In Bloomsbury Square
‘Trains show us that freedom and constraint are a matter of dosage,’ Patrick McGuinness wrote recently in the LRB. He quoted Klaus Kinski’s character in the 1966 film of Dr Zhivago, ‘shaking his chains, an anarchist headed for the camps’: ‘I am the only free man on this train. The rest of you are cattle!’
‘Soul’, a poem Pasternak wrote in 1956, is one of 20 on display in another meditation on poésie des departs, in Bloomsbury Square until tomorrow. 101st km – Further Everywhere is a pavilion by Alexander Brodsky – one of the ‘paper architects’ who rose to prominence in Moscow in the 1980s, and became famous in the West for challenging the uniformity of Soviet cityscapes with whimsical postmodern designs, never intended for realisation – brought to the UK by Pushkin House (the curator is Markus Lähteenmäki). A windowless train carriage of wood and sand-flecked rolled roofing raised up on stilts, it blends in with the muddy backdrop of a London square in mid-autumn as comfortably as a bird hide in a nature reserve. There’s no text to explain what it’s doing there, and visitors tend to circle it warily a couple of times before ducking inside, once they realise there’s no door.
The ‘101 km’ of the title refers to the distance that Soviet exiles were expected to maintain between themselves and major cities, even after their release from the Gulag. The earliest poem in the pavilion is Pushkin’s ‘It’s time, my friend, it’s time’ (1834), in which he ‘dream[s]/of flight, of taking refuge in some far/off home of quiet joys and quiet labour’ – he’d just been readmitted into St Petersburg high society on humiliating terms. One of the latest is by Joseph Brodsky, sentenced to forced labour for five years in the 1960s, remembering the first months of his subsequent exile to the American Lake District, ‘a place where dentists thrive’, when ‘whatever I wrote … was incomplete:/my lines expired in strings of dots’.
A poem by Alexander Vvedensky tells the story of a suicide through a sequence of nursery rhyme farewells, spoken first by the protagonist to the trees, rocks and river, and then by them back to him, interspersed with increasingly omniscient narration: ‘He must have got it into his head to travel/somewhere sometime.’ Vvedensky died on the train to Siberia, and it is the journey into exile and imprisonment – rather than exile and imprisonment itself – that the pavilion aims to evoke. At each end is a projection of a train’s-eye view, trundling on in an infinite loop. Face one way, and the landscape is wintry Siberian taiga; turn around and you’re rolling through sunny steppe. The result is a simple but surprisingly immersive representation of what McGuinness describes as the ‘tiny grinding increments of movement as the train trembles between two nowheres … [which] keeps you there, half-hypnotised, phasing in and out of awareness’.
There’s a problem, though: as McGuinness says, there’s ‘pleasure’ in ‘train-daydreaming’, a condition peculiarly conducive to reading poetry – I read more verse on the Trans-Siberian Railway than I have before or since, drifting in and out of sleep for the best part of a week as the elastic Eurasian springtime switched from blazing hot sun to snowdrifts and white-outs and back again – and visiting the pavilion in Bloomsbury Square is disconcertingly enjoyable.
The exhibition acknowledges this tension in the second half of its awkward title. ‘Further Everywhere’ refers to ‘the poetic and mysterious announcement heard on local trains leaving from Moscow, a general denominator for calling points after the centre of the city, that conjures up the vast expanses of Russia, and the rest of the world beyond its borders’. Vladislav Khodasevich’s poem ‘In Front of the Mirror’ (1924), meanwhile, offers a more elegant précis of the magnificent, appalling purgatory of the Siberian wilderness:
… this is the traveller’s hazard
on the journey by which life is spanned:
you look up, for no cause you could guess at,
and you’re lost in a featureless desert,
your own tracks even vanished in sand.