Baffling to the Mind

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Just in time for the World Cup, this week’s issue of the TLS (22 June) brings us a star-studded formation of Russia- and Ukraine-related pieces, featuring: Stephanie Sandler’s lyrical appreciation of the latest collection of Gennady Aygi’s essays and poems, Time of Gratitude (New Directions), “well-translated and splendidly chosen” by Peter France, who “has done more to make [Aygi’s] poetic world available to English-language readers than” any other translator; Oliver Ready’s shrewd, witty assessment of Mikhail Epstein’s provocative work of “literary metaphysics,” The Irony of the Ideal (Academic Studies Press, translated by A. S. Brown); Sarah J. Young’s take on Donald Rayfield’s new translation of Varlam Shalamov’s harrowing Kolyma Tales (NYRB Classics); and Stephen Lovell’s fascinating essay on post-truth and post-pravda. It also includes my review of Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler’s A History of Russian Literature (Oxford University Press), which I open with the immortal lines of Fyodor Tyutchev:

“Russia is baffling to the mind, / not subject to the common measure…” So begins, in Avril Pyman’s trans­lation, one of the best-known quatrains in Russian literary history. This poetic crystallization of the spirit of Russian exceptionalism, which Fyodor Tyutchev first jotted down on a slip of paper in 1866, has been appropriated in the ensuing century and a half by arch- nationalists and bitter cynics alike. For good or ill, it suggests, the country stands apart and defies comprehension. One can easily extend Tyutchev’s dictum to the realm of Russian literature, haunted as it is by loose, baggy monsters and supposedly untranslatable verse. What common measure could one apply to such a vast and varied terrain? What single mind could take stock of it?

I go on to mention the ever-quotable History of Russian Literature written by D. S. Mirsky — whom I quoted just last week in my post on Denis Davydov — and to praise the broader account of the Russian literary field given by the authors of this new History.


Denis Davydov (1784-1839) and His Çekmen

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Portrait of Denis Vasilyevich Davydov (1784-1839) by George Dow (1781-1829)

Few Russian poets before Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) wrote verse as lively as that of Denis Davydov (1784-1839). A legendary soldier, Davydov was the bard of the hussar’s life, which, if you took his word for it, consisted of nothing but battle, women, and wine — not necessarily in that order. In his History of Russian Literature, D. S. Mirsky writes: “The diction in some [of Davydov’s poems] is rather unconventional, and occasionally his words have to be replaced by dots, but it is always full of spirit and great rhythmical go.” And so it’s not terribly surprising that Pushkin, as Mirsky goes on to report, “had a high opinion of his poetry and used to say that Davydov showed him the way to be original.”

In the poem below, from 1810, Davydov thanks Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov (1772-1817), an important military commander, for the gift of a çekmen, a traditional long coat worn by Turkic peoples. This is the perfect attire, as Davydov sees it, for a descendant of Genghis Khan and Batu Khan, which Davydov believed himself to be.


(By way of contrast, Davydov refers to Lindor, the disguised lover in Pierre Beaumarchais’s [1732-1799] The Barber of Seville [1773]; but one commentator has speculated that the Lindor in question is actually Catherine II’s favorite lapdog, about whom she herself wrote poems in French.)

To Count P. A. Stroganov

In gratitude for the çekmen he gave me during the war of 1810 in Turkey

My forebear Genghis Khan, of blessed memory,
raider and scalawag with yard-long whiskers,
tornado on a dashing steed, descended briskly,
in dazzling armor, on the enemy,
his Tatar hand upraised, ready to slay
all that would stand in his heroic way.
Another venerable forebear — just as rude
as Genghis Khan, his grandfather — once stood
in open fields, among the clashing swords,
wearing his çekmen, lording over hordes.
I burn with the same flame as Genghis Khan;
like old Batu, I yearn to show my brawn.
So tell me, my dear Count, should I turn up
among the troops dressed like some French-bred fop,
tie a jabot around my neck and coif my hair,
look like a Lindor among whiskered bears?
Take pity on a poor descendant of Batu —
accept his silly verse in gratitude!


