Fiddler in Yiddish, Tango in Odessa

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I spent last week in New York and am now convinced that the city’s nickname is well earned: it never sleeps. My trip had too many highlights to list, including visits to the ballet and to the Guggenheim, a stimulating discussion about the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a hastily arranged reunion with my dear friend and collaborator Irina Mashinski. Each of these deserves a post of its own, but so far only one event has inspired me to sit down and write something. On Monday night, Jenny took me to see a production of Fiddler on the Roof — in Yiddish! The book and lyrics are a dazzlingly inventive back-translation, by Shraga Friedman (1924-1970), into the language of the stories on which the musical was based. I don’t doubt for a moment that Sholem Aleichem, Tevye’s creator, would have kvelled over Friedman’s work, which Peter Filichia discusses in detail here. I have only one bone to pick with Filichia’s analysis: he calls Friedman’s task “unenviable,” whereas I would characterize it as irresistible. It’s precisely the kind of challenge that often keeps me up at night. Here are some highlights from the production:

The performance we saw was very moving, for many reasons. It made me reflect again on the contrast between the world of the shtetl, which is tragically vacated at the end of the musical, and that of urban Jewry, which I know and love. My mind drifted back to the myth of Old Odessa — the land of Isaac Babel, Yakov Yadov, and the anonymous composers of peppery criminal ballads like “Surka.” And so I sat down to translate another of those ballads, about a beer joint on Deribasovskaya Street. It was written in the early 1920s, to fit the melody of Ángel Villoldo’s (1861-1919) immortal tango “El Choclo,” which was very popular in pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union. You’ll find the original lyrics here and my translation below, followed by clips of the Russian song (in a different variant) performed by the beguiling Strongilla Irtlach (1902-1983) and of “El Choclo” performed by Orquesta Típica Victor.

The emphasis in Deribasovskaya is on the first “a” (Deribásovskaya), and I’ve indicated the correct emphases in the other foreign names below, when they first occur, with accents over the vowels. (Oh, and there is a connection with Sholem Aleichem, thanks to the mention of Odessa’s legendary Café Fanconi in the eighth stanza. See here.)

A joint sprang up on Deribasovskaya Street
where all Odessa’s thieves and crooks would meet.
You’d see Marúsya, Véra, Ráya there for sure,
accompanied by Kóstya the Procurer —

three demi-virgins and a handsome-looking joe,
who’d travel out of town to beg for dough,
returning to Odessa in a Ford,
sporting a suit as natty as a lord’s.

Well, Róza from the slums came in one night,
looking as lovely as an ancient sybarite,
and Kostya, Roza’s faithful, life-long mate,
approached her when the hour was getting late.

Gripping her toches like a handle in a tram,
he said: “My darling Roza, little lamb,
I ask you kindly — no, I simply beg you
to join me on the floor for one last tango.”

But then Arónchik came and asked Roza to dance.
To us, he might as well have been from France.
His invitation was as gallant as all hell —
and the Procurer got a look from him as well…

Although our Roza didn’t care to dance no more
(she was already plenty sweaty from before),
she glanced up at Aronchik and smiled back —
well, Kostya the Procurer blew his stack.

He spoke to Aron in a manner most refined:
“You’d better moor at Vera’s dock, if you don’t mind —
lest your poor mother come to harm some day,”
then donned his Panama straw hat and walked away.

All this was heard by billiard-marker Mónya,
whose spine had snapped a cue once at Fanconi’s —
he was the bastard son of Aunty Pésya,
а famous madam in our beautiful Odessa.

He swaggered over like a pelican,
holding a little switchblade in his hand,
and spoke to Aron as the poets do:
“I’d keep my portraits safe, if I were you.”

But our Aronchik got all fired up
and smashed a bottle over Mónchik’s kop.
They poked the waiter in the toches with a fork
and then the farewell tango was uncorked.

No, none of this looked much like Buenos Aires,
bystanders getting punched and all the tsuris.
They tossed us out, we landed on our rumps —
me with a shiner and my buddy with a lump.

