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#1965Club – a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy…

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My final read for the#1965Club is, somewhat inevitably for me, a Russian book – Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by David Floyd. It’s a book that’s been nestling on Mount TBR for five years, if the grocery receipt tucked in the front is any guide, and that in itself is fairly alarming. Really, I wish I’d pulled this one down to read before now, as it really is an excellent book. Although it was initially published in 1965, “Sofia…” was actually written in the 1930s and this fact is crucial; the book has a ring of authenticity which comes from being written in effect as an eye-witness account of what it was like to live in those times; and it isn’t necessarily pretty.

Chukovskaya herself is a fascinating figure; born in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, her father was Kornei Chukovsky, a poet and children’s writer. She mixed regularly with just about everyone involved in the arts, from Blok to Chaliapin, and was not particularly welcoming to the Bolshevik regime, earning herself an early period in exile. Yet she managed to survive all of the upheavals of Soviet Russia and lived until 1996, even winning at one point the Andrei Sakharov Prize For Writer’s Civic Courage, presumably for her work supporting dissidents in her country. “Sofia Petrovna” was originally published in 1965 under a completely different (and inappropriate) title, after having circulated via samizdat, and my Harvill edition is from 1989.

“Sofia…” tells the ostensibly simple story of a woman living through the 1930s in Russia. The titular character is a widow with a young son, and she takes up work typing in a Leningrad publishing house to make ends meet. As she’s an efficient worker she soon ends up in charge of the typing pool, trusted with responsible jobs and highly regarded by her employers. She works hard, brings up a good Soviet son and all seems well. However, subtle little cracks appear; there is mention of the Kirov assassination; of Stakhanovite workers, doctors’ plots and sabotage. Anyone with knowledge of Soviet history of the period will immediately pick up on these hints; but of course Sofia is living her ordinary, straightforward life through these times, involved in trying to keep food on the table and get on with her neighbours in their communal housing (ah, the housing shortage and primus stoves – consistent features in any Russian literature of the time!)

As the decade rolls on, things continue to get worse for Sofia; the director of the publishing house is arrested, as is the family doctor, and hostile elements start to take control. Sofia’s engineering son and his friend are sent off to work elsewhere in the country and then rumours start to reach Leningrad of arrests and wreckers, till finally the unthinkable happens – Sofia’s son is accused and she must try to prove his innocence. Yet how can you do that in a country where you can’t even find out where a person is held, what they’re accused of or who you should speak to?

Sofia Petrovna’s days and nights were now no longer spent at home or at her work but in a new world, the world of the queue. She queued on the Neva embankment or she queued on Chaikovsky Street – where there were benches to sit on – or she queued in the vast hall of the Great House, or on the staircase of the Prosecutor’s office. She would go home to have something to eat or to sleep only when Natasha or Alik came to take her place in the queue.

“Sofia…” is a marvellously written and chilling book; barely longer than a novella at 128 pages, it nevertheless manages to convey brilliantly the horror and uncertainty of living through times when you don’t know who to trust, you daren’t speak out or speak to certain people and you never know from day to day who will still be free. As Sofia pursues her quest to search out the truth about her son, it’s terrifying to watch her being sucked into the Kafkaesque nightmare of soviet bureaucracy. And of course, Sofia herself becomes tainted by association, and her health suffers from lack of food as well as endlessly standing in queues whilst trying to get news about her son. It’s a world which is captured in a completely convincing way, and of course reading with hindsight there are little hints in the narrative to which we now attach importance but which to Sofia at the time seem of no import; while I was reading I found myself wanting to scream at her to be careful what she said to this or that person, or to watch her back.

My Chukovskaya books

Chukovskaya lived through those days, losing her husband when he was executed on a false charge, and also being at risk herself – in fact, reading details of her life I can see where she obviously draws on her experience to paint her portrait of Sofia Petrovna. Somehow, she made it through the Purges and went on to have a long career as a writer, poet, memoirist and dissident (although of course “Sofia Petrovna” could never be published in Soviet times – another book written ‘for the drawer’). In speaking out in support of Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, she lost the right to publish inside the USSR, and in the notes to the book Chukovskaya reveals her strong desire for “Sofia Petrovna” to be published in Russia – which it eventually was, and happily within her lifetime. She was also a lifelong friend of Anna Akhmatova, and I have her book “The Akhmatova Diaries” on Mount TBR, which is something to look forward to….

