new russian writing
A Glas - SRF partnership
Blog postings 2016-
Overlooked Translations: Irina Muravyova and Victor Beilis
Russian literature lovers often complain that too few books are translated into English. This makes every translated title particularly valuable and worthy of attention. Regrettably, small publishers don’t have the funds to promote their books properly. So people hear of the well-advertised books while the rest remain unnoticed. I thought readers of the SRF site, who follow Russian literary news, would appreciate additional information on Russian books available in English translation. I assume that you know all the famous books, so I’d like to draw your attention to some overlooked books which might be just as good or better. This time I’ll spotlight Irina Muravyova’s Day of the Angel (translated by John Dewey) and Victor Beilis’s Death of a Prototype (translated by Leo Shtutin) - both are available from Amazon and other platforms.
Irina Muravyova’s writing stands out for her striking contrasts between unfashionable sentimentality and a sharp sober vision of life. She names Tolstoy as her main influence in rendering major historical events which crush human lives and affect personal relationships. Day of the Angel follows the fates and fortunes of a Russian émigré family who had to flee from the Russian Revolution. Anastasia accompanies her husband Patrick, an idealistic British journalist, to Moscow in the 1930s, where he reports on the terrible famine caused by Stalin's collectivization campaign in which millions died. Here they encounter the notorious historical character Walter Duranty (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1934), a corrupt and unscrupulous British journalist in the pay of the Kremlin who disseminated reports denying the famine. Matters are complicated when Anastasia finds herself physically attracted to Duranty, leading to a disastrous liaison which wrecks her marriage. Published in English, French, Arabic, Serbian, Slovak, and Hungarian, the novel is somewhat reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago. Irina Muravyova is a prolific author well known and appreciated in Russia for her unusual angles of vision and musical language verging on poetry.
"A recognized talent in Russian literature, Muravyova should garner praise among English-language readers with her brisk and dynamic work." - Publishers Weekly
Victor Beilis’s novel is set in Moscow’s artistic circles of the 1990s. Its members are engaged in mutual bantering mixed with serious discussions of art and poetry as well as analyzing two basic principles of human existence: male and female. There are flashbacks to the 19th-century Russia, Italy, and France, literary allusions to German poetry, Italian Mannerism, and much else. And above all, a mysterious portrait of an unknown beautiful woman runs as a red thread through the story, affecting the fates of the characters. The above provide a background to a love story whose heroine figures in various guises, she is viewed from different angles and by different individuals. As the story unfolds the reader becomes increasingly aware that the woman featuring in various love affairs must be the same person. Finally a collective portrait is created of a striking and talented woman loved by several no less talented men, who all depict her as a personification of love itself. Beilis proclaims a person’s private life as the supreme value considering all the other factors as less important. A former scholar of African folklore he traces human archetypes and is fascinated by mythological thinking and ritual features in human behaviour. Tatyana Tolstaya described his prose as “philological fiction”. And its translator Leo Shtutin remarks that “this novel not only challenges but also rewards the reader.”
“Non/fiction” in Distress
Compared to the more notorious events happening right and left in Russia today the threat to the existence of our special book fair for high-quality fiction and nonfiction, known as “Non/fiction Book Fair”, may not seem too important – after all it is intended specifically for a serious readership, that is, a relatively small group of intellectuals. I care personally for this wonderful book event as I’ve been on its expert committee since the very beginning and, together with my more distinguished colleagues, contributed much time and effort to its development. It is the only regular book event in Russia which is truly international and truly intellectual. One could say it has become a veritable parade of national intellectual achievements, a national asset, according to general opinion, which should be preserved. It is here that foreign publishers come, if they do, to get acquainted with publishing news. Last year Great Britain was the guest of honour at “Non/fiction” bringing a large group of noted British authors and organising many unforgettable events to introduce contemporary British culture to us.
“Non/fiction” book fair was founded in 1999 and was held annually in the Central House of Artists. The building belonged, until recently, to the International Confederation of Artists Unions, the successor of the USSR Artists Union which ceased to exist after the collapse of the USSR itself. But in 2016 the Confederation was accused of all sorts of financial violations, including the unlawful sales of paintings from their huge art collection at Sotheby`s and thus earning two million euros. The Supreme Court found them guilty and ruled to close the Confederation. It came as a shock to all concerned. It is not clear yet who will now own the building and whether the “Non/fiction” book fair will have a venue this year at all (it opens at the end of November.) The Central House of Artists has been sharing this spacious modern building with the State Tretyakov Gallery who are rumoured to be given the whole building, and who may not be interested in hosting the book fair which has nothing to do with their activities.
There were several attempts before to destroy the building and construct something more commercial in its place (the location is extremely attractive – centrally situated on the bank of the Moscow River and facing “Park Kultury”, a popular amusement park) but each time the Moscow intelligentsia rallied round to defend this important cultural centre, a popular meeting place for art lovers. They might not have succeeded, of course, had it not been for a succession of economic crises which compelled the authorities to give up large-scale construction plans for the time being. And now this!
