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 JewishFiction.net 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).

Sergey Stratanovsky in the TLS

This Friday’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement (9 September 2016) carries my review of Sergey Stratanovsky’s Muddy River: Selected Poems, translated by J. Kates (Manchester: Carcanet, 2016).  Stratanovsky, who was born in Leningrad in 1944, is one of Russia’s most admired poets, and this is the first collection of his verse to appear in English.  The TLS site offers only a brief preview of the piece for non-subscribers; I’d like to share a larger excerpt, which includes a few of Kates’s translations.  (You’ll find the Russian originals below the second divider.)

There is a hint of formal irony in the title of this carefully chosen selection of poems. Muddy River refers, both literally and figuratively, to the Stygian waters of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, but the poems in which Sergey Stratanovsky depicts this landscape exhibit the clarity of a classical fragment:

On the muddy river
some kind of cruddy boat
Stains of some kind of slime,
condoms floating
Under the bridges to the bay
past warehouses, hospitals, garages
And the half-rotted head
of an Orpheus-busker
Who sang off key in the metro

These lines from 2003 cover largely the same waterfront as 1969’s “The Obvodny Canal”, named after the bypass waterway that once served as St Petersburg’s southern city limit:

Look, over there are the mute and sullen souls
Of Cannery and Bakery.
And there is an industrial sky
In the canal.
And it seems: I am absolutely not I.
Among the factories, warehouses
hospitals and gaunt faces
I have become silence and the rubbish of living.

In his brief introduction, translator J. Kates quotes Stratanovsky’s claim that “At one time or another different themes were uppermost” in his work. Muddy River certainly gives readers a sense of this thematic undulation, but its pattern is not so easy to chart. On the whole, the poet — who dates the beginning of his career to 1968 — has been remarkably consistent in his concerns and devices. The pointed social critique of the 1990s and 2000s has its antecedents in such poems as 1971’s “Sociological Tract in Verse on the Phenomenon of Alcoholism”, and the penchant for classical, Biblical, and historical allusions appears just as early — for example, in “Herostratos and Herostratos” (1970-71) and “Fantasia and Psalm 1” (1972). Often enough, these disparate tributaries converge in fluid lines of striking power, as in this poem written at the height of the First Chechen War:

The dogs of Grozny
abandoned and evil,
Among the ruins of Grozny
with their teeth tear at the dead,
Yesterday’s kings
of courtyards and discos.

The lyric’s drift is as plain as its sediments are rich. The first line’s scavenging dogs are both the actual canines running wild through the Chechen capital’s streets and the proverbial dogs of war that this pointless conflict has let slip. Stratanovsky’s epithetic phrases and anachronistic diction — which weds “discos” with ancient “ruins” and “kings” — lend a Homeric touch to this modern horror; we are reminded of Hector’s threat to throw Patroclus’s body to the dogs, echoed in Achilles’s threat to do the same with Hector’s. The poet also inscribes the Chechen War into Russia’s long history of tyranny and bloodlust: the “dogs of Grozny” call to mind the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible (“Grozny” in Russian), who were said to ride with dogs’ heads on their saddles — a symbol of their loyalty and ferociousness. Here, as in much of Stratanovsky’s work, the simplicity of the poem’s surface invites the reader to plumb its depths.


На реке непрозрачной
катер невзрачный какой-то
Пятна слизи какой-то,
презервативы, плывущие
Под мостами к заливу,
мимо складов, больниц, гаражей
И Орфея-бомжа,
что в проходе к метро пел пронзительно,
Голова полусгнившая


Обводный канал

А там — Главрыбы и Главхлеба
Немые, пасмурные души
А там промышленное небо
Стоит в канале
И боль все медленней и глуше
А ведь вначале
Была такая боль…
Дым заводской живет в канале
Чуть брезжит, чуть брезжит осенний день
И буквы вывески Главсоль
Шагают по воде
И мнится: я — совсем не я
Среди заводов и больниц
Продмагазинов, скудных лиц
Я стал молчанием и сором бытия


Рядом с Чечней

Собаки Грозного,
бесхозные и злые,
Меж грозненских руин
зубами рвут погибших,
Вчерашних королей
дворов и дискотек


Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Night.—Northeaster”