Chukovskaya on the back cover of the Akhmatova Diaries

So my final read for the #1965Club was an excellent one; a moving, wonderfully written, chilling and frightening book which brings to life vividly the terrible times through which Chukovskaya (and so many other Russians) lived. It’s a fitting memorial to someone who was obviously a strong and moral force, prepared to stand up for others, and I’m so glad that it finally came off my shelves. Truly, I *do* need to read more from the TBR!

Giving back the lost voices of Russian women @Dedalusbooks

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Slav Sisters (The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature)
Edited by Natasha Perova

Surprisingly for someone who reads a reasonable amount (ahem!) of Russian literature, it’s only struck me relatively recently that much of what I read has been written by men. Particularly in the era before the revolution, the big names are male – Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al – and the women’s voices seem to be either non-existent, or possibly just not translated. I think the tide is starting to turn a little nowadays; the translations of the Columbia University Press’s Russian Library (Sofia Khvoshchinskaya already issued, and Karolina Pavlova forthcoming) are doing much to redress the balance when it comes to authors from the 19th century. The 20th is perhaps a little better represented, though mainly with poets; so I was pleased to be alerted by a post on translator Boris Dralyuk’s excellent blog to the existence of “Slav Sisters”, which had somehow slipped underneath my radar.

Dedalus Books are a publisher of literary fiction with an impressive backlist, which includes much translated literature. Laudably, Dedalus has declared it will celebrate women’s literature from 2018-2028 by publishing six titles a year for the decade to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK in 1918. Apparently most of these will be translated from other European languages, and “Slav Sisters” is a fine entry into that list of books.

This anthology focuses on Russian women’s writing in the 20th century, and the range of writers featured is impressive – in fact, let’s have a list of the contents and translators and celebrate them all:

1. Kishmish and Solovki by Nadezhda Teffi, translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler.
2. My Jobs by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
3. Autobiographical Sketches by Anna Akhmatova,translated by Andrew Bromfield.
4. Delusion of the Will by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Boris Dralyuk.
5. The Lady with the Dog and The Death of an Official by Galina Scherbakova, translated by Ilona Chavasse.
6. What a Girl by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
7. The Stone Guest by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
8. The Gift Not Made by Human Hand by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait.
9. Philemon and Baucis by Irina Muravyova, translated by John Dewey.
10. Landscape of Loneliness : Three Voices by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by, Joanne Turnbull.
11. The Jewess’s Farewell by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Arch Tait.

That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors *and* the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading.

People of my generation are in no danger of being saddened by returning to the scenes of our past – we have nowhere to return to…. (Akhmatova)

The content ranges from the factual (Alexievich’s heartbreaking interviews with Soviet women about their lives and loves; Tsvetaeva’s humorous yet dark memories of her attempts to work and survive in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War) to the fictional (Scherbakova’s cynical and realistic take on Chekhov; Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sardonic tale of idealism meeting with reality). Slavnikova’s story brings us into the world of Russian gangsters before veering off into allegory; Muravyova cleverly opens her tale with an old couple’s mutual hatred and co-dependence, which is eventually revealed to result from a dark and truly horrific past. Teffi, of course, is as dry as ever, yet once again there is sadness and human suffering at the heart of her stories. Ginzburg’s genre-defying piece on the psychological landscape of guilt lingers in the mind. And Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova should need no introduction to readers of the Ramblings…

Teffi by Pierre Choumoff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova (who has an impressive pedigree, including starting the small press Glas) has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”.These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet.

The human memory is constructed like a searchlight, so that it illuminates separate moments while leaving all around in impenetrable darkness. Even a person with a magnificent memory may and should forget some things. (Akhmatova)

Interestingly, I was reminded when I set out to write this post about the women authors who *were* published during the 20th century; I refer of course to those writing in the science fiction field. I’ve read a number of these authors in recent years and maybe that was one genre women could tell a story in, although many of these works were in coded form, with the actual meaning hidden under the narrative to avoid the censor’s eye.

