Cardinal Points, vol. 7


The latest volume of Cardinal Points is now available for sale. I’m very proud of the range of selections, which you can sample on Amazon. Below is the full table of contents, including this year’s winning entries in the annual Compass Translation Award, which was dedicated to Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010). I want to thank my heroic co-editor, Irina Mashinski, as well as Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies.


Yuri Felsen, “A Miracle” (trans. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)
Viktor Ivaniv, “Daydream Insurrection” (trans. from the Russian by Ainsley Morse)
Valery Zalotukha, “My Father, the Miner” (trans. from the Russian by Raisa Shapiro)

Special Focus: The Prose of Elena Shvarts

Thomas Epstein, “A Few Words on Elena Shvarts”
Elena Shvarts, “From Face of the Visible World” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)
Elena Shvarts, “An Odd One” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)
Elena Shvarts, “Concerto for Literary Assistant” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)


Marina Tsvetaeva, “The Wires” (trans. from the Russian by Angela Livingstone)
Leonid Kannegiesser, “From a Review of Anna Akhmatova’s Rosary” and “On Review” (trans. from Russian by James Manteith)
Eduard Bagritsky, “February” (trans. from the Russian by Roman Turovsky)
Sergey Yesenin, “Low-set house with the pale blue shutters” and “Returning to My Birthplace” (trans. from the Russian by Max Thompson)
Bertolt Brecht, “Memory of Marie A.” (trans. from the German by Zachary Murphy King)
Arseny Tarkovsky, “It was my mother taught me walking” (trans. from the Russian by Zachary Murphy King)
Volha Hapeyeva, Three Poems (trans. from the Belarusian by Volha Hapeyeva with Forrest Gander)
Dzvinia Orlowsky, “Kalendar” and “Ivan the Fly Eater”
Tatiana Shcherbina, “Russia and Europe” and “Jerusalem” (trans. from the Russian by J. Kates)

The Art of Translation

Peter France, “Evgeny Baratynsky’s ‘Feasts’ (1820)”
Antony Wood, “Reading the Meter: Translating Two Lyric Poems by Pushkin”
Yefim Somin, “Mikhail Lermontov’s French Epigram”
Donald Rayfield, “Four Poems by Uvaysiy”
Ainsley Morse, “Sterligov in the Blockade”

Alexander Veytsman, Compass Competition Director

Bella Akhmadulina, in translation by Paul Hopper, Glen Worthey, Sasha Palmer, and Peter Oram


Eduard Bagritsky and The Odessa Review

The Odessa Review has been as generous to me as Benya Krik was to the guests at his sister’s wedding! This past July the journal’s multitalented Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, invited me to talk about Babel, Odessa, and my approach to translation. I babbled and babbled, then Katya picked through the wreckage and assembled a proper interview.

In it I mention the poet Eduard Bagritsky (1895-1934), who is as close to Odessa’s heart as Babel himself. And the two were great friends. Here is how Babel described Bagritsky: “He’s just like his poems… He loves the sea, a sailor’s salty speech, and a fisherman’s boat on the horizon.”

Below is one of Bagritsky’s earliest poems, in the “futurist” manner (boy, is it ever mannered!), published under a female pseudonym — Nina Voskresenskaya — in an Odessan anthology titled Automobile in the Clouds (Avto v oblakakh, 1915). In it, the young poet marvels at the strange aspect of Odessa’s beloved pedestrian walkway, Deribasovskaya Street (Rue Déribas), after sundown.

Deribasovskaya at Night


Across the dirty sky, words etched with rays
of greenish light: “Chocolate and Cocoa.”
And cars, like cats with trampled tails,
wail frantically: “Meow! Meow!”

Black trees, like scraggly brooms,
have swept the rouged stars from the sky,
and red-haired, loud-mouthed trams
creep over cobble-skulls — done for the night.

Dolphins of granite, looking like fat pugs,
drink from a grimy fountain’s spout,
while Pushkin’s statue reaches for a smoke
and asks a lantern: “Have you got a light?”

Decadent clouds go floating overhead,
and women’s lips all smell like cheap cigars.
The crescent moon — an orange sausage link —
dangles above the roadway’s parted hair.

A seven-story house, arms full of signs,
smokes coal like dandies smoke cigars,
and a red-nosed lantern in a schoolboy’s cap
winks at a sign — he’s doing great so far!

Atop the lakes of oily asphalt, ruddy stars
worship the night in a black mass…
O pimps, rejoice, raise chimneys from the rooftops —
Rue Déribas has found its poetess!


Дерибасовская ночью


На грязном небе выбиты лучами
Зеленые буквы: «Шоколад и какао»,
И автомобили, как коты с придавленными хвостами,
Неистово визжат: «Ах, мяу! мяу!»

