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
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
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?”
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


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.

“He Knew Them All”: On Georgy Shengeli


A couple of days ago, Muireann Maguire — a Senior Lecturer in Russian at Exeter, who, in her spare time (ha!), blogs wittily at the Russian Dinosaur — wrote to me about her plans to translate the prose of Georgy Shengeli (1894-1956), who is remembered mostly, if at all, as a poet. Shengeli is far from a household name in Russia today, but he was highly regarded by the writers of his generation. Unfortunately, his career as a poet and verse theorist took a bad turn in 1927, when he published a booklet criticizing Mayakovsky, who was by then the most powerful poet in the Soviet Union. A polemic ensued, from which Shengeli did not emerge unscathed; he withdrew into translation, editing, and teaching. In the 1930s he headed the “Literatures of the Peoples of the USSR” division of the State Publishing House, commissioning translations from colleagues like Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who were unable to publish their own verse. In 1939 he took up a professorship at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, but it appears he didn’t like the work; he saw many of his students as careerists, who set little store by the poetic tradition to which he had dedicated his entire life. In one of his last poems, written in 1955, Shengeli casts a wistful backward glance at the great flowering of poetic culture he had witnessed in his youth. The names in the poem belong to Andrey Bely, Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Maximilian Voloshin, Igor Severyanin, Ivan Bunin, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Narbut (certainly not Vladimir Mayakovsky!), Vyacheslav Ivanov, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Alexander Blok.

He knew them all, saw nearly all of them:
Andrey, Valery, Konstantin,
Osip, and Boris, Maximilian,
Igor, Ivan, Anna, Sergey,
Vladimir, Vyacheslav, Marina,
Alexander — an unrivaled chorus,
a stellar constellation of fourteen.

That fireworks display of names!
How history would cheer their victory!
Was this not Peter’s triumph? Not the coming
of the Third Rome? The feast
to celebrate the marriage of the West
with Russia’s boundless, all-embracing soul?

He knew them all. He spoke of them
to his ungrateful students, and they listened
respectfully, weighing their options:
How much demand is there today for star shine?
A safer bet would be the dullness of a hymn
or anthem made to order.

And he fell silent. Keeping to himself
his memories of the marvelous constellation,
which would remain unique forever…
He was old
and sad, like the last gun of a salute.

Shengeli is also one of the subjects in Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames. The poem, beautifully translated by Maria Bloshteyn, begins:

In the narrow hallway Akhmatova
repeated what she had said
in the room an hour earlier:
“Do something for Shengeli,
don’t forget about him,
please reread his poems…”

Shengeli isn’t forgotten. I myself will try to “do something” for his poems, and thanks to Muireann, anglophone readers will soon be able to discover his prose as well.

Cardinal Points, vol. 8

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Last year’s volume of Cardinal Points included a “special focus” on the prose of poet Elena Shvarts (1948-2010). If this year’s volume, now available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions, has a special focus, it is on émigré writing. I was very proud to include the work of Yuri Felsen (1894-1943) and V. S. Yanovsky (1906-1989), two leading — and quite different — voices of the post-Revolutionary Russian emigration. Both authors were featured in Bryan Karetnyk’s indispensable anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (2017). Here, Bryan presents an excerpt from Felsen’s first novel, Deceit (Obman, 1930), and Alexis Levitin, Yanovsky’s stepson — who is himself an accomplished translator from the Portuguese — shares his mother’s translations of two of Yanovsky’s stories. Other highlights include the first English translation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s verse play Fortune (Fortuna, 1919) by Maya Chhabra, Dmitri Manin’s phenomenally inventive renditions of poems by Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958) and Alexander Galich (1918-1977), and fascinating essays on the translator’s art (with samples) by Stephen Capus and Stephen Pearl. Below is the full table of contents, including this year’s winning entries in the annual Compass Translation Award, which was dedicated, for the first time, to a living poet — Maria Stepanova. As usual, I thank my brilliant co-editor, Irina Mashinski, as well as Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies.


Yuri Felsen, An Excerpt from Deceit (trans. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)
Delia Radu, An Excerpt from The Book of Becoming Mothers
Ian Ross Singleton, An Excerpt from Odessitka
V. S. Yanovsky, “Our Hospital” (trans. from the Russian by Isabella Levitin)
V. S. Yanovsky, “The Adventures of Oscar Quinn” (trans. from the Russian by Isabella Levitin)


Innokenty Annensky, Three “Trefoils” from The Cypress Chest (1910) (trans. from the Russian by Devon Miller-Duggan and Nancy Tittler)
Alexander Blok, The Twelve (trans. from the Russian by Betsy Hulick)
Marina Eskina, “How We Buried You I Don’t Remember” (trans. from the Russian by Ian Ross Singleton)
Alexander Galich, “The Mainland Queen: A Labor Camp Ballad Written in a State of Delirium” (trans. from the Russian by Dmitri Manin)
Ben Holland, “The Queen of Spades: A Ballad Adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s Short”
Story Patrick Meighan, “Slovinky, I and II”
Slava Nurgaliev, “The game of soccer, the unfinished” (trans. from the Russian by Yevgeniy Sokolovsky)
Gerard Sarnat, “Don’t Tread on Me”
Marina Tsvetaeva, Four Poems from 1922 (trans. from the Russian by Mary Jane White)
Nikolay Zabolotsky, Three Poems from Columns (trans. from Russian by Dmitri Manin)


Marina Tsvetaeva, Fortune (trans. from the Russian by Maya Chhabra)

The Art of Translation

Stephen Capus, “Rhyme and Reason in the Poetry of Georgy Ivanov”
Stephen Pearl, “‘Malinovka Heights’: Ruminations on Translating Ivan Goncharov’s Obryv

Alexander Veytsman, Compass Competition Director

Maria Stepanova, in translations by Dmitri Manin, Zachary Murphy King, and Jamie Olson

Women in Translation Month

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It’s Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth, for the Twitter savvy), and I’ve spent the past few days listening to an exemplary translating woman discuss the finer points of her art and craft in various tents at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Jennifer was representing her Man Booker International-winning translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which came out in the States last week and has been getting rave reviews in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, NPR, and elsewhere.  On one of her panels, Jennifer was joined by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the doyenne of Polish translators, whose rendition of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead will appear from Fitzcarraldo Editions on September 12.

Sharing the stage with Michael Hofmann and Frank Wynne, Jennifer and Antonia spoke to a packed venue and held the audience riveted. The next day, at high noon, Wynne took on Ros Schwartz in a (thankfully bloodless) “translation duel,” moderated by Daniel Hahn. It was an absolute dead heat (tempted as I am to pun on Frank’s name). The real winners, of course, were in the audience!

I was moved and encouraged by the turnout at these events. Translation has come such a long way in the past few decades… Its practitioners are no longer invisible intermediaries; now they draw crowds at literary festivals. And so much of that progress owes to the hard work of my brilliant women colleagues.

I’ll let one such colleague have the last word. A few days ago, LARB published Yuliya Komska’s fascinating interview with the English-to-Ukrainian translator Tetiana Savchynska, who says the following about translation’s capacity to enrich the literary landscape, to help us acknowledge difference without succumbing to bigotry: “I often imagine a world without Babel, as it were — everyone still using the same language. I contemplate this possibility not only because I would be unemployed, but also because our literary world would look so different if there were no cultural and linguistic differences among communities large and small. Linguistically (though not politically), it can seem that we are inevitably headed toward a world without boundaries, with literatures becoming more uniform and less steeped in discrete cultures. Perhaps translation can work against that. It dismantles some borders but also preserves and guards the uniqueness of what is held within them.”

Jewish Luck: On Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, and the Varieties of the Jewish Experience

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On August 12, 1952, thirteen luminaries of Soviet Jewish culture — including the Yiddish-language writers David Bergelson (1884–1952), Peretz Markish (1895–1952), Dovid Hofshteyn (1889–1952), Itzik Feffer (1900–1952), and Leyb Kvitko (1890–1952) — were executed on trumped-up charges of espionage and treason. This date has come to be known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” All the writers had been members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and had worked tirelessly during the Second World War to rally international support for the struggle against the Nazis and their allies.

To mark this sad anniversary — which seems all the more important now, as it coincides with the anniversary of the 2017 “rally” in Charlottesville — my friend Rob Adler Peckerar, director of Yiddishkayt, and the people of the SoCal Workmen’s Circle (Arbiter Ring) organized a screening of Jewish Luck (1925), a gem of Soviet Jewish cinema, directed by Alexis Granowsky (1890-1937) and starring one of the great actors of the period, Shloyme Mikhoels (1890-1948). The film is an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s classic stories of Menakhem-Mendl, the quintessential luftmensch of shtetl lore — always dreaming, always scheming, and always coming up short.

I was asked to introduce Jewish Luck because its hilarious intertitles were written by none other than Isaac Babel. There’s a fun — likely mythical — story about this inspired match… We know for a fact that Babel loved the stories of Sholem Aleichem, but when he was approached to write the screenplay, he demurred. How could he, as an Odessan Jew, possibly create a believable luftmensch? After all, Jews from Odessa, be they rich or poor, are all driven people, with concrete goals — they’re big-city machers, not vague shtetl dreamers!

At the time, Babel was writing his gangster tales. And it’s true: his Benya Krik, the king of Odessa’s underworld, wouldn’t have given poor Menakhem-Mendl the time of day. But Mikhoels convinced Babel to take a chance. So Babel, as the story goes, found himself a real Jewish matchmaker (shadkhen) of the old school and followed him around for weeks. By the time the shoot started, he had acquired enough first-hand experience of the luftmensch lifestyle to craft the titles.

