endured

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I have always felt a certain ache reading this poem, but oddly had never found a copy of the original Russian until now – and somehow the original wrings an even greater emotional toll from the reader. I notice also that the English translation simply, generically, cites “concentration camp” while the original specifies “Майданек” (Majdanek). Perhaps the generic reference holds more power for those who don’t recognize the name of the camp, but for me at least, the naming leveled a certain kind of realism-gut-punch.

Infidelity
Olga Berggolts
Not waking, in my dreams, my dreams,
I saw you–you were alive.
You had endured all and come to me,
crossing the last frontier.

You were earth already, ashes, you
were my glory, my punishment.
But, in spite of life,
of death,
you rose from your thousand
graves.

You passed through war hell, concentration camp,
through furnace, drunk with the flames,
through your own death you entered Leningrad,
came out of love for me.

You found my house, but I live now
not in our house, in another;
and a new husband shares my waking hours . . .
O how could you not have known?!

Like the master of the house, proudly you crossed
the threshold, stood there lovingly.
And I murmured: “God will rise again,”
and made the sign of the cross
over you–the unbeliever’s cross, the cross
of despair, as black as pitch,
the cross that was made over each house
that winter, that winter in which

you died.
O my friend, forgive me
as I sigh. How long have I not known
where waking ends and the dream begins . . .

Original

Измена
-Ольга Берггольц
Не наяву, но во сне, во сне
я увидала тебя: ты жив.
Ты вынес все и пришел ко мне,
пересек последние рубежи.

Ты был землею уже, золой,
славой и казнью моею был.
Но, смерти назло
и жизни назло,
ты встал из тысяч
своих могил.

Ты шел сквозь битвы, Майданек, ад,
сквозь печи, пьяные от огня,
сквозь смерть свою ты шел в Ленинград,
дошел, потому что любил меня.

Ты дом нашел мой, а я живу
не в нашем доме теперь, в другом,
и новый муж у меня — наяву…
О, как ты не догадался о нем?!

Хозяином переступил порог,
гордым и радостным встал, любя.
А я бормочу: «Да воскреснет бог»,
а я закрещиваю тебя
крестом неверующих, крестом
отчаянья, где не видать ни зги,
которым закрещен был каждый дом
в ту зиму, в ту зиму, как ты погиб…

О друг,— прости мне невольный стон:
давно не знаю, где явь, где сон ..

he took her

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Sex – A Five-Minute Briefing
Nina Iskrenko
He took her through a fire hydrant
And through her mouth an herbarium began to fall
An aquarium of innards shimmered and banked
He threw up with both legs
It snowed and snowed the whole weekend in Iran
He took her
from one end of the train to the other

He ate her organics while the gas fumes
choked his bronchial tubes exhausted from his chase
the way he ate away at her tissues swilled from her loins
and copper seethed in his throat
It snowed and snowed all month from the fog
He lit a smoke
took a break

Later he took her through a plate of glass
through a system of lenses and a condenser
like a bobber began to shake with a gorged tremor
when he took out his paddle his drill
It snowed and snowed
and snowed

Then he even crawled away and yelled SIC HER
began to observe how the others proceeded with her too
Then he remembered a close-up shot from the film Nostalgia
and he took her again through a hyphen this time
It snowed and snowed from the screwdriver to the fine
trim.
Drink to the brotherhood! Like a drunken slave
Wrapped for a night in wolf’s clothing.
He rummaged among the fixtures
It snowed and snowed
He took her in a coffin
And like a simple art investigator
he pressed her bone marrow to her stomach
overcoming the sensation of pathos and intestinal smog
he took her without roses
and almost without pride not posing at full height
through anabiosis and converter

And having hunched over her out of violence out of tenderness and abuse
he pulled out her soul having taken her the best he
could
across the Urals Then he closed the gate
trembled until morning in the cold and sweat
prick open the door
but no he never picked grandaddy’s lock
It snowed and snowed from Easter to May Day

A wet snow fell the barge-haulers groaned
And it was unbearably genitalia genius
his Adam’s apple
dropping to his shin
like a pelican with the Pirquet reaction
that doesn’t fit the law of a draftman’s tools
It snowed and snowed he pulled out of the nose dive

A wet snow fell the sky it grew dark
the wind picked up the pond hawked
smoke in the stove pipe untwirled
whistling the opera Don Phallus
It snowed and snowed he came out of the water
Dry like Shchors
And then he took her once more.

