Archive for April, 2011

‘Cordelia, you’re a fool!’

April 25, 2011

Марина Бородицкая

In honour of a couple of recent postings, here’s Marina Boroditskaya’s Cordelia poem (and a translation by me).

Корделия, ты дура! Неужели
Так трудно было старику поддаться?
Сказать ему: «Я тоже, милый папа,
Люблю вас больше жизни.» Всех-то дел!
Хотела, чтобы сам он догадался,
Кто лучшая из дочерей? Гордячка!
Теперь он мертв, ты тоже, все мертвы.
А Глостер? О, кровавый ужас детства –
Его глазницы – сцена ослепленья –
Как будто раскаленное железо
Пролистывали пальцы, торопясь…
На вот, прочти. Я отвернусь. Тебя же
В том акте не было? Читай, читай,
Смотри, что ты наделала, дуреха!
Ну ладно, не реви. Конечно, автор –
Тот фрукт еще, но в следующий раз
Ты своевольничай, сопротивляйся:
Виола, Розалинда, Катарина
Смогли, а ты чем хуже? Как щенок,
Тяни его зубами за штанину –
В игру, в комедию! Законы жанра
Нас выведут на свет… На, вытри нос.
Давай сюда платок. Его должна я
Перестирать, прогладить и вернуть
Одной венецианской растеряхе
В соседний том. Прости, что накричала.
Отцу привет. И помни: как щенок!


Cordelia, you’re a fool! Was it really
So hard to give in to the old man?
To tell him: I too, dear papa,
Love you more than life itself. After all!
Did you want him to work out for himself
Who was the best of his daughters? So proud.
Now he’s dead, you as well, they’re all dead.
And Gloucester?–Oh bloody horror of childhood–
His eyesockets–the scene of his blinding.
Fingers seemed to leaf through hot iron, hurrying.
Well then, read. I’ll turn away. You weren’t
In that act? Read it, read it.
See what you’ve done, you stupid fool!
Oh all right, don’t howl. Of course, the author’s
As bad as ever, but next time
You stand up for yourself and fight back.
Viola, Rosalind, Katherine–
They could, aren’t you as good as them?
Be like a puppy, tug at his trousers with your teeth
–Make it a game, a comedy! The rules of the genre
Will see us right….Well, wipe your nose.
Give the handkerchief here. I need to wash it,
And iron it and give it back to an absent-minded Venetian girl
In the next volume. I’m sorry I shouted at you.
Give my regards to your father. And remember–like a puppy!

Monument to Peter the Great in Glaisher Street, Deptford

April 24, 2011

Monument to Peter the Great

As is well-known, Peter the Great lived in Deptford for some months in 1698–in fact, he lived in the house of John Evelyn the diarist, and made a pretty good job of wrecking it–while he was studying the craft of shipbuilding in the Royal Dockyards which were then located there.  And (as can be seen above) there is indeed a monument to his stay, placed between Greenfell Mansions and the river.

A dwarf-cum-jester

In his book Russkiy London (Russian London), S. K. Romaniuk expresses his displeasure with this ensemble:

It was produced by the sculptor Mikhail Shemyakin, ‘famous’ for the crowd of monsters of one kind or another that he donated to Moscow and are erected in Bolotnaya Ploshchad, and the disgraceful figure of Tsar Peter in the Petropavlovsk Fortress in Petersburg.  Both these monuments aroused the ire of the inhabitants, both of Moscow and Petersburg.

…in a row there stand a rounded dwarf-cum-jester, for some reason with navigational instruments in his hands (the sculptor is perhaps emphasising that these maritime instruments were just a jester’s plaything) then an elongated statue of Peter with proportions distorted and, to the right of him, a chair with a high back….All of this seemed too little to the sculptor, and for some unknown reasons he added a pair of cannon besides.

Looks like the typical kind of statue you see everywhere in Russia these days–not as large as the ones in Moscow, and not nearly as numerous as those in Ulyanovsk.

Probably I need to take some pictures in the morning when the thing’s in the sunlight.

On the use of English Literature in Elena Chizhova’s ‘Kroshki Tsakhes’

April 24, 2011

In the space of English Literature

When she had finished laughing and allowed them to finish laughing, she said that there was much of Eastern despotisms in my fall–that was familiar to her, as a tyrant and a despot and an Eastern woman–but where I had got it from was a mystery to her.    ‘In England’, she looked at me with contempt,’they fall more softly’.  I got up and fell more softly.   My new, English, fall made a breach in the Russian palisade and we were allowed to go in peace.

Elena Chizhova’s 2000 novel Kroshki Tsakhes treats of the claustrophobic life of a group of pupils at an English-medium school in Leningrad in the 1970s and their charismatic and mysterious Oriental teacher of English, who we know only by the initial F.  (And perhaps we should transliterate the title ‘Kroshki Zaches’, since it’s a reference to Klein Zaches by E T A Hoffmann.)

A school story where the schooldays stand as a determinant of and substitute for the whole of life already seems to belong more to English literature than to Russian.  One could think of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but there really isn’t much resemblance.  Both JB and F are betrayed, they both complain about their pupil’s chronological ignorance and they both prefer the classics to the moderns, but that’s about it.  In fact, F complains about her former pupils that they have got old, which sounds as though it ought to come from JB, and doesn’t.

Frost in May is a closer parallel-severe constraint tempered by playing Shakespeare–though the difference is that Antonia White’s convent schoolgirls are isolated from the world outside (which is their problem) while Chizhova’s aren’t (which is theirs).

Doesn’t everyone have a charismatic English teacher who tells them what they are doing is no good and they need to learn how to fall properly?  I certainly did in my ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive, but she came and went in the space of a term…

Scenes (mainly) from Shakespeare

I didn’t even think about them acting in Russian.  Russian, besmirched by our history, gave off shame, ashes and dust, which I dared not disturb.

So throughout the course of the book we learn of various instances of English literature that the narrator–one of F’s pupils–comes across, normally in the course of preparing a yearly theatrical performance.

She reads Shakespeare sonnets to the accompaniment of music from a gramophone (Gluck, Massenet, Rachmaninov).

She plays Viola in an extract from Twelfth Night, while Lenka plays the chambermaid Maria and Kostya plays Malvolio.

The students amaze a group of pedagogues come to inspect them with their sophisticated discussion of Feita’s conduct in The Path of Thunder (Peter Abrahams, 1948).

The narrator and Kostya play the scene (Act 1 Sc 2) of Gloucester seducing Lady Anne from Richard III.   Gloucester–she calls him Richard–is storming to power.  A murderer.  The path lies through me.  I am a widow, I follow the coffin.  I hate him, hate the murderer of my husband.  She says it’s avery dangerous feeling, I must come to love him.

Kostya, two Lenkas and the narrator perform  Queen Eleanor’s Confession in Russian! I understand her–it is a school, can you really talk about those sins?

But a scene from Romeo and Juliet entered in a theatrical competition ends in them being laughed off the stage…

So what does this mean?

There’s hardly anything new in Shakespeare as an icon of freedom, either in English or foreign literature.  The conservatism of Shakespeare’s worldview contrasts with the freedom of his language, as the constraint imposed on her pupils by F. contrasts with the freedom she is exposing them to.  But this hardly exhausts the question!

What books does ‘Try Books!’ like?

April 23, 2011

Primo Levi: Hors de concours?

We have been asked which books Try Books! has actually liked most, leaving aside matters of explanation and prediction.  The data we have is here.

At first sight, the easiest thing to do is just to take the mean for each book.  This is a little optimistic:  on the one hand, one is assuming that the difference between ‘1’ and ‘2’ is the same as the difference between ‘7’ and ‘8’ (interval scale), and on the other hand it may be that some people consistently give higher or lower scores than others.  One can also use the median, which does at least do away with the need for assuming an interval scale, but still leaves one vulnerable to who has rated which book.

Another way of looking at the problem is to see how a book compares with others marked by the same person, and treat the comparison as a kind of match.  So imagine 5 people have rated both book A and book B, 3 people have marked A higher than B, one has given the same mark, and two have marked B higher than A.  Then A has a score of 3.5/5 = 0.7 from this ‘match’ and B has a score of 1.5/5 = 0.3.  One can combine the scores over all the ‘matches’ each book has ‘played’ in to come up with an overall score for that book.

Two problems remain here:

i)  a book may have ‘played’ in matches with books that are significantly better or worse than the average, this decreasing or increasing its score;

ii)  we are assuming that a reader’s judgments are consistent over time; that is, a ‘9’ now can be directly compared with an ‘9’ a year ago.

The second of these is in principle unavoidable.  We can tackle the first by using a kind of rating system, so that a book gets more credit for ‘playing’ a stronger ‘opponent’.

The table below shows the RATING, SCORE, MEDIAN and MEAN for those books where sufficient data was available.


If This Is a Man / The Truce 94.63 0.95 9 8.92
Skin Lane 86.12 0.86 8.75 8.63
The Boy with the Topknot 83.43 0.85 9 8.64
A Prayer for Owen Meany 77.16 0.77 8.75 8.38
This Thing of Darkness 72.98 0.73 8 8.2
The Help 67.47 0.7 8 8.05
Bad Science 66.55 0.66 7 7.29
Brooklyn 63.83 0.65 7.25 7.13
Family Romance 63.02 0.64 7.75 7.44
The Master and Margarita 62.66 0.63 7 6.5
Star of the Sea 60.35 0.6 7.75 6.75
Death and the Penguin 59.25 0.58 7.5 7.31
Moby-Dick 56.1 0.54 6.5 6.5
After You’d Gone 54.87 0.53 7 7.33
American Wife 53.51 0.54 7.5 6.8
One Day 52.53 0.56 7.5 7.41
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle 49.95 0.52 7 7.29
Norwegian Wood 48.87 0.47 7 6.94
The Reluctant Fundamentalist 48.29 0.48 7 7
Complicity 47.01 0.46 6.5 6.39
The Shadow Of The Wind 44.3 0.45 6.5 6.61
The Story of Forgetting 43.56 0.43 6 6.34
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 43.55 0.43 5.5 5.17
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 42.2 0.4 5.25 5.42
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher 36.92 0.38 6.25 6.08
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling 35.98 0.38 6 6.2
The Monkey Wrench Gang 34.74 0.38 6 5.81
Legend of a Suicide 31.43 0.32 6 6.28
In Search of the Missing Eyelash 25.58 0.23 5 4.78
The Fall of the Imam 21.72 0.2 6 5.4
Me Cheeta 12.88 0.11 5 4.5
The Resurrectionist 12.08 0.1 2.75 3.42
Human Traces 11.66 0.12 5 4.63

It may be simpler to consider the ranks given by the different measures:


If This Is a Man / The Truce 1 1 1 1
Skin Lane 2 2 3 3
The Boy with the Topknot 3 3 1 2
A Prayer for Owen Meany 4 4 3 4
This Thing of Darkness 5 5 5 5
The Help 6 6 5 6
Bad Science 7 7 13 11
Brooklyn 8 8 12 13
Family Romance 9 9 7 7
The Master and Margarita 10 10 13 19
Star of the Sea 11 11 7 17
Death and the Penguin 12 12 9 10
Moby-Dick 13 14 19 19
After You’d Gone 14 16 13 9
American Wife 15 15 9 16
One Day 16 13 9 8
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle 17 17 13 11
Norwegian Wood 18 19 13 15
The Reluctant Fundamentalist 19 18 13 14
Complicity 20 20 19 21
The Shadow Of The Wind 21 21 19 18
The Story of Forgetting 22 23 23 22
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 23 22 28 29
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 24 24 29 27
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher 25 25 22 25
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling 26 27 23 24
The Monkey Wrench Gang 27 26 23 26
Legend of a Suicide 28 28 23 23
In Search of the Missing Eyelash 29 29 30 30
The Fall of the Imam 30 30 23 28
Me Cheeta 31 32 30 32
The Resurrectionist 32 33 33 33
Human Traces 33 31 30 31


The different methods here give pretty consistent results.  The biggest differences observed are for The Master and Margarita (up 9 places for RATING as against MEAN) and One Day (down 8 places).

It is clear that people make If This Is A Man the best book here–the question is whether it should be judged on the same basis as the others.  One could also object to Skin Lane on the grounds that it is an earlier book I just happened to have recorded the data for.  That would leave The Boy with the Topknot as uncontroversial champion.

Sathnam Sanghera: Uncontroversial

As for the books at the bottom of the list, some of them are just not very good…

Les Saisons Russes du XXI Siecle–Programme 2, Coliseum 15 April

April 16, 2011



We had managed to reach our seats without programmes or castlists, so I tried to call up the spirits of the vasty deep on my Nokia.  They didn’t appear with any great alacrity, and I only managed to find out that the Independent had given Programme 1 one star.


Anyway, a guy appeared in front of the curtain and told use he was Andris Liepa.  He explained that the original  choreography had been lost, and they were using new choreography by Juris Smoriginas.  The production had been restored from Bakst’s originals by Anna Nezhnaya.

Restoration meant projecting a green sine wave on the stage.  Otherwise, the production concept came down to a box of Quality Street.  My companion said it compared unfavourably with a pantomime she had been to in Croydon at the age of eight.

I had never heard a note of Balakirev before, but I was impressed by how closely–after some loud oriental pastiche at the beginning–it matched my prejudice of inoffensive ineffectuality.  I doubt that I’ve ever heard ballet music so devoid of eroticism, or indeed affect in general. My companion felt that the choreography combined the worst of an end of the pier show and Spearmint Rhino.  I said she didn’t know about Spearmint Rhino.

Link to original poem by Lermontov here; not-very-good translations here and here.



So after the interval, Andris Liepa appeared and thanked a wide variety of Russian oligarchs for their support.

This time the chocolates had been supplemented by a box of old toys, and the assembled oriental potentates dancing-girls and slaves were all very white.  Beforehand I had thought that the Rimsky-Korsakov music would be less boring if you had something to look at to take your mind off it, but I’m not so sure now.

Some flashy and pointless dancing from Nikolai Tsiskaridze as the Golden Slave drew very loud appreciation from the house, and whoever it was doing Zobeida turned out to be a very good milker of applause even by Russian standards, and almost on a level with Maria Ewing.

And then we got let out, hurrah!

Later:  I think that webcowgirl’s sightless taxidermist idea explains quite brilliantly what’s wrong with the season as a whole.  But I must say it wasn’t quite the worst corps de ballet I’d ever seen…

From Russia in Verse, Saison Poetry Library RFH, 14 April

April 14, 2011

Well, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see Lev Rubinstein in the flesh, could I?

My name was not on the list, but they let me in anyway.

Sasha Dugdale

The event was basically compered by Sasha Dugdale.  She translated a poem–read a translation of a poem–by Linor Goralik, who was not able to be with us.  Then we had Mariya Stepanova, who read a couple of poems.

Mariya Stepanova

Sasha Dugdale read a couple of Stepanova’s poems, one of which had not been read in Russian.  After that it was Dmitri Kuz’min, who read the English translations himself and said he was basically a publisher, publicist and everything else these days, not a poet as such.

Dmitri Kuz'min

Next it was the turn of Marina Boroditskaya, who read more than two poems.

Marina Boroditskaya

Ruth Fainlight read her translation of one of them–where Shakespeare’s Rosalind kept her Russian form of Rozalinda for some reason–and turned to be older than the rest, even Lev Rubinstein.

Lev Rubinstein

Lev Rubinstein himself didn’t bother with thanking people in English and launched straight into a characteristic monologic-inconsequential opus.  Sasha Dugdale read a translation line-by-line so it became dialogic, and very impressive as well!  Russian text here.