Dignity: part V – Nowhere to fade

Dignity Regained

by Jochen Markhorst

V          Nowhere to fade


A contemporary, female Chekhov, a Russian Harold Pinter… one of the greatest treasures of modern Russian literature is Lyudmila Petrushevskaya (1938), whose brilliant works have been published only since the perestroika of the 80s. Since then she has won almost all the most important literary prizes in Russia (including the highest, the Russian Booker Prize, the Pushkin Prize and in 2006 the Triumph Prize) and we are awaiting the – justifiably – Nobel Prize. Petrushevskaya is a versatile super talent (besides being a playwright, poet and prose writer she is also a gifted visual artist and an irresistible singer), but she deserves world fame for her short stories. The collection There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby was acclaimed in the New York Times Book Review in 2009 and is a bestseller, as is her second English book, There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself (2013).

The titles already do spoil the surprise somewhat: bleak. But there is more to it, of course. Many stories take place in a dreamlike setting, the main characters are in a kind of trance, in strange environments or in an unidentifiable land – often without knowing how they got there. A man notices that he walks alone at night in a snowy forest, looking for a child he has never seen before. A girl stands on the side of a dark road and notices that she does not recognise at all the clothes she is wearing. A man under anaesthesia meets his daughter in a strange house and eats a raw heart.

Their experiences can only be interpreted allegorically… “Dignity”-like archetypes in “Dignity”-like decors and a “Dignity”-like allegorical tone. Mysterious and ambiguous – indeed, like a Very Great Dylan Song.

A comparison with Dylan extends beyond literary output. The Russian writer’s modesty struggles with overt expressions of appreciation too, she insists on putting her own talent into perspective, and even chooses similar evasive explanations as Dylan. When the British writer Sally Laird interviews her for her book Voices of Russian Literature: Interviews With Ten Contemporary Writers (1999), Petrushevskaya says, responding to Laird’s question how she came to write the masterful novel The Time: Night:

Russia is a land of women Homers – women who tell their stories orally, just like that, without inventing anything. They’re extraordinarily talented storytellers. I’m just a listener among them. But I dare to hope that The Time: Night is a kind of encyclopaedia of all their lives.

… Homer, the modest reservation “I’m just a listener”, the Sing In Me, O Muse characterization: words, tone and images like Dylan uses in interviews and in his Nobel Prize speech to downplay the uniqueness of his lyrics.

Artistic congeniality, however, is also evident in the details: in remarkable choice of words. For example, the unobtrusive, shining catachresis in the third “chorus” of “Dignity”.

The attention is distracted by the ostentatious nod to Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre (“The Drunken Boat”);

Got no place to fade, got no coat
I’m on the rollin’ river in a jerkin’ boat
Tryin’ to read a note somebody wrote
About dignity

… in which the protagonist in a “drunken boat” perhaps is trying to read Rimbaud’s Lettre du Voyant. Beautifully phrased, too, with the compelling internal rhyme coat – boat – note – wrote. But it distracts from, and overshadows, the beauty of the great opening words, of the contamination no place to fade – a splendid, poetic contraction of no place to hide and fade away. And another trigger to look at Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, at her moving and witty poem “An Old Woman Crosses The Road”.

The old woman who wants to cross is stopped by the traffic police and is fined; she is not allowed to cross here. Of course, she does not have the money (“I only get my pension on the sixth”), but the policemen are adamant:

ГБДД стоит,
Приняв упорный вид,
Старушку не желая отпускать:
Давно пора понять,
Что некуда линять,
Придется бабка денежки отдать.
 The traffic police just stood there
Taking on a stubborn look,
Not wanting to let the old woman go:
It's about time you understand
You got nowhere to fade
You’ll have, grandmother, to give the money.

 “некуда линять”, nekuda linyat’, nowhere to fade… It is a unique expression and demonstrates a poetic kinship across the continents and oceans.

By the way, in 2010 a heart-warming, 72-year-old Ljudmila Petrushevskaya sings the poem, to the music of the indestructible Yiddish love song “Bei Mir Bistu Shein”, known in the Anglo-Saxon world thanks to The Andrew Sisters. (“Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”, 1937)

This third part of “Dignity”, stanzas 9-12, reveals how the poet Dylan searches for balance in his lyrics. We are familiar with the notebooks, typescripts and scribblings full of erasures, arrows and corrections, we know the stories of eyewitnesses who tell how Dylan is still shifting couplets back and forth in the studio, changing verses and verse lines, and we know quite a few primeval versions of songs – primeval versions with almost always different lyrics.

Both in content and colour, the final version’s third set of stanzas, the version that remains intact after rewriting, deleting and shifting back and forth complete verses, neatly mirrors the four previous stanzas;

  • The Petrushevskaya-like archetype blind man breakin’ out of trance from stanza 5 is a drinkin’ man listening to voices in stanza 9,
  • The setting of the sixth quatrain is a cinematographic cliché (the wedding) and describes a classic film noir dialogue (“Said she could get killed if she told me what she knew”); the “mirrored” quatrain 10 has a similar movie setting (Prince Phillip in the home of the blues) and a similar mafia film dialogue (“Said he’d give me information if his name wasn’t used. He wanted money up front”),
  • The bridge in both parts (stanzas 7 and 11) introduces mythical, biblical characters (tongues of angels versus sons of darkness and sons of light, i.e. demons and angels),
  • And the concluding quatrain, the chorus-like stanza, features in both cases the nameless I-person and expresses in archaic, nineteenth-century wording the difficult circumstances in which the narrator finds himself. Here with a Rimbaud paraphrase, in the previous “chorus”, stanza 12, with Edgar Allan Poe-like choice of words (“Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade”).

And the main character has only one part left, only one quartet of stanzas to find dignity

 To be continued. Next up: Dignity part VI


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:


12 years of Untold Dylan

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