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Archive for April, 2014

Tadeusz Różewicz: a tribute

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2014

Tadeusz Różewicz in 2006 (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Tadeusz Różewicz in 2006
(CC BY-SA 2.5)

Urszula Chowaniec writes in memory of the Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, who has passed away at the age of 92.

Tadeusz Różewicz (9 October 1921 – 24 April 2014) was one of the Poland’s greatest writers. Remarkable for his simultaneous mastery of poetry, prose and drama, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tadeusz Różewicz has been translated into over forty languages. The most recent English-language volumes, Recycling (2001), New Poems (2007) and Sobbing Superpower (2011), were finalists for the 2003 Popescu Prize (UK), the 2008 National Book Critics Award (USA) and the 2012 Griffin Prize (Canada) respectively. In 2007 he was awarded the European Prize for Literature. The latest English publication, his Mother Departs (Matka odchodzi, 1999 , translated by Barbara Bogoczek, Edited and introduced by Tony Howard, published by Stork Press 2013), exploring the life of his mother Stefania, is perhaps his most personal work. It won the Nike Prize in 2000, Poland’s most prestigious literary award. He lived in the city of Wrocław, Poland.

Tadeusz Różewicz’s translators write:

Early this morning Tadeusz Różewicz passed away, and with him the 20th Century has been laid to rest. No writer experienced the history of Poland so profoundly and fully, no writer transformed that century of oppression and hope into poetry, drama and prose with such humanity and truth.

It was in the 1960s that great young British and Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin found through Różewicz and his translator Adam Czerniawski a way to write poetry after Auschwitz. And while Samuel Beckett was the voice of the Theatre of the Absurd speaking in English and French, the plays of Tadeusz Różewicz proved you can look into the abyss and still laugh.

Barbara Bogoczek & Tony Howard, 24 April 2014, London

 Proofs

Death will not correct
a single line of verse
she is no proof-reader
she is no sympathetic
lady editor

a bad metaphor is immortal

a shoddy poet who has died
is a shoddy dead poet

a bore bores after death
a fool keeps up his foolish chatter
from beyond the grave

(translation: Adam Czerniawski)

 

Urszula Chowaniec is a Teaching Fellow in Polish language at UCL SSEES.

Eastern Ukraine: Is there a way back from violence?

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2014

2014-04-15. Протесты в Донецке 019

Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

With violent deaths becoming an everyday occurrence in eastern Ukraine and the Geneva deal fading, Rasmus Nilsson asks whether there is a way back to stability and peace.

When Ukrainian tanks rolled into Slavyansk last week, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour of the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the ‘battle for Slavyansk’ indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.

Now, blood is starting to be shed. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister’s party has now been found. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on.

It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open conflict with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred on by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be either anticipation or confusion.

Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions and that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. UN Ambassador Vitalii Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down – and, following the recent UN report dismissing claims of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, now wants the UN removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such. (more…)

Sharing Underwear, Living Revolution: The Urban Communes of Revolutionary Russia

By Blog Admin, on 10 April 2014

 

'In the Commune'. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

‘In the Commune’. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

Andy Willimott writes about the self-styled urban communes of revolutionary Russia, explaining how these activist groups made revolution part of their lives, practiced equality, and tried to be the change they wanted to see in the world.

The October Revolution of 1917 marked the birth of the first avowedly socialist state in history. As the earliest posters, fliers, decrees, and declarations appeared promising radical change, many contemplated what revolution would mean for them and their daily lives. Visions of a fairer, collective society, based upon the belief that human relations could be rationally reorganised, were frequently espoused by Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership. In turn, the Bolshevik press readily equated “class struggle” with the rejection not only of existing political and economic elites, but bourgeois norms, habits, and mores. Even when referring to the dense economic theorisations of Das Kapital, Lenin had long insisted that Marx’s assessment was rooted in “flesh and blood” – highlighting “everyday aspects” that had to be overcome if communism was to succeed.

Inspired by these messages and the opportunities of revolution, some activists set about putting into practice their own conceptions of what it meant to be part of this new world. As workers threw out their bosses and teenagers challenged the authority of their parents – all in the name of revolution – urban activists were re-thinking the way they conducted their everyday lives. In the tenements and basic housing of the early Soviet landscape, for instance, some young revolutionaries were dramatically re-imagining the home. Innocuous features of domestic life – from internal walls to personal ornaments – were associated with “bourgeois individualism”, as activists sought to construct new domestic and social relations.

