Saturday, February 2, 2013

A 'most peculiar' page?

 My brother, a sailor

It's always possible, of course, that people might say of us, we are a most peculiar page. Sometimes the risk is so customary, that it is simply too boring to flout it; yet, still, there is such a quality of life few would care to renounce, in being suspected of peculiarity, that rather than inhibiting our reading list, say, or inhabiting our narrative against its sunny nature, a lark breaks out from nowhere and the chips, so noted for designing their own fall, proclaim an unsuspected disdain for the ground. Who can query a restraint like that? Is there a concept, do you suppose, more fraught with inherent hilarity, than security? 

I give you the problem, of knowing one's hat size. Who can forget an Augustan blogger's boast, some couple of years ago, that he and his beau were the only two pedestrians properly dressed on the Miracle Mile, or some such Maupassant setting, jolies bourgeois to a fault?

Yet what more stunning depiction of the ascent of the lark could they have fashioned, do you suppose, for prompter recognition? Is not such resolute punctiliousness today, on matters of such tragically neglected importance, the very essence of our rapture in the Second Amendment, than which no nobler relic of anxiety has ever been codified? The thing was a bribe, to gain a Stand-ing Army, and yet we treat it as if it were the ultimate bond of society.

We offer no speculation into the evident dread some of our gentry feel, of being caught inadequately armed at Lexington or Concord, pinioned piteously to the ground, abandoned yet somehow now exposed. The arguments for cowardice bear too great a correlation to their testimony to our Senate, to resem-ble the likelier narrative of our heritage, much less the stuff of Saturday musings. There's no know-ing of one's hat size by timidity, no purpose to a rule that won't be tested for its vitality. A law that has no bearing on the world as it exists, is something, though, to fathom as a most peculiar page.

Department of History
Princeton University
To Arm the Revolution:
  Securing the Military
  Sanction, 1787 - 1789
Firestone Library
Princeton, 1970©

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The new theory unbound

There was just one thing he didn't understand. Mixed with his joy and his feeling of triumph was a sad-ness that seemed to well up from somewhere deep underground, a sense of regret for something sacred and cherished that seemed to be slipping away from him. For some reason he felt guilty, but he had no idea what of or before whom. 

He sat there, eating his favourite buckwheat and potato soup and remembering a spring night in Kiev when he was a child; he had watched the stars looking down at him between the chestnut blossoms and wept.

The world had seemed splendid then, the future quite vast, full of goodness and radiant light. Today his fate had been decided. It was as though he were saying goodbye to that pure, childish, almost religious love of science and its magic, saying goodbye to what he had felt .. as he overcame his terror and refused to lie to himself.

There was only one person he could have talked to about all this ..

Vasily Grossman
Life and Fate

Vasily Grossman, born in the Ukraine in 1905, died broken by the worst that his century had to offer, in 1964. A professional writer, he was denied publication of most of his work, and subjected to unimaginable coercion to distort everything he set eyes on. That we know him as one of the noblest lights of the literature in his adopted language, Russian, was not merely a matter of time, but of the rawest courage and good luck of protective friends, including the humanist-physicist, Sakharov. The extracts of the last three entries are from the core of a miracle of literary witness, and are framed by inhuman warfare, inhuman repression, and every knowable suffering short of not dining at Taillevent. His ‘relevance’ speaks for itself. He is incorrigibly youthful, naïve and sage, yet not incorruptible. 

We believe in the friendship of the arts because of where they come from. In this last passage, the problem of vanity and its vulner-abilities enters one of its serial climaxes, as Viktor has just received the fragile equivalent of an annunciation, in a telephone call from Stalin. Associates are being shredded in the Lubyanka as they speak, fates are being flicked off the sleeve by absolute chance, every form of fidelity is being tested and the great crush of terror is omnipresent. Neither Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy has sal-vaged from such settings any greater proof of kindness.

The publisher of Vasily Grossman in English is celebrating 50 years of its own life on the birthday of my brother next week. The New York Review of Books is incorrigibly youthful, a friend in the arts. 

Vasily Grossman
A Writer at War
  A Soviet Journalist
  with the Red Army, 
Anthony Beevor, editor
  and translator, with
  Luba Vinogradova
Random House, 2005©

Catherine Merridale
Ivan's War
  Life and Death in the
  Red Army, 1939-1945
Henry Holt, 2006©

Sunday, January 27, 2013

How pretty is it, being easy?

A passion of this page, for trans-
lation and its problems, is like
any of the passions, better exem-
plified than argued. Yesterday's
time when we have shared the im-
pression, with great warmth and
attention, that there truly are
definitive glories in alternative
distinctions. Yesterday, an at-
tentive reader could participate,
I think, in Aeneas' own wonder,
by placing himself in the shape
of its expression. We investi-
gate and approach profound ex-
perience with simple implements.

Translation is but the most ob-
vious of exercises of this im-
plicit respect for definition;
and definition, tiresome as it
always is to those who wish to
rush into pleasure - which is 
to say, invention - occasional-
ly seems inadequately inventive.
Oh, I don't know: what was being
celebrated by Vasily Grossman,
right in the middle of a battle
for Stalingrad, if not the defin-
ing of matter?

The entry for last Wednesday has
been edited, to clarify that a
resistance, by reason and by his-
tory, are natural and possibly un-
avoidable, to inaugural remarks
offered by the President on Mon-
day. No one likes to refuse an
embrace, much less one of benign
intent. But a very great strug-
gle is never going to end, mere-
ly to have captivated the cal-
culus of one man; and this page
is unable to accept his transla-
tion, unable to defer to his de-
bauched definition of the matter
in which he so recklessly is dab-
bling. He is discussing the in-
calculably costliest cornerstone
of free government ever won by
any nation, the equal protection 
of its laws, as if it turned upon
the moral worth of its citizens,
patronising writs of equivalency,
and illegitimate speculation into
their affections. It does not. It 
is majestically indifferent. It 
does not turn at all.