Графу П. А. Строганову

За чекмень, подаренный им мне во время войны 1810 года в Турции

Блаженной памяти мой предок Чингисхан,
Грабитель, озорник, с аршинными усами,
На ухарском коне, как вихрь перед громами,
В блестящем панцире влетал во вражий стан
И мощно рассекал татарскою рукою
Всё, что противилось могущему герою.
Почтенный пращур мой, такой же грубиян,
Как дедушка его, нахальный Чингисхан,
В чекмене лёгоньком, среди мечей разящих,
Ордами управлял в полях, войной гремящих.
Я тем же пламенем, как Чингисхан, горю;
Как пращур мой Батый, готов на бранну прю.
Но мне ль, любезный граф, в французском одеянье
Явиться в авангард, как франту на гулянье,
Завязывать жабо, причёску поправлять
И усачам себя Линдором показать!
Потомка бедного ты пожалей Батыя
И за чекмень прими его стихи дурные!


Jacek Dehnel’s LALA

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The latest issue of the ever-stimulating Quarterly Conversation carries my review of Jacek Dehnel’s debut novel Lala, which Antonia Lloyd-Jones has translated from Polish with great skill and charm. The review begins:

If a novel is especially immersive, if the voice of its narrator is sufficiently consistent and evocative, the world it describes may come to life in picturesque color. I say picturesque, rather than vivid, because a novel’s dominant colors may not be entirely lifelike; they may be closer to the rich oils of Rembrandt or the downy pastels of Degas. Such colors suggest life but also remind us of art’s mediating presence. Jacek Dehnel’s lush debut novel, Lala, for instance, is awash in the sepia tones of old photographs, a few of which punctuate the text. Like an old family album, assembled by an eccentric relative with an artistic bent, Dehnel’s work is drawn from life and enriched with intent, with a kind of aesthetic cohesion that bare facts lack.

Dehnel is as fine a poet as he is a prose stylist. In 2009 he edited the anthology Six Polish Poets for Arc Publications, which featured a small selection of his own verse, and this month Zephyr Press will bring out his first full English-language collection, Aperture, translated by Karen Kovacik.

And since we’re speaking of poetry, I’d like to thank Patrick Kurp for his sensitive review of Ten Poems from Russia on Anecdotal Evidence. I’m especially grateful for his contextual reading of Osip Mandelstam’s “Take from my palms some sun to bring you joy,” a marvelous poem delicately translated by Peter France.

Ten Poems Takes Flight… Which Reminds Me!

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The launch of Ten Poems from Russia was, by all accounts, a lovely event!  After opening remarks from Di Slaney of Candlestick Press and Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, I said a few words about the Russian poetic tradition and read Pushkin’s immortal “Prologue to Ruslan and Lyudmila” in Peter France’s magical translation. I then invited the poet Nancy Mattson, whose work I love, to read my translation of a poem by Tsvetaeva as well as one of her own original poems inspired by the Russian master. After that, poet Peter Daniels, one of the finest reciters of verse I have ever heard, read Robert Chandler’s exquisite rendition of Anna Akhmatova’s chilling elegy for Sergey Yesenin, as well as “The Dactyls” by Vladislav Khodasevich, whose work doesn’t appear in Ten Poems but can (and should!) be found in the superb Selected Poems translated and edited by Peter. The accomplished translator Stephen Capus followed up with an engaging introduction to the work of Khodasevich’s fellow émigré Georgy Ivanov and read his pitch-perfect translation of one of the laconic poet’s longer works (about 20 lines!). I ended the evening by reading my translation of another Ivanov poem, in which the speaker finds pleasure in the transient beauty of a rose, which he tosses into a garbage can, and of Julia Nemirovskaya’s dazzling “Bouquet,” in which the speaker refuses to throw out a gorgeous white tulip. Nemirovskaya is the only living poet featured in the pamphlet, which should give you a sense of how highly I value her utterly original voice.

It was incredibly heartening to see so many familiar faces in the crowd — old friends, former students, and colleagues I had only known in the virtual realm. Front and center was my girlfriend, Jennifer Croft. Which reminds me: I’ve buried the lede! Two days earlier, Jennifer received the Man Booker International Prize for her spectacularly inventive translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s brilliant novel Flights. The fact that she made time for the Ten Poems reading means the world to me. She was in the midst of a hurricane of activity… How she survived it I’ll never know!

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The Long Exile of Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)


(Walenty Wańkowicz’s Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz, 1827–1828)

The story of modern Polish literature is, to a large extent, a story of exile. In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — once the largest nation in Europe — was partitioned for the third and final time by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. For the next 123 years, Poland would exist only in the hearts and minds of the Poles. Of course, it also continued to live on the page, in lines of verse, and no lines gave it as vibrant a life as those of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s romantic bard, who was born three years after the Third Partition and died in Constantinople in 1855.

The two poems below are drawn from different periods of his long exile. “The Pilgrim” is part of his romantic cycle of Crimean Sonnets, published in 1826. It is a young man’s poem, in which the speaker is wonderfully alive to the exotic landscape that surrounds him, even as he longs for another one. The elegant translation below, from 1938, belongs to Dorothea Prall Radin (1889-1948), a student and frequent collaborator of George Rapall Noyes. The second poem, which was written in 1839 or 1840 in Lausanne and never published in Mickiewicz’s lifetime, appears here in my translation. At that late date, having seen so many foreign landscapes, the poet is dead to his surroundings. It’s also worth noting that the landscape for which Mickiewicz longs in both poems is Lithuanian. He was born in Navahrudak, in what is now Belarus but was, at various times in the past, Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union. Mickiewicz’s native terrain is a palimpsest of shifting borders and vanished nations. You can learn a great deal more about all of this from Roman Koropeckyj’s superb biography, Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic.

The Pilgrim

A rich and lovely country wide unrolled,
A fair face by me, skies where white clouds sail:
Why does my heart forever still bewail
Far distant lands, more distant days of old?
Litwa! Your roaring forests sang more bold
Than Salhir maid, Baydary nightingale;
I’d rather walk your marshes than this vale
Of mulberries, and pineapples of gold.

Here are new pleasures, and I am so far!
Why must I always sigh distractedly
For her I loved when first my morning star
Arose? In that dear house I may not see,
Where yet the tokens of her lover are,
Does she still walk my ways and think of me?


Translated by Dorothea Prall Radin


While my corpse is here, sitting among you,
while it looks you in the eye, and even speaks,
my soul is far, so very far away —
it wanders and it weeps, oh, how it weeps.

I have a country, homeland of my thoughts,
where my heart has innumerable kin:
a land more fair than what I see before me,
a family more dear than anything.

There, amid work and worry and amusements,
I run away to rest beneath the pines,
to lie about in lush and fragrant grasses,
to chase the sparrows and the butterflies.

I see her there — in white, descending from the porch,
flying towards us from the meadows green,
bathing in grain as in the deepest waters,
shining from mountains like the light of dawn.


Translated by Boris Dralyuk

Ten Poems from Russia

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On Thursday, May 24, I’ll be launching a pamphlet titled Ten Poems from Russia, which I was asked to compile by the kind, thoughtful editors at Candlestick Press and Pushkin Press. The event will take place at 7pm at one of my favorite venues, London’s Pushkin House.

Choosing ten poems to represent the great wealth of the Russian poetic tradition was, as you can well imagine, a considerable challenge. But as I write in my brief introduction, “Any anthology, no matter how expansive, is necessarily reductive. At its best, it is an entryway — a corridor full of inviting doors, which open onto rooms that contain many wonders, as well as many other doors…” The doors in my humble corridor bear the names of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilyov, Boris Pasternak, Yuri Kazarnovsky, Georgy Ivanov, and Julia Nemirovskaya.

And one of the most inviting lyrics in the pamphlet is surely Tsvetaeva’s passionate plea to her daughter Ariadna, whom she called Alya, which I describe as “a perfect expression of the Russian notion of freedom — heedless and unbounded.” It was written on June 11, 1917, between two revolutions, when Alya was not quite five years old.

To Alya

And when you too are dragged — as by a tide —
into a life of endless wandering,
justify your snakish pedigree:
put home — myself — my poems — out of mind.

Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow.
Drink wine, ride troikas, sing loud in the barroom,
be a blue-eyed gypsy, be a temptress.
Know one thing: you’ll never find an equal —
so throw yourself at every lover’s breast.

Oh, the blazing Paris boulevards!
(Do you see them? Millions of eyes!)
Oh, the thunder of Madrid’s guitars!
(I’ve written of them — oh so many times!)

Know one thing: (your gaze is wide and ardent,
the sails are swelling — on your merry way!)
Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow —
child, nothing else is worth the time of day.

You can read the original here. And if you happen to be in London on the 24th, I hope you’ll set your swelling sails for Pushkin House!