Last Saturday The Guardian published my translation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s ravishing poem “Night.—Northeaster,” drawn from my forthcoming anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, December 2016).  Written in “the last days of October 1917” in the Crimean port of Feodosia, Tsvetaeva’s nervy, reeling lyric captures the chaotic atmosphere of that period better than any piece of prose ever could.  Its very form — the markedly irregular lines, the dense pattern of echoes (in place of regular end-rhymes) — pummels the reader like a strong wind, washing away all semblance of solidity in a flood of stolen wine.  That image of stolen wine, incidentally, swims up time after time in the verse and prose of 1917; the raids on wine cellars breaking out across Russia throughout that year came to serve as an emblem of the spirits let loose by revolution.  Tsvetaeva seizes on the image with a heady blend of gusto and dread, imbuing every inch of the poem’s texture with a sense of drunken unpredictability.  Objects and sounds, phenomena and phonemes fall together unexpectedly, crashing, merging, and flowing off in an uncertain direction.

In my translation, I aim to reproduce these crashes and mergers by introducing a few irregular monosyllabic end-rhymes, which collide like clashing cymbals in the second stanza.  These sharp rhymes make up for some inevitable loses, like the peculiar effect of Tsvetaeva’s monosyllabic line endings (relatively rare in Russian).  I do not feel that a stronger network of English end-rhymes runs contrary to Tsvetaeva’s intent.  Tsvetaeva was one of the great poetic innovators of her time and was especially sensitive to new possibilities of rhyme; indeed, when read aloud, what seems at first glance to be blank verse announces its hidden scheme of assonance and consonance: voln-sten, ptits-pust, noch’-nashpotok-kak byk, luna-vino-vine, etc.  The radical nature of Tsvetaeva’s formal choices is lost on contemporary Anglophone readers, who are unaware of the context in which those choices were made.  Many of these readers will have encountered Tsvetaeva’s work exclusively in free verse translations.  In fact, one could argue that a rhymed Tsvetaeva poem is as unusual for an Anglophone reader as an un-rhymed one is for a Russian, so that the only way to reproduce the shock of her semi-blank verse is to render it in rhyme.  But such speculations are ultimately beside the point.  The point is that any English translation must make its impact on its own terms, affecting the reader in a new context; it must, in other words, be a poem in its own right.

Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood.

Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place.

Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles.

The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned.

Feodosia, the last days of October 1917

Ночь.—Норд-Ост.—Рёв солдат.—Рёв волн.
Разгромили винный склад.—Вдоль стен
По канавам—драгоценный поток,
И кровавая в нём пляшет луна.

Ошалелые столбы тополей.
Ошалелое—в ночи́—пенье птиц.
Царский памятник вчерашний—пуст,
И над памятником царским—ночь.

Гавань пьёт, казармы пьют. Мир—наш!
Наше в княжеских подвалах вино!
Целый город, топоча как бык,
К мутной луже припадая—пьёт.

В винном облаке—луна.—Кто здесь?
Будь товарищем, красотка: пей!
А по городу—весёлый слух:
Где-то двое потонули в вине.

Феодосия, последние дни Октября

Jaan Kaplinsky’s “White Butterflies of Night”

In 2014 the Estonian poet, philosopher, and politician Jaan Kaplinski (b. 1941) — this year’s recipient of the European Prize for Literature — released White Butterflies of Night (Belye babochki kochi), his first collection of poems written in Russian.  The book was enthusiastically received by Russian critics, and the author was awarded the Russian Prize.  Granta 134: No Man’s Land (February 2016) included my translation of one of Kaplinski’s Russian poems and three more have just been posted to the magazine’s website.

Kaplinski’s forms — and his poetic voice — are unlike anything I’ve encountered in Russian.  His languorous, rhythmic free verse is a fitting vehicle for his somber, stoic reflections.  Reproducing Kaplinski’s chant-like unpunctuated lines in English was a rewarding challenge.  Even without punctuation, Russian grammar, which features a robust case system, all but eliminates ambiguity as to who is doing what to whom in any given clause.  I had to work and rework the syntactic structures and rhythms of my English translations in order to clarify the action.  (You’ll fine the original Russian texts below the break.)

fine selection of Kaplinski’s Estonian-language poems, beautifully translated into English by Fiona Sampson, Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins, and the poet himself, was published in 2011 by Bloodaxe Books.

