A Giant's Passing

By Sonkin, Victor | Russian Life, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

A Giant's Passing


Sonkin, Victor, Russian Life


On November 7, 2005, scholar, educator, translator and author Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov died in Moscow at the age of 70, following an extended illness.

It is very difficult to explain in a limited space how important Gasparov's impact was on Russian culture and scholarship. The feeling of acute bereavement has shaken the country's humanities community.

Gasparov set an unparalleled standard for intellectual honesty, clarity and brilliance of style, unfathomable knowledge and unrelenting industry (his Western colleagues once enviously dubbed him "the tireless Gasparov"). He was not an active classroom teacher, but countless students, scholars and others benefited from his advice and his example. His presence at conferences and gatherings always created a strong force field--a tall, stooping man with a huge dome of a head, thick spectacles, ever busy writing in his tattered notebook, yet always alert to everything being said around him, never failing to answer a question. Gasparov knew, it seemed, everything. And yet he invariably declined to comment on anything he felt was beyond his competence. Power and restraint are qualities that seldom combine in a thinker. Gasparov was unique, and there is no one to firmly go in his stead, let alone replace him.

Writing since the early 1960's, Gasparov produced hundreds of articles, books, essays and translations. His first field of expertise was classical philology. Even though he wrote many in-depth academic treatises on the subject, his most important achievements in this field were educational. He wrote several accounts of the life and works of great Greek and Roman authors, combining academic precision with accessibility, humor and brio. He translated some of the most difficult and glorious ancient texts, including such masterpieces as Ovid's Ars Amandi, and, despite being almost a literal translation, it was beautiful Russian poetry. But his tour de force in this area was [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Amazing Greece), essentially a children's book which spoke about classical culture (in all senses of the word), history, life and death with an intensity unrivaled in nonfiction of recent decades either in Russia or in the West.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Gasparov was a scientist. His primary area of research was verse study, and, over the years, he covered all aspects of Russian verse and wrote a unique history of European versification (his only major work available in English)--something no one else could have done. His efforts help clarify the elusive relationship between form and meaning and provided us with deeper insights into the workings of a creative brain.

Gasparov was a writer. He always waved off such claims, but his book [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Notes and Fragments), published in 2000, proved the point. It is a unique collection of thoughts, interviews, extracts from archives, countless books he's read, snippets of translations, essays, memoirs, dialogues and jokes. Its genre defies any strict definition, but its publication made clear that Gasparov was the best living author writing in Russian. …

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