A beer joint closed on Deribasovskaya Street.
Where do Odessa’s thieves and crooks now meet?
Where are our girls — Marusya, Raya, Roza —
and Kostya the Procurer? No one knows…

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Ozerov and Sharov: Defying Categorization

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Three days ago Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames, which Robert Chandler and I launched in London last month, was officially published, and this important, uncategorizable collection has already received a number of reviews from discerning readers who care far less about categories than about the virtues of individual books. One such ideal reader is, unsurprisingly, Kaggsy, who writes: “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.” And in a deeply insightful and well-informed piece at the Cleveland Review of Books, Alexander McConnell captures the complicated mood of Ozerov’s poems: “While certainly not nostalgic, Ozerov’s lamentations for those consumed by the Soviet experiment betray an ambivalence towards that experiment’s implosion and the evaporation of what Svetlana Boym calls ‘the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete.’” How true. The Soviet world was, after all, the only world that Ozerov knew intimately, firsthand; his own life, which began in 1914 and ended in 1996, was almost coterminous with that of the USSR.

McConnell quotes several portraits in his essay, including one of my favorites, “Mikhail Arkadyevich Svetlov,” in which Ozerov depicts, with great understanding, the witty Soviet poet’s descent into alcoholism:

“The unresolvable can be resolved
so unexpectedly,
so accidentally
by such a simple method.
Moisture with degrees of proof,
genuine, unfalsified proof . . .”
Svetlov stalled forever
on this simple, reliable,
tried-and-tested method
of answering the irrelevant
and tactless questions
posed by life . . .

You can read the entire poem online, at The Baffler’s website, along with portraits of “Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev” and, in Maria Bloshteyn’s effervescent translation, “Aram Ilyich Khachaturian.”

And since we’re on the subject of books that are hard to categorize, I will share my brief review of The Rehearsals, a masterpiece by the recently departed Russian novelist Vladimir Sharov, from the latest Literary Review. Oliver Ready, Sharov’s inspired translator, has written a moving tribute to the man for The Moscow Times. Non-subscribers only have access to my opening paragraph. Luckily, Caryl Emerson’s brilliant, beautifully crafted essay on Sharov and The Rehearsals is available for free at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Zinaida Gippius’s “The Passerby”

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Portrait of Zinaida Gippius (1906), by Léon Bakst (1866-1924)

Last week I posted my translation of a poem from 1924, in which the Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska imagines the future life of a fashionable young woman. This week I’d like to share my translation of another poem from that same year, written by the Russian poet Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945), whose verse has appeared here before. In “The Passerby,” Gippius writes of the deep desire to do what Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska has done, in her impressionistic way — to penetrate the heart of a stranger, to know their life from the inside. Gippius opens with an expression of extreme, overwhelming empathy, but ends on a shocking note of megalomania. I read the poem as an acknowledgement of the awesome responsibility of omniscience and omnipotence, powers that belong in the hands of deities, not those of mere mortals.

In my translation, I made the decision to render the masculine third-person pronouns — which here, I feel, refer to a general person, rather than a man — as feminine. The masculine forms felt unduly exclusionary, and the feminine allowed for a nice off-rhyme (“love her”—“over”). I don’t think Gippius, who played with gender roles both in her verse and in life (as the portrait above demonstrates), would have minded too much. In the original poem, Gippius surprises us by using the masculine form of “I would like (khotel by),” a choice that is impossible to render elegantly in English. Perhaps the “she” is precisely the twist the English translation needed in order to recreate that effect.

The Passerby

Each person who may chance to pass you by,
even just once — only to disappear —
has her own story, her own mystery,
her luckiest and her most bitter year.

Whoever she may be, this passerby,
there must be people in this world who love her…
She’s not been blindly cast from some great height:
she’s being watched, until her days are over.

Like God, I’d like to know each person’s fate,
to see their hearts as if they were my own,
to quench their thirst with the immortal water —
while drowning others in oblivion.

1924


Идущий мимо

У каждого, кто встретится случайно
Хотя бы раз — и сгинет навсегда,
Своя история, своя живая тайна,
Свои счастливые и скорбные года.

Какой бы ни был он, прошедший мимо,
Его наверно любит кто-нибудь…
И он не брошен: с высоты, незримо,
За ним следят, пока не кончен путь.

Как Бог, хотел бы знать я все о каждом,
Чужое сердце видеть, как свое,
Водой бессмертья утолить их жажду —
И возвращать иных в небытие.

