Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for April 18, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Tsvetaeva’s Ratcatcher!

These are in two parts: my notes, and the notes taken during the make-up class by Alex.

What you might want to know about Modernism, and Russian modernism in particular: it fits in the timeline after Realism; Tsvetaeva makes a linguistic appropriation of folk culture, or you get something like Andrei Bely’s novel The Silver Dove, about schismatics (he based the novel's plot on his own horoscope, which he apparently cast wrong: but it's typical of the syncretic tendency of the "Silver Age" - the Russian "Golden Age," of course, was when Pushkin was alive). Neo-Romanticism, return of high poetic culture which had been neglected during .

Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) – any questions about her life story, which Livingstone outlines in her translator's introduction? Her life was so full of significant incident that the biography can threaten to obscure the writing. As Livingstone points out, she’s one of the famous Modernist poets: the others typically listed are Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Boris Pasternak (Tsv’s close epistolary friend, 1890-1960), Osip Mandel'shtam (1891-1938) – and sometimes Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893/4-1930).

Tsvetaeva started to write poetry VERY early; got a copy of 3 volumes of Afanas'ev’s tales in 1916 (she was 23/24) as a gift (in place of an honorarium from the editors of a journal that had published some of her poetry and her translation of a novel from French) – at that time, the tales were still published with Afanas'ev’s Mythological school commentary after each tale – detailing the cosmic (literally, meterological!) significance of each tale. Seeing the Sun god everywhere works fine for Tsvetaeva – since her master narrative is the one of poetic inspiration, and the sun god is also Apollo, king of the muses.

What forms of the tale of the Pied Piper do you know? (Livingstone’s very thorough introduction lists the German poetic treatments Tsvetaeva surely knew, as well as citing the Grimms’ version, and a Czech version she may have known (she was living near Prague as she started the poem), plus Browning, whom she probably didn’t.) What kind of tale is it? (One with a moral!! And sometimes a description of the German village in Transylvania where the local lore says they’re descended from those abducted children who entered a cleft in a cliff.) How does the change of ending impact your reading?

Moreover, how does knowing the plot already impact your reading? (– viz. the theory that if you already know “what” you can and will concentrate on “how”). What scholars say about the effect of Greek tragedy, etc.: the audience know what’s coming: do you know here? How difficult is it to follow what she’s doing, given that it’s a 1) poetic 2) translation of 3) a very tricky text with lots of elisions and omissions? Look again, if you haven’t closely, at the outline Livingstone provides in her introduction.

How does what the poet’s doing here differ from what Disney does with “universal” fairy-tale plots? Some critics have been very harsh about the way she treats the children – maybe it’s considered unfeminine to “drown” them this way!

What’s your experience of the owrk and its folkloric elements as readers? How does it differ if you don’t read the intro, or only skim it? How many of you know much about the Russian revolution or Marxism? How does that knowledge, or lack, impact your reading? NEP period (1921-1928); Tsvetaeva’s own poverty and misery during the Civil War/War Communism (her younger daughter, Irina, starved to death in a children's home in 1920; Tsvetaeva and her older daughter, Ariadna, left the Soviet Union in 1922).

What sort of ideology does the author (tacitly or not) advance here? How does her authorial persona (which occasionally irrupts into the text) compare with a folktale-teller’s?

Alex's notes to “The Ratcatcher” – April 25, 2008
(My apologies for the lost formatting in this version - SF)

1. Why India?
a. Try to tempt the rats out of their comfort zone
b. Orientalizing – India is exotic, exciting
2. Tsvetaeva’s life/context
a. “Ratcatcher” was written at the end of her time in Prague
i. In her thirties
ii. Was an emigrant because her husband had been an officer in the White army
iii. Left Russia at the beginning of the NEP period

1. Very disappointed by the NEP period
2. Never supported the Revolution
iv. Her daughter was a student at a German school during this time

1. Tsvetaeva was put off by the bourgeois well-being of the Germans
b. Tsvetaeva’s generation was the first in which poets wrote about Moscow and saw Moscow as a possible poetic center, rather than Petersburg
c. Started writing poetry very young
i. Published her first collection at 18
d. Considered one of the most important Russian modernists
i. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)
ii. Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)
iii. Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938)
iv. Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)
e. In her early twenties was given Afanas'ev’s tales
i. Started writing poetry using folk language/style
ii. Wrote many poems from the point of view of a sexually rebellious peasant girl

3. The Pied Piper
a. Before Tsvetaeva’s version, there were versions by Browning and some Czech versions
i. She spoke fluent German, so it seemed like her own folklore
b. Traditional story has a moral
i. Folk etymology – a German town in Transylvania claimed to be descended from the children of Hamelin
c. How does Tsvetaeva’s ending change the reading of the story?
i. Takes away the moral authority of the story
ii. Takes away the piper’s integrity (proves the Mayor was right?)
iii. The barbarity makes sense in the context of a reactionary tale

1. Critique of the barbaric Communist regime
iv. Is the piper a more interesting figure in Tsvetaeva’s poem?

1. The ending could hearken back to an older tradition of sea kings/figures as an explanation for drowning
2. Tsvetaeva originally intended to have the children live happily under the sea
3. The ratcatcher is the instrument of change – makes people want something else
a. Is this change a good thing or a bad thing?
b. Are art and poetry amoral?
4. The piper is a dangerous yet seductive figure
a. The burgomaster’s daughter is named Greta – association with Faust
i. The piper probably isn’t good for her
b. However, Greta is set apart from the townspeople by her dreams and the talk of the townsfolk
i. She dreams of hopes instead of things they already have
ii. Is she fated for the poet?
iii. Because of her oddity, the townsfolk work even harder to keep her away from the ratcatcher
v. Why do people react so strongly to the killing of the children?

1. Would it be as shocking if she were a male poet?
2. The description is so drawn out and painful
a. Describes it in an almost frenzied/ecstatic way
b. Highly stylized – almost to the point of distraction
3. Trying to get the reader to react – planned the way that someone would read the poem
vi. Working within the plot of an already known story changes the way that people read the story

4. Form of the poem
a. The early part of the poem is written in trochaic tetrameter
i. States that this is a folk meter
b. Almost immediately moves away from this meter and into much more complicated meters, some of which need explanation as to where the stresses go
i. The meter changes through the poem – this is characteristic of twentieth century Russian poetry in thе genre of the long poem (поэма)
ii. Changes also create a sort of alienation from the poem
1. This is also a result of Tsvetaeva’s interjections
2. Mimics an oral tradition – changes in pace or tone are the norm
c. Amount of dialogue is highly unusual for a poem
i. Highly polyglossic – there are many different voices and viewpoints


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, April 21, 2008.