Sunday, 22 June 2014

My cucumber mum

A long time ago, in my pre-previous life, I had a phone call from the Chairman of the Swedish Writers' Union, who was a friend. “We have an invitation from the Soviet Writers' Union to a conference on children's literature”, he said. “They want an author and a scholar. We asked the director of the Swedish Children's Books Institute first, but she couldn't. Would you like to go?” I would, for a number of reasons. I had not yet severed my umbilical cord with Moscow and took every chance to go back. But it was also important for me, a traitor as my former country viewed me, to be invited formally by a respectable organisation, as a guest of honour. “If so”, said the Chairman, “which author would you like to bring along?” “Gunnel Linde”, I said without hesitation.

I had read Gunnel Linde's books in Moscow, and when I came to Sweden I read everything by her. She was one of those great Swedish authors of the 1960s, the pioneers of the everyday, but imaginative, slightly mystical children's narratives. She was never as famous as Maria Gripe, and she never really got known internationally, even though some of her books are translated, and if you want to read one, read The White Stone.

I had met her at the Children's Book Institute annual parties, but I hadn't known her well, I just knew that she would be interested to go to Russia. And so we went. An truly unforgettable trip. Then we went again, when Gunnel invited me as her interpreter and guide on behalf of her organisation BRIS, “Children's Rights in Society”. She wanted to learn something from Russia that might be valuable for her work in Sweden. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child had recently been declared, and Gunnel wanted to know how it was implemented in the country of the Communist paradise. As it turned out – and as I could have told her, but hadn't – nobody in the Soviet Union had seen the Convention. The people we met asked us to tell them as much as possible about it. The people we met were of the kind I had never met before. Directors of juvenile prisons, detention centres and orphanages. It was a degree of misery even I could not have imagined. Gunnel was in chock. In the evenings she and I and another person from BRIS would sit down with a tape recorder on and talk about what we had seen. We brought back pictures, stories and memories. That alone would have been enough to bond us forever. (This trip resulted in my charity work for Russian orphans and juvenile delinquents, but this is another story).

Gunnel had a peculiar endearment – I don't know whether she used it for other people, but she called me “My little cucumber”. Therefore I started calling her “My cucumber mum”. She had three daughers, so she wasn't desperate to have another one, but it just so happened. I was desperate to have a mum. We met often; sometimes she would come to my place for lunch, but more commonly I went to hers, and we would have long mother-daugher talks about everything in the world. At one point she said: “No one single person can give you everything you need. We choose someone who can give us most of what we need. The rest, we have to compensate with other people”. This was liberating, because I had always had high demands on people, with subsequent disappointments. Gunnel made it right.

One summer I was privileged to share her very special Ladies' Summer Club, a week at her country house with a couple of other writers and publishers whom I also knew. The main activity was reading aloud: your own work or anything, for instance, your favourite poetry. Emily Dickinson was highly ranked.

Gunnel wrote a wonderful poem for my fiftieth birthday and read it at dinner for my sixty guests. 

When I learned about her death this morning, I immediately felt a pang of bad conscience. Why didn't I visit her even once during my trips to Sweden these six years? I know that she had already drifted into lands beyond and would probably not have recognised me. No excuse. My cucumber mum is gone. May earth be as light as eiderdown over her. 

Friday, 30 May 2014

Undergraduate memories, part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The old Soviet Union was a country where everything was prohibited and anything was possible. There was always a way to circumvent the rules. In my case, I had a fake employment as a private secretary. Certain categories of Soviet citizens who were more equal than other citizens, for instance, members of the Writers' Union, were allowed to employ secretaries, and this is how I could switch over to evening classes, produce an employment certificate every term and do as I pleased. Actually, I wouldn't have minded at all to work as a secretary and earn some money, but it wasn't part of the deal.

My remaining four undergraduate years were dire. Looking back, I cannot remember one single inspiring instructor or a subject I was interested in. Pedagogy, Psychology, Theoretical Phonetics came and went. Honestly, I have no idea what they were about. The only valuable knowledge I ever got from my formal education was General Linguistics, and my professor remains the only bright spot in my memory. (Many years later I met her in Washington D.C. at a get-together of Fulbright scholars. She remembered me and my phonemic distinctions).

