Sunday, 26 January 2014

Don't trust your memory!

In my deep aversion toward young adult dystopia I am re-reading classics again, and the time has come for Anna Karenina. It is one of the books I re-read often; in fact, I know for sure that I re-read it the winter before we moved to Cambridge, six years ago. I also know for sure that I didn't read it for the plot, like I did when I read it first time, as a teenager. I knew what happened and how. I read it slowly, enjoying every word, every sentence. You would imagine that you'd remember a novel that you read six years ago and many times before that.

The first thing that struck me was that in between her misfortunes, Anna writes a children's book. It is only mentioned it passing, and most people would not even notice it, but surely I should have remembered such an important detail!

Anna is also opium addicted. There is nothing particularly remarkable about it, since all upper-class men and women did it in the late nineneeth century, but this fact is repeated several times, and surely it shouldn't come as a surprise?

The greatest revelation was Karenin, Anna's husband. Of course we align with Anna against him, and of course I have read criticism pointing out that, given the circumstances, he acts nobly. On this reading, however, I noticed something that makes me forgive him whatever sins he may have committed. When Anna is dying in postpartum fever and Vronsky is weeping by her bedside, what does Karenin do? He saves the baby. The text says so explicitly: the newborn baby was totally neglected and would have died if Karenin hadn't taken care of her, got a wet nurse, made sure the baby was warm and fed. Now, this may also be viewed as a noble gesture of a cuckold husband. But noble as he may be, nobody expects a cuckold husband to cuddle the fruit of his wife's illicit affair. In this short episode, while our attention is solely with Anna, Karenin is revealed as his true self. 

Many years ago, at a workshop on Russian literature, we were discussing Anna Karenina, and someone said how inexplicable it was that Anna loves her son by the detested husband, but doesn't care about Vronsky's daughter. I took out my best Freudian tools and said it was absolutely clear. She doesn't love her husband, so all her love is focused on her son. She loves Vronsky, and a daughter will one day become her rival - a story best known as Snow White... I could just as well have thrown a stink bomb. They told me I was cynical, that I apparently had no children and could not imagine how a mother feels, and so on. I admited that I had three children, two sons and a daughter, and I tried to point out that we were discussing fiction, but to no avail.

I remember it now, because of course the same is true about Karenin. His son steals his wife's love. But with the daughter, even though she is another man's daughter, he has something of Anna and something to love.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Close encounters with children's writers, part 6

This year marks the centenary of Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin books. It will be celebrated worldwide, I believe, with new books, conferences, festivals and exhibitions. I have contributed to the academic bit with an edited special issue of a journal, to be published in summer, just in time for the actual hundredth birthday. But I'd better hurry with my personal reminiscences before the web is drowned in Tove Jansson stuff and nobody has energy to read more.

As I have mentioned many times, I am not particularly interested in flesh-and-blood authors, and I have seldom actively tried to meet them unless I had a good reason (such as an interview). Since Tove Jansson lived in Helsinki I couldn't meet her at publisher receptions or the Children’s Book Institute events, where I met many Swedish authors. But it so happened that Staffan wrote a musical together with Vivica Bandler, a famous theatre director and producer, once upon a time Tove Jansson's partner and subsequently a good friend. We were invited to Vivica's birthday party in Helsinki, featuring the cream of Finland's culture, which made me feel very special indeed. It was a relatively small private party, following a huge celebration at the theatre, so inevitably everybody was introduced to everybody else, and when I was introduced to Tove Jansson and explained that I had read her books in Moscow, she clapped her hands and kissed me. She was like that.

About a year later, my colleague Boel Westin defended her doctoral thesis on Tove Jansson, and the study object was the guest of honour. It was a horrible winter day, with sleet and wind, and after the defence and the sparkling I offered to take the defendant and the object home in my car. For some inexplicable reason, I thought that Tove was staying with Boel and drove to her house, opening the back door for Tove and her partner Tuulikki. Tove looked at me with horror: “Are we to go on foot from here?” I realised I'd made a blunder and took them to their hotel. In the evening, at the banquet, I asked Tove to sign three books for my children.

Tove Jansson's eightieth birthday was celebrated loudly in Finland, with a big international conference in Tampere, the location of the Finnish children's books institute. The object of research was there, sitting literally on a throne, crowned with a wreath of flowers. People queued as if in front of royalty, invited one by one to approach, speak and be ushered away. I looked at this and told myself: I have met this wonderful person privately, she has sat in the back seat of my car. Do I really need to stand in line to say some pointless words? And I didn't.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Childhood reading: Final reflections

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I have now done what we ask our masters students to do, although I have cheated and haven't used any references, and I am not sure about my word count. Some of our harsh markers would probably give me a very low grade for not engaging critically with the sources and spending too much time on plot summaries.

