From descriptions of friendship with such major literary figures as Anna Akhmatova and Isaac Babel to accounts of the struggle with obtuse and hostile censorship, from the heartbreaking story of the death of the daughter who had inspired so many stories to candid political statements, the extraordinary diary of Kornei Chukovsky is a unique account of the twentieth-century Russian experience.
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About the Author
Victor Erlich is B. E. Bensinger Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature at Yale University. Among his many books on twentiethcentury Russian literature are Russian Formalism and Modernism and Revolution, both published by Yale University Press.
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By KORNEI CHUKOVSKY
Yale University PressCopyright © 1994 Elena Chukovskaya
All right reserved.
24 February. Saturday evening.
Curious! I've been keeping a diary for several years and I'm used to its free form and informal content-light, motley, whimsical: I've filled several hundred pages by now. Yet coming back to it, I feel a certain reticence. In my earlier entries I made a pact with myself: it may be silly, it may be frivolous, it may be dry; it may fail to reflect my inner self-my moods and thoughts-granted, so be it. When my pen proved incapable of giving bold and concise expression to my hazy ideas, which the moment after they came to me I was unable to make out myself, when it ended up merely reflecting commonplaces, I bore it no particular ill will; I felt nothing more than mild frustration. But now, now I am ashamed in advance of every clumsy formulation, every sentimental outburst and superfluous exclamation mark; I am ashamed of the careless bumbling, the insincerity so characteristic of diaries, ashamed for her sake, for Masha. I categorically refuse to show this diary to her. <...>
Heavens, the rhetoric! Can I show this to anyone at all? [...]
An odd thing happened to me today. I gave Velchev his lesson and went onto Kosenko's. I worked with Kosenko for a while and then looked in on Nadezhda Kirianovna. She spoke to me about monasteries, Mount Athos, and miracles. I was all unction and devotion, my expression changing every second-I'm good at that. I grabbed my head in horror to learn that there were people who go to church to gossip and show off rather than ..., and so on. I made several modest points of my own, calling atheists fools and scoundrels.
And so on. Suddenly the news that Tolstoy had been excommunicated fell on that disingenuous soil. I disagree with everything Tolstoy says <...>, yet I surprised myself by bounding out of my chair and, arms waving, playing the Cicero with all the fire of a nineteen-year-old.
For forty years now, I said, a great man, a man bold in spirit, goes through public somersaults and contortions over his every thought, for forty years he's been shouting at us, "Don't just stand there with your hands in your pockets! You turn somersaults too, you twist and turn if you want to know the bliss of the correspondence of word and deed, thought and word," and all we've done is to stand there gawking and say, "He's not so bad, worth hearing out if you've nothing better to do," with our hands in our pockets. And now that we've finally deigned to take them out, what do we do but grab him by the throat and tell him, "How dare you bother us, old man? What right have you to go on thinking, shouting, clamoring, and provoking us all these years? How dare you suffer? People don't suffer at seventy-four!" And so on. In terms equally grandiloquent and equally foolish [...]
I fear banal conversations, the idyll of the tea table, a life of rules and constraints. I wish to flee that life. But for where? How does one start another life? An active, restless life of freedom. Tell me. Help me ...
But even as I speak, I don't believe a word of it. Perhaps I don't need freedom. Perhaps all I need is to finish the Gymnasium. <...>
<...> Beauty, nothing but beauty! How beautiful it is to say:
Believe me, friend: the time will come, A dawn of blissful jubilation; When Russia rises with the sun And on the ruins of oppression Inscribes your name and with it mine! ("To Chaadaev" 1818)
Pushkin speaking. Yet he also makes this fine proclamation:
To be dependent on the people or the monarch It's all one, is it not? ("Pindemonte" 1836, I believe)
Yes, those are Pushkin's words. Yet the words do not matter so much as the mood. It is wonderful, intoxicating to be the prophet of one's native land. Think of "To Russia's Slanderers," where he calls Napoleon impudent, or "Pindemonte," where
It's all the same to me whether a press that's free Befuddles nitwits' brains or whether subtle censors Restrain prattlers from printing their misapprehensions.
