The Dewy Lustrous Petals of This Rose: Afanasy Fet’s Late Love

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Portrait of Afanasy Fet by Nikolay Rachkov, 1880s

The nineteenth-century Russian poet to whom I return most frequently is Afanasy Fet (1820-1892), whose work never loses its thrilling freshness. A friend of Tolstoy and Turgenev, Fet devoted himself to crafting exquisite, gem-like lyrics in an age dominated by prose. So exquisite were these lyrics that Turgenev, who served as Fet’s editor, reportedly expected his friend to write a poem that would end not with words, but with a soundless movement of the lips. And some of Fet’s poems almost attain that goal, like the appropriately titled “Whispers,” an evocation of a moment of passion that contains no verbs yet reverberates with irrepressible life. I translated “Whispers” and another fine lyric, “By the Fireplace,” for The Penguin Book or Russian Poetry, and last week I had the chance to linger over one of Fet’s late love poems, which was set to music by Nikolai Medtner (Five Poems by Tyutchev and Fet, Op. 37). Many composers have been drawn to Fet’s work, and Tchaikovsky went so far as to say that the poet was “not simply a poet but a poet-musician.” In the translation below, I’ve ventured away from the original’s anapestic meter, but I do hope I’ve preserved more than an echo of its intense musicality. I offer this transcendent expression of late-flowering love to my partner, Jennifer Croft, as an early Valentine’s Day present.

He wished to drive me mad, the one who melded
the dewy lustrous petals of this rose;
he wished to drive me mad, the one who plaited
this lovely hair in heavy knotted rows.

Should vile old age remove all joy from me,
my soul will fly back here nevertheless,
before the sunset, like a sighing bee,
to revel in this potent redolence.

Guarding the sense of bliss within my soul,
I shall echo all life’s joys and wrecks.
This fragrant honey — it is mine, my own!
For others let it stay just sticky wax!

April 25, 1887


Моего тот безумства желал, кто смежал
Этой розы завои, и блестки, и росы;
Моего тот безумства желал, кто свивал
Эти тяжким узлом набежавшие косы.

Злая старость хотя бы всю радость взяла,
А душа моя так же пред самым закатом
Прилетела б со стоном сюда, как пчела,
Охмелеть, упиваясь таким ароматом.

И, сознание счастья на сердце храня,
Стану буйства я жизни живым отголоском.
Этот мед благовонный — он мой, для меня,
Пусть другим он останется топким лишь воском!

25 апреля 1887

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Irreducible Lives: Chekhov, Osipov, and Morshen

In recent weeks, my collaborators and I have been rewarded with a number of brief but excellent reviews. Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames was lauded by Paddy Kehoe at RTÉ and by Peter France in the latest issue of The Scotland-Russian Forum (no. 40, Winter 2019). In that same issue, which is full of interesting material, Margaret Tejerizo also reviews Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature. And today I was delighted to see a starred review of Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories in Kirkus!

Reviewing a collection as varied and nuanced as Maxim’s in a couple hundred words is an exacting challenge. Because Maxim is a Russian writer-physician, comparisons to Mikhail Bulgakov and, especially, to Anton Chekhov are inevitable. There are, of course, many stylistic differences between Osipov’s and Chekhov’s stories, and there are just as many differences between the authors’ worldviews; after all, they live in different worlds. But it occurs to me that there is one key similarity.

In Chekhov’s The Seagull, the successful but mediocre writer Boris Trigorin famously sees the life of the young Nina Zarechnaya as “the subject for a short story.” But Nina is obviously more than that — she is a human being, not a plotline or symbol. Magically, Chekhov himself manages to convince us of Nina’s reality, although she is, in fact, a work of fiction — his fiction. Unlike Tirgorin, Chekhov is always aware that human lives, even fictional lives, are more than subjects for short stories. This is why his people live on after their “stories” are over. And that is a characteristic they share with Maxim’s people.

Reflecting on the irreducible intricacy and vitality of these fictional characters, I remembered a poem by Nikolay Morshen (né Marchenko, 1917-2001), who was born in Ukraine, spent the war years in occupied Kyiv and Hamburg, and immigrated to the United States in 1950, where he taught Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for twenty-six years.

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That brief outline of his life, like the brief outline of any life, conceals a great wealth of experience, a great deal of complexity. Morshen understood this better than anyone, and he expressed it in the untitled opening poem of his first collection, The Seal (Tyulen’, 1959) — a poem that reads like an epitaph for all the émigrés of his generation, living and dead:

He lived just forty years: too short a life.
These words do not contain a word of truth.
He lived through two world wars, a revolution,
Three famines and four changes in regime,
Six governments and two wholehearted passions.
Add up the years — half a millennium.


Он прожил мало: только сорок лет.
В таких словах ни слова правды нет.
Он прожил две войны, переворот,
Три голода, четыре смены власти,
Шесть государств, две настоящих страсти.
Считать на годы — будет лет пятьсот.

The Translator on the Flying Trapeze

Last week Jessie Chaffee, a gifted novelist who serves as an editor at Words Without Borders, asked me to share a few thoughts on translating humor for a post at WWB Daily. I eagerly offered my two cents and, this week, was thrilled to see them featured among much more valuable contributions from 17 other translators — including Antonia Lloyd-Jones on fishy Polish surnames, Charlotte Whittle on swearing parrots, Jeremy Tiang on a spark of inspiration (“Fire!”), and lots more multilingual laughs!

In my own micro-essay I pick apart a verbal gag from Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales, so as to to demonstrate “that jokes can teach us an important lesson about translating in general, the lesson of freedom: it’s always best to let one’s mind do a somersault or three before grabbing hold of the trapeze again.” To my delight, the ever-inventive folks at WWB tweeted that quote with a fittingly whimsical illustration.

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Alas, the only thing I have in common with any of those high-flying gents is a relatively well-trimmed mustache…

Maxim Osipov’s ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS

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A couple of days ago, Alex Fleming, Anne Marie Jackson, and I entered a few final corrections into the proofs of our translation of Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories, which NYRB Classics will bring out in early April. This is Maxim’s book-length debut in English, but a number of the stories in the volume have already appeared in journals, and another will come out in Granta next month. An excerpt from the title story, translated by Alex, was published in Image in 2016, “Moscow-Petrozavodsk,” translated by Anne Marie, came out in The White Review in 2012, and Asymptote posted Alex’s translation of “The Mill” last year — along with a recording of Maxim reading the opening passage in Russian.

Maxim was born in 1963 and currently lives in Tarusa, a small town 90 miles outside Moscow, where he practices medicine and oversees a charitable foundation he established in 2007 to ensure the survival of the local hospital. As one might expect, in his writing, Maxim does draw on his experiences as a doctor, but his range is far greater. In our description of the book, we say that his “fiction presents a nuanced, collage-like portrait of life in provincial Russia — its tragedies, infinite frustrations, and moments of humble beauty and inspiration.” Svetlana Alexievich puts it more eloquently in her preface (which Alex has translated with equal eloquence):

When you delve into Osipov’s texts you see that they are deceptively simple, just like Shalamov’s: behind this childish ordinariness there lies a hidden chasm. The whole time they leave you thinking how difficult it is to love humanity — wonderful, repulsive, and terrifying as it is — but in order to stay human, that’s exactly what you must do: you must love man. Your soul is restless — it is thinking. To inspire such thoughts — that’s something that only true literature can do.

We hope Maxim’s collection inspires such thoughts in all its readers!

Pierrot in Hollywood: Alexander Vertinsky and Anna Sten

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I thought I’d follow up my post on Igor Severyanin by turning the spotlight on another big personality, who is often placed  “on the same bill” as the Ego-Futurist, if only in hindsight. Severyanin never actually met the popular poet and singer Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957), although the latter set a number of Severyanin’s “poezas” to music. In fact, Severyanin detested the decadent “clown.” (The word isn’t slander; Vertinsky did indeed strut the boards as Pierrot.) One of the causes of this enmity was surely a sense of competition: Vertinsky rose to fame just as Severyanin’s star was fading, and he did so by imitating the slightly older poet’s mannerisms. In any case, as far as many of their contemporaries were concerned, the two were cut from the same clownish cloth.

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In his memoir The Grass of Oblivion (1967), the Soviet author Valentin Katayev recalls a conversation with Ivan Bunin, the future Nobel laureate, that occurred in Odessa during the Civil War. Bunin was to debut one of his short stories before an audience; flyers had been posted all around the city. But on the night of the reading, no one showed up. The great author lamented: “The hall would be packed, of course, for Igor Severyanin, or Vertinsky!” That was the typical, though not universal, attitude of the cultural elite. It is expressed with special vitriol in Passport to Paris (1955), the memoir of the Russian-American composer Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky, 1903-1969): “Severyanin had his low-brow apostle in the person of Alexander Vertinsky (at this writing still flourishing in Moscow), who got himself up as Pierrot and mumbled Frenchified inanities to strangely gypsylike tunes — a weird but eminently successful combination.” Perhaps Duke was harsher on Vertinsky because, unlike Severyanin, the “low-brow apostle” had impinged on the composer’s own turf, popular music. But he was also right: Vertinsky wasn’t nearly as good a poet.

Yet Vertinsky’s verse, and certainly his voice, spoke directly to the experiences and aspirations of countless Russians in his time. In his Handbook of Russian Literature, Victor Terras makes the case:

Despite the pretended decadence of the style and contents, Vertinsky’s art stands very far from the vulgarized world of the trivial cabaret and has much more in common with the artistic search of expressionists like Meierkhold, or with the refined experiments produced in the same direction in the Weimar Republic. Vertinsky’s tragicomic persona, in a bizarre way resembling that of Charlie Chaplin, was poignantly moving and cast an enormous spell over his audience. During his emigration period (1919-43) he was constantly on tour giving concerts in different European countries and his profoundly nostalgic art enjoyed invariable success. … [I]n his best achievements, Vertinsky markedly surpasses the playful level; the game becomes serious and the status of the émigré, replete with miseries, acquires the dimension of tragedy.

And it is one of Vertinsky’s émigré poems that I would like to share — a poem that was written in Hollywood, where I make my home, and was published in the first issue of The Land of Columbus, a journal I unearthed some years ago. On his visit to Hollywood in 1934-35, Vertinsky performed to packed audiences, hobnobbed with Samuel Goldwyn, and, reportedly, had an affair with Marlene Dietrich. But he spent most of his time socializing with the “Russian colony,” about which he writes movingly in his memoir The Road Is Long. He accords special attention to the actress Anna Sten (born Anna Petrovna Fesak, 1908-1993), whose failure to become a star offers a particularly glamorous example of the general frustrations of exile:

Among the Russian actresses, Anna Stan was particularly prominent. She played Katyusha Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection and Nana in the eponymous film based on Zola’s novel. But later her relationship with the management deteriorated, and she left the screen. Great sums of money were spent on her “film education.” For three years she took lessons in English and singing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into advertising her. But she did not live up to their great hopes, and so they ceased to speak of her.

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Those failed English lessons inspired a jab from another famous songwriter, Cole Porter: “When Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes.” The joke is that Goldwyn was himself a tongue-tied foreigner. Funny, but cruel. By contrast, the poem Vertinsky dedicated to Sten is deeply empathetic.

To an Actress

You’re a prince left unloved in a Hans Christian Andersen tale;
the Ice-Maiden keeps your heart frozen inside a blue glacier —
your young heart, which has not yet been touched by affection at all,
is now stone. Yes, a sapphire. Granite that’s hard beyond measure.

Have you loved in a dream? Have you sailed to Bermuda in springtime?
Have you heard strains of Bach from an organ inside an old church?
Ah, what kind of love can these awful vulgarians speak of?
Have they earned any love, these boors that seek only revenge?

You have never known love? Ah, but love — it is simply surrender.
Love means throwing yourself at your bitterest enemy’s feet;
yes, it is love that first singed the wings of the Angels —
yes, it is love that caused them to fall from the Light!

My one friend on earth, you don’t look like a woman imprisoned.
The stage and the fame and the fireworks — isn’t it fun?
You have never known love? Ah, but that in itself is a blessing!
To smile from the screen into darkness at no one — no one.

October 1934

Although the poem is, as usual, clumsy and rather treacly, to my mind it does acquire “the dimension of tragedy.” But one must really hear Vertinsky in order to appreciate him. Here is a recording of a song he helped popularize, Boris Fomin and Konstantin Podrevsky’s “The Road Is Long” (which lent its name to Vertinsky’s memoir).

And if the melody sounds familiar, perhaps you recognize it as “Those Were the Days,” a hit from 1968, recorded by Mary Hopkin and produced by Paul McCartney.


Актрисе

Вы покинутый принц золотой андерсеновской сказки –
В голубых ледниках “Дева льдов” Ваше сердце хранит,
Ваше юное сердце, ещё не познавшее ласки,
Превращённое в камень. В сапфир. В тёмно-синий гранит.

Вы влюблялись во сне? Вы видали весну на Бермуде?
Вы слыхали, как Баха играет в соборе орган?
О какой там любви говорят эти страшные люди?
И за что их любить, этих мстительных злых обезьян!

Вы не знали любви? Но любовь – это просто бессилье.
Вы сдаётесь на милость того, кто заведомый враг
И, конечно, любовь опалила у Ангелов крылья,
И, конечно, любовь их низвергла из Света во Мрак!

Мой единственный друг, Вы на пленниц совсем не похожи.
Разве мало Вам сцены и славы бенгальских огней?
Вы не знали любви? Но ведь в этом же счастие тоже!
Улыбаться с экрана во тьму никому – никому из людей.

Октябрь 1934

Igor Severyanin, Early and Late

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Few names in the annals of Russian poetry are as apt to trigger a smile as that of Igor Severyanin (the pseudonym of Igor Vasilyevich Lotarev, 1887-1941). Severyanin was the marvelously mannered founder of Ego-Futurism, one of the many futurisms that competed for the public’s attention in the early 1910s. Briefly, Severyanin’s movement was victorious; his rhythmic paeans (he called them poezas) to bohemian-aristocratic decadence intoxicated readers. These days, the smiles his name triggers are sometimes those of nostalgic delight but, more frequently, those of derision. D. S. Mirsky, the great historian of Russian literature, explains — and expresses — this derisive attitude memorably:

The moment came when vulgarity claimed a place on Parnassus and issued its declaration of rights in the verse of Igor Severyanin… His poetry is an idealization of the aspirations of the average townsman, who dreams of cars, champagne, elegant restaurants, smart women, and fine perfumes. His originality was that he had the boldness to present all this in its naked naïveté and to give the philosophy of a hairdresser’s assistant the gait of an almost Nietzschean individualism.

Yet even Mirsky admits that Severyanin “had a genuine gift of song and a considerable rhythmical inventiveness.” And in his indispensable book on Russian futurism, Vladimir Markov, who is generally dismissive of Severyanin, concedes that the poet “can make a line of Russian verse burst with barbarisms and still be poetically convincing.” These barbarous lines — with their awkward neologisms, misused foreign words, and impossible images — are undeniably memorable. Around New Year’s Eve, I always think of Severyanin’s somewhat silly (and likely tongue-in-cheek) “Overture” form 1915, better known as “Pineapples in Champagne.” Allegedly, the poeza was inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who dipped a piece of pineapple in champagne while in Severyanin’s presence and then insisted that Severyanin do the same.

Pineapples, pineapples — dipped in champagne!
Surprisingly tasty, sparkling, and keen!
I’m in something Norwegian! Something from Spain!
Madly inspired! I take up my pen!

The rattling of airplanes! The roaring of cars!
Wind-whistling trains! Wing-soaring yachts!
This one gets kisses! That one gets scars!
Champagne and pineapples — pulse of the night!