Nonetheless it was a very useful exercise. I had not previouly realised that most of my childhood books were Russian. I read the Great Classics of English-language children's literature later, as a professional. It is interesting to contemplate, with my students' experience as a background, that it is fully possible to develop as a reader without Enid Blyton – in a generic sense, without series fiction with its repetitive plots and stereotypical characters. In fact, I didn't, even as a child, like sequels and was always disappointed by them. It is fully possible to grow up without Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, but, I have to admit, I didn't like these when I had to read them for my children's literature course in Sweden. I guess the books I enjoyed most as a child were fairy tales of all kinds, imaginative books, and when in my late teens I read another wave of foreign classics, including Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and the Moomin books, my preference was confirmed. It is not until I came to Sweden and discovered Maria Gripe, Gunnel Linde and Peter Pohl that I reluctantly conceded that realism was also a legitimate mode of writing. Obviously, I was spoon-fed by realism of the worst kind in the Soviet Union, and the aversion stayed for a long time. That said, look how many social-realistic books I read and loved.

Yet I am still trying to identify the moment when I knew that children's literature was not something I wanted to leave behind. I never stopped reading children's books even when I was grown-up enough to read Vonnegut, Pasternak and Thomas Mann. Half of my ten desert island books are children's books. In my early twenties, in my close circle of friends, we would read children's books aloud, we would give each other children's books for birthdays. So it wasn't just me, but from that circle, only I made children's literature my profession, and it could only happen because I moved to Sweden.

Most of the books in my reading memoir are unknown outside Russia, and although I have written about many of them in my academic piblications, they will remain unknown. I am not sure I should be upset about it. After all, most of the wonderful Swedish children's books are unknown, even if they are translated into English, and many Swedish books that were great and important when I started teaching in the mid-80s are also gone. Yet somehow they have all added up to what I have become, and who knows whether I would be where I am without The Book About Masha.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 10: Romance

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As I mentioned, one of the attractions of adventure and historical fiction was romance, “about love”. There wasn't any trashy romance available so you had to find it wherever you could. There was one book that ruined generations of Russian girls' expectations of romantic love, because we all waited, not for a prince on a white horse, but a prince under scarlet sails. This is the title, Scarlet Sails. It's about a girl with a strange, exotic name, Assol, who grows up with her father, a former sailor, now a toymaker. One day Assol is taking some toys to sell in a shop in town and on the way plays with a toy boat with scarlet sails. She meets an old storyteller who is inspired by a pretty innocent child with a toy boat and tells her that when she grows up a prince will come in a boat with scarlet sails. Many years later a rich young skipper comes to the town, hears the story, equips his boat with scarlet sails and collects the girl from the beach. Presumbably, they live happily ever after. Of course, after this story, who would be satisfied with anything less?

There was, however, a counterweight, which I think was the only Russian book from that time I would call a teenage novel, called Wild Dog Dingo, or The Story of First Love. I haven't re-read it so I probably should before I say something about it, but my memory is of piercing sorrow and despair. Except for the title, the word love isn't used much if at all, but we witness how the main character, fifteen-year-old Tanya, falls in love with a boy whom she is furmly determined to hate, while she fails to notice the faithful admiration of a classmate and old friend. And because nothing is said explicitly, the reader is just as confused as Tanya: why doesn't the story follow the familiar script, why is love unrequitted, why is it so painful. As I say, I need to re-read it, but as I remember it, it is one of the great novels of adolescence ever.

Because there were no teenage novels, by the age of twelve I was reading adult fiction, particularly Turgenev, which is all “about love”, but different from Dingo because Turgenev's characters were grown-ups, while Tanya's story made us believe that love can happen when you are fifteen, and then maybe even earlier? I read War and Peace at thirteen, again, looking for love and skipping war, and generally not getting much out of it. I read Dickens at the same time, and there was enough of love there as well. For some reason, I never read Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte; perhaps because my snobbish mother disapproved of them. (Many years later she saw my husband read Pride and Prejudice and sneered at him for reading “girls' books”). But she gave me Gone with the Wind for my sixteenth birthday, because she knew I wanted it desperately. And it wasn't just ordering it from amazon: it had to be smuggled to Russia from the West and cost a small forture at the black market.

The status of Gone with the Wind in the Soviet Union is a separate story which I will tell one day (it was, for instance, President Gorbachov's wife's favourite book). My history teacher, an intelligent and educated man, referred to it as the American War and Peace and recommended it warmly as complementary reading about the American Civil War (!). This may contradict what I said above about smuggling, but life in the Soviet Union was full of contradictions.

My English was good enough to enjoy Gone with the Wind, and after that I read lots of romance in English, such as Forever Amber, again smuggled in by privileged travellers. This stream also brought Salinger and Vonnegut, but these go beyond childhood reading, so I think I'd better stop here.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 9: Adventure, history and space

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I cannot remember any clear-cut stages in my developing as a reader, in the sense of progressing from one kind of book toward another; it all went parallel. Between ten and twelve I read tons of adventure stories of all kinds: Walter Scott, R. L. Stevenson, Jules Verne, Jack London, H. Rider Haggard, Thomas Mayne Reid, Fenimore Cooper, Alexander Dumas. 

While the other books were very much my private reading, adventure stories were always shared. Someone in school would start reading and suddenly everybody was talking Leatherstocking or D'Artagnan, and unless you jumped quickly on board you were left behind. Most adventure stories have male protagonists, but I didn't mind, and if there was some romance on top of adventure, it was a bonus. I had two particular favourites, possibly because of the prominent romance: The Quadroon and Montezuma's Daughter. Robinson Crusoe I found boring. Much of the attraction of adventure for me was the historical background. I liked history in school, and we had a wondeful history teacher who made it a very vivid subject, but I think that until these days most of what I know about history comes from novels. Which also accounts for huge gaps in my historical knowledge if no novel has ever described a historical period. Fortunately, all interesting historical periods have been treated in novels, but the truth of that knowledge can be rightfully questioned.

With my passion for astronomy, I read a lot of space science fiction, but I also liked earth-bound science fiction about lost worlds, underwater worlds, undiscovered continents, forgotten civilisations, hollow earth, tropics at the poles. These were enticing because they contained a promise: there were still things to be discovered. Space travel, on the other hand, felt just around the corner, and although we knew that one could not travel to the Moon in a cannon ball, space ships were already a reality. In fact, I was absolutely sure at the age of ten that I would within my lifetime be able to travel to the Moon, Mars, Saturn and beyond. (My persistent motion sickness didn't pose a problem).

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 8: Stories for little comrades*

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Every year in school, we got a list of fifty books we were supposed to read during the year. Yes, you heard it right, fifty books a year, plus a separate reading list for summer. The teacher could test you randomly on any of these. It was called out-of-the-classroom reading, so it was on top of what we read in school.

Quite a lot were boring books about young communist heroes and revolutionaries, but even among these there were some books that we all loved, re-read and talked about, so they apparently had some qualities beside explicit ideology. It was not until much later that I noticed that there was any ideology at all.

One such favourite was Timur and His Gang, about a group of young pioneers, Soviet scouts, who help old people and protect helpless children and fight hooligans. They are all honest, brave and clever (except the hooligans, of course), and unlike many Western books of this kind, all adults are also honest, brave and clever. I truly cannot understand what we liked about this book. Many years later, a friend pointed out for me that the main character's father is going away to war, while the book was published in 1940 when the Soviet Union was not officially at war. So the war must be the war with Finland, which did not exist according to our history books. That's why I always tell my students that understanding the context may be significant. 

 A very similar book was Vasiok Trubachov and His Comrads. Even the title is structurally identical. Another group of perfect young Soviet citizens, this time actually caught in the war, but mostly doing good deeds and competing with each other in virtue. I believe that we simply ignored all this and read both books as straightforward adventure stories.

Vitia Maleyev in School and at Home, just what the title promises. A boy who has poor grades in maths, but works hard and finally succeeds. And helps a friend who has poor grades in... and so on. There was one detail that worried me in this book. At one point, the anniversary of the so-called October revolution is celebrated, and the boy describes how everybody gives each other presents. Now, whatever the authorities came up with, nobody ever gave any presents on the October day. International Women's day, yes. Army day, yes (equivalent of Mother's and Father's day). But October Day? That simply wasn't credible. 

The book I had serious worries about, very high on the recommended reading lists and highly regarded among ourselves, was called The Fourth Height, an authentic hagiography of a young Soviet girl, perfect in every respect. I truly loved this book because it was full of adventures: she was a movie star and an athlete and went to exciting places. One of the exciting places was, as I understand now, a tbc sanatorium, but it was never spelled out, so it sounded more like a summer camp. In the end of the book, she is a grown-up, married and with a little baby. And she leaves the baby and goes to war. Try as I did, I could not understand the choice. We were supposed to admire her self-sacrifice, but I felt that a mother should not abandon her baby. Here the official ideology and my own beliefs went wide apart. 

*Stories for little comrades is an excellent book about early Soviet children's literature.  

Monday, 6 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 7: Imaginary countries

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There was no Narnia in my childhood, but there were other imaginary countries. There was no Oz, but there was the Magic Country, which was Oz plagiarism written in the times when copyright laws did not affect the Soviet Union. So there was the little girl from Kansas, Elly, and her little dog Toto, blown into the faraway country with a yellow brick road, where they meet the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion and Goodwin the Great and Terrible. There were many sequels too, that didn't follow Baum.

It was a general practice to pinch foreign children's books and rewrite them with or without acknowledgment. There was, for instance, the tremendously popular book about a kind doctor who can speak animal language. Does it ring a bell? Or the best-loved of all Russian children's book figures, a naughty boy carved from a piece of wood.

Genuinly Soviet, though, was The Land of Crooked Mirrors (but even there, argueably, the main idea was borrowed from Lewis Carroll). A girl passes through a mirror and meets her reflection. They step inside a book of fairy tales and into a land ruled by a stupid king and his cruel ministers. Because the girl is a true Soviet citizen, she leads a rebellion and overthrows the dictatorship. Her mirror twin is both a good companion and an example of her worst traits. This book, written in 1950, was unbelievably subversive, and I cannot imagine how it could have been published because its satire of the Soviet regime is transparent. But, as in many similar cases, it was served as a representation of the corrupt capitalist world. I didn't care about the political implications, it was just a great adventure.

But of all the imaginary countries, one was the unquestionable favourite, and it was meta-imaginary. Conduit and Schwambrania is about two boys in pre-1917 Russia who invent a country of their own, called Schwambrania, to get away from their uneventful reality. Reality finally catches up with them: world war, revolution and the Bolshevik coup-d'etat in which they lose everything they once had and didn't value. The last is my clever critical comment. The pathos of the book was that imaginary countries weren't necessary when the glorious Communist future was just around the corner. Although this aspect troubled me when I was a child because I knew the other side of truth, the appeal of the book was the joy of imagination. Therefore I could dismiss the happy miserable ending and instead enjoy the school-domestic-naughty boy story spiced with maps, history chronicles, court gossip and around-the-world voyages in Schwambrania. All my own imaginary countries – and I had several – and my friends' and classmates' imaginary countries had Schwambrania as a model. Playing your imaginary country was the most natural thing. I had maps, newspapers, dictionaries, chronicles, war archives and love letters. I had countries populated by animals, toys and musketeers, depending on what I happened to be reading. They all co-existed happily in the same universe. Occasionally, they had visitors from my best friend's countries.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 6: Misery books

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One very distinct category of books that I liked, although I cannot find any scholarly term for it, were books about utter poverty. I have already written about The little ruggamuffin, which isn't a children's book but was launched as one in the Soviet Union and became an indispensible part of the children's literature canon. I am sure I would have loved Jessica's First Prayer, but any mention of religion outruled books in my atheistic Motherland.

There were, however, books from the satellite states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, and I am not even sure they were children's books, but books about childhood, perhaps with autobiographical traits. I have found one. The title, One boy's miseries, says it all. Oliver Twist is an idyll in comparison. 

Another book that I remember well I could not find because the title keeps hitting a business company, and I don't remember the author. In one episode, the main character's baby sister gets sick, and the poverty-stricken mother calls a wise woman, who shoves the baby into the oven. The baby wails, and the boy screams at his mother that she will burn to death, but the wise woman just says it is the sickness getting out. Then the baby is quiet. End of chapter. In the next chapter, the mother buys a little coffin. I was terrified by this story, but as all children terrified by stories I kept re-reading it. I don't think I cried over it as I did over stories about cruelty to animals, but they surely touched something in my heart. I grew up in relative wealth, in a loving family. If the purpose of the misery stories was to evoke compassion they were successful.

The absolute favourite in this genre was Mottel, the Cantor's Son, by the great Sholom Aleichem. I didn't know anything about the author, and I didn't know anything about the Jewish culture or the Pale, where the story takes place. For me, it was just another wonderful misery book, and just like the other misery books, it had a lot of naughty-boy pranks and a lot of joy and humour right in the middle of all misery. I was puzzled that the family moved to America in the end of the book, because it brought the story into reality from a completely imaginary world and therefore made it less credible. In re-reading, I ignored the ending.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 5: World classics

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For some reason, many classic children's books that our grandparents read were considered harmful by the Soviet educators, such as Little Women, Little Lord Fauntleroy and Daddy-Long-Legs, of which I had only heard or read in other children's books. Perhaps they were considered sentimental. Mark Twain on the other hand was welcome, and we all read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper. Much of the wit of both books was lost on me, both because of my age and because of my cultural ignorance. For instance, when Tom says in Sunday school that the first two apostles' names were David and Goliath, I didn't get it.