Я боюсь тех кто боятся пустоты
боюсь Паскаля хотя не боюсь теории вероятностей
не боюсь римских древностей ведь и они
как мы все рождаются в пространстве Евклида
и умирают там в пространстве Пиранези
как под огромным средневековым колоколом
где много места для всех но нет никого ни людей ни Бога
лишь дряхлые инструменты для пыток дремлют
в тусклом свете отжившего самого себя времени
и входя туда ты опять встречаешь бесконечные серые будни
твоего детства в безмолвном разбомбленном городе


Вещи не запоминали своих имен а я начинаю их забывать
память как дырявый карман не держащий мелочи
слов и понятий кое-кто знал это уже в средневековье
и кое-кто не забыл это в нашем кромешном веке
и хранит все что носили другие до него
и выпустили в темноту из своих застыдившихся рук
как птичка как ящеричка или лишь крохота
что-то между чем-то и ничем между нами и нашим забытием
что-то не имеющее ни начала ни конца ни значения


Молитва и есть то что останется
когда все уже сказано и нечего больше сказать
Бог то что останется когда всему во что можно верить
настанет конец и будет нечему больше верить
а сено все там на чердаке и хлеб на столе
под белым льняным полотенцем
обо всем этом я когда-то уже писал
как писали другие до меня до нас всех
но недалек день когда уже не будет разницы
между тем сказал ли я в двух словах всё
или всеми словами ничего

Teffi Who?

My editorial position at the Los Angeles Review of Books gives me the chance to publish excellent writing about excellent writing, and today it is a special honor to feature Maria Bloshteyn’s sparkling review of two volumes by Teffi (née Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952), one of Russia’s finest writers, brilliantly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, Rose France, and Irina Sternberg:


Thanks largely to Robert Chandler’s efforts, this modern master has finally found a voice in English and is now getting her due.  For a taste of Teffi, proceed to The New Yorker and Flavorwire:

http://tinyurl.com/oyq34s4 (“Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952)” — an excerpt from Memories, introduced by Robert Chandler)

http://tinyurl.com/h3lfsuh  (Teffi on her pseudonym in Flavorwire, introduced by Jonathon Sturgeon)

And here are some other appreciative and insightful reviews, as well as two wonderful BBC broadcasts:

http://tinyurl.com/z3uhlvb (Michael Robbins in The Chicago Tribune)
http://tinyurl.com/jcvp9q9 (Claire Kohda Hazelton in The Guardian)
http://tinyurl.com/hsup7ku (Rachel Cooke in The Guardian)
http://tinyurl.com/h98qjg4 (Sophie Pinkham in The New Yorker)
http://tinyurl.com/z3mhy9t (Erica Wagner in the New Statesman)
http://tinyurl.com/zj2zmg4 (Masha Gessen in The New York Times)
http://tinyurl.com/h3mnj4r / http://tinyurl.com/jg5952r (Catherine Brown in The Literary Review)
http://tinyurl.com/hkxrwyz (Virginia Rounding in Financial Times)
http://tinyurl.com/zob74vu (William Boyd in The Sunday Times)
http://tinyurl.com/jgmh47u (Christine Smallwood in Harper’s Magazine)
http://tinyurl.com/hfxdx6x (Masha Karp in The World Today [Chatham House])
http://tinyurl.com/zdcbysw (Lucy Scholes in The National)
http://tinyurl.com/hgkk5gl (Lucy Scholes for the BBC)
http://tinyurl.com/jr39vtt (Hans Rollman in PopMatters)
http://tinyurl.com/j398zrv (Trevor Berrett in The Mookse and the Gripes)
http://tinyurl.com/hfkoya6 / http://tinyurl.com/zan48n7 (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, parts 1 and 2)
http://tinyurl.com/zhhjvve / http://tinyurl.com/hojsvuu (Shoshi’s Book Blog, parts 1 and 2)
http://tinyurl.com/jnhhqcy (The Bookbinder’s Daughter)
http://tinyurl.com/zn65zzr (A Bookish Type)
http://tinyurl.com/jpapoa2 (His Futile Preoccupations)
http://tinyurl.com/hpzygeo (BBC Radio 4 — Open Book with Charlotte Hobson)
http://tinyurl.com/zj3nlm9 (BBC Radio 4 — Book of the Week reading of Memories by Tracy-Ann Oberman)

Nikolay Zabolotsky’s “Beethoven”

Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-58) was one of the first Russian poets I ever attempted to translate.  A heavily reworked version of one of my earliest efforts — “The Wedding” (1928) — found its way into the summer 2014 issue of Drunken Boat and, eventually, into The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.  I take every opportunity to return to Zabolotsky, and a great one came up last autumn, when Olga Kuzmina asked me to translate “Beethoven” (1946), the poet’s powerful evocation of his favorite composer’s sublime sounds, for an issue of Chtenia: Readings from Russia:


That very day, when your concordant sounds
at last surmounted work’s elaborate world,
light overpowered light, cloud passed through cloud,
storm stormed on storm, star penetrated star.

And in the grip of violent inspiration,
in orchestras of thunder loud and fierce,
you climbed the sky, station by cloudy station,
and laid your hands upon the music of the spheres.

With lakes of melody and with an organ’s orchard,
you tamed the hurricane of dissonance,
daring to shout into the face of nature,
thrusting your lion’s mien through organ-pipes.

Before the face of all the earthly world,
you put such thought into that shout of yours,
that, with a cry, word tore itself from word
and, turned to music, crowned your lion’s face.

A lyre sang again between a bull’s long horns,
the eagle’s bone became a shepherd’s flute,
you understood the living beauty of existence,
distinguishing its evil from its good.

And, through the calmness of the earthly world,
the ninth wave reached the very stars themselves…
Thought, bare yourself! Turn into music, word —
beat in our hearts, and give us reason to rejoice!



В тот самый день, когда твои созвучья
Преодолели сложный мир труда,
Свет пересилил свет, прошла сквозь тучу туча,
Гром двинулся на гром, в звезду вошла звезда.

И яростным охвачен вдохновеньем,
В оркестрах гроз и трепете громов,
Поднялся ты по облачным ступеням
И прикоснулся к музыке миров.

Дубравой труб и озером мелодий
Ты превозмог нестройный ураган,
И крикнул ты в лицо самой природе,
Свой львиный лик просунув сквозь орган.

И пред лицом пространства мирового
Такую мысль вложил ты в этот крик,
Что слово с воплем вырвалось из слова
И стало музыкой, венчая львиный лик.

В рогах быка опять запела лира,
Пастушьей флейтой стала кость орла,
И понял ты живую прелесть мира
И отделил добро его от зла.

И сквозь покой пространства мирового
До самых звезд прошел девятый вал…
Откройся, мысль! Стань музыкою, слово,
Ударь в сердца, чтоб мир торжествовал!


Katia Kapovich’s “Cosmopolitan”

The Moldovan-born poet Katia Kapovich (b. 1960) writes beautifully in both Russian and English.  I, for my part, am proud to have made a small contribution to her stash of English-language poems by translating a handful of her masterfully cool Russian originals.  You can find two of my translations, as well as two of Kapovich’s own, in the special issue of Big Bridge dedicated to 21st-century Russian verse — a treasure trove edited by Larissa Shmailo.  And below is a sobering poem in which Kapovich explains her aversion to patriotic spectacles.  My translation first appeared in International Poetry Review (Spring 2014):


When the army marches down the street,
returning from a minor foreign war,
and the dewy eyes of patriots
glow tenderly, without any remorse,
then I bite my lower lip and try
to drive it off my face or keep it hidden –
this smirk, hereditarily awry,
which I noticed on my father as a kid.
My grandfather before him also had
wrinkled his nose with insolent displeasure,
when the typhoid locomotive dragged
him across the map of Central Russia.
There, a red guard entered the green wagon,
raising a revolver, steady, slow,
to his temple – this professor, spy for England.
There, an endless forest caked in snow.
A high forehead and the cool gaze of an aesthete.
I know for certain how he breathed his last:
he yawned, wiped his glasses with some newsprint
and took his time to set them on his nose.


Когда идёт по улице пехота,
вернувшаяся с маленькой войны,
и теплятся глаза у патриота
слезою умиленья без вины,
тогда стою с закушенной губою
и долго не могу согнать с лица
усмешку, по наследственной кривую,
подсмотренную в детстве у отца.
Так до него, разумный обыватель,
мой дед высокомерно морщил нос,
когда его по среднерусской карте
тащил тифозный паровоз.
Там конвоир входил в вагон зелёный,
наган с оттяжкой приставлял к виску
профессора истории, шпиона
английского. Там длинный лес в снегу.
Высокий лоб, холодный взгляд эстета.
Я чётко знаю, как он умирал:
зевнул, протёр очки куском газеты
и долго на нос надевал.