That Photograph

Photography has played a huge part in our understanding of 20th century history. There are images that most people have seen and few will ever forget. There are even images that we wish we could unsee, that they weren’t imprinted on our brain with so little explanation and understanding attached. Here, of course, I am talking about images of war and genocide; the little girl in Vietnam, the bodies of the people in Auschwitz, their eyes… In her essay On Photography Susan Sontag discusses the impact of such an image, her personal experience and the way in which we get used to these images, how they lose impact. She suggests that “Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel”.(19) Unfortunately there is a “proliferation of such images of horror” and eventually they become “like an unbearable replay of a now familiar atrocity exhibition”. (19) This is something that we constantly come up against, that inability to feel when we’ve seen too much. It seems that there is a constant battle within photography (and it applies to literature as much as film), between making us feel and anesthesizing us. Every now and then there is an image that just stands out. And this can be personal, not always collective. Roland Barthes calls it punctum, “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out it like an arrow, and pierces me.”(Barthes, 26)

Both Sontag and Barthes agree that there occurs a certain realisation and understanding when we see a photograph of an event, it becomes real. This is what it was like for me, when I discovered a photo of my great-grandfather after (or in?) one of the GULag camps. I realised on a much deeper level what I had always known intellectually. The uncanny nature of the photograph is that its impact is instant. It can both represent and create a puncture (to use Barthes language) in a life. This is how Susan Sontag describes her first encounter with Holocaust photography:

One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen – in photographs or in real life – ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about. What good was served by seeing them? They were only photographs – of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.(19-20)

My own experience of seeing my great-grandfather’s photograph similarly awoke my understanding of his life, it was a “negative epiphany”. It also broke something, not only in me, but it finally awoke me to the break that occurred in his life. I was finally able to witness his breaking, not mine. I always knew that my great-grandfather was imprisoned in a camp, and that he was saved several times by his friends, that he walked across the land to find my great-grandmother. All of these facts seemed like legends to me, and to a certain extent, they probably are, but I grew up knowing about suffering and starvation, as most Soviet children did. Having found myself with a seemingly inexplicable interest in the GULag, I started looking into my family history. I re-read my great-grandmother’s memoir and found out about what happened to my great-grandad. (By the way, I remember him from my childhood as someone everyone looked up to and I was scared of.) I found his letters from the camps, the little triangles scribbled neatly and tightly with facts about food and weather, and a constant longing for home. I knew all this, and yet, it was the photograph that made it all true and clear to me.

ashurov-mountain-jew-triangular-letter-06

I was looking through a collection of photographs that a relative of mine transferred to a CD. The photographs date from the late 19th century to around mid 20th century. Most of them are that beautiful sepia colour with men in uniforms and women in full length dresses and big sweeping hats. It is a fascinating collection of about 300 photographs and I often like to transport myself in time by seeing life as it was in the early 20th century Russia (for a wealthy family of course). Whilst looking at the photographs of my great-grandad as a young man having fun with his friends on a yacht, playing tennis and dressing up for parties, I had a clear vision of his §youthful and often jolly life. However, in the midst of these photographs, an image of him in his camp uniform appeared. It is just due to the digital shuffling of photographs that this image appeared in this place and in this sequence, however, it seems more profound to me than that. It was the perfect place for this photograph as it very explicitly and directly revealed to me what the camp meant and what it did. It broke my great-grandad’s life in half, in a similar way that Susan Sontag saw hers dividing after witnessing photographs of the Holocaust.

40-04 41-03 43-1 45-3 62-09 51-6 63-1

The photographs above show the clear contrast between my great-grandfather as he was outside the camp and what he was after. I remember seeing this photograph for the first time and feeling a chill sweep across my body, knowledge dawned on me. In that instant I no longer knew the story, but I felt it and understood it at a deeper level. It truly did happen. And it happened to him. I was shocked because it was something “novel” and unexpected, I was not prepared for it. (A bit like what Freud suggested trauma is – an attack on an unprepared psyche. But I wouldn’t say I was traumatised by the photo, I was hurt.) It is exactly this “negative epiphany” that Sontag speaks of, that knowledge that dawns on you and can almost be experienced as an “epiphanic”(?) high. This is the danger with images that depict horror and their ability to shock, they may at times attract voyerism. This is however, something that is beyond the limits of this blog post and something to be discussed separately. What fascinates me is that the photo in itself is not as revealing of the truth as it is in the particular sequence of the photo album. The album follows the long lives of my family and I have seem many photos before, but not this one, not in this context.

In her book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory Marianne Hirsch identifies the impact that photography may have: “They produce affect in the viewer, speaking from the body’s sensations, rather than speaking of, or representing the past.”(15) Seeing an image of my great-grandfather does just that, it produces a bodily effect in a way that stories of his life did  not. Hirsch explores the relationship between memory and family generations, how memory is passed on. I definitely have a clear sense of my history that extends to years before my birth. The events in my family’s life seem to me to be my own memories, and yet they are not my experiences. This is how Hirsch describes it:

Postmemory most specifically describes the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they ‘remember’ only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right. (Hirsch, 9)

I believe this is not only relevant to traumatic memories, but to any family memories and stories that get repeated and told generation after generation. Of course, there is something particularly intense about a traumatic memory and it can often be passed on through silence as much as stories. But as painful as this is, there is also something beautiful about this inter-generational connection. The memory gains new life and is retold in other ways, as perhaps I am doing with my great-grandfather’s life. I feel I know and understand him better than I ever did when he was alive.

This encounter with photography has made me consider images in fiction on a new level, and in particular images of GULag, of which there are so few. Even Sontag mentions that our understanding of the GULag is hampered by our lack of photography of this event. Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago attaches a great importance to photography, and this i something that I will consider in the following post. What do photographs tell us about the GULag and why is it important…

Works cited:

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames

Music and Silence Part II

I have written about the opposition of music and silence before and have been thinking about this post for a while. I still am not sure about the relationship of silence and music here but would like to highlight it anyway. A while ago me and my friend Jo got rather excited about a new (to us) book being published called A Comedy in A Minor Key by Hans Kielson. Kielson wrote the novel in 1947 and it was translated into English in 2010. You can read more about Kielson in this informative Guardian article. The novel itself depicts the story of  a German Jew hiding from the Nazis in the home of a family in Holland. It depicts the mundane and dreary aspects of hiding – being confined to a small space from which you can never leave – a rather difficult prospect. As Philip Otterman says, “When the book is sad, it’s never so in a manipulative way.” And I would agree, it doesn’t seem manipulative, but at the same time, it is constantly sad. Partly, this sadness is expressed through silence in the novel. As I suggested in the last post on this subject, silence can be powerful and even loud in its way, pointing towards the unspeakable nature of a feeling or experience. In this novel I believe silence becomes the main character.

Speaking about the death of his parents in Auschwitz, Kielson suggests that there is a sadness that cannot be deleted. He connects his feelings about their death and his own survival to music: “Music is always written in a major and a minor key: they need each other to make the right sound. It’s the same with sadness and happiness.” Kielson allows for the existence of both, hence the comedy and the minor key, the laughter and the sadness. The novel has very warm, awkward and funny moments between the couple who are hiding Nico, yet it is steeped in unspoken sadness. This silence that permeates the novel has a profound way of testifying to events in history that were unspoken on so many levels.

I admire Kielson’s ability to invoke this silence and make it as present as a character. The novel focuses on the couple that harbour the fugitive, Wim and Marie, not on Nico. So even on a basic level he is hidden within the narrative. The whole plot of the novel is about trying to hide him, to not speak of him, not to speak to him (not too much), and to keep it all hidden, both within the house and in relation to neighbours and wider society. Wim and Marie don’t even know his true identity (for safety reasons). So, the reader doesn’t find much out about Nico either, he is hidden from us as well. A passage in the novel describes this silence and secrecy very well:

“A secret! It was not only that they had sheltered him – he himself, his person, his life, constituted the secret. It was as though a no man’s land lay all around him, alien and impenetrable. It was impossible to bridge the gap. Even while he was alive, everything she heard him say, everything she saw – his voice, his movements – was like something seen from the opposite bank of a river while mist hung over the water and masked any clear view. It almost melted away into the impersonal, colourless swirls of fog.”

So here it is, the minor key. The higher note of caring for a fugitive mixed with silence and secrecy. Both exist and neither triumphs. I suppose it is a bit like history. These inspiring stories of brave people who helped hide Jewish fugitives are always connected to the sadness that this should ever have happened.

“Life and Fate” on TV or An Attempt at a Review

So… Last week I was in Tallinn and was able to follow the launch of the new TV series based on Grossman’s Life and Fate. I had heard previously that this was happening, and was worried already then. I love the book and it is a tough one to dramatise, just because of its size and the amount of characters, to mention just one obvious difficulty. It is that common thing of: “What did you think of the film?” “Oh I prefer the book…” So I was wondering what would happen. One serious flaw of this review is that I haven’t finished watching the series yet, so can only comment up to the last few episodes.