So what did I do with my time? I didn't sleep until noon, and I wasn't a partying type. I got up in the morning and studied until it was time to go to bed. I studied Swedish, and later also Norwegian, Danish and Dutch. I read everything I could get hold of: novels, magazines, cookbooks. I went to the Foreign Literature Library and read books on history, geography, culture and art. I had a huge box of index cards on which I wrote down authors' names and book titles, historical events with dates, facts and fictions. I had notebooks in which I wrote lists with English, Swedish and German names of animals, birds, insects, plants, body parts, metals, gases, tools, utensils, textiles – my homemade encyclopedias. It was in the Stone Age, before the internet. But it was also behind the Iron curtain, with no access to dictionaries, encyclopedias or any other sources of information. I had to do with what was available. There was enough for a lifetime.

I must have been lonely, but I have no memories of being lonely or unhappy. My former fellow students had classes in daytime, and my new fellow students worked. I didn't have many people to talk to. When I reflect on it now, it must have been weird. I was like a solitary mediaeval scholar, surrounded by books, scribbling down notes.

There was a brief and intensive period of flanerie when I, together with two bohemian friends, spent days upon days walking around in the city, going to museums and amusement parks, taking a river boat or a night-time bus, talking, smoking, playing cards, reciting poetry. There were very few coffee shops in Moscow, but these few we frequented. It was a happy time.

Sometimes I made plans to go to Leningrad where the University had a strong Scandinavian department. I even thought about going to Tartu in Estonia and study semiotics with Yuri Lotman. But these were sandcastles, for I felt comfortable with my life and didn't think beyond graduation.

Very soon I started writing book reviews and small articles for money, and eventually I started translating. Nobody ever asked me for any certificate or diploma, and nobody questioned my knowledge and skills.

At the time, I did not reflect on whether I regretted my wrong choices. Today, forty years later, I do. I should have chosen an education with challenges, inspiring teachers, enthusiastic fellow students, intellectual climate. On the other hand, I turned out quite well after all; there is nothing wrong with my erudition, and although my professional career has been bumpy and thorny, I cannot complain about the outcome.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Undergraduate memories, part 2

Read the beginning of the story of wrong choices.

I knew from the first day that I had made a wrong choice, that it was wrong education for me. I was passionate about general linguistics, and everything that I learned from that course has been useful throughout my career. I loved Latin that most of my fellow students hated. I liked American History and Society. History of the Communist Party and Scientific Atheism were inescapable, I would have had it anywhere. I quite enjoyed military training: we were trained to be military interpreters and would exit with a lieutenant grade in addition to BA, but in the first year it was general military education. I liked the rigorous learning it implied, and I even liked assembling Kalashnikovs (we were taken to a shooting range just once) and playing with portable radios. I liked map-drawing.

But my major subject was a disapppoinment. I had attended an elite school with focus on English, and in the last year we used textbooks for second-year university courses. I had read scores of English novels. I could make long conversations and recite poetry. Here, we were subjected to “correction” and “remediation” as if we were beginners, and indeed, the level of many of my fellow students was appallingly low. We were sent to the language lab to listen to and repeat long and short vowels. We were not allowed to talk, and we had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in an abridged version. We were told to forget everything we had learned in school. We were failed in tests so that we would know our place.

I joined a student drama club and a “young scholars' society” where I could do more general linguistics, and I even gave a paper at a student conference on the totally fascinating subject of phonemic distinctions in English and German. I was obsessed by phonemic distinctions. I also started taking private lessons of Swedish. After her first chock over my defiance settled, my mother told me that an English degree wouldn't take me anywhere; everybody had an English degree; if I insisted on doing modern languages rather than solid philology I could at least take a more exotic language. At the Institute, we would study another language, but not until the third year, and if it was on the same level as English, it wouldn't be much to long for. So my mother decided that a Scandinavian language was reasonably exotic, and it so happened that the first private tutor she found offered Swedish. It could have been Norwegian, Danish or Icelandic, and who knows where that would have taken me.

