read?” Then Totosha, his spoiled and handsome young son, runs in, shouting something in French - never Russian - or the ministerially unceremonious Madame Lunacharskaya. It is all so chaotic, good-natured, and naive that it seems a comedy act. [ . . . ]

Lunacharsky is late for his appointments at the Commissariat of Education: he gets involved in a conversation with one person and makes others wait for hours. To show how liberal he is, he has a portrait of the Tsar hanging in his office. He calls in his visitors two by two, seating them on either side of himself, and while he talks to one of them the other can admire the Minister’s statesmanlike acumen. It is a naive and harmless bit of swagger. I asked him to write a letter to the Commissar of Post and Telegraph Offices, Proshian, and he willingly picked out a letter on his typewriter to the effect that I was such-and-such a person and he would be delighted if Proshian agreed to reopen Kosmos. [ . . . ]’

12 November 1918
‘Kolya showed me his diary yesterday. It’s very good. He writes perfectly decent poems - and by the dozens. Otherwise he’s impossible: he forgets to turn off lights, he’s hard on books, he ruins or loses things.

A meeting with Gorky yesterday. He outlined the preface he’s going to write for our project, and suddenly he lowered his eyes, gave a wry smile, started playing with his fingers, and said, “Only with a government of workers and peasants are such magnificent editions possible. But we’ve got to win them over. Right, win them over. So they don’t start quibbling, know what I mean? Because they’re real schemers, those devils. We’ve got to win them over, know what I mean?”

I had a run-in with Gumilyov at the meeting. A gifted craftsman, he came up with the idea of creating a “Rules for Translators.” To my mind, no rules exist. How can you have rules in literature when one translator ad-libs and the result is top-notch and another conveys the rhythm and everything and it doesn’t go anywhere? Where are the rules? Well, he lost his temper and started shouting. Still, he’s amusing and I like him.

Gorky looks like an old man when he pulls on his silver-rimmed glasses before reading something. He receives batches of letters and pamphlets (from as far as America these days) and skims them with the eye of a merchant poring over his accounts.

Kolya may not be a poet, but he’s poetry personified!’

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