A Writer for Children and Adults

Moscow News / 2002

Having mentioned Kornei Chukovsky in the piece commemorating his daughter last week, we let the cat out of the bag. On March 31 it is the 120th anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary writer.

In a short account of Chukovsky, it is difficult to decide where to begin. Indeed, for most Russian readers in Soviet years, Chukovsky was the patriarch of Russian literature, author of children’s verses, the genial old gentleman surrounded by little children eagerly listening to him reciting his works. Yet this is only one of several images, and one wonders if there is any sense in trying to understand which of them is genuine.

The writer’s real name was Nikolai Korneichukov. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1882. As a boy, he suffered acutely from the fact that he was an illegitimate child and that his mother, a peasant, had been abandoned by his father, a student. The father was never even mentioned in the family, which consisted of Nikolai’s mother and sister. The boy didn’t even know his own nationality — Jewish, Russian or Ukrainian.

The young man’s identity problem was perhaps the reason why he invented his intricate pen name. He took the beginning of his surname and turned it into his first name, while adding the Russian -sky to the remaining bit of the surname. Also, he changed his patronymic from Vasilyevich to Ivanovich, probably as a token gesture against his hated father.

Chukovsky grew up into a lanky young man with a narrow face and a big nose. This was the image that he projected as he developed into one of Russia’s most brilliant literary critics and journalists in the early 20th century. He was particularly noted for his caustic tongue. But far from all his contemporaries acknowledged him. People as dissimilar as the poet Alexander Blok and religious thinker Vasily Rozanov made rather reserved remarks about his critical works.

However, the sheer volume of Chukovsky’s critical work is impressive. He wrote about all the leading contemporary literary figures in Russia, Anton Chekhov, Leonid Andreyev, Maxim Gorky, Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova among others. But as his major project he turned to the history of literature and produced a large number of books about the Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov. The choice was not accidental: Nekrasov was a relatively safe subject to write about under the Soviet regime, since the poet was regarded as a radical democrat, which was acceptable. Chukovsky was a cunning fox. He adapted to Soviet reality without forsaking everything he stood for, e. g. the Russian literary traditions. It was clear that he had no chance of continuing as a literary critic. In Soviet times critics were the watchdogs of literature, and Chukovsky was forced to abandon criticism almost completely. Another clever move was to switch to children’s literature and translations of English and American authors of the past (Walt Whitman was one of his favorite poets, a rather doubtful choice).

Anything Chukovsky did, he did brilliantly or very well. Generations of Russian kids were brought up on Chukovsky’s children’s verses. Subsequently, in the years of the Thaw, Chukovsky hinted that his children’s poem about the Fearsome Cockroach that terrorizes all the animals was actually a thinly veiled reference to Stalin. However, since the poem came out in 1923, when Stalin was still a relatively obscure figure, this was probably not the case. But it was a remarkable coincidence novertheless.

Despite Chukovsky’s cautious and cunning nature, the 1920s and 1930s were touch and go for the writer. He was viciously attacked in the Soviet press as a petty bourgeois intellectual who had served the needs of the bourgeoisie. Even his children’s verses were lambasted as a relic of the intellectual family’s nursery before the Bolshevik revolution.

In the face of all this adversity, which could have broken a weaker person, Chukovsky continued to work and publish books from time to time (very few of his important works came out in the 1930s after he published another Nekrasov book and his classical work on the principles of translation in 1930). Following the Second World War, Chukovsky’s situation improved. Publication of his books was resumed on a grand scale.
It is difficult to even enumerate all of Chukovsky’s major fields of work. He made an important contribution as a linguist, mostly as a critic of bureaucratic jargon in the Soviet Union. It is most unfortunate for the Russian language that a good deal of his observations went unheeded.

A unique series was undertaken in 1928 by Chukovsky under the title From Two to Five. The series, which went through 21 editions in his lifetime alone, was a collection of short utterances by children with comments by Chukovsky.

Chukovsky also contributed to the literary history of the age he lived in in the book of memoirs Contemporaries and in the unique album Chukokkala, a collection of literary trivia.

I had the good fortune to meet Chukovsky many times at his home in Peredelkino at the turn of the 1960s. He was always full of stories, and after telling an anecdote, he would promptly forget it, thus precluding repetition (don’t forget that he was in his eighties at the time). One story I particularly liked was about his attending a poetry recital by a famous actor. Like all true poetry lovers in Russia, Chukovsky could not stand actors’ recitals of verse. After the recital, the actor came up to Chukovsky and said: «It’s all right for you to have an expressive face, but why did you have to sit in the front row?»

Chukovsky had a library built for the local children next to his own house. He did not permit straight-A pupils into the library, considering them to be dull, which got him into conflict with the local school principal.

In 1962 Chukovsky was awarded the Lenin Prize, despite opposition from veteran Communists. Oxford University also honored him for his works on Nekrasov and others.

Like all great men (and by this time Chukovsky had adopted this image, too), he could be a monster at times. Sometimes he was extremely rude to visitors, and occasionally even those guests who were invited to his house on a certain Sunday were forced to leave without seeing the Grand Old Man, who preferred to spend the day working. Probably this behavior had something to do with the fact that Chukovsky was incredibly prolific.

Towards the end of his life, Chukovsky committed an act that was a direct challenge to the authorities. He allowed the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn to live in his house. Chukovsky realized that thanks to his established reputation he had little to fear. Nevertheless, this act adds an unexpected additional dimension to an extremely versatile writer.

Kornei Chukovsky died on October 28, 1969, at the Kuntsevo hospital, where he was undergoing treatment.

Today, Chukovsky’s house in Peredelkino is a unique literary museum, which any person who wishes to gain an idea of the writer and his age must visit.

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