Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading a Russian novel on cold winter nights

Farewell, by Ivan Aivazovskiy, 1869

Reading a Russian Novel

The biggest book I’ve read
lies anchored on my lap
page twenty-two is open
I’m reading from the top
It’s only been ten minutes,
the Count repeats ma chère
to every corseted figure
who enters the sitting room there
My legs are tucked beneath them
parading in and out
and tickled by their tiny feet
I am wondering about
Natashas, Anyas, Sonyas --
the stream of names I wade in
and whether I’ll remember them
without a notepad aiding.
The samovar is steaming
the woodstove is too warm
my eyelids are so heavy
that fairydust starts to swarm
And into sleep I tumble
with sugarplum Tinkerbells
in lace and sleeves and satin
and all their charming spells
They carry me to Russia
like I am Gulliver’s wife
and like him I am foreign
unaccustomed to this life
It turns out all is huge though --
the land, the names, the wars
and I'm the one who's shrinking
under masted monuments to czars
I stretch and wake to sail through
these thousand pages here,
all afghaned in my deck chair
until this time next year.

Listen to a podcast of this poem here.

-The Black Sea, by  Ivan Aivazovskiy

 Moonlit Night, by Ivan Aivazovskiy

 Ships at Anchor, Ivan Aivazovskiy

Ivan Aivazovskiy (1817-1900 -- I've corrected this, which I had previously as 1870-1900. Thanks, Arti!) has left more than 6,000 paintings, most of them of the sea. (What is it with overachieving Russians?) He was practically canonized by the Russian Navy. The painting "The Black Sea," three paintings up, is considered his masterpiece. But frankly, one is as transporting as the next. And apparently -- get this -- he painted the sea from memory.
-Chaos, The Creation, 1848, by Ivan Aivazovskiy

About this painting "Newspapers wrote: 
'Pope Gregory XVI has purchased Aivazovsky’s picture Chaos 
and had it hung in the Vatican, where only the pictures 
of the world's greatest artists are considered worthy of a place. 
His Chaos is generally held to be quite unlike anything seen before; 
it is said to be a miracle of artistry'”.
~ From the site embedded in "Ivan Aivazovskiy"


Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Funny, the two self-proclaimed "world's slowest readers", you and me, have dug our eyes into two of the longest novels, War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time ...

... Ruth, we'll be old and grey by the time we finish our respective book odysseys, but reading your delightful poem here is a good showpiece of all the fun we'll have doing it.

The Solitary Walker said...

Quite delightful.

In this case, size does matter,
So don't let the great length stop us
From enjoying Tolstoy's masterpiece
And that Proustian magnum opus!

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, I think we chose these long reads on purpose. After all, I was longing for a long sea voyage, and perhaps you wanted help with finding all that time that gets lost.

Nice sitting here on the deck reading by you ...

Ruth said...

Thanks, Robert.

I agree, and as I just said to Lorenzo, I think I deeply wanted a long novel. After your recommendation, I knew W & P was just the one. As I've told you, from the first page I was smitten and really don't want to reach THE END. Well, I have a nice, lengthy transatlantic trip before that comes.

Maureen said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and loved being able to hear you read your delightful poem, Ruth.

In high school we did a semester on Russian lit. I still have all the wonderful novels. How we made it through so many reads I'll never know but I remember being enthralled.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Maureen. It took me until the last few years to enjoy Russian novels. I read Anna Karenina last year and couldn't put it down. But in my youth, I was daunted by the names and interwoven stories. I have loved War & Peace from the first page. This poem is true of my evening reads, but not from lack of enthusiasm, thankfully.

Susan said...

Exactly my reaction when reading that book. Very sleep-inducing, it is. I love seascapes and I didn't think anyone could come close to Winslow Homer in my book, but these paintings are so beautiful I may have to change my thinking. I would love to see them in person.

Ruth said...