At the forefront of this domestic assault were the self-styled “urban communes”. Essentially the product of like-minded individuals looking to share space, resources, materials, income, and, most important of all, modern socialist visions, the urban communes were cohabitational units run upon a popular understanding of socialist revolution. They embraced one of the key tenets of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Most adopted a “common pot” into which members placed a share or all of their earnings. Others took the cause one step further, often sharing clothes and even underwear. Founding agreements or “domestic charters”, signed by all members, dictated the parameters of a socialist lifestyle, including systems of collective voting, the promotion of self-betterment activities, as well as a commitment to social and political agitation. (more…)

The Gulag fantastic?

By Blog Admin, on 2 April 2014

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the 'Road of Bones' highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the ‘Road of
Bones’ highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Sarah J. Young discovers unexpected affinities between the literature of the fantastic and the expression of trauma in Gulag writing.

I have just finished teaching a new cross-cultural course, Tales of the Unexpected, with my colleague Peter Zusi. A whistle-stop tour through the fantastic and supernatural from the Grimm brothers to H. P. Lovecraft, the course has been great fun, but beyond the appearance of Gogol (his Ukrainian folktale ‘Vii’) and Dostoevsky (the classic work of the Petersburg fantastic The Double), I didn’t anticipate it having much resonance with my research. It came as something as a surprise, therefore, to find echoes in a number of the texts we studied of ideas that relate to my current work on Gulag writing and particularly the short stories of Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982).

Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the hard labour camps of Kolyma, notoriously the harshest part of the Stalinist gulag, is renowned for stories that, while they are full of poetic nuances, express the brutality of that experience with unflinching realism. The curious echo of the opening line of Pushkin’s fantastic story ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the beginning of Shalamov’s story ‘On Tick’ (1956) may give us pause for thought, but ostensibly these tales have no relation to literature of the fantastic and supernatural. However, as I discovered, there are significant commonalities relating to ideas of language, writing and authorship that suggest Shalamov’s approach to his subject is similar to that of fantastic writers of earlier eras.

In Frankenstein, the developing consciousness of the creature creates the paradox of him telling the story of his life prior to language. As the eloquence and knowledge he acquires later shape his expression of his earlier experiences, the poetry of the creature’s uncomprehending gaze initially obscures, but ultimately emphasizes, the fact that even the concepts he does bring to bear in his descriptions were unknown to him at the time of the original experience:

Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up, and behold a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. […] No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me: the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes upon that with pleasure. (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818 edn, book II, chapter III)

Shalamov’s story ‘Sententiousness’ (1965) features a reversal of this process, as convicts existing in inhuman conditions face the loss of human language:

My language, the course language of the coal face, was impoverished, as impoverished as the feelings that still survived around my bones. Reveille, go to work, lunch, end of work, lights out, citizen boss, may I address you, spade, pit, yes sir, drill rod, pick, it’s cold outside, rain, cold soup, hot soup, bread, ration, leave me a bit to smoke – I’d managed with a couple of dozen words for over a year. Half of them were curses. […] I didn’t look for other words. I was happy that I didn’t need to look for other words. I didn’t know whether these other words existed. I couldn’t have answered that question. (Shalamov, ‘Sententsiia‘)

His narrator (perhaps Shalamov himself, but this is seldom entirely clear), so weak and exhausted that he has been granted a temporary respite from work in the mines, describes a reawakening of language – and consciousness – that parallels the story Shelley’s creature tells:

I was afraid, dumbfounded, when in my brain suddenly – I remember this clearly – under the right parietal bone there appeared a word that was quite useless for the taiga, a word that not only my comrades, but I myself didn’t understand. I cried out this word, rising up on the bunks, turning to the sky, to eternity:

Sententiousness! Sententiousness!’

And I roared with laughter.

The loss and rediscovery of language is significant here because of the impossibility – evident in the creature’s tale in Frankenstein – of conveying those sensations in the language and concepts in which they were originally experienced. For Shalamov, faced with the imperative to bear witness to the suffering of the Gulag, this question is crucial, as it affects authenticity. As he notes in one of his memoirs:

And imperceptibly the intellectual himself loses everything ‘unnecessary’ in his language… Every story of mine is in this respect inevitably doomed to falsehood, to untruth. I never thought a single drawn-out thought [in the camps]. […] How do I return myself to that condition, and in what language can I write about it? […] I want the truth to be the truth of that very day, […] and not the truth of my world view today. (Shalamov, Vospominaniia: ‘O Kolyme’. ‘Iazyk’)

(more…)