Tag Archives: Elisabeth van der Meer A Russian Affair

an exchange about (Russian, American literature) – UPDATED

 

 

 

Between me and my Russian collaborator Nataliya this morning. We are working together on translations of Pitirim Sorokin’s early works from Russian into English.

 

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NATALIYA

 

I don’t see a problem with the translation of the poem.* I know that there are many good translations of nineteenth-century Russian poetry into English. I myself saw such publications in the Library of Valdosta State University.

Lermontov is a great Russian poet of the nineteenth century, the second after Alexander Pushkin. Unfortunately, he did not live long. He was killed in a duel when he was only twenty-seven years old. Of course, his poems were translated into English.

We just need to find these translations. If I could go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, I would find them in the library, but this is not possible yet. Let’s not rush it. This is not the only poetic quote in Sorokin’s book. While we can find translations on the internet, then we will check and search in high-quality and reliable publications. We don’t need professors for that.

 

*Дума (Mediation), a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, from which Sorokin quotes several lines

 

 

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ROGER

 

Thanks for the message and wishes, Natalia.

An internet friend of mine, Elisabeth van der Meer, has a site in English devoted to Russian literature. I like her site. She always reads my stuff. She had a recent post about Lermontov:

 

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/10/15/the-most-scottish-of-the-russian-writers-mikhail-lermontov/

 

Of course, I had heard of Lermontov but knew very little about him, and still do (know little).

I will get back to Sorokin soon.

You might like this post of mine:

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/04/01/spring/

 

I became engrossed in Tolstoy in my mid-twenties. I read his major novels pretty much in a row. When I read the passage about spring at the opening of Воскресение [Resurrection], it made a powerful impression on me. Around that time, I also got into Chekhov, briefly — but, again, I found his works unforgettable.**

All of this was in English translation.

The thing about the passage about spring (Tolstoy’s) that impresses me greatly is how Tolstoy is the great realist, descriptive novelist — nothing is fanciful — “All is true,” as Balzac said at the beginning of one of his most famous novels novels, Père Goriot — yet there is always a weighty level of deep philosophical meaning.

Herman Melville comes closest to achieving this among the great American writers.

 

** Especially, in my case, a lesser known Chekhov work:  Остров Сахалин (translated as The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin); not the most artistic of Chekhov’s works, but I found it very powerful.

 

 

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NATALIYA

 

Dear Roger,

 

Elisabeth has a wonderful website. Her post about Lermontov is great. I knew about Lermontov’s Scottish roots, but she told about it so interestingly and beautifully. I’m going to the North Caucasus in the summer, just in those places that are associated with the biography of Lermontov and his death. There are very beautiful museums and monuments there. I’ll send you photos.

I also love Leo Tolstoy and believe that at every age, at different stages of life, people discover new content in his works. He is a child of his own time and at the same time timeless. That makes him great.

 

 

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ROGER

 

Tolstoy is the best novelist ever! Competitors? I would say Herman Melville (one great book), Victor Hugo (same), Charles Dickens. And, yes, Tolstoy is timeless.

P.S. The House by the Dvina by Eugenie Fraser is an interesting book. I bought it in London during a trip overseas.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 7, 2021; updated March 10

 

an exchange re Tolstoy (and some things I learned) … plus, why it pays to keep one’s eye on others’ writing

 

 

Elisabeth van der Meer has a new post on her site about Russian literature, which I follow avidly.

“Tolstoy and Homer”

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/tolstoy-and-homer/

 

Ms. van der Meer notes: “… Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.”

 

We had the following exchange about her post.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 23, 2017

 

 

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This post is fascinating and very well put together, Elisabeth. Thank you.

The connections you make between the Iliad and the Odyssey and various Tolstoy works such as Hadji Murad and War and Peace are fascinating.

You note that Tolstoy “was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original.”

It is my understanding that he wished to learn Greek so that he could read the Gospels in the original. His writings about the Gospels can be seen in works such as “The Gospel in Brief, or A Short Exposition of the Gospel,” “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated,” and “What I Believe.”

You state that “Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man.” His descriptions of battles in his early works are incredible. I have read at least part of The Cossacks, but not Sevastopol Sketches.

I would like to comment on some specific observations/sentences of yours that I particularly enjoyed.

“You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

GREAT SENTENCE! BEAUTIFUL!

“Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night.”

A GREAT SENTENCE BY YOU: “where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night.” Beautifully put.

“… no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.”

BEAUTIFULLY PUT

I think I have made a similar comment about your prose before. You have a facility for writing sentences in which a general observation is beautifully yoked to a specific images/detail chosen by you to illustrate the point — the two get fused in compressed fashion in a sentence.

I am working on a post of my own about good writing. I hope to use some of this stuff of yours as illustrative examples.

 

 

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Thank you again, Roger.

About Tolstoy learning Greek, yes, I believe you’re right in saying that he wanted to read the Gospels in the original, but he wanted to read other classics too. Here’s a quote from Henri Troyat’s biography:

“He sent for a theological student from Moscow to teach him the rudiments of the language. From the first day, the forty-two-year-old pupil threw himself into Greek grammar with a passion, pored over dictionaries, drew up vocabularies, tackled the great authors. In spite of his headaches, he learned quickly. In a few weeks he had outdistanced his teacher. He sight-translated Xenophon, reveled in Homer, discovered Plato and said the originals were like “spring-water that sets the teeth on edge, full of sunlight and impurities and dust-motes that make it seem even more pure and fresh,” while translations of the same texts were as tasteless as “boiled, distilled water.” Sometimes he dreamed in Greek at night. He imagined himself living in Athens; as he tramped through the snow of Yasnaya Polyana, sinking in up to his calves, his head was filled with sun, marble and geometry. Watching him changing overnight into a Greek, his wife was torn between admiration and alarm. “There is clearly nothing in the world that interests him more or gives him greater pleasure than to learn a new Greek word or puzzle out some expression he has not met before,” she complained. “I have questioned several people, some of whom have taken their degree at the university. To hear them talk, Lyovochka has made unbelievable progress in Greek.” He himself felt rejuvenated by this diet of ancient wisdom. “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

It clearly became an obsession for him.

Thanks again for the compliments!

Regards, Elisabeth

 

 

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Elisabeth — The quote from Troyat’s biography (which I read a long time ago, and was totally immersed in; it pretty much made me into a Tolstoy enthusiast on its own) is great, and very informative. It is clear from the quote that his desire to learn Greek wasn’t simply to be able to read the Gospels in the original. My comment, therefore, while it adds pertinent information, was not quite on target.

If he was forty-two when he began studying Greek intensely, that would have been in around 1870. It seems that his spiritual conversion occurred a short while after this date, although one would have to study his biographies carefully to develop a cause and effect sequence. “A Short Exposition of the Gospel” and “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated” were published in 1881. “What I Believe” was published in 1884.

Not being a Tolstoy scholar, I am inclined to believe that you’re right. Perhaps it was the case that having studied Greek for other reasons, Tolstoy found it greatly advantageous to him when it came to studying the Gospels.

“Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

This quote which you supplied from Troyat, shows that the influence of the Greek epics on him was primarily literary — i.e., his admiration for them as literature — and would seem to imply that the added benefit of being able to read the Gospels in the original was an extra bonus.

If you know more, or find out more, please keep me informed.

 

 

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I shall certainly do that. Although I recall reading that his desire to study the gospels inspired him to learn Greek. It probably went as you say. I shall look into it when I’m home again.

Thanks, Roger!

a colloquy regarding Vladimir Nabokov

 

 

 

At Elisabeth van der Meer’s awesome site on Russian literature

A Russian Affair

there was a post the other day about Dostoevsky.

 

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/typically-dostoevsky/

 

 

The following is an exchange between myself and another respondent to the pot, based on an observation I made about Vladimir Nabokov.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2016

 

 

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Roger W. Smith:

This is a typical post for this site. Which is to say that it is extremely well — I should say, beautifully — written and very informative. And, it makes one want to go back and read an author one hasn’t read for a long while. It seems that everything essential has been said about Dostoevsky, with nothing superfluous. Critics write whole books and never get as close as this to the heart of the matter.

A couple of thoughts re Dostoevsky. I am wondering, is he not — as regards style — somewhat like a writer such as Balzac, in that he didn’t give a hoot about style, basically. it was the story and the characters that mattered?

An opinion that I have formed, not based on an extensive acquaintance with his works, is that Nabokov is overrated. Brilliant, but nonetheless, overrated. I recall reading critical writings of Nabokov in which he refers slightingly to Dostoevsky and seems to rank him much lower than contemporaries such as Tolstoy.

A final comment. The illustrations on this site are always chosen, one can see, with great care, and they enhance appreciation and understanding.

 

Benn Bell:

I would like to say that I agree with him that your article is an excellent piece. You already know that I love Dostoevsky and have read him extensively. But I must disagree with Roger’s comment on Nabokov and cannot let it go unchallenged. I have also read Nabokov extensively and I find the notion that he is over rated as a writer quite absurd. Between the two of them I would rather read Nabokov any day.

 

Roger W. Smith:

I have taken note of your comment and see why you might differ with me.

In response, I would be inclined to say the following.

I don’t know Nabokov that well, having read some of his stuff, e.g., “Speak, Memory,” “Despair,” “Pnin,” and “Lolita” (in part).

“Lolita,” frankly, left me feeling wanting, impoverished. I could not get into it.

I have also read, in whole or part, the following critical works of Nabokov: “Nikolai Gogol” and “Lectures on Russian Literature” (parts)

Does this make me an authority? No.

But, I got the feeling that Nabokov is:

— undoubtedly brilliant;

— somewhat superficial or arid in terms of the emotional depth of his works.

Regarding the second comment – so called superficiality – I feel that Nabokov does not have or achieve in his writings the emotional depth of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, that his works do not strike the same deep chords. It seems to me, from my personal experience as a reader, that often one, while being impressed if not amazed by the pyrotechnics of Nabokov auteur and his ingenuity and linguistic ability, finds oneself left wanting more emotional nourishment from his works.