ИС: Under a new sky a reunion with Russia, Ticknor&Fields
Downstairs in the tiny kitchen once ruled by a silent housekeeper from the countryside and now the domain of the museum volunteers, Anya was putting together a luncheon of cottage cheese and salad. Three of us - Anya, Liusha Chukovskaya, and I - ate at the round table in the ultramarine dining room, still presided over by Chukovsky's wife, looking down detachedly at the guests out of her turn-of-the-century pastel portrait. The daisies presented to Lydia Korneevna brightened the table, but she herself would not be here. She had been held up in Moscow, putting the last touches on her monumental study of Anna Akhmatova, which was being published later that year in honor of the poet's centenary.
At lunch, Liusha, Lydia Korneevna's daughter, who looks after her grandfather's legacy, explained that although there was a small sign tacked on the Chukovsky house classifying it as a museum, it had not yet been allocated the government funds necessary for it to function. Yet the building and grounds had to be maintained, manuscripts preserved, museum tours conducted: the financial situation was becoming an emergency. Happily, soon afterward the Soros Foundation became a sponsor of the museum, ensuring, at least for a while, its survival.
There was no lack of exciting subjects for the three of us to discuss on that day - the future of the museum; the publication of Doctor Zhivago in the USSR; the resurrection of my uncle Daniel's poetic works; Solzhenitsyn's decision not to return to Russia until his every book was available everywhere in the USSR - "a remote prospect," said Liusha regretfully. Acquainted with him since the days when Solzhenitsyn lived at the Chukovskys', she is a champion of his interests in the USSR. My own difficulties with him, which I felt compelled to share with her in some detail, she attributed to "a misunderstanding caused by Solzhenitsyn's unbending nature - the price of his greatness."
"The country is in the throes of an enormous book hunger," Liusha said. "Today a black market for books is flourishing. It is unrealistic of Alexander Isaevich to make the availability of his books here a condition for his return."
Liusha, who is my age, had hardly changed since I had last seen her. Her dry manner, her deliberate lack of sentimentality, which I remembered from the past, were still evident. But whenever she addressed Anya, whose deliberate matter-of-factness matched hers, she became quite affectionate. I remember thinking that Liusha's restraint, in such contrast with Chukovsky's geniality, was most probably a legacy from Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova abhorred displays of emotion - and through her mother's intimacy with the poet, Liusha had grown up in her aura. Anya, the child of divorced parents, had found a new home in the Chukovsky household, which in today's Russia is an island of stability, while Liusha, the childless heir to a formidable literary legacy, responded with appreciation to Anya's goodwill. At that time, besides the salvaging of her grandfather's house, Liusha had the publication of his lifelong diary on her mind. That was the only work Chukovsky intended for himself alone and kept locked in his desk drawer. Its first volume was to be published soon, a small part of the twenty-nine notebooks that span almost seventy years.
Some months later, when it was being published at last, Liusha explained to me that originally she wanted the diary, whose first volume includes entries up to 1929, to extend to 1934. It was to end with Chukovsky standing over Kirov's coffin, a turning point for the epoch and for Chukovsky - the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the popular Party chief from Leningrad, disguised as an automobile accident, had signaled Stalin's ascendancy to absolute power. But the paper shortage necessitated excluding the last 150 pages of the first book, although its index runs for dozens of pages, many entries being people who were executed or perished in camps and others who emigrated.
"For seventy years names were proscribed or tarnished with insulting labels," said Liusha. "I won't be telling you anything new when I say that we still have no literary history, that it is yet to be written. After 1934, when every written word could be used as evidence against someone, people stopped writing letters and keeping diaries. Self-censorship outdid formal censorship. Kornei Chukovsky became a severe censor of his own writing; he also lost the precision and vividness of his earlier descriptions."
Nonetheless, Liusha felt offended when one writer recently said of her grandfather's generation, "What's the good of publishing them? Theirs was the literature of the Third Reich." "Too many people I loved and respected belong to that generation," Liusha said. "Kornei Ivanovich was one of them. Chekhov was his favorite writer. Chukovsky set great store by Chekhov's theory of 'little deeds,' which used to be ridiculed in Stalin's time. Every day he helped someone get care at a hospital, obtain a residence permit, get published.
"We mustn't generalize about the survivors of that horrible time," Liusha continued. "Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexei Tolstoy were canonized, they became masks created by propaganda. Whatever in their literary work suited the political needs of the day was promoted, while everything else was stifled. To some extent this was true also of Chukovsky. Officially he was a benevolent old man, a friend to all children, Grandpa Kornei. But Chukovsky began as a brash and controversial critic whose reviews were regarded as highly subjective. Today Chukovsky the critic is forgotten. I hope the publication of the Diary will help change this."
After lunch, before the museum tours resumed, Anya and I sat for a while on the Chukovskys porch, now leaning perilously to one side. "The public isn't allowed here, it is in danger of collapsing," Anya said, "but if we sit very quietly we'll be all right." And she brought out two straight chairs from the dining room and set them out in the shade. We sat facing the pine trees, which now tower above the dacha. An aromatic midday had settled upon the woods edged with tall grass and Queen Anne's lace. There was no place in the world I would rather have been at that moment.
"In Peredelkino in the summer Pasternak always seems nearby," said Anya. "He must have loved this place very much. Lydia Korneevna speaks about him often." Anya asked me to describe what I remembered best about Pasternak.
"I can't separate my memories of Pasternak from his early verse," I said. "There was such energy in his every phrase, such unexpected twists." I recited a stanza from an early poem written during the "memorable summer" of 1917:
Split your soul like wood. Let today froth to your mouth. It's the world's noontide. Have you no eyes for it?
Look, conception bubbles from the bleached fallows; fir cones, woodpeckers, clouds, pine needles, heat.
(Translated by Robert Lowell with OAC)
At four o'clock the Chukovsky museum was closed to the public, but visitors kept appearing at the gate. Anya and Liusha urged them to come back the following weekend. Standing there, however, they looked so disappointed, so meek, so imploring, that Anya offered to conduct one more, abbreviated tour. By the time we set forth for the cemetery the air was cool. Shadows around us were lengthening while we gathered a few wild grasses and daisies to complement our bouquet of tulips. First we walked up to the church on the hill above the cemetery. Lilacs billowed over the stone walls that partially enclose it, filling the air with their smell. Apple trees were in bloom. To me it all looked improbable, a golden dream of a long-lost Russia.