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“…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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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…. 😦

A poet encapsulated

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A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler

As an antidote to all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I felt drawn to picking up something more factual; and coincidentally a lovely review copy arrived that fitted the bill! Pushkin Press have just reprinted a slim biographical volume about the father of Russian poetry, Alexander Pushkin, by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, so it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it.

Pushkin, of course, is an author I’ve read before, mostly notably in poetry anthologies (I have a lot of Russian collections…) and also when I reviewed a nice edition of “Belkin’s Stories” for Shiny New Books. I had a vague idea of the outline of his life, but was keen to fill in the gaps – which this does in exemplary fashion.

The book divides Pushkin’s life up into short, readable chapters and takes us through the various stages. Chandler focuses on the events of Pushkin’s life, but also his poetic responses to it, and the book is laced with excellent quotations from Pushkin’s work which reflect what was happening to him. And certainly the poet did indeed have a colourful life; his heritage was fascinating, as his matrilineal great-grandfather was a Black African Page (Abram Petrovich Gannibal) brought over to Russia as a slave. He was a serial duellist (a fact that would eventually lead to his downfall), associated with the outlawed political group The Decembrists, spent time in exile, met the young Gogol and had a very complex relationship with the Tsar and the authorities. And then there’s the womanising… Pushkin was nothing if not erratic and Byronic in his outlook, and in fact Lord Byron was something of an idol!

Reading about the disordered nature of his life you wonder how the man managed to write any poetry, but he did, and the extracts that Chandler includes are excellent choices which stick in the mind and show just how much Pushkin’s emotional natural found its way into his work. Like many an artist he struggled financially, and the fact that his wife was required to participate in society (ah! Russian society – how much more I know about that after War and Peace!) meant that he was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and died in much debt.

As for his death – well, that’s still somewhat controversial, but it certainly affected me emotionally and made me wish Pushkin hadn’t been so hot-headed when it came to duelling. Chandler hints also that by that point of his life Pushkin was in a rather fatalistic mental state, which didn’t help, and part of me wishes he had had less terrible ups and downs in his life – but I suppose if he’d lived a quiet and sedate existence, then he wouldn’t have written the works he did! And it often seems that Pushkin spent much of his time restricted in different ways – exiled, confined to an area by the plague – and in each of these settings he responded by producing substantial amounts of work.

Author and subject

Chandler’s book is a brilliant introduction to Russia’s national poet; lucid, readable, erudite and scholarly, yet it has a light touch which conveys much information in an easily absorbed format. The verse quotations are powerful and moving, and Chandler regularly points out the influence Pushkin’s work has had on a diverse range of later works – “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer and operas by Mussorgsky being just two examples. He also brings out in more detail the links with Gogol and the influence on Dostoevsky, and covers in detail the complexities of censorship and Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I.

One aspect that fascinated me in particular was the fact that Pushkin had something of a sideline as a historian; many of his works drew on Russia’s past and one of the reasons he needed to keep in with society and the Tsar was so that he could gain access to the state archives for his research. We take for granted nowadays the access we have to the Internet and so many archives and records that it seems unimaginable that a man would have to make so many compromises to be able to carry out his work.

Chandler is always even-handed in his treatment of the protagonists in Pushkin’s story (I *love* an unbiased biography!!!) and his refusal to condemn Pushkin’s young wife, Natalya Goncharova, is refreshing. I was interested to learn that she was a relative of one of my favourite Constructivist artists who bore the same name; the book is scattered with such interesting facts which I’ve not come across before.

At the end of the book, Chandler looks at Pushkin’s legacy down the years from Gogol shortly after his death and eventually reaching into Soviet times; and the attempts by various people and regimes to claim the poet for themselves. However, Chandler reminds us of Pushkin’s universal appeal and how he was popular with each level of society; his poetry is still alive and vital today, and the poet’s legacy is assured regardless of who tries to claim it.

I can’t recommend this excellent little book enough if you want to discover more about Pushkin’s life and work. There are bigger and longer volumes out there, but this distills all you need to know into 150 pages or so and gives a flavour of the poet’s writing too. For me, I gained a much wider understanding of Pushkin and his place in Russian literature, as well as thoroughly enjoying the journey through the poet’s life. I’ve read many of Robert Chandler’s translations with great pleasure, but I think this is the first book I’ve read which he’s written and it was a great joy – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

Reading Verse for National Poetry Month

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Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo_0

So, it’s apparently National Poetry Month! This was not something I knew about till it started popping up on blogs I read, and so I did a little investigating and found this out:

Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month, held every April, is the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

Since I’m actually quite a poetry lover, albeit one who never seems to have enough time to read the stuff, I think this might be the impetus I need to get on with experiencing a little more verse. Fortuitously enough, I just indulged in a purchase, in the form of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, put together by the excellent translator Robert Chandler:

penguin russian

Isn’t it beautiful? And I know it could be argued that I really don’t need any more Russian poetry – after all, I have many volumes by individual poets, as well as this lovely book given to me by Youngest Child a Christmas or two ago:

everyman

However! The Everyman book, which I’m currently making great headway with, collects the poems by theme – which is interesting, but not always the way I want to read poetry. The Penguin volume, however, goes chronologically and features a great number of poets I haven’t read. So it’ll be ideal for checking out authors new to me, and as it features an erudite introduction plus short bios of all the poets it’s even better!

I shall try hard to read a poem a day – and I think I shall dig out these two that I was trying to make my through and see if I can dip into them as well. I have some time off work over Easter and it will be a good way to estbalish a new routine before I go back to work. Fingers crossed! 🙂

The offending doorsteps!

Recent Reads – Subtly Worded by Teffi

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Sadly, despite the huge piles of books on Mount TBR, the lure of new volumes doesn’t get any less – and this rather lovely book is really something special. I first came across Teffi’s work in “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”, a nice Penguin Classic collected by translator Robert Chandler, and which featured two of her stories: “Love” and “A Family Journey”. So when I saw that a selection of her work was coming out from Pushkin Press I was naturally *very* keen to read it!

subtly worded

Teffi’s real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya and she was born around 1872. Labelled a humourist, she had the distinction of being a favourite of both Tsar Alexander II and Lenin – which not many people could claim! She survived war, revolution and civil war, finally escaping to Paris where she spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1952. All through her life she wrote and published, her last stories being written not long before she died. She’s become unjustly neglected over the years but luckily Pushkin have brought this wonderful collection of pieces to us so she can be rediscovered by a whole new generation of English-speaking readers.

“Subtly Worded” contains a variety of pieces ranging from early pre-revolutionary stories through recollections of Rasputin to later stories and finally her last, thought-provoking works. And what wonderful works they are!The early pieces are gems; short, human stories with a sting in the tail and a hidden nugget of truth. “The Lifeless Beast” is a particularly powerful tale, telling the story of a young child whose world falls apart because of marital strife. Her only joy is in her toy ram, the beast of the title, and as her parents’ marriage disintegrates they are menaced by drunken women and rats in the cellar – the latter perhaps a metaphor for the circling evil in the world. It’s a striking and moving story. Even the slighter pieces, like “The Hat” which comments quite tartly on how much a person’s attractiveness is enhanced not by what they wear but on how they feel and project themselves, has a point to make. These are not just flimsy stories – Teffi always has something to say. The title story itself is a clever little masterpiece about the impossibility of communicating with friends and family left behind in Russia without endangering them or talking gibberish.

Some of the pieces are autobiographical and “Rasputin” in particular is intriguing. Teffi recalls her encounters with the mysterious monk who had so much influence on the Russian royal family and in many ways was a cause of their downfall; it’s a vivid, fascinating memoir and the monk comes across as a chilling personality. But the shorter piece, “Petrograd Monologue” gets across in a few pages the hardship and starvation suffered by the Russian people, which in the hands of a lesser writer would have taken more words and to less effect – it’s clever and subtle and very compelling.

The later stories, written when Teffi was an émigré in Paris, have a stronger sense of melancholy. She tells the tales of the ex-pats, struggling to adjust to life away from their homeland, trying to make a living in a strange and hostile city. These are funny and poignant at the same time, and you can tell that Teffi misses her Russia, the Russia of the past, in stories like “Ernest with the Languages” where she conjures up a Russian estate from her youth. There is also a section of magical tales, and some of these are quite chilling. The last few stories, from Teffi’s last years, are particularly moving, the last one in the volume relating her hallucinatory dreams under morphine as her life ebbs away.

“If a person in pain gazes  up at the stars as they ‘speak of eternity’, he’s supposed to sense his own insignificance and thus find relief. That’s the part I really can’s understand at all. Why would someone who’s been wronged by life find comfort in his complete and utter humiliation – in the recognition of his own insignificance? On top of all  your grief, sorrow and despair – here, have the contempt of eternity too: You’re a louse. Take comfort and be glad that you have a place on earth – even if it’s only the place of a louse.

Teffi’s work has been mainly translated here by Anne Marie Jackson, along with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. Whoever chose the stories has made some wonderful selections, spanning the entire breadth of her works, and Jackson has done a grand job in giving Teffi a distinctive voice in English; in fact, all the translators have, because the tales work together seamlessly and it’s impossible to tell which translator did which story without looking.

Nadezhda_Teffi

There is an art to short story writing, and Teffi possessed it in spadefuls. Comparisons are being made with Chekhov but they’re odious (comparisons, that is). Teffi doesn’t need to be compared with anyone – she’s a great storyteller in her own right. As Jackson points out, Teffi is particularly good at capturing the voice and thoughts of children and really is a master of the short story form, capturing the essence of things in just a few pages.

Pushkin Press are doing such a wonderful job bringing us lost European authors, and they’ve performed a sterling service with this one, as Teffi has been unjustly neglected. She deserves to be known outside of Russia and thankfully we have wonderful translators and publishers who can bring her work to us! Highly recommended! And now I’ve just got to try to find where I’ve hidden my copy of “…from Pushkin to Buida”!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press – for which many thanks! And as always with Pushkin, this is a beautifully produced volume, with French flaps, a lovely textured cover and quality paper – well done for producing books that are intrinsically objects of delight!)

Recent Reads: Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov

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Although it’s now February, I’m going to count this book as one of my January re-reads, as I did finish the main story before the end of the month. But this is another book that could be considered a new read and a re-read since the last time I came across this volume was in the original translation, and this is a brand-spanking-new NYRB version by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler – so there’s something to look forward to!

happy mosc

I should say up-front that this is the first book, since I began blogging, that I’ve felt a kind of trepidation about reviewing – I’m really concerned that I’m not going to be able to do it justice. However, as it’s such a remarkable book I will have a go – but would recommend any interested readers to look no further than Robert Chandler’s excellent notes and commentary within the book itself. These are exceptionally informative and illuminating.

A few words about Platonov first.

 “Andrei Platonov (1899–1951) was the pen name of Andrei Platonovich Klimentov, a Soviet author whose works anticipate existentialism. Although Platonov was a Communist, his works were banned in his own lifetime for their sceptical attitude toward collectivization and other Stalinist policies. His famous works include the novels The Foundation Pit and Chevengur .” (Wikipedia)

A key here is the use of the word existentialism, as Platonov’s works are certainly concerned with existence and the best way to live. “Happy Moscow” was unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime, and it begins with the eponymous heroine, Moscow Chestnova, coming into consciousness with her first childhood memory: that of a dark man with a flaming torch running through the streets of the city, and the noise and clamour of the start of revolution. Immediately the girl is linked to the city, and the image from her childhood returns at intervals throughout the book to haunt her.

Chestnova grows up an orphan and becomes a good, hardworking Communist, believing in the socialist future. She is a large-hearted, large-bodied girl, full of life, initially becoming a parachutist. She encounters many fellow citizens who come to love her, the main ones being:

Sambikin the surgeon

Sartorius the engineer

Bozhko the Esperantist

Komyagin the reservist

All of these men are struggling to find a way of life under the new order, and Chestnova in many ways seems to symbolise the city and the future for them.

But the book does not progress in a predictable way. As Christiane Craig puts it in her excellent review:

“Happy Moscow is an experimental novel. It has no calculated plot and develops rather like a dream wherein ideas, as characters, are repurposed and their functions regenerated as they are made to relate to other figurative elements. Three quarters of the way through the book, its heroine Moscow Chestnova disappears completely, and Sartorius the engineer, her one-time lover, emerges as a central character. Inexplicably, he then changes his identity, becoming “Grunyakin,” and goes to work in the kitchen of a small factory in Sokolniki”

She also points out:

“From its first image, Happy Moscow reads like an allegory, the meaning of which remains, as in a dream, uncertain, changeable.”

Here, dream is the pivotal word, and the book does have this quality. The characters are constantly moving, physically and emotionally, reflecting the constant change of the world around them. The story starts positively, with Moscow embracing life and the developing Soviet world around her. However, after a parachuting accident where she plunges to the ground in flames, her existence changes and loses focus.

moscow 1930s

Obviously, we are meant to conflate the characters and the city – Chestnova represents Moscow the city which was being dramatically reconstructed at the time of this book – so much so that, as Chandler points out in his introduction, Moscow was undergoing such change that there was no accurate map of the city at the time, only old maps of how it used to be, and plans of the metropolis of the future.

