Thursday, April 7, 2011

A sentimental interlude

This does not happen very often so I crave my readers' indulgence while I spend a little time in sentimental memories of my childhood and the books that were at the heart of it. What triggered this off was a lecture given at Pushkin House by an extraordinary man.

Leonid Gamberg, a former Colonel in the Soviet Air Force and aeronautical engineer, found another career on his retirement: he became an important link between Ukraine and Britain once there was a Ukraine and a writer whose theme has been consistently his love for Britain, her literature and culture.

His latest books is called Британия – Сотворение Спорта (Britain - the Creation of Sport) and it relates the story of all the many sports that Britain invented but more importantly regulated and turned into organized activity that spread across the world often to the British teams' detriment. There was a lively discussion about cricket, which, as Mr Gamberg rightly describes in his book, has spread very effectively across most of the British Empire (Canada being the sole exception) but has made no impact outside it.

Sport, however, is not a big deal for me. What made me smile with memories is Mr Gamberg's description of his early teens after the war when his father, having returned safely, spent time inculcating love of English literature into the boy. They lived in Kiev and went to see a production of Пигмалион (Pygmalion), read translations of Диккенс and Конан Дойл (Dickens and Conan Doyle) and acquired a copy of the newly published Сага о Форсайтах (The Forsyte Saga) a book that is much loved by Russians of that generation, possibly because of its translation in 1947. He was taken to see such films as Леди Гамильтон and Мост Ватерло (Lady Hamilton and Waterloo Bridge). The first of these were given to Stalin by Churchill whose favourite film it was and was, presumably, copied and released; the second was, most likely, acquired illegally by the Soviet forces in Germany or some other liberated country. Certainly I heard about those trophy films that were shown in film clubs (where entry was remarkably liberal) without their proper beginnings.

Let me add a story here: twenty odd years ago I was acting as personal interpreter to the Russian writer Anatoly Rybakov and his wife. At one point when the somewhat elderly Mr Rybakov was resting between the many interviews he had to give, I took his wife Tanya for a walk in London. She asked me if we could go and see Waterloo Bridge. Slightly surprised I told her that it was not a particularly attractive or interesting bridge. Then I remembered why she wanted to see it and had to explain that it was not the same bridge but a new, post-war one. She lost interest in it and was content to be taken to the Sherlock Holmes pub where we went upstairs to have a look at the reproduction of the famous sitting room. I may add that the pub and the room upstairs has been a huge success with every Russian I have ever had to take round London.

Anyway, it was not the films that made me feel sentimental but the memory of my own childhood and all those English language books in translation that dominated my reading. Mr Gamberg's first book was a short history of English children's literature and his second one was about English detective stories. All of them are immensely popular with Russians even now. Sadly his own books are not just out of print but are antiquarian rarities whose price is far beyond anything I could afford. In fact he only had his own copies with him and, in all honesty, I could not try to buy them, much as I salivated over the two little paperbacks. But I did look through them and they brought back the times of my reading English nursery rhymes and A. A. Milne's poems in Russian (excellent translations by the poet Marshak). Indeed, I can still recite the Russian versions of Humpty-Dumpty or Milne's verse about the King who wanted "a little bit of butter on his bread".

I smiled as he talked about reading his first account of cricket in Pickwick Papers, all in Russian, with completely incomprehensible descriptions and remembered the equally incomprehensible description of croquet in a first-rate translation of Alice in Wonderland. Oh here is a little gem from the latter: the Cheshire Cat is called Чеширский Кот and when Alice asks him why he explains that it comes from чешиться that is scratching himself. Clever, eh?

Then there was my first reading of Шерлок Холмс (Sherlock Holmes) stories in a volume borrowed from my Russian grandmother with whom we were staying at the time. The first story I ever read was Лига Красноволосых (The Red-Headed League).

One can draw some interesting conclusions from this. My own family was particularly Anglophile for all sorts of reasons and both my parents but especially my father knew English very well. Yet that was not the only reason I was brought up on English and American literature. After all, Mr Gamberg's family were not particularly knowledgeable about England but, nevertheless, loved English literature and English culture. And while I was reading all those books in Russian many of my school friends in Budapest were reading them in Hungarian translation.

The curious aspect of this reading of foreign literature then and now in Russia and Eastern and Central Europe is that it did not feel foreign. In other words, for us and, I have noticed, for succeeding generations the characters of Dickens, Conan Doyle or Jonathan Swift (another author I first read in English) were not strange or different. They were of our imaginary world, as close and understandable as characters from literature nearer to home. It does not surprise me in the slightest that one of the most popular TV series in Russia was about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, with Russians maintaining that the actor Vasili Livanov was the best Holmes ever. I wouldn't go as far as that, though he was very good; not as good as Jeremy Brett or Peter Cushing, though. The film of The Hound of Baskervilles that I saw (and the story was also in that long-ago-read Russian volume of my grandmother's) was very poor, indeed. Disappointingly so. Nevertheless, the characters and the tales as well as the England the stories depict remain part of Russian as well as English culture. What can one make of it all?

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