Ready or Not, Here I Come Dostoevsky!

When I tell Russians that I love Fyodor Dostoevsky and that my favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov, they usually ask me, “Have you read it in Russian?” Until now, my answer has always been, “Нет, я не готова читать Достоевского.” (I’m not ready to read Dostoevsky). I can’t count the number of times that I have said those three words, “I’m not ready” when referring to reading Russian literature, Dostoevsky in particular. I usually smile and say that I can read some Chekhov (who is known at being the easiest for a second language learner to understand), but I always have balked at the thought of reading my favorite author in the original, always putting it in the “someday” category.

But I recently decided that I am never going to be “ready” to read Dostoevsky. No matter how long I wait, I’m still going to open The Brothers Karamazov and find quite a few new words and tricky philosophical ramblings. So I’ve decided that the only way to become “ready” to read Dostoevsky is to do it.

Now, I knew that to jump right in after not having any formal instruction since last summer might be a bit overwhelming, so I decided to warm up by reading a few детективы, or Russian detective novels that I picked up in Kazan a few years ago.

Photo Credit: e5.ru

The above book was called “Piercing for an Angel.” It had absolutely nothing to do with piercings or angels (other than the love interest was described as “an angel in the flesh,” go figure…), but it was a good read.

Photo Credit: lib.aldebaran.ru

The above book I finished this morning and I liked it even more than the first one. The premise is that a female secretary at a previously male-only private detective agency begins to help them solve murders using her “женская интуиция” (woman’s intuition) as her primary tool. A little cheesy, and not PC by from an American point of view, but a great language-learning tool!

Some of the favorite words I learned from this book were

Сюсюкать (Syu-syu-kat’)- to lisp (how’s that for onomatopoeia!)

Подсознание (Podsoznaniye)- subconscious (n.)

and Предательство (predatel’stva)- treachery

The detective novels were a perfect way to build confidence in reading something of substantial length in Russian. There were plenty of words I didn’t understand, but I found that I could usually figure out what was going on.

So tonight, although I am not “ready,” I am going to begin reading The Brothers Karamazov in the original. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Photo Credit: livelib.ru

The Irony of Fate

When I found out I was being placed in Elabuga for my teaching assistantship in the fall, the name was nothing more to me than than a humorous string of syllables (think boogie-man, the Ooga-Booga man from Crash Bandicoot). But upon doing some research into the city, I discovered that one of its claims to fame is that it was the death place of the renowned poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

List of Russian language poets
List of Russian language poets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happening upon this information was one of those satisfying full-circle moments for me, since the first poem I ever read in Russian (and attempted to translate), was by Marina Tsvetaeva. Age 13 was the year that my passion for the Russian language was ignited, and  I still remember vividly the lessons I took, held inside the home of a tall Muscovite named Natasha. For homework one night, Natasha gave me to translate what is perhaps Tsvetaeva’s most famous poem. It was far beyond my level at the time, but that didn’t stop me from eagerly flipping through my massive Russo-English dictionary in search of the keys that would unlock the meaning of the mysterious text. Below is the poem in both Russian and English translation:

Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.
Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной –
Распущенной – и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

Мне нравится еще, что вы при мне
Спокойно обнимаете другую,
Не прочите мне в адовом огне
Гореть за то, что я вас не целую.
Что имя нежное мое, мой нежный, не
Упоминаете ни днем, ни ночью – всуе…
Что никогда в церковной тишине
Не пропоют над нами: аллилуйя!

Спасибо вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что вы меня – не зная сами! –
Так любите: за мой ночной покой,
За редкость встреч закатными часами,
За наши не-гулянья под луной,
За солнце, не у нас над головами, –
За то, что вы больны – увы! – не мной,
За то, что я больна – увы! – не вами!

3 Мая 1915

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

Translated by Ilya Shambat

One of the reasons that this poem is so well known is that it makes a musical cameo in the classic Russian New Year’s movie, Ироны Судьбы (The Irony of Fate). The film begins with  a group of Russian men enjoying an New Year’s Eve at a Moscow баня (bath house) and getting drunk. This would hardly be noteworthy, except for that the men get so drunk that the conscious ones can’t remember which one of their passed-out friends was supposed to board a plane to Leningrad. And being good friends, they do their best, but they still put the wrong friend on the plane.

When the hungover Zhenya arrives in Leningrad, he is still not sober enough to realize that he’s not in Moscow. So he flags down a taxi and gives him his “home address.” The driver brings him to his “home,” and Zhenya passes out on a bed as soon as he arrives. (Note: such a mistake was possible because Soviet-era city planning was big on uniformity; i.e., Moscow and Leningrad had many of the same street names and identical housing complexes). Zhenya is surprised to awake to a beautiful woman screaming at him to get out of her apartment…and so it begins. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but here is the clip in which Nadia (the woman who lives in the apartment), sings lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem. Hint: it’s a happy ending.

