“Justice in Quotes”

On July 12th and 13th, Odessa celebrated the 123rd birthday of its beloved myth-maker, Isaac Babel, with a bash that would have pleased the party-loving Kriks: a flashmob! My friend, the intrepid travel and food writer Caroline Eden, was on the scene and tweeted a photo of the festivities — as well as one of her mouthwatering, if “slippery,”  lunch. (Ah, the sprats of my childhood! “And suddenly the memory returns.”)

You can read about the event in the 9th issue of The Odessa Review. And I’m deeply grateful to the journal’s Chief Editor, Vladislav Davidzon, and its Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, for including my translation of what may have been Babel’s earliest Odessa story, “Justice in Quotes,” in the same issue. “Justice,” which is written in the voice of the scheming broker Tsudechkis, was published in an Odessa newspaper in August 1921 and never reprinted in Babel’s lifetime. (July 7 was also my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a better gift from my hometown.)

The Odessa Review has been a boon to Odessa — a vibrant, inventive, cosmopolitan publication in the city’s own image. May it prosper!

Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky

I’m very glad to see the unfailingly perceptive Phoebe Taplin’s lovely review — the first, I believe, but certainly not the last — of Bryan Karetnyk’s superb anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky. Bryan’s selection is wide-ranging and revelatory. While he translated most of the pieces himself — and did so brilliantly — he also included the work of Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Justin Doherty, Rose France, Donald Rayfield, Irina Steinberg, and Anastasia Tolstoy. I contributed renditions of Georgy Ivanov’s mysterious “Giselle” and Vasily Yanovsky’s phantasmagoric “They Called Her Russia.” You can read Bryan’s thoughts on anthologizing the Russian emigration, along with an account of an evening dedicated to the book at the British Library, at the TLS website. Below is the full table of contents:

Ivan Bunin: “In Paris,” “Un petit accident,” “In the Alps,” “In such a night…”
Teffi: “Thou Shalt Not Covet,” “Hedda Gabler,” “A Conversation”
Ivan Shmelyov: “Moscow in Shame,” “Russie,” “Shadows of days”
Sasha Chorny: “Spindleshanks”
Vladislav Khodasevich: “Pompeii,” “Atlantis”
Mark Aldanov: “The Astrologist”
Don Aminado: “Auto-Suggestion”
Ivan Lukash: “A Scattering of Stars”
Georgy Adamovich: “A Literary Studio,” “Ramón Ortiz”
Yury Felsen: “An Experiment,” “The Recurrence of Things Past”
Georgy Ivanov: “Giselle,” “The Atom Explodes”
Boris Butkevich: “Klasson and His Soul”
Irina Odoevtseva: “The Life of Madame Duclos”
Vladimir Nabokov: “The Visit to the Museum,” “The Assistant Producer”
David Knut: “The Lady from Monte Carlo”
Galina Kuznetsova: “Kunak”
Nina Berberova: “The Murder of Valkovsky”
Gaito Gazdanov: “The Spy,” “Black Swans,” “Princess Mary,” “Requiem”
Irina Guadanini: “The Tunnel”
Vasily Yanovsky: “They Called Her Russia”

Alexei Tolstoy’s First Take on Peter I (and Curtis on Bulgakov)

The venerable journal Index on Censorship has just released its latest issue, which is dedicated to the legacy of the Russian Revolution. It’s full of thought-provoking material on a wide range of subjects, including the propaganda value of Sergei Eisenstein’s films, the nefarious rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan, and the suppression of free speech in today’s Russia and Uzbekistan. In one piece, Nina Khrushcheva — Nikita’s great-granddaughter — reflects on life in Trump’s America. I was asked to contribute a work from the revolutionary period and chose to translate an excerpt from a gripping, disturbing story by Alexei Tolstoy (1882-1945), titled “Peter’s” (1918). Here is my introduction to the excerpt:

Few authors associated with the pre-revolutionary regime, and especially those of noble origin, adapted so well to Soviet life and literary culture as Alexei Tolstoy. But this wasn’t the case from the start.

Born into a prosperous and literary family in 1882, Alexei was a remote relative of the more famous Leo Tolstoy (and a descendant of Peter Andreyevich Tolstoy, who appears in the excerpt). He published his first story in 1908, and soon developed a reputation both as a gifted craftsman of prose and an essentially apolitical bon vivant. During the civil war in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, Tolstoy sided with the monarchist White Russians. In 1919, Tolstoy escaped the advancing Bolshevik army via Odessa, winding up, along with hundreds of thousands of other Russian refugees, in Paris. He quickly realised, however, that emigration did not suit him; he missed his native land, and saw no way to establish the kind of sumptuous lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. After proving his bona fides by writing for a number of Bolshevik-friendly publications, he returned to Soviet Russia in 1923.

Although he started his Soviet career with experimental works in a number of popular genres, including the science fiction classic Aelita, published the year he returned, he found his true métier in historical fiction. Peter the Great (1929-1943), his three-volume novel chronicling the emperor’s life, won the acclaim of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tolstoy’s portrait of a fearless Russian moderniser appealed to a man then implementing his own radical policies of industrialisation and collectivisation. As the historian Robert C. Tucker puts it, Tolstoy’s “Peter became the would-be Stalin of yesteryear, and his revolution from above the partial piatiletka [five-year plan] of early eighteenth century Russia”.

But Peter the Great wasn’t Tolstoy’s first work about the monarch. In 1918, in the midst of the civil war, Tolstoy wrote a very different story tracing a single day in Peter’s life, never before published in English. This Peter is a somewhat different type — a self-indulgent, drunken fanatic and sadist. In the scene below, which is based on an actual historical incident, he tortures Varlaam, one of the “Old Believers”, a sect that split off from the Russian Orthodox Church, for preaching that he, Peter, is the Antichrist.

What Tolstoy’s story dramatises is the personal interest — the downright pleasure — Peter took in crushing opposition and those who spoke against him, as well as the foolhardiness of his mission. This image of Peter as bloodthirsty tyrant, clearly inspired by the bloodshed of the civil war, is an uncensored moment of truth. It is a message in a bottle from 1918, which profoundly alters our impression of the glorified Peter in Tolstoy’s later work. This is not the image of Peter that Stalin authorised, precisely because it is far closer to the leader Stalin actually was. Needless to say, this powerful story was not widely circulated in the Soviet Union at the time.

Those who have access to the SAGE Journals database through an academic institution or library can read the excerpt online.

And the latest issue of the TLS (23 June 2017) carries my review of J. A. E. Curtis’s compelling and concise biography Mikhail Bulgakov, an entry in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series.

Lviv (and Odessa) in LARB

André van Loon has written a superb review of — or rather, an essay on — Odessa Stories in the latest issue of The London Magazine (June/July 2017), and Uilleam Blacker shares his insight into Babel’s Odessa and Józef Wittlin’s (1896–1976) Lviv/Lwów/Lvov/Lemberg at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (Needless to say, I kept my mitts off Dr. Blacker’s piece, and am very grateful for his kind words.) This is the second LARB piece inspired by the very worthy City of Lions. We ran Jacob Mikanowski’s magnificently lyrical essay on the book in May. I’ll also take this opportunity to promote two more important LARB pieces on Slavic subjects: Cynthia Haven’s interview with Russian poet and public intellectual Maria Stepanova, and Louise Steinman’s conversation with Adam Zagajewski, one of Poland’s literary giants, who was also born in Lviv (then Lwów) in 1945.

In other news, I’ve completed my translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales — and am getting rather sentimental about it. Parting with Zoshchenko’s hilariously ham-handed narrator, I. V. Kolenkorov, is such sweet sorrow. I’ll write more about this cycle in the weeks to come.