I didn't get much of Alice in Wonderland either, especially because the translation I had was extremely poor. When I eventually read the original I realised that all the strange things the characters said were jokes and puns. But it didn't matter. I loved Alice and read it over and over again, and still today I remember some of the poor translation better than the original. I don't know why Alice was acceptable for the Soviet pedagogy when so much other nineteenth-century children's literature wasn't, and fairy tales were considered particularly dangerous.

Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils was popular already in my grandmother's childhood, but in the early '50s is was published as a retelling, rather a clumsy one as I discovered when I studied the subject academically, with lots of historical and geographical inaccuracies, but as a child I didn't know and didn't care. The miniature perspective was something I was familiar with from Dunno and Thumbelina: the wonderful world of animals was reminiscent of my favourite nature stories, and there was just the right touch of magic. When I moved to Sweden, names and facts from Nils echoed in my explorations.

The book was part of a larger venture, when suddenly lots of foreign classics were translated: Winnie-the-Pooh, The Little Prince, which of course were read by grownups as much as children. Today it is called crossover, then it was just a common acknowledgment that the best children's books are good for everyone. Yet I believe that the status of Western classics contributed to their popularity among adults. Karlsson-on-the-Roof came about the same time, and I have already explained why it was “the best-loved” of Astrid Lindgren's books in Russia.

Some of these translated books were very odd. Again, I have written about Muffin the Mule; but there was also The Adventures of Chunky, by Leila Berg, who actually died just a couple of years ago. If I had known that she was alive when I moved to the UK, I would have contacted her to tell her how passionately I loved her book. But to a child, all authors are by definition dead, so it didn't even occur to me that the author of my childhood favourite could be alive. Why was this book translated? Why this book, of all English books? By all standards, it was obsolete already. I remember I was puzzled that one of Chunky's friends didn't know what a refrigerator was. I was also puzzled that Chunky's parents went to meet the king. Kings didn't fit into a realistic story. Chunky's parents went to meet the king because, as I realise now, they worked on a super-secret military project, but it wasn't spelled out, and for a dislocated reader like myself it didn't say anything. Yet I loved this book for its nice everyday adventures and pranks, and without reference frames, without the background of Swallows and Amazons or Just William, I didn't see its flaws. Maybe they aren't flaws, maybe it is just one of many average books that come and go, but for me it was one of the Great Books, an indispensible book from which I still remember long passages by heart. 


Not least, there were books by Gianni Rodari. Some children's literature scholars may know his book The Grammar of Fantasy, but only one of his children's books is translated into English, The Befana's Toy Shop, which in Russian was closer to its original title, The Blue Train, but more imaginative: The Travels of the Blue Arrow. For me, this book had everything I wanted from a good story. There was the miniature perspective of the animated toys and the eternal quest plot. There was the vague boundary between real and magic. There was the misery of poverty. There was the tragedy of parting and the joy of reunion. I wasn't quite happy with the ending because the Blue Arrow crew never found the boy they were looking for, as a true happy ending should be. Maybe it was exactly why I liked this book so much. 


I liked Rodari's other books as well, the satirical Gelsomino in the Land of Liars and Cippolino the Onion Boy. I didn't care about their political messages: Rodari was a convinced Communist, which explains wy his books were translated in the Soviet Union and sold millions of copies. In Cippolino, some fruits and vegetables are rich and oppress other fruits and vegetables, who finally revolt and establish a better society. It was fine by me, because it was just like other stories about the underprivileged who revolt. What puzzled me was the allocation of roles. I would understand if all fruit were rich and all vegetables poor, but there was no logic in the construction of this world. Gelsomino was a very transparent satire on the Communist regime, a 1984 for kiddies, but again, I didn't care, but enjoyed the wordplay and the absurdity. If the grownups ever saw the satire, they kept it to themselves.

Was I then a tremendously naïve and uncritical reader who didn't understand books beyond the superficial plot? From my clever scholarly perspective today, what attracted me? Did I engage with the characters? Did I share their joys and sorrows? Did I ever ask myself the Important Question: what were these books really about? What did the authors want to say? Neither my parent nor school teachers ever asked such questions, and unless prompted, I don't think a child can ever think of them. Yet these books were obviously important and formative, and I kept re-reading them and remember them as if I read them yesterday. Again, from my scholarly viewpoint, I engaged with the characters emotionally, but never asking myself whether I liked them or wanted to be like them. Possibly, all these characters were far too strange.