Original

секс-пятиминутка (конструктор для детей преклонного возраста)
-Нина Искренко
Он взял ее через пожарный кран
И через рот посыпался гербарий
Аквариум нутра мерцал и падал в крен
Его рвало обеими ногами
Мело-мело весь уик-энд в Иране

Он взял ее
на весь вагон
Он ел ее органику и нефть
забила бронхи узкие от гона
Он мякоть лопал и хлестал из лона
и в горле у него горела медь
Мело-мело весь месяц из тумана
Он закурил
решив передохнуть

Потом он взял ее через стекло
через систему линз и конденсатор
как поплавок зашелся дрожью сытой
свое гребло
когда он вынимал свое сверло
Мело-мело
Мело

Потом отполз и хрипло крикнул ФАС
И стал смотреть что делают другие
Потом он вспомнил кадр из “Ностальгии”
и снова взял ее уже через дефис
Мело-мело с отвертки на карниз
на брудершафт Как пьяного раба
завертывают на ночь в вольчью шкуру
Он долго ковырялся с арматурой
Мело-мело
Он взял ее в гробу

И как простой искусствоиспытатель
он прижимал к желудку костный мозг
превозмогая пафос и кишечный смог
он взял ее уже почти без роз
почти без гордости без позы в полный рост
через анабиоз

и выпрямитель

И скрючившись от мерзости от нежности и мата
он вынул душу взяв ее как мог
через Урал Потом закрыл ворота
и трясся до утра от холода и пота
не попадая в дедовский замок
Мело-мело От пасхи до салюта
Шел мокрый снег Стонали бурлаки
И был невыносимо генитален гениален

его
кадык
переходящий в
голень
как пеликан с реакцией Пирке
не уместившийся в футляры готовален
Мело-мело Он вышел из пике

Шел мокрый снег Колдобило Смеркалось
Поднялся ветер Харкнули пруды
В печной трубе раскручивался дым
насвистывая оперу Дон Фаллос
Мело-мело Он вышел из воды
сухим Как Щорс
И взял ее еще раз

insomnia

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Untitled
Bella Dizhur
Awakened by insomnia,
I do not leave my bed.
I wait:
kindhearted sleep will envelop
This unwanted idleness.
I lie and listen to the street.
There the night is empty and still.
Someone else’s misfortune
Engulfs me suddenly.
Warming itself
in the humming entry way
Beside the radiators;
It no longer hopes
To change its own life.
But I am still full of bravado;
I have no trust in grief;
I do not raise a cry;
I squeeze my heart in my fist.

Original

Untitled
Белла ДИЖУР
Разбуженная бессонницей,
Не расстаюсь с постелью.
Жду:
сон добросердный склонится
Над вынужденным бездельем.
Лежу и улицу слушаю.
В ней ночью пусто и тихо…
Но вот на меня обрушилось
Чье-то чужое лихо.
В гудящем подъезде греется
У батарей отопительных…
Оно уже не надеется
Влиять на свою действительность.
А я еще хорохорюсь.
Не доверяю горю.
Крика не подымаю.
Сердце в кулак сжимаю.

Said and Read – March 2018

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February and early March were months of grave loss and anxiety. I was only peripheral to the losses, but central to the ‘support offensive’ in all cases. Thus when my reading steered me toward thinking on grief and consolation, it hit nerves (this applies to at least half the things I read).

The last part of March felt a bit like a lonely waiting game, stale waiting rooms in familiar outposts, always with the Kindle in hand because… who knows how long one has to wait anywhere she goes? People often ask me how I manage to read so much, and this is how. I never go anywhere without my fully loaded Kindle. I never know when I’m going to be forced to wait… for some office to open, for a delayed plane, taking a long train journey… even five or ten minutes when my companions excuse themselves to discipline or put their children to bed or take a phone call. Every single minute is one in which I can immerse, for however short a time, myself in some other world, some facts I didn’t know before. I am obsessive in this way, and when I am not feeling like a slug, I tend to the extreme: ultra-productivity and speed.

It is in this way that, as March comes to an end, I’ve read 115 books so far this year. Sure, I am a bit behind on my stated original goal of only reading non-English-language books (or at least reading 26 such books alongside all the others), but I am still making progress on that front as well. Some languages read more slowly than others (for example, I read a very short German-language play, and it took time because, well, German is not actually a language I know. With a background in linguistics and Scandinavian languages and English as well as a rudimentary course called “German for reading knowledge” that was a requirement during my university years, in which I did not learn German for reading – or any other kind of – knowledge, I can piece together the language in written form, spurred on by my late-in-life enthusiasm for contemporary German television (Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83) and German/Berlin-themed tv (Berlin Station, Counterpart) and my own on/off Berlin-based life).

And that brings me to my reading recommendations for March:

*Betriebsunfall im Olymp” – Roxane Schwandt
Yes, the aforementioned German-language drama mentioned above. If you don’t know/read German, this probably isn’t for you, but it’s a timely, satirical take on the geopolitics of our time and the underlying valuelessness of humanity while at the same time assigning a price tag to the commoditization and automation of life (devoid of humanity). I didn’t know what to expect but was impressed by its incisive grasp on and illustration of the absurdity we live in today.