Черные деревья растрепанными метлами
Вымели с неба нарумяненные звезды,
И краснорыжие трамваи, погромыхивая мордами,
По черепам булыжников ползут на роздых.

Гранитные дельфины — разжиревшие мопсы —
У грязного фонтана захотели пить,
И памятник Пушкина1, всунувши в рот папиросу,
Просит у фонаря: «Позвольте закурить!»

Дегенеративные тучи проносятся низко,
От женских губ несет копеечными сигарами,
И месяц повис, как оранжевая сосиска,
Над мостовой, расчесавшей пробор тротуарами.

Семиэтажный дом с вывесками в охапке,
Курит уголь, как денди сигару,
И красноносый фонарь в гимназической шапке
Подмигивает вывеске — он сегодня в ударе.

На черных озерах маслянистого асфальта
Рыжие звезды служат ночи мессу…
Радуйтесь, сутенеры, трубы дома подымайте —
И у Дерибасовской есть поэтесса!


Poets Café with Lois P. Jones, and Cardinal Points

It’s always a pleasure to speak to the poet and radio host Lois P. Jones, on or off the air. She is the perfect interlocutor — warm, curios, enthusiastic, and remarkably sensitive to language. A couple of months ago we sat down at the KPFK studio to discuss 1917 and The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, touching on some of my favorite poets, including Anna Prismanova, Arseny Tarkovsky, and Irina Mashinski.

I was born too late to meet Prismanova or Tarkovsky, but I am lucky enough to count Irina Mashinski among my teachers and friends. This month, she and I are putting the finishing touches on volume 7 of Cardinal Points, the annual journal of Slavic literature in translation that she cofounded with her late husband, the brilliant Oleg Woolf, and Robert Chandler. Cardinal Points is now sponsored by Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies, and our new volume is due out in October.

BBC Radio 4: The Cultural Front

The latest episode of the excellent BBC Radio 4 program(me) The Cultural Front, “Reality and Reconstruction,” focuses on “the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh”; Pablo Picasso’s “collaboration with The Ballet Russe and the creation of his biggest ever piece of work — The Parade Curtain”; sculptor Francis Derwent Wood’s tin masks, which were meant to make patients who had suffered facial injuries “look as close as possible to how [they] had been before [they were] wounded”; and the art that arose from the Russian Revolution. I speak to host Francine Stock about the poetry of 1917 at 6:55.

On a related note, this week LARB presented an excerpt from historian Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, alongside a review of the volume by Max Holleran.

Four by Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934)

The final issue of the wonderful and always surprising online journal Numéro Cinq features four poems by the terrible and downright shocking Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934) in my translation. It’s somehow appropriate that Tinyakov, who was perpetually late to the party — releasing his first book of Symbolist verse in 1912, two years after the “crisis of Russian Symbolism” — should make it into Numéro Cinq by the skin of his gritted teeth.

I want to express my gratitude to Melissa Considine Beck, one of the literary blogosphere’s most distinguished citizens, for soliciting this selection, and to Douglas Glover, the journal’s founding editor, for cheerfully accepting poems he rightly calls “blackly cynical and exuberantly negative.”

You’ll find the Russian texts below the fold.


Любо мне, плевку-плевочку,
По канавке грязной мчаться,
То к окурку, то к пушинке
Скользким боком прижиматься.

Пусть с печалью или с гневом
Человеком был я плюнут,
Небо ясно, ветры свежи,
Ветры радость в меня вдунут.

В голубом речном просторе
С волей жажду я обняться,
А пока мне любо — быстро
По канавке грязной мчаться.

Март 1907

Поздний грач

Подморозило — и лужи
Спят под матовым стеклом.
Тяжело и неуклюже
Старый грач взмахнул крылом.

Дожил здесь он до морозов,
Дотянул почти до вьюг
И теперь почуял позыв
Улететь на светлый юг.

Клюв озябшей лапкой чистя,
Он гадает о пути,
А пред ним влекутся листья
И шуршат: «Прощай! Лети!»

Декабрь 1909

Радость жизни

Едут навстречу мне гробики полные,
В каждом — мертвец молодой,
Сердцу от этого весело, радостно,
Словно берёзке весной!

Вы околели, собаки несчастные, —
Я же дышу и хожу.
Крышки над вами забиты тяжёлые, —
Я же на небо гляжу!

Может, — в тех гробиках гении разные,
Может, — поэт Гумилёв…
Я же, презренный и всеми оплёванный,
Жив и здоров!

Скоро, конечно, и я тоже сделаюсь
Падалью, полной червей,
Но пока жив, — я ликую над трупами
Раньше умерших людей.

28 июля 1921

Моление о пищи

Ухо во всю жизнь может не слышать звуков тимпана, лютни
и флейты; зрение обойдется и без созерцания садов; обоняние
легко лишается запаха розы и базилика; а если нет мягкой, полной
подушки, все же хорошо можно заснуть, положивши в изголовье
камень; если не найдется для сна подруги, можешь обнять руками
себя самого – но вот бессовестное чрево, изогнутое кишками,
не выдерживает и не может ни с чем примириться.

Пищи сладкой, пищи вкусной
Даруй мне, судьба моя, —
И любой поступок гнусный
Совершу за пищу я.

Я свернусь бараньим рогом
И на брюхе поползу,
Насмеюсь, как хам, над Богом,
Оскверню свою слезу.

В сердце чистое нагажу,
Крылья мыслям остригу,
Совершу грабёж и кражу,
Пятки вылижу врагу.

За кусок конины с хлебом
Иль за фунт гнилой трески
Я, — порвав все связи с небом, —
В ад полезу, в батраки.

Дайте мне ярмо на шею,
Но дозвольте мне поесть.
Сладко сытому лакею
И горька без пищи честь.

Ноябрь 1921

Igor Golomstock (1929-2017)

The Russian-born art historian Igor Golomstock, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, passed away on July 12, 2017, in London. Robert Chandler’s obituary of his late friend appeared in The Guardian today. In it, Robert mentions that Igor’s “last publication, in Russian, was Memoirs of an Old Pessimist (2011). The complete memoir is due to be published in English next year.” Two chapters of this important book, about Igor’s childhood in Kolyma, appeared in Cardinal Points.

In an earlier version of the obituary, Robert had included what I think is a significant and moving passage: “Igor was an Anglophile. He spoke of two moments in his life when he felt overwhelmed, unable to believe he was really in England and not just dreaming. One was in the Senior Common Room at New College, Oxford; the other was in an ordinary London pub. Nevertheless, his inner world, like that of many Russian émigrés, remained deeply Russian, and most of his friends were either Russians or English Russianists.”

I am now in London myself, for an event at the British Library, and feel a measure of Igor’s joy at being here.

“Justice in Quotes”

On July 12th and 13th, Odessa celebrated the 123rd birthday of its beloved myth-maker, Isaac Babel, with a bash that would have pleased the party-loving Kriks: a flashmob! My friend, the intrepid travel and food writer Caroline Eden, was on the scene and tweeted a photo of the festivities — as well as one of her mouthwatering, if “slippery,”  lunch. (Ah, the sprats of my childhood! “And suddenly the memory returns.”)

You can read about the event in the 9th issue of The Odessa Review. And I’m deeply grateful to the journal’s Chief Editor, Vladislav Davidzon, and its Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, for including my translation of what may have been Babel’s earliest Odessa story, “Justice in Quotes,” in the same issue. “Justice,” which is written in the voice of the scheming broker Tsudechkis, was published in an Odessa newspaper in August 1921 and never reprinted in Babel’s lifetime. (July 7 was also my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a better gift from my hometown.)

The Odessa Review has been a boon to Odessa — a vibrant, inventive, cosmopolitan publication in the city’s own image. May it prosper!

Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky

I’m very glad to see the unfailingly perceptive Phoebe Taplin’s lovely review — the first, I believe, but certainly not the last — of Bryan Karetnyk’s superb anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky. Bryan’s selection is wide-ranging and revelatory. While he translated most of the pieces himself — and did so brilliantly — he also included the work of Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Justin Doherty, Rose France, Donald Rayfield, Irina Steinberg, and Anastasia Tolstoy. I contributed renditions of Georgy Ivanov’s mysterious “Giselle” and Vasily Yanovsky’s phantasmagoric “They Called Her Russia.” You can read Bryan’s thoughts on anthologizing the Russian emigration, along with an account of an evening dedicated to the book at the British Library, at the TLS website. Below is the full table of contents:

Ivan Bunin: “In Paris,” “Un petit accident,” “In the Alps,” “In such a night…”
Teffi: “Thou Shalt Not Covet,” “Hedda Gabler,” “A Conversation”
Ivan Shmelyov: “Moscow in Shame,” “Russie,” “Shadows of days”
Sasha Chorny: “Spindleshanks”
Vladislav Khodasevich: “Pompeii,” “Atlantis”
Mark Aldanov: “The Astrologist”
Don Aminado: “Auto-Suggestion”
Ivan Lukash: “A Scattering of Stars”
Georgy Adamovich: “A Literary Studio,” “Ramón Ortiz”
Yury Felsen: “An Experiment,” “The Recurrence of Things Past”
Georgy Ivanov: “Giselle,” “The Atom Explodes”
Boris Butkevich: “Klasson and His Soul”
Irina Odoevtseva: “The Life of Madame Duclos”
Vladimir Nabokov: “The Visit to the Museum,” “The Assistant Producer”
David Knut: “The Lady from Monte Carlo”
Galina Kuznetsova: “Kunak”
Nina Berberova: “The Murder of Valkovsky”
Gaito Gazdanov: “The Spy,” “Black Swans,” “Princess Mary,” “Requiem”
Irina Guadanini: “The Tunnel”
Vasily Yanovsky: “They Called Her Russia”