Has anyone ever seen the place that love goes when it’s run its course? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe love dissipates into molecules and atoms inside one’s own body, and the most searing of the passions turns into a horny toenail? Or maybe it all scatters like ashes, so there’s no use looking for any trace of those hungering, searching hands, or the ardent lips that kissed yours until pleasure mingled with pain. Scattered, like the white bloom of apple trees. (Scherbakova)

I could go on and on about how good these pieces are; how heartbreaking in many places; and how it’s a crime that all of these women have not been better known before. I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. The works are presented in what I assume is roughly chronological order; I *would* have liked to see a little more information included about original publication date and location for the pieces just to provide context. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.

Review copy kindly provided by Dedalus Books, for which many thanks!

The trials and travails of the seeker of translations… #russianpoetry #robertchandler #borisdralyuk #peterdaniels

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At the risk of becoming a bore, I have been ruminating a lot on translated literature again. As I hinted in an earlier post, I’ve been reading a lot of Russians recently (no surprise there…) and in particular poetry. Now poetry must be the hardest thing in the world to translate, particularly from a language as far removed from English as Russian, with its completely different alphabet. I’ve read Russian poetry for decades, and never really queried too deeply who was rendering it and how until recent years. A good case in point is the work of Mayakovsky; I first discovered him in my early 20s and the versions I had were translated by Herbert Marshall (I’ve written about them before on the Ramblings). However, I’ve no way of knowing how good they are; but the problem is, his versions of Mayakovsky are imprinted in my brain and I have trouble getting on with any other versions, however much more accurate they may be!

With other Russian poets I’m trying to read across the translations now; and the wonderful Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, who also translate many of the works) is a marvellous resource. It features a wide range of different versions, and I’m finding it a good way to get a nuanced look at particular poems. For example, I picked up a copy of Vladislav Khodasevich‘s “Selected Poems” on a trip to London in the early summer, and I was browsing through it recently. A particular poem from that book struck me and the second verse rendered by Peter Daniels is as follows:

Here on this pea we call the Earth,
either be angel or be demon.
but to be human – what’s the worth
of that, except to be forgotten

However, the version rendered by Michael Frayn in the Penguin book is slightly different.

On this small pea in endless space
be shining angel or be demon,
But not mere man, though, for to be one
is to pass by and leave no trace.

The sense is much the same, although there is a particular emphasis in the second with the addition of the word “shining”. I like both, despite their differences, though I find those differences intriguing.

However, Marina Tsvetaeva is not so straightforward. I’m used to Elaine Feinstein’s wonderful translations, which I believe reproduce Tsvetaeva’s somewhat unusual structure and punctuation. This particular extract from “An Attempt at Jealousy” (one of my favourite Tsvetaeva works so far) is a case in point:

How is your life with the other one,
   simpler, isn’t it? One    stroke of the oar
then a long coastline, and soon
   even the memory of me

will be a floating island […]

This is given in the book “Four of Us”, translated by Andrey Kneller, which I picked up recently as:

How is living with another?
Simpler? The thud of oars! –
Memories of me soon start to
Drift like waves along the shore,

I’m the island in the distance, […]

And I confess I like the second one less; it doesn’t speak to me in the same way as the first version, and I wonder whether the structure was enforced by Kneller’s wish to make the poem rhyme (which I never really expect in a translated work). Interestingly the editors of the Penguin book chose to include Feinstein’s version of this poem, and I believe her versions are highly regarded. I had a similar issue with one of Akhmatova’s verses “Echo” which I blogged about, and the original version I had read many years ago still seems to me to be superior as verse.

So I think it’s definitely a case of exploring the various poetic translations and finding out which ones appeal to me most. Certainly the Penguin book is one I’ll return to, as I trust Chandler and Dralyuk, having read and related to many of their translations. And as long as the translators haven’t invented new bits of the works (like one hideous book I read some time ago…) I shall be content when I find the version I like. And I would urge you to search out Peter Daniels’ translation of Khodasevich‘s poem “Look For Me” which is online at various places – it’s quite stunningly gorgeous and it’s what made me buy this book.

