Аннотация: Очерк о Всеволоде Алексеевиче Сурганове,
литературоведе. Написан и переведён на английский к 90-летию со дня его рождения.
Елена ЧЕРНИКОВА, (англ.)
June 1982, Tverskoy Boulevard, 25. Literature Institute. A group of graduates is gathered on the front porch. I still have six photos left from that day. I put them in a row in front of me, arranging them in some kind of a "miniphotofilm": by the front door of our institute, I"m standing out vividly right in the centre of our group picture; there is us, a radiant single whole about to pale and break into grey pieces, slowly float away into obscurity. My gorgeous slim self moves to the right side, a lit cigarette cozily nestled between my fingers; I turn to face the front porch which I am to bid farewell to and I then glance into the empty centre of that whole which by now has already ceased to exist. Surganov, joining all of us, is in the first photograph. In the second, he is standing on the left, turned side-ways, facing, like me, that same centre, now devoid of colors of life. Vsevolod Alekseevich had always been calm, with his leisurely pace of a tourist-instructor; here, though, in our good-bye photo, he seems to have sunk into his thoughts even deeper than ever. As if the two of us - a thesis adviser and a Literature Institute graduate, the youngest of the whole group - are watching each other from the opposite flanks. It"s over, we have reached the end, the edge of the abyss called "svobodnyi diplom" [free diploma. - hereinafter translator"s note], the notion that, in Soviet years, meant that a graduate was not allocated a work place, unlike all others. The boundless freedom that was given to us, that was our conscious choice, we knew what we were getting into, just like our teachers, who, while saying their good-byes, knew exactly what tortures were out there, waiting for us. But at that moment - nothing but June, sunrays gently kissing our cheeks, our faces lit with happy smiles, fags fuming in our fingers.
Working on my graduation paper was quite a story. V.A. Surganov was supervising the literary composition I was writing, all excited about its protagonist, Bunin, while Surganov himself was the head of the Soviet literature department. Soviet literature, while my paper was not Soviet at all, not even close. But back then, I didn"t have a clue about any disharmony whatsoever. I was young and all lit up inside by the utter freedom which our amazing mentor was giving to all of us at his workshop, delicately, gracefully, non-imposing.
So, the first thing Surganov did was expel two foreign bodies from that living organism I was creating: a letter out of place and a chapter the size of a newspaper article. The misprint he found was in some quote I was giving in the text, so what he did then was call me on the phone, to the dorm, in the middle of the night, to get me clean up the mistake. This meant coming to the institute in the morning, armed with a bottle of Tipp-Ex, paint over the letter "s" and replace it with an "m" [The author made a mistake in a phrase "besprosvetnyi mrak" ("impenetrable darkness"), and if write the second word with an "s" instead of an "m", that will be translated as "turd"/"poop"]. The two letters stand next to each other on the Russian keyboard, so my finger had slipped. Our phone conversation was unique; too bad it could not be recorded: a Doctor of Philology kindly clarifies to a young girl the whole importance of the real "darkness" to be restored.
The second preference of the editor concerned a frail piece of my work, though under a bombastic title "Emigration". Surganov was very polite explaining that Bunin"s emigration described on three little pages could not be possibly called "a chapter" and he managed to convince me that we could do without this part of the poet"s life which I, apparently, knew so little about. Apart from that, he said, my work was fully prepared for the defense.
For the record, to make a phone call into the dorm of the Literature Institute back then, spring 1982, was pretty much of a far cry from what it would be now. In those pre-cellular times, one first had to reach our superintendent (no less than this word, for that"s what she was, and exceptionally vociferous woman-dynamite), charm her into going all the way up to the sixth floor and give the student a note asking to call back to her thesis tutor. And there she is, of course, a well-mannered fifth-year female student sitting up straight in her room, in the dark of night, fully anticipating the warden"s visit. In fact, it was a miracle I still hadn"t joined my friends at the game of Preference at that moment. So, two kopecks snatched, me, running to the fifth floor, to the payphone, shivers down my spine: now what could have gone wrong? The we-had-already-gone-through-trouble-with-my-work kind of now. It was about the reviews. The assessment of the first reviewer, Professor S.B. Dzhimbinov"s, was very positive and thorough and summed up with "high-level of research culture"; but the second reviewer bluntly refused to give any assessment at all, he was furious with the mere idea of the paper I was doing. Since there had to be two people assessing, besides the tutor, Surganov was forced to search for someone else. There he finally was, Professor V.I. Gusev, who agreed. Originally, we both came from the same town, Voronezh. Having read my composition about Bunin, Gusev praised me deeply and, at long last, I managed to graduate, safe and sound.
My long path started at the age of three when I got down to writing action-packed prose and even bound my thrillers - with a duct tape, sitting under the table; it was very serious. First grade at school - I am a hell of a poet, three opuses popping out daily. By the seventh grade, I firmly decided I was going to Literature Institute - the only place that fully corresponded to my needs. The thing is, I never really looked forward to discussing my poetic or prosaic achievements with anyone in the first place, but there, I found out, was a bombshelter provided: a Workshop of criticism and literary studies. No better place to hide from irrelevant criticism than in a Workshop of criticism. Upon leaving my hometown Voronezh at the respectable age of seventeen, I was fully determined to enter Literature Institute, even though, as it turned out afterwards, I was into a pure lottery, with more than 100 candidates competing for each place. But I had my target to reach. So, poems out of sight, I got my grip on the task ahead of me and applied for the institute with my texts about G. Troepol'skij, a classic writer born in Voronezh, the author of the famous short novel "Belyj Bim Chernoe Uxo" ["White Bim Black Ear"] which I had already done my research for previously and had been granted the first place at an All-Soviet Union contest among secondary school students.
So, I got into the Literature Institute. Surganov"s workshop was attended on Tuesdays, by all students of the Literature and criticism department, freshmen to seniors, since there were very few of us, only three people being admitted each year, unlike poets and prose-writers whose number was much higher. Together with Vsevolod Alekseevich, we went on trips around Moscow region. The trips were fantastic and would be later on described in every memoir written about Surganov. The travelling group, as I have already said, varied greatly in age and background, so the younger ones were not always taken into account by the seniors, but I couldn"t be bothered by the highbrows having their fun. In fact, I couldn"t be bothered at all. I was in a bombshelter, remember? I was in disguise, even my course mates didn"t have the slightest idea of what I was really doing in the institute. All those years, while I was zealously pretending to be preparing myself for the career of a literary critic, Surganov kept pace with me, supporting, as zealously as I was pretending. Now I understand why. All along, he knew what I was. At the very first sight, he recognized a prose-writer, though the one carefully feeling her way through, picking up courage for something. And that is why he granted me that boundless freedom. My graduation work was titled "Lyubov' i radost' bytiya" ["Love And Zest For Life"] which is a quote from a poem written by Bunin.
The commemorative photo I told you about in the beginning, captures that dreadful, blinding, heartbreaking instant, a Universe falling into pieces. My thesis tutor standing among the graduates. All authorities are sitting in the front row where he, the head of the department, should have been as well. But he is with us, standing in the second row.
That day left a deep mark in my soul. Now, thirty-five years later, being a teacher myself, I"m fully aware of what adults think while giving out diplomas to their alumni; that"s why I do my best to stay out of graduation parties, farewell speeches and any final group photos whatsoever.
All graduates of Vsevolod Alekseevich were leaving his embrace with a light heart, wings grown out to fly. He, like no other, nurtured every single student of his, only back then, I guess, we took it for granted, being too young and naïve to fully realize how lucky we were. He was training his diverse fosterlings scrupulously, as if we were all gathered at the bivouac before the mounting. Only in this group of alpinists, each member was considered individually, their strong (at times, way too strong) personality taken into account, since it often came with both talent and arrogance in one package. So, just like those climbers preparing to conquer big heights, we were provided with our essential bivouac equipment - instructions, firmly nailed into our brains: "If, upon leaving our institute, you find yourselves working for a newspaper, please make sure you stay there for no more than two years. Afterwards, be so brave to leave, otherwise the job will knock your hands off". Journalism was generally considered a curse word in our institute, and when it came to making things clear to us, he was more than precise in delivering his message, straight into target.
The sky fell in for me one day when I learnt about the existence of editors and (when it rains, it pours) censors. Take a wild guess on how I felt, having come from a musical family, raised on Bach"s music, a child of freedom who dived into critics voluntarily... I couldn"t stand it. I was drastic with my decision: not a single word on a piece of paper until the lifting of censorship in the country! Innate maximalism, obviously heated up by Surganov as well. He knew his way around the idea of inner freedom, valued it in those who had it in the first place and did his best to develop it in those who lacked it. He managed perfectly without any pompous declarations, never bossed anyone around, his communication was based entirely on amiability, be it a classroom, or a hiking trip into the woods, a trip to a vegetable base where we helped out digging up potatoes [the latter being a very popular and beloved student thing to go on together in the Soviet Union]. Being one of the founders of guitar poetry in the USSR, Surganov practiced a special kind of an all-bard religion, his quiet prayer worshipping the most sacred in a person - his inner self. The vegetable base trips were no exception, those are the times I most long for. We were assigned to go and help out the workers, and our teachers were our chaperones. My memory keeps the mise en scene: students are sitting at dusk, surrounded by mountains of just-gathered vegetables, it is cold, we are drinking vodka and talking about the sublime. Surganov is listening carefully, joins the conversation and never, ever laughs at us or makes any inappropriate jokes. He takes us seriously, values us as people. We are sitting all together, resting after a long day, potatoes and carrots sorted out; we are keeping ourselves warm with our drink, waiting for one of our guys to get back from a grocery store at a nearby highway. Surganov, the essence of our group, is with us, we feel safe and protected. I"m going back in time to see and relive this and feel through it again, living now in another century, the voices, the talks echoing in my head from far away... it suddenly dawns on me that neither of those trips, even the hiking we went on, was done in a common, "camp-fire-guitar" way [the author emphasizes it because back in the USSR, a trip to the nature without a classic nylon-string guitar and a certain list of songs known by everyone, was really hard to imagine]. Only now I understand - Surganov was a man of rigid taste and his own view of such trips: if we go out, it is to be only about our time together, breathing fresh air, talking. He, in turn, was fully participating, always kind and polite, though never crossing the boundaries, always keeping his distance.
Now, my colleagues at the university watch me nursing my graduates as if my own children and say they can"t wrap their head around it. Why so much? Well, I"m pretty sure it comes from Surganov. His manner was soft but, at the same time, he spoke straight to the point, no tricky implications which would stymie a poor young student putting a teacher high up on the throne. Surganov knew how to give and develop what went way beyond curriculum - inner freedom. I simply follow in his steps.
One year after graduation, I got to work for a newspaper, and, despite the two-year limit permitted by Surganov, I stayed there for eleven years. Then, I worked at the radio, for fifteen years. I practically danced my way through this happy period, always surrounded by wonderful people. Perhaps it was just me having got used to be open with everyone but, yet again, I was following suit. Turns out, Surganov managed, in passing, to teach me journalism. Obviously, I used this field for so long to hide from my prose-writing self, just like my poetic self was seeking shelter at Surganov"s workshop of criticism. But with him, I knew I was safe. Vsevolod Alekseevich was a miracle, a hero of his time, he deserves to have a big book written about him. I know I"m late with my immense gratitude, if only it had occurred to me to do this back in June 1982, that day when we were leaving our institute, leaving him. I guess, at that time, a tiny weak thanksgiving cell in the depth of my brain was still very poorly developed, that is my frail excuse. Youngsters tend to take good things for granted, luxury even more so. To fully estimate the invaluable gift in their hands is simply beyond their ability. And only now I come to understand what Surganov did for me the day when I was presenting my thesis, April 15th 1982.
... I couldn"t speak, I felt numb, I stood up, approached the platform... and didn"t ascend it. I uttered only: "My thesis is devoted to the poetry of Ivan Alekseevich Bunin". And returned to my seat. So fast that even our quite energetic PE teacher and photographer I.K. Chirkov had no chance to take a shot of me, speaking. And this was when Vsevolod Alekseevich took the floor, instead of me. He replaced me, he himself spoke in front of the audience about the core of my findings which described my view of how the sound and the sense were interrelated. Then, he read out both reviews. Finally, he gave his speech of a thesis tutor. The main idea, as I caught it, was that the young lady here is an extremely independent person and yes, she is going to graduate this year. And also, that Chernikova"s thesis carries findings worth special attention of various scholars.
I wish I could bring back the day of my thesis defense and make things right, do what I was supposed to do, appropriately. I don"t even remember if I gave him any present or even said thank you after everything he did for me. I"m afraid not. Because I was in a hurry to catch my train and go back to Voronezh, to my best friend"s wedding. Victorious smile on her face, she was marrying a guy named Igor who I had been desperately in love with back in school. Now, I was invited to be her bridesmaid. And I was going back to that same Voronezh where my beloved poet Bunin was born, ninety years before me, on the neighboring street even, Bol'shaya Dvoryanskaya. I was born on Malaya Dvoryanskaya. And my thesis about the poetry of Bunin, the first Russian Nobel prize winner in literature, an emigrant - I was allowed to write such work in Soviet times, which was unheard of, under the direction of the head of the department of Soviet literature Surganov who not only gave his permission and fully supported me but practically defended my thesis instead of me - how could I ever thank him?! And finally, the day came...
July, 2017. Forty years since I got into Literature Institute. In a nice warm swimming pool at a villa by the Black Sea, four people found themselves, at the same moment. Those were: a) professor of Literature Institute V.P. Smirnov, b) Doctor of Philology Aleksandr Lyusyj, c) the winner of the award "Bol'shaya Kniga" ["The Big Book"] Pavel Basinskij. And me. The four of us got together by accident, in the year in which Surganov would have turned 90. I could hardly bring myself to believe this was really happening: over the hills and far away from Moscow, on my work trip which I actually used as a chance to compose the text you are reading now, I dive into the pool together with three prominent writers who were, in fact, the only people I could talk with about Surganov. This was truly amazing: each of us had left our apartments early in the morning, separately, not even suspecting what a present Destiny had in store for us.
The first one, V.P. Smirnov, the winner of the Russian national prize in literature named after I.A. Bunin (2000), has been working at our institute his whole life, and he was, in fact, that reviewer whose assessment seriously threatened my thesis, forcing Surganov to look for a replacement urgently, back in April 1982. My second swimming companion, Lyusyj, now the Doctor of Philology, critic and scholar in culture studies, graduated Surganov"s workshop in 1985. The third one, Basinskij, graduated in 1986 and, he told me at the pool, wouldn"t have got his PhD later on, if had not been forced to do so by Surganov himself. Basinskij, now a grown-up, said he was eternally thankful to Surganov for having convinced the young Basinskij to do the right thing.
So, we talked. We got our luck. And I got mine. Again. Words are powerless to express how blessed I was to have you. Vsevolod Alekseevich, my teacher.