Word for Word: A Memoir

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9781468307320: Word for Word: A Memoir

A bestselling sensation in Russia, where it was called “the most significant cultural event of the year,” Word for Word is nothing less than the story of a nation’s literary conscience―the history of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes

A child of the 1920s, Lilianna Lungina was a Russian Jew born to privilege, spending her childhood in Germany, France, and Palestine. But when her parents moved to the USSR when she was thirteen, Lungina became witness to many of the era’s greatest upheavals.

Exiled during World War II, dragged to KGB headquarters to report on her cosmopolitan friends, and subjected to her new country’s ruthless, systematic anti-Semitism, Lungina nonetheless carved out a remarkable career as a translator who introduced hundreds of thousands of Soviet readers to Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, and, most famously, Astrid Lindgren.

In the process, she found herself at the very center of Soviet cultural life, meeting and befriending Pasternak, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn, and many other major figures of the era’s literature. Her extraordinary memoir―at once heartfelt and unsentimental―is an unparalleled tribute to a lost world.

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About the Author:

Lilianna Lungina was a leading literary translator in the Soviet Union. She translated, among many authors, the works of Astrid Lindgren, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Heinrich Boll, Knut Hamsun, and Boris Vian.

The acclaimed director Oleg Dorman interviewed Lungina for a documentary film based on her life, which was released in 2009 and became one of the most popular television programs in Russia’s history.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Dear reader,

No one can argue that there aren’t strong cultural differences between the United States and Russia, but even so, I was rather surprised when I learned that television viewers in Russia had recently become transfixed by a fifteen-part documentary about the life of Lillianna Lungina, a literary translator. That a nation would turn off the cop shows, game shows, and variety shows and tune into a seventy-seven-year-old woman’s eight-hour-long narration of her life during the Soviet years seemed difficult to believe.

And yet as soon as I read Word for Word, I understood exactly why Russia’s TV viewers responded the way they did. Word for Word is an extraordinary book in part due to its conception—it is an expanded transcript of the documentary, but when I read it, I could have sworn that I was reading prose. Lungina—surely one of the most erudite and well-spoken intellectuals of the twentieth century—gives us an extraordinarily moving story of the cultural and political upheavals that defined the long Soviet epoch. And with brilliant clarity, she tells her own story.

Lungina spent her youth in Germany, France, and Palestine, and her lively description of Europe in the interwar years provides a stark contrast to the gloomy, brutal scenes she observed when she returned to the Soviet Union in 1934. Stalin’s Moscow is a city of perpetual unease, and as Lungina loses friend after friend to the camps and is interrogated by the KGB, she experiences the most damning kind of political education.

But even in the worst of times, there is literature. After World War II, Lungina becomes the most acclaimed translator of her generation, rendering into Russian books by Astrid Lindgren, Heinrich Böll, Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, and many others. And as she finds herself at the center of cultural life, she meets some of the towering figures of Soviet literature, including Joseph Brodsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Yevgeny Yevtushekno.

I was deeply moved by Word for Word—not merely by Lungina’s story, but by the beautiful, unsentimental way she brings to life a lost world. This book is more than a memoir: it is a reckoning with a repressive regime whose intellectual life is surely its greatest legacy. I hope you find this book as revelatory as I did.

Peter Mayer

Copyright

Preface

BY OLEG DORMAN

THIS BOOK IS THE TRANSCRIPT OF AN ORAL ACCOUNT BY LILIANNA Zinovievna Lungina of her own life, which was presented in a documentary series called Word for Word. I’ve added the most minor corrections, which are standard in the publication of any transcript, and have added those parts of the stories that could not, for various reasons, make it into the film, so the book is about a third longer than the series.

Lilianna Lungina (1920–1998) was a celebrated literary translator—it was through her translations that Russian readers discovered Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson on the Roof and the novels of Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, Max Frisch, Heinrich Böll, Michael Ende, Colette, Alexandre Dumas, Georges Simenon, Boris Vian, and Romain Gary. She translated the plays of Friedrich Schiller, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Henrik Ibsen, and stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen.

At the very beginning of the 1990s, a memoir by Lilianna Lungina, Les saisons de Moscou (The Seasons of Moscow), was published in France; it became a bestseller, and in an annual poll conducted by Elle, it was named by French readers as the best nonfiction book of the year. But Lungina was determined not to publish the book in Russia. She believed that her compatriots needed a completely different book, entirely rewritten from cover to cover. With one’s own people, she explained, one can and must discuss the things that outsiders cannot understand.