In the Institute, we had language classes in groups of ten, and my group was rebellious because we found language labs and abridged Mockingbirds ridicuous and said so. Halfway though the year, our group was dismantled, and we were dispatched to different groups. Based on my previous performance, I ended up in the strongest group of my year, with slightly more challenges and really good teachers. But by the end of the second term, my mother came up with a new idea. I had by then admitted that I wasn't getting an education, merely a degree which I needed to get a job; I was educating myself as much as I could by reading, but my classes, three double-hours six days a week, took far too much time from my precious autodidactic activity, my mother said. I should switch to the evening programme. It would be just three evenings a week, with my days fully dedicated to serious studies. Wasn't it Mark Twain who said that he never allowed schooling to interfere with his education?

The problem was that you could only enroll in the evening programme if you were employed at least part-time, and that seemed counter-productive to the idea of home-schooling. But of course my mother had something else in mind.

To be continued.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Undergraduate memories

These days, it's forty years since I got my first degree. I am not particularly proud of this part of my professional career, and I don't think I ever told anyone about it properly, except in passing in my memoir. It wasn't important, but forty years later it is interesting to look back and see how some decisions turned out to be life-changing. As they usually do.

During my two last years in school I worked hard toward my grades and took extra private lessons because that was what you did if you wanted a higher education. My parents expected me to apply to the Faculty of Philology at Moscow University because literature had always been my favourite subject (hideous teachers notwithstanding). It was enormously competitive, and apart from excellent grades from school you had to take four entrance exams: written composition, oral literature, English (as a foreign language) and history. Written composition was easiest to fail: the examiner could always state that the argument wasn't sufficiently developed. Most of my classmates had “connections”. It meant either that your parents knew someone high in the college administration or that they knew someone who could be bribed. It was a truth universally acknowledged that you could not be accepted into college without connections. My parents had no connections. I still don't know whether they genuinely had no connections or whether they stood above it, but I was expected to get in without connections, and they would be disappointed if I failed. I was a well-behaved girl, used to do as I was told. If I were told to pass entrance exams then that's was what I had to do.

Eventually, my parents found a remote connection at the Faculty of Philology and sent me in for “consultation”. The professor made me read and translate a passage from an English novel. There was one word I didn't know. Forty-five years later, I still remember the shame of it. The word was “pace”. I could answer all questions and discuss the passage fluently, and the professor was highly encouraging, but I realised that I would never pass the exam without knowing the word “pace”, and then my family would denounce me, and my friends would despise me, and the only way for me would be to take my life. Although I, like most teenagers, had repeatedly contemplated suicide, the prospect wasn't appealing. I was scared. I admit it: I was a coward. I was scared of my parents' scorn, because they had always been brilliant in everything and would tolerate nothing else from me.

After the school finals – eleven exams, half of them in subjects I would never ever use again – I prepared my paperwork, including the special recommendation from my literature teacher (the horrid one) stating that I was the leader of a reading club that had never existed. Actually, the recommendation started – and I remember it word for word, after forty-five years: “There is no writer in the world, not even a third-rate one, that she doesn't know”. I wasn't supposed to see the recommendation, but my principal who was known for breaking rules showed it to me with an amused smile.

My parents went away for holidays. They were not like other parents who cooked their kids' favourite food for them, made their beds and turned down the radio while the kids were revising for exams. My parents had confidence in me. They went away for holidays, leaving me alone to take the decisive step toward my adult life. I thought already then it was strange, but it wasn't my habit to question my parents' behaviour. Looking back at those weeks, I assume they left me some money for food, but I have no memory of it. I couldn't cook then, and there were no eateries in Moscow in the late 60s. So I guess I had bread and cheese three times a day. I don't remember feeling lonely, but I must have been. All my classmates were revising, most likely at their family country houses, because I have no memories of revising together with a friend. I had a lover, but that's another story.