1924

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska’s “Granny”

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I have to be careful on Sundays: nostalgia lurks behind every corner. On Sunday afternoons I often find myself leafing through crinkled papers marred by my childish scribbling or succumbing to the evocative mustiness of old books… Today I dug up a translation I started years ago, of a poem that, not altogether coincidentally, takes nostalgia as its subject. It is a playful, poignant lyric by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945), whose elegant verse earned her the title of the “Polish Sappho.” Perhaps a more accurate — and chronologically appropriate — monicker would be the “Polish Edna St. Vincent Millay” or, better yet, the “Polish Anna Akhmatova.” Like the early Akhmatova, Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska wrote with great nuance and classical clarity of women’s lives and loves. (And Akhmatova may have recognized the resemblance, as she translated Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska’s work into Russian.)

The poem below, “Granny” (“Babcia,” 1924), imagines the future existence of a Polish child of the century — a 24-year-old flapper — in 1974. The flapper-turned-granny, Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska predicts, will recall Prince Krakus, the legendary founder of the city of Kraków, and his daughter Princess Wanda, as well as to the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) and Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), who was Poland’s Chief of State from 1918 to 1922 and would again become its de facto leader in 1926. You’ll notice that the poet proves something of a seer, anticipating the invention of the iPhone, which she calls the “biophone.” Sadly, Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska would not live as long as her heroine; she died of cancer in Manchester in 1945.

Granny

Fifty years hence, she’ll sit down at the piano
(that very spring she’ll turn seventy-four):
a granny, who wore jumpers,
lived through the great and oh-so-dreary war,
saw trams glide through the streets,
the airplane take its first steps in the sky,
and people speaking without seeing one another
over the telephone.

The granny, who recalls Krakus and Wanda —
or who, in any case, recalls Foch and Piłsudski —
who was intoxicated by a jazz band
and who received her letters from the postman,

whose youth passed shabbily, without a kikimobile,
a biophone, a virocycle, or an astrodactyl —
watching her faded flicker with a wistful smile,
will play old-fashioned foxtrots on the piano.

1924

Odessa in London: Caroline Eden’s BLACK SEA

I’m writing from London, where next Tuesday, at Pushkin House, Robert Chandler and I will launch Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames, a remarkable, entirely original collection of poems that we’ve co-translated with Irina Mashinski and Maria Bloshteyn. The Financial Times have just published an excerpt from one of the most moving poems in the volume, a portrait of the Soviet Yiddish poet Leyb Kvitko, who was executed on August 12, 1952, a date about which I’ve written here.

Robert, Irina, Maria, and I have been working on this project for years, and the launch will surely be a powerful, cathartic experience for me . For now, I’m enjoying morning work sessions on Teffi and afternoon strolls about town. London has put on its most characteristic face, or at least the one I most enjoy — sporadically sunny and drizzly, chilly but not really cold. Perfect weather for long walks, and for reading in the evenings.

I should add that my reading material could not be more soothing, a bright ray of southern light in the autumnal north. Yesterday, my friend Caroline Eden presented me with a copy of her newly released Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light. Far more than a cook book, it is a magnificent omnium gatherum of historical and literary anecdote, seasoned with the flavors and scents of Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Turkish food and drink.

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Naturally, Odessa, the Pearl of the Black Sea, comes first — how could it not? — and Caroline was kind enough not only to quote from my translations of Isaac Babel, but also to serve up a meaty chunk of my version of Eduard Bagritsky’s rip-roaring poem “Smugglers.” She also got the Odessan culinary scoop of a lifetime — Babel’s favorite dishes, courtesy of his grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel: “scrambled eggs with tomatoes and aubergine caviar ‘on ice.’” How I love that “caviar,” the very mention of which uncorks a flood of Proustian memories!

To give you a taste of Black Sea’s kaleidoscopic splendor, here are two pages — the first “a short mediation on [Sergei Eisenstein’s] The Battleship Potemkin,” the second a recipe for a “Potemkin Cocktail.”  (The location photography is by Theodore Kaye, and the food photography is by Ola O. Smit.)

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Here’s to London and Odessa!

