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Beyond 'The Crocodile'

Beyond 'The Crocodile'

UCLA literary translator Michael Heim and distinguished panelists revisit the life and the diary of Kornei Chukovsky, the Russian man of letters best remembered as a children's author. UCLA's Vyacheslav Ivanov recalls details of his lifelong friendship with Chukovsky.

By Susan Bauckus

Andreev pronounces the word 'death' the way some sensualists pronounce the word 'woman.'

Kornei Chukovsky (1882–1969)—a Russian literary critic, translator of Anglophone literature, writer of children's verse and student of the Russian language, editor, memoirist, and diarist—was the subject of a panel discussion sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies on May 3, 2007. On hand were Donald Fanger (Harvard University), Michael Heim (UCLA), who translated Chukovsky's diary (Kornei Chukovsky: Diary, 1901-1969, 2005, Yale University Press), and Vyacheslav Ivanov (UCLA), whom Chukovsky befriended when Ivanov was a child and who remained his close friend until his death.

Professor Fanger pointed out that Chukovsky and his family were regularly afflicted by the Soviet government's restrictions on citizens' statements, writings, and even right to exist. (His daughter Lidia's physicist husband was arrested and killed in 1938 during Stalin's purges. Her novel Sofia Petrovna, one of the finest evocations of the period in Russian literature, is based on that experience.) Unfortunately, Fanger noted, the Anglophone world tends to marginalize Chukovsky, although he is a central figure in Russia. He is revered not only for his children's verses, which Russians can recite by heart, but also for the range and quality of his work, and for having "established serious criticism as a form of literature in Russia." His criticism shows a gift for revealing "each writer's essential individuality," using details from subjects' lives and speech to illustrate their literary characteristics. An example is a detail about Leonid Andreev, an expressionist given to hyperbole: "he pronounces the word 'death' the way some sensualists pronounce the word 'woman.'" Chukovsky's diary is valuable as a chronicle of his encounters with the leading Russian cultural figures of the twentieth century, most of whom he knew intimately.

Professor Heim's first direct contact with the Chukovsky family was meeting Lidia in Moscow in 1984, when brought her some of her own books that could be published only abroad. What he remembers most about his visit is her account of her attempts to acquire felt pens, which she needed in order to read her manuscript annotations since she was by then nearly blind: the pens, sent from abroad, were dutifully delivered but with their tips cut off. Ten years after Heim and Lidia's meeting, the family asked him to translate Chukovsky's diaries into English.

Kids Say the Clearest Things

Heim feels gratitude to Chukovsky—who translated the works of such writers as Twain, Whitman, and Kipling into Russian—for his seminal book on translation theory, High Art, in which he stresses that a translator's unit of focus is not the word or even the sentence but the diction of the entire work, and cautions against "toning down" or normalizing a writer's language. Another classic work by Chukovsky focusing on language is From Two to Five, about the speech of young children, the only inhabitants of the Soviet Union not "socialized, or socialistized," as Heim put it, to fluency in the country's labored and opaque register.

Heim read several passages, found throughout the diary, on The Crocodile, one of Chukovsky's best-known poems for children, which he first improvised to soothe his young son after an accident. The work went through repeated cycles of being published and banned, signaling the trends in censorship and comparative "liberalism," and Chukovsky recounts his absurd conversations with literary officials to defend it. Heim also quoted passages showing the gradual disillusionment of the intelligentsia with the Soviet system. In 1922, the diary recounts writer Mikhail Slonimsky's dismissal of restrictions on writers as temporary; six years later he told Chukovsky that he was writing two pieces: one "for the soul" to be kept secret and another, "perfectly horrendous," for publication. Even then, he and Chukovsky agreed that they could imagine a Soviet system without these restrictions and still considered themselves Soviet writers. In 1930 the Formalist critic Yuri Tynianov could still praise the collective farm (which was brought about by forced collectivization, eventually destroyed Soviet agriculture, and resulted in millions of deaths), claiming that if it were Stalin's only accomplishment "he would be a genius," and several years later Chukovsky recounts the crowd's euphoria at a meeting where Stalin was present ("loving faces everywhere"). (Ivanov suggested that Chukovsky may have included some comments as self-protection in the event that his diary was seized.) But with the purges in the late thirties he realized the enormity of Stalin's crimes, and in time he came to support the fledgling anti-Soviet protest movement.

Professor Ivanov recalled that Chukovsky enjoyed the company of children and took them seriously. Ivanov was nine when they first met, and Chukovsky proposed that they collaborate on science fiction and adventure novels for children. He gave Ivanov the practical gift of his first English lessons. Ivanov later understood that Chukovsky had also entrusted him with something even more important – his anti-Soviet statements, which he never admonished Ivanov to keep secret.

Fanger hopes that the U.S. publication of the diary, in Heim's translation, will eventually spark a new appreciation of Chukovsky here. In his work, the discussants agreed, Chukovsky managed to uphold the highest literary principles. Moreover, he never denounced others or promoted propaganda. His diary bears vivid witness to a crucial period in Russian history.

Bauckus is managing editor of the Heritage Language Journal and an editor for LA Language World, both published by the UCLA Center for World Languages.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies