On the work of Kate Atkinson

On the work of Kate Atkinson

When I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “Human Croquet” after reading about it in a magazine for girls (unexpected choice by the editor, I’ve come to realize). I had the original receipt for a while and jotted down the exact time, down to the minute, and place where the book was purchased.

I came back to that inscription in my senior year at Duke, when I was writing my (let’s face it, terrible) honors thesis on “Human Croquet.”

“Acquired at 7:33 p.m., May 17, 1998, Barnes & Noble, Arboretum, Charlotte, NC.”

There wasn’t much I understood at twenty, but I did understand why I wrote down the contents of the receipt. I was recording a life-changing moment. I met Michael Cunningham once when he came to give a talk at Duke, and he jovially discussed having his life upended by Virginia Woolf, and I was grateful for that, because it meant I wasn’t weird. Kate Atkinson just happened to split my particular atom.

Her work has changed over the years, gone both wide and deep, but some familiar themes have circled back this year: the handsome RAF pilot, the complete disaster of men and women, the cruel and lovely ambivalence of nature, the question of death and stepping sideways out of time, the tedium of children and how there’s nothing more important, Englishness (and how observing it changes it), the strange way men separate passion and love (like unspooling threads), the importance of getting on with it even when you’d rather lie down and melt back into the landscape again, lying down and melting into the landscape at a later date (though perhaps having helped someone in a way, so as to not have your existence be entirely without point), the fact that we are all so fragile as to almost be fiction.  Continue reading “On the work of Kate Atkinson”

My Christmas present to you all: two short translations from Alexei Ivanov and Vyacheslav Kondratyev

Ivanov and Kondratyev are two Russian writers that you probably haven’t heard of (unless you read Russian, of course).

“When Volodka the Lieutenant got up into the back of the tram, everyone recoiled from him. Understanding why, he immediately grew furious and turned against the public.

There was, actually, one woman who got up and offered him her seat.

– Sit down, army comrade… – He looked at her with such dead eyes that she flinched and muttered to herself – My God, and he’s so young…

Muscovites rarely saw men like him – straight from the front lines, processed and minced by the war, in bloody coats with bullet holes, in boots covered with burns and month-old mud. And so they gazed at Volodka. They gazed at him with sympathy. Some older women grew teary-eyed, but he was annoyed by this – what the hell were they staring at? Yeah, he wasn’t exactly coming home from a resort. Perhaps they thought that war was like what they saw in the movies. The men irritated him especially – clean-shaven, with their little ties.

When he took the seat that the woman had given up for him, the people nearby drew away from him, which added to his irritation – oh, so he was a bit dirty, huh? He sat, biting his lips and not looking at anyone, until he felt so utterly uncomfortable – it wasn’t as if he dreamed of coming back to Moscow like this – that he tore at the collar of his coat, exposing his brand spanking new For Courageous Service medal. Here you go, check it out! You noticed the dirt and the blood, but paid zero attention to the medal! Getting up quickly, he walked away from the seats, pushing a well-dressed man with a briefcase in a move that wasn’t entirely accidental.” – Vyacheslav Kondratyev, “Convalescent Leave.”

“There were so many stars in the sky that it seemed as though one could not take a step up there without hearing them crunch underfoot. Although, apparently, no one walked there, because it was so quiet that one could hear how tomorrow’s waves were gathering in the river deep, how the moonlight rustled as it softly settled down upon the earth, how Tata’s little heart beat beneath the warm blankets, how metal corroded with a crackle, how the spring grinned as it strode tirelessly from afar, how the wind ruffled the weightless feathers on the wings of dreams, how the tears that would not be wept ripened in the soul, how a wave lightly rocked the boat which was not, after all, untethered from the dock, how it rhythmically rocked that boat – from the bow to the stern, from the bow to the stern, from the bow to the stern…” – Alexei Ivanov, “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away.”

Kondratyev served in WWII, engaging in heavy combat by Rzhev in what was a horrible, horrible time for Soviet troops. He was wounded, he got a medal for courage, he got time off, was wounded again – spending six months in the hospital – got a disability discharge. He began getting published when he was already in his late 40’s.

Kondratyev shot himself in 1993. He was very ill. Like many of his fellow citizens, he was also impoverished. And, according to at least some of his friends, he was dismayed and disgusted by what was happening to Russia.

