Memoirs of Memoirs: the Real Leningrad Sinologist | Alistair Noon

Huailai County, Hebei province, 1907 (photographed by Édouard Chavannes)

Huailai County, Hebei province, 1907 (Édouard Chavannes)

I first heard of Vasiliy Alekseyev from a German sinologist friend in Shanghai, Marcus Hernig, who together with the photographer Jan Siefke had undertaken a journey around Northern China in the early two thousands. Their trip followed more or less in the footsteps of the one undertaken by the young Russian sinologist with his older and more irascible French colleague Édouard Chavannes in 1907. Marcus and Jan had travelled by bus and train, though, rather than the springless carts and excruciating wheelbarrows that Alekseyev’s account of the journey, published as China 1907, unfailingly returns to.

The book of informed travel reportage and photography that Marcus and Jan subsequently put together was to appear in 2005 as Dao Le! in Chinese and Angekommen! in German (China Intercontinental Press), but its English translation (We’re There, translated by myself) remains somewhere on an old hard disk and a printout, as the publishers of the Chinese and German versions got cold feet about the commercial viability of the English translation. Feel free to crowd-source it.

Commercially viable translation – I mean commercially viable from the translator’s point of view – seldom leaves much leeway for all the background research that might be desirable. Though Marcus’ text quoted liberally from Alekseyev’s book, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the latter in a second-hand bookshop in Berlin that I really got to grips with Alekseyev himself. The edition is a generously chunky hardback with glossy pages at fairly large point size, with some great reproductions of Chinese New Year coloured woodcuts. This was a folk-art genre which Alekseyev was fascinated by for its insights into Chinese social life and linguistic symbolism, and in which he would become a specialist. The book I have is the German translation – the Russian original seems to be not just out of print, but out of all circulation.

Vasiliy Alekseyev

Vasiliy Alekseyev

The thing that struck and fascinated me about the account almost from the word go was the high degree, on Alekseyev’s part, of what would now be termed intercultural competence. The era was one in which imperialism still dared speak its name, and imperialist assumptions remained widespread despite being increasingly called into question. But it is evident on every page of the book that Alekseyev, though fascinated by China and the Chinese, nevertheless treats it and them as a fundamentally normal country and people, amenable to rational enquiry no more and no less than Europeans. No inscrutable Orientals here but simply ordinary folk. Nor is his approach a narrowly sinophilic one. Though clearly sympathetic to the country, Alekseyev makes criticisms and finds fault on the basis of experience, observation and reflection, but without falling into or wallowing in culture shock and antipathy.

All this is a far cry from the figure of the Oriental scholar in the late Edward Said’s highly influential Orientalism (1978), in which Said took such writer-researchers to task for their acquiescence and connivance in imperial projects, making their subjects ripe for justifications of imperial conquest. One peculiarity which Said pointed out is that in contrast to nearly every other known species of academic, the Orientalists he was writing about didn’t (and in Said’s view, don’t) actually like what they study very much: hence the image and configuration of the East as a threat. Said was careful to state that he was talking specifically about scholars of the Middle rather than the Far East (reflecting his own political concerns as a Palestinian). For several reasons, not least their geographical remove from the West, the Chinese were less amenable to being cast as Europe’s century-old nemesis and Other than Islam.

With Marcus and Jan’s book in mind, my girlfriend and I ended up retracing some of their journey that had in turn retraced Alekseyev’s journey. Just as my Shanghai buddies had found, heavy industry, mass housing and mechanized transport had of course wrought enormous changes on the area since Alekseyev’s time. All the same, there were places we visited where direct observations I made could and did find their way into the mid-length poem I would write, ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’, whose China-related parts are set in the early years of the twentieth century.

Kaifeng, once an imperial capital, had still in the mid-2000s retained more of its old architectural and street-life character than many other Chinese cities, and had a distinctive local speciality which can only be termed the Chinese kebab. The enormous graveyard area at Qufu, where Confucius’s direct descendants had continued to reign for two and a half millennia, looked not dissimilar to the contemporary photo of it in China 1907. And Pingyao is now a tourist magnet for its well-preserved old streets and a beautiful dragon wall, though in my poem I may have been thinking of one in Datong, a big coalmining town in Shanxi province.

More or less just on picking up Alekseyev’s book and reading the first few pages it became clear to me that I was onto something that could form the basis for a longer poem, something I had been wanting to write for some time but without success. I had spent time in and had some familiarity with both Alekseyev’s home country and the country he visited, meaning I could draw on some first-hand imagery in relation to both. And despite the gap of a hundred years in which China has been through a series of massive political, economic, social and not least cultural upheavals, Alekseyev’s experience of and reaction to China seemed to chime in several ways with my own.

I studied Russian at university, if not too studiously, and spent three weeks in the city formerly known as Leningrad, formerly to that as Petrograd (briefly), and formerly to that as St. Petersburg. This was in 1995, following a couple of earlier shorter visits in 1991/2 while “studying” in the provincial city of Voronezh (where Mandelstam was exiled); one of those jaunts began with me, upon arrival, going to sleep for 22 hours. I was young. Those trips percolated through into an early attempt at a slightly longer poem about Petersburg, long since gone cold and chucked down the plughole (though I got a generous and encouraging response to my effort from Edwin Morgan when I foisted it on him). I would also cannibalize bits of that earlier poem for ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’.

While reading Alekseyev’s book I noted down particular phrasings and passages, some of which got translated, reworded, lifted or otherwise grafted into the poem; the more clearly “quoted” parts (though poetically reworked by me) are italicized in the text. Another element I had in mind was the first movement of a violin and piano sonata by Prokofiev, which begins with a melody played in a minor key on the piano and which really can’t be called anything other than haunting. Prokofiev himself told the violinist David Oistrakh that this movement was to be played “like the wind in a graveyard”, a phrase which appears towards the end of the poem. A brief German biography of Prokofiev, a contemporary of Alekseyev’s, also finds its reflection here and there in the poem.

Talking of sonatas, those interested in the work of Basil Bunting may spot an attempt in the poem to do something like his application of sonata form to poetry. I guess I also had Bunting’s reworking of a medieval Japanese prose piece into the mid-length poem ‘Chomei at Toyoma’ as a model for how to make use of prose in poetry. I showed a late draft to Kelvin Corcoran (who would subsequently publish the poem through his and Ian Davidson’s imprint Gratton Street Irregulars) who helpfully pointed out that the middle section was a bit confusing.

The richness of Alekseyev’s book, backed up by my tracking down a paper which he delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the nineteen-twenties, stood in inverse proportion to what I could easily find out about his life subsequent to his 1907 journey. He taught Chinese language and culture at St. Petersburg/Leningrad I think up to his death in 1951, but to what extent the Stalin era affected him personally I don’t know. Marcus gave me the contact address of someone who had known him, but by that time enough of the poem had been imagined that I didn’t actually need that information for the poem itself, which I hadn’t in any case conceived of as a biopic. The parts that play out in the Soviet Union are wholly fictional. This is why the poem is not called ‘Memoirs of Vasiliy Alekseyev’.

‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’ appears in Alistair Noon’s pamphlet Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution (Gratton Street Irregulars, 2010). The pamphlet can be ordered here. Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here.

Alistair Noon appears at the Sheffield Poetry Festival on Sunday 2 June 2013, reading from and discussing The Bronze Horseman and his recent collection Earth Records (Nine Arches Press). Click here for more information. 

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