Kornei Chukovsky (A profile)
Anglo-Soviet Journal, Volume XXI, No 1 / 1960
Chukovsky is a tall man, with white hair and a gentle voice that belies the quick irony of some of his remarks. When he took us for a walk in the beautiful grounds, he joked about the fishing rods that on some special occasions are placed at convenient spots round the lake. «We wonder if there is someone under the water to hook the fish on as well.» He dislikes fishing, but when we took a boat out he asked us not to row too near a lone angler sitting hopefully on the bank.
«I thought you were sorry for the fish,» I remarked.
«I’m sorry for the men who waste so much of their lives trying to catch them.»
But to describe Chukovsky in the isolation of a sanatorium is to deprive him of a background and surroundings that he has made peculiarly his own. In the large garden of his home at Peredelkino, a leafy village near Moscow, there is a library for children which Chukovsky had built at his own expense some years ago and which now has several thousand books and over a thousand young readers. Chukovsky jokes about his little piece of «private enterprise», and there may well have been some raised eyebrows among his writer neighbours, who questioned the need for such things under socialism.
Chukovsky, however, sees his library scheme as one of the most satisfying ways of spending the ample means with which the socialist state endows the writer. The library has been such a success that it recently received a state grant, and has had many gifts of books from other writers.
It was this conviction of the need for spontaneity and initiative in organising cultural matters that gave birth to another of Chukovsky’s enterprises — the idea of holding an annual bonfire for children from all over the neighbourhood, with a show put on by the children themselves and «guest performances » by artists and writers. While I was standing with Chukovsky at the gate of his home, he was assailed by a bunch of twelve-year-olds from the Michurin gardens up the road, who wanted to show him the turn they had been preparing for the coming bonfire. He began by testing their knowledge of English with the aid of the American magazine “Mad” («Dear me, don’t you know what ‘mad’ means?»). But Chukovsky never allows his leg-pulling to interfere with the main task of instilling discrimination and taste. A little Armenian boy was told quite firmly that his imitation of an Azerbaidjani who could not speak Russian properly was not funny.
At seventy-seven, Chukovsky has still the youthful mind and delight in direct impressions that prompted him to begin “From Two to Five”, his most popular work, in the early twenties. It is a many-sided book, much more than a mere collection of children’s talk. It has philological aspects that one must be an expert in Russian to appreciate, and only a few of its numerous examples of a child’s word-building could be rendered satisfactorily in English. But his acute observations of the behaviour of the very young, his chapters on their struggle for mastery of their mother tongue, the comparison between children’s talk and the historical development of language (a child sometimes invents forms that were common speech centuries ago), and the beginnings of its understanding of life («Daddy, can a cock just forget he’s a cock and lay an egg?») would make fascinating reading in English, even though what could not be translated would have to be left out.
The part of the book that Chukovsky wished to emphasise when talking to me about it was the importance of nonsense in a child’s education. «Only when a child laughs at you for saying you’ll wear your galoshes on your head can you be sure he knows what they are really for,» he said. But Chukovsky does not regard the fairy tale merely as a means of sharpening a child’s powers of comprehension. Arguing with those who thought there should be no kindly wolves, brave mosquitoes or lovable hares in modern fairy-tales, he says, «. . . our whole task is to awaken, cultivate and strengthen in the sensitive soul of the child that ability to be moved with others, to suffer with others and to rejoice with others without which a man is not a man.»
It is surely quite wrong to present Chukovsky, as a “New Statesman” writer did last year, as a forgotten figure who fought a lone struggle against bigoted «authorities» and then took refuge in children’s verse. Various editions of «From Two to Five» total nearly 1,000,000 copies. His reminiscences of Gorky, Repin, Andreyev and others, printed last year in an edition of 90,000, were sold out in a few days. Though he did have to fight against the utilitarian movement in Soviet education in the thirties, he had the support of such gifted men as Marshak, and of Gorky himself. Chukovsky’s ideas coincide in many respects with those of Makarenko. It is true that in “From Two to Five” he has some amusing polemics against, among others, a reader from the Trans-Baikal who wrote an irate letter to “Literaturnaya Gazeta” protesting against Chukovsky’s fairy-tale “The Flighty Fly” being made into a children’s opera. «How strange! On the one hand we have in our country a systematic and merciless campaign to exterminate insects, while on the other certain writers produce works with the obvious intent of arousing sympathy for these pests.» To speak of such people as the «authorities» of Soviet education is about as sensible as speaking of Dotheboys Hall as if it were a modern British school. «I appreciate their desire to see a change in everything,» commented Chukovsky, who reads the “New Statesman”, «but I wish they would base their discoveries on facts.»
Besides his great contribution to Soviet child psychology, his stories and poems for the young, and his personal work and interest in children, Chukovsky has had a long and interesting career as a literary critic; and his reminiscences are full of valuable comment on people and events before and after the revolution.
Obliged to leave school in Odessa at an early age (he was expelled when the czarist decree forbidding «cook’s» children to attend the gymnasiums took effect), he became a house painter and learned to read English in his spare time «on the roof», where he chalked up ten English words a day. In 1903 he went to England as correspondent of the “Odessa News”, but it was not long before his modest salary dried up completely, when the paper, a democratic publication, was banned from the bookstalls by the authorities. Chukovsky moved from Russell Square to Whitechapel, where he lived for many months in dire poverty. He survived, he says, thanks mainly to the British Museum, which even as a correspondent he had always preferred to Parliament, and where he spent most of his time.