And at a certain point, she agreed to take on this challenge in front of a television camera. I think that the French book was something like a first draft for her story, which stretched over many days. In February of 1997, over the span of a week, I came to Lungina’s apartment on Novinsky Boulevard with the cinematographer Vadim Yusov and a small camera crew to listen to and film an oral novel, which would become the film Word for Word.

In her long life, Lilianna Lungina lived in many countries and captured the twentieth century with an extraordinary depth and clarity. This was a century that confirmed that there is no such thing as a collective life—only the lives of individuals. A century that confirmed that one is the only soldier on the field—that, indeed, that one is, himself, that field. That a person isn’t the plaything of circumstances, nor life’s victim, but a boundless and impregnable source of good.

Few people in the world get the chance to meet people like Lungina and her husband, the famous screenwriter Simon Lvovich Lungin. And yet it’s possible that other people—the people one meets—are the most important thing in our lives. It is through other people that we can take stock of life, of what human capability, of what love can be, of whether loyalty, bravery, and truth truly resemble what is written about them in books.

I was lucky enough to know and love such people. It is an honor for me to present this book to you.

Introduction

MY NAME IS LILYA LUNGINA. FROM AGE FIVE TO TEN, WHEN I LIVED in Germany, I was called Lili Markovich, stress on the first syllable. Then, from age ten to fourteen, in France, they called me Lily Markovich—stress on the last syllable. And when I performed in my mother’s puppet theater, I was called Lily Imali. Imali is my mother’s pseudonym. It is an ancient Hebrew word that means “my mama.” That’s how many different names I’ve had. I studied in as many schools as I had names. I was enrolled in twelve schools, all told. After such a long life—on the 16th of June, 1997, I will be 77 years old; even thinking about it sends shivers down my spine! I never thought I would live to such a venerable age—after such a long life, I have still never learned to refer to myself by my name and patronymic. Maybe this is a mark of our generation. We have always thought of ourselves as young, and so avoided formal forms of address.

Still, seventy-seven is a ripe age, and it’s time to start drawing conclusions about what has happened during my time. And not just provisional conclusions, as my husband Sima called the last chapter of his book Seen and Believed, but final ones. On the other hand, though, what kinds of conclusions can you draw about an activity, about a vocation? What kinds of conclusions are there to be drawn about life? The results of life are life itself, I think. The entire sum of happy, trying, unhappy, bright, and bland moments you live through is the essence of life. That is the conclusion, the only one that matters. That’s why I now want to look back and reminisce. That’s why I feel drawn to old photographs.

I remember very clearly the moment I realized that I was “myself,” separate from the rest of the world.

I have a photograph in which I’m sitting on my father’s lap—that was the very moment I’m talking about. I loved my father dearly and was terribly spoiled by him. Up to that very second, I had felt I was fused with him and the whole world. Suddenly I had the sensation that I stood apart from him and from everything around me. I think it was the consciousness of being a person in my own right. Until that moment I grew willy-nilly, programmed by my genes, by what was already innate in me from birth. But once I realized that I was separate from the world, it began to influence me, to act upon me. And what was innate in me began to undergo changes, to be refashioned and refined, to be subjected to the larger life that surrounded me. In other words, my experiences, the situations I found myself in, the choices I made, the relationships I formed with others—in all of this, the world that raged around me became ever more palpable. This is why I thought that when telling about my life I would be talking not so much about myself, but ... It seemed rather presumptuous at first—why should I start talking about myself? I don’t consider myself to be smarter or wiser than the next person. It just didn’t make sense to talk about myself. But to talk about myself as some sort of organism that absorbed elements of the external world, the complex, very contradictory life of the world outside—maybe it’s worth a try. Then you would end up with the experience of that larger life filtered through one person, something more objective within the personal. And that may turn out to be worthwhile.

It seems to me that now, at the end of the century, when our country is in the midst of such confusion and so rudderless—it feels like it’s headed toward an abyss at an ever-increasing pace—that it may truly be important and valuable to salvage as many of the pieces of what we have lived through as possible. The whole twentieth century, and even, through our parents, the nineteenth. Perhaps the more people there are who bear witness to their own experience, the easier it will be to preserve it. Ultimately, it will be possible to piece together a more or less coherent picture of a humane life, of life with a human face, as they like to say nowadays. And perhaps this may have something to offer to the twenty-first century. I’m speaking about a composite of voices, of course, in which mine is but a drop, even a fraction of a drop. Keeping this in mind, I can attempt to talk about myself, about what and how I have lived.

If we accept the premise (this is what I believe, anyway) that a work of art, a book or film, must bear some “message,” some appeal to mankind, I would like to formulate this right off. What I wish to convey most strongly is that one must hope and believe that even the worst of situations can unexpectedly turn into something quite different and lead to something good. I will show how many misfortunes in my own life, and then in my life together with Sima, led to surprising and improbable happiness and richness. I’ll stress this in order to show that one must not despair. Because I know that despair has taken root in the lives of many, many people. So one has to believe, to keep hoping, and then little by little things will take on a different meaning.

1

IT HAS BEEN MY EXPERIENCE—AND I OBSERVE THAT IT IS TRUE FOR others, as well—that interest in one’s parents awakens later in life. At first you resist them and push them away, trying to affirm your own personality out of a desire to lead your own independent existence. You’re so wrapped up in your own life that you have no use for your parents. You love them, of course, but they don’t take part in the life of your heart. But with time, you become increasingly interested in where you came from, and you want to understand what the sources of your own life are, to learn what your parents did, who your grandmother and grandfather really were, and so forth, as far back as it goes. This happens later on in life. I see this in my own children, who at a mature age are beginning to take an interest in their mother and father—a father who is no longer with them ... I went through the same thing, with the difference that I had already begun asking my mother these serious questions when I was still young. So almost everything that I will say about my grandfather and grandmother is not from my own recollection, but from recollections about what others have said.

My mother and father were both from Poltava, Ukraine. I always wanted to go there. Many times I asked my aunt, my mother’s cousin who was married to Alexander Frumkin, a well-known academic, to take me to Poltava. I wanted her to show me their house. This never happened. Finally, after Sima and I had been married some thirty-five years, Fate itself arranged for us to visit there. Sima had been recovering from several serious bouts of pneumonia, and the doctors told him that he needed to convalesce in a mild, temperate climate. My friend Flora Litvinova, mother of the famous dissident Pavlik Litvinov, advised us to go to Shishaki, forty-four miles down from Poltava. The beautiful Psel River flows through the region, there are pine woods, and it’s a lovely place. Without a lot of deliberation—I make decisions like that very quickly—I asked Flora to rent a cottage for us, and we set out. Strangely enough, and completely by chance, we ended up in Poltava.

It was a very sweet provincial town with a few elegant stone buildings in the center. The outskirts, however, looked as though they were suspended in time. The houses and cottages were an unusual style of daubed clay structure. Unlike the ordinary rural dwellings—wattle and mud huts—these had visible wooden beams and supports, which made them seem more solid. Still, they were squat, one-story dwellings with little windows, and they looked more like barns than houses where people lived. I think that in the years that Mama and Papa lived there, the whole of Poltava, except for the very center, looked like that. And I imagine that in just such a small white cottage—they are all white, daubed and whitewashed twice a year, in spring and in autumn, so that everything gleamed and sparkled—lived my mother, Maria Danilovna Liberson. Her family called her Manya.

I know they had a two-story house. The first story was wooden, and the second was wattle and daub. The first floor was occupied by a drugstore. This was not an ordinary drugstore, because for some reason my grandfather sold toys there, as well. The drugstore had a large toy department.

My grandfather not only owned the drugstore, he was the chemist. He spent time making experiments and discoveries in a little lab. And he adored toys. He ordered the latest toys from Europe and the US. They say people came all the way from Kiev to buy his toys. The latest top-of-the-line toys. He loved mechanical toys. Many years later, when the first Toy Exhibit opened in Moscow, our then six-year-old son Pavlik said, “I’m not interested in mechanical toys.” But my grandfather was fascinated by them.

My grandfather also had a medal for rescuing someone from drowning. He had thrown himself into the water and then plucked someone out. In addition, he had been chief of the Jewish self-defense militia during the Pogroms.

My father was called Zyama—Zinovy Yakovlevich Markovich. He came from a poor Jewish family with eight or nine kids. He was the only one who received an education. Grandfather and Grandmother had nothing to do with it. His brother, a petty official, played a minor role in my life. We used to visit him in Moscow, and I remember endless dinners from those times. Later his son was arrested as a Trotskyite, and perished in prison. Those are the only things I know about my father’s side of the family.

My mother and father had a high-school romance. Mother graduated from Poltava Gymnasium, and Father from the technical high school, with an engineering major. I have in my possession one of Mama’s diaries, in which she describes how on the 6th of June 1907, they celebrated her graduation on the terrace of her home. There were three boys and three girls, and there is a record of the wonderful, romantic plans they ha...

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