It makes no difference! And then there's the 1824 epistle to the censor:
But tell me: are you not ashamed that Holy Rus Because of you and yours has no books yet to speak of?
Shame on you. It's all the same to him, yet he says, "Shame on you." One might put it down to the difference in age: his convictions evolved. Under whose influence? Nonsense! People like him need no convictions. When he writes to Chaadaev, you think, "Now here's a stern moralist, a stalwart." Yet on that very day practically, he sends Krivtsov a note, the ending of which gives a clear picture of the content: "Love your unchaste brother, the victim of sensuous love." Perusing his letters is a treat. He is different in each. He writes letters to Vyazemsky as one person and to Chaadaev as another and maintains each personality over a span of thirty letters. He does so quite unintentionally, as a result of an inner sense of artistic truth. I might even say he does so against his better intentions. He didn't understand himself, this infinite man; he kept going on about something called personal freedom, something called rights, trying to explain himself to himself. He wanted to make a type of himself, be a type, put himself in a frame. Read his letters to Kern. They make him out to be a regular wag, a rascal, a fine chap, a hail-fellow-well-met-and that's it: one can't add a thing to the characterization. Here is a sample of the tone of one such letter: "You write that I don't know your character. Well, and what do I care for your character? The devil take it! Surely pretty women need no character! The main things are the eyes, the teeth, the arms and legs.... If you knew the combination of repulsion and respect I feel for your husband. O Goddess that you are! Send down the gout upon him! The gout, I say! Yes, the gout! It is my only hope!" And then he writes:
A wondrous moment I remember: Your face before me did appear. rant and rave. <...>
Novosti has published a long feuilleton of mine, "A Perennial Issue" signed Kornei Chukovsky. The editors identify me as "a young journalist with paradoxical but highly interesting opinions."
I feel not the slightest elation. My soul is empty. I can't squeeze a line out of myself.
<...> Read Chekhov's Sisters today. It did not make the impression I'd expected. What's wrong? Either I've changed or he has! A year ago I would read a Chekhov story and find it so plain, powerful, and true that I'd wander about in a daze for a week, and now I feel he's lost his objectivity: I can see his hand guiding the sisters; it feels forced, calculated (calculating?). [...]
By the way, I'm supposed to write a Christmas story. I'm going to call it "The Crocodile" (and it won't be at all Christmassy). <...>
I'm dying of boredom. I can't get down to anything.
It is generally held that the sixties were the populist years, an opinion that has been bandied about even more so lately as it is the fortieth anniversary of the death of (the senior representative of the sixties) Dobrolyubov. I believe I share many traits with the men of the sixties. There was no particular idea predominating at the time; all people had in common was the freedom of the individual. It was wrong to mete out punishments, to call a Jew a Yid, to look on peasants as "cattle," such things being of the same order, but it was a long way to "systematic" populism. Besides, the teachers of the times, Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, were not exclusively partial to the people. As Podarsky shows in the twelfth issue of Russkoe bogatstvo, they were not afraid to call the people "dim-witted," "ignorant," and "indolent" from time to time and even-horrible dictu-deemed a parliament harmful, and so on. Their rationalism, as Podarsky is correct in noting, kept them from placing the people's instincts in the forefront of organizing history. [...]
Masha is my wife.
Today for the first time I've been able to look back over my life and emerge from the tumult of words, facts, thoughts, and events surrounding me, created by me, and apparently belonging to me, but in fact completely alien to me. It's frightening-that's the only word for it-frightening to live, frightening to die. I am frightened by what I have been, frightened of what I shall be. My work is worthless. I am absolutely certain I have no artistic talent. I'm too much of a poseur for that. I lack spontaneity. I am inconsequential. Life's events have no influence on me. My marriage is not my own; it seems an outsider's. I came to London to absorb the local spirit, but am unable to. I am making no spiritual progress. I see nothing and nobody. I am ashamed to be such a failure, but I can't seem to give myself up to London. I've bought a bowler hat, but made no further steps in that direction. Lethargy of the soul. A vacuum. Where am I going and why? Where am I? I have a wonderful wife, she couldn't be better, but she knows what it is to love and hate, and I know nothing. I love and envy and worship her, but nothing really unites us. Nothing spiritual, of course. I hide as much from her as from others. She takes pleasure in each day-to-day bit of unity. Fine. I like to see her happy.
What nonsense I've been talking. I'm in London and feeling perfectly fine. I've given myself up to its influence, I feel a great deal of unity with my wife, and I've any number of new feelings. Life is easy.
Thursday. Today is the kind of day worthy of starting a diary: it is unique. Yesterday I took my bed apart and lay on the floor. I read Shakespeare late into the night. Masha never left my thoughts. I got up in the morning, made a gift of the rest of my things to the neighbors, took my basket to Upper Bedford Place myself, came to an agreement with the porter, took my breakfast in the boarding-house and went back to Gloucester Street for some other things. The bell rang. Mrs. Noble handed me a telegram.
Suddenly my whole being broke into a song of joy. I started pacing the empty room, where only a rolled up piece of oilcloth and the tied-up bed remained, taking huge steps, a stride totally new for me. I do not know-nor do I wish to know-what went through my head. I felt too good without that. Then I started thinking that he would outlive me and see things I'd not see, then I decided to write a poem on the subject, then I thought of Masha's suffering, then I realized the following motif was running through my head:
I am healthy and my wife Has brought a son, Yan, to my life. [...]
I am learning vocabulary from Browning. I have decided to do it daily. I am waiting for newspapers and letters. When they come, I'll go to the free reading room. Browning is to my taste. We're going to be friends; I'll be with him for a long time. I like the way he justifies everything, his positivistic mysticism, even his nervous dialogue with the reader. But his language is difficult, and it will take much time to master it. <...>
I am reading Renan's Life of Jesus. I've decided to copy out everything I can use for my fanciful book on aimlessness. My hypotheses are the following: lacking goals is more attractive than having them; aimlessness is the only way to achieve goals. I shall set aside a few pages for notes on the subject. <...>
I am writing a preface for my Onegin. If I were a critic and had to review this novel in verse, I'd write the following: We never expected so imperfect a work from Mr. Chukovsky. Why did he write it? It is too long to be a joke, too short to be serious. The characters are wooden, there is no action, and, most important, the tone that conveys his relation to the subject matter is that of a feuilleton or light comedy and highly frivolous. Choosing the title of Pushkin's masterpiece for such a work is nothing short of blasphemy. The verse is generally light, clear, concise ... Fine for "train literature" but nothing more. <...>
I am not doing anything. Literally. For the last three weeks I haven't held a book in my hands. I haven't written an article for a month. I don't know what the future will bring, but if this keeps up I'm a goner. [...] My latest nightmare is neither chess nor the boat nor Kew Gardens-it's photography. I've acquired a twenty-three-ruble camera for the wholesale price of fifteen rubles, and I'm on a picture-taking binge. [...] Oddly enough, the only things I'm taking pictures of are the things Masha saw when she was in England, the things we experienced together. The rest is worthless in my eyes. [...]
Am translating Byron for Vengerov. I don't know how good it will be. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don't. <...>
<...> The bombing has begun. A battleship is heading toward the Cathedral, where the Cossacks are. Bombs are flying everywhere. The city is in a panic.
I was an eyewitness to everything that happened on the fifteenth and shall explain it all in detail. At about ten in the morning I went to the boulevard, to Shaevsky's, for a glass of beer. There was a triple-stacked battleship lying at anchor between the lighthouse and the breakwater. People said that it had hoisted the red flag and that the sailors had mutinied and all the officers aboard had been killed, that a sailor who had been killed by an officer-which event set off the mutiny-was lying in state on the shore, and that the battleship could destroy the entire city in an hour, and so on.
I said to the man next to me, a court official, "Why don't we go to the port and see the dead sailor." But he said, "I can't. I'm in uniform." So I went alone.
Excerpted from Diary, 1901-1969 by KORNEI CHUKOVSKY Copyright © 1994 by Elena Chukovskaya. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNote from the Publisher....................vii
Introduction, by Victor Erlich....................ix
Appendix: Excerpts from "What I Remember; or, Fiddle-Faddle"....................550
Periodicals, Publishing Houses, Abbreviations, and Acronyms....................567
Illustrations follow page....................280