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My Grandmother Tongue

My Grandmother Tongue

Translation by Deborah Ostrovsky

A few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, my grandmother arrived at Mirabel Airport carrying, in her suitcases, history textbooks, Russian grammar manuals and the vestiges of her former life. She’d just retired from being a schoolteacher, I’d just reached school age, and she was determined to give me an education. Two years earlier, my parents, my older sister and I had emigrated to Montreal from Saint-Petersburg—which had only recently been known as Leningrad—and now it was my grandparents’ turn to emigrate. I was behind in the Russian curriculum, and babulya was eager to make up for lost time. Every weekend, I sat beside her at a table lit by a green banker’s lamp, like the ones you find in old libraries, reciting Russian declensions, the poems of Pushkin or Lermontov, and the dates of the Christianization of Kievan Rus’. This is how, in a Côte-des-Neiges apartment, and with just a few exceptions, I received an education deemed worthy of the perfect Soviet schoolgirl. 

After supper, as soon as our cups of black tea had been emptied down to their lemon wedges, it was time for babulya’s film class. The curriculum: movies that my grandfather recorded on video cassette from a Russian station he picked up in Montreal by the magic of satellite. Some films were patriotic, others were comedies, adaptions of literary works like An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, or the sumptuous rendition of War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk. Of that entire eight-hour series I’ve retained only a single scene, which I can still replay clearly in my mind: the candlelit ballroom, the whirlwind of dancers, Natasha’s blue eyes welling up with tears, and Prince Bolkonsky’s superstitious thoughts as he watches her move away: If she goes to her cousin and then to another lady, she will be my wife. Despite my grandmother’s devotion, and War and Peace being compulsory reading for every Soviet student, that scene was my main childhood takeaway from the masterpiece written by the literary giant whom Lenin described as the “mirror of the Russian revolution.” In the period of voracious reading at the twilight of my childhood, during that particular time of literary enchantment that Roland Barthes has called l’adolescence liseuse, I followed the trials and tribulations of Raskolnikov feverishly and suffered deeply alongside Anna Karenina. But I turned up my nose at Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I never waltzed with Prince Bolkonsky.

In the wake of babulya’s death, I inherited some of her belongings: an amber ring, an Orenburg shawl, painted wooden Khokhloma dishes, a Lomonosov tea set, a few books, the green banker’s lamp and a Pushkin statuette that had once presided over her bookshelf. While cleaning out her apartment, in the drawer of the very same desk where I had once sat learning to write Cyrillic in cursive, my mother discovered two of babulya’s diaries. The first was a school notebook, the pages warped and yellowed with age, a chronicle of her life in 1953, the same year my grandmother finished her studies in history and got married. She describes her worries about my grandfather’s long absences, the rare leaves he was granted as an engineer in the Navy, outings to the symphony and the theatre, teaching in the factories, the joy of acquiring new dresses, her desire to have a child… It was also the year of Stalin’s death, over which she wept hot tears of grief—caught up, she believed at the time, in the collective outpouring of an entire nation. The second diary, much more recent, is a large Clairefontaine notebook with graph paper where she consigned fifteen years of her life in Montreal, jotting down a few lines per day, etching out the details of her orderly, regimented existence. Because she and my grandfather never renounced the habits inculcated into them by the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist party, they kept a disciplined schedule: morning exercise, French and English lessons in the afternoon—a Herculean effort for two retired seniors whose only experience with a second language was the long-forgotten Yiddish of their childhoods.

In a rare, effusive moment in the middle of her litany of routine comings and goings, my grandmother provides an inventory of sorts, the legacy she’d bequeathed to my mother, my sister and me—a matrilineal line. She deplored the fact that, while she’d succeeded in passing on a love of literature to my mother and sister, she’d failed to do so for me. Reading these lines from my babulya’s diary in her bedroom, my mother and I broke out laughing so hard that we must have startled the friends and neighbours we’d recruited to help clear out the living room. Perhaps this was the last thing that anyone could ever accuse me of: I’ve consecrated over a dozen years to studying literature; my whole life revolves around books. But what I’ve come to realize now is what babulya resented back then: my youthful defiance of certain Russian classics, especially War and Peace.

I remember her dismay each time I told her, at her request, about my French courses at school. “Still no Russian authors?” she asked me in a vexed tone of voice. “French literature, again?” I tried to explain that French literature was part of the school curriculum, and later the field I had chosen for my academic program, the subject of my research—nothing convinced her. Her disappointment was palpable. And as far as Québec literature went, she doubted that such a thing even existed. My grandmother saw the act of immigration as the loss of culture, the loss of language, and the dissolution of my heritage. She gave herself the mission of halting the flow of its disappearance, which still happened despite her efforts, right before her eyes.

I think of my childhood bookcase, of all those collections of complete works, the leatherbound volumes of the same hue, their gold embossed letters forming the signatures of the Russian masters down the length of a dozen spines—Bulgakov. Yesenin. Gogol. Akhmatova. Dostoevsky. Of these books that we transported in our suitcases and my grandmother had once read, followed by my mother, and my sister, a few now accumulate dust in my home, draped in silence and charged with reproach. On my own shelves, far from strict, harmonious rows, these fallen monuments to our family’s past now occupy a little corner, neighbours to used Folio paperbacks and books from Québec—those of the old guard imitating the classic, white sobriety of book covers from France, and those from younger, Québec editors nestled together sporting covers with bolder, vivid colours. And beside them—you’d have to tilt your head the other way to read the titles going down the spine—are books in English, especially American literature of different eras, all scrambled together. Near the Czech novels, there’s even a little Spanish book section, a reminder of my excessive optimism for learning yet another language after returning home from abroad.

This library, a hodgepodge, frequently moved, weeded, replenished, with its fleeting enthusiasms and disenchantments, seems chaotic when compared to the more orderly one of my childhood, with all its imperious authority. Though my education will never be complete, though I’ll never be the model student my grandmother always dreamed of—the one who read all the classics from the Motherland—my fragmented culture, cobbled together from ever-shifting passions is far from some sort of dissolution. It’s more of a disorderly patchwork just like the one that prevails on my shelves. Where my grandmother once saw loss, I find, on the contrary, a fruitful hybrid. Thanks to the language babulya passed on to me, my grandmother tongue, if you could call it that, I can always revisit the Russian classics. Someday I’ll finally tackle War and Peace. But thanks to our emigration, I can stretch myself even further in my reading habits shaped by the two languages I absorbed by osmosis in childhood. 

Perhaps I would have never become a translator without this sense of displacement. It’s a vocation that’s given me the opportunity to immerse myself in a universe filled with incessant, linguistic back-and-forths. Translating is preoccupied—just as I am—with the trajectories of migration and what’s lost in the crossing-over between two cultures. The French writer and literary translator Corinna Gepner explains it this way: Si j’en reste à une vision myope de la perte, elle m’apparaît trop lourde. Si je la considère à l’échelle du texte dans son entièreté, elle s’inscrit dans un ensemble de pertes et de gains, de déplacements, d’appauvrissements et d’enrichissements qui échappe à toute comptabilité. (“If I stick to a myopic vision of this loss, it’s too heavy to fathom. If I think about it at the textual level, I can view the process as a series of losses but also gains, displacements, impoverishments and enrichments that escape any quantifiable equation.”) The same goes for an immigrant’s uprooting. What we leave behind us, and what we acquire on the other side, is an obscure, algebraic formula that goes beyond any sense of equivalency.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad in 1988 and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent editor and translator. She is a member of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada and sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine.

Deborah Ostrovsky is a writer, editor and translator who lives in Montreal. Her last story for Maisonneuve was “Reading the Signs” (Issue 74).

Originally published in Nuit blanche magazine, as part of the series « Le livre jamais lu ». December 2020. Reprinted with permission.