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“I am a flame, searching and bold.” #edithsodergran @BloodaxeBooks

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On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems by Edith Sodergran
Translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellerstrom

As I mentioned in my review of Henry Parland’s “To Pieces”, back in the summer I was introduced to two wonderful books by Scandinavian Modernist women authors: Chitambo by Hagar Olsson, and Crisis by Karin Boye. I’d read the latter’s excellent dystopian novel Kallocain earlier in the year, and all three of these works were ones I reviewed for Shiny New Books. I must admit that I’d not been particularly aware of this particular group of Modernist writers before; but as I said, the discovery of these books led to me exploring the back catalogue of Norvik Press, their publisher, more thoroughly. I did love Parland’s only novel (and I’m still trying to track down his poetry). But I was also pointed in the direction of poet Edith Sodergran (a close friend of Olsson) and, susceptible as I am to bookish suggestions, I had to send off for a translated poetry selection and also a collection of her letters. I don’t know if I’ll get to the letters in time for #WITMonth; but I *have* read the poems, and I absolutely loved them!

Like many of the Scandinavian authors I’ve been reading, Sodergran had a short life; born in 1892 in St. Petersburg, she died at the age of 31 from tuberculosis. An intelligent woman, fluent in several languages, she was also a keen photographer. And despite her illness, she published four collections of verse in her lifetime, with one being released after her death; “On Foot…” gathers poems from all of these. It’s a slim, dual language volume which draws mostly from her first collection from 1916, and it reveals some wonderfully moving and memorable verse.

Here, take my hand, take my white arm,
take my thin shoulder’s longing…
It would be strange to feel,
for one night, a night like this,
your heavy head on my breast,
(The Days Grow Cool)

Sodergran’s poems are mostly short, rarely longer than half a page; and yet the contents are wonderfully evocative. Her work reflects on nature, the stars and the universe, and sometimes the place of women in that world. The impression is of a solitary poet; men do not seem to be allowed to get close. These are what I think would be called visionary poems, rejecting traditional structures and instead considering simply what it is to exist. Reading the poems was a moving and meditative experience. Soderberg seems to speak from the heart, and her words certainly resonated with mine.

The poems are translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellerstrom; and Morling provides a useful afterword which puts Sodergran in context, reminding us that she wasn’t really appreciated until after her death. It also reminded me of a fact I’d become aware of in my recent reading of these authors, and that is the proximity of the Scandinavian countries to Russia; many of the authors seem to have either been born or educated in St. Petersburg, and their countries had strong connections with their monolithic neighbour. This also gave them a certain vulnerability because of the volatile state of Russia during the First World War, Revolution and Civil War. These events affected Sodergran’s life, and those of her contemporaries, in a way I had’t appreciated before.

Beautiful sisters, come high on top of the sturdy cliffs,
we are all women warriors, women heroes, women writers,
eyes of innocence, heavenly brows, rose larvae,
heavy surf and birds adrift,
we are the least expected and the deepest red,
tiger spots, taut strings, stars without vertigo.
(Violet Sunsets)

So I loved my first experience of reading Sodergran very much. This book is published by Marick Press in the US, and I wondered whether there were any other collections available in English. Well, it transpires that Bloodaxe published her complete poems back in 1984, but this is only currently available in digital format which is really annoying; because it’s translated by David McDuff, who was also responsible for last year’s “Kallocain” and whose translations I trust. I mention this because I *do* have slight reservations about this selection.

Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / No restrictions (via Wikimedia Commons)

For a start, and it’s a small matter, Sodergran often ends her lines or verses with three dots (just as I often do my sentences…) – which can be seen from the original poem on the left page (this is a dual language edition). However, the translators render this on the right hand page with the translation as a dash – and I really don’t understand why, because the effect to me is very, very different. Similarly, they give the title of the posthumous collection in English as “The Country that Isn’t”; whereas Wikipedia shows it as “The Land which Is Not”. I speak no Swedish, so I have no idea which would be most accurate, but I prefer the Wiki version… I confess to thinking that I’d like very much to read the McDuff translations; but I don’t know that that will be happening any time soon.

