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A great writer in transition

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In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov

As I rambled on in an earlier post, I was very excited to find out that Alma Classics were releasing a lovely new translation of a collection of Chekhov’s works, “In The Twilight”. Although Chekhov is possibly best known for his plays like “Cherry Orchard”, he’s also the acknowledged master of the short story form. His life was tragically short (he died in 1904 age 44 of TB) but despite this he was a remarkably prolific writer, producing literally hundreds of works. Numerous collections have been released over the years, containing the compiler’s favourite stories, the ones they feel best represent him. However, the Alma Classics volume is a fresh translation of that rarest of things – a collection put together by the author himself!

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Chekhov was a doctor of medicine and practiced as such. However, he was also an inveterate scribbler and his early stories were mainly humorous pieces published under a pseudonym to make money and help support his family. However, when he was 26 he reached a turning point in his life, when critical appreciation made him realise that he was capable of serious work; and despite his failing health, he turned to stories with more substance.

“In the Twilight” catches him at this point, at the cusp of the transition, and it’s a wonderful collection. Alongside such well-known tales as “On The Road”, “Agafya” and “Misfortune”, there are lesser-known stories like “Dreams” and “In Court” which are just as powerful and a delight for the reader to discover.

It’s sometimes hard to pin down quite what makes Chekhov’s works regarded as the definitive short stories. The form itself is not as straightforward as it might seem – the author risks trying to pack too much in and smothering the tale, or not giving enough to the story and producing a thin, undernourished piece of literature. With Chekhov, there is never the risk of either of these states. His stories are perfectly formed pieces of art which the reader comes out of feeling satisfied with having read something complete, even though in many ways they’re not.

Chekhov’s short stories drop us into action and events which are already taking place in many cases, and leave them at a point which is not necessarily the final ending of the tale. We get a snapshot, a short part of a person or group of people’s lives, but because of the skill of the author, this is enough to tell a complete story.

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“In the Twilight” contains 15 works, and none is set in a large city. Instead, we get glimpses of people travelling, living in small towns, struggling to make a living and existing in the twilight margins of life. And Chekhov’s brilliance is in capturing the essence of people’s being in just a short tale that brings them to life completely.

“In the autumnal quiet, when a cold, stern mist from the earth lies upon your soul, when it stands like a prison wall before your eyes and bears testament to a man of the limitations of his will, it can be sweet to think about wide, fast rivers with free, steep banks, about impassable forests, boundless steppes. Slowly and calmly the imagination draws the little patch of a man stealing along an unpeopled, steep bank in the early morning, when the blush of dawn has yet to leave the sky; age-old, mast-like pines, towering in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and grumble gloomily; roots, huge rocks and prickly bushes bar his way, but he is strong in flesh and hale in spirit, he does not fear the pines, or the rocks, or his solitude, or the rolling echo that repeats his every step.” (from “Dreams”)

My favourites were probably the classic “On the Road”, one of his earliest serious stories which tells of a random meeting while travelling between a nobleman fallen on hard times and a noblewoman on the way to her family estates, and how they briefly connect to the point that the womanising man thinks he has almost the power to persuade her to leave her everyday life and follow him; “Verochka”, a sad little tale of missed love and how emotions can be misread and then change forever the way you see things; and “A Nightmare” which in a short, intense few pages conveys the misery and difficulty of surviving in feudal Russia. But there are no duds here and whether relating the story of an unfaithful wife being accused of witchcraft, or a tale of the importance of the arrival of puppies in the lives of two children, Chekhov is always compelling reading. The stories are full of atmosphere, full of snow, wind, big landscapes, woods, storms and cottages; and always with the feeling of small human beings battling against circumstances.

Alma have produced a lovely little volume here, fluidly presented by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin, along with his sensible and unobtrusive notes. As always, their books have extra material in the form of a picture section at the beginning, as well as a useful biography and additional information at the end. I found it fascinating being able to read a selection of Chekhov’s works as he had collected them and as he wanted them read, and kudos to Alma for bringing out this volume, allowing us to watch the early development of the world’s greatest writer of short stories – highly recommended!

Recent Reads: Three Years by Chekhov

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And it’s back to Russia again, with Hesperus’s other Chekhov novella, once more translated by Hugh Aplin. As always with their books, it’s beautifully produced with a foreword by William Fiennes and introduction and helpful notes by Aplin.

