Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

Gogol’s identity crisis

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

This article from yesterday’s NY Times, spurred by the release of a state-sponsored Russian film adaptation of Gogol’s Taras Bul’ba,  caught my eye. As usual, Russians and Ukrainians will find any cause necessary to argue (in addition to the recent gas crisis, they’ve also disputed the ownership and financing of Anton Chekhov’s estate in Yalta). In short, both parties dispute who “owns” Gogol’ and Taras Bul’ba: Gogol’ was born in what is now Ukraine and spoke Ukrainian, but also spoke Russian fluently, wrote all of his major works in Russian, and spent much of his regrettably short life in Russia. His writings were heavily influenced by both cultures, and his works are commonly cited as one of the foundations of Russian literature (Dostoevsky said that “we all came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”).

To me, the answer to this question seems obvious: Gogol’ was neither Russian nor Ukrainian; he was both Russian and Ukrainian. I don’t see who benefits from this argument over Gogol’s ethnic identity–Russian nationalists? Ukrainian nationalists? Surely not readers. This desire to claim a writer as exclusively one’s own seems to me thoroughly childish and in contradiction with the facts. Cultural identity was at that time far more ambiguous and blurred than it is today, and even today, it is more mixed than many people would like to believe. I understand the desire to preserve one’s own culture, and to see outside influences as sometimes nefarious, but isn’t it better when we can find chances to share cultural treasures and admire and respect each other’s cultures, rather than argue about ownership?

I myself am very interested in seeing the adaptation–Taras Bul’ba is one of my favorite works by Gogol’, despite my general dislike of war fiction. The vividness with which Gogol’ depicts Cossack life is, put simply, exhilarating, and with it, his title as a master of realism finally makes sense. And the film’s director, Vladimir Bortko, who was also born in Ukraine, focuses specifically on film adaptations from Russian literature, for which he has a great gift. He somehow managed to make Dostoevky’s notoriously difficult Idiot into a compelling film, a feat I didn’t think was possible. It seems, judging from some statements in the article, that he may have veered too close to propaganda with Bul’ba, which I certainly hope isn’t true. For Gogol’s sake as well as his.


Queueing up for change

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

I knew I had to read The Queue. Vladimir Sorokin’s first work, published in Russian in 1983 and finally issued last year by NYRB in a fine English translation by Sally Laird, is an ode to that quaint Soviet phenomenon, the line for rare consumer goods. Even today, lines in Russia take on strange shapes and a life of their own; in Soviet times, as Sorokin suggests in a fascinating essay, when waiting in lines for bread, sausage, clothing, and other necessities could easily take up a third of one’s day (or more, should some particularly desirable Western goods arrive), the line had an ordering effect on the mindset of every Soviet citizen. It also provided a forum for the airing of grievances, the creation of temporary friendships (even romances, in Sorokin’s imagination), and finally, for a sense of gratitude for the small but predictable ration allotted to anyone willing to wait in line. My own acquaintances don’t seem to remember these lines so fondly, but members of the older generation–those who were born in Stalin’s time, or shortly thereafter–can look on these lines, and the sense of comforting sameness they provided, with nostalgia.

If the idea of a book premised on waiting in line seems uncompelling, then Sorokin’s accomplishment is all the more impressive. The book’s level of interest is inversely proportional to any fascination its topic may provide. Relying only on dialogue with no narrative markers, Sorokin deftly steers us through the line. His mastery of voice always makes clear the fading in and out of various conversations; he devises long gaps of blank pages to indicate sleep and the passage of time. Unlike reality, Sorokin’s line is always interesting. The clashes of various personalities, vivid humor, and the desire to do whatever it takes to get to the head of the line make the book brisk, and truly enjoyable, reading. Another nice review from Three Percent.

For me, the book is also valuable as a rare (for English-speaking audiences, at least) document of Soviet life seen from the inside. True, the book is a work of fiction, but one that represents a fascinating glimpse of daily life in the Soviet Union. The more I have learned about the daily lives of ordinary people in the USSR, the less American foreign policy towards it makes any sense, the more the Cold War seems a long string of unwarranted absurdities. That we legitimized Stalin–perhaps the one politician who could truly be considered part of an “evil empire”–and heated up our rhetoric, decrying said evil empire exactly when it was already collapsing in on itself, shows just how little pragmatism and basic knowledge American leaders really possessed.

