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Taking the waters: Russian literature’s holiday in the Caucasus

By Blog Admin, on 29 July 2013

Le Proval a Piatigorsk

Le Proval a Piatigorsk.
Via Wikimedia Commons

In the final post before the SSEES Research Blog takes a short summer break, post-graduate student Benny Morgan reflects on the brief flowering of health tourism in southern Russia, and as a setting for Russian Romantic literature.

What the American temperance campaigner Diocletian Lewis (1823-1886) called the ‘mineral water mania’ of the mid-nineteenth century took a scientistic turn in the Russian Empire at around the same time as it did in Western Europe and the United States. In the 1860s the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg examined a rash of medical dissertations on such topics as ‘The Effect on Blood Pressure of Baths and Showers at Different Temperatures’, describing in awed detail the results of douching experiments on rabbits and large dogs – and the language of the burgeoning hydropathic establishment trickled quickly into the promotional material of Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘watering places’.

By the century’s close, every southern town of note – Slaviansk, Borzhom, Piatigorsk – was producing brochures puffing the benefits of its waters, listing ailments treated and tabulating the testimonies of bathers and drinkers cured or ‘partially relieved’ of unpleasant symptoms. Yet spa therapy’s medicalization at mid-century also had the curious effect of sending the Russian watering place as a destination of fashion into apparently terminal decline. The empire’s Crimean and Caucasian resorts could compete neither infrastructurally nor rhetorically with the appeal of Baden-Baden, Wiesbaden and Vichy; dire comparative statistics – forty thousand visitors to Russian spas annually compared with half a million to German ones – drew hand-wringing about national ‘underdevelopment and lack of culture’ on the part of civic pamphleteers.

One marker of the commercial struggles of the Russian water-cure industry in the latter nineteenth century is the near-death of the southern spa theme in literature. Lidiya Veselitskaya’s Mimochka at the Waters (1891), a rare fin du siècle novel with a Russian health resort setting, makes fun of the westward trend in bathing culture by having its heroine ask, when a cure atKislovodsk is broached, ‘Aren’t there waters enough abroad?’ Foreign spas had monopolized the narrative as well as the therapeutic imagination.Despite their vivid ideological differences, both Dostoevsky and Turgenev look to Germany in their watering-place novels; the conspiratorial picture of resort culture given in The Gambler and Smoke (both 1867) offers perhaps the closest thing to a fictional consensus the two ever mustered. Tolstoy too, for all his creative investment in the Caucasus, takes the protagonists of his mature fiction to German spas in pastoral landscapes (see Family Happiness (1858) and Anna Karenina (1873-77)), not notionally domestic ones wedged into ravines.

Indeed, Chekhov’s minor-key masterpiece The Lady with the Little Dog (1899) draws for much of its melancholic atmosphere upon a sense that Yalta, another liquid mainstay of the Russian South, has become a place perpetually out of season: that the brightest heads have turned elsewhere. But for the critic with an interest in place and its ideological significance in fictions, a look back at the brief flowering of the southern cure has much to recommend it. The Romantic spa also offers itself as a point of departure for attempts to think through the attitudes that modern Russian literature has shaped and reflected with respect to cultures of health – and when tracing the ties that bind the realist spa text (Smoke), the bania tale in revolutionary skaz (Zoshchenko’s ‘The Bathhouse’ (1925)) and Brezhnev-era medical allegory (Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1967)).

The Caucasian spa resort is a vital setting in Russian literature of the first decades of the nineteenth century. As Robert Reid has written, spa resorts in this period frequently serve as a microcosm of metropolitan social life. (more…)

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

By Blog Admin, on 28 February 2013

Picture by Ivan Bilibin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Picture by Ivan Bilibin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional tales open a window onto the riches of Russian culture, finds guest poster Robert Chandler

A good anthology has a shape of its own; it is a work of art in its own right. Usually, though, it seems best to allow this shape to emerge gradually, not to impose a shape on the material too quickly.

My first idea for this anthology goes back seven or eight years. My previous anthology, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, had received good reviews and was selling well. My editors at Penguin Classics asked if there was any other project I would like to embark on. I at once thought of a collection of magic tales. My very first publication, in 1978, was a translation of Andrey Platonov’s retellings of traditional Russian tales and my second publication was of tales from Afanasyev (the Russian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm); both books had been long out of print, so here was a chance to bring these skazki back into circulation. And Platonov is, to my mind, the greatest of all twentieth-century Russian writers, so I usually make the most of any chance to draw attention to him.

At first I meant the anthology to begin with Afanasyev and end with Platonov. Then, however, I started playing around with some passages from Pushkin’s verse folk tales. Somewhat to my surprise – I never take anyone’s ability to translate Pushkin for granted! – these passages turned out well. First I translated some lines from the tale about the Golden Fish; since the original is unrhymed, this was not too difficult. Then I attempted the last stanza of ‘Balda’. If I could get that to be clear, sharp and memorable, I thought I would probably be able to manage the rest of the poem. The last two lines were the most difficult. Once they came right, the rest followed more easily:

The poor priest
presented his forehead
for three quick flicks of a finger.
The first
flung him up to the ceiling.
The second
cost him his tongue.
The third
plastered the wall with his brain.
And Balda said,
with disdain,
‘A cheapskate, Father, often gets more
than he bargained for.’

‘Balda’ is written in rhyming couplets, but in lines of greatly varying length. There is an improvised quality to the tale; what is striking about it is its energy, not its polish. To reproduce this jazzy energy, it seemed best to use a somewhat freer form than that of the original; my rhyme pattern, unlike Pushkin’s, is entirely irregular – and some lines do not rhyme at all.

Pushkin was one of the very first Russian writers to take a serious interest in Russian folklore. Once I was confident of my ability to translate these skazki, I knew that the book should begin with Pushkin, that it should include a large selection of oral tales collected by Afanasyev and other folklorists, and that it should end with my translations of Platonov. There has always been interplay in Russia between high culture and folk culture, so it seemed right to include both genuine oral folktales and literary retellings. (more…)

Letters in Russian literature: A top ten

By Blog Admin, on 26 October 2012

1875 wmkhoriz t4k 2x2k

Image via Wikicommons. Public domain


Letters, ranging from the absurd to the tragic play an important role in Russian literature, notes Sarah Young

Letters play a significant role in some of my favourite works of Russian literature, and a couple in particular have been very much on my mind lately.  Here is my top ten, which manages to encompass everything from the absurd to the tragic. Apologies for the plot spoilers (especially in entries 10, 7 and 4), which were unavoidable. I adhere to my usual rule that no writer may appear more than once.

10. Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. The letter Vera writes to Pechorin in ‘Princess Mary’, in which she informs him she is leaving and will never see him again, is remarkable not so much in itself as for the reaction it causes. Pechorin, so cool and calculated in his actions elsewhere, rides after her in such a frenzy that he kills his horse. The image of his anguish outlasts his own acid comment, ‘anyone who saw me at that moment would have turned away in contempt’. Russian text | English text

9. Olesha, Envy. Two letters feature prominently in part one the novel as important expressions of their authors’ personalities. Kavalerov’s outburst of hatred for the man who saved him, in chapter 11, fixes the dominant characteristics we have already defined, but Volodya’s letter, in chapter 13, is downright sinister, admitting his jealousy of Kavalerov, and hinting at a viciousness we might otherwise not suspect in his character. Meanwhile his paean to the machine has become a key passage in the formation of the New Soviet Man. Russian text

(more…)