Susie, it may be sleep-inducing, but in the 30 or so minutes I'm awake, I love it. Hey, you and I should read a novel together sometime. Maybe something shorter? I'll get back to you on that in about twelve months . . . :)

Another Russian painter (Leonid Pasternak I recently discovered via the Rilke book's cover portrait) I knew nothing about. How is it possible I am so ignorant? If you google Aivazovskiy's work, you'll see that it is as unending as the sea.

VioletSky said...

Probably the biggest book I read (if you don't count the Stieg Larsson trilogy) was Les Miserables. I could not put it down and even reread if after seeing it on stage. But mostly, I avoid lengthy novels as I just feel overwhelmed.

I've never seen Ivan Aivazovskiy's work before, but it is very arresting. I must now go look up his website...

Vagabonde said...

Your poem is lovely as all your poems. I was pleased to see the paintings of Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. I am not sure if you remember but I had two of his paintings on my blog about the Sea and me (part 3) where I placed the video of Edith Piaf ( I had a hard time choosing two from all his paintings. But Ruth, you did not say that Aivazosky was originally an Armenian and his name was Hovhannes Aivazian. He was more Armenian then me, since I am only half. He was born in Crimea from a poor Armenian family and his early paintings were signed in the Armenian alphabet. He went to Constantinople (Istanbul) several times where Sultan Abdulmecid I commissioned many of his paintings. He had married in first marriage an English governess and his second marriage was to Anna Boomazian a young Armenian widow. I have loved his paintings of the sea for many years. Thank you for showing his art. I read War and Peace in French and should read it in English now to see if the translations are different.

Shari Sunday said...

Don't have the patience for the books, but I loved your charming poem and the pictures it made in my head. And I loved the paintings. I am unfamiliar with the artist, but the light is wonderful. Each of those paintings would light up the whole room. Interesting to know that one of them is in the Vatican.

George said...

It was lovely to sit and watch you read — and occasionally sleep and dream beneath — "War and Peace." Your poem was very vivid! Also lovely are the paintings. The first, "Farewell," reminded me of J.M.W. Turner's work.

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, wonderful poem, perfect for the cold winter nights we are having lately. Russian literature, i have always wanted to tackle.
I just finished Tinkers and i am now reading Home. Good novels,but not Russian Lit. Every season is perfect for reading but in winter we have few distractions, other than my snoring dog. xox cb

Terresa said...

If you are Gulliver's wife, may I be Gulliver's sister, to travel with you, set sail, be lost in the sea?

As you know, I'm taken with the ocean and it's depths, mystery, chaos. Much of my writing has water imagery, without effort it appears in my writing.

PS: Thanks for sharing the Aivazovskiy painting, it is a marvel!

rosaria said...

I never knew of Ivan Aivazovskiy before today. Thank you for such a fine introduction. Yes, we are transported in beautiful books and paintings.

Friko said...

I don't think I'll be re-reading War and Peace any time soon. I first read it in German hundreds of years ago and as it took me hundreds of years to read, I must be very old, at least in reading years.

The painter is new to me, he seems worthy of exploration, but that'll probably take me another lot of hundreds of years. And I'm already on my third lifetime!

It is partly your fault that I've changed my template to plain and simple. It makes pictures stand out far better and allows them to be bigger in size too.
Now all I have to learn is how to get myself a header picture.

Thanks for unwittingly sending me on the right path.

Marcie said...

This is beautiful. A magical journey that is somewhere between dreams and reality!!!

Barb said...

The paintings are so luminous - who could paint 6,000! Good Luck on your read, Ruth - a year will pass quickly, I'm sure!

Margaret Bednar said...

Fantastic - just loved everything about this. Nothing like winter to settle down with a big book that, as Friko says "will take 100 years". ha And does Vagabonde know everything? Amazing, that woman. I've been trying to read Les Mis (ever since Will was Marius and I'm still at it - it's been a year) ... but I fall asleep far to quickly. As always, your poetry is very endearing and thoughtful.

Dan Gurney said...

Novels tend to sit unread
A long time on my shelf
I haven't got the patience
I'm more a Haiku man myself.

Ruth said...

Violetski, what a great book, Les Miserables. Heartbreaking. I usually avoid all novels, though I am reading them at friends' recommendations. If I read four a year, it's a lot. Do you think W & P counts as four?

Aivazovskiy seems to have the sea inside him.

Ruth said...

Thank you kindly, Vagabonde. As I said in my email, I forgot seeing his paintings at your sea post. Going back now, I realize it is because I focused on your photographs. The two of his you posted are gorgeous too, and one of them I considered posting here (the light behind the waves). So I know what you mean that it's hard to choose. Yes, I meant to say that he was Armenian, and I forgot to add it. What an extraordinary painter's life he had, and got very wealthy from them. He also gave much of his wealth away, which heartens me.

Yes, it would be fascinating to compare W & P translations in French and English. It's wonderful that you know both languages expertly and could take on that delicious feat.

Ruth said...

Hi, Shari. One thing I seem to have developed is patience. In fact I am so patient and like things to go so slowly, now I have no patience for hurrying up! Yes, Aivazovsky understood light as well as he did the sea. It's the light in the paintings that really makes them extraordinary, as well as all that broiling water and sky.

Ruth said...

Thank you, George. Good observation about Turner. In the embedded article there is this quote about Turner, and a little poem he wrote for Aivazovsky:

His works were highly appreciated by J. W. M. Turner, a prominent English landscape and marine painter. He was so struck by the picture The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night that he dedicated a rhymed eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky:

In this your picture
Of a mighty king!

I see the moon, all gold and silver.
Forgive me if I err, great artist,

Reflected in the sea below...
Your picture has entranced me so,

And on the surface of the sea
Reality and art are one,

There plays a breeze which leaves a trail
And I am all amazement.

Of trembling ripples, like a shower
So noble, powerful is the art

Of fiery sparks or else the gleaming headdress
That only genius could inspire!

Ruth said...

Cathy, so good to see you. Any reading is wonderful in the winter, with candle light or my pinecone lights next to me, and the wood stove burning. You must be enjoying your novels, and even the dog's snore provides a soulful ambience. :)

Ruth said...

Terresa, please, yes, join Lorenzo and me on the deck! What grand company on our journey. Yes, even your current poem: Habit, you are falling into water. Beautiful.

Ruth said...

Rosaria, it's gratifying to know you also discovered Aivazovskiy now. Writing and art, as George's current post on how Art speaks of holy things, with words by Frederick Buechner gets at this beautifully. Here's the link:

Ruth said...

Friko, Friko, you are delightful.

Your new templates looks very "clean" and crisp, if I do say so myself. :)

We can change things around here any time we want in the next hundred years . . .

Ruth said...

Marcie, thank you. Those Russians take you places.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Barb. Yes, the year will pass more quickly than I'd like, if previous years are any indication. Happy skiing!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Margaret. I do also declare that Vagabonde knows everything, and is connected to everyone wonderful in some way. Enjoy Les Mis for as long as it takes. For you can see that falling asleep while reading has its advantages and adds so much to the story. :)

Ruth said...

Dan ~

The stacks of books
that tower by me
are poetry and nonfiction
War and Piece, in its own pile,
is the one exception!


Jeanie said...

I am not at all familiar with this artist and find his paintings extremely evocative. Some remind me of the paintings of Turner. Thanks for the introduction.

Jeanie said...

P.S. -- I thought the poem was a separate post and I'd make a separate comment. Oops! "War and Peace" -- I have it. I periodically look at it and think, "Maybe this year." It hasn't happened yet. But perhaps you will be my inspiration! The poem certainly captures the energy, the magic of discovering a new world through the printed page! Lovely!

Arti said...


These paintings are so powerful. I like the first one best, maybe because of the brighter colors. The others are Gothic looking. I did some math, looking at the dates you gave us, he lived only 30 year and did 6,000 paintings! I mean even as you said they're overachieveing, but this is close to impossible. I did some maths, if he started painting at 18, he had to produce 500 paintings in a year. So I went and did some Googling. Just a tiny typo: 1817 ;) But still, this is amazing. Thanks for intro. this great artist to us (he's of American descent I learned). And your poem, LOL I love your vivid juxtapositions.