Ivan Elagin and Vladimir Markov

The final print issue of the excellent literary journal The Los Angeles Review, vol. 21 (not to be confused with The Los Angeles Review of Books) carries two poems, in my translation, by Ivan Elagin (1918-1987) and Vladimir Markov (1920-2013), who were associated with the Second Wave of Russian emigration — a group cast adrift during the Second World War. Both Elagin and Markov were children of families torn apart by Stalin’s “Great Terror” in the late 1930s. Their fathers were arrested and executed; Markov’s mother was sent to the Gulag, while Elagin’s was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Both men left the Soviet Union during the war and spent time in DP camps before immigrating to the United States. Elagin earned his PhD from NYU and took a post teaching Russian literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Markov earned his PhD at Berkeley and went on to teach at UCLA, where he established himself as one of his generation’s most perceptive and influential scholars of Russian modernist poetry. Both men were also gifted poets in their own right. As one might expect, many of their lyrics touch on the usual themes — and are touched by the usual moods — of emigration: the sense of displacement, stagnation, and loneliness, the temptations of nostalgia and the threat of oblivion. These two poems — one written in transit, the other in a new home the poet still finds foreign — articulate, quietly but powerfully, the experience of exile.

Vladimir Markov

Мy life slips from my mind —
days, objects, faces, towns.
All I remember now
are rattling, wailing trains.

Look round, nothing has changed:
I’m in third class once more,
with eggshells on the floor…
Seats shine like greasy skin.

Tomorrow is a pond
obscured by scum, while my
whole life lies on my palm,
weblike, in some strange tongue.

1947

Ivan Elagin

My neighbors hang on walls facing my flat,
in heavy frames, behind thick glass:
a woman dressed in plaid sits deep in thought,
a student stoops above his writing desk.
While farther off, two girls, bored and alone,
have pressed their foreheads up against their panes.
A year will pass, I’ll stare out at the same
old page in this, my album made of stone.

1963


Владимир Марков

Я жизнь свою позабываю —
Дни, вещи, лица, города —
И помню только поезда,
Что мчат, стучат и завывают.

И до сих пор кругом все то же:
С дощечкой «третий класс» купэ,
Где пол в яичной скорлупе…
И лоснятся скамьи, как рожи.

День завтрашний тягучей тиной,
Как пруд, покрыт, лишь на руке,
На непонятном языке, —
Вся жизнь — гравюрой-паутиной.

1947

Иван Елагин

Напротив, на стене, мои соседи
Висят в тяжёлых рамах под стеклом.
Вот женщина задумчивая в пледе,
А вот студент за письменным столом.
Поодаль две скучающих девицы
Бессмысленно в стекло уткнулись лбом.
И через год мой каменный альбом
Открою я на этой же странице.

1963

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

Just over a month ago, on April 1, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the last of the major Soviet poets, passed away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been living for two decades. In 1964 he famously declared that in Russia a poet is more than a poet; his own life bore out the truth of those words. A handsome, charismatic man with a stentorian voice, he came to embody the spirit of “The Thaw,” a period of relative liberalization in Soviet cultural policy after Stalin’s death. His poems “Babi Yar,” on the massacre of Jews outside Kyiv during the Second World War, and “Stalin’s Heirs,” on the General Secretary’s lingering legacy, tested the limits of that liberalization.

He became a celebrity at home, reciting his verse to stadiums packed with adoring fans, and was sent abroad as an ambassador of the new USSR. Like any star, he had his detractors. In the eyes of some unofficial Soviet-era poets and dissidents — Joseph Brodsky among them — Yevtushenko’s semi-official status was evidence of a Faustian bargain with an evil regime. And those whose tastes run to the sophisticated often dismissed his verse for its accessibility and popularity. I myself find “Babi Yar” and his poems on civic themes unappealing. But Yevtushenko was, undeniably, a poet of great gifts. And just as importantly, in the words of Irina Mashinski, “he cared more about poetry than about himself in poetry.”

