Connect with us

Culture

‘Like Stepping Into a Russian Novel’

Voice Of EU

Published

on

On the edge of a frozen lake, somewhere outside St Petersburg, I am stretched out on the wooden racks of a rickety banya, or sauna. Clouds of steam part to reveal several lobster-pink Russians on the racks below. Some maniac has just thrown a bucket of water on to the hot stones in the corner, and the temperature – already somewhere between gas mark 8 and Dante’s Inferno – rises dramatically. I feel my bone marrow is melting. Meanwhile, my new best friend, Seva, is whipping me with birch twigs – “For improving circulation,” he grunts. 

St Petersburg is the city where everyone looks fabulous in furs and rosy cheeks. As the afternoons draw in, the fat globes of the street lamps blossom along the Nevsky Prospect, and the frosted windows of the shops glow invitingly. In Theatre Square ballet fans hurry towards the brightly lit Mariinsky Theatre, where Nijinksy and Nureyev both performed; its season begins in autumn and runs through the winter. Across the city, frost patterns decorate the windows of the Winter Palace. Not far away, the great dome of St Isaac’s hovers like a vision in the early dark, while the statue of Peter the Great rearing on his horse above the bare trees carries a mantle of snow around his shoulders. 

St Petersburg is not an old city, or an Asian one, like Moscow. It was built to be Russia’s window on the West. In the spring of 1703, Peter the Great, flush from victory over the Swedes, got down from his horse in the marshes that bordered the Neva River and cut two slices of turf with his bayonet. Laying them in the form of a cross, he announced, here there shall be a city. 

• 57 amazing facts about Russia

So began the 18th century’s most extraordinary building project. A quarter of a million serfs, soldiers and prisoners of war were press-ganged into Peter’s grand new project. Millions of logs were floated down the Neva, and stone work was forbidden elsewhere in Russia so that the nation’s supplies could be diverted here. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

The Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Romanovs kept political prisoners in medieval conditions  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

The nobility was commandeered, too. A thousand of Russia’s best families were ordered to construct houses and palaces in the new city. In muddy fields and clapboard towns across the sprawling distances of Siberia, peasants listened to tales of how Peter was creating his city in the heavens then lowering it down to earth. Within 50 years, St Petersburg was one of the most sophisticated and opulent cities in Europe. Palaces and academies, cathedrals and theatres, ministries and state institutions lined the avenues and canals as they radiated from the golden spire of the Admiralty. Peter’s new capital, his window to the West, had turned its back on its creaky empire and on “Asiatic” Moscow

Seva was born in St Petersburg and would never live anywhere else. I met him through mutual friends and he guided me around the city he loves. “Peter,” he said – he had the curious habit of calling the city by this single name – “we are always falling in love with Peter. It is a city of romance.” An artist, a bohemian, a romantic, Seva could have been the archetypal St Petersburg citizen. 

• How does the Russia of 1968 compare with today?

Real and imagined, romantics have always loomed large in Peter’s life. For instance, it was in St Petersburg that Anna Karenina fell in love with Count Vronsky . Tchaikovsky studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory and conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in the city only nine days before his death; he is buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery alongside other St Petersburg romantics – Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Dostoevsky. But it was Pushkin, the great Russian poet, who set the bar for gallant St Petersburg romantics, conducting numerous love affairs and fighting no less than 28 duels. He succumbed in the 29th, fatally injured by a man he accused of trying to seduce his wife. His seconds carried his body to his home on the Moika River Embankment. It was midwinter. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

Fog envelopes one of St Petersburg’s parks  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

Russian winters have made St Petersburg a world of interiors and, with 500 palaces in the city, many are magnificent. Step inside the double doors, shed the overcoat and fur hat, and you enter a world of sweeping staircases and gilded moulding, of forests of chandeliers and ballrooms measured in acres, of battalions of nude statues and regiments of headscarfed babushkas with mops trying to keep up with the cleaning. 

In the Yusupov Palace, you can follow the assassination of Rasputin by the cross-dressing Prince Felix or attend a concert in the tiny rococo theatre. 

The best of the palaces are a carriage’s drive from the city – Peterhof, Tsarskoye, Pavlovsk, the Catherine Palace. To see them in winter when snow drifts across the parklands is to step into the pages of a Russian novel – as we shall witness when the BBC’s spectacular adaptation of War and Peace airs tomorrow night (some scenes were shot on location at Catherine Palace itself). 

• The countryside haunts of Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy

But the mother of St Petersburg’s palaces is the Winter Palace, a building that would make Buckingham Palace seem cramped. There are said to be 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases. Its excess reflected that of its creator, the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for 20 years in the mid-18th century. Her wardrobes were said to be stuffed with more than 15,000 frocks while her floors were littered with unpaid bills. When construction costs ran 300 per cent over budget, she ordered a series of beer halls to be built across Russia to finance the shortfall, knowing she could rely on peasants to drink her back to solvency. 

But let’s bypass the endless swank of Russian aristocracy and the stunning private apartments, many with a view across the Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress where the Romanovs kept political prisoners in medieval conditions. Let’s head, instead, for the little museum tucked into several adjoining wings. 

The Hermitage seems to reflect the scale of Russia – 6.5 million square miles across 10 time zones. Apparently you would need nine years to spend just a few moments in front of each of its exhibits, assuming you paused occasionally to eat and sleep. Catherine the Great was responsible for the nucleus of the vast collection; her artistic appetites seemed to be as impressive as her sexual ones. There are Egyptian collections, Near Eastern, Classical, Renaissance. But it is the paintings that really overwhelm – this is the largest collection in the world. Interested in Rembrandts? You will see some of his best work. Keen on Matisse? You’re in for a treat. 

But it is winter: don’t get stuck indoors. Some of the best ice hockey teams are over at the Ice Palace. There is sledding, tobogganing, sleigh rides, cross-country skiing. And there are the Russian banya. Seva is an enthusiast. “Whatever is ailing,” he says, “banya is the cure.” We take a taxi to a frozen lake on the outskirts. A rickety hut is perched on the shore, with two tin chimneys belching woodsmoke. Disrobing in a side room, we follow an attendant through to the hot room. A couple of strapping women shuffle along a bit and Seva and I hunker down among the fleshy bodies. Despite the sweltering conditions, everyone is in a jolly mood and a woolly hat – the Russians believe extreme heat is bad for exposed hair. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

The Petersburg plunge: winter swimmers prepare to take an icy dip  Photo: AP

After 20 minutes of sweating like a self-basting turkey, I follow Seva outside into the Russian winter. Wearing nothing but small towels, we scamper along the frozen path to the end of a dock on the lakeshore. A set of steps leads down through the hole cut in the thick ice. A rope has been thoughtfully laid on so that we might have something to hang on to as our vital systems shut down. 

Taking a deep breath, I lower myself into the water. For a moment I can’t feel anything; my body is numb with shock. Then the cold hits me, so cold that my body seems to be burning. We shoot back out of the lake as if there were a trampoline beneath the water and flee along the ice path to the enveloping heat of the banya. The endorphins are buzzing. 

Back inside, Seva claps me on the back and smiles broadly. “Winter,” he says. “Bracing, eh?” That’s Russian understatement. Winter in St Petersburg is more than bracing. 

It is beautiful, it is exciting and, down here at the banya, the sharp smack of a proper winter is absolutely exhilarating.

Source link

Culture

‘Fight Club’ author Chuck Palahniuk reflects about his life: From building his own castle to making the audience faint | Culture

Voice Of EU

Published

on

Portrait of writer Chuck Palahniuk in Italy in 2007.
Portrait of writer Chuck Palahniuk in Italy in 2007.CENDAMO LEONARDO (Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic divided the world in two: those who tackled personal projects, taking advantage of the collapse, and those who later regretted not having done so. For Chuck Palahniuk, 60, confinement was not as problematic – after all, a writer needs a certain degree of isolation in order to concentrate – as the closing of the gyms. Suddenly, he had no way of working up. So, he set himself a new routine: building a castle with his bare hands on top of a cliff outside of Portland. He chuckles as he recalls: “I changed a completely abstract activity in the gym for lifting rocks weighing more than 40 pounds. I started with a simple room and before I knew it I was making windows, niches for statues, a patio… There it is, without ceilings, like a strange uninhabitable fantasy.” During those months, he took on something he had been avoiding: teaching and preparing a manual for aspiring novelists: Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different (Grand Central Publishing).

Collage that mixes photos of the writer Chuck Palahniuk at different times in his life with images of film adaptations of his books such as 'Fight Club'
Collage that mixes photos of the writer Chuck Palahniuk at different times in his life with images of film adaptations of his books such as ‘Fight Club’Miguel Vides

Question. You start this book by saying that you never wanted to write it. What made you change your mind?

Answer. Before publishing Fight Club, I used to work on a truck assembly line. There were so many of us journalists in that company that we joked that they should teach welding during the career. Then I signed up for the writing workshop of Tom Spanbauer [author of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon] and everything changed. I owe him a lot of what I know. Thanks to him, I was able to develop my career. And since Tom is not in good health and was never going to write this book, I owed it to him.

Q. Tom Spanbauer created the concept of “dangerous writing,” which you practice. What is it about?

A. It’s about exploring something threatening and unresolved in your life, overcoming fears from painful personal truths.

Q. What advice, as a writer, would you have given to yourself as a young person?

A. Relax. You need to take your time to publish something that matters; you only have one first novel.

Q. In your case, it was Fight Club. You did take your time… you wrote it when you were 33.

A. I was still young, wasn’t I? [Laughs]

Q. How did you manage to keep grounded after its success?

A. It was not a success, on the contrary. During my first promotional tour, in Seattle two people showed up, and in San Francisco, nobody. And even though the film rights were acquired, nothing indicated that it would actually be filmed. When it was finally released, it lasted a couple of weeks in the theaters. By then, it had hardly been sold; almost all copies of the book remained in a warehouse. It wasn’t until Fox released it on DVD that it really found its audience.

The author dancing in a photograph from a few years ago.
The author dancing in a photograph from a few years ago.

Q. Is it true that after you were introduced to Brad Pitt on the set, you wanted to get his lips?

A. [Laughs] We all have our insecurities. I, for example, have been trying to hide my neck since I was a child. It’s too long. That’s why I always had my promotional photos taken with a turtleneck. But I hadn’t paid attention to my mouth until a friend told me: “Have you noticed how the attractive thing about Brad Pitt are his perfect lips?” They are very pronounced, very full. That made me self-conscious about mine; they are quite thin. I needed lips like those. So I called several cosmetic surgery offices to get information and tried one of those telemarketing-style inventions that do suction to achieve a fuller effect. It was a complete disaster. And I took the opportunity to write about it, of course.

Q. Why are you so keen on exploring the limits of the body?

A. Funny you should mention it, because I have realized that the stories that most attract me as a reader are those that include some physical element. And that is always present in my writing: it could be in violence, in sex, in drugs or in illness. Creating a very intense feeling of the character’s body generates a physical reaction in the reader.

Q. When would you say you moved on from your obsession with provoking?

A. The 1990s was the decade of transgressive novels. It started with American Psycho and continued with Trainspotting and Fight Club. Novels about bored kids who would try anything to feel alive. But everything changed with 9/11. Suddenly, anything transgressive was in danger of being accused of inciting terrorism, and publishers decided not to take legal responsibility for their authors. That is why there was such a strong revival of codified formulas of transgression, such as horror. I published my own horror trilogy: Lullaby, Diary and Haunted. I had to sharpen my wits to hide the message. I don’t see it as something bad; on the contrary, it forces the reader to exercise their intelligence to decode what you’re really telling them.

Q. You have a short story, Guts, about risky forms of masturbation that can end in tragedy. It is famous for causing fainting among the audience. Why do you like to read it in public so much?

A. Guts comes from true stories. I wrote it as a personal challenge, thinking about Shirley Jackson and her story The Lottery. When she published it in The New Yorker in the 1950s, the magazine lost subscribers; some people were very offended. I was obsessed with the idea: what would a story capable of amassing the same level of anger look like today? Reading it in public is the most humiliating thing I can do, because I have to put all my dignity aside. It is a message especially for the youngest: in order to create, the first thing you have to lose is shame – only then do you end up facing your own fears.

Chuck Palahniuk in a selfie he shares with ICON from his book cover shoot, in which he got several fake tattoos on his face.
Chuck Palahniuk in a selfie he shares with ICON from his book cover shoot, in which he got several fake tattoos on his face.

Q. Shirley Jackson’s daughter sold her mother’s ashes online, and gave you some. Where do you keep them?

A. They are too precious a relic to keep in my hands. I bought two beautiful wooden boxes from an antiques dealer, split them up and sent them to my agent and publisher. The truth is that I’m not particularly fetishist.

Q. In your book, you raise two unanswered questions: why are we so obsessed with stories about losers? Why do high culture tales end badly?

A. In most movies of my generation the good guys used to lose. Rocky lost, Rosemary gave birth to the devil’s son, Taxi Driver croaks, Carrie kills everyone and then herself, Midnight Cowboy ends terribly… Everyone goes after an ideal and loses the battle, although many persevere. Someone named this “romantic fatalism.” We had seen the failure of Vietnam, Nixon’s corruption, the environmental crisis… Nobody was going to go for a nice ending, we had to see the hero try and try and fail. The decline of the Summer of Love would give rise to the Me Generation of the 1970s and the yuppies of the 1980s. And so, we have remained in love with tragic endings until today.

Q. In 2018, you experienced a particularly difficult moment: you lost the income of your last years due to the embezzlement committed by your literary agency’s accountant. What was it like to suddenly find yourself in scarcity?

A. It was disturbing, but it helped me not to be so confident. In any case, I didn’t start writing for money, and it has never been my main goal. I’m not a big spender either. So, essentially, nothing changed. At that time, much worse things happened to me, like the death of my father-in-law from cancer.

Q. You have always been very discreet about your relationship with your husband, with whom you’ve been with for almost 30 years. But you now talk about it more openly. What has changed?

A. The death of my parents was decisive. I didn’t want to embarrass them when they were alive, because homosexuality wasn’t something they quite agreed with. Also, my husband feels more comfortable with it. In 2018, we were invited to the Rome Film Festival, and when I walked the red carpet we posed together and he hugged me from behind. It was a natural gesture that we don’t usually do in public.

Q. You’ve had no problem writing about your addiction to sedatives, but I read that you’ve given them up. What drove you to do it?

A. I started because I suffer from insomnia. I can spend weeks wandering sleeplessly. Then I discovered that they were a fantastic tool for writing in one sitting or for keeping up with the pace of promotional tours. Vicodin or Ambien were useful to turn my body into a machine that responded to the need to rest or to be awake when needed. Until I was invited to a cultural festival in Borelo, Palermo, and I got hammered mixing pills with booze. I ended up acting like a jerk in front of people I admire, like the writer John Irving. On my return to Portland, I was so embarrassed that I said to myself: never again.

Source link

Continue Reading

Culture

Norway accepts European military aid to secure oil sector

Voice Of EU

Published

on

ENERGY

Norway’s prime minister said Friday the country, which has become Europe’s biggest supplier of natural gas, had accepted military contributions from France, Germany and Britain to secure its oil and gas sector.

Published: 30 September 2022 19:01 CEST

Pictured is Norwegian PM Jonas Gahr Støre

File Photo: Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2022. (Photo by Tomothy A. Clary / AFP)

“We are in discussions with our allies to increase the (military) presence in the Norwegian sector and have accepted German, French and British contributions,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store told a press conference, following the alleged sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

His comments came days after four leaks were discovered in the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, which bring Russian gas to Europe.

The leaks were caused by underwater explosions corresponding to hundreds of kilogrammes of explosives and look like a deliberate act, a Danish-Swedish report said Friday.

“I understand that people are worried about the consequences that the situation in the Baltic Sea may have and that something similar may happen to the oil installations,” Store said.

“We have no indication that there are any direct threats to the Norwegian oil sector,” the Norwegian leader added.

Following the Nord Stream explosions and leaks, Norway had already said it would beef up security around its oil installations, amid allegations of sabotage.

“The government has decided to put measures in place to increase security at infrastructure sites, land terminals and platforms on the Norwegian continental shelf,” Norwegian Energy Minister Terje Aasland said in a statement on Tuesday.

Norway has become Europe’s main gas supplier in the wake of the war in Ukraine, taking the place of Russia.

The Scandinavian country has a vast network of pipelines, stretching for almost 9,000 kilometres, linking it to the continent, which experts have said are at risk of sabotage.

On Friday, Støre said that two Norwegian Coast Guard vessels had been diverted to patrol near oil platforms and that the area was also being monitored by a maritime patrol aircraft.

The Norwegian prime minister met several European leaders and the head of NATO on Friday, and is expected to visit the Sleipner oil platform in the North Sea on Saturday.

Norway, as well as Britain, France, and Germany, are all members of the NATO military alliance.



Source link

Continue Reading

Culture

‘After my generation, no one will speak Ladino’ | Culture

Voice Of EU

Published

on

Ivo Molina, the director of the weekly newspaper Salom, in front of a stand displaying copies of his publication.
Ivo Molina, the director of the weekly newspaper Salom, in front of a stand displaying copies of his publication.Luis Mazarrasa

Although the last publications in Ladino – or Judeo-Spanish – have been surviving in Turkey against all odds, this Romance language is about to disappear.

“We are the last generation of Sephardic Jews who speak Ladino… even my children barely understand it,” warns Ivo Molinas, 60, director of the weekly Salom and the monthly El Amaneser. Both papers – founded 75 years ago – are published entirely in the language used by the Sephardic community in Turkey.

Molinas notes that he directs the only press in the world that has published uninterruptedly in Ladino. The reasons he gives for the decline in the language – which is in real danger of extinction – are both demographic and cultural. The Turkish Sephardic community has decreased over the last few decades from about 50,000 to only 16,000 members, with the vast majority concentrated in Istanbul. Meanwhile, the new generation prefers to speak Turkish, English… and now Spanish, since Spain granted Spanish nationality to the descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It makes more sense to use some of the world’s major languages, rather than learning a minor one that’s on life support.

“In fact, while 40% of the community understands it, we no longer speak Ladino like our parents did,” Molinas explains. However, he believes that the use of the old language will survive through the newspapers: more than 3,000 copies of Salom are sold weekly, with even more readers checking out the online version. He thinks that there will always be someone to take care of these publications – even if it’s just out of love.

Newspapers written entirely in Ladino were very popular in Turkey in the past. Since 1492 – when Jews were expelled from Spain – the language laid down roots in the area. In Izmir – where there was once a large Sephardic community – three newspapers with many readers were published at the end of the 19th century: La Buena Esperanza, El Novelista and El Meseret. In the first years of the 20th century, El Pregonero, La Boz de Izmir, La Boz del Pueblo and El Comercial joined the list, according to Dina Damon, professor of Judaic Studies at Binghamton University in New York.

The director of Salom points out that Spain does not show much interest in the preservation of Ladino… although he recognizes that the real problem is the disinterest of his own community. In fact, the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul had to cancel some free Judeo-Spanish courses last year due to a lack of students. The Sephardic Jews who come to the Institute are more interested in learning Spanish.

The inside of a 1769 edition of Cantar de los Cantares in both Hebrew and Ladino – one of the canonical books of the Jewish Scriptures
The inside of a 1769 edition of Cantar de los Cantares in both Hebrew and Ladino – one of the canonical books of the Jewish ScripturesYael Macías

Gonzalo Manglano, director of the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul, argues that Spain does everything possible so that Ladino does not disappear: “Together, with the Saramago Foundation of Portugal and the Jewish community of Turkey, the Cervantes Institute has requested a tender within the EU Horizon Program for a €3-million project aimed at rescuing languages in danger of extinction.”

If the funds for this project are obtained, the Cervantes Institute will lead the project, in coordination with the Casa Sefarad of Madrid and the Turkish Ministry of Culture. This initiative plans to renovate the Selaniko synagogue in Istanbul, which will host a cultural center that promotes – using modern technology – the preservation of Ladino… a language that any Spanish-speaker can understand.

Source link

Continue Reading

Trending

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates 
directly on your inbox.

You have Successfully Subscribed!