Arti said...


It's my turn to correct a mistake. I made an error in my comment above in saying that Ivan Aivazovsky was of American descent. He was actually of Armenian descent... my misreading the word on a website. Thanks to Vagabonde for pointing this out to me. My apology for the error.

Looking for Siddhartha said...

Dear Ruth,

first thank you so much for your comment on my blog! It was such a great pleasure for me to see it!
I am excited by your lively and beautiful poem. I also heard the podcast. You have such a beautiful voice.
The pictures of Ivan Aivazovskij are wonderful and I thank you that you to "exhibit" them here! I love so much russian art and I didn't know this extraordinary painter.

I wish you a very beautiful day and I see you on your next post!



Woman in a Window said...

And so it is an experience, isn't it? One that stays in you, or at least it stayed in me. It was the summer that I met my (ex)husband that I was reading War and Peace. I had a mind for it then. I read it aloud. I made notes. It pushed me from mountains. It daggered me in closets. It found me exposed on railroad tracks. And then there was a curious shift in me. I stopped reading and writing for more than a decade, until I found myself again. I don't specifically remember the reading, but oh, it is an experience reading these books.


Helena said...

I've never actually read Russian literature although I've read plenty of other classics and I do enjoy melancholic writers like Kafka, Hesse et al.

I just don't have so much time for long slow novels these days as I had before. I read quite a lot but no fiction novels at the moment.

who said...

as always Ruth you have put together a beautiful pair of poetry with paintings, two very talented artists.

I don't know how to say this, so I guess I should just come right out and say it directly since there is no way you won't see it eventually.

and I swear it was an accident that happened while trying to do something nice for your family. I know I should have asked first but by the time I realized what had happened it was too late.

what happened was, in the process of painting the roses red, evidently all of us that were involved did it rather quickly. And because one adverb is too many and a grand never enough, I also painted rather sloppily. I should have left the job at just the adjectives, but I didn't, and splashed red paint all over the side of your barn.

The good news is your whole barn has a fresh coat of paint, although I hate to admit it is not blue toned nor green.

No, and really, not any color in between

I should probably just let you look and read about, in the past tense that is.

the past tense of read, is read
{covers face shamefully}

and so is your barn

Amy @ Soul Dipper said...

Ivan is living up to the Russian propensity for melancholy with his somber colours. Thoroughly enjoy the sense of being all curled up under an afghan with a huge book that will companion for ages.

gemma said...

Oh Ruth,
To be wrapped in a book for so long. You choose the best words and
paint beautiful pictures with them.
Who needs 1000? Not you!

Ruth said...

Jeanie, that's an excellent observation. Please see the quote by Tuner about Aivazovskiy in my comment response to George. Turner admired his work a great deal!

Ruth said...

Oh, and thank you, Jeanie, also for your comment about the poem and the massive tome I'm reading. It does provide a pleasant passage through the winter months.

Ruth said...

Arti, I know, that first painting is incredibly evocative. What a scene to paint, that departure. It really touches me, to see a seascape on such a grand scale, with that little scene, so huge in someone's life. Who knows when they would see each other again?

Thank you so very much for noticing the error in the birth date I posted for Aivazovsky. There is something symmetrical about our paired "oopses" and I appreciate you noting, as Vagabonde did, that he was Armenian. What a vast sea of work to accomplish. And apparently he became very, very wealthy, and gave much of it away, bless him.

Ruth said...

Dear Renée, it's great to have you visit here too, thank you. So good of you to follow sync. Thank you for your kind words. All the best to you on your life and blog journeys. I'll see you around.

Ruth said...

Erin, you and Anna Kerenina about those railroad tracks . . .

But good that they were not the end of your "life" and that you came back . . . "with a vengeance" . . . and your writing astonishes with the depth of your experience and ability with words. Thank you.

Montag said...

The maritime paintings are enchanting. The religious one "Chaos, the Creation" I find disturbing and extremely unfortunate in that the creator seems overwhelmed by his creation.

