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“…their resilience and discreetness…” #thenakedworld @IrinaMashinski

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When author and translator Irina Mashinski contacted me to see if I would be interested in reading her book, “The Naked World” I didn’t hesitate for a moment; in fact, I probably bit off her hand! I’d been aware of her work since reading “The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry”, which she co-edited with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk. She also works on the Cardinal Points Journal, and has published many books of poetry and essays in Russian. I hadn’t appreciated, though, how widely she’d written and “The Naked World” (her first work in English) sounded as if it would be the perfect read for me – which it was!

Mashinski was born and raised in Moscow (in the spring of 1958, “5 years, 4 months and 10 days” after Stalin’s death); she emigrated to the USA in 1991. “Naked” explores her life straddling two continents, but does so by utilising two written forms; the book blends prose and poetry, and the results are stunning.

Each time when you raise your eyes to the stars, you see the past, and each time when you raise your eyes to the moon, you see the reflected the present. Past and present blend within you like the stars and the moon and those sparks of tiny flowers on the dark Soviet apron. And if there is a rhythm, it’s muted.

The book is divided into four sections: “Patterns”, “The Myth”, “In the Right-of-Way” and “Borders”, and each examines different aspects of Mashinski’s life, from her years living under Soviet rule to her time in the West as an emigre. Her memories stretch back to Stalin’s Great Terror, which affected her grandparents who were sent into exile, and these sections were particularly moving. In fact, the book opens with Stalin’s death and the effect that had on many Russians; of Jewish heritage, her family were particularly vulnerable in the Russia of the 20th Century, and it’s clear that what happened to them has left emotional scars.

So the first two parts of the book deals mainly with the past, with Mashinski exploring her family history, reliving her memories of her forebears and their sufferings, and reflecting on her own life. Even though Stalin had died, it was still not easy to live in the USSR, and Mashinski’s family were still at risk. However, going into voluntary exile and becoming an emigre is not so easy either, and when the family flee to the West, the sense of feeling stateless, not belonging, runs through many of the writings too. Although Mashinski comes to terms with her new world, it’s clear her homeland will never leave her.

It’s the time when
dreams fill
with my dead, mountains
block what’s left of the sun

They darken toward evening,
first one, then the second, the third,
they linger, turning mauve, and move off to the west,
like leaves to the ravine.

Irina Mashinski’s story is moving, inspiring and often heartbreaking; however, what makes this book stand out particularly is the wonderful writing. An intriguing hybrid of prose, original poetry, adapated poetry and translated poetry, it captures so many moments from her past and life in lyrical and memorable writing. This is a singularly original way to tell a story and it works quite brilliantly! Her poetry in particular cuts through to the heart. Poignantly, the book ends with a section setting out “Notes on the Great Terror”; even if you know something about this (which I do), it hits hard to see the awful facts set out here in black and white.

“The Naked World” is not an easy book to categorise, encompassing as it does so much; memory, family myths, cultural history, exile and the emigre experience. It’s a work which gets under the skin, leaving images lodged in the brain of forests and patterned wallpaper and wastelands and sunsets and a new world seen through the eyes of someone leaving a complex past behind. Her memories are vivid and moving, her verse beautiful and reading the book was such an immersive experience. It’s a work with disparate elements which are woven together beautifully to create a powerful and moving whole, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it.

You remember me leaving, right? One takes off filled up to the brim – and lands in a new place empty. I wanted to tell you how it feels to cross the ocean and see your own flat giant shadow on the water, and peel yourself off and recognise that you’re real… emigration is like evacuation: sacks, trunks, random acquaintances, other people’s things that try to latch on to you, and wide unknown rivers covered with ice. And then several years pass, and it turns out that you’re full again, full to the brim.

In bringing her work to English, Mashinski has had the input of a stellar collection of collaborators to aid with the translation, including Boris Dralyuk, Robert Chandler and Maria Bloshteyn; and poet Ilya Kaminsky provides a heartfelt preface. Mashinski dedicates her book to the memory of her parents and grandparents, and it’s certainly a moving memorial of their life and sufferings.

As I hoped and expected, “The Naked World” turned out to be an unforgettable read; lyrical, moving, laced with beautiful prose, poetry and imagery, it’s a work which will stay with you, and it’s definitely going to be in my end of year best-of! Irina Mashinski’s marvellous book is published by MadHat Press, and I highly recommend you track down a copy.

If you want to explore further, there’s a wonderful recording of a pre-launch discussion which includes contributions from Mashinski, Chandler, Dralyuk, Bloshteysn and others available here.

