Balmont’s Parable of the Small Sultan

I’d like to share another poem from the “Freedom Anthology.” In March 1901, Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) — then one of the most popular poets in Russia — was sentenced to three years’ internal exile for reciting a treasonous poem in public. This poem was, ostensibly, about a “small sultan” in Turkey. But neither the audience nor the Tsarist spies were fooled. It clearly referred to events in Russia — namely, the violent suppression of a student protest in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg earlier that month. Here is Balmont’s parable, in my translation:

This was in Turkey, where there is no conscience.
What reigns there is the fist, the lash, the scimitar,
Two-three nonentities, four villains,
And one small sultan, who is none too smart.

Once, in the name of liberty, and faith, and science,
Thinkers assembled — a small, zealous group.
Bashi-bazouks descended on them like a pride of lions,
Each one only as strong as his coarse whip.

The thinkers scattered… Now they’re gone, all fled.
But, secretly, the exiles gathered round a poet.
‘How can we overcome,’ they asked, ‘this evil fate?
Answer us, bard — spare not your wisdom — share it!’

He thought and thought, and then addressed the crowd:
‘Speak words, if you can speak, inspired by the spirit’s breath.
All those who are not deaf must hear those words.
And if they don’t — the knife.’

Between 4th and 14th March 1901

То было в Турции, где совесть — вещь пустая,
Там царствуют кулак, нагайка, ятаган,
Два-три нуля, четыре негодяя
И глупый маленький султан.

Во имя вольности, и веры, и науки
Там как-то собрались ревнители идей,
Но сильных грубостью размашистых плетей
На них нахлынули толпы башибузуков.

Они рассеялись… И вот их больше нет;
Но тайно собрались изгнанники с поэтом.
«Как выйти, — говорят, — из этих темных бед, —
Ответствуй нам, певец, не поскупись советом!»

И он собравшимся, подумав, так сказал:
«Кто может говорить, пусть дух в нем словом дышит,
И если кто не глух, пускай то слово слышит,
А если нет — кинжал».

Между 4 и 14 марта 1901

An Open Book

I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to London, where two inexplicably kind crowds allowed me to ramble on about 1917 and Babel. More importantly, I made good headway on my next project, Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko’s devastating Sentimental Tales. I’ll have much more to say about the Tales in later posts.

In the meantime, here I am on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, discussing 1917 with host Mariella Frostrup and historical novelist Kate Furnivall (starting at 19:03). What an honor that was! And here is the ever-perceptive Phoebe Taplin’s fantastic review of 1917 for Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Busy as I was last week, I found time for a strenuous book hunt on Charing Cross. The catch of the day was a British edition of Proletarian Literature in the United States: An American Book Union Selection (1935), full of first-rate socially conscious writing from the 1920s and ‘30s, including prose by Erskine Caldwell, Josephine Herbst, John Dos Passos, Grace Lumpkin, and James T. Farrell, poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Genevieve Taggard, and Maxwell Bodenheim, and drama by Albert Maltz and Clifford Odets. Here are two of my favorite poems from the volume — Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge” and Alfred Hayes’s “In a Coffee Pot.” As Suzanne Churchill points out, the latter is a kind of working-class take on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The scene Hayes describes calls to mind James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) — and, of course, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942).


The basement at Any Amount of Books never disappoints!

Presently in London

I’m in London this week, giving two talks on 1917 and spending as much time as possible with some of my dearest friends. If you live in town or happen to be passing through, the talks are at Pushkin House (Tuesday, Jan. 17 — appropriately enough) and Sands Film Studios (Friday, Jan. 20).

And for those of you who enjoy fixed forms, here’s a (modified) Onegin stanza, titled “Absentee Ballet,” which just appeared in the January 2017 issue of The Yale Review.

Radio Days and Irina Mashinski’s “The Room, January 1”

A few days before we bid farewell to 2016, my friends and colleagues Sasha Razor and David MacFadyen joined me for a LARB Radio Hour on Soviet New Year’s celebrations. Around the same time, I was given the opportunity to discuss 1917 on the RTÉ radio show Arena, hosted by Seán Rocks.

2017 is now with us, and in the spirit of new beginnings, I’d like to share Irina Mashinski’s beautiful poem “The Room, January 1,” which she and I translated together some years ago.

I’ll get it — just a little more and …
I’ll stand on tiptoe in the morning,
and then, come evening, I will reach
the tender fir tree’s ticklish withers,
forget about myself beneath it,
and feel the topmost needle’s touch.

All morning, the accordion’s
complaints were heard, the worrying
over my palm’s unlengthy line.
But toward evening, you are higher
than yourself — look, from the spire:
the tree, the winding road, the moon.

As if you’re on the downward slope of
your own years — so bright and hopeless,
alone, inside a rocking tram.
The view’s the same — and yet it’s altered.
Whom will you tell that you’ve just started,
a new force pulses through your palm?

Комната 1 января

Еще чуть-чуть — и я достану:
с утра нацыпочки привстану,
а к вечеру и дотянусь
до чуткой холки нежной елки,
иголки самой верхней, колкой,
себя внизу забыв, коснусь.

Все утро жалобы гармони,
и волновала на ладони
недлинной линии длина.
А к вечеру — как будто выше
себя самой, как будто в крыши —
дорога, дерево, луна.

Как будто ты уже на склоне
лет собственных. В пустом вагоне
остался, умный, в дураках.
В окне все также — но иначе
Кому сказать, что путь не начат
и силы прибыло в руках?

Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945)

While translating a small anthology of Russian poems on the theme of freedom, I was struck once again by the rhetorical power of Zinaida Gippius’s verse. Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I included three of her poems in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and I feature one of these, as well as two others, in my 1917. Below are another two. The first is drawn from the “freedom” anthology, and the second appeared in a special issue of Chtenia: Readings from Russia (Summer 2014) dedicated to Russian writing about World War I.


I can’t submit myself to man.
Who’d choose to be a slave?
We judge each other all life long —
and then? A lonely grave.

I can’t submit myself to God,
because I love Him so.
For God has set me on this road —
where else am I to go?

I tear the nets that bind mankind —
happiness, sadness, dreams.
We aren’t slaves — we are Divine —
His children, free as He.

I only plead, in the Son’s name,
with God, the Creator of All,
‘Father, for ever may they remain
as one — Your will and mine!’



Without Justification

No, I will never make my peace.
There’s truth in all my curses.
I won’t forgive, won’t throw myself
into the iron embraces.

Like everyone, I’ll die, I’ll kill —
ruin myself, like everyone —
but I refuse to stain my soul
by justifying what goes on.

When death is near, in darkness, fire,
let my heart not forget:
One cannot justify the war!
One can’t, one simply can’t.

And if this is God’s Hand at work —
this awful, bloody road —
my spirit will not shrink or shirk,
but rise against the Lord.

April 1916, SPB


Я не могу покоряться людям.
Можно ли рабства хотеть?
Целую жизнь мы друг друга судим, —
Чтобы затем — умереть.

Я не могу покоряться Богу,
Если я Бога люблю.
Он указал мне мою дорогу,
Как от нее отступлю?

Я разрываю людские сети —
Счастье, унынье и сон.
Мы не рабы, — но мы Божьи дети,
Дети свободны, как Он.

Только взываю, именем Сына,
К Богу, Творцу Бытия:
Отче, вовек да будут едино
Воля Твоя и моя!



Без оправданья

Нет, никогда не примирюсь.
Верны мои проклятья.
Я не прощу, я не сорвусь
В железные объятья.

Как все, пойду, умру, убью,
Как все — себя разрушу,
Но оправданием — свою
Не запятнаю душу.

В последний час, во тьме, в огне,
Пусть сердце не забудет:
Нет оправдания войне!
И никогда не будет.

И если это Божья длань —
Кровавая дорога —
Мой дух пойдет и с Ним на брань,
Восстанет и на Бога.

Апрель 1916, СПБ

Forging Iron Flowers

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution is now officially on sale in the UK, and the tremendously supportive team at Pushkin Press have posted a little piece in which I discuss the role that the Revolution played in my family’s story. I end by quoting one of the poems from the book — Mikhail Gerasimov’s “Iron Flowers.” Here is the original:

Я не в разнеженной природе,
Среди расцветшей красоты, —
Под дымным небом на заводе
Ковал железные цветы.

Их не ласкало солнце юга
И не баюкал лунный свет —
Вагранок огненная вьюга
Звенящий обожгла букет.

Где гул моторов груб и грозен,
Где свист сирен, металла звон,
Я перезвоном медных сосен
Был очарован и влюблен.

Не в беспечальном хороводе —
В мозолях мощная ладонь,
Неугасимый на заводе
Горел под блузою огонь.

Вздувал я горн рабочим гневом
Коммунистической мечты
И, опьянен его напевом,
Ковал железные цветы.


And here is the evocative cover of the volume in which the poem appeared in 1919:


Rasputin and 1917

My review of Douglas Smith’s Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, an engrossing biography that, like all great works in the genre, doubles as a portrait of its subject’s era, appeared in LARB on Wednesday, Nov. 23.

And today the Financial Times ran Anna Aslanyan’s marvelous assessment — the first in the major press — of my anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. I couldn’t have hoped for a more perceptive, appreciative critic than Aslanyan, who is a gifted translator in her own right. Anna focuses on James Womack’s translations of Mayakovsky’s poems, Peter France’s renditions of Aleksey Remizov’s and Vasily Rozanov’s experimental prose, Bryan Karetnyk’s version of Aleksandr Serfimovich’s “How He Died” (“a soldier’s tale tragic in its banality […] told in a language that is simple yet powerful”), and Rose France’s version of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s bitterly ironic article  “A Wonderful Audacity.” That gives me a great opportunity to thank these remarkable translators for their contributions to the volume. And while I’m at it, I’d also like to thank Josh Billings, Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Michael Casper, Lisa Hayden, Martha Kelly, Donald Rayfield, and Margo Shohl Rosen.

Autumn in the Heart

I am deeply grateful to Melissa Beck for her generous, sensitive review of Babel’s Odessa Stories. I hope her concluding thoughts do not fall on deaf ears.

The book has received two more reviews — Robert Minto’s eloquent, insightful analysis in Open Letters Monthly and Nicholas Lezard’s enormously kind and witty take in the The Guardian.

The fabulous folks at Pushkin Press have also posted a brief Q&A, in which I marvel at Mark Twain’s exacting diction. Had I the space, I would have linked the man directly to Odessa. Here he is, recounting his visit to the pearl of the Black Sea in The Innocents Abroad (1869):

I have not felt so much at home for a long time as I did when I “raised the hill” and stood in Odessa for the first time. It looked just like an American city; fine, broad streets, and straight as well; low houses, (two or three stories), wide, neat, and free from any quaintness of architectural ornamentation; locust trees bordering the sidewalks (they call them acacias); a stirring, business-look about the streets and the stores; fast walkers; a familiar new look about the houses and every thing; yea, and a driving and smothering cloud of dust that was so like a message from our own dear native land that we could hardly refrain from shedding a few grateful tears and execrations in the old time-honored American way. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America! There was not one thing to remind us that we were in Russia.

I’ve mentioned before that my two hometowns — Odessa and Los Angeles — have, to some extent, blended in my mind. This poem reflects that warp in my space-time continuum.

Slavic Lit at LARB

This past week the Los Angeles Review of Books has been heavy on Slavic content! On Monday, October 24, we featured Sasha Razor’s interview with Russian novelist, poet, biographer, and unlikely pop culture icon Dmitry Bykov.

The next day saw the publication of Daniel Elkind’s eloquent, masterfully contextualized review of Vladimir Arsenyev’s classic account Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains — the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Academy Award–winning Dersu Uzala (1975) — in a new translation by Jonathan C. Slaght (Indiana University Press, 2016).

On Thursday, October 27, we published Polish-American poet and essayist Piotr Florczyk’s review of Written in the Dark (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), an important brief anthology of poetry from the Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944), edited by Polina Barskova and with an afterword by Ilya Kukulin. Written in the Dark includes poems by Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov, and Pavel Zaltsman, translated by Anand Dibble, Ben Felkner-Quinn, Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebekah Smith, Charles Swank, Jason Wagner, and Matvei Yankelevich.

And today we’ve posted Jennifer Wilson’s essay on Nabokov, American race relations, and Lolita.

Isaac Babel’s Odessa

The online journal has just posted its latest issue, which includes a sketch and two stories from my (rapidly!) forthcoming translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press). I’m a native of Odessa raised in noirish Los Angeles, and this project was — in myriad ways — a true homecoming. While living in Scotland, I could sink back into the sun-drenched urban landscape of my childhood, savor the peculiar patois of Odessa’s streets, and, at the same time, revel in the language of some of my favorite American crime authors.  Let me explain that last bit: The antihero of Babel’s Odessa cycle is a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik, alias “The King,” and the charm of these stories lies largely in his voice. That voice, I came to realize, is not altogether unfamiliar to lovers of American fiction. I’ll quote from my introduction to the volume:

What really keeps you hanging on Babel’s every word are the words themselves, that rich Odessan argot. As Froim the Rook says of Krik, “Benya, he doesn’t talk much, but what he says, it’s got flavor. He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you want he should keep talking.” This, after the gutsy Benya barges in on the one-eyed gang boss and declares, “Look, Froim, let’s stop smearing kasha. Try me.” Once Froim gets a taste of that “kasha,” he can’t help giving Benya a try.

The language of Odessa, with its Yiddish inflections and syntactic inversions, its clipped imperatives and its freight of foreign words, was in the air all around me as I was growing up. Little did I know that a similar melting pot, New York’s Lower East Side, had made a similar “kasha” out of English at around the time Benya’s archetypes were raising hell in Moldavanka. When I discovered the novels of Samuel Ornitz, Michael Gold, Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs, the plays of Clifford Odets and the stories of Bernard Malamud, I felt right at home. I was also fatefully drawn to the Black Mask school of detective fiction, which brought a tough, vivid urban vernacular — the language of gunsels and private eyes — into the mainstream. My English Benya is, linguistically, a product of my misspent youth with the pulps. But I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by having him tell a kid, “You got words? Spill.” After all, Isaac Babel and Dashiell Hammett were born only a month and a half apart in 1894.

If you want the full serving of “kasha,” the book goes on sale in October (UK) / November (US).