Maybe one need see it in personb, however.

Ruth said...

Helena, you do a lot of reading, it is clear from your blog. But I know that being a mother of young ones creates a life of doing and being more than reading. Thank you for your comment.

Ruth said...

Dusti. :)

When I read your comment (I think it was last night), I could NOT resist the urge to look out the window. It doesn't matter that I was pretty sure you hadn't painted the barn red, or that it was night time and I wouldn't have been able to see it, or that the shade was pulled against the cold. :)

Would you believe it isn't the first time someone has offered/threatened to paint the barn at this blog? I think Lorenzo did it last . . .

Do you know how big it is? :)

Ruth said...

Hello there, Amy. The mood over the sea! Many of his paintings are eerily frightening to me. "The Black Sea" that I've posted is one. I have swum in the Black Sea with my family, when the kids were small. It was terrifying, because the undertow was too strong, and we just had to stop. Many of Aivazovskiy's paintings are of ships being torn apart by the sea. Clearly he was enchanted (not just a happy word, I think) with the sea and its power.

Ruth said...

Gemma, how kind! Thank you. :) So good to see you.

Ruth said...

Montag, yes, enchanting, eerily so. And you're so right about "Chaos," which I also find disturbing. I think it might be even more so in person!

Montag said...

The podcast is very nice. Did you try experimenting with videos also? Not necessarily just a video of you reading, but other images.

It does bring in at least one extra dimension... sometimes more than one.
I am intrigued by it all now.

Ginnie said...

I had to laugh, Ruth, when I read how many paintings he had done...thinking of Astrid's mom and all her tole paintings. I wonder if either of them got 'it' all out of their system?! :) Let me know how the book goes and if you'd recommend it to me (like you do DVDs). HA!

Ruth said...

Montag, thanks for listening. I started it after Lorenzo recorded himself reading "Rainstick" because of how it opened other dimensions to hear him read. I think it was W.S. Merwin, or someone, who said that poetry is meant to be heard. Now, my friend Dan Gurney is also recording his poems. After years of workshopping poems in classes and in a poetry group, I know that I need several readings of most poems to "get" them. Often I don't even really appreciate many poems, let alone get them upon first or even second reading. But when I hear a poem, it starts to live. I think this is a very important lesson about how we function as humans. Multi-dimensional beings, our experiences of art should be savored in those different dimensions when possible, which is why I like your idea of pairing the recording with images. No, I haven't done that yet, though I did make a YouTube of some photographs of water and paired it with Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" played by Yo-Yo Ma. The images with the music together are transporting.

Please, please, please record yourself reading your tremendous poems. I record mine on Garage Band, on my Macbook Pro. If you have a PC, I don't know what software is available. But the sound on this is quite good. And I'm figuring out which rooms are best for acoustics. Keep me posted. And it's something to think about for our poetry web site that we might get to in this lifetime. ;-)

Ruth said...

Oh, Boots, I didn't know Astrid's mom did tole painting too! As you know, I have just begun that myself. I am lucky if I get one or two done in a couple of hours. To imagine Aivazovskiy painting as many seascapes of this magnitude in his lifetime is beyond anything!

I'll let you know if recommend the book. If I ever finish it. :)

Cait O'Connor said...

Great poem on reading and fabulous pics, thank you!

Oliag said...

I've been too busy to come and visit your salon! How unhappy I would have been if I knew I missed this have described in rhyme how difficult it is for me to read these days without starting to doze off...even if I love the book! How is it that when I was younger I read voraciously without fear of sleeping...and I preferred extra long books in hopes that they would never end....but now I am having a difficult time concentrating. Yes your poem made me smile and nod:)

And these paintings of the sea! Beautiful! Thank you for introducing me to Mr Aivazovskiy!

Peter said...

Wow truly stunning work!

l0ve0utl0ud said...

Heya! Love your blog. Thank you for introducing me to a Russian artist whose work I was unfamiliar with. His work is very impressive. Best wishes