Among skittish maidens and stylish grandes dames
I’ll turn tragic life into fantasy-farce…
Pineapples, pineapples — dipped in champagne!
Nagasaki to Moscow! New York to Mars!

What poem, however silly, better captures the spirit of the belle époque — which, for Russia, arrived so late and ended so catastrophically? It’s not surprising that Severyanin’s popularity was also short-lived. There was no room for this brand of futurism after 1917. As Mayakovsky, who had first tasted pineapples in champagne, warned in his infamous couplet: “Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse / Your end is near, you bourgeois louse.”

Severyanin emigrated in 1918 and settled in Estonia, where he continued to write, more or less forgotten by readers, until his death of a heart attack in 1941. The poems of his final years are very different from those that had won him such fervent adoration in the 1910s. Here is a gentle lyric from 1937, dedicated to the Estonian poet Alexis Rannit (born Alexey Konstantinovich Dolgoshev, 1914-1985).

Some feelings are so intimate that one —
one even fears them in a line of verse:
when such things happen, a ripe lyric can
rot as a swollen seed that can’t quite burst…

Some feelings are so delicate and so
piercingly subtle that, should you try
to put them in a song… You mustn’t, no:
whoever hears that song may simply die…

And this is how a poem that begins
within the heart remains there, locked forever.
This punishment — this penance for our sins —
may be among the cruelest we can suffer.


Увертюра

Ананасы в шампанском! Ананасы в шампанском!
Удивительно вкусно, искристо́ и остро́!
Весь я в чём-то норвежском! Весь я в чём-то испанском!
Вдохновляюсь порывно! И берусь за перо!

Стрёкот аэропланов! Бе́ги автомобилей!
Ветропро́свист экспрессов! Крылолёт буеров!
Кто-то здесь зацелован! Там кого-то побили!
Ананасы в шампанском — это пульс вечеров!

В группе девушек нервных, в остром обществе дамском
Я трагедию жизни претворю в грёзофарс…
Ананасы в шампанском! Ананасы в шампанском!
Из Москвы — в Нагасаки! Из Нью-Йорка — на Марс!

1915

Есть чувства

Алексису Ранниту

Есть чувства столь интимные, что их,
боишься их и в строках стихотворных:
так, дать ростков не смея, зрелый стих
гниет в набухших до отказа зернах…

Есть чувства столь тончайшие и столь
проникновенно-сложные, что, если
их в песнь вложить, они не столько боль,
сколь смерть вливают в слушателя песни!..

И вот — в душе очерченным стихам
без письменных остаться начертаний.
И эта кара, — кара по грехам, —
одно из самых жутких наказаний…

Таллинн
17 ноября 1937

 

Ivan Elagin’s Russian Window

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Jamie Olson has continued his eight-year tradition of posting Russian “Nativity poems” — inspired by Joseph Brodsky’s practice of writing a poem for every Christmas — on his blog The Flaxen Wave. This year he has shared his delicate translation of a melancholy, visionary poem by Konstantin Vaginov (1899-1934). Vaginov describes a scene in Petrograd, sometime between 1919 and 1923, when the city, still reeling after years of war and terror, was undergoing a radical transformation. Orthodox Russia was becoming a different country under Bolshevik rule.

Jamie’s post brought to mind another poem, written under different circumstances, by the émigré poet Ivan Elagin (1918-1987), whose work I’ve translated before. What it shares with Vaginov’s poem is a tone of calm acceptance of great loss, the loss of an entire world, which lives on only in the private realm of the poet’s imagination. In Elagin’s case, Russia lives on in his memory of a simple window. (And this warm, glowing, singular Russian window stands in stark contrast to the stony windows of loneliness in Pittsburgh, where the poet lived in emigration.)

I like my life here on this foreign shore.
I do not taste nostalgia’s bitterness.
Of all the things I left — so long ago —
it’s just the Russian window that I miss.

I still recall, down to this very day,
when darkness settles on my soul,
a window with a large cross in the middle —
a window in the evening, all aglow.


Мне не знакома горечь ностальгии.
Мне нравится чужая сторона.
Из всей — давно оставленной — России
Мне не хватает русского окна.