Alexei Tolstoy’s First Take on Peter I (and Curtis on Bulgakov)

The venerable journal Index on Censorship has just released its latest issue, which is dedicated to the legacy of the Russian Revolution. It’s full of thought-provoking material on a wide range of subjects, including the propaganda value of Sergei Eisenstein’s films, the nefarious rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan, and the suppression of free speech in today’s Russia and Uzbekistan. In one piece, Nina Khrushcheva — Nikita’s great-granddaughter — reflects on life in Trump’s America. I was asked to contribute a work from the revolutionary period and chose to translate an excerpt from a gripping, disturbing story by Alexei Tolstoy (1882-1945), titled “Peter’s” (1918). Here is my introduction to the excerpt:

Few authors associated with the pre-revolutionary regime, and especially those of noble origin, adapted so well to Soviet life and literary culture as Alexei Tolstoy. But this wasn’t the case from the start.

Born into a prosperous and literary family in 1882, Alexei was a remote relative of the more famous Leo Tolstoy (and a descendant of Peter Andreyevich Tolstoy, who appears in the excerpt). He published his first story in 1908, and soon developed a reputation both as a gifted craftsman of prose and an essentially apolitical bon vivant. During the civil war in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, Tolstoy sided with the monarchist White Russians. In 1919, Tolstoy escaped the advancing Bolshevik army via Odessa, winding up, along with hundreds of thousands of other Russian refugees, in Paris. He quickly realised, however, that emigration did not suit him; he missed his native land, and saw no way to establish the kind of sumptuous lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. After proving his bona fides by writing for a number of Bolshevik-friendly publications, he returned to Soviet Russia in 1923.

Although he started his Soviet career with experimental works in a number of popular genres, including the science fiction classic Aelita, published the year he returned, he found his true métier in historical fiction. Peter the Great (1929-1943), his three-volume novel chronicling the emperor’s life, won the acclaim of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tolstoy’s portrait of a fearless Russian moderniser appealed to a man then implementing his own radical policies of industrialisation and collectivisation. As the historian Robert C. Tucker puts it, Tolstoy’s “Peter became the would-be Stalin of yesteryear, and his revolution from above the partial piatiletka [five-year plan] of early eighteenth century Russia”.

But Peter the Great wasn’t Tolstoy’s first work about the monarch. In 1918, in the midst of the civil war, Tolstoy wrote a very different story tracing a single day in Peter’s life, never before published in English. This Peter is a somewhat different type — a self-indulgent, drunken fanatic and sadist. In the scene below, which is based on an actual historical incident, he tortures Varlaam, one of the “Old Believers”, a sect that split off from the Russian Orthodox Church, for preaching that he, Peter, is the Antichrist.

What Tolstoy’s story dramatises is the personal interest — the downright pleasure — Peter took in crushing opposition and those who spoke against him, as well as the foolhardiness of his mission. This image of Peter as bloodthirsty tyrant, clearly inspired by the bloodshed of the civil war, is an uncensored moment of truth. It is a message in a bottle from 1918, which profoundly alters our impression of the glorified Peter in Tolstoy’s later work. This is not the image of Peter that Stalin authorised, precisely because it is far closer to the leader Stalin actually was. Needless to say, this powerful story was not widely circulated in the Soviet Union at the time.

Those who have access to the SAGE Journals database through an academic institution or library can read the excerpt online.

And the latest issue of the TLS (23 June 2017) carries my review of J. A. E. Curtis’s compelling and concise biography Mikhail Bulgakov, an entry in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series.

Lviv (and Odessa) in LARB

André van Loon has written a superb review of — or rather, an essay on — Odessa Stories in the latest issue of The London Magazine (June/July 2017), and Uilleam Blacker shares his insight into Babel’s Odessa and Józef Wittlin’s (1896–1976) Lviv/Lwów/Lvov/Lemberg at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (Needless to say, I kept my mitts off Dr. Blacker’s piece, and am very grateful for his kind words.) This is the second LARB piece inspired by the very worthy City of Lions. We ran Jacob Mikanowski’s magnificently lyrical essay on the book in May. I’ll also take this opportunity to promote two more important LARB pieces on Slavic subjects: Cynthia Haven’s interview with Russian poet and public intellectual Maria Stepanova, and Louise Steinman’s conversation with Adam Zagajewski, one of Poland’s literary giants, who was also born in Lviv (then Lwów) in 1945.

In other news, I’ve completed my translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales — and am getting rather sentimental about it. Parting with Zoshchenko’s hilariously ham-handed narrator, I. V. Kolenkorov, is such sweet sorrow. I’ll write more about this cycle in the weeks to come.