“Die Freiheit, sich mit der Waffe seiner Wahl umzubringen.”

*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Один день Ивана ДенисовичаAleksandr Solzhenitsyn/Александр Солженицын
Ivan Denisovich might not be the most original choice, but it’s one that I took up in its original Russian (having read it once in English about 20 years ago and skimmed it again just before reading it in Russian this time). It’s fascinating to compare originals to their translations (something I ramble about at length frequently); in this case, many of the sentences in the English translation feel much more convoluted than the somewhat stripped-down and direct quality of the Russian ones. I think this takes away from what is much more powerful in the original – embellishing the simplicity of the language does not add to what is essentially a gritty and brutal story of life in a Soviet gulag. Had I read the original Russian in college when I should have, I’d have seen the unfamiliar word contextualized appropriately and would have learned that no, in fact, “посудомойка” is not a dishwashing machine, as my hapless fellow students and I learned when our Russian instructor laughed at us for thinking such an abjectly foolish and improbable thing.

Translation is a funny thing, and not unlike a form of lying, or at the very least a (wildly) subjective interpretation of something. I’ve long considered its implications, and attempt, when possible, to avoid translations (which isn’t always realistic). This partly explains my drive to read more original-language works this year. Thinking back to the university years, I am reminded of how professors referenced specific “authoritative” translations of specific works; reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – which I recommended without reservation last month – this same theme recurs. Its prickly protagonist is a translator and complains about the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of some translations and the particular contexts in which certain translators come to render their versions of the translated reality. What stuck with me was that this narrator uses the well-known Constance Garnett as the primary representation of these failings, and Garnett was always the go-to translation of specific Russian-language works back in college. I often wondered back then about how and why a translation eventually becomes the ‘anointed’ one. Alameddine expresses perfectly how it ends up playing out:

“The memory seems both real and unreal, reliable and tenuous, solid and insubstantial. I wasn’t even two when he died. I must have configured these images much later. Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (from –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine)

*The Master of Insomnia: Selected PoemsBoris A. Novak
Along with Tomaž Šalamun, Novak is one of two poets from Slovenia that I have never been able to get enough of.

“My only home is my throat.”

*Bright, Dusky, BrightEeva-Liisa Manner
I’m a poetry hoarder. What can I say? The lean, spare imagery of Finnish poetry always gets me.

*Giovanni’s RoomJames Baldwin
How beautiful this book is. At once simple and complex, it’s somehow a perfect marriage of so many themes alongside elegant but not overwrought language.

*Fugitive PiecesAnne Michaels
Often my favorite poets, whose work I can revisit repeatedly and always find something new, write prose that I can’t stand. This is true of Marge Piercy, whose poetry is so vital that I can’t imagine a life without having read it, but whose prose books are tremendous labors to get through (with, I must say, no payoff). But Anne Michaels? She extends her command of the language from poetry to poetic prose and weaves such a beautiful and sad story.

Good – really good – but not great

*They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill UsHanif Abdurraqib

“America, so frequently, is excited about the stories of black people but not the black people themselves. Everything is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, or a march where no one was beaten or killed.”

*Gjennom nattenStig Sæterbakken
It’s in Norwegian and the final book Sæterbakken wrote before he took his own life. Contemplation on grief and loss. It’s available in English translation.

*Kaddish for an Unborn Child Imre Kertész
Difficult but beautiful reading. For so many reasons.

“common knowledge that we don’t know, and can never know, what causes the cause of our presence, we are not acquainted with the purpose of our presence, nor do we know why we must disappear from here once we have appeared, I wrote. I don’t know why, I wrote, instead of living a life that may, perhaps, exist somewhere, I am obliged to live merely that fragment which happens to have been given to me: this gender, this body, this consciousness, this geographical arena, this fate, language, history and subtenancy”

*Sadness is a White Bird Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Beautifully written story of a young Israeli man, recounting in ongoing-letter format his close friendship with two Palestinian siblings, and his own conflicting feelings about his service in the Israeli military.

“’Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?’ Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”

*VisitationJenny Erpenbeck
Conceptually interesting but didn’t grab me the way Erpenbeck’s other works have.

*SepharadAntonio Muñoz Molina

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly DepartedLaurie Kilmartin

“REMEMBER: If you are a Late Orphan, check your Old Parent privilege. Yes, you have suffered a loss, but if you had your parent for more than three decades, you still won.”

*IndependenceAlasdair Gray

“A lower standard of living combined with a higher standard of education explains why so many Scottish emigrants have settled successfully abroad.”