My sense is that the experience of working on Jewish Luck impacted Babel’s own prose. Around this same time he began to write stories about his childhood — much more tender than the gangster tales, and full of real luftmenschen. “In the Basement” (1929), for instance, features “Grandfather Levi Yitzchak, a rabbi who’d been run out of his shtetl for forging Count Branicki’s signature on promissory notes [and] was regarded as a madman by our neighbors and the boys in the street.” Levi Yitzchak, like his grandson, is a writer:

He wrote in Yiddish on square sheets of yellow paper as enormous as maps. The manuscript was called A Man with No Head. It described all of Levi Yitzchak’s neighbors over the seventy years of his life — first in Skvira and Belaya Tserkov, then in Odessa. Undertakers, cantors, Jewish drunkards, the cooks at brises and the crooks who performed the ritual operations — these were the heroes of Levi Yitzchak’s tale. And all of them were absurd, inarticulate people, with lumpy noses, pimples on their scalps, and lopsided rumps.

If Levi Yitzchak isn’t a luftmensch, then who is? Sholem Aleichem certainly impacted Babel, but I feel Babel also put his own spin on Sholem Aleichem. One of the great sequences in Jewish Luck is set in Odessa. It depicts Menakhem-Mendl actually succeeding at business — the business of a shadkhen. The action is too good to describe… You’d better see it for yourselves (starts at the 30-minute mark):

This smooth, plucky Menakhem-Mendl wouldn’t be out of place in one of Babel’s gangster stories. Of course (spoiler alert!), it’s only a dream…

Oh, and here’s a bit of Odessan trivia for you. The cinematographer of Jewish Luck, Eduard Tisse, was also responsible for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which was being shot simultaneously. Compare the delightful Odessa steps scene in Jewish Luck above with the famous montage in Eisenstein’s masterpiece:

Soviet cinema is far more diverse than one might imagine!

Zoshchenko on the Loose!

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Photograph of Mikhail Zoshchenko by Boris Ignatovich, 1923

Releasing a book into the wild is both a joyous and an agonizing experience: I’m always glad to see the creature in its natural habitat, on bookstore shelves, but I also know that predators roam the aisles… The first week is full of anxiety. Will others treat the book kindly? Will they even notice its existence?

I’m pleased to report that, like Elsa the Lioness, my newly freed translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales is off to a roaring start! Karen Langley — whom I and so many booklovers out there also know as Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings — greeted the collection with a wonderfully sharp-eyed and open-hearted review for Shiny New Books, ending with the perfect description of its overall effect: “Humorous, profound, multi-faceted and tragic, these Sentimental Tales will have you laughing and crying at the same time.”

And other bloggers I admire have been just as receptive! The Opinionated Reader, Adventures with Words, and A Bookish Type have all offered thoughtful, sensitive appraisals of the book. The reception at Goodreads and NetGalley is also deeply encouraging. Which reminds me! My warmest thanks to the Goodreader named Calzean J., who made my day with this spot-on pop cultural comparison: “It reminds me of a series of Seinfeld episodes with George Costanza appearing as various characters.”

Kirkus and Foreword Reviews were also marvelously generous. And to cap it all off, in a big way, yesterday’s issue of The Economist carried a review that couldn’t have been nicer had I written it myself. Yes, I know the journal’s reviewers are anonymous, but I assure you: I didn’t write this one! In fact, I can’t even bring myself to quote it… If you’re interested, read it here.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Homesickness” at Harlequin Creature


Portrait of Marina Tsvetaeva by Boris Chaliapin, 1933

I want to thank Meghan Forbes and Elisa Wouk Almino, the welcoming editors of Harlequin Creature, for hosting my version of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “Homesickness” at their new online translation platform. In my introduction to the poem, which appears below the translation, I write that it

pulses with an especially heavy charge of the emotional energy that infuses all of the poet’s work. It was written in 1934, when the poet felt equally alienated from the Russia she had left behind after the Revolution and the stifling émigré milieu of her new “home,” Paris. Tsvetaeva’s fellow émigrés found little to like in her inventive poems and took umbrage at her perceived rudeness. At the same time, she knew that returning to Soviet Russia posed unthinkable risks. It is this sense of being suspended between unacceptable alternatives that finds expression in “Homesickness.”

The poem captures the heartrending crisis of exile in short, violently enjambed lines that buffet the reader like fast-crashing waves. Its riveting rhythm and surprising slant rhymes are typical of Tsvetaeva’s technique, but here they serve a particular purpose. It is as if the poet is trying, desperately, to bring formal order to emotional chaos, to convince herself that she is indeed beyond homesickness. And thanks to the power of her talent, the illusion holds — until the last two lines. The Russian émigré poet and critic Olga Tabachnikova offers a memorable description of the poem’s effect in her book Russian Irrationalism from Pushkin to Brodsky (2015): “Pain is always greater and more stunning when it is denied, subdued, stranded, but makes its way all the same from under these inner prohibitions and constraints.” In this, Tsvetaeva’s “Homesickness” calls to mind another dazzling formal masterpiece by an émigré poet, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

I hope my translation communicates the effect Tabachnikova describes, and that you enjoy all the lovely, varicolored material at Harlequin Creature!