Home

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

16 Comments

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!)

Advertisements

The trials and travails of the seeker of translations… #russianpoetry #robertchandler #borisdralyuk #peterdaniels

18 Comments

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…. 😦

%d bloggers like this: