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

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!


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