Entretiens avec Anna Akhmatova
On any list of inhospitable shores, a place should be reserved for the Soviet side of the Gulf of Finland in late October. Spruce and fir look their worst. Dunes are both slimy and precipitous. On the strand, huge misshapen stones, greasy and granitic, sweat the day away. Tumbledown dachas have a look of sodden cardboard. Except when the late autumn storms come rampaging in from the Baltic, the sea mumbles to itself. Stale and exhausted, it can barely make it to the beach.
But for the reader of Lydia Chukovskaya’s To the Memory of Childhood, this is hallowed ground. For it was in the summer settlement of Kuokkola, an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg, that her father Kornei Chukovsky lived, year-round, with his family until the revolution of 1917. And it should be said at once of Chukovsky that his books for children enjoy to this day a universal and well-merited popularity in the Soviet Union. At the mention of his name, every face lightens. Children, parents, grandparents—all are of the same mind.
In times no matter how hideous, Chukovsky’s stories-in-verse have for generations been giving childhood a new dimension for Soviet readers. A man of acrobatic fancy, he was Edward Lear, E. B. White, and the author of Babar rolled into one. He also had a specifically Russian speed and lightness and mischief. His stories are not in the least “political.” But they are the work of a free, buoyant, unprejudiced spirit. It should not surprise us that the work of this archetypal honnête homme should be have been attacked in the late 1930s—by Lenin’s widow, among others—as potentially subversive.
As to that, his daughter should have the last word:
For decades, he took part in the battle to assure the child’s right to fairy tales—both folk and literary—and he came out of that battle victorious. Fairy tales were looked on with suspicion by the authorities; the ignoramuses in power felt that they kept children from understanding reality.
To Russians who read him when they themselves were very young, he was not “an author.” He was a friend, a brother, a father, and a confidant. When, in his eighties, he walked into the Hotel National in Moscow, both staff and guests crowded around to set eyes on him.
He has other claims upon us. When he was twenty-one, and working in London as a correspondent for a newspaper in Odessa, he willed himself to master the English language. It was in his translations that Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Rudyard Kipling were made available in Russian. As for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was within reach of his hand for more than sixty years. He even thought of it as feminine in gender. “How much she has taught me!” he once said. “And how soothing and affectionate she is!”
As a critic, as a portraitist in words, as an editor of the Russian classics, and as a professional who gave a new dignity to the feuilleton and the book review, he was in a very high class. (In 1962 he won the Lenin Prize for his edition of the poems of Nekrasov, in which much that had been lost or censored was printed for the first time.) As a philologist, he was given an honorary doctorate in Oxford in 1962. But it was above all as a force for good in human affairs that from his early years onward he impressed himself upon everyone he met. “Villains are usually idiots,” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Doing good is more fun, more interesting and, in the end, more practical.”
In the eye of eternity, moreover, Kornei Chukovsky is likely to have a second existence as the father of Lydia Chukovskaya. She would be the last to say it. Only in the last pages of her memoir, when Kornei Chukovsky is dead and buried, does she let us glimpse her own activities during the previous fifty and more years. It is left to her dedicated, if not always ideally dexterous translator, Eliza Kellogg Klose, to tell us that her husband, the astrophysicist and science writer Matvei Petrovich Bronshtein, was imprisoned and killed under torture at the end of the 1930s and that she herself narrowly escaped arrest at that time. Neither in this matter nor in any of her other books does she present herself as heroine, victim, or sanctified scourge. But if we believe that writers are sent into the world to bear witness to events that may be unimaginable to those who come later, then Lydia Chukovskaya will take her place as one of the great spirits of our century.
In general she wrote short, and she wrote small. Not for her the diluvian rant and the organ note of sanctimony with which others bore witness. The words fall onto the page like snowflakes, even in the novel Sofia Petrovna, which corresponds minutely to her experiences after her husband was banished in 1937 and (unbeknown to Chukovskaya) shot in 1938.
Nor, in To the Memory of Childhood, does she refer to the book (published in English as Going Under) that she wrote between 1949 and 1957 about what it was like to go to a so-called rest home for writers in Komarovo, not far from Leningrad. It is with the subtlest art that she conveys what it was like to arrive in a neighborhood covered in unblemished snow and find, hour by hour, that the atmosphere was poisoned by the betrayals, the griefs, and the inhumanities that her fellow guests had brought with them from the city.