Yevtushenko’s anthology of 20th-century Russian verse, Stanzas of the Era (Strofy veka, 1995), published in English as Silver and Steel, features the work of 875 poets. It was attacked by critics and competitors both for its size and its arbitrariness, but a student of Russian poetry would be hard-pressed to find a more useful resource. Every time I think I’ve discovered a completely forgotten poet — Anna Prismanova, Aleksandr Tinyakov, Yuri Kazarnovsky — there he or she is, in Yevtushenko’s pages. His Stanzas is the fruit of a lifetime in the service of poetry.

And that lifetime of service also produced strikingly beautiful poems. On the day of Yevtushenko’s death, Jennifer Croft — a writer and translator who had been a student of his at the University of Tulsa — sent me one such poem, “Людей неинтересных в мире нет” (“There are no boring people in this world,” 1961). This lyric, which sits at the heart of Jennifer’s brilliant novel Homesick, is a moving affirmation of Yevtushenko’s deep-rooted humanism, of his genuine interest in the experience of others. I couldn’t help translating it — or part of it.

Today The Guardian published my translation, which condenses the original’s fifth and sixth stanzas into one, ending the poem with the quietly devastating line, “it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.” The publication functions as an epitaph, and I felt that this line — solemn and cosmic — struck the right concluding note.

But the Russian poem does go on, rising to a half-stifled cry of agony, which Jennifer captured, better than I ever could, in her translation of the final stanza. Below is our joint translation.

There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct — you simply can’t compare it.

If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity —
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.

Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment —
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.

When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow…
All gone, all gone — there’s just no way to stop it.

There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something — something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish —
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.

People die. Their deaths can’t be reversed.
Their secret worlds won’t be traversed
again. And all that’s ever left for me to do
is cry, How can we lose you, too?

1961

Leopold Staff (1878-1957)

Looking over some of my quaint and curious attempts at translation, I found a version of a nostalgic sonnet by the Polish poet Leopold Staff (1878-1957). It seems to have been inspired by Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage,” with that beautiful opening stanza:

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Staff’s poem is called “Childhood” (“Dzieciństwo”):

The poetry of ancient wells, of broken clocks;
the attic; cracked, mute violins without a fiddler;
a yellow book, where dried foget-me-nots
still sleep – were to my childhood an enchanted woodland…

First I collected rusty keys… A tale
whispered that one key was a wondrous gift of gifts,
which opened castles hidden in a mist
where I would go – pale prince out of a Van Dyck oil.

Then I collected butterflies, a magic lamp’s
charmed marvels that appeared upon a papered wall,
and also, for a long time, postage stamps…

For they were like a crazy journey through the world,
full of departures to the earth’s four corners…
Sweet dream, ridiculous, like happiness… like happiness…

1905

The King Strikes Again

Charles King, whose Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2011) provides a fabulous introduction to my fabled hometown, contributed a generous (to say the least!) review of Odessa Stories to the latest TLS (31 March):

Sparkling, wily and loose-tongued, with characters interrupting each other midsentence or slapping away someone else’s idiotic opinion as if it were a horsefly, Babel’s dialogue calls out for a daring translator — someone who will at last do away with “Devil take you!” as an English rendering of the catch-all Russian curse. Boris Dralyuk delivers brilliantly. It helps that he grew up in Odessa himself and has a feel for native pacing and conversational form — not least how to tell a zinger of a joke without overplaying the set-up, or how to lob an insult so that you’re halfway down the street before the target realizes it has been hit.

The result is a fresh and newly accessible version of Babel, a work that is Russian, Jewish, Odessan and idiomatically English all at the same time. Even the violence — and there is plenty of it, described with a cinematic absurdity that calls for a director like Quentin Tarantino — is by turns funny and heartbreaking. Gangsters accidentally shoot one another, women beat their lay-about husbands and, in “The Story of My Dovecote”, the 1905 pogrom is sealed in a single, ghastly image: the corpse of the storyteller’s great-uncle lying on the ground with a live perch wriggling in the crotch of his trousers, a parting joke from his murderers.