Anyway, I am so pleased to have made the acquaintance, albeit briefly, of Edith Sodergran; an ideal discovery for #WITMonth. I’m also delighted that I have a collection of her letters lurking on the TBR, issued by Norvik Press; I doubt I will get to this during August but will try not to leave it too soon to get round to reading it!

*****

A Little Coda…

I’ve left the post above as I originaly wrote it; but I was a bit rattled by my uncertainties about the translation, and also the inabiity to track down the McDuff complete poems; so I did a little digging…

Like so many books during this weird pandemic period, if you search on Amazon they offer you digital versions or very high priced copies; and I have to say that my whole experience of online book buying during this time has changed dramatically. I’ve shifted to Hive, or gone directly to the publishers where I can; anything rather than be ripped off like this. I tried Hive, Wordery, Book Depository and eBay in search of a reasonably priced copy of the Complete Poems, but to no avail. And then I had a lightbulb moment – and zipped over to the site of the publishers, Bloodaxe. Lo and behold, the book could be got from them at normal cover price so I duly ordered it, and here it is with “On foot…”

And now the story takes *another* twist, because I have had a quick look at the McDuff and compared, in particular, one early poem, titled in “On foot…” as “The Day Grows Cool” and in “Complete” as “The Day Cools”. Sure enough, McDuff renders the three dots as three dots when they are such in the original, which makes me very happy and I *don’t* know why Morling/Ellerstrom messed with this. But I was also struck by one particular couplet, which is Swedish is:

Du kastade din kärleks röda ros
I mitt vita sköte –

Morling/Ellerstrom render this as:

You threw your love’s red rose
Into my white womb –

However, McDuff gives this as:

You threw the red rose of your love
Into my white lap –

To me, the use of lap or womb is quite a significant difference and allows for very different interpretation of the couplet. So as I speak no Swedish, my only recourse was Google Translate; and depending on what time of the day you put the phrase in and on what device, it comes up with either word as an option! Which just goes to show, really, what a complicated thing translation is!! I wonder if any of my Ramblings readers speak Swedish and can bring any thoughts to the debate??

Anyway – the bottom line is that I’m very happy to have tracked down the Bloodaxe book, and as I always enjoy David McDuff’s translations I shall read this feeling assured that I am in capable hands! And of course, the lesson to be learned is to always check out the publisher’s site to see if you can get the book directly from them!

A new translation of a prescient dystopian book – over @ShinyNewBooks #kallocain @classicpenguins @DavidWMcDuff

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today which I wanted to share with you; and it’s of a fascinating, scary and prescient book which could perhaps be described as the missing link between “Brave New World” and “Nineteen Eighty Four”!

That’s a little flippant perhaps; but the book in question *does* fall chronologically between the two and creates a terrifying world of the future where individuality and human emotion has been stamped out, to be replaced with a tightly controlled World State.

The book is “Kallocain” by Karin Boye, here in a lovely Penguin Classics edition, rendered into a wonderful new English version by veteran translator David McDuff. It’s a fascinating read, and you can find my full review here at Shiny!

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars…”

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by David McDuff

My re-read of Dostoevsky’s great novel seems in some ways to have taken me a disproportionate amount of time; at 656 pages, it’s considerably shorter than “War and Peace” and yet has taken me several weeks to read. I’m not sure why; I absolutely *love* the book and *love* Dostoevsky, yet I’ve found myself having to pause between chapters just to catch my breath and absorb the brilliance of it. Whether I can convey that brilliance is another matter; trying to corral my thoughts is often difficult when it’s a big and important book I’ve read, but I shall share my feelings anyway.

An apt cover image, as Raskolnikov is described as being good-looking – which he certainly isn’t in some of the adaptations I’ve seen about…

The plot of the book is pretty well-known and appears fairly simplistic: Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student, murders a money-lender and her sister with an axe. His motives are perhaps unclear; does he undertake the act for money, or because he considers himself a Napoleon, someone apart from the ordinary run of the mill person, who is above the law and normal morality? However, he’s pursued by a dogged detective and more importantly, by his conscience, and the reader follows his emotional and spiritual journey to its final resolution.

Into this premise, Dostoyevsky introduces a rich tapestry of characters and a deep exploration of humanity and its motivations. Raskolnikov’s mother and his sister Dunya make an early appearance; the Marmeladov family, including Sonya the daughter, are pivotal to the story; then there is Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin, a solid and reliable, if slightly over-excitable fellow student. More sinister is Svidrigailov, a lecherous sensualist from the Raskolnikov family past, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of his wife Marfa Petrovna. Also on the nasty side is Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a rather stuffy man in pursuit of Dunya as a wife, so that he can have a poor and grateful woman attending to his every whim. And then there is the remarkable Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in charge of investigating the murder; an unsettling and unpredictable character, there’s most definitely a touch of the Columbo about him.

Have you ever watched a moth near a candle-flame? Well, that’s the way he’ll be with me, hovering, circling around me like a moth at a lighted candle; he’ll lose his taste for freedom, he’ll start to think, get tangled in his thoughts, ensnare himself all round as though in some net or other, worry himself to death!

All of these characters are on journeys of their own and bring their own issues to the story as a counterpoint to what is happening to Raskolnikov. And the whole structure gives Dostoevsky the opportunity to explore sophisticated moral issues: is the life of a nasty old money-lender worth anything when the money she grasps and hoards could help those in extreme poverty? Is it morally wrong for someone to take the decision as to who should live and who should die? Is Sonya any less of a person for having to prostitute herself to try and feed her family? Are the nihilistic philosophies circulating St. Petersburg helpful or damaging? And is the only route to redemption through suffering?

That’s just a snapshot of the kind of issues Dostoevsky’s looking at in “Crime and Punishment”, which might seem off putting. However, no-one can discuss a moral quandary in such an entertaining and absorbing way as Dosty does. His subjects are serious and yet his book is filled with those wonderful characters, humour, philosophy, tragedy and pathos, as well as a particularly clear-eyed view of the lot of many Russians of his time. In particular, he seems to have quite a sophisticated understanding of the difficulties women faced; Sonya, because of her particular caste, has no option but to become a prostitute; Dunya’s only way out of poverty is a suitable marriage, and she is vulnerable to lechers like Svidrigailov – the latter attempts to compromise her reputation on more than one occasion, and the last time he does is a critical point in the book.

In fact, the book is not just about one crime – it’s actually littered with them. Svidrigailov’s behaviour towards Marfa Petrovna and Dunya is vile; the plight of Marmeladov and the evils of drink are a constant theme; Sonya’s being reduced to prostitution to avoid starvation is equally criminal; and Dunya’s constant harassment is yet another aspect of the messed up structure of Russian society. Money and poverty seem to be at the root of everything, and there are scenes of the suffering of animals and children which would slot comfortably into a Dickens novel; Dostoevsky seems to have share a sense of outrage with the latter over the plight of the vulnerable.

The blood that’s on everyone’s hands …that flows and has always flowed through the world like a waterfall, that is poured like champagne and for the sake of which men are crowned in the Capitol and then called the benefactors of mankind. Well just take a look and see what’s really what! I wanted to do good to people and I’d have done hundreds, thousands of good deeds, instead of this one stupid action, which wasn’t even stupid, really, but just clumsy…

Central to the book, though, is Raskolnikov’s battle: not only with Porfiry Petrovich, but more importantly with himself. Although it’s sometimes surprising how much of the book is *not* about Raskolnikov – there are whole sequences in which he doesn’t appear or is on the sidelines – we always return to his dilemma. He seems often in a state of feverishness, trance, illness; and it’s often unclear how much his alienation from society in general has contributed to the actions he took. There is regular reference to an article he’s had published where he argued that a Napoleon among men is not bound by the same restrictions as others and is allowed to act in ways that ordinary men cannot; and whether his illness has pushed him into taking the actions he does is perhaps ambiguous. The murder becomes almost incidental – it is Raskolnikov’s mental and spiritual state which takes centre stage. The journey into his soul and his psyche is a dark one, but there is redemption in the end.

A Genius

Despite having taken so long to read “Crime and Punishment”, I finished the last hundred pages or so in a breathless burst of reading which had a really strong emotional impact on me. I first read the book decades ago and I have to say that I most definitely got more out of this time round. For a start, I appreciate the structure his work more deeply; there’s a staginess about Dostoevsky’s books which is very appealing, as the events unfold almost as a series of set pieces. There’s a surprising amount of dark humour and the slapstick quality of a manic black comedy as Raskolnikov staggers from one dramatic situation to another, the pressures on him from outside and within gradually building up.

I also saw parallels with Dostoevsky’s other work which I wouldn’t have picked up back then, as C&P was my first read of his work. In particular, there is a strong bond between Raskolnikov and the Underground Man from “Notes from the Underground”, not least in the constant reference both of them make to their spite. One particular section, where Raskolnikov is venting his spleen to Sonya about the awfulness of his life and how he crawled away to his dark little room like a spider, could have been lifted straight from “Notes…” and there were many other parts which resonated in the same way.

‘Sonya, I have a spiteful heart, take note of that: that may explain a lot of things. I came here because I’m full of spite. There are some that would not have. But I’m a coward and…. a villain!’

Lest this should all sound too dark and gloomy – let’s face it, deep arguments about the value of a single life are not for everyone – I should say that though the book is complex I found it eminently readable and absolutely gripping. Even in the depths of despair and depravity, there is an exuberance about Dostoevsky’s characters which makes you love them and want to follow them. The chapters towards the end of the book which dealt with the final fate of Svidrigailov were completely involving and moving, and I felt were some of Dostoevsky’s best writing.

My version of “Crime and Punishment” is the Penguin Classics edition translated by David McDuff (who also translated “The Brothers Karamazov” which I read in 2013) and I found it to be an excellent rendition. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was struggling with a different rendering but this one was perfect for me and it ‘sounds’ like I expect a Dostoevsky book to read. McDuff also provides excellent notes and introduction, and he perceptively opines in the latter that critical reaction to “Crime and Punishment” says as much about the commentator as the book itself. Certainly, a quick look online reveals any number of theories about this work, but for my money it’s a brilliant, multi-layered novel which tells a gripping story while providing social comment, exploring morality and shining a strong light on the Russian society of the time. I imagine I’ll be thinking about the issues “Crime and Punishment” raises for some time and I’m so glad I chose to revisit this book with this particular translation.

Reading – an update… plus that T-word again….

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You might have notice a slight thinning out of reviews recently, and I confess that I’ve slightly been in the doldrums with regards to reading.  Partly I put this down to busyness at work, the change of seasons, the first cold of the winter (and it was a stinker) and tired eyes! But I did approach a revisit to “Crime and Punishment” via the lovely OWC hardback with great anticipation, and was a bit fed up when it went pear-shaped…

I knew I already had two copies of C&P – the original ancient Penguin I read decades ago, translated by David Magarshack, and a more recent Penguin rendered by David McDuff, of which I’d heard good things. I picked up the latter specifically for a re-read, but I couldn’t resist starting the lovely Oxford version, translated by Nicholas Slater Pasternak, and I did indeed get several chapters in…

However, for some reason I found myself struggling to engage. I’m still not sure why, but I ended up putting this version down and picking up the McDuff, and I’m currently sailing through that and absolutely loving it. It obviously has nothing to do with the physical book, because the Oxford is lovely with clear type and nice big white pages; the McDuff Penguin is a larger format and also quite readable but probably less so than the Oxford.

It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I wasn’t gelling with the Oxford, but the best I can say is that it read too smoothly. I expect to anticipate a kind of nervous energy in Dostoevsky, and I didn’t feel that here. McDuff also translated the version of Brothers Karamazov I read, and I found that version resonated with me too. So obviously, as I’m continuing with the version that speaks to me I shall keep on reading the Penguin McDuff – though having two sets of notes and supporting material to refer to is quite a bonus!

I confess I’m a little disappointed that the Oxford version didn’t work for me, though it will no doubt be ideal for other readers. And I’m keen to read one of these lovely books, so maybe I should step out of Russia for a read soon, and try to read one of Austen’s great works during the centenary year of her death.

“Sense and Sensibility” is one of her titles I know I haven’t read – so perhaps that should be a near-future read. Onward and upward! :))))

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