“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live” (A. Sutzkever: 1913-2010)

I was saddened to hear about the death of Abraham Sutzkever. Here’s a nice account of Sutzkever’s life up until the Holocuast from Haaretz:

Sutzkever was born in 1913 in the town of Smorgon, near Vilna, during the Czarist empire. After being deported to Siberia as a child, he later returned to independent Poland and began to write. In 1941 he was incarcerated in the Vilna ghetto, where he soon became active, notably in saving treasures from the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Following the liquidation of the ghetto, he and his wife Friedke escaped to the forests, where he fought alongside the partisans and was rescued by a special Soviet plane at Stalin’s personal order. After the war, he worked to rehabilitate Jewish life in Europe, testified at the Nuremberg Trials and immigrated to Israel in 1947.

From  the obit in the NY Times:

Abraham Sutzkever, one of the great Yiddish poets of his generation who evoked the nightmare of the Holocaust with images of a wagonload of worn shoes and the haunting silence of a sky of white stars, died Wednesday in Tel Aviv. He was 96.

Sutzkever helped salvage manuscripts and art from the Jewish community in Vilna, and later taking to the woods as a partisan, he often composed his poems while hiding in a coffin or crawling through the sewers. Continue reading

Andrew Kahn: Pushkin As A Poet of Ideas

An interesting review of a couple of new books on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – perhaps the most significant Russian novel in verse – I have to say that Kahn’s book looks interesting, even though I am personally not sure how much one can really learn about someone by looking at their books and marginalia.

Kahn has read systematically many hundreds of the titles in Pushkin’s own large library (in the same editions) in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Of these titles, over 80 per cent are English and French works, in the original or in translation. Using B. G. Modzalevsky’s annotated catalogue of the library, which records the pages cut and the marginal notes and annotations made in them by Pushkin, Kahn seeks not to identify sources as past critics have done, but to trace the poet’s “thinking through lyric”. Kahn’s Pushkin is a poet of ideas, the intellectual heir of “a long eighteenth century”, but one who “suspends judgement”, using his deceptively simple and transparent poems as opportunities for the indirect dramatization of those ideas, and for “creating a lyric speaker who thinks aloud”. Allusive terms in the poems – “imagination”, “inspiration”, “fancy”, “will”, “strength” and “fame” – open up to the reader (the reader who is willing and able to read with Pushkin) the great conceptual framework that holds up their delicate lyric expressiveness.

One thing, of course, is true – everyone seems to be shaped by what they read in Pushkin’s Onegin and it is an interesting interpretive strategy to look at books in order to judge the author, yet I am still quite uncomfortable thinking that someone can glimpse at my books and conclude that I am such and such person – probably because in my case it’s rather easy, since most of the books I own are boring philosophical works…

Translation Impossible.

When I first read this one, I was probably 19. I remember enjoying it so much, I read it again and again until I memorized it. It’s still by far one of my most favorite pieces of writing (in any language), but I think it’s primarily because I have a very strong connection to the experience of enjoying it. ImWerden has a recording of Brodsky reading it, and I am on a quest to find a decent English translation, so far not much luck. Take this part: Continue reading

Cheering Up (Russian Style)

I’ve been watching an excellent adaption of Pasternak’s Zhivago from 2005, unfortunately, no English subtitles – I think Pasternak’s presentation of the events of the pre- and post-Revolution changes in Russia strangely cheered me up: I cannot imagine living in circumstances such as those of Yuri Zhivago. This and reading the recent biography of Wittenstein family (The House of Witternstein) is really doing it for me, sounds banal and even evil, but the considerable suffering and bravery of others seems to put one’s trouble into a perspective. Here’s some more Russian stuff: Continue reading