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“Three Years” is a short work, under 100 pages, telling the story of three years in the life of Laptev and his family, his marriage to Yulia and the changes that follow. The book begins with Alexei Laptev visiting his sister Nina in the country. She is ill with cancer, and lives in a strange menage with her two daughters, while her husband lives with his second family and children elsewhere, visiting now and again when there is a crisis! Laptev is unexpectedly in love with Yulia, daughter of a strange and ineffective local doctor, and although she does not love him, she agrees to marry him after he abruptly finds the courage to declare his feelings.

Laptev is aware Yulia does not care for him and so in many ways the union is ill-fated from the start. The couple move back to his home in Moscow where we meet his brother Fyodor, his bullying father, plus a large collection of friends and employees. There is also his ex-lover, Polina, a strange, spiky independent woman whom Laptev feels he might have been better off marrying. A series of incidents, some dramatic and some trivial take place, and Chekhov explores Laptev’s past a little and speculates on his future. The book ends with Yulia developing a love for her husband, whereas his ardour has cooled, and  with Laptev in philosophical mood waiting to see what life will bring him. As his brother-in-law predicts:

“Yes, everything under the sun comes to an end… You’ll fall in love and you’ll suffer, you’ll fall out of love and you’ll be deceived, because there isn’t a woman that wouldn’t deceive you, you’ll suffer, fall into despair and you yourself will deceive. But the time will come, when all of this will be just a memory and  you’ll reason coldly and consider it utterly trivial…”

If this all sounds a little unspecific – well, the book is just that! As the excellent introduction points out, Chekhov initially intended to write a big, sweeping Russian novel and certainly there are enough characters and material in basic form to have been expanded into something of Tolstoyan length. However, Chekhov never managed that and what remains is something of a hybrid. The story is neither one thing or another: too wide in scope for a short story or even, really, a novella, but not developed enough to be a proper novel. Too many of the characters are underdeveloped sketches more than living and breathing people, and too many important events are told off-camera in a few lines (the deaths of Yulia’s daughter and niece being one striking example). In the hands of a novelist used to larger-scale narratives the material could have been turned into an involving story with an excellent set of characters, but here we don’t even get any real sense of who they are and why they are even in the novel.

This ends up being frustrating, because I kept thinking about what could have been. There is an underlying theme of madness and cruelty within Laptev’s family; his father is a sadistic bully, who has dominated and beaten his children and his workforce over the years, so that they have all been warped by it. Laptev himself is ineffectual and his brother descends into madness, while his sister’s unfortunate marriage and the results of her childhood abuse finish her off. But I found myself thinking that it needed a Dostoevsky to do justice to the people and events here and it could have been so much more. I actually wondered what point Chekhov was trying to make and what the novella was really about – at the core of it is the love story of Laptev and Yulia, but even this is not strong enough to sustain events.

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Looking at the introduction and foreword, I sense that I’m not the only one who has had this response to the book. Chekhov never completed a really long work and is tempting to conclude that, however brilliant he is with the short story and play format, he didn’t have the capacity for the epic. He certainly is capable of the novella form, as I found “The Story of a Nobody” much more coherent, and I intend to try “The Shooting Party” also, which I think may be Chekhov’s longest work. But the effect of “Three Years” is a little like seeing a miniaturist attempting a mural. It’s not a book I hated, far from it – this being Chekhov, there is some beautiful writing of course, and certain scenes, vignettes, images stand out strongly; perhaps that thought actually crystallises my feelings about the novella, that it was more a sequence of events than a whole, coherent work. A lost opportunity.

Recent Reads: The Story of a Nobody by Chekhov

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And we sail along with Russian Season, this time a slim novella by Chekhov! “The Story of a Nobody” is a little Hesperus Book I have and it’s translated by Hugh Aplin. I must admit it surprised me a bit to find that Chekhov had written these longer pieces, because I always associated him with either plays or shorter short stories. However, it seems he has done some of these longer works and this came with good reviews for both the stories and Hugh Aplin’s excellent translation, so what more could I ask?

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The novella is narrated by the Nobody, known to us initially as Stepan. He has taken employment as a manservant with a gentleman called Orlov, though his real reason is to try to get access to Orlov’s father. The latter is an important minister and Stepan is a revolutionary of sorts, determined to assassinate him. However, from this simple premise, things develop very differently to the way Stepan had planned. Complications arise in the form of Zinaida Fyodorovna, a married woman who is Orlov’s lover. She leaves her husband, determined to be a modern, free woman and live with Orlov. He, however, had not expected anything like this, being a man detached from sensation and emotion, regarding love as simply a need to be satisfied, and resenting Zinaida’s taking her life into her own hands and visiting herself upon him. Things get worse when Stepan becomes fascinated by Zinaida, longing for a normal life instead of the revolutionary one. He is fighting against consumption and losing his rebellious fire, just as Zinaida is gaining hers. They flee St. Petersburg together but what will become of them?

This is a fascinating little story, beautifully written and with vivid character sketches. I haven’t read enough of Chekhov’s short stories to make definitive statements, but this does seem to me to have more depth that some of his works I’ve read. Stepan is an intriguing person, steeled in revolution but tired of it – desperate for what he considers a normal life, home and hearth; in fact, everything that Orlov, the conventional gentleman, could have but rejects, preferring to present an ironic persona and keep himself to himself. Both men in many ways could be said to have adopted a pose which is not really their own nature, but Orlov will not give up his way of life – he accepts that there is wrong in both the upper and lower strata of society, but will stick with the upper as it is closer to his nature and he is lazy and used to his way of life. Stepan, on the other hand, is burnt out from years of zeal, and simply seems to wish for peace. He has become disillusioned with the possibility of changing the world for the better by violence, and when he is given the opportunity to actually carry out his mission, he has become unable to do so.

“Why are we exhausted? Why do we, at first so passionate, bold, noble, full of belief, why do we become, by the age of thirty or thirty-five, completely bankrupt? Why does one fade away with consumption, a second put a bullet through his forehead, a third seek oblivion in vodka and cards, a fourth, to deaden his fear and anguish, cynically trample underfoot the portrait of his pure, fine youth? Why do we, once fallen, no longer attempt to rise, and, when we lose one thing, why do we not seek another? Why?”

The book’s other main character, Zinaida, is a complex figure, a mixture of emotion and intellect who seems to be desperately searching for something. When she learns the truth about how Orlov has been deceiving her, she throws herself at Stepan’s cause, as it seems she needs something to fill the void. Women revolutionaries and free thinkers were not unusual in Russia at the time, and she has once again read too many books for her own good! References are made particularly to Turgenev and Dostoevsky, and I found myself thinking about how differently Russian writers from different ages would have treated this particular subject and plot. Gogol might well have ignored the political and simply gone for the human side of the story, looking for the grotesque. Dostoevsky would have toned down the grotesque a bit but had the characters behaving much more intensely and dramatically and the work would have been several times the length! But Chekhov’s prose is lucid, vivid and clear; he makes the points he wishes to make about humanity and tells a compelling story at the same time. We are shown the inequality, injustice and waste, but subtly; few of the characters are stereotypes and all have dimensions that are not obvious from the start; and Chekhov is not judgemental as an author, allowing us to decide what we feel about the characters and their views on life.

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This is an excellent little novella, very thought-provoking and one I would like to read again soon – I’m still ruminating on some of the points it raises. If you’re thinking of reading it, I would really recommend the Hesperus Press edition with the foreword by Louis de Bernieres. The book *has* been republished by Alma Classics (like several Hesperus titles) but in many cases they seem to have dropped the forewords and sometimes the introductions – which is a shame! A highly recommended work, which has made me very keen to pick up more Chekhov.

Recent Reads: Poor People by Dostoevsky

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Another day, another Dostoevsky – yes, Russian Season continues on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings  – although in many ways it seems to be more of a Dostoevsky Season than anything else!

“Poor People” (sometimes translated as “Poor Folk”) was Dostoevsky’s first novel, published in 1846 – one of a handful of works he produced before his exile to Siberia (the experiences of which he wrote about in “The House of the Dead”). His early works are sometimes overlooked in favour of his major novels, all written after the exile, but as there are so many nice, new translations on the market, I’ve been interested to see how they stand up against the later books. My edition is another nice Hesperus version translated again by Hugh Aplin, who seems to have a handle on producing very readable English versions of Dostoevsky!

PP takes the form of an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters between a lowly, penniless clerk Makar Devushkin, and a young girl, Varvara Alexeyevna. Makar makes his living as a scribe, copying out other people’s work. He adores Varvara, who lives opposite him, and despite the age difference they seem to have a very close relationship. Varvara is a country girl, an orphan who has moved to St. Petersburg and suffered some unnamed slight to her honour which has put her outside the realm of normal society, and she shuns a woman who claims to be her relative and tries to make her own way, earning her living by sewing. Makar in fact is also related distantly to her, and his whole existence revolves around trying to make Varvara happy. What money he earns he spends on presents for her, taking her to the theatre and trying to keep the wolf from her door. In doing so, he neglects his own needs, ending up owing money to his landlady, being made fun of by fellow workers and fellow lodgers and dressing in rags with the soles coming off his shoes. When the gentleman who has been the cause of all Varvara’s problem reappears and asks her to marry him, how will matters be resolved?

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But the story is not told in such a straightforward manner – rather, it is gradually and very cleverly revealed in the series of letters between the two protagonists and also in what is implied by these letters. Neither correspondent is what would be called a reliable narrator – they are, in fact, all too human and fallible and these traits are revealed in the way they write and what they write. Although Makar is a lowly clerk, he has aspirations to become an author and is very excited to befriend Ratazyayev, a hack writer who lodges in the same building. Ratazyayev is a very false friend, mocking Makar and using his and Varvara’s story as material for his work. Dostoevsky cleverly has Makar quote some examples of them, high-flown purple prose of the highest order, and a comedy piece that is very derivative of Gogol. In fact, Gogol is obviously a strong influence on this first work of FD, so much so that he actually has Makar reading Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and being horrified by it. FD was accused by some of simply imitating  the great man, but this is not so in my view – Gogol’s story has his clerk descending into madness and is full of the grotesque, but that element is missing in FD’s work. His characters are not simple stereotypes of poor oppressed people, but very realistic. They have their faults and their foibles but are all the more believable because of it and therefore much more deserving of sympathy.

Makar is foolish, wasting money on Varvara and lying to her about his circumstances. He ends up descending into drunkenness and you wonder why, if he loves her so much and she seems to love him back, they don’t just get married and rent a hovel together. Varvara, on her part, is an exile in St. Petersburg. In one of her letters, she sends him a piece she has written about how she grew up in the country and her life there, then her move to St. Petersburg, her first love and loss of all of her family. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and only hints at what has caused her downfall (we never know for sure but we can guess the type of thing). In fact, it is very much a love of words that unites them – they exchange books and thoughts, and it is a collection of Pushkin’s volumes that has a special significance for Varvara. She is a literate, educated girl and obviously struggling with the pull of differing emotions – at times she seems to love Makar very much, calling him her only friend, but in the end the lure of money and comfort and (possibly) the regaining of her good name is too much – and she agrees to marry her seducer, Mr. Bykov. As Makar is starting to consider making more of words in his life, possibly as a writer, Varvara is abandoning books as her new husband thinks that “novels are the ruination of young girls.” So this is very much a book about words and literature which makes it entirely appropriate that it should take the form of letters. However, Makar’s heart is broken and all we can foresee is a descent into destitution for him, and an unhappy marriage for Varvara.

“Ah, my friend, misfortune is an infectious disease. The poor and unfortunate should avoid one another, so as not to become even more infected. I’ve brought misfortunes upon you such as you’d not suffered before in your modest and secluded life. All this is torturing and killing me.”

I find it hard to think that such a strong, wonderfully written, moving and sad book can have been dismissed as just an early work by FD. There are elements here that recur throughout his books – poverty, the struggle to survive, lack of self-esteem, a concern for the opinion of peers, human suffering at the hands of others. These are handled well in what is a desperately sad story and it is interesting to think of the comparisons that have been made between Dickens and Dostoevsky. Certainly, both authors try to give the poor and downtrodden a voice, telling the world of their plight, and it is some of the tales of Makar’s fellow lodgers that break your heart – like the clerk Gorshkov, caught up in a scandal, fighting to clear his name in court, trying to feed his wife and children and keep them alive (but failing) and then finally winning the case but losing all. The more subtle approach FD takes by not beating you over the head with the horrors of poverty is actually a more effective way of conveying this to the reader.

This novel/la is most definitely Dostoevsky, even at this early stage of his writing career. The voice is distinctively his, the clerk Makar in many ways foreshadows future impoverished “little people” (Golyadkin in “The Double” in particular springs to mind) and his concerns are the same. There is less of a manic intensity, and certainly the satirical element is much less pronounced than in later works (although I wouldn’t say it was entirely absent, as some reviews claim). However, this is a strong and powerful work in its own right and deserves, like the other shorter works I’ve reviewed recently, to be up there with his longer, better-known novels.

An Old Favourite: A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov

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I confess to being well and truly sunk into a Bulgakovian frame of mind at the moment. The TV version of “The Master & Margarita” has me thoroughly hooked but I’m putting off a reading of the Hugh Aplin translation till it’s finished (today, alas!) So it seemed somewhat sensible to pick up my lovely Hesperus edition of another of the great man’s works (again translated by Aplin) to keep me going.

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“A Dog’s Heart” is a much shorter work than M&M but is very well known and packs quite a punch! The initial narrator is a poor injured stray dog called Sharik. Scalded by a mean cook, out in the cold and ready to die, he is found and rescued by the eminent surgeon Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky. Initially Sharik cannot believe his luck as he is taken back to a nice warm flat, fed and cared for, and in typical dog-like fashion he becomes devoted to the Professor. However, there is more to this kindness than meets the eye, as the Professor is caught up in the scientific crazes that were sweeping Soviet Russia and is planning a transplant operation that will put the glands of a human into the dog.

And the results are surprising and shocking – the dog turns human but combines the worst characteristics of both! Remarkably, he takes the rather odd name of Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov and starts to move upwards in the hierarchy of the communist authorities. Meanwhile, the Professor is battling with the House authorities who want to take away some of his space and it is only the fact that he is surgeon to some high-ranking Communists that enables him to hold them off. Sharikov’s uncouth behaviour continues to get worse, he causes havoc in the flat, molests the women servants and generally disrupts the Professor’s life so much that it becomes unbearable. The end is maybe predictable but the only option available to the Professor, who has had his eyes well and truly opened by the results of his experiment.

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It’s a few years since I read this book, but I remembered it remarkably well. Bulgakov is such a great satirical writer – he captures the voice of Sharik wonderfully, giving him a distinctive doggy voice all of his own, much of which is retained when he becomes humanised. It’s a funny, tragic book and not afraid to tackle larger themes of the role of science vs the role of nature – as the Professor admits towards the end of the story,  “Explain to me, please, why one needs to fabricate Spinozas artificially, when a woman can give birth to him any time you like”.  Bulgakov seems to be aiming his sights not only at the medical profession and the ethics of the scientific experiments they are undertaking (a subject also touched on in Platonov’s “Happy Moscow”) but also at a regime that could allow such a bizarrely created “human” to have a position of authority.

One of the things I love about MB’s characters is their moral ambiguity – the Professor is firstly perceived as well-meaning, then seen as possibly selfish and greedy against the backdrop of the Housing committee, then again as cruel in his operation on poor Sharik, but becoming once more a sympathetic person when we perceive what he is going through at the hands of Sharikov. Likewise, the dog is just a dog with all the usual traits, but once these are present in a human body they become completely unacceptable – although he fits in well with the new Communist Man and Woman, so perhaps Bulgakov was simply saying the new regime consisted of dogs!!

And it’s fascinating to notice Bulgakov’s obsession with housing and space issues – obviously in the early days of the Soviet Union, large ex-nobility dwellings were divided up into flats, and as people fled from the country to the cities, the lack of living areas became a major problem. In fact, in M&M Woland refers to the housing problem having spoiled the Muscovites, and space is also an issue in one of the stories I’m currently reading, ‘Quadraturin’ from “Memories of the Future” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

For anyone with more than a fleeting interest in Soviet literature and satire, this is an essential read. The translation by Hugh Aplin is eminently readable, as usual, and comes with discreet and useful notes plus a helpful introduction. High recommended!

(As a side-note, I’ve discovered that Vladimir Bortko, who is responsible for the M&M 2005 TV series, also produced an adaptation of this book – that’s the next thing I’ll be looking to track down!!)

Russian Reading Month – And some thoughts about translation

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The very lovely Tuesday in Silhouette blog, which I just stumbled across via Alex in Leeds‘ excellent pages, is running a Russian Reading Month which I have decided to tag onto – partly because I happen to have just read “Conquered City” but mainly because I have an abiding love of Russian Literature. TIS has provided an interesting little meme re Russian Lit so here are my thoughts below.

What has your relationship with Russian literature been like thus far? What are your expectations for the following month – and perhaps your expectations towards the novel/writer you’ve chosen to read?

My first real encounter with Russia came when I was in my teens at Grammar School and we studied the Revolution in History lessons. I was fascinated by the period and started to explore further, and the next influence was the film of “Dr. Zhivago” which was re-running at our local cinema. I then began to read Solzhenitsyn, who was very much in the public eye when I was growing up, and was knocked out by “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Luckily, my lovely old-fashioned school library was stuffed with glass panelled bookcases full of purple jacketed Russian classics so I was able to indulge.

I’ve continued to love and read the Russians ever since – everything from the classics to modern volumes like “Novel with Cocaine”. I was particularly taken with “Crime and Punishment” when I first read it, and also Gogol’s “Dead Souls” which I found amazingly funny. A more recent discovery was the wonderful Andrey Platonov who is unusual and strange and quite unique. I finally got round to reading “The Master and Margarita” a few years ago and was hooked, moving on to read everything by Bulgakov. I confess I still struggle with Tolstoy and there may be an issue with my attempts which I’ll get onto later.

My favourite Russian poet is Mayakovsky – he’s often dismissed as just a revolutionary hack, but this is so untrue – check out this heartbreaking final poem by him:

Past One O’Clock

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

I also love to read books about Russia and its history so I guess you could call me a real Slavophile!

The first book I read for the Russian month was “Conquered City” which I reviewed below. I had high hopes for this from what I had heard about it and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m currently re-reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” which I’m enjoying even more than the first time. I hope to read Nabokov’s Gogol biog which I have on order, and I also want to re-read “The Master and Margarita” – for reasons I’ll expand on below!

Thanks so much to TIS for prompting my re-engagement with Russian literature – one of my long-term loves!

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So – a slight digression here, on the subject of translation. After reading TIS and some other reviews of Bulgakov I picked up on the fact that some reviewers were commenting on problems and differences with translations. It seems that particular MAM has had a chequered history owing to the censorship and translations of various partial versions etc. There have been several attempts and the one I read was a 1997 translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I didn’t know a lot about them, except that their names seemed to be turning up on a lot of newer translations of Russian classics and they were working on a new version of “Dr. Zhivago”. A little more research revealed that they seem to polarize opinions dramatically, people either singing their praises or condemning their work. I was particularly intrigued to read one piece by a Russian writer saying that their translations were terrible. There were quite a few blogs doing comparisons of some passages from MAM and I have to say that I didn’t find the P/V sections compared that well. I dug about in my collection and found that I had a volume of P/V translated Gogol stories and also some older versions by different translators. On doing a quick comparison of some opening paragraphs, I definitely DO NOT like the P/V versions – they seemed flat, literal and dull. I asked Youngest Child to give me an impartial opinion and she said, without knowing anything about anything, that the P/V paragraphs had “no flair”. So I have now sent off for two other versions of MAM (thank goodness for Amazon penny books!!!!) and a highly regarded translation of “Dead Souls” – apparently, the new NYRB one which I have been coveting may not be the be-all and end-all of translations either 😦

This set me off thinking about the whole nature of translation generally. With one of my favourite writers, Italo Calvino, it’s fortunate that there have only been a few scholars involved. The bulk of his work during his lifetime was skilfully handled by William Weaver who gave the books a consistency and a voice. Tim Parks did some translating after Calvino’s death and since then, Martin McLaughlin has taken over the mantle of presenting Calvino’s works for the English-speaking world – all the time he is careful to respect what has been done before and improve on it discreetly when he can.

With the Russian authors there are numerous different translations. The first, much maligned, translator of many volumes was Constance Garnett. It is fashionable nowadays to condemn her work as inaccurate and faulty, but I think it’s too easy to criticise. She was trying to present huge numbers of long works in a format that the English-speaking reader could deal with in the early 20th century and as a one-woman translating machine she did very well. However, I pulled out a number of my Russian novels last night and found there was a wide array of translators represented. Many of my older Penguin Classics were dealt with by David Magarshack and David Duff, and I never had any issues with reading them although Magarshack in particular gets bad press nowadays. But looking through my more recent volumes, I realised that there were two translators whose skills I really trust. The first is Robert Chandler, who is probably best known for bringing Platonov to us in English but has also produced an exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”. To translate a writer as complex and subtle as Platonov takes real talent and love of the language, and Chandler has certainly served literature well. The other scholar, who seems to have been beavering away quietly in the background, is Hugh Aplin. Aplin has produced numerous translations for Hesperus Press of Chekhov, Lermontov and Turgenev – and is the name behind my current NFU as mentioned above. His work is elegant and consistently readable – there is no hype or fuss, just well presented and enjoyable volumes. Well done gentlemen!

Anyway, this exercise has made me realise that I need to think more about the translated literature I’m reading. This subject surfaced a little while back when I was considering Proust, and the advice I’ve come across then and now is to compare as many different versions as you can and choose the one you respond to best. So I think I shall try to ignore hype and publicity claims, and let my reading mojo respond to the prose!

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