«In those days my idol was Lytton Sttachey,» he told me. And certainly a few years later he wrote a book that has the flavour of Eminent Victorians. «From Chekhov to Our Day» was a scathing criticism of most of the leading literary figures of the time, and in the period of disillusionment after the 1905 revolution it became a best seller. Even today, though obviously unjust to Gorky, it has a vigour and insight that it would be hard to find in other less subjective accounts of a period in Russian literature which has, perhaps justly, been forgotten but which could yield interesting comparisons with our own literature of the present. In his merciless attack on Artsibashev («Some call this pornography. If only it were!»), Chukovsky dealt an early blow at a drooling preoccupation with sex that has lived longer in the West than in Russia.
In his later reminiscences, Chukovsky describes his attitude to the political events of lune 1905.
«It was very hot, even in the morning. I went out with a pile of books under my arm and suddenly noticed that the whole street seemed to be running. … By the time we got as far as Pushkin Street there was not one of us who didn’t know that the battleship flying the revolutionary flag was called «Prince Potemkin of Tavria», that its crew had removed their officers and that (for then none of us doubted that this was so) all the ships of the Black Sea Fleet were unanimously supporting her.»
Chukovsky and a party of friends slipped through the police cordon and made their way down to the port. A Greek boatman was willing to take them out to the battleship, but the crowd was hostile: at least one of the party, a court actor, looked bourgeois. Th crowds attitude changed when it was rumoured that there was nothing to drink on the «Potemkin» and someone suggested they could take out bottles of the small beer that were sold on the quayside. Chukovsky and his friend rowed out and were eventually allowed on board. They struggled up the gangplank with their sack full of bottles. It was true that the revolutionary sailors had thrown all their drink overboard, but what they were interested in was the news of the other ship» Have you brought the proclamations?» «No it is kvass».
«It was then», Chukovsky goes on, » that I was first assailed by that heavy feeling of grief that was not to leave me till the «Potemkin» days were over».
Full of a new-found political fervour, he went to Petersburg to start up his own paper. The singer Sobinov secretly supplied him with 500 roubles and he produced a publication called «The Signal» which contained caricatures of Nikolas II and the Public Prosecutor. Chukovsky was promptly arrested and kept in custody for nearly a year while his case was being investigated. At his trial he was saved by a famous advocate of the day who challenged his accusers to repeat in court the assertion that the ass in Chukovsky’s paper bore a resemblance to the Public Prosecutor and could therefore be taken as a caricature. The challenge was not accepted.
The enthusiasm of 1905 was followed by many years of indifference to the revolution. Chukovsky produced the first Russian translation of «Leaves of Grass» and began an appreciation of Whitman which is still worth the attention of western students of the poet. This was followed by a translation into Russian of «Love’s Labour’s Lost». In 1916 came another visit to England, this time as an honoured guest.
The illuminating events of those years were his friendships with the poet Alexander Biok, and with Repin, the painter, with whom he shared a dacha on the Gulf of Finland. Of Blok he writes: «All this time we had been meeting quite often … but there was no sort of closeness between us. I was a writer for the newspapers, a literary plebeian, and he obviously disliked me.» The chance discovery that they both liked the same verse from a minor poet brought them together, and in 1921 Chukovsky wrote a vivid and scholarly book about Blok, which shows a maturity that seems to have come with the revolution.
For Chukovsky’s literary criticism the revolution meant a far more painstaking attention to detail. The rift with Gorky was healed when Gorky himself invited Chukovsky to co-operate with him at the new “World Literature” Publishing House. Chukovsky was to organize the section of Anglo-Saxon literature. He worked with Marshak and Tikhonov. Recalling those days, he writes with warmth of Gorky’s humour, tact and astonishing erudition.
Chukovsky’s previous writings had been impressionistic, often vivid; now brilliance and paradox were not enough. He had to fight for his theories with facts. When he was not allowed to read “Baron Munchausen” to children in the tuberculosis sanatorium at Yalta on the grounds that it was «not serious enough», he fought back with facts and a painstaking analysis of his own acute observations. And it is this closer attention to detail that is the outstanding feature of his later literary criticism and particularly of his biggest work, on Nekrasov, which has been hailed among Soviet scholars as a landmark in the study of Russian poetry.
As early as 1911, Chukovsky had begun collecting the Nekrasov manuscripts that had been suppressed by the censor. He relates a journey to Saratov to see the poet’s drunkard widow. The manuscripts were lying in a disorderly heap on the floor, but she refused to give them up. Chukovsky adopted the only method he could think of to save them from loss and probable destruction; he paid three roubles to the maid, who stole the manuscripts and gave them to him. These, and many other Nekrasov papers which Chukovsky assiduously collected over the years, were to form the basis for the first complete edition of Nekrasov’s work, printed under Chukovsky’s editorship in 1920. Also at this time, at Gorky’s request, Chukovsky wrote a small book on the «noble art» (as he loves to call it) of translation. Intended originally as a textbook for the hundreds of eager, but not very competent, volunteers who besieged the «World Literature» Publishing House anxious to take part in the work of putting hitherto forbidden western literature into Russia, it laid the foundation for a school of translation whose service to literature remains unequalled in this century.
As a scholar, child psychologist and children’s poet, Chukovsky has made a unique contribution to Soviet culture. For forty years he has been carving with deft, clean strokes at the tough, yet wonderfully responsive, stuff that Soviet peoples minds are made of. If at times his work has cost him much effort, he has the satisfaction of knowing that the impression he has made will be lasting.