High Spirits

To the Memory of Childhood

by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by Eliza Kellogg Klose
Northwestern University Press, 168 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Entretiens avec Anna Akhmatova

by Lydia Tchoukovskaïa
Albin Michel, 556 pp., 155FF

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 …

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Letters

To the Memory of Childhood’ April 12, 1990