As I spent the last four years writing my PhD on the novel and know it pretty well by now, everyone says that it is natural that I won’t like the film because, inevitably, it won’t be like the novel. I am too biased to have an honest opinion of it. I will admit that the book is precious to me and any rendering of it is always something that I anticipate with some dread. However, I was equally ready to find a good film of the book so that I could share its treasures with people more easily (rather than suggesting they read the 700 page epic or forcing them to listen me reading passages from the book, not the best experience). But, as you can tell, I was disappointed with the series. Why?

I concede that some revision is necessary to bring a book to the screen, but some of the rewriting of the events and the dialogue removed the series too far from the book. It seems that the writer/director fuses For a Just Cause with Life and Fate, which I think is not a bad idea, but the way that it is done has re-arranged the events quite substantially. (I am talking here of Tolya, who is DEAD in Life and Fate, but has a very different role in the film – I’m trying to not give too much away here if you should want to see it.)

Also, I know that the book is about the battle of Stalingrad, but it seems to me that the filmmakers focused exclusively on war and battles. What makes Grossman’s novel amazing (and his wartime articles), is the fact that he goes beyond the war and depicts people, personalities and relationships. He sees the man in war, his fears, his hopes, his vulnerabilities. In the film, it is the fighting itself that takes center stage. There is blood, explosions, dirt and a great amount of vodka. In order to make a moment meaningful the director just puts some loud violin over it and we’re supposed to feel touched. Of course, it is a film and Grossman’s words need to be represented audiovisually, but the subtlety of human relations is lost in the film. I suppose this could be proof of the power of words, that perhaps they can touch us more than imagery. But it also makes me wonder whether it is an attempt at pacifying the messages in the novel, removing the very reasons for which it was arrested in 1961. Is that really freedom for the novel in the 21st Century Russia?

Another very typical problem with dramatisations is the choice of actors for characters. Often we get disappointed because they never look like what we imagine them to be like. Or the actors replace our personal idea of the character completely, who can think of Mr. Darcy without imagining Colin Firth? I can’t, and to be honest, I don’t want to. As expected, I do not agree with some of the choices of actors for this film. But one thing I really liked was the choice of Sergey Makovetsky as Shtrum. This is because he looks remarkably like Grossman, and considering Shtrum was based on Grossman, this was a good choice indeed. It points to the relationship between the author and the novel, without making an obvious statement.

Shtrum and Marya Ivanovna in the film

Grossman at Stalingrad

Shtrum

Krymov I felt didn’t look like what I imagined him in the book (especially because he reminded me of a serious and slightly slimmer version of Dara O’Briain), but I wasn’t too disappointed with that, it is to be expected.

Krymov

Krymov

I always imagined Krymov to be dark haired and severe looking, a bit more like the director’s choice for Novikov, played by Evgenii Dyatlov.

Novikov

This was perhaps the choice that I was least pleased with. To me, Novikov is a bit of a softer character than the man above, but that is my impression. Otherwise, the choices of women was generally very good. Zhenya, played by Polina Agureeva, and Lyudmila, played by Lika Nifontova, were both good choices I think, and good actresses.

Zhenya

Zhenya

Lyudmila

Lyudmila

Overall, I got bored watching the film, which just seems unbelievable considering how much I love the book. I was touched by the scene of Lyudmila at Tolya’s grave, but otherwise felt that I never came close to the characters. I just couldn’t feel that I understood or cared for them. There is also a narrator in the film, reading passages from the novel, but even his voice sounds dull and tired. Considering he is narrating war, one can understand that the voice has to be sombre to an extent, but what makes Grossman’s novel so amazing is the light that permeates the whole narrative. In the end human spirit, freedom, love and an inner light, all survive and that is the ultimate message. This seems to me to be missing from the film completely. I may change my mind as I finish watching it, but having seen as far as Film 4 Episode 2 and having only four episodes left, I have little hope….

P.S. So far, there is no depiction of camps and thus Ikonnikov’s discussions of Good and Evil, so there you go.

Discovery in Translation

I am not a translator but I have found myself translating in the past few months and I shall tell you what it has revealed to me. As many other PhD students, I have found it necessary to sometimes translate untranslated pieces of work and sometimes adjust the existing translations to highlight the point in the original language. I do harbour a dream of translating Iurii Dombrovskii’s work, but before embarking on such a task there is a book that is a lot closer to my heart.

In the 1970s my great-grandmother, whom I was very close to in mind and spirit, wrote a book about her experiences of deportation. This book is the pride of my family as it reveals its rich (both in terms of money and life experience) history and shows that at least one of us is talented in some way. The fact that I am fluent in English and part of British academia has spurred my family on to suggest that I should translate it, as it surely will become a bestseller.  After many reassuring yeses, I have finally committed to the task, but not for the hope of any glory, as some of my family imagine it would bring, but out of a latent curiosity.

My 101-year-old great-grandmother died two years ago, but she continues to inspire me every day. Translation has become a way to come closer to her and my family’s past. I have read the book before, and one would think that reading is enough to gain knowledge. Yet, to put that knowledge to practice, to really commit to what she is telling in that book I have to listen to her voice in the way that I have never done before. I suppose this is where the true work of the translator comes in. At the point where you merge with the author and imagine sitting next to them as they are writing their piece, trying to understand the feeling and the idea that the author wanted to convey.

One of the great discoveries whilst translating, apart from the linguistic curiosities, has been uncovering the history and location of places depicted. I have used Google extensively for my first two chapters and learned about the locations of old estates, the relationships of ancient counts and princesses and even an astronomical achievement. The memoir depicts my great-grandmother’s deportation from Tallinn with her two young children and her mother in 1941. Her husband Zhenia is sent to a camp. This is a typical Russian/Soviet story. But it is through my great-grandmother’s memory that the distant past of the Hanski or Ganskii or Gansky family is opened up (this is another issue of translation, finding the right name!). In the dark rooms of dilapidated cottages, my great-grandmother’s mother remembers the opulent dinners and parties of the past, and so I and my great-grandmother – the narrator – follow her into this long lost time.

In terms of Google-yield, I have found my great-great-uncle Alexei Pavlovich Hanski/Gansky the most fruitful and interesting so far. This is what my great-grandma writes about him (in my translation):

“With trepidation I listen to the tragic story of mother’s favourite brother Alyosha, Alexei Pavlovich Gansky. He was a famous astronomer in his time and the winner of the Janssen Prize. Everyone loved him. Once, travelling on a train with a southern magnate, he managed to inspire him with stories of astronomy and impress him with his passion to such a degree that the man offered him an observatory in Simeiz as a gift. Uncle Alyosha gratefully accepted the offer and happily passed it on to the Pulkovo Observatory. It was equipped with technology and staff, and he was appointed its director. The grand opening day arrived. Guests were expected from Pulkovo and Petersburg. Friends and relatives gathered. It was scorching hot.  Not everyone has arrived yet, there is time before the great moment and Uncle Alyosha invites everyone for a swim. He didn’t come back. He swam out, got caught in the current and drowned. He was thirty seven. Mother treasured his photo and medals until the end of her life.”

This brief paragraph led me to discover the story of my great-great-great uncle Alyosha. He was indeed a very successful astronomer who took some amazing photos of the sun that enabled him to study sun spots and granulation. In 1904 he received the Janssen medal for his work. His photographs were of such good quality that they were even questioned as fakes. His research at Pulkovo and elsewhere led to an expansion of this area of science. I found some possible confirmation for the train story that my great-great-grandmother told about the gift of the observatory, but there is a definite confirmation that it was a gift: the astronomy enthusiast Nikolai Maltsov met Gansky in Crimea in 1908, when Gansky was looking for somewhere to build an observatory. After their meeting Maltsov contacted the director of the Pulkovo observatory, suggesting that he donate his own to them as a gift. During the opening ceremony, Uncle Alyosha drowned in the sea. In 1928 astronomers named a planet after Gansky, in 1970s a crator on the moon, there is also a glacier on Spitsbergen named after him, where he went for expeditions and a street in Simeiz. Not bad for a distant relative I think.

Great-gradmother’s story is thus completely true. It has the nature of a memory with the uncertainty of dates and meeting places, but that is what gives it its dreamy and almost unreal quality. This is part of the great work of translators to uncover what is beneath the words of their subjects. This also made me wonder, is there a difference between fiction and memoir? Is there a greater need for accuracy and historical knowledge when translating non-fiction compared to fiction? Does this put the translation in a moral position to support the truth?

As I return to translating my great-grandmother’s memoir brimming with the curiosity of what else I am about to uncover, I cannot help but be filled with awe and fascination for the work of translators, and the worlds that they uncover and recover every day.

[The photos are scanned from my great-grandmother's album]

The Dombrovskii Stories Part II

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Dombrovskii was not only writing his great novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge but was also working on a film script based on some aspects of the novel with the director Theodor Vul’fovich. The film was released in 1978 under the title of Shestvie zolotykh zverei (The Procession of Gold Beasts), although it seems that neither Dombrovskii nor Vul’fovich were completely satisfied with the result as the script had to be re-written a number of times due to censorship and lost some of its creative flare. During the writing of the film the two men became close friends and Vul’fovich published a collection of notes where he depicts the various meetings that he had with Dombrovskii until his death in 1978. One such story illustrates very well the complexity of Dombrovskii’s character: his fusion of warmth and love with the darkest aspects of Soviet life.