Wit from Woe: The Poetry of Solovki


(Cover of the journal SLON, nos. 9-10 [November-December 1924])

Andrea Gullotta of the University of Glasgow recently published an important work of scholarship, Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930: The Paris of the Northern Concentration Camps. Instead of explaining the book’s significance myself, I’ll link to two excellent reviews: Robert Chandler’s in the Financial Times and Lydia Roberts’s in LARB. Roberts is a graduate student at UCLA, who is herself working on the literature of the Gulag. As she writes: “The benefit of Gullotta’s book to researchers like me is that we can now, for the first time, point to an ideal primer on our subject, which makes the case for camp literature’s intrinsic value.”

Both she and Chandler cite striking pieces of verse composed under the most horrid conditions. Roberts offers her own subtle, sensitive translation of a poem by Boris Shiriaev (1889-1959), while Chandler writes: “Remarkable poems were published in Solovki. Among them is a cycle of parodies by Yuri Kazarnovsky, who spent four years in the camp in the late 1920s. Brilliantly recreating their voices, he imagines what Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Yesenin and other poets might have written had they, or their characters, been sent to the camp. An example is his version of the first lines of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:

“My uncle is a man of honour.
When he ‘fell ill’, quite suddenly,
He had to leave his Moscow manor
And serve a term on Solovki.
A man of property, he’d led
The easy life of lords and peers.
You know what rhymes with peers? Ten years —
And that’s what his wise judges said!”

Chandler continues: “The deftness and boldness of these lines, which closely track the original, are easy to appreciate. What I would not have known, without Gullotta’s commentary, is that they are biographically accurate. In Onegin, the narrator’s uncle simply falls ill and dies; in reality, Pushkin’s uncle was imprisoned on Solovki from 1827 to 1832. From its first years, the monastery had doubled as a prison.”

The translation of Kazarnovsky’s blackly comic “Faux-negin” is mine. I based my version on Stanley Mitchell’s brilliant translation of the opening stanza of Pushkin’s masterpiece:

My uncle is a man of honour,
When in good earnest he fell ill,
He won respect by his demeanour
And found the role he best could fill.
Let others profit by his lesson,
But, oh my God, what desolation
To tend a sick man day and night
And not to venture from his sight!
What shameful cunning to be cheerful
With someone who is halfway dead,
To prop up pillows by his head,
To bring him medicine, looking tearful,
To sigh — while inwardly you think:
When will the devil let him sink?

You can read Kazarnovsky’s original, along with a selection of his other parodies, here.

“Oh, Buy My Bagels, Friends!”: Yakov Yadov’s “Bublichki”

In March of last year I posted a clip of Leonid Utyosov (1895-1982), the very soul of Odessa, singing his signature song, “Bublichki” (“Bagels”). I described it as “the sob story of a girl forced to sell bagels on the street corner” and compared it to “The House of the Rising Sun.” But two things — besides language — distinguish it from the American folk ballad. First, the melody, which is based on the Yiddish tune “Dus Zekele mit Koilen” (“A Little Bag of Coal”), is a good deal peppier. And second, we know the name of the song’s author.

The bagels were baked on order by the Odessan poet Yakov Yadov (1873-1940), to satisfy Grigory Krasavin, a popular singer of satirical songs. In 1926, Krasavin returned to his native Odessa for a series of engagements. On his way from the train station, he was accosted by a cavalcade of bagel-hawkers — “Buy my bagels! Buy my bagels!” He described his journey to Yadov, who broke out in laughter and asked to be excused. For about half an hour, Krasavin sat with Yadov’s wife, drinking tea and listening to the clacking of a typewriter in the next room. Then Yadov returned, brandishing the lyrics to “Bublichki,” which Krasavin performed a few days later. The song became a sensation, the soundtrack to Soviet life in the late 1920s — and not just. “Bublichki” was a standard in émigré cabarets, and the fabulous Barry Sisters even recorded a Yiddish version in the United States.

I’ve taken a shot at a couple of the song’s verses and the refrain, but first, to give you a sense of the melody… Here’s the Yiddish “Koilen,” recorded, not altogether coincidentally, by the Odessa-born virtuoso klezmer accordionist Mishka Ziganoff (1889-1967) in New York in 1919:

Here’s Utyosov performing “Bublichki” itself:

And here are the Barry Sisters, with their bluesy “Bagelah”:

I offer you my “Bagels”:

Oh, night is falling now —
and, swaying to and fro,
the lantern’s light
cuts through the gloom…
While little dirty me,
a child of poverty —
out in the street
I stand alone…

Oh, buy my bagels, friends —
hot tasty bagels, friends!
Spare a few rubles —
don’t be tight!
Oh, please, take pity, friends,
on a poor, innocent,
forgotten waif
this nasty night.

