Man of the word
and Guardian of childhood
…Children holding hands, dancing around a crocodile, surrounded by frogs, from which jets of water gush out. A wartime photo of this fountain, taken in Stalingrad, went around the world, becoming a sign of the turning point in the Second World War. The fountain, built as an illustration to one of Korney Chukovsky’s fairy tales, became a symbol of joy and laughter that would return to the streets previously gripped by war fever. The children would have their childhood back and so too would the world have its future.
“Long live the children, all the children in the world”. Chukovsky’s lines became the basis for the life and work of this author, who gave many generations that which he himself had been deprived of. A childhood.
“As an illegitimate child, deprived even of a nationality (What am I? A Jew? A Russian? A Ukrainian?) I felt I was the most unfinished, unfathomable being on earth.” Chukovsky was able to turn this spiraling helix of philosophy into an unprecedented reveal of his brilliance. Poet, writer, essayist, critic, translator, linguist, literary critic, journalist, citizen, the most read, published, declaimed by readers. From Two to Five, the title of his unparalleled book, which contributed to the study of child psychology, it is all about him.
This writer not only of brilliant texts, but also of his own destiny, even invented his own name, hiding under a pseudonym the insults and humiliations that accompanied the fate of this illegitimate child. The literary and journalistic career that opened to him, thanks to his friendship with Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, the future national hero of the State of Israel, who first discerned in him the writing talent, allowed him to begin a new life under a new name. His mother’s surname – Korneychukova – he split in half, using it in his creative work, and then officially, in his passport, the one whose name is known since infancy. He changed his date of birth: born on March 31, 1882, he has always celebrated his birthday on April 1 – April Fools’ Day – the day of laughter, which he loved to dedicate to others.
“In the child’s mind, happiness is the norm of life”, – wrote one whose childhood was spent working to help his mother (fishing, putting up posters, painting fences) and self-education (expelled from gymnasium, he wanted to make his way in life no matter what it took). Accustomed since childhood to hard work, Korney Ivanovich became one of the most indefatigable authors. He devoted sixty-two years of daily work to literature. A man of the regime, he got up at five in the morning and went to bed at nine in the evening, not succumbing to the temptations of hanging around.
One day at a flea market in Odessa, Chukovsky discovered a teach-yourself English book. Pages torn out of it did not embarrass the young man. For his diligent cramming he was soon rewarded, on the recommendation of Jabotinsky, with a journalistic trip to London. To his utter amazement, it turned out that the Englishmen were speaking to him in some other English, and seemingly refused to understand him. It emerged that Korney did not know transcription and pronounced English words according to the principle ‘as it is written, so it is heard’. He immediately got into books and mastered the language, which introduced him to the world of Dickens and Thackeray and to the position of catalog copyist at the British Museum library. Could he have known that a few years later he would be the one to introduce the texts of Whitman, Kipling, Wilde, O.Henry, Twain and many others to his fellow countrymen, and to receive the mantle of Honorary Doctor of Letters from Oxford University?
Ever the compelling storyteller, he knew how to turn the most commonplace episode into a fascinating tale. For example, more than once he recalled how, after the Oxford homage, while walking around London, he saluted the monument of King George V, at whose reception he had visited in 1916.
“I’m used to meeting monuments of my friends in Moscow: Mayakovsky, Repin, Gorky, Blok…” The man of the era, he was familiar with the greatest personages of the century from Conan Doyle to Chaliapin. That is why this writer’s diaries to this day are an irreplaceable historiographical source.
Chukovsky was truly a “Citizen of the Word”. “Literature is absolute”, – he asserted. The word was his idol, and he himself was not only the master of the word but was able to never falter on his own. Throughout his life, Chukovsky, who retained an interest in world literature, always preferred to listen or read any translated text in its original language. He was once given a book in Yiddish and began to study the language letter by letter. The sound of words for him was inseparable from their essence, aura, and perception, which is why Chukovsky’s poetic texts have a signature melody and rhythm.
Behind Chukovsky’s laurel wreath one can see a crown of thorns, although he himself preferred to wear a crown of feathers, like the Indians, organizing the best children’s holidays in the legendary village of Peredelkino, where his shadow still roams and a unique library for children is still alive; one which the writer built at his own expense and donated to the state. Chukovsky survived his three children, hunger and poverty, arrests, literary persecution, oppression by the censors. He survived without losing his faith in the best in mankind, in truth and in justice. He sheltered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, defended Joseph Brodsky, helped Anna Akhmatova and other disgraced writers with money and participation in their fates, paved the way for young talent, clamored, patronized, supported and worked and worked, and worked.
At the end of his life, Korney Ivanovich grieved that his work addressed to children overshadowed all his other works of over fifteen volumes, from profound literary studies of the works of Nikolay Nekrasov, Alexander Blok and the futurists to numerous texts on translation and linguistics such as “A High Art”. Indeed, Chukovsky could well be considered the grandfather of storytellers; a giant Chukosha (as he was called by children for his tall stature and giant heart), the father of Moydodyr and Barmalei, The Mukha – (Fly) – Tsokotukha (a new kind of fly was indeed named after her) and Doctor Aybolit.
A rare author can be proud of so many characters that have become household names, and whom have experienced many incarnations in illustrated reprints and screen adaptations. It was Chukovsky, who called his Moydodyr, “cinematography for children”, who first formulated the precepts of children’s poets, regardless of the language they wrote in. His whirlwind poems play with children’s imaginations; they are dynamic, spectacular, and brimming with adventure. Therefore they do not lose their relevance; instead they have become the strings and ribbons that bind generations together.
Korney Chukovsky and his characters outlived their detractors and critics, along with the forbidding stamps of the time. They tried to destroy them, like the circulation of the Bible for children that he initiated (in it the author had to hide God under the pseudonym Wizard Yahweh, and all mentions of Jews were excluded because of censorship) and Moydodyr, which allegedly offended the feelings of proletarian chimney sweepers. But time passed, and monuments were erected to them (as to the fighter for purity, The Washbasin the Great – Moydodyr ), the main one of which is not made by hand. Chukovsky’s texts resound and respond to this day: in family gatherings, over cradles, in kindergartens and schools, at teacher training colleges, at literary institutions, in memories and certainly in hearts. A writer and connoisseur of children’s souls, even after his passing, Korney Chukovsky remains as he once called his work on language, our inexhaustible wealth – Alive as Life.