Оно мне вспоминается доныне,
Когда в душе становится темно, —
Окно с большим крестом посередине,
Вечернее горящее окно.

Andrey Kurkov’s THE BICKFORD FUSE

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In 2015 I translated a most unusual, haunting novel by the Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. Its title — The Bickford Fuse — refers to the Englishman William Bickford (1774-1834) and his great invention, the safety fuse. Bickford himself appears as a character in the novel, although the action is set in the late Soviet period. What we find here, in other words, isn’t exactly realism, but that doesn’t mean Kurkov loses sight of reality. In fact, what he offers us is a new vantage point on the world we think we know.

My journey though Kurkov’s sui generis Bickford Fuse forever changed my sense of Soviet life, which I experienced as a child in the 1980s. In this, the first of his major novels, he set himself a difficult task: “to trace,” as he puts it in his preface, “the evolution of Soviet man’s utopian mentality.” To do this, he devised not only a set of ominous symbols — including an airship floating without direction above the clouds, whose helpless “Occupant” is a stand-in for Nikita Khrushchev; a watch factory that makes hourglasses; a fruitless orchard planted by the victims of mass executions; and the titular safety fuse, extending from the Sea of Japan to what was then Leningrad — but also a variety of styles, each of which was a painful pleasure to reproduce.

First, there is the deadpan magic realism of which Kurkov is the undisputed master, and which we encounter in the very first lines: “The city slept lightly. It dreamt of a fish – a huge, wide flounder blocking out the sky. And if the flounder blocked out the sky, that meant it wished good things for the city. The city had long yearned for good things.” There is also the officialese of disorienting dispatches from the center of power, piped in through wireless radios to the farthest and least populated reaches of the empire:

Stay tuned for a report from the Soviet Information Bureau. Listen for the following time signals: in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev – summer of 1945; in Perm, Norilsk, Magnitogorsk – summer of 1943; in Ust-Ilimsk, Vorkuta, Anadyr – autumn of 1939. Message to Perm, Norilsk, Magnitogorsk and the regions of East Siberia: after heavy prolonged fighting, Soviet troops have withdrawn from Crimea; the enemy has suffered heavy losses in manpower and equipment . . .

And then there are the bits of gnomic wisdom or sheer folly — the two are hard to distinguish — that escape the mouths of Kurkov’s unforgettable characters, like the hermit who lives by an abandoned runway and devotes his life to erecting a peculiar wooden monument: “People are enemies while they live, but death evens the score. It reconciles everyone. What kind of enemy is he, if he’s dead? That’s why the monument’s ‘To All Those Who Have Perished’ — that is, to everyone reconciled by death.”

Long after I finished the translation, this chorus of voices still rang in my mind, like the strains of “The March of the Enthusiasts,” played by the performers incarcerated in the novel’s musical labor camp, the Mulag. I am still haunted by Kurkov’s warped, uniquely insightful depiction of the late Soviet world, in which — to quote the title of anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s book-length study of the period — everything was forever, until it was no more. Completed in 1989, Kurkov’s melancholy satirical masterpiece predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, sadly, the ghostly afterlife of Soviet man in the present day: “after heavy prolonged fighting, Soviet troops have withdrawn from Crimea; the enemy has suffered heavy losses in manpower and equipment…

The Bickford Fuse was greeted warmly when it was first published in 2016, with reviews by Phoebe Taplin in The Guardian, Ian Sansom in The Spectator, and Sam Leith in the Financial Times, as well as by David Hebblethwaite and other book bloggers I greatly admire. And its paperback reprint has just received another excellent review from Erin Britton in NB. I hope Kurkov’s most recent novel, which I’ve just signed on to translate, will also find a receptive audience in English. In some ways, it picks up the thread (fuse, I should say) of the author’s debut, leading us into the current conflict in Crimea — through a Kurkovian side door.

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Andrey and myself, photographed by Jennifer Croft

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 is a preview of 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,
waving a flickblade like a little fan,
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…

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.