As for Marina Tsvetaeva, as you can see I have a little collection of her works now:

Yes, there are two versions of “Letters: Summer 1926” in the pile, and yes there was a good reason for me getting the NYRB version. I have had for a while a nasty old Oxford World Classics version; it’s not nasty because it’s an Oxford book (they’re lovely) but because it’s old and tatty and has been mistreated. So I thought I would invest in the NYRB book (particularly as it apparently has a good introduction by Susan Sontag) and dispose of the OWC. Alas, that is not likely to be the case… Both books feature images, but there are complications: there are extra pictures in the NYRB version but they’re printed on ordinary paper within the text and are pale and washed out. However, the OWC version has the photos (albeit a lesser selection) in a proper glossy plate section – meaning I may well have to keep that one just for the pictures… So much for book pruning…. 😦

The inevitability of the arrival of new books…

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Let’s make no bones about it – I’m a book addict. Have been since I learned to read, really, and I can’t say I’ve ever denied it. So despite the bulging nature of my shelves, there have inevitably been books arriving recently (and those of you on social media may have seen some of these already). They’re a fairly eclectic bunch as usual, with a lot of nice Russians in there, and in the spirit of sharing I thought I would post some images here! 😀

So, what have we here? Well, from top to bottom:

Penguin Modern Poets #17 – yes, I know I’ve got completely behind with my reading of this series, but I hardly ever see them second-hand, and it was 49p in the Oxfam and it has Kathleen Raine. I’ll get back to this series eventually – honest!

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter – why, you may ask, have I picked up another copy of this when I had such a bad experience before?????? Well – for a start it’s an original green Virago in great condition for only 99p and the one I have is a nasty modern version. But mainly, my fiercely feminist Middle Child insists that it’s a work of genius, and so I fear I should pay attention to her and give it another try with an open (and in the right frame!) mind. We shall see…

Pulse by Julian Barnes – I’ve loved my recent reads of Barnes’ work, and this is short stories. I’ve not read any of  his shorter works so for £1.49 I’m happy to have a go!

(Incidentally, the three above were all from the local Oxfam which seems to have calmed down a little with its prices and I can’t help but scream “bargain”!!!)

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees – all I know about Mirrlees is that she has a Woolfian connection, so when I saw this lurking in the local BookCrossing location (Caffe Nero) I figured it should come home with me.

Letters: Summer 1926 by Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Rilke – a nice NYRB edition at Full Price! (Eeek) There is a story attached to this which will come in a later post rambling on about Russians and poetry…

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole – another NYRB I bought at full price because I just loved the sound of it. I’m currently reading it and it’s stunning and I will write about it eventually but I am a bit behind with reviews at the moment, alas…

The Wives by Alexandra Popoff – I read about this online somewhere, and for the life of me I don’t know where. It’s about the wives of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov etc etc and how they were literary partners and support to their husbands. Sounds just fascinating and this is a lovely second-hand-but-in-wonderful-condition-and-very-cheap copy. Result!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed a couple of spines with no writing and these are they:

This little lovely has been on my radar for a while, and as I’m having a bit of a Russian poetry binge at the moment and want to read a range of different translations, I thought “WTF! I work for a living, I shall buy books!” and sent off for it. More of the Russians in a later post, as I hinted above!

The other arrival is one I was ridiculously excited about:

Again, a lovely little chapbook I’ve been aware of for a while which is stuffed with Mayakovsky (amongst others) and translated by Boris Dralyuk! The cover image is from a Mayakovsky agitprop poster, and the inside is equally beautifully illustrated as well as containing an interview with the translator. Why have I never bought a copy before? Possibly because I’ve been trying to be good about book purchases (and, frankly, failing) and also because the price is not low as it’s from a small press. However, for some unknown reason to do with the weird vagaries of book pricing, I happened upon it the other day with the price slashed. So I ordered it, and even more weirdly the next day it had returned to full price. No, I don’t understand it either.

Fortunately, I have managed a fair amount of reading over the summer, and another purge is looming. However, it won’t necessarily be so easy to get rid of the extra books, as will be revealed in the forthcoming post about Russians and poetry…

(Oh, the mug? Fancy you asking! I saw it online – possibly Twitter or Instagram – and how could I resist? It’s Penguin orange, from M&S and yes, it describes me perfectly. It’s so beautiful I can hardly bear to use it…)

“Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow….” @poetrycandle @PushkinPress

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Ten Poems from Russia
Selected and Introduced by Boris Dralyuk
Published by Candlestick Press in association with Pushkin Press

You might have seen me expressing great excitement recently all over social media about the arrival of this slim but gorgeous collection of Russian verse. That’s going to be no surprise to any passer-by of the Ramblings; I love Russian literature in all its shapes and forms, and it’s a country with a long and deep tradition of verse. You only have to look at the number of books of Russian poetry on my shelves to realise just how many great poets the country’s produced, and my collection only scratches the surface…

Candlestick Press are known for producing beautiful little themed booklets which are designed to send instead of a card; indeed, I’m pretty sure I have one based on “Mothers” which was gifted to me one Mothers’ Day (by Middle Child, if my memory doesn’t fail me). Candlestick have been championed by Dove Grey Reader, and she’s right to do so – personally, I think that anything which gets people reading more poetry is a Good Thing! Pushkin Press, of course, need no introducing – they publish the most wonderful books in translation, and are responsible for bringing some brilliant works to us; including all the wonderful Gazdanovs rendered by Bryan Karetnyk, as well as Boris Dralyuk’s excellent Babel translations and his “1917” anthology (one of my favourite reads of last year).

Any road up, that’s enough rambling – what do you actually *get* here? Well, you get a beautifully produced, A5 booklet with a stunning cover design, on quality paper and with a matching bookmark (for you to write a message on if you so wish) plus envelope. And the contents are equally stunning; ten poems from the Russians, expertly chosen, in some cases translated, and introduced by Boris Dralyuk. The authors range from Pushkin (of course!) through Akhmatova Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak et al up to Julia Nemirovskaya, a living poet. And each poem is a little gem. What particularly pleased me was the fact that there were poets new to me, including Nemirovskaya and Georgy Ivanov; and I was also pleased to see Nikolay Gumilyov featured, as I’m keen to read more of his work. Half of the works are translated by Dralyuk, the rest by Robert Chandler and Peter France; and some appear here translated for the first time, which is fab!

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to pick favourites in any collection of works, so I won’t. But I *will* say that the Akhmatova is as stunning as she always is, with her poem on the fate of Russian poets, always menaced by “the shaggy paw of voiceless terror” (what imagery!) And I’m finding that the more I read of Tsvetaeva, the more I’m appreciating her writing; the poem featured here, “To Alya”, addressed to her daughter, is particularly stunning. But I’m not going to quote any of the poems because I want you all to go out a buy a copy of this… 🙂

Editor and translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk has themed his collection to capture the range of the Russian soul; from myth through terror, taking in art, love and life, the selection really does cover all the bases. In his introduction, he uses a rather beautiful image to describe what he’s trying to do with this anthology, that of leading you into a corridor with multiple enticing doors leading off; each one of which opens into a room full of wonders, and more doors… I was already in that corridor, having opened some of those doors; but what this marvellous little collection has done is offered me new doors to open, new poets to explore and more wonderful Russian verse which is always balm to the soul. If, like me, you love Russian poetry you should still buy this booklet because it’s such an illuminating collection; but if you’ve never read the Russians, it’s the perfect place to enter the corridor and begin your journey of exploration – you won’t be disappointed!

Anna Akhmatova: June 23, 1889 – March 5, 1966

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The Muse (1924)

All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command.
Whatever I cherish most – youth, freedom, glory –
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! She comes … she tosses back her veil,
staring me down, serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?” She answers: “Yes.”

(Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward)

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