Not everyone is going to be into this one; as Gray himself writes, it’s a kind of ‘pamphlet’ by a Scot written for other Scots on the subject of Scottish independence and related matters.

*Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexMary Roach

“It didn’t matter. Testicle madness was in full bloom.”

A somewhat humorous Sunday drive through many different topics as subjects of scientific studies on sex, sexual behavior, response and sexuality. It is surprising how many conversations one can innocently stumble into on the subjects covered in this book – everything from length of ejaculatory trajectory to penile implants.

Coincidences

*The AttackYasmina Khadra
I mention this one because I got about 20% into it, thinking, “This is so familiar. Did I read this before?” And then I remembered that I’d seen a film adaptation, L’attentat. That explains it. I preferred the film for some reason – might just be because I saw it first. But ultimately, I read the book the same day I stumbled on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast that deals with the subject “We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded“. And this is at the heart of The Attack‘s protagonist and how he didn’t know his wife at all.

*We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler
This is another one that I was speeding my way through without thinking much of it, but I hit a certain point when there’s a surprise/reveal, and I realized I was reading a book some guy told me about sometime in 2016. He had never told me the title or much about the story, but he had expressed with considerable anger about how “betrayed” or “misled” (things he seems to have been obsessed with in every facet of his life) he felt by the story’s twist. Now having accidentally stumbled into the book, which I could have taken or left, I think less about the book itself and more about his ‘bewildering’ (to use one of his choice height-of-condescension words) reaction to it. At the time it seemed awfully reactionary, but in hindsight, so much about him seems that way.

Biggest disappointment

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisJ.D. Vance
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t find this particularly compelling, maybe because this is in many ways so close to what I can observe in some of my own distant family. Beyond which, I am never impressed or taken in by anything that rests on the conclusion that a hard-won triumph against all odds is only possible in America, “the greatest country in the world”. No, not true. When stories or memoirs go down the lazy patriotism path, I stop paying attention.

Happily, I didn’t hate anything I read this month.

Snow like feathers

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A White City
-James Schuyler
My thoughts turn south
a white city
we will wake in one another’s arms.
I wake
and hear the steampipe knock
like a metal heart
and find it has snowed.

 

“Feathers” – disposable, melting feathers – is the only word I can conjure to describe the perplexing, disappointing late-April Swedish weather. It’s not all bad, locked away in semi-seclusion with books and warmth and soup.

Find yourself a reliable soup-maker, people, and this will imbue your life with great satisfaction and nourishment. And when I say “soup-maker” here I am referring to a person who makes soup, not some device that will whip up soup for you. I remember being in Russian class many years ago, and all of the students believed that the word defined as “dishwasher” (посудомойка) in our textbook referred to a dishwashing machine. When a Russian lecturer came to take over our class on a Fulbright fellowship, she laughed and disabused us of this radically foolish notion. Would Russians circa 1992 have had dishwashers (посудомоечная машина) in their homes? How silly we were, she laughed.

There is much beauty in simplicity – and in ironing out the misunderstandings.

Snow, soup, and loud New Order, not unlike a rare snow day in Seattle in my youth – staying awake all night hoping school would be cancelled.

drömland

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I recalled a nightmare from a few nights ago. In it, I lived in Paris and worked as an English teacher for three French kids. I got through one 45-minute lesson with them, and I was miserable, counting the seconds until the lesson was over. In my mind, I was feverishly thinking about how I could get out of this huge mistake. How did I end up being in that situation and how could I possibly teach even one more lesson when just one was interminably long and hellish?

It made me wonder how I had spent something like half a year teaching kids. What an eternity ago that was (almost 20 years!), and what a horror show.

I also had a dream in which I married someone I had only met the previous week. And we were happy for one week. But then misery came in massive clusters. I am pretty sure I know what that was all about.

And last night I was dreaming in Russian for the first time since I was actively studying Russian. It was a strange mix of things. I was reading and speaking Russian, but I ended up having a conversation with a guy (American) I had known many years ago about a Russian poem I had (in reality, not in the dream) shared with him back then: “The new blast-furnace in the Kemerovo metallurgical combine” by Bella Akhmadulina. (I can’t find an English version of it to share here right now.) I have not read the poem or talked to the guy in question for at least 15 years. Maybe the guy came to mind both because the poem entered my dreaming mind and also because I had been thinking about how he’d been in thousands of dollars of debt because he was making local long-distance phone calls, which seems ridiculous when considered today with the array of tools we can use to call people anywhere in the world basically for free.

Also wondering whether I should reread The Master and Margarita?

Photo (c) 2013 Boston Public Library used unchanged under Creative Commons license.

Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

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As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.