Enormous must have been the temptation to contrast her years of happiness in childhood, with her father digging a narrow path through the snow with a flat, square shovel. Yet no one who comes untutored to Going Under could guess that the rest home in question was only a mile or two from Kuokkola. In this narrative, nostalgia has no place.
Meanwhile, and from beginning to end, To the Memory of Childhood is a portrait of her father. With her customary plainness, she tells us why:
After all, there aren’t many people still alive who remember him as a young man. He’d had four children. I am the sole survivor. I remember our childhood and his youth. It was up to me to write.
In this book, she is the mirror in which Kornei Chukovsky looks out at us as the father who made everything fun.
Encountered in his old age, he was tall and erect, with a great high-bridged nose that seemed to turn of its own accord toward his every visitor. But as a young man, and to his very young children, he seemed, so Lydia Chukovskaya tells us, “the tallest man on earth.” “His height,” she goes on,
was given us by fate as a sort of cubit, a natural unit of measurement. Sitting in a boat, trailing our fingers over the side in the transparent gray water, we’d often estimate distances: and if we were calculating the depth, to the very, very bottom—how many papas would it come to: six or more? “Heavens, no! What do you mean, six? It’s at least twelve!”
Now that it is common form for daughters to trash their fathers in print, there is almost a prelapsarian innocence about Lydia Chukovskaya’s memories of Kornei Chukovsky before 1914. Here he is, reading poetry on his rowboat, way out on the sea:
I have never heard poetry recited more beguilingly. It was as if, at these moments, every aspect of his being were concentrated in voice, inflection, lips, and sounds, sounds seeming to cling to lips, and lips to sounds…. Kornei Ivanovich recited poetry like a poet, not an actor. He tried not to add anything of his own to the intonation or rhythm as he recited, instead, his voice, his whole being obeyed the rhythmic movement, which made clear the meaning of even the most complicated verse, even to very young children. That’s why his recitations made comprehensible to us the poems which used many words we didn’t know or depicted events which were beyond our experience.
It might seem that Lydia Chukovskaya was sometimes overcome in this book by her unbounded and lifelong admiration for her father. She writes about his hands:
As a little girl, I first noticed how beautiful his hands were one day when I was listening to him recite poetry out at sea. I’ve never seen such remarkable hands on anyone since—strong, capable, but unblemished by oar, saw, pail, stone, or shovel, with long fingers which bent back slightly at the tips.
Yet it was clear to those who saw him in the 1960s, whether in Oxford, in Moscow, or in Peredelkino, that to the end of his life Chukovsky’s hands were not those—soft, unmarked, unschooled in everyday tasks—of “a writer.” They were the hands of what he had been in youth—a determined if amateur maintenance man who loved to fix, saw, chop, paint, service the stove, and act as yardman.
As for his way of reading poetry aloud, we have to remember that, as well as anyone else now living, Lydia Chukovskaya knows what it was like to hear Russian poetry read aloud by those who had written it. The poets in question included Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Gumilev, Esenin, Marshak, and the young Joseph Brodsky.
Each of them recited in his own way. The now conversational, now emotional intonation of Mayakovsky in no way resembled the latent passion concealed by outward restraint of Blok’s recitation. (His mournful, muffled voice seemed simply to list the words.) I heard the candid, wide open recitation of Pasternak, so completely unlike the severe, serious, reserved recitation of Akhmatova (she remained closed, even as she opened herself).
All this notwithstanding, Chukovsky wanted his children “to grow up like children anywhere” and to have children’s priorities. When he strapped an improvised sail to his back and let the children skate across the frozen sea with him, that was the great adventure. To be on the stoop when Gorky met Mayakovsky for the first time did not touch them in the same way.
Nor would he have wished it otherwise. He saw child prodigies as an abomination. He could not bear parents who showed off their children’s gifts. Feodor Chaliapin impressed little Lydia by his gigantic stature, but who was he, after all? A man who opened his mouth and sang. Far more memorable to her was his Chinese valet. A yellow-skinned man! And so strangely costumed! Who could get over that?
When the first motor yacht to come into view off the beach at Kuokkola sent a launch ashore, and when the passenger in that launch was Leonid Andreyev, author of The Seven Who Were Hanged, Lydia Chukovskaya took note of his stylish white sweater, and of the equally stylish binoculars that hung around his neck. She had often heard him talked about. But what interested her much more was the sailor in his striped vest, with the name of the yacht printed in gold on the ribbon on his cap.