Vul’fovich visited Dombrovskii on many occasions at his communal flat. It was always filled with lively conversations on various topics, often under the influence of vodka. However, there was something particularly peculiar about a short, sickly, compact old man, who only reached up to Dombrovskii’s shoulder and always listened in on their conversations. He was known as the Communal zit (kommunal’nyi prysh’) and Vul’fovich very effectively describes him as a “shard of the mustachioed empire”. This man was an ex-KGB worker, who was now in retirement, but couldn’t abandon his old habits. He sat by the door and not just listened, but engrossed himself in the conversations (as Vul’fovich describes it).

One afternoon Vul’fovich came to visit Dombrovskii for their usual chats about literature and culture. However, this time the two were whispering and the door to the room was closed. This was unusual as Dombrovskii frequently conducted his conversations in the open with a loud voice and an open door. The zit quietly opened the door and placed his chair inside the room. He sat down silently and stared with his clear and almost kind eyes at the two conversing. Vul’fovich was shocked and appalled by this blatant intrusion but Dombrovskii kept on talking as if nothing had happened. In the midst of conversation he pronounced, as if the zit was not there:

- Don’t be startled, he can sit there. He’s just had the flu and it damaged his hearing. He may not hear something properly and then end up misrepresenting it in one of his reports and you know, he’s a conscientious worker (Vul’fovich didn’t detect any irony in Dombrovskii’s voice). But, if he sits there, and then misrepresents (and he pointed at the zit), then that would be inexcusable. He doesn’t want tea. He’s not going to take part in the conversations and in general, he’s a very delicate stool pigeon. Do you know what? It’s even convenient – he’s our own!  He once informed on me and misrepresented – all because he couldn’t hear! He then apologised for the mistake and I forgave him – but it could’ve been five or six years in prison for me… He’s a disgusting, stupid type, but not the worst kind. He earns his pension: listens and informs, but not too often – his sight’s getting worse and his hands are shaking. It’s tough when he’s ill – he’ll press his ear against the wall and lie like that for hours. Only thing is he complains when the conversation gets too quiet, asks not to torture him like that, to speak loudly and clearly, without withholding anything.  And you know what else? He’s even started educating himself, and asks for book recommendations. Everything I suggest – he reads! Wish I got him earlier!

The zit stands up and leaves, finding the conversation under-stimulating.

Vul’fovich notes that Dombrovskii has put a little rug under the zit’s chair to protect the old man’s ill legs from the draft in the floorboards and from the door.

As the zit leaves the room Dombrovskii says:

-  Look, they didn’t even give him proper accommodation for his services to the state. He’s got to share his home with me, a man who spent the past twenty years in prisons and camps…

This is a simple but remarkable story about Dombrovskii’s relationship to both the people around him and his own circumstances. The peculiarity of his relationship to the zit, and even the existence of such a character, highlights the complexity of life during the Soviet times. Victims and perpetrators were not only closely co-existing, but were often in a complex relationship with each other. Who is the victim in the above story? This is part of the problem in narrating and understanding Soviet history and it cannot be boiled down to a simple dichotomy of good and evil. Somehow everyone is a victim of the state surveillance and domination, yet this doesn’t mean that people can’t remain human and understanding towards each other. This is something that is evident in not only Dombrovskii’s writing but also in his life and character.

The Dombrovskii Stories Part I

So, here is the first of a few Dombrovskii stories:

Whilst walking through the city on a may afternoon in the 1970s, Dombrovskii noticed a collection of paintings on a wall of a building; they represented the great Soviet leaders. He stopped, looked up at the painting of Stalin and said: “are we really going to worship him again?” A man next to him replied: “You must be one of those rehabilitated ones…?” Dombrovskii turned to the man and punched him straight in the face.  A policeman turned up instantly and took Dombrovskii into custody. Arriving at the police headquarters he asked Dombrovskii:

“Do you at least know who that was?”

“Of course I do, it was Molotov“.

The policeman ascertained whether Dombrovskii’s insult was deliberate and after receiving a positive answer explained that he had to be severely punished for it.

“I will have to fine you….3 roubles!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

Dombrovskii scratched the back of his head and explained that he’d spent all his money in the restaurant. The policeman, after some consideration, unexpectedly offered to pay Dombrovskii’s fine himself.

And he let the writer go.

For Russian speakers, this story is told in a very lovely documentary about Dombrovskii and his wife Klara: