Sunday, 21 December 2014

Highlights of the year

This has been a very good year. Thinking back, I cannot recall anything that wasn't good, although in my age you can always complain of poor health, and that's boring. Also, I have, like so many others, been worried about politics. But for me personally, the year has been good.

In terms of academic achievements, I have published a book. It was the most difficult book I had ever written, and I am very pleased with it. It's too early to say whether it has shifted the paradigm, but the students are referring to it. I have also published several articles and book chapters, most of them written so long ago that I had forgotten about them. Still always nice to see a book with your contribution. Whatever research councils say, books are more important in our branch.

Teaching has been good. Two PhD students have successfully completed their theses. Both have good jobs. Of course my colleague, friend and benefactor, Morag, retired this year, and I miss her, but we have managed to get her replaced, and I am very pleased with my new colleague, even if at the moment I have to do far too much before she is settled. With a newly appointed lecturer in children's literature, chances are good that our course will not be closed down.We also have a new Head of Faculty who so far is promising.

I have attended two conferences, which feels reasonable. One was fun because of good company, but a waste of time professionally. The other went well beyond my expectations. I am going to far too many conferences next year, which you may say is in the future, but it means I haven't been as good as I should have been in saying no this year.

Travel highlight was doubtless Madagascar, but I won't repeat what I have already written.

Closer to home, I spent some lovely days in Kent. An unexpected bonus there was E. Nesbit'sgrave.

I have only been to theatre a couple of times. Emil and the Detectives was great. Blithe Spirit was fun too. I haven't been to a movie, and I haven't watched as many movies at home this year. I think the one that made strongest impression on me was The Pianist, mostly because I had not read the blurb and didn't know that it was a true story and that the protagonist survives. The exhibition Silent Partners at Firzwilliam Museum was fascinating. Otherwise, I am not very good at museums. I don't think I've visited my favourite V&A a single time this year.

I have already written about books of the year.

Our children and grandchildren visited in various constellations, but otherwise it has been quiet on the visitors' front. There have been many parties, but nothing extraordinary. Sadly, I missed Anton's thirtieth birthday party. However, I've had the most extravagant gastronomic experience: The Fat Duck. Once in a lifetime. Not just the best meal of the year, but the best meal I have eaten in my whole life. Not just a meal, an experience for all senses. No words to describe it.

I have been reminded of my mortality by getting a senior bus pass. Unlike senior rail card, you don't get it at 60, but there is a very complicated calculation: I had to be sixty-two years, three months and eight days. I never use a bus, but if I am entitled to it, I got my bus pass.

I bought some new summer clothes that people noticed, and I bought a handbag which I haven't used yet.

I have exercised regularly, but haven't been very good at power walking. This will have to be my new year resulution.

I haven't done a lot of gardening this year because of a bad shoulder. I started another small flower border, and I planted a couple of shrubs. My roses were even better this year, and two are still in bloom. There has been a good harvest of raspberries and blackcurrants, but almost no vegetables.

I have bought my dream dollhouse and have been working on it with great joy. 

I have grown older, wiser and calmer. 

Warm thanks to family, friends and students who have made this year so pleasant.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Books of the year

Shelfari tells me that I read 26 books this year and that I am behind my pace, because last year I read 52 books. The year before I read 84 books. I am not sure whether this is reliable statistics to show a trend, but I feel that I am reading less and that I am reading slower. There is a correlation. I think I read more books for pleasure this year than in many, many previous years. I read considerably less children's books than usual. I read very little criticism because I am still recuperatring from a four-year research project. Contrary to my habits, I read several very recent books. It seems I didn't re-read any books this year. So this is not a typical year – unless this is how it is going to be in the future.


Best novel: Children Act, by Ian McEwan
Another best novel: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Best historical novel (with some magical realism): The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Best thriller: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Best fantasy (if it is fantasy): The Name of the Wind, and sequel, by Patrick Rotfuss
Best humour (of the dark kind): A Man called Ove, by Fredrick Backman
Best children's book: Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
Best historical children's novel: Eleven Eleven, by Paul Dawswell
Best sequel: Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs
Best literary criticism: Entranced by Story, by Hugh Crago
Simply the best: Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rotfuss

Monday, 1 December 2014

Lost allusions

Thinking further about my yesterday's experience I realise that another reason for my emotional disturbance is an acute sense of lost allusions, the lack of common cultural ground, the paucity of mother-tongue immersion. I have in all these years deliberately avoided Russian diaspora, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Russian emigrants of all generations have been suspicious of each other; I have heard slander about most of my former compatriots, and I can just imagine what has been said – perhaps is being said – about me behind my back. In every Russian diaspora there are factions and groups; in Stockholm there are several Russian Orthodox parishes that don't recognise each other; there are mutually exclusive societies and associations. I never wanted to be part of it so I preferred not to join. Then, as any diaspora, it is highly heterogeneous, and I see no point in socialising with anyone merely because we happen to come from the same country, but with whom I wouldn't socialise back in Russia. Also I made a point of becoming personally and professionally integrated in Sweden, in all things Swedish. It never occurred to me to get involved with the Slavic department, because I had never been a Slavic scholar and had neither interest nor competence to become one. I did attend Slavic conferences and other events, but only when topics interested me for my own professional goals. I also tried to become involved in various communities, from the parish to charity work to Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange, and abandoned those for various reasons.

The gains are obvious: I would have never been where I am now if I hadn't invested in my professional career. But the losses only became clear to me obliquely. I would go back to Russia to speak Russian and to immerse into what had been my element since I was a child: intellectual talk with common denominators, where allusions didn't have to be spelled out. As years went by I started to notice that I wasn't any longer atuned to my friends' framework of mind. I didn't understand their references; sometimes, their language felt alien. I wasn't able to keep up with new literature, new thinking, new worldview, new gossip. I wasn't one of the gang anymore. Some of my Slavic scholar friends caught up and passed me in their knowledge of contemporary Russia. For them, it was their study object. I could never make my country of origin a study object. And I had to keep up with my own study objects.

The allusions got irretrievably lost. There is no point throwing out literary quotations if your conversation partners have no idea what you are talking about. You cannot explain every joke. Finally, you give up. I have read about emigrants who forgot their mother tongue, or perhaps suppressed it. I hope I haven't quite forgotten Russian although I have fewer and fewer occasions to speak it, and sometimes I ask myself whether I should persist at all. I even speak to myself in my two other languages. I read Russian literature, classic and modern, but I cannot write professionally. So much of my grown-up vocabulary has developed in the other languages.

What happened yesterday was a rare occasion of shared allusions. Everybody laughed together, everybody recognised and remembered (I am sure there were people who didn't, but we can ignore them). I was brutally and painfully reminded of my voluntary isolation, of severed ties, of my cultural luggage that will die with me, unclaimed.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A voice from the past

I am not sure what I had expected.

But I know I had been apprehensive ever since Staffan told me about it, a couple of months ago. I had been pretending it wasn't happening. I was afraid to be disappointed.

Many, many years ago in a far away galaxy my father told me to go and see a documentary. Documentaries are typically not on teenagers' priority lists, but he insisted because it was a documentary about music, called Seven tones in a silence. It was seven short documentary snippets about various musical phenomena. One of them was a young man of Asian origin who sang pirate songs on board of a fishing boat off Kamchatka. This man was the reason my father wanted me to watch the film.

It was our first encounter with Yuli Kim. At that time, we all loved Bulat Okudzjava, and some of us loved other underground bards, and Kim soon became famous. He had returned from Kamchatka where he served his mandatory three years of teaching after his teacher certificate, and he taught in a school just around the corner from my school. He wrote songs for movies, and that's how my father got to know him.

