Wednesday, 27 January 2010


One day when I was twelve perhaps, our English teacher said: "We are going to have a Robert Burns club". We had no idea who Robert Burns was, but I guess that was the point. To begin with, we found out all about Scotland, which was just as real as Alfa Centauri. We admired post stamps with Burns on them, on envelopes we got from a school in that mysterious country. We learned and recited poetry. Burns was acceptable for the regime because he supported the poor. He was the poet of the people. We liked his love poetry. We didn't understand all the subtleties, and I am sure that not even our teachers understood all the dirty things, but it was about love and on the border of the forbidden.

I found and read a 500-page Burns biography, written by a great Russian translator and scholar of British literature. At the age of twelve, the number of Burns' illegitimate children nade a great impression on me.

Yestesday I experienced my first Burns Night. (Somehow I missed it last year). In my old-old country, great national poets were celebrated officially, with the authorities' support. It's wonderful to see people who do it voluntarily and with such genuine engagement.

Monday, 25 January 2010

A day to be pleased with

Some years ago one of our granddaughters, then perhaps eight years old, went to a two-day summer camp, and the busy parents asked Staffan to fetch her home. It was a couple of hours ride, and they had a nice time together discussing the camp experience. Staffan was impressed by her way of putting it: "We had five activities!" So it has become a recurrent saying with us.

Today, I had three activities that I am pleased with. First, I had a lecture for our master students about the difference between social sciences and humanities. It was very useful for me because since I took my PhD training in philosophy of knowledge twenty-five years ago, I hadn't given this issue a single thought.

Next, I had a discussion group with my PhD students where they were asked to present and apply some literary theories that they were not using in their own research. I truly enjoyed it.

Finally, there was a book launch in my research group PLACE. A book launch, as I have learned here in Cambridge, is an opportunity to celebrate your colleagues' achievements. I like it. We never had book launches in the old country.

In between, the webpage for my new research centre was uploaded. I guess it counts as a fourth activity.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

On poetry

Homerton College has a poetry competition, and I have been asked to be on the jury. It is a very sad and beautiful story. A young, brilliant female student died in an accident some years ago. Her parents have donated money for a poetry competition in her memory.

I have always had a very intimate relationship to poetry. Russia has lots of great poets, 19th and 20th century, and I used to know heaps of it by heart, and I still do. Russian poetry is rhymed and metric and easy to memorize. But poetry does not travel well. You have to be a great poet to translate great poetry. This is why Shakespeare in Russian is great, translated by great Russian poets when their own works could not be published. Serendipity of censorship. Unfortunately there are very few good translations of Russian poetry into Swedish or English, which means I cannot share my favourite poetry with my non-Russian friends.

I read a lot of English poetry when I studied English, Donne and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Byron, Robert Burns and Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson. Poetry can be enjoyed for its music, even though you don't understand every nuance. But I think it is a challenge to analyse or judge poetry which is not written in your mothertongue.

When I taught Literary Theory in Stockholm, we were supposed to teach two poetry texts, one classic and one modern. Modern Swedish poetry is, with very few exceptions, prose broken into short lines. If there is no rhyme or meter in poetry, there must be something else. "Poetry is compressed meaning" (Yuri Lotman). Emily Dickinson could do it. Edith Södergran could do it. Emily Dickinson could have translated Edith Södergran into English.

We have received 24 contributions to the competition. Some were good. It was a tough job to select a winner. And it was fun talking about poetry. What was it we were looking for? What is a good poem? An excellent poem? Curiously enough, we finally agreed.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Beautiful equations

Last Tuesday I went to a lecture on mathematics.

I may have mentioned before that among many things I like about Cambridge are all these lectures. At Homerton, there is a lecture every week, by one of the Fellows, on a level accessible for other Fellows.

When I was nine and wanted to be an astronomer, my mother told me that I was lousy in maths and so could forget it. I was doubtless lousy in maths, and still am (I cannot do a simple sum - three cheers for calculators when I have to pay bills). But I have always been fascinated by pure mathematics that has nothing to do with sums and calculations, but is just an exercise of thought. A game of glass beads, for its own sake. Cannot be applied. Cannot be used for anything practical. There is no social importance in knowing how many primes there are in the first billion. But it is sublime. I wish there was something like this in my field. Maybe there is. I just need to think of it. I have a weird feeling that a popular lecture at Homerton this week has changed my life.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

...there is a season

First year when we lived in California I asked a friend: "And when does winter come here?" The answers was: "We've just had it".

