Tatyana Shcherbina

Татьяна Георгиевна Щербина


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Vlad with the spreadable cheese

Catriona Kelly applauds the energy, humour and observational gifts of Russian ťmigrť Tatiana Shcherbina in her collection Life Without.

Saturday July 10, 2004
The Guardian


Life Without
Tatiana Shcherbina, translated by Sasha Dugdale
160pp, Bloodaxe


Over much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the most characteristic experience of life outside the motherland for citizens of Russia was political exile, making the dominant tone in artistic works nostalgia and regret. In the Soviet era, members of the party and artistic elite allowed into the outer world recorded their experiences with a due patriotic sense of the need to reassure their less privileged comrades that things really were better at home. "Travel literature" in the western sense - a genre of willed engagement with otherness - drew exclusively on the experience of migration to the further parts of empire. Russian writers looked to the Caucasus and the Black Sea for their "Mediterranean" experiences, while central Asia became, from the late 19th century, the characteristic place where "Oriental" life might be witnessed.

In the late 1980s, all this changed. Obtaining a passport for travel abroad became a practical possibility (bureaucracy allowing). Since then, millions of Russians have headed west (and east) - many, like Tatiana Shcherbina, the author of Life Without who has lived extensively in Paris, Germany and the US, to settle semi-permanently.

Sociological change has brought literary change: the central figure in modern Russian writings about the west is really more of a tourist. Some of the prose essays in Life Without chatter brightly in the manner of a commentary from Vogue: "The quality of the male attention I encountered here was quite unknown to me till then." There are passages on minimalist design, on "branding" by avant-garde poets, on the various uses for apples at the dacha. Everything spins along nicely, but at the level of the conversation offered by a chance acquaintance at a party, not stretching the mind in the way of, say, WG Sebald's musings on self-imposed dislocation.

Yet Shcherbina's avoidance of deep engagement with the cultures where she finds herself set down is also a strength, stemming as it does from a sort of general lack of at-homeness. This comes through powerfully in some fine work written for the tercentenary of Jan Amos Komensky's The World of Perceptible Things in Pictures. Shcherbina writes, for example, of her irritation with other people's homes: "In a rented flat there are no corners, curves, secrets." This abstract sense of landscape is best satisfied elsewhere: "I like hotels. Living in a space which is no one's. It's like flying into open space. You leave the unwieldy part of yourself on the ground and limit yourself strictly to the simple body, the functioning soul. Novelty excites, as if one were brand new to the world."

This passage brings out Shcherbina's preoccupation with ambiguous states. At times the absorption in non-belonging is more painful: "The helplessness of a bee left without / A hive, the dark magicking itself out of deep blue, / And how I was deceived: these things kill me," she writes in a poem from 1994. As the third part of the formulation suggests, the occasion for a sense of "helplessness" is often "deception", or more accurately disappointment, in an erotic sense. Shcherbina's heroine is distantly allied with Akhmatova's protagonist in early collections such as Evening or The Rosary, but her transgressive status is more explicit. Where Akhmatova's young woman ate oysters with an inamorato or parted from him the morning after, Shcherbina's reflects on the tedium of sex: "No bodily amalgamation, but sudden asphyxiation / A nought per cent proof kiss hardly goes to the head, / There's fuck-all trust: it's not the ears sticking out / But the contagious disease of Lovelessness" ("Viral Infection: Love", 1999).

Anglophone readers may sometimes find themselves in rather a disorienting world too, where abstract nouns come with capital letters and the physical and the metaphysical fuse. In Russian, collocations such as "Comrade God" are shocking, blasphemous; they also have literary antecedents, most notably in the Soviet Sturm und Drang of Mayakovsky. In English, they sound not so much scandalous as weird. Sasha Dugdale's translations have resourcefully domesticated parts of Shcherbina, substituting earthy expressions such as "playing the slut" for the original phrase, "to play the coquette", which to an anglophone reader has exactly the wrong flavour of faded lace. But not everything can be adapted in this way. When Shcherbina compares herself to "Marusya who took poison", she is referring to a street ballad as famous as "Frankie and Johnnie" (though one in which the heroine chose to punish herself, not the object of her love); this reference, though, is lost in translation. Equally, in a cultural context not welcoming to free-floating speculation, meditations on the stars as "curly" and "bald-headed" ("Vicious Circle", 1998), or exclamations along the lines: "Won't I ever hear that voice / or find heaven or nirvana?" (1996) sound rather as though Shcherbina might have been having a bit too much of the "joint" that she denies inhaling in "How it is the dream doesn't dry up" (1999).