I was a coward. I knew I could not fail my parents' expectations, and I knew there was no way I could pass exams at the Faculty of Philology without connections. So I took my paperwork and applied to the Foreign Languages Institute, a prestigious school, but one my parents despised, and I did too. Looking back, I don't understand why I thought that getting into FLI without connections would be easier. I am sure that if my parents had been by my side I wouldn't have done it, and my life would have been completely different. Or maybe not at all. Sometimes we ascribe more significance to our decisions than they deserve.

I passed my entrance exams and went to join my parents at the holiday resort. I don't remember their reaction when I confessed. I know they were terribly disappointed, but I cannot remember exactly what they said. Maybe they didn't say anything. My mother had a habit of not talking to me for weeks. Yet what was the point of talking or fighting: it was over and done with, all because I didn't know the word “pace”.

To be continued.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

More fun with indexing

The index has gone to the publisher and come back as a concordance. This is a new process for me, and it looked clever and helpful – until I started checking what the indexing software had done with my original list. First of all, for some reason, I noticed that “White, Hayden”, whom I only mention once (and one time too many), has got a long row of page numbers. On closer examination, it included fifty shades of white, including White Witch in Narnia.

Henry James and William James were of course brothers, but they are still two separate people with an entry each, while the concordance also suggests a reference to King James the Third (from a counterfactual novel).

For “Wolf, Mark”, “Wolf, Maryanne” and “Wolf, Shelby Ann”, the concordance has picked up Max's wolf suit in Where the Wild Things Are, wolf pack in The Hunger Games and the epomymous character in Emily Gravett's Wolves.

The young adult author Lucy Christopher got references to Christopher Robin, and the critic Jacqueline Rose to Rose, the sister in The Tunnel.

I have a theoretical discussion of animal characters in fiction, but I don't want references to any kind of animal mentioned in passing in text analysis. Likewise, I only have a few pages on representation of society and family, but apparently both words appear in abundance in my book. I should have anticipated it.

And of course the concordance doesn't know that if I discuss a novel on eight pages I probably only mention the title on the first and the last. 

Friday, 25 April 2014

Joys of indexing

I know you won't believe me, but I truly enjoy compiling an index for my books. Most people I know hate it and will pay someone to do it or let the publisher do it. Once, in a tight moment, I asked my publisher to do the index and deduce the costs from my royalties. Of course I had to do it all over again myslef. I am the only one who knows what is important in my book and should go into the index. I am the only one who knows when “dream” is a cognitive process and therefore should go into the index, as opposed to when it is part of a content discussion and therefore shouldn't. I am the only one who knows that “the death of the author” should neither be indexed under death nor author.

Indexing is the first and only stage at which you realise what your book is really about because you see which terms and names pop up on every other page, rather than those in your subheadings. The first and only stage when you notice all small inconsistencies, such as alternating between “dystopian literature” and “dystopian fiction”. When you see that sometimes you provide authors for titles and sometimes you don't, and it will be a hell to index these titles. When you have to admit that some terms and concepts are superfluous because you only mention them once in passing and never explain. When you regret that you have mentioned names in the body of text rather than in in-text references because they quite unnecessarily get a separate index entry. Or the other way round, with the in-text reference only, an important source is not reflected in the index. And so on, infinitely.

Sadly, at this stage it is too late to make any changes. I used to compile the index with the first draft checking for exactly these small stupid details. For some reason, I didn't this time, and now I am punished for my laziness. Of course nobody will notice, because the only reason people use indices is to check whether they are in them and how often. (At least, this is the only reason I use indices in other people's books).

PS In Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle there is a character who can tell the author's personality from an index. I have no doubts.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in memoriam

There has been a lot written about the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez these days, and I cannot add much except one detail that made a deep impression on me when I read it, many many years ago. In fact, so many years ago I am not sure which book it was, but I believe it is The Autumn of the Patriarch. It is the episode with the lotttery, when each year a young child is asked to pull out a random ball with a winning number. Only it is not a random ball, but the winning ball is heated, and the child is instructed to choose the hot ball, and the dictator always wins. The children are kept in custody so that they cannot reveal the secret. At one point, they are all taken on a boat trip as a reward for their services. By a strange coincidence, the boat sinks.

I am sure most people outside totalitarian contries think that this is satire and grotesque. For me it was just another confirmation of the bitter truth.