This morning I decided to re-pot my plants, which had been long due. All plants I have brought from the old country have survived, so I guess it means they like it here. But some of them really needed larger pots. After I'd done it and was ready for mid-morning coffee we noticed that it was actually sunny and warm, and at long last we sat outdoors again. Then I saw something green coming up between rotten leaves.

There is magic in coming out to the garden first time after winter and tidy up yesteryear's withered plants and see the daffodil tips just about an inch high and nice fat hyacinth buds. The snowstorms have done some damage to my conifers, but most trees and shrubs have made it, and soon, very soon there will be colour, and once again, we have lived though winter.

Of course, just because I said it, tomorrow there will be another snowstorm.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Everything is relative

It is cold.

When I was a child, my parents would tell me that when they were children, sometimes schools would be closed when it was lower than twenty below zero C. I always hoped something like that would happen, but it never did. Perhaps heating in schools was better in my childhood than in my parents' childhood. But we would run to school in any weather, and after school we played outside in any weather.

I remember a particularly cold winter in Moscow, perhaps 1979. It was minus 40. We had tripple layers of clothes indoors and kept gas burning in kitchens.

I also remember ski holidays in Sweden when we would wake up in the morning and look at the thermometer that said minus thirty. The car wouldn't start. By the time we stood on the slope, it would get really warm, mere minus ten.

So why am I freezing now in just around zero?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A walk in the park

This afternoon I went for a walk. Cold, but sunny. It had been some time since. I was first disappointed because the lakes were frozen. I bet you don't see it often here. I'd brought some bread to feed the swans. I hoped the swans were clever enough to move to the river. Eventually I found them - and the ducks and the moorhens - in a tiny space of open water. And I am so happy to say that four cygnets have survived. They look exactly like ugly ducklings, all piebald, but I think they are very pretty.

There was also a mother with four kids playing the Troll Bridge and the Three Billy-Goats, and I suddenly remembered what fun it was when I was a child.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year!

It's always a challenge to take up something you haven't done for a while, and with each day that goes it gets more and more of a challenge, and the worst thing you can do it come with a long and complicated explanation of why you have been so lazy all this time. Yes, I do have zillions of reasons, but I won't go into any of them. Let's just start twenty-ten afresh.

That said, the most logical thing to do on the first day of the new year is to look back. (No, it should have been on the last day of the year. On the first day of the new year you look forward. Bother!)

Anyway, 2009 has been in every respect an eventful year. We bought the house and moved, we got back our wonderful cat (I just can't believe I survived without her), we made the acquaintance of many new people like carpenters, gardeners, plumbers, electricians, tilers, gasmen (yes, I do know the Flanders and Swann song), not to mention the long chain of media companies. We feel much more appreciated by our friends who come to visit. All autumn, I felt I was running a B&B. Note: this is not a complain, but a statement of fact. We enjoy friends, and since we have become increasingly patriotic, we are proud to show them King's Chapel and Ely and more Ely, and Trinity and St John, and more Ely and more King's Chapel. I haven't become bored yet.

Work becomes more and more exciting as I learn more and start expressing my opinion at meetings, and although I haven't fully mastered the vocabulary I know SMT from MML. I am also a Homerton Fellow now. I get my free meals every week, and I have to work hard for them. I have managed to create a Research Centre which we will inaugurate in the beginning of February, and I am running a conference in September, something I once swore I'd never do again. But it is a bit like childbirth: after a while you forget the anguish. I did, on the other hand, participate in quite a few conferences, too many in fact, the latest just two weeks ago in Sweden (too far away from Stockholm to see the family). I got stuck in a snow storm – just because I had been boasting of the mild, sunny weather in Cambridge. There was snow chaos in Cambridge when I finally got home.

My new scholarly book came out in late summer, but I am more excited about my memoirs, to be released any day. I received an author copy some weeks ago, so I know the book exists. It was painful to write, but I am glad I did.

I went to Moscow in October, first time in six years, and I didn't tell anyone. I went for a school reunion. I think I will write separately about it.

In terms of hobbies, I have started making room boxes and am on my third right now, but perhaps it is also a topic for a separate entry. In addition I have taken drawing classes and joined the Faculty choir. What next?

On a more melancholy tone, a very close friend in Moscow died a few weeks ago. I don't think I have understood it yet.

Just in time to finish off the year I bought a new computer. I am getting to terms with it.