The illustration for the piece is a striking poster for Benya Krik (1926), the Soviet film based on the stories and scripted by Babel himself. It’s a silent film, but, as we know, Benya doesn’t talk much anyway. Actions speak louder than words. A few title cards will do. You can watch the whole thing here. Bitten by the Benya bug, I kept on reveling in the sights and sounds of Old Odessa. Here is Leonid Utyosov (born Leyzer Vaysbeyn, 1895-1982) — Odessa’s bard and, for decades, the most popular performer in the Soviet Union — singing “Gop so smykom,” one of the great criminal ballads (blatnye pesni) of the 1920s:

“Gop so smykom” could mean “Hood with a Fiddle Bow,” “Hood with a Gang,” or “Hood Who Grabs and Runs.” The ambiguity of the slang only adds to the song’s charm, burnishing its myth. (Think “Stagger Lee,” or “Stagolee,” or “Stack-o-Lee.”) And the footage is of Utyosov himself, playing the lead in The Career of Spirka Shpandyr (1926). Russian speakers can explore the variants of “Gop” and of many other criminal ballads at the impeccably curated site a-pesni. My favorites include “S odesskogo kichmana” (“From an Odessan Hoosegow”), which is based, believe it or not, on a translation of Heine’s “Die Grenadiere,” and the immortal “Murka” (“Moll”), with its murky history.

One day I’ll write about Yakov Yadov (1873-1940), the Odessan poet who might have written “Murka” and “Gop.” For now, I’ll leave you with a bonafide Yadov number, “Bubliki” or “Bublichki” (“Bagels”), the sob story of a girl forced to sell bagels on the street corner. Her father’s a drunk, her mother’s a scrubwoman (at death’s door, according to some versions)… It’s the early Soviet “House of the Rising Song.” Utyosov performs:

Vice-ridden Babel, Romantic Mickiewicz, and Ainsley Morse on “The Fire Horse”

The March issue of Vice magazine features a review of my translation of Babel’s Odessa Stories — and what a crackerjack review it is!

The salty speech of the city’s inhabitants is wonderfully rendered in a new translation by Boris Dralyuk, who preserves the characters’ Yiddishisms (“He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you want he should keep talking”) and imbues the dialogue with hard-boiled language reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett (“Buzz off, coppers… or we’ll flatten you”). Although Babel mostly lets characters speak for themselves, the narrators’ descriptions can be as luxurious as the stolen jewels given to Benya’s sister on her wedding night, or as surprising as a slap in the face.

I owe Andrew Katzenstein a tray of stolen jewels and a bottle of Bessarabian wine. L’chaim!

Last week’s TLS (17 March) carried my own review of a new translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, “the most thoroughly romantic work by the bard of Poland, that most thoroughly romantic of nations.”

And I’m very proud to share Ainsley Morse’s review of Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms (NYR Children’s Collection), which appeared in LARB exactly a week ago. Ainsley contextualizes this vibrant collection beautifully.

Translation Review, vol. 97

Some months ago I was asked to introduce a special ‘Russian-to-English’ issue of Translation Review. That issue (vol. 97) has just appeared. Unfortunately, the full contents are only available to subscribers — but there are previews for each article, translation, and review.  Aside from the introduction (“The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation”),  I contributed an essay on Dmitry Usov (“‘Reflection in a Hanging Mirror’: Identifying with Dmitry Usov’s ‘The Translator’”) and a translation of Lev Ozerov’s verse ‘portrait’ of the great Soviet translator and children’s poet Korney Chukovsky. The Ozerov poem appears alongside two others, translated by Robert Chandler. All three are drawn from Ozerov’s posthumous Portraits Without Frames (1996), a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture. You can learn more about the poet and his portraits at the Literary Encyclopedia; the entry features links to a number of poems in English translation, and the whole of Portraits Without Frames is forthcoming from NYRB Classics and Granta in 2018 (translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and myself).

This issue of Translation Review was compiled by Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum Books, who is himself a Russian translator. It features work by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Adrian Wanner, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Jamie Olson, Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, Katherine E. Young, and James Womack.