Alexei Ivanov was born in 1969, in Perm, in the Urals. A lot of people (many of them people I quite like) say he captured the “indistinct hero” of the 1990s. “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away,” which is set in Perm, was recently made into an excellent film starring Konstantin Khabensky.

I took liberties with the Kondratyev’s translation – in terms of purging the ellipses he was fond of, and making it more colloquial-sounding in modern English (it’s pretty colloquial in Russian – and while some of the language is dated, a lot of it is still the kind of language you can hear in the streets).

I take a lot of liberties with translations.

(I take a lot of liberties in general.)

Incidentally, it’s my opinion that anyone who wants to at least try to understand Russian masculinity ought to begin their journey by reading Kondratyev and Ivanov. Sadly, these two haven’t been translated into English. (This, of course, can only mean one thing – someone really ought to give me a grant. We can call it the “Understanding Russian Masculinity” grant. We won’t be dealing with an exact science, but who cares about that, right?)

There is a very particular, bittersweet joy in reading and translating these two. And that’s my gift to you guys. Merry Christmas.

dance baby dance

70 years ago

The first executions began at Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine. They began on September 27, to be exact. The first victims were patients at the local psychiatric hospital. They were murdered by Nazi occupiers together with local collaborators. Then the city’s Jewish population was taken there. They were told that they were being “resettled.” And you can guess what happened next.

Babi Yar is the final resting place of many, many people – mostly civilian Jews, as well as Soviet POWs, Ukrainian nationalists, Roma folks who were rounded up, etc. I am distantly related to some of the people who were murdered there, as a lot of Kievans are.

My first play featured an incident at Babi Yar as it is today, but I couldn’t do justice to the setting.

Poet Evgeny Yevtushenko wrote of Babi Yar: “I am like a constant, soundless scream, over the buried thousands. I am every old man shot to death here. I am every child shot to death here.” At the time that Yevtushenko wrote these words, the Soviet powers were still steadfastly refusing to place a monument at Babi Yar.

All of that has changed. And a museum is likely to be built. I guess that justifies the “Good News” tag, maybe.

Senior discount

A local shop on the embankment here in my neighbourhood in Moscow sells food at discounted prices to people receiving benefits – including pensioners, WWII veterans, etc. I recently noticed that they have a sign tacked on by the cash register, explaining that although they’ll give you a discount if you provide your benefits card, they won’t discount alcohol or tobacco. The list on alcohol is actually quite specific – you can’t even buy a discounted beer.

So let’s say I’m 90 years old, I was a lady sniper, I fought bravely in the 25th Rifle Division or another such division, and I just want to knock back some beers tonight – because whatever. Do I really need to provide a reason? I’m goddamn 90. I’m a sniper. Give me my freaking discount.

Happy Victory Day from Moscow

Deputy squadron commander, Hero of the Soviet Union, Maria Dolina
After a successful breach of the Leningrad blockade
Snipers Faina Yakimova, Roza Shanina and Lidia Volodina
My great aunt, Evgenia Myasnikova. I owe her.
I've got no words that can describe this one
Soldiers on break with a "spoil of war"
Very famous picture. I like to call it "Do not go gentle into that good night"
My grandfather: Major General Pyotr Pavlovich Nistratov. The person I miss most on this day.

Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home. Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone.” – Arcade Fire

And as for modern observations, check out a couple of videos I took of planes over Moscow today (I’m uploading a couple of the really short ones, but they kept coming overhead for a while. I felt like a kid again.) You can hear the screaming start off in the distance, as the planes are spotted by the people in the next street over.

For some reason, this year, it’s especially hard for me to look at pictures of WWII. It’s hard to consider the reasons why we hang on to our military so dearly, on this day in particular. Over 25 million dead is more than a statistic, it’s a seismic wave.

“You were born for the saddle,” my grandfather once told me, after he saw me ride for the first time, in America. I will never forget his happiness on that day, the way he smiled as if I had handed him a present, and all I had done was emerge from behind a line of trees, on an Appaloosa or some mix thereof, and trot up toward him. And then he paused, and added, seemingly randomly – and I will never forget his words, or his eyes behind his glasses when he said it – “Remember when to hold on.”