When papa hits the booze,
he howls and yells abuse —
mama’s got one foot
in the grave.
My sister’s awful loose,
out shaking her caboose,
and my kid brother —
a gonif!

Oh, buy my bagels, friends —
hot tasty bagels, friends!
Spare a few rubles —
don’t be tight!
Oh, please, take pity, friends,
on a poor, innocent,
forgotten waif
this nasty night.

Remembering Olga Kagan (1946-2018)

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Olga E. Kagan (December 25, 1946 – April 6, 2018)

(Photograph by Diane Hofland, Portland State University, 2010)

On April 6 the UCLA community lost Olga E. Kagan, a pioneer of heritage language education and an inspiration to countless students and teachers, including myself. I was honored to be asked to speak at Olga’s service, and to write a tribute to this extraordinary educator and human being. The tribute has been posted to a memorial website hosted by the UCLA Center for World Languages, which Olga directed, and now I am posting it here.

Some years ago, when I was teaching Russian under Olga’s direction, we discussed the strange phenomenon — familiar to language teachers — of students blithely sharing intimate information in a language they’re trying to master. These students, we conjectured, are so happy to have the words to express anything at all that they end up making admissions, with broad smiles of self-satisfaction, which might otherwise make them blush. I remember the look of kind wonderment, somewhat regal but not at all condescending, on Olga’s face as we spoke of this — she looked like a benevolent confessor. I had seen that look before, many times, at the Slavic department’s holiday parties, in Olga’s office, and as a student in her classroom.

As an undergraduate at UCLA I took a course for heritage speakers of Russian — a course Olga had designed — which provided a home for us Russophone émigrés, or children of émigrés, whose linguistic storehouses contained as little as “Дай кушать” (“Gimme grub”) or as much as a few memorized Pushkin poems. We all made constant mistakes in conjugation and declension, all struggled to produce flawless if unoriginal sentences. At one point, when practicing adjectives, I offered a simple statement that brought a look of wonderment to Olga’s face: “Я — осенний человек” (“I’m an autumnal person”). Olga smiled warmly and responded: “Я тоже осенний человек” (“I too am an autumnal person”). I suspect she liked the slight imaginative leap of the sentence, its figurative potential. She always inspired her students to take leaps, however small.

I was being honest: I am an autumnal person. And I believe she too was being honest. When I think of Olga, I imagine her in autumn, possessing all the attributes and moods I associate with the season: thoughtful, somewhat rueful, warm — taking the time to look back, but ready to move forward. Ready to move forward because, in the academic calendar, fall is the start of things, not their end. And throughout my years at UCLA, one of the things to which I could always look forward was reconnecting with Olga at the beginning of that first quarter. Olga — who was always full of projects but never seemed to be in a rush, whose door was always open, who always remembered everything about you, about every student she had shepherded into the world. Olga — with whom you could always be honest in any language, and who would offer the perfect advice, smiling in kindness, never condescending.

A year without Olga is as unthinkable to me now as a year without autumn. But of course Olga will always be present — present in each of those whom she taught and trained to teach. Many of them will greet their students and colleagues next fall, passing on her warmth and dedication.

You can read Olga’s life and career, and watch a brief clip of her speaking about her work, at the UCLA Slavic department’s website, as well as in the Daily Bruin.

Tokarczuk and Croft on FLIGHTS, and a Few Words on Ostashevsky’s PIRATE

My brilliant partner Jennifer Croft’s translation of contemporary Polish master Olga Tokarczuk’s “constellation novel” Flights has rightly won praise from all quarters. In a recent list of “50 Writers You Should Read Now,” The Guardian called it a “dazzling novel of fragments [that] makes a passionate plea for connectedness through stories that somersault through time and space.” Last month Flights was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and the committee has just posted a concise, insightful double-interview with Olga and Jennifer!

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Meanwhile, I’ve taken a headlong flight through Russian-American poet Eugene Ostashevsky’s uproarious epic The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi.