Mary Hobson: It took me about two years [to read 'War and Peace']. I read it like a poem, a sentence at a time.Yelena Bozhkova
RBTH: Learning Russian is difficult at any age, and you were 56. How did the idea first come to your mind?
Mary Hobson: I was having a foot operation, and I had to stay in bed for two weeks in hospital. My daughter Emma brought me a big fat translation of War and Peace. “Mum, you’ll never get a better chance to read it”, she said.
I’d never read Russian literature before. I got absolutely hooked on it, I just got so absorbed! I read like a starving man eats. The paperback didn’t have maps of the battle of Borodino, I was making maps trying to understand what was happening. This was the best novel ever written. Tolstoy creates the whole world, and while you read it, you believe in it.
I woke up in the hospital three days after I finished reading and suddenly realized: “I haven’t read it at all. I’ve read a translation. I would have to learn Russian.”
RBTH: Did you read War and Peace in the original language eventually?
M.H.: Yes, it was the first thing I read in Russian. I bought a fat Russian dictionary and off I went. It took me about two years. I read it like a poem, a sentence at a time. I learned such a lot, I still remember where I first found some words. “Between,” for instance. About a third of the way down the page.
RBTH: Do you remember your first steps in learning Russian?
M.H.: I had a plan to study the Russian language in evening classes, but my Russian friend said: “Don’t do that, I’ll teach you.” We sat in the garden and she helped me to remember the Cyrillic script. I was 56 at this time, and I found it very tiring reading in Cyrillic. I couldn’t do it in the evening because I simply wouldn’t be able to sleep. And Russian grammar is fascinating.
RBTH: You became an undergraduate for the first time in your sixties. How did you feel about studying with young students?
M.H.: I need to explain first why I didn’t have any career before my fifties. My husband had a very serious illness, a cerebral abscess, and he became so disabled. I was just looking after him. And we had four children. After 28 years I could not do it any longer, I had break downs, depressions. I finally realized I would have to leave. Otherwise I would just go down with him. There was a life out there I hadn’t lived. It was time to go out and to live it.
I left him. I’ve been on my own for three years in a limbo of quilt and depression. Then I picked up a phone and rang the number my friend had long since given me, that of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University. “Do you accept mature students?” I asked. “Of sixty-two?” They did.
When the first day of term arrived, I was absolutely terrified. I went twice around Russel square before daring to go in. The only thing that persuaded me to do it was that I got offered the place and if I didn’t do it, the children would be so ashamed of me. My group mates looked a little bit surprised at first but then we were very quickly writing the same essays, reading the same stuff, having to do the same translations.
RBTH: You spent 10 months in Moscow as part of your course. How did you feel in Russia?
M.H.: I hardly dared open my mouth, because I thought I got it wrong. It lasted about a week like this, hardly daring to speak. Then I thought – I’m here only for 10 months. I shall die if I don’t communicate. I just have to risk it. Then I started bumbling stuff. I said things I didn’t at all mean. I just said anything. The most dangerous thing was to make jokes. People looked at me as I was mad.
I hate to say it, but in 1991 the Russian ruble absolutely collapsed and for the first and last time in my life I was a wealthy woman. I bought over 200 books in Russian, 10 “Complete Collected Works” of my favorite 19th-century authors. Then it was a problem how to get them home. Seventy-five of them were brought to London by a visiting group of schoolchildren. They took three books each.
RBTH: You’re celebrating your 90th birthday in July. What’s the secret of your longevity?
M.H.: If I had not gone to university, if I had given up and stopped learning Russian, I don’t think I’d have lived this long. It keeps your mind active, it keeps you physically active. It affects everything. Learning Russian has given me a whole new life. A whole circle of friends, a whole new way of living. For me it was the most enormous opening out to a new life.
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