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“….all that you are cannot be avoided.” #mandelstam

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I got myself in a bit of a tizz recently because I couldn’t find my copy of Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and I love it to bits and wanted to reread the end yet again. This irked me for several weeks, and so much so over Christmas that I finally resolved to take a stepladder and examine closely the bookshelf I thought it should be on (which is quite high up) Needles to say it was there, but had just fallen down the back of double shelved stacks with other books piled up on top… So I’m pleased to report it’s found!

Hurrah! It’s rediscovered! 😀

However, while I was rummaging, my eye fell upon  a slim volume from Glas publishers which I picked up some time back in my quest for everything Bulgakov. It’s a book which focuses on that wonderful author as well as poet Osip Mandelstam, and it was a timely find as the latter has been much on my mind recently. I own a number of works by this great Russian poet, and have been deeply moved by his fate; yet I’ve read little of what I own and have been vaguely nervous owing to his reputation as a possibly difficult poet with work full of allusion I might not get. I have dipped into his work via a number of anthologies, but I have poems, essays and travel writing lurking. Nevertheless, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines, “The greatness of Mandelstam was recognized even by Vladimir Nabokov, who despised practically everyone.” So I wondered if this might be a useful introduction the poet and to his work…

And I’m happy to report that it is! The book is “Glas New Russian Writing 5” and the translations are given as copyright 1993, although the publication date given on Amazon is 2000. Certainly, it would have been before the more recent slew of publications about Bulgakov, and it’s split into two halves which each focus on one of the two named authors. There are photographs, memoirs and examples of the author’s writing, and these build up to give a picture of their life and work.

Mandelstam’s life, or certainly the part of it after his marriage, is extensively covered in his wife Nadezdha’s two volumes of autobiography (which I intend to read when I’ve found a copy of the first…) However, the biographical interest in the Glas volume comes from a long section by Osip’s younger brother, Evgeny. He relates some family history, their Jewish heritage, stories of their early life and schooling, and reveals the problems between their parents which affected family life. As well as giving us insights into Osip’s personality and young life, Evgeny’s memories cover something of his own life. These reminiscences are fascinating in their own right, with tales of encounters with famous poets and the background of the drama of the revolution. An afterword reveals that the younger brother had an illustrious life of his own, working in medicine, but also with a literary side to his career, becoming involved in film scripts.

However, returning to Osip, the content is moving, beautiful and often so sad. Mandelstam, like Bulgakov, was inspired by, and reliant upon, a wife who supported his work, helped its survival and continued to promote it after his tragic death in exile. The poet was reckless enough to compose a critical poem about Stalin (reproduced in this volume) at the height of the dictator’s popularity. An NKVD mug-shot tells you all you need to know; he was exiled (along with his wife), returned to Moscow, was re-arrested and sent to a camp near Vladivostok where cold and starvation killed him.

Any other poet compared to Osip Mandelstam was like a spider weaving its web compared to a silkworm.

I’ve not read enough of Mandelstam’s poetry yet to decide whether the verses here are representative, but they’re certainly beautiful and memorable and not so scarily complex as I imagined. Add in the memoirs and images and you have what is a perfect little primer on Osip Mandelstam (and indeed on Bulgakov, if you’ve yet to make his acquaintance). You can still find this little book online, and if you want to explore these wonderful 20th century Russian authors’ life and work, this might well be a good place to start!

(NB – I’m normally keen to credit the translator, but although this volume is edited by Natasha Perova, the names of translators are spread out throughout the book. Here they are, and I hope I haven’t missed any: Kate Cook, James Escomb, Sonja Franeta, David Gillespie and Eric Guth.)

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Sharing some lovelies from my own personal library!

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The trouble with reading anything like the wonderful Ozerov volume I reviewed a couple of days ago is the massive list it creates of authors you want to explore further. However, I *was* quite familiar with a lot of the names, and in fact the book acted as a reminder of some of the volumes I already own but which are languishing unread. And I have a lovely collection by one particular author – Konstantin Paustovsky.