I was struck on this reading of Platonov by his extraordinarily unique use of language. In the same way as he has given Moscow the city an existence and a personality through the eponymous heroine, he is constantly imbuing inanimate objects with feelings and sensations:

“It seemed to him that the office had the same smell as places of prolonged confinement – the lifeless smell of a pining human body that consciously acts modestly and thriftily, so as not to awaken within it the facing attraction toward a now distant life and then vainly torture itself with the ache of despair.”

 and

“Sambikin set off through Moscow. It was strange and even sad to see the empty tram stops and the deserted black route numbers on their white signs – along with the pavements, the tramway poles, and the electric clock on the square, they were yearning for crowds of people.”

and again

“The large table had been laid for fifty people. Every half meter there were flowers, looking pensive because of their delayed death and giving off a posthumous fragrance.”

However, he also pinpoints the rejuvenating properties of the city, reflecting its current growth and regeneration, so that the city becomes almost organic:

“Outside the open door, on the balcony, a small Komsomol orchestra was playing short pieces. The night’s spacious air was coming through the balcony door and into the hall, and the flowers on the long table breathed and gave off a stronger smell, feeling they were alive in the earth they had lost. The ancient city was full of clamor and light, like a construction site; now and again the voice and laughter of a transient passer by would be carried up from the street, and Moscow Chestnova would feel like going outside and inviting everybody to join them for supper: after all, socialism was setting in.”

Often, however, I just marvelled at the beauty of the language:

“The capital was going to sleep. There was only the far-off tapping of a typewriter in some late office and the sound of steam being let off from the chimneys of the Central Power Station. Most people were now lying down, in rest or in someone’s arms; or else, in the darkness of their rooms, they were feeding on the secrets and secretions of their hidden souls, on the dark ideas of egotism and false bliss.”

 and

 “Muldbauer saw in the music a representation of the distant and weightless countries of the air, where the black sky is located and amid it hangs an unflickering sun with a dead incandescence of light, and where, far from the warm and dimly green earth, the real, serious cosmos starts: mute space, lit up now and again by stars signaling that the path to them has long been open and free. Yes, better to put an end straightaway to the bothersome conflicts of the earth….”

 One of the recurring motifs of the book is height – Chestnova is up in the heavens parachuting; the city is thrusting skywards with its new buildings; we see the city and the stars and the skies from above. Conversely things begin to go wrong with downward motion – it is in the construction of the Moscow underground that Chestnova suffers the accident that changes her forever. Her complex series of relationships with the men in her life is altered after this, and the focus of the story slips away from her to Sartorius. While Bozhko converses around the world with other Esperantists in an attempt to spread the socialist word, Sambikin operates and tries to find the essence of life in dying and dead patients and Komyagin the reservist struggles to complete – well, anything at all that he has started.

Andrey Platonov

Andrey Platonov

So we are left with Sartorius during the closing chapters, and his constant movement and state of change. He has abandoned his scientific work in the field of weighing and moves on, almost Buddha like, to take on the personality and responsibilities of whoever or whatever comes his way.

“His heart seemed to turn dark but he comforted it with an ordinary understanding that came to his mind: that it was necessary to research the entire extent of current life through transformation of himself into others.”

This complete abnegation of his own personality could be seen as an extreme parody of service to the state, or maybe simply a reflection of the transformation of Russia which was going on around him.

Initially when reading “Happy Moscow” it’s hard to see why Platonov couldn’t publish it in his lifetime, as on the surface level it ticks all the boxes for Soviet Realism – rebuilding of Moscow, construction of the underground, scientific process, the great and glorious Stalin. However, the careful and detailed notes by Chandler remind us of how subversive this book actually is, and when things begin to go askew for the protagonists it is quite clear that we are dealing with no ordinary author here.

This is a remarkably complex book and I think I would need several reads of it to really come to grips with it. Platonov reflects many elements of Soviet society of the 1930s – the scientific attempts to solve the problem of the human soul, the search for immortality, the thrusting towards the future and the trampling of humanity beneath the instrument of state. The language is beautiful and dream-like, and this is one of those books that gets inside you, so you’re still thinking about it for ages afterwards. Very much recommended for anyone who loves Russian fiction and also wants to read something that is different, thought-provoking and memorable.

***********

As a footnote, this volume not only comes with the novel itself plus notes and commentary from Robert Chandler. There is also the inclusion of other pieces peripheral to and related to “Happy Moscow” including the short story “Moscow Violin” which repeats sections of HM and gives a fascinating insight into Platonov’s construction of his work. Really, there could be no better presentation and Robert and Elizabeth Chandler plus NYRB should be commented on this exemplary work!

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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