Session 10

[Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony no. 7 (1944)]

Lecture 10
Lydia Ginzburg:
Blockade Diary (1941-44 / 1984)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Lydia Ginzburg (1902-1990): Blockade Diary (1984 / 1995)
  • Harrison E. Salisbury: from The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969)

[Excerpts from a Siege Day]:


N did not immediately understand why every day at work, after about one o'clock, he was possessed by a strange sense of malaise. Then he realized what it was - urgency. This urgency was one of the guises of starvation or starvation trauma. Urgency as a mask for hunger - the ceaseless rush from one stage of eating to the next, accompanied by the fear of missing something. This urgency was particularly associated with lunch. This was given out by an indifferent government agency. That is, it had objective criteria for everything - this was certainly true and the criteria were certainly objective. But what if it wasn't enough? Several times during the winter there hadn't been enough porridge.

Nowadays canteens always give out everything they're supposed to. Nowadays urgency is a reflection of the mind, a chase from one aimless goal to another. These goals are set in a circle, a repetitive series leading nowhere.

If the motivation were just the usual ordinary feeling of hunger, it would be something heartening, reassuring. It is at precisely that time of day that it begins to sharpen. But the traumatized person can't stand feeling hungry; that in turn gives rise to lassi­tude and fear. N concentrates now on the desire to go out (his working day has not been standardized). He reads his typing, moving effortfully from line to line. The most unpleasant thing is transferring a correction from one copy to a second, then a third. A triple brake on his urgency. Nowadays he has to observe the decencies and he does so, meticulously slowing down his gestures. He speaks carelessly: "You give it in, then. I've got to go out just now. I'll be back before four, if anyone needs to know ... "

Somebody enquires: "You off to the canteen?"

"Yes, that is I will be. I have some things to do first."

You can't reveal your hurry.

The secretary says in a bright voice: "You know it would be so nice if you signed this paper right now."

From her point of view it just means a delay of a minute or two. Sweet girl, she doesn't realize that she has cut into the internal headlong dash of a traumatized man and that it's painful.

By now N is unable to carry out a single braking movement. He can't get to his desk. He asks the secretary for a sheet of paper, although he has paper in his briefcase; it would mean snapping the lock of the briefcase again. He grabs the nearest pen, which barely works, sits himself down somewhere, and writes a few lines in an alien hand, gaining a minute that way. He writes think­ing that he still has to overcome the exit to the street, the tram, the queue at the control point, the canteen queue, the deliberateness of the serving-girl ... And in that series of problematic actions, the thing for the sake of which he they are being carried out _ a helping of 200 grams of soup seems imperceptibly brief and ephemeral.

After the tram, there remains an extremely unpleasant stretch on foot. On the way he encounters people coming back from the canteen. It's hard to resist the question: "What is it today?" and you want to resist so as to keep all expectations open. You can also make deductions from the way they hold their bags, lunch pails or briefcases. Round the corner he sights the entrance, always half­open. Now nothing (including air raids or shelling) will stop you going up to it and going inside. In the depths of the dark corridor there is a patch of light where the bald head of the server flickers by - the joyous sign of extra helpings. Sometimes though, the smooth surface of the counter gleams dismally.

During the winter (especially before the general evacuation) an hours-long queue used to stand here by the control point. They stood submissively. It seemed natural to employ every effort to get the lunch which saved them from starvation. Besides, people stood in a chilly corridor, not out in the freezing cold. Nowadays it was empty here - the reason being that everybody was in so much of a hurry. Getting their cards, money and passes mixed up, everybody wanted to push through the dam of the three or four slowly advancing backs; everybody had to get their tallies as soon as might be just to calm down (so long as the serving-girl hadn't lost them ... ) the old trauma was still working.

Nowadays this would seem to be an apparently third-rate canteen (an imitation of normal existence) with its unwatered flowerpots on the tables, half-grimy tablecloths, almost dean serving-girls. It may not he seen at once (during the winter every­thing was seen at once), that people here are acting out a tragedy. You realize this if you look closely; how they lick their spoons quickly (it isn't done to lick your plate any more), scrape their plates clean, tilting it up, running the finger round the rim of the tin of porridge, how they stop talking as the food is served and study it carefully, how their heads automatically turn to follow the serving-girl.

Of all the meals, lunch bore the least resemblance to its name. The soup still gives ground for hope. It's not very tasty and there's more of it; and after all, it is the first course. At lunch the saddest thing is eating the porridge; the briefest of acts, so brief that the start touches the finish. Two swings of the spoon are enough to wreak irreparable damage on the round fluffy mass doled out on your plate, with the dimple in the middle, and ten grams of dark­golden oil poured over it.

- Lidiya Ginzburg: Blockade Diary, 1984, trans. Alan Myers (London: Harvill Press, 1995): 103-05.

[Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin]

The Siege of Leningrad as the Human Condition

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then ,as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, -
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...'

- Wilfred Owen, "Strange Meeting" (1918)

It's important to remember that every war is as much of an ideological battle as it is a physical one. Think of the opening passage from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929):

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Then compare them to this, Winston Churchill speaking to the House of Commons on 4th June, 1940:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

I think it's a fair juxtaposition. There's something magnificent about those Churchillian periods, of course: just like that speech two weeks later heralding the beginning of the Battle of Britain:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

But we must beware. That was the point of all those surrealist outrages in the first place. Hitler could make eloquent, moving speeches, too - so could Stalin. So could (for that matter) Walt Disney, whom Goebbels admired as the master propagandist of the age.

Possibly, then, we should interrogate Ginzburg's strange, distant Blockade Diary as much for what it does not do as what it does. Soveit literature abounds in plenty of examples of heroic idealisation of the victims of the siege.

What, then, is Ginzburg especially attentive to avoid? W. H. Auden put it best, perhaps, in his "At the Grave of Henry James" (1945):

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead:
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

For every Hemingway, stripping our rhetoric bare and showing us the grinning skull beneath the skin, there's a war propagandist lavishly hymning the deeds of a leader who never actually left his bunker to visit the front. Yes, there are many "whose works / are in better taste than their lives."

Lydia Ginzburg is clearly on the side of the angels when it comes to that dichotomy.

[The Siege of Leningrad (1941-44)]

Workshop 10
The 900 Days

“Ilya's mother, thinking him asleep, quietly asked a neighbour: if she covered him with her body, would that protect against the German bullets? The neighbour thought it wouldn't. His father smoked his pipe, looked out the window and stared up at the cloudy sky.”
– Harrison E. Salisbury, The 900 days: The Siege of Leningrad, 1969 (London: Pan Books, 1971): 251.

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 10:
Writing from Elsewhere

The Leningrad Blockade undoubtedly had its most dramatic effect on the children who experienced it. Think of something traumatic that happened to you as a child.

You’re now going to write a poem or short prose text describing it.

  • First outline (quickly, in note form) the shape of the story, the sequence of events.
  • Then think about how old you were, what time of year it was, where it all took place.
  • When you start to write, try telling the story from the perspective of one of the other people involved, not from your own point-of-view.
  • Write it as concisely as possible – as if you were telling it as an anecdote to a group of people at the dinnertable.

Next week:

Exercise 11: Changes and Seminars on The Journals of Denton Welch due.

[Denton Welch: A Voice Through a Cloud]

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