My Debt to HIAS

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The devastating news out of Pittsburgh, about which I cannot say much, brought attention to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an organization to which my family and I owe our American life. It was HIAS that afforded us passage to the United States in 1991. And nine years later, HIAS again offered a helping hand: a generous scholarship that helped me pay for my first year at UCLA. I myself can’t judge whether they’ve received a decent return on this particular investment, but I do know that, for 137 years, they have brought — and continue to bring — honor to this country. I’ll offer one example.

In the magnificent, meandering closing sentence of his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov gives us the pleasure of spotting, for ourselves, the first sign of his family’s near-miraculous means of escape from Europe in 1939:

There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbor, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady’s bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.

The “splendid ship” was the Champlain, a French liner chartered by HIAS to deliver refugees to the United States. Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd fills in the picture, “The organization was directed by Yakov Frumkin, an old friend of Nabokov’s father, who like many other Russian Jews was glad to be able to repay the dead man for his bold stands against the Kishinyov pogroms and the Beilis trial by now offering his son a cabin for half fare.”

“For the rest of his years,” Maxim D. Shrayer tells us, “Nabokov remained grateful for the Jewish support.” That debt is one of the few things I can confidently claim to share with Nabokov. But aren’t all readers of English literature who delight in Nabokov’s unparalleled stratagems indebted to HIAS? Really, aren’t we all?

Barbara Toporska’s “The Chronicle” in Ambit 234

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Barbara Toporska (1913–1985)

On Monday, October 22, the Tate Modern’s Terrace Bar will host the launch of the 234th issue of Ambit, a consistently exciting venue for poetry and, increasingly, for poetry in translation. Much of the credit for all this excitement goes to poet, translator, and critic André Naffis-Sahely, who recently joined the journal’s staff as poetry editor. André was kind enough to include one of my translations in the latest issue. It is a poem by the little-known Polish émigré novelist, poet, and journalist Barbara Toporska, who was married to the somewhat better known Józef Mackiewicz (1902–1985). The couple left their homeland in 1945 and lived in exile, often in extreme poverty, until their deaths in 1985. (Toporska and Mackiewicz were devoted to one another; she survived him by less than six months.)

Mackiewicz, who claimed to be “anticommunist by nationality,” was one of the first to expose the “Katyn massacre” — the systematic murder, on the orders of Stalin, of some 22,000 Poles, including 8,000 military officers, by the Soviet secret police in April and May 1940. Incidentally, one of the few imprisoned Polish officers to escape death at Katyn, Józef Czapski (1896-1993), was a noted writer and artist, whose work is now being published by NYRB Classics, in translations by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Eric Karpeles. Mackiewicz’s prose is also ripe for rediscovery, but it is his wife’s poetry that made the most profound impression on me. I was introduced to both authors by the remarkable Nina Karsov, who keeps their work in print through her London-based publishing house, Kontra.

It’s a shame I can’t be at the Ambit launch in person, and I send the readers my best wishes from abroad. The distance, though, feels somehow appropriate. Below is Toporska’s poem, a distillation of the exilic experience, which is dedicated to the memory of another political émigré.

The Chronicle

In memory of Stanisław Kodź (1898–1966)

Dr. (of Law) A. Lonely
political émigré
died
on Sunday
of heart failure
at a Munich hotel.

There is snow in the street
this November in Munich
the walls swayed like veils
the ceiling came down
and dusk glazed the windows
with a silver like silence
then night brushed it off
with the glare of the streetlights.

In the morning the phone rang
servants knocked at the door
locksmith
policeman
doctor —
death was sudden and lonely.

While Lonely — he sails
far away by his lonesome
on this ashen grey Sunday
with snow at the window
growing younger each moment
than all things on the course
of this Europe in autumn
this Munich in autumn.

***

Full stop. End of entry.
“Political commentary?”
cold
cigarette
smoke
in a lump of soil from the homeland.

Vladimir Britanishsky’s “The Wandering Artists”

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Vladimir Britanishsky with his wife, Natalia Astafieva

The Russian poet and translator Vladimir Britanishsky (1933-2015) never achieved fame abroad, but he did contribute, unintentionally, to the rise of a poet who took the West by storm. In a 2004 interview, the painter Oleg Tselkov, who was close to Joseph Brodsky, recalled a conversation with his late friend:

“Do you know how I started writing poetry?” Joseph once asked me in a totally unexpected and beside the point way. “Does the name Britanishsky mean anything to you?”— “Yes,” I reply, “Vladimir Britanishsky, I knew him, he was a Petersburg poet, well-known in our circle.” “Well then,” Joseph continues, “I used to hear everyone around me talking about Britanishsky, Britanishsky! So I took a piece of paper and started writing poetry myself, and I saw that it was not difficult for me at all. And ever since then I have been writing poetry.” (Translated by Tatiana Retivov.)

But Britanishsky is more than a footnote in the myth of Brodsky. He was a distinguished, distinctive poet, whose great subjects were the natural world and visual art. These preoccupations were partly determined by, and partly determined, his biography: he was the son of a painter, Lev Britanishsky, and received training as a geologist at the Leningrad Mining Institute. In fact, he was one of a handful of “miner” poets, who found freedom and inspiration by heading out from the capitals on geological expeditions; their work embodied the spirit of the post-Stalinist “Thaw” in Soviet culture. Britanishky’s first collection, Explorations (Poiski), appeared in 1958, and he continued to publish painstakingly “exploratory” poems until his death three years ago. It is precisely this “exploratory” quality — this urge to get to the bottom of things — that makes his work so haunting.

In the poem below, from the mid-1980s, Britanishsky tries to get to the bottom of his admiration for the group of 19th-century Russian painters known as “the Wanderers” (Peredvizhniki). These great realists, who collectively rebelled against the thematic restrictions imposed by the Imperial Academy of Arts, served as the aesthetic model for the Stalinist artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism. But in fact, the goals of the two schools could not have been more different: whereas the Socialist Realists painted scenes of the Soviet Union as it should have been, in accordance with Soviet ideology, the Wanderers painted Russia as it really was, sometimes lush and beautiful but often blighted and desolate. In appropriately plodding, heavy verse, Britanishsky rescues the Wanderers from Soviet co-optation. He finds in them a model for genuine commitment to truth and fairness, and for genuine artistic camaraderie. The painters to whom he refers by name are Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894), Vasily Perov (1834-1882), and Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897).

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Illarion Pryanishnikov, “Empties” (1872)

A version of my translation was first published in the winter 2015 issue of the now defunct and much-missed literary journal Chtenia: Readings from Russia, about a month after Britanishsky passed away. You can find the original poem, “Peredvizhnichestvo,” at the poet’s website.

The Wandering Artists

Yes, all the same — I’d like to thank the Wanderers,
their style of painting, weightier than fetters,
their wearisome, ascetic grayness-brownness,
their glumly lenten self-restrainedness,
didacticism and tendentiousness,
their finger-prodding way of bearing witness,
with their illusions from the 1860s,
and with their poor folk, loved above all else,
and with their speakers of the truth, the holy fools,
and with their nobles, whom they ridiculed.
Yes, all the same — I’d like to thank the Wanderers,
their saintly truthfulness, their true-to-lifeness,
depicting Russia as it was, unvarnished,
made up of peasants and of exiled convicts,
never ignoring the real facts of life:
Pryanishnikov’s empty carts, victims of fire,
Perov’s drowned maidens and his funerals,
his ragged clothes, bast shoes, pitiful scarecrows,
his slums — befouled, because they’re genuine,
full of cramped rooms, wallpaper peeling,
and in each one consumptive artists dying,
all of them cranks or outright lunatics.
I’d like to thank all the nomadic Wanderers
who took the roads beyond the walls of capitals,
where — past Savrasov’s crooked, gangly
birch trees, looking rather ugly —
unmeasured landscapes greet the eye:
the northern forests, southern fields of rye,
and little rivers, churches, dove gray villages,
almost the ones of Blok and of Yesenin…
I’d like to thank all the nomadic Wanderers,
but thank their Wandering righteousness thrice over,
which ventured to sustain or to recover
a workshop spirit of camaraderie in artists,
a sense of brotherhood, of honesty, of fairness…
I’d like to thank them for all this. But in particular —
it’s for ourselves that I must thank the Wanderers,
whose spirit still lives on in us, survives in us,
not bright, a little dimmed, a little dulled,
but present, like a conscience and a soul.

Out of the Past: The Russian Futurists, a Russian Dinosaur, and the BBC Looks Back

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Andrey Shemshurin, David Burlyuk, and Vladimir Mayakovsky
Moscow, 1914

This past week has brought in a couple of eloquent, deeply engaged reviews that demonstrate, among other things, that books can find their ideal readers years, even decades, after publication. At Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, Karen Langley — a great advocate of Russian lit in translation — posted a gloriously enthusiastic response to my chapbook of four Russian futurist manifestos, titled A Slap in the Face and rereleased by Insert Blanc Press, a scappy LA-based publisher of avant-garde conceptual writing, in summer 2017 (the original pamphlet appeared in 2013). She rightly notes that the book’s layout, with ample illustrations, enriches the reader’s experience. The futurists, who were trailblazers in the field of book art, would have approved.

Elsewhere, Russian Dinosaur turned its fierce attention to the latest issue of Cardinal Points, and presented its findings as a series of revelations:

First revelation: exciting translations of forgotten works by two outstanding Russian emigre authors, Yuri Felsen (pen name of Nikolai Berngardovich Freydenshtein) and Vasily Yanovsky (two short stories translated by Yanovsky’s wife, Isabella Levitin).

[S]econd revelation[:] Maria Tsvetaeva’s drama Fortune (Fortuna), translated by Maya Chhabra. I did not know that Tsetaeva had written a play (in fact, she wrote at least three verse plays); this one retells, in five colourful episodes, the life of Armand-Louis de Gontaut, Duc de Lauzun (later Duc de Biron and generally known as Biron, 1747-1793).

[F]inal revelation[:] Stephen Pearl’s humorous and interrogative article about his translation of Ivan Goncharov’s 1869 novel Obryv, always known in English as The Precipice.

Dinosaur also commends another extremely worthy publication, the East-West Review, the official journal of the Great Britain-Russia Society, which is available only in print, by subscription.

Speaking of great British venues, I was honored to appear in the latest — and last — series of the BBC Radio 4 program World War One: The Cultural Front, discussing Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, and Isaac Babel with Francine Stock.

Teffi Lives

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Teffi with Guitar, St. Petersburg, 1915
(Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library,
Bakhmeteff Archive, Nadezhda Teffi Papers)

My admiration for the great Russian writer known as Teffi (né Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952) knows no bounds — and is no secret to readers of this blog or of my anthology of writings from the Russian Revolution. And so, when I was asked to endorse Edythe Haber’s elegant and engrossing new biography, titled Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter, I jumped at the chance. It was a thrill to read this revelatory book before its official publication (September in the UK, January in the US). The biography is crammed with insights and studded with wonderful quotations from letters, interviews, and other long-buried sources. Here, for example, is a comment that exposes the wellsprings of Teffi’s art — her magical ability not only to balance but to blend the deepest melancholy with irresistible gaiety:

I was born in St. Petersburg in the springtime and, as everyone knows, our St. Petersburg spring is extremely changeable: now the sun is shining, now it’s raining. Therefore, like the pediment of a Greek theater, I also have two faces, one laughing and one weeping.

As Haber notes in her introduction, it is only recently that “very good translations have brought Teffi burgeoning recognition in the English-speaking world and elsewhere, where her writing has proven fresh and compelling to the present day.” That burgeoning recognition is largely due to the efforts of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and the crack team of Teffi translators they have assembled, which includes Clare Kitson, Rose France, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg.

Their work is ongoing. As a matter of fact, just a few weeks ago, the Chandlers’ exquisite translation of “Solovki” — “one of Teffi’s best works,” Haber writes, in which “spontaneous feeling breaks through the stultified surface of human relationships” — appeared in Natasha Perova’s anthology Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature, which also features the prose of Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Svetlana Alexievich, among others. I recommend it to anyone interested in the experience of women — and not just women — in Russia from the 1910s to the present day. (I should say that I translated one of the pieces in the volume, the literary scholar Lydia Ginzburg’s painful reckoning with personal grief and remorse, which I have called “Conscience Deluded.”) Slav Sisters was recently reviewed, alongside Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales, in Russian Art + Culture.