“…sometimes, the heart knows when it’s the last time.” @GrantaBooks #levozerov #borisdralyuk #robertchandler

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Portraits without frames by Lev Ozerov
Edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk
Translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

There are some books that you spot on the horizon and just *know* that they’re meant for you; and “Portraits without Frames” was one of those for me. I’m well-known for my love of Russia and its arts, and yet poet Lev Ozerov was a new name to me. I spotted the book in the NYRB catalogue, and the fact that it was rendered by such an esteemed list of translators would be recommendation enough. However, the subject matter sounded essential too, and I knew I had to read this book. Unfortunately, NYRB don’t have the rights for the UK; very fortunately, Granta *do* and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

This poor book has been carted around in my bag for days, I got so attached to it, so it has taken a bit of a battering…. 😦

Lev Ozerov was born Lev Goldberg in 1914; of Jewish Ukrainian origin, he made his name as a poet and literary critic, and was an important figure in Soviet literature. The verses in “Portraits…” were written towards the end of his life, and not published until 1999 (three years after his death in 1996). In this long and profoundly moving cycle of poems, Ozerov recalls his meetings with the great and notable in Russian arts over the Twentieth Century, and the results are breathtaking.

And I recalled
…the wall of books,
all written by a man
who lived
in times that were hard to bear.

The collection has been edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk (which is frankly recommendation enough!) and is divided into categories, such as “The Poets”, “The Prose Writers” and “Music, Theater and Dance”. The format is free verse – readable, beautifully lyrical and haunting – and each pen portrait brings the subject vividly alive. Ozerov certainly mixed with just about all the great and good in Soviet art, and the fifty accounts of his meetings with them reminded me just how many incredible artists the country and the era produced – even if they had to write for the drawer a lot of the time. Each poem is preceded by an introduction outlining the life and work of the subject; each translation is individually credited; notes are provided when necessary to illuminate the poems; so this really is an exemplary volume and a flawless reading experience.

As for the poems themselves, they really are something special. Each verse brilliantly conjures place, character, atmosphere; each subject exists in their own right and emerges fully formed from their word portrait. The parts build to a whole which is a wonderful primer on Russian creatives but also an incredible work of art in its own right. The stunning imagery of Ozerov’s verse is lyrical and often profoundly moving, never shying away from the harsh reality many of these artists faced. There was torture, exile, imprisonment, murder – yet the art survived and the book is a lasting testament to the power of words.

But nothing in Russia lasts
like a damaged reputation.

The book opens with Akhmatova; it takes in the likes of Pasternak, Platonov, Babel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Meyerhold – so many familiar names, and yet also many new to me. And the outside world impinges; there are chinks in the Iron Curtain, when “with a painful grinding” it would part and let an artist in or out for a visit; for example, Andre Malraux makes a memorable appearance (and I may well have gone off down a rabbit hole looking up his work..)

One of the most powerful sections was that of the Yiddish poets. Boris Dralyuk has written movingly about the “Night of the Murdered Poets” and it’s chilling to see how many artists were wiped out on that one night on trumped-up charges. As well as painting portraits of the subjects, the poems gradually bring Ozerov himself to life for the reader; in his relationships with the subjects we see hints of the actions he took to help and support his fellow artists. The introduction sets out Ozerov’s life and work, and the impact and legacy of what Dralyuk calls his “quiet activism” is immense.

How does it start –
the mad day, the mad life
of a writer? What whim,
what overwhelming force
presses a pen into some poor fellow’s hand
and lead him down
through all of Dante’s
twisting circles?

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, well, you can read this as poetic prose. If you think you don’t know enough about Russia and its culture, there is supporting material enough for any novice. And you’d be reading the results of work by a collection of stellar translators; no messing about with Russian books which have been rendered in English in umpteen versions already. Instead, they’re bringing us groundbreaking translations of new and wonderful works, and I for one can’t thank them enough.

Lev Ozerov – unknown photo studio, possibly before or soon after the end of World War II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how I seem to stumble on works that will be standouts of my reading year as we edge closer to the end of that year; it happened in 2017 and I suspect the same may happen again in 2018. Certainly “Portraits without Frames” is an outstanding book, a haunting work of remembrance and celebration, and a book I’ll return to. I’ve ended up with a long list of poets and artist to research and explore, which will be good for my soul though bad for the bookshelves. But as well as introducing so many artists new to me, this book has also acquainted me with Lev Ozerov, a poet I really want to read more of. I do hope there are other works by him in translation…

(Review copy kindly provided by Granta Books, for which many thanks!)

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