The time was bad, and he got caught in a dissident movement. He lost his job, but continued writing for films under pseudonym. Then, in 1968, he and my father collaborated on a musical version of As You Like It. I was sixteen and a political idealist. I hated the regime. The performance of As You Like It alluded to the regime. Kim's songs emphasised the satire. My father brought news from rehearsals every day. Yesterday this song was cut. Today, this authentic Shakespeare monologue was considered by the censors too subversive. I went to the dress researsal. Half of Kim's songs had been forbidden. Partly because they were potentially subversive, partly because he was a non-person, pseudonym or not. But we had them all recorded on our antedeluvial tape recorder. I knew them all by heart. I still know them all by heart. The play opened and was quickly closed down. For me, it will always remain a symbol of Art against Tyranny.

My father and Kim did some more musicals together. He would come and sing, and my father would record, then orchestrate. There were more banned songs. They were wonderful songs, witty, clever, beautifully crafted, filled to the brim with literary and musical allusions. I shared them with friends. A new song by Kim was an event. You could be sentenced to five years in a labour camp for singing, listening, sharing or just keeping a tape.

I moved to Sweden, but when I went back to visit there would be theatre performances with Kim's songs. And he would come and sing at my parents'. Once, I remember, he met my daughter, two years old. He asked her what her name was. She said, in Russian, “Yulya”. He laughted: “My name is also Yulya” (that's Russian gender-neutral endearments for you). In the tape recorded that everning, you can hear Julia's eager two-year-old voice in pauses: “Sing more!”

One of the last times I was in Moscow, Kim knew I was in the audience at his concert – by that time, he was a famous performer, finally acknowledged by the authorities. He dedicated the performance of a song to me, a song called “Poor Masha” (actually a political song about Andrei Sakharov).

Because I know so many of Kim's songs by heart I often sing them to myself. I always sing them when I am rowing at the gym – very powerful.

Anyway, here I am, in Cambridge, twice removed from my home town and a million years away from my sixteen-year-old self. I am in a church in Victoria Street. I am shaking. I see him alone in a corner. I approach him and say: “Hello, Yulya, I am Masha”. He looks at me. We embrace. I don't want to disturb him before the performance, but he comes and sits by me and Staffan, and we talk theatre, music, politics and grandchildren.

Then he sings all those songs, and there is no church in Victoria Street, no Cambridge, no forty-five years in between. Has someone from my past miraculoulsy reached me in my present? Have I miralulously moved back to my past?

I don't know how to describe it. It is not just hearing your teenage idol, forty-five years later, live. It is someone who used to come to dinner. And after the concert, and before he is attacked by people asking for autographs, he comes to me to say goodbye.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A quarter of a century

I seldom cry when I watch TV-news. Frankly, I selsom watch TV-news at all. But at that time, twenty-five years ago, we all sat glued to our TVs, watching history unfold.

Much as we hated the regime when I was young, we knew it was for ever. Communism was invincible, and the only thing you could do was learn how to cope. Some people tried to escape. Some brave people did it literally: crawling under barbed wire, swimming out to sea. Some, privileged to travel abroad, defected, knowing that their relatives remaining inside the Soviet Union, would be prosecuted. Dissidents who weren't sent to camps were sent abroad, which we honestly didn't see as punishment. Some got married to foreigners, for real or for convenience. In the '70, Jewish families were allowed to emigrate. But these were handfuls, sunshine stories in a bog of misery, and there would always be the hundred millions in Russia, the occupied countries and Eastern European satellites, deprived of material wealth and human rights.

Being one of the lucky handful, I always felt guilty. But what could I do? Communism was invincible, and the West didn't care. As the party bosses promised us, our children and grandchildren would live under communism.

And then one evening twenty-five years ago it all changed. I sat crying in front of the TV, repeating like a prayer that I had never, ever hoped to live long enough to see it.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Reflections on gifted children and pushy parents

Yesterday I went to a talk by my young colleague Clémentine Beauvais whose current research is about gifted children. The talk was about gifted children and pushy parents, and it provoked two strands of reflections. Was I a gifted child and were my parents pushy? Are my children gifted and are we pushy parents?