This movie is near and dear to my heart because of the ironic role it once played in my travels, what I like to call “The Irony of Gate.” At the end of my study abroad in 2010, I sat sick with strep throat in my hotel room while the rest of the group went to stare at Vladimir Lenin’s waxy corpse. To keep myself occupied, I watched The Irony of Fate, unaware that I would soon become Zhenya. On the way back to America, I managed to get on the wrong plane, giving my parents and group mates the fright of their lives. While on a layover in Frankfurt, I got separated from my group and approached what I thought was the correct gate. Esteeming German efficiency and attention to detail as infallible, when the gate attendant let me on, I boarded with complete confidence. And then I waited. And waited. And no one in my group came. The loudspeaker confirmed my growing doubts, “Service to Newark, New Jersey.” I was supposed to be going to JFK. I’ll never forget the flight attendant’s reaction when I told her my plight; she looked over her shoulder and said to a male attendant in a grave tone, “we have a situation.” A situation indeed, but thankfully one that I can now laugh about. Eight hours later, I arrived in America fatigued, but unscathed, and feeling a little guilty for giving everyone close to me such a scare.

I can laugh at it now, but I definitely hope my travels to Elabuga go much more smoothly than my little misadventure three years ago…

Jay Gatsby’s Unforgettable Sermon

I love going to movies that make me cringe.

I love going to movies whose themes reveal something ugly in my heart, that challenge me to shuffle my paradigm of perspective, that pierce me with the sin in my own life by making me identify so closely with a character that it hurts.

Jay Gatsby is one of those characters.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie, Jay Gatsby’s life is dominated by his pursuit of Daisy, a girl whom he loved and lost five years prior. Gatsby obsessively pursues the now-married Daisy through the passive means of moving close to her then throwing an array of extravagantly lavish parties in hopes that she will meander in one night. If he obtains Daisy, he sincerely believes, his life will be complete, a paradise of love and fulfillment.

What Gatsby doesn’t realize is that he has elevated Daisy to a level that no human being can live up to. To him, she is a symbol of the nostalgic perfection of the past that must be reclaimed to escape the drab, mundane present. She has no flaws. She is the one thing needed. She is a god. She is memory embodied.

No specific spoilers, but the pursuit of this idealized version of Daisy and the past precipitates an Anna Karenina size train wreck for Gatsby and all those around him.

And as I sat in the dark theater watching chaos and death and broken lives all set in motion by a selfishness fueled by putting hope in a mirage, I could not bring myself to judge. No, I could only sit still, breathe slowly, and feel the weight of the destruction humanity loves to pursue.

I could not judge, because I saw myself in Jay Gatsby.

I idealize the past and those people who shared it with me, walking a precarious line between reminiscence and idolatry every time I open a photo album.

I romanticize the past, replaying over and over the feeling-charged beautiful clips while discarding the shots of relational strains and conflicted feelings.

I idealize the far away, swallowing the age-old lie of greener grass and manmade perfection.

I saw myself in Jay Gatsby, and I cringed. Caught once again in the act of pursuing an idol mirage. Convicted once again of obsessively pursuing the creation rather than the Creator.My eyes are accustomed to turning both back and inward, searching for something that is both forward and outward. But unlike the hopelessness I observed on the screen, I am an heir to a hope that doesn’t need to construct wobbly, ephemeral ideals. My cringing turned to praise and perspective, to thankfulness for the vivid jolt that shook me to realize my eyes were on myself and not on Jesus Christ.

Yep, Jay Gatsby preached one of the best sermons that I’ve heard all year.

‘Tis Time, My Friend, ‘Tis Time

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching-

The first line of my favorite Pushkin poem has faithfully rhythmed in my mind day after day with increasing intensity as graduation has drawn near. I have savored these words like a piece of butterscotch candy through every brain-aching, burnt-out final paper. I have heard their hopeful serenade urging me forward to repeat and re-repeat the trekking down a familiar hill then across the geese-laden quad. Far into the woods, running in lonely, free New England beauty, they have ignited my veins with hopeful endurance.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Four years of deeper and wider and knowing more and knowing less, to knowing that it is finally time. Time to frame the pictures and pack the suitcases and let restful release and the ache of goodbye intermingle.

Days follow days in flight…

Time is not a big enough concept to hold the soul, the nuances of reality past, present, and future. Yet time is a sort of accelerator, propelling us to movement when change is the thing needed to keep us alive and purposefully being. These college days were and still are and will be, but with our human constraints we find it comforting to find closure in squishing them in a box labeled “past.”

Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking

Fragments of being, while together you and I

Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Time would take fragments of being if we were mortal, which we are so often inclined to believe. But we are not subjects to the tyrant of time. Four years and questions of “what’s next” and “where are you going” are actually the least relevant of utterances to a people not slaves to the rigid ticking of the clock. We make plans to live, plans to live, always planning, gathering, yearning for the next thing beyond and better, but all green grass turns to dust so it is better to fix our eyes on the stars than on the ground. It is better to not move forward into the future but into the Creator.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Tomorrow, we graduate. We are confident and full of fear, joying in newness while feeling the acute pinch of a backward look. We are elaborately equipped and nakedly unprepared. We are messy paradoxes made in the image of a paradoxical, faithful, untamed God, who beckons us to life with him and through him. Let us press this “now” hard into open palms. ‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time.”

Excerpt from “Tis Time,” by Alexander Pushkin

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоем
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз умрем.