But there is enough of the physical, the immediate, for Shcherbina's poems to be able to root themselves in a new cultural context. She vividly suggests the heightened awareness that goes with physical passion: "The houses, like warm biscuits / Absorb the smells around them" ("The whole town is lit by my desire", 1991).

When she writes "My nerves curled into a question" (in "Is every passed day a plus or a minus?", 1999), or observes, after getting a first pair of glasses, "I see myself, my thicker skin" ("Glasses", 1999), she creates a universal shiver of recognition, though in fact it is life in Russia that is the central source of concrete experience and sensation in this work.

The point is, though, that Shcherbina depicts her "motherland" (to use a word she herself would only articulate in ironic inverted commas) with an oblique, dry humour that is at once "English" and much more characteristic of the Russian intellectual sensibility than westerners often suppose. A rare piece of general political commentary uses the standard designation for the Russian internet domain in order to suggest that "Russia did not take place" ŗ la Baudrillard:

   The Russian Federation has ceased to exist,
   Russia is no more - only Ru.net is left.
   No more ABC, aza, buki, vedi,
   neither Kostroma nor Kamchatka survives.
   WWW is the new reigning city [. . .]
   And this is Ru.net: lines rushing madly,
   no holes left in the spider's web [. . .]
   the world was re-sited on to a screen
   and glumly rests itself in a monitor-box.

Humour is turned not only on the crisis of national identity, but also on the heroine's personal situation. "Flu" deals with a viral infection of a non-metaphorical kind, and is nicely tart about the self-deceptions of charity:

   Sasha brought me some fruit,
   Andrei some juniper vodka,
   Kolya brought packets of hankies,
   my dad brought boiled red beet,
   Galya brought mayonnaise salad,
   Vlad brought spreadable cheese.
   Inside I sense competition:
   who, of all, felt most compassion
   for this body, racked by the flu?

The central theme, in the title poem and elsewhere, may be "life without", existence with the sense that something the lyric heroine can't articulate is missing. But deprivation at times takes tangible forms, as in a 1995 poem inspired by the plumbing repairs that cut whole districts off from the water supply in Russian cities: "They've turned off all the hot water, / my liquid of love, / my stream of words [. . .] Like this, without moisture, I'll dry out, / along with the unwashed dishes. / I'll gather moss, a stone unturned; / or perhaps be forgotten, lost in the grass."

In terms of sensibility, Shcherbina seems more "Petersburg" than "Moscow"; she shares not just Joseph Brodsky's shoulder-shrugging, humorous despair, his fastidious scorn for the world she's trapped in, but also some of his technical features: a liking for approximate rhyme (which in Russian poetry, even now, seems provocatively negligent, rather than, as in English, the easiest and most acceptable way to get the job done), and a leaning towards polyglot parade. Reduced to despair, the lyric protagonist describes herself as "feisom ob teibl", rather than using the Russian words for "face and table", litso and stol. Such collocations are less a manifestation of intellectual snobbery than of the frustrations felt by the traveller at having to make do with any one idiom. As Marina Tsvetaeva said in "Motherland", "Why should I care / What language I'm not understood in?"

In Shcherbina's poetry, not just "life without you" but life generally is "neglected, ramshackle, / Cheap and simply unapproachable"; nature is no pastoral dream, but "boring botanist's countryside" ("Life Without", 1996). As the Russian saying has it, "one could hang oneself": but actually, the energy, humour and gift for observation on view are such that such an outcome never seems likely. Thus, though Shcherbina is a kind of "Sunday poet of the emotions" (her heroine never seems to do much more than lie around in bed, whether alone or not), the poetry works as a microcosm of intelligent existence too.

Catriona Kelly's A Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature is published by OUP.


Yuliya Lukshina (Юлия лукшина)

Interview with Tatyana Shcherbina

Tatyana, you use an expression, Columbus Complex. What does travel mean for you?

Travel is an attempt to penetrate into another time space, different
customs, different people. Practically speaking, we know nothing about this world, about history, about the cosmos. When we approach it we bump our heads against the ceiling. We make vague guesses and we call this religion. So, what is history? Recently I wrote about a Portuguese poet, Pessoa, who had fifty-three different personalities. Every day he woke up as one of them and didnít remember the others. He wrote his poems under the name of three of them and these three names are inscribed on his statue beside his actual name, Fernando Pessoa, the meaning of which is precisely ďpersonalityĒ. [. . .] We treat history by uniting events and facts around an axis: here is the beginning, this is what follows, and this is what comes after. When you travel you see that thereís no single history, but a multiplicity of histories [. . .]

My problems with travelling are global, ontological: time and history. Columbusís personality interests me. I feel some sort of kinship. He discovered America and changed the course of history. When I discover something it helps me to understand history. I visited all the places Columbus knew: Genoa where he was born, Portugal, Cape St Vincent Ė the end of the then world. When Columbus reached this cape and said: ďThere, beyond the ocean there is land. Equip an expedition and I will find the landĒ, they laughed at him. I was in Sagresham, where thereís the naval school, in Andalusia, in Seville, where Columbus is buried against his wishes. True, the Spaniards followed his will literally: he said he was not to be buried on Spanish soil, so they set his coffin on a platform. History treated him shabbily. He died in poverty and America was named after another voyager. But the life of his soul after his death seems to me just as marvellous.

Would you like to be someone else?

In principle I can easily imagine myself as somebody else but it is not important. I am sorry that in this life, by definition, it is already impossible for me to achieve certain things, know certain things. Contrary to the well-known saying, I am not lazy and I am curious.

Tell me about your life in Paris. You have a very close relationship with that city.

I studied French for many years, first in a special school, then Moscow State University. When I was allowed to travel, I went to France, after visiting many other countries. Finally I was invited to a literary festival. There I met a French publisher who offered me a contract. As a matter of fact, I suffer from what is called topographical idiotism; I can hardly ever find my way anywhere. But when I got to Paris, for the first time in my life I had the feeling that everything was clear about the city. Most likely because at school, god knows why, we studied the map of Paris. And since Paris, Iíve been able to find my way much better in other places as well. Also, in Paris, I experienced a sensation, unknown to me hitherto, which is usually defined, vacuously, as happiness. I was happy, wandering about and speaking French. Language, for me, means self awareness. I soon began to think in French, and I have even
written a collection of poetry in French. I wrote a few articles for Le Figaro and received a grant to put together an anthology of contemporary French poetry, for which I won a prize. Paris was my home for three years. When you speak a foreign language, you activate a psychological mechanism which is dormant in your native country. The French language is so different from Russian. I remember, in Russia, they always said that the Russian language was the richest in the world (and also the greatest and most powerful!). I think French is richer. It has more nuances and is more sensual. In general, Parisian life is such a gentle life, with overtones that donít exist in Moscow. At first I was very surprised. Many of my French acquaintances complained of depression and they took lots of anti-depressants. I thought they must be crazy! After two years of Parisian life, I also began to experience depression and soon I realized I had to get away. In Paris I restructured myself as regards feelings I didnít possess and I couldnít control this. I experience violent mood swings, whereas in Moscow my mood is more even. And this has to do with language. Iím organically at home in Russian; my nervous system is accustomed to it.

What makes you happy?

In general positive emotions dominate. So, almost anything can make me happy. But there are things which irritate me, like television, or music in supermarkets or on the street. This is almost a physical torture for me. But I do my best to ignore it, because whatís the point of getting enraged? Itís much better to shut it out. This is what homeís for, oneís burrow. I bring everything I like there (ďThe imperfection of my home doesnít disturb me/ but somebody elseís imperfections irritate meĒ). What I donít like about my home is that it needs redecorating. But I donít want to waste my time and energy. This means it is not annoying me to such an extent and I can live with it. I am totally indifferent to country homes and nature in general.

There is a view that the female poet is a creature entirely unequipped for life.

I donít understand that. Probably itís what they say about all creative people whose brains have overdeveloped right hemispheres, which are responsible for intuition and abstract thinking. As for me, Iím ambidextrous. In my childhood they tried hard to make me righthanded. Now I hardly remember which hand I use better. I use my left hand for shooting, and I draw with my left; also I eat with the left hand, but I write, usually using a mouse, with my right. This means that both parts of my brain are active. So, the analytical part of me co-exists peacefully Ė sometimes not so peacefully Ė with the emotional side.

From Atmosfera (Атмосфера), No. 3, 2002, Moscow

Translated by Daniel Weissbort  (From Russian Women Poets, Modern Poetry in Translation New Series n.ļ 20, Edited by Daniel Weissbort, Guest Editor Valentina Polukhina, King's College, London, University of London, 2002 ISBN 0-9533824-8-6)