Since my parents are dead I can share my views without reservations. I probably wasn't a gifted child by the standards defined in Clémentine's research, but I was clearly above the average. I was bilingual, I could read at five and started writing stories before I could read (I scribbled something down that I then read aloud). I was forced to practice the piano when I was six – here comes the pushy parents bit. I believe it was rather pushy grandparents, but everybody in the family were musicians, so I never questioned it, simply hated it. Wasn't it obvious for my parents that I was a word person, not a music person? I love music and cannot imagine my life without music, but practising scales wasn't my thing. When I stopped I was told that I would one day regret it, but I never did.

In school I was expected to be a high achiever, full stop. Straight As. I wouldn't be punished for a occasional A-, like some of my classmates, but I knew I was a disappointment. When I in Year 5 had one A- in my annual report and didn't, as usual, win a book and a diploma for “academic excellence and good behaviour”, I was absolutely devastated.

Not to mention the tragedy when I had one A- in my final exams and didn't win a gold medal “like everybody in the family”.

I have already told the story of my parents' disappointment in my choice of education, but they kept telling me that I could still amend it by graduate studies. “Everybody in the family” had a PhD before 30. My mother was late, 36, but she was excused because she had to ditch an almost complete thesis for political reasons. I also got my PhD late, just as late as my mother, but I had to ditch an almost complete PhD because I moved countries. My parents were unimpressed. “Everybody in the family” in three generations was a professor, so I'd better apply myself.

I don't know whether they were pushy parents by Clémentine's standards, but they certainly pushed me toward the edge more than once, for better and for worse.

When it comes to my children and my own parenting, it becomes more sensitive, so I'll proceed with caution. With my first-born, I was so young that pushes still came more from my parents than myself. They didn't help me, a single mother, in the everyday, but they would borrow my son to show off to their friends, making him learn and recite long, grownup poems. They – or we, since I silently agreed – forced him to play the piano, which he hated. I took him out of the nursery school twice a week to ride the underground to the other end of the city for skating classes, which we both hated, but I was being an exemplary mother.

My mother had wild ideas that she pushed onto me. At one point she decided that Sergej should learn slalom skiing. The closest, very primitive resort for this exclusive sport was three or four hours by train from Moscow. My mother suggested that I take him there on Saturdays, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, eat picnic dinner, breakfast and lunch, let him ski in the morning and come back in the afternoon. She was really disappointed when I rejected this brilliant idea. (Many years later Sergej spent two winters as a ski instructor in Chamounix, so he didn't miss on skiing).

With our Swedish children we were pushy or supportive, depending how you look at it. We took them to piano, cello, trumpet and ballet classes, football and basket training; children's activities at the Museum of Modern Art; we encouraged stamp collecting, sailing, summer drama camps, photography (with a lab in the cellar). I believe that we became less pushy with the youngest, simply having no energy left, but when he wanted to play American football in school in California, which required a special medical check-up, not to mention equipment, we obliged. I don't remember why it didn't happen after all.

Academic achievements were a problem. Julia could read at three and was a voracious reader. She was bored to death in school and was bullied. Unfortunately, the Swedish school system provides excellent support for children with special needs, but has no room for gifted children. When Julia was nine I went to see her class teacher and school councillor and told them that my daughter was exxtra gifted. They said all parents said that. I suggested that the councillor had professional skills to test my daughter's abilities. He did. She scored, as he reluctantly admitted, well above him. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He told me there was nothing he could do because the Swedish school system had no provision for gifted children. I said I would home-school her. He told me it was illegal. I reminded him that my husband was a journalist. He shut up.

I allowed Julia to stay at home and take care of her education as she pleased. At that moment I knew that I was going to the USA for six months and would take her along. In her school in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was top of her class in English after a month. She became competitive and happy. When we came back to Sweden, we reluctantly, against our beliefs, put her in a private school where she was allowed to study at her own capacity. We also moved Anton to the same school.

When we enrolled them in high school in California, the person who constructed their schedules suggested pottery and home economics. I said no, my children would take Advanced English, Advanced History, Advanced Foreign Languages, Advanced everything, and if there was something still more advanced they would take that as well. They told me that AP would incur costs for the exam. I said I was quite happy to make the investment. I guess this makes me a pushy parent.