Unknown Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paustovsky was a Russian author who lived through turbulent times (as did so many!) Born in 1892, he survived world war, revolution, civil war, Stalin’s purges, another world war and the thaw, passing away in 1968. Nominated for the Nobel Prize and influenced by Kataev, Babel and Olesha, his sequence of six books loosely categorised as autobiography are probably his most famous. These books, known as “Story of a Life”, are not necessarily an accurate historical document, but apparently regarded as a record of the times and his reactions to them.

Well – I remembered that I have these books; something prompted me a while back to collect a beautiful set of hard back editions, as well as a lovely Progress Press edition of some of his short works. And here they are:

They’re all pretty hardback editions with dustwrappers in some shape or form. Some are ex-library, all have been loved in the past, but I’m so happy to have them just as objects – well, just look at the jacket covers!

I just absolutely love, love, love those covers! Just stunning artwork, and when I’d picked up the first couple of volumes I knew I had to own the set. And yes – I need to read these books, because there’s absolutely no point in them just sitting on the shelves. Maybe that could be a project for 2019…

So thank you Lev Ozerov (and his marvellous translators!) for reminding me I owned all these lovely Paustovsky books. I definitely prefer vintage-style book design!

 

“…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!)

Giving back the lost voices of Russian women @Dedalusbooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

“We command reverence for the rights of poets” – #mayakovsky #borisdralyuk @InsertBlanc

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Slap in the Face – Four Russian Futurist Manifestos
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

I got very squeally and excited last month when I finally treated myself to a copy of a lovely little book/chapbook/pamphlet/whatever you call it which brought together several pieces of writing involving my beloved Mayakovsky! “A Slap in The Face of Public Taste” was the manifesto of the Russian Futurist movement, first published in 1912; and it’s from that piece of writing that this collection takes its title.

The Russian Futurists were a group of poets and artists who adopted the Futurist movement of Marinetti which “espoused the rejection of the past, and a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry; it also advocated the modernization and cultural rejuvenation.” There were a number of sub-groups and one called Hylaea issued “Slap”, which was signed by David Burlyuk, Aleksandr Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Viktor Khlebnikov. I’d come across “Slap” before in my readings of Mayakovsky, but never the three following manifestos, with the final one “A Drop of Tar” being from December 1915 and signed by Mayakovsky alone.

“Slap” is a fascinating collection of words, showing the gradual development of the Futurist artists over the years, and Dralyuk translates the manifestos with the verve and originality with which Mayakovsky and co wrote them. They were determined to break down the constraints surrounding their art, jettisoning all that had gone before, and declared that Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky should be tossed overboard “from the steamship of modernity”. That kind of thinking was symptomatic of the Futurist movement, although some (Mayakovsky in particular) introduced a political element which might well have been missing from the work of some of those poets and artists more interested in formal experimentation.

Entertaining as the manifestos are, much of the appeal of this book comes from the extra material included. For a start, it’s a lovely thing in its own right; printed in colour on quality paper, “Slap” is heavily illustrated with images by Mayakovsky, Goncharova, Larianov, Burlyuk and others, as well as reproductions of the covers of the original journals in which the works appeared. Innovation was at hand everywhere, with one journal even having a wallpaper cover!

The icing on the cake, however, is the conversation reproduced in the back of the book between translator Boris Dralyuk and Saul Alpert-Abrams. The discussion is fascinating and erudite, throwing much light on the futurists’ poetry as well as giving useful context if the reader isn’t familiar with the period. Interestingly, they draw comparisons between translation and issuing a manifesto, and it’s fair to say that both are optimistic acts!

I haven’t come across the publisher Insert Blanc Press before but laudably they seem to focus very much on experimental literature. Here, they’ve produced a fascinating, beautiful and instructive object which I’m so pleased to at last have on my Mayakovsky shelf!

P.S. Did I mention it’s bilingual?? I can’t read Russian but I love looking at the cyrillic! 😀

The richness of a poet’s vocabulary is his justification

“Follow your own path.” #WITmonth @OWC_Oxford

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Selected Letters of Catherine the Great
Translated by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

History as a concept can be problematic linguistically from the start, Just look at the word – an amalgam of his and story – and you can see where the focus is going to be. There is still perhaps a belief that great deeds are done by great men, and women are often marginalised to the sidelines. However, thinking of, for example, the great monarchs of the past just shows how that isn’t necessarily the case. Elizabeth I in this country is unforgettable; and the Russian monarch Catherine the Great is just as legendary.

Oxford World Classics have just brought out a brilliant book of her Selected Letters and I thought it would be fascinating to take a look at this during WIT Month; particularly after having spent some time with another great Russian, Marina Tsvetaeva. The two women couldn’t be further apart, really, but both had equally fascinating lives, and I’m enjoying very much dipping into Catherine’s correspondence.

The introduction is excellent, providing background to Catherine’s reign, her vast achievements and just what an educated woman she was. This was the real Golden Age of letter writing which was an art in itself, and she excelled in using the form for personal and diplomatic purposes. The book is divided into sections that follow her career chronologically, focusing on the main aspects which informed her writings at those points. So we see the young queen finding her way when new in the role; fostering cultural connections with European countries and philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot; dealing with war and conflict; expanding the Russian empire; and also more personal contacts with her various lovers. Catherine’s reign was a long one and she was in many ways a self-made woman. Born a German princess, she embraced Russianness wholeheartedly, becoming synonymous with her country and determined to drag it forward culturally and in terms of conquest. And this was no mean feat, for a country the size of Russia contained so many different elements, people and cultures that to set out a set of laws and regulations that applied to all was nigh on impossible.

In the end, the laws that people are talking so much about have not been made yet, and who can say whether they will be good or not? Truly, it is posterity, and not we, who will be in a position to settle this question. Just think, I beg you: the laws must work for Asia and for Europe. What differences of climate, peoples, habits, even ideas!

The “Selected Letters” is an exemplary book, and demonstrates exactly how you should produce a scholarly yet readable volume. The introduction is detailed enough to give you perfect context, there’s a chronology, notes are indicated in the text by an asterisk, and crucially, each letter has its own short paragraph to introduce it and explain context. So it’s perfect for dipping into, which I think is how I shall carry on with it, because each letter is so beautifully written that it deserves to be savoured and not rushed. I confess the print size of the intro paragraphs is quite small for my ageing eyes, so dipping will help with this too, but I’m intrigued by this woman and shall enjoy making my way through her letters.

Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Attribution], from Wikimedia Commons

I’m finding so much to be fascinated by in this book: for example, the fact that she was responsible for the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Catherine was determined to create and emphasise a connection between herself and Peter, most crucially because she was of course not actually Russian. The correspondence with the sculptor is so interesting, and her skill at a combination of flattery and insisting on her own way is so clever. I’ve also been struck again by the general interconnectedness (well, inbreeding….) of the European monarchs which continued until 20th century and perhaps reached its zenith with the strangeness around the time of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution; the family tree of Victoria caused a fair amount of havoc at that time…

Catherine the Great c. 1845 by Georg Cristoph Grooth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Selected Letters” is proving to be the perfect book for #WITmonth, and is shaping up to encapsulate brilliantly the breadth of Catherine’s achievements and her reign. As the introduction reminds us, the male bias of history often tries to diminish what she did with gossip about horses and lovers in a judgemental way which would never be applied to a king or Tsar. I’m not a fan of monarchy in general; however, accepting that this was the mode of rule at the time, what Catherine aimed to do with her country was laudable. I hope this volume will help to ensure that we remember Catherine the Great for her intelligence, wit and triumphs rather that trying to relegate her rule to one of novelty.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

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