The disconnect between Soviet realities and American political rhetoric is something that has also occurred to me as I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zacharovannye smert’iu (Enchanted by Death). Unfortunately, the book was never translated into English, although I’m told that portions of it will be used in one of Ms. Alexievich’s upcoming projects. Alexievich is one of the most interesting writers in Russia today; she has covered epoch-making events in the Soviet Union (WWII, Chernobyl) with her unique brand of what I call “documentary writing.” Her works read like fiction–they are very artfully put together–yet they are compiled from Alexievich’s first-hand interviews of witnesses of some of Russian history’s most important events.

The subject of Enchanted by Death is the fall of the Soviet Union, and the crisis it engendered for everyone invested in the Soviet system, but particularly the elderly. In the West, we tend to consider its fall a victory, the winning of a war. Regardless of one’s political convictions, however, in the USSR, the Fall meant the end of life as they knew it. Social markers of stability like pensions and real estate holdings were disrupted and often redistributed by extremely corrupt means; unemployment and poverty were widespread; and the predictability, if lack of choice, of life that we spoke of before was shattered forever. Of course, many young liberals viewed this as an opportunity, and their ranks make up today’s elite oligarchs and politicians. But for elderly people who had invested their entire lives in the system–whether they wanted to or not–the Fall was an unbelievably tragic event.

Enchanted chronicles the suicides of people who felt they had no other choice after the Fall. It occasionally becomes uncomfortably histrionic, which comes with the territory, but it provides a strong antidote to the political propaganda pumped out so continually in this country in the ’80s and ’90s–that the Fall meant “freedom,” “opportunity,” “prosperity.” Of course, these words only became reality with the rise of Putin, a familiar pattern… Though Alexievich’s books have been published in English and many other European languages, this particular message apparently wasn’t one American publishers wanted to hear.

Works of fiction in translation from countries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba–any country that is or has been marked as “enemy” by our government–is all the more deserving for our critical attention. Words Without Borders seized on just this idea for their ingenious anthology Literature from the “Axis of Evil” (New Press, 2006). Interlink Books (Clockroot’s parent company) has also devoted a great deal of energy to bringing international fiction, and especially fiction from Arabic-speaking and Middle Eastern countries, to English-speaking audiences, in the hopes of creating a greater context for mutual understanding in this country (shameless plug–please buy our books!). All too often, governments are confused with their people; the aims of self-interested governments are confused with the ordinary hopes and ambitions of people like ourselves. If we were more cautious with ideology, perhaps we could develop more pragmatic approaches in our foreign politics.

On that note, I’m cautiously awaiting a thaw in US-Russian relations. And the closing of Guantanamo and secret prisons. And the end of the war(s). We’ll see.


P.S. (Forgive me, I know this is already long–) On the subject of Soviet phenomenology of the Fall, I would also highly recommend Nina Gorlanova’s story “Confessional days: in anticipation of the end of the world” in Half a Revolution: Contemporary Fiction by Russian Women (Cleis Press, 1995), which masterfully plays off Bunin’s account of the Revolution of 1917. This is a subject I really wish Americans would find interesting, and understand more deeply…

Russian Poetry in the Valley

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

In addition to being one of the most literature-celebrating places in the nation and the home of Clockroot, the Pioneer Valley is also a mini epicenter of Russian creative activity. Joseph Brodsky taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years, and one occasionally senses the area’s landscape and character emerging in his verse. And we are blessed to have esteemed Russian poet Polina Barskova living and working in the Valley (she teaches Russian literature at Hampshire College), as well as her translator, Cathy Ciepiela (who does the same at Amherst College, and has translated other modern and contemporary poets as well). Examples of both their work can be found in the lauded anthology Contemporary Russian Poetry (Dalkey Archive, 2008), which includes a dizzying array of contemporary poets with the original Russian in a facing translation (a great tool for any student). Works by many other poets and translators included in the anthology can also be sampled in an issue of Jacket Magazine from last year.

According to my very incomplete notes, I’ve had the pleasure to hear a handful of Russian poets read at the Five Colleges (Polina, Sergei Gandlevsky, Ilya Kaminsky, Katia Kapovich, Lev Rubinstein), and Pam just clued me in to Schoen Books in South Deerfield, which hosts a number of readings of poetry in translation, with, it seems, particular attention to Russian modern and contemporary poetry. I wish I would’ve known about Matvei Yankelevich’s reading of Daniil Kharms (Yankelevich is part of the wonderful Ugly Duckling Presse, which has done a lot to bring Russian and Eastern European writing into English). The Valley never ceases to amaze!

It seems to me that a poet, whose voice is perhaps even more influenced by and dependent on the logic and nuances of one’s native language than a prose writer, would have a particularly hard time adjusting to a completely new life and language. But just as Brodsky began to write in English, Polina Barskova has also assimilated her life here into the fabric of her verse, though she still prefers to write in Russian: “I think the poet must consider himself a sponge. I try to absorb the eclectic influences around me — Slavic studies, America, jazz, film, the ocean. It’s most important that everything is absorbed into my work: a sponge doesn’t choose. Around me I have Wallace Stevens and the Argentinean building superintendent, specialists on Khodaseevich, football fans, flea markets and Stravinsky festivals, Carlos Gardel and Petr Leshchenko. All of this must find a place in the only element dependent on me, my verse, and in the element of the Russian language, and if their interpretation is а thick, pungent, living physiological solution—then I can keep going” (my translation from a Russian interview).

At the Kaminsky reading I wrote about, Polina read some of her poems on creative collaboration, which Kaminsky followed with his translations. It was a particularly sweet moment—to see Russian poets forging new relationships, and a real creative discourse, in this country.


Ilya Kaminsky & Crisis Thoughts

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I recently had the chance to hear the prodigious émigré poet Ilya Kaminsky read at Amherst College. Kaminsky has been enormously successful for such a young poet, winning substantial praise and numerous prizes and fellowships. As Kaminsky mentions in his book Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), he lost his hearing at age 4. Despite this, he reads in one of the most musical, expressive voices I’ve ever heard, working himself into a frenzy as he rises to the crescendo of a line, then falling, breathless, at its conclusion. Because his words can be difficult to make out, he asks the audience to read along with him in the book. Some audience members seemed to think his reading was too theatrical, but I disagree—I hung on his words, letting his voice, rather than the punctuation of the printed lines, dictate the poems’ rhythm.

Kaminsky’s poetry possesses equal measures of childish whimsy and adult sobriety. His verse is full of the remembrances of people, places, and things past—but also serves as proof of their continued existence in sensual memory. Like many émigré poets, Kaminsky suffers the memory of a lost homeland, a childhood that has faded even further because it has been removed by distance. However, the poems are lightened by moments of unexpected and infectious laughter.

Emptiness and silence echo each other, and both are sensed continually. As the poet senses sound through vibration, tapping on furniture, the past, the lost, also find ways to make themselves “heard” in these poems. His grandmother “understood loneliness, hid the dead in the earth like partisans”; his mother “danced … filled the past with peaches, casseroles”; his aunt “hung her husband’s picture on a wall in her apartment. Each month on a different wall. I now see her with that picture, hammer in her left hand, nail in her mouth.” Memory lives in their bodies, in inhabited places; they refuse to succumb to the language of forgetting.

There is a poignant longer poem about Osip and Nadezhda Mandelshtam, a refiguring of the Orpheus myth, in which the usual roles are reversed—Nadezhda preserves her husband’s memory on earth by memorizing all of his poems by heart.

My favorite places in this book are the mini biographical sketches facing poems dedicated to and about various writers: Paul Celan, Isaac Babel, Joseph Brodsky, Marina Tsvetaeva. As far as I can tell, they are all invented, but so apt that one wishes they were much longer than they are.

In this time, when our country is undergoing a rare crisis, the fact that people have survived far greater tragedies than we have is strangely comforting. We are not alone. And we surely haven’t suffered as they did—not yet, at least. The tenor that the media has pitched in response to our financial downfall suggests an utter lack of perspective—or sheer historical ignorance, perhaps. We have been insulated, pampered for too long—we have succeeded while others suffered, and assumed this could go on forever. It can’t.

Once or twice in his life, a man
is peeled like apples.

What’s left is a voice
that splits his being

down to the center.
We see: obscenity, fright, mud

but there is joy of shape, there is
more than one silence.

Kaminsky’s poems do not dwell on the details of various tragedies, either of his life or of his family’s or his people’s history, yet these details are somehow always present, quietly, in the spaces filled by his poems. Which makes such an utterance as “How magical it is to live!” seem not like a naïve exclamation, but the sober gratitude of one who is grateful to have survived.

The epigraph to the book reads, in Russian, “I had a voice.” Perhaps Kaminsky can no longer hear it, but his voice remains.


Contemporary Russian Literature: An Introduction

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

As an intern at Clockroot, I’ve devoted part of my time to researching contemporary Russian literature, with the hopes of finding new voices to publish here, and simply to learn more about trends in contemporary writing. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Russian last year, but focused most of my reading on 19th- and 20th-century literature, with very little truly contemporary reading, and little from the latter half of the last century. Thus my interest in plunging into the (to me) unknown.

Some of the questions I hope to explore in my posts are: How do contemporary authors reflect the Russian tradition, as well as Western influences? How is the Russian reading public growing and changing? Is there hope for a rebirth of the “great Russian novel,” and what forms and themes will it project? How can we work toward a more diverse, and yet more representative, representation of Russian voices in English translation? I also hope to touch on Eastern European authors as well, as they both reflect and distance themselves from Russian influences.

Russian literature, perhaps because of the historic weight of its heritage, is fairly well-represented among translated literatures. According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Russian is the tenth best-represented language for translations into English of books published between 2000 and 2008, following French, German, Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, and Dutch. (This ranking includes non-fiction books translated from the source languages.) So it’s not the most neglected literature out there. It is, however, what I know, and being able to speak Russian, I’m capable of exploring works that large English-language publishers may not deem sufficiently interesting or commercially viable to publish in translation.

I make no claims of expertise, but I do hope to share new discoveries & delights from time to time. For the uninitiated, I’ll share a few general resources for getting started on exploring contemporary Russian literature.

The indefatigable publishers of the Glas series deserve great admiration for their devotion to issuing both contemporary authors and authors silenced by the Soviet establishment in English translation. At latest count, they’ve published 42 volumes since 1991, including novels, short story collections, anthologies, and non-fiction from and about Russia, by some of the most popular and important authors of the last century. I particularly recommend The Grassy Street (1998), a collection of stories by Asar Eppel’, a writer and translator largely overlooked in Soviet times. His stories display a Chekhovian delight in detail and the natural world and village life, though “Red Caviar Sandwiches,” about love in and around a dilapidated student dormitory, is also a masterpiece. NINE of Russia’s Foremost Women Writers (2003) provides an informative panorama of recent women’s prose.

I am also heartened by the recent appearance of the journal Rossica, published by the Academia Rossica organization in Britain. In the past, the journal has covered all aspects of Russian culture, but I strongly recommend picking up issue 18 (ROSSICA: Ties of Blood), published last year, which focuses exclusively on contemporary prose and poetry in English translation, with wonderful contributions from Alexander Ilichevsky, German Sadulaev, and Oleg Zaionchkovsky. Academia Rossica has developed an energetic and inclusive approach toward cultural activity, establishing a bi-yearly prize for the best translation from Russian into English in 2005, which, most recently, Joanne Turnbull won for her translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Excitingly, this year they’ve announced a similar competition for young translators from Russian into English.

Perhaps even more excitingly, they will be presenting a series of seminars on topics like “The Russian Book Market in Transition” and “New Russian Writers: The Return of the Great Russian Novel?” at the London Book Fair, with writers Dmitry Bykov, Maria Galina, Olga Slavnikova, Mikhail Shishkin, and others in attendance. A follow-up to last year’s Ties of Blood anthology will also be launched at LBF. I’m quite distressed at not being able to attend myself!

This is probably enough for now. Stay tuned for more ruminations on contemporary Russian and Eastern European writing…