Of course, I have no idea what they really thought, but I believe they enjoyed school that was a challenge. Julia won every possible and impossible award at graduation; regrettably, since we were not residents she could not get the monetary part of the awards, otherwise any American University would be open for her.

Instead, she had to take a test in Swedish to qualify for Swedish higher education and failed because she didn't remember which effing bird Miss Julie had in effing Strindberg's effing drama. Someone suggested that she she had gone to a school abroad she could take a test in Swedish as a second language. There, it was enough to be able to read a newspaper ad.

Gifted children and pushy parents is a social construct, says Dr Beauvais, and I agree. Yet behind every social construct there are thousands of real people, and no fate is like another fate.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Close encounters with children's writers, part 7

I haven't seen anything in the papers, but Alan Garner turns eighty today.

I read some of his books two lives back, in Moscow when every book in English was a treasure and every children's book in English was worth its weight in gold. I was writing my first academic paper on children's literature, and Garner's books were central in it. And it so happened that the Soviet Writers' Union was holding an international children's literature event at which I was engaged as an interpreter for a Swedish visitor, and among the many distinguished guests was the great Alan Garner. I was just an errand girl, not a participant, so approaching a famous writer to introduce myself was embarrassing. I was among the very few interpreters who were actually interested in children's literature – they could have been engaged for a conference on chemistry or economics. But because I showed interest in and at least some knowledge of British children's literature, including Garner's novels, the conversation shaped nicely, and I even did something I had never done before: gave him my address and phone number. I could have lost my job for this.

Sadly, the promised postcards with pretty views of Cheshire never came, and I did another unheard-of thing: wrote a letter care of Garner's publisher and asked my father who was going abroad to post it for me. When he came back, he returned the letter saying that he hadn't dared to take it with him. He could have lost his job.

Some months later, I was once again engaged for an international event at the Writers' Union and met Alan's interpreter who gave me his regards. I asked her to send him mine and explain that his pretty postcards had never reached me so I wasn't being rude. Alan started sending postcards in envelopes, and although I had no idea how many were sent and not delivered, some did come through. One of them contained an unusual proposal. An obscure journal was doing a special issue on Alan Garner – would I consider contributing to it? At this point of my life I knew that I was moving to Sweden in the near future, otherwise I would have burned this letter and stopped the correspondence altogether. As it was, I wrote an article - from my today's vantage point, it was horrendous – and Staffan smuggled it out of Russia and got it safely to the editor who seemed to be satisfied, as was the subject of the study himself. The editor wrote me a polite letter saying that he had been told it was pointless to send me an honorarium, but he was sending me a box of chocolates. Interestingly, it came through, although I had to pay substantial import tax.

During the first summer after I had moved to Sweden, Staffan and I went to the UK by car. The reason was a bicycle fair in Harrogate, but we took a detour via Edinburgh and Inverness, and while Staffan was at the fair, I went to Cheshire. Alan had given me minute instructions, with exact timetable for the three trains I was supposed to change. I was scared to death, travelling on my own in this strange foreign country. I have pictures from this visit: me heavily pregnant, and Alan showing me some of the Important Artefacts featured in his books.

I visited several times; more or less every time I happened to be in the UK. Once Sergej and I had the privilege of staying for almost a week and being taken to all Important Places: the underground tunnels, the Edge, the Wizhard's well, Mow Cop, the Hall of the Green Knight. At one time, Alan asked me to collect and send to him initial and final formulas of Russian folktales: “Beyond thrice three mountains, in the thrice third kingdom...” As far as I know, this collection was never completed.

Once we concurred in Moscow, at yet another international event hosted by the Writers' Union, but this time I was an eminent international guest.

Another time, I was going to a conference of the Children's Literature Association, and changing planes at Heathrow saw piles of the newly published Strandloper which I bought and read on the place. I was presumably the only one at the conference who had read the novel. The author was there to receive the Phoenix Award.

I moved around the world, to California, back to Sweden and eventually to Cambridge. The correspondence became limited to birthday and Christmas greetings and finally stopped. It is just the way it is.

Happy birthday, Alan!