The organisers of the “Non/fiction” book fair are determined to hold it this coming November as planned, but what happens next they don’t know. It is so easy to destroy a successful project and so difficult to re-start it and keep it up.
A New Name: Alexei Vinokurov
Each time I find an outstanding text in the never-ending flow of manuscripts coming into my email inbox I experience mixed feelings: a hunter’s joy at discovering something worthwhile, on the one hand, but on the other, a premonition of many rejections before the text is appreciated by some publisher. It has happened to me so many times before that I am almost reconciled to the conservatism of people’s reading habits, and the human mind in general. And I am mentally prepared for the long process of persuading publishers of the merits of the new work. I remember how in the early 1990s publishers in all countries unanimously rejected Victor Pelevin, because his works were “too immersed in Soviet experience which our readers will never understand.” Previously, Russian publishers rejected his first novel “Omon Ra” (now translated into many foreign languages and still in print) because they simply saw nothg outstanding in this gem of a novel which is both funny and frightening, and sums up any totalitarian experience so aptly. Look at him now – he is probably the most widely-read Russian author outside Russia. And I can’t forget the fierce fight among the Russian Booker jury members in 1995 when I was on the jury and so was Martin Dewhirst who had the same literary preferences as I. The then young authors, whom we both supported and managed to get into the short list, were hardly known even in Russia, so Martin’s appreciation was completely objective. They have all become distinguished authors since then with many titles and prizes to their name: Yuri Buyda, Peter Aleshkovsky, and Alexei Slapovsky. The first two are available in English translation as well as other languages, and Slapovsky has been a success in France. There are many other examples I could give – it’s almost a rule: those who stand out are never accepted from the start.
One of my current favourites, Alexei Vinokurov, is not well known yet although he has been highly acclaimed by critics and literature lovers who had the chance to read him. Suffice it to mention that Znamya magazine awarded two top prizes to his novel People of the Black Dragon. Prior to the magazine publication I proposed this same novel to publishers and, expectedly, it was rejected, just like his other novel, Guardian Angels, about the war conflict in Donbas. I was not surprised about the rejection of the latter novel and quickly sent it to the fine Ukrainian publishing house Fabula who grabbed it enthusiastically and have already published it in both Russian and Ukrainian. But the novel People of the Black Dragon (Black Dragon is the Chinese name for the Amur, a river in the Far East, marking the border between China and the Russian Federation) speaks of such seemingly harmless things as a hard path towards co-existence of such culturally different people as Russians, Chinese, and Jews - it should have acceptable for any publisher. But Vinokurov’s critical mind and metaphorical treatment of his material, fresh and novel, put publishers on guard. The authority of the Znamya prizes made publishers reconsider and this time they liked the novel, published it right away and even nominated it for some prizes. However they haven’t accepted his subsequent novel, Dark Summits, which is about the corrupting force of absolute and lasting power invariably transforming a perfectly normal person into a tyrant. The allusions in this novel are too flagrant, so the publishers’ rejection was predictable. I’ve already sent synopses of Vinokurov’s three novels to quite a few foreign publishers, and the response was “too immersed in Russian experiences which our readers will never understand.” I’ll continue proposing Vinokurov in the hope of finding an independent-minded publisher who will appreciate his inventive plots, vivid imagery, and original angle of vision. This month Vinokurov, a professional Sinologist, also published an adorable travelogue on modern China (China Deciphered) which I recommend to anyone who is still perplexed with this part of the world. The witty, observant, and perspicacious book is a pleasure to read and provide many clues to the inscrutable Chinese culture.
I know that most readers of SRF blogs don’t read Russian (although some do, I think) and have to wait till the book comes out in translation. But maybe someone who reads this short note works in publishing, or he/she knows a publisher interested in Russian literature, and will be willing to recommend a new name. This is an effective way to help build bridges between cultures and thus increase mutual understanding.
Paean for Ludmila Ulitskaya from Natasha Perova
Among the authors published in Glas in its early years Ludmila Ulitskaya is one of those I’m particularly proud of and I follow her success with much satisfaction. Her literary career is a bit of a Cinderella story. She started writing rather late in life, when she was about 50, and already by 60 she was an international celebrity. But I met her when she had only several unpublished stories to her name and was finishing her famous short novel Sonechka. Some years earlier she submitted her stories to Novy Mir, the then leading literary magazine, but they never even responded. In the early 1990s she happened to meet the Russian-born Gallimard editor Semyon Mirsky who loved her writing at first sight. When Sonechka was awarded the Medici Prize for foreign fiction in France the Novy Mir editors called Ulitskaya to reproach her for her “unpatriotic” action in sending her texts to France before showing them to the magazine. “Look on your shelves,” she retorted, “you’ll find them there – they’ve been sitting with you for almost seven years.”
Since then Ulitskaya has received many prizes, both in Russia and abroad. Her novels Sonechka and Medea and her Children were shortlisted for the Russian Booker, Kukotsky’s Enigma won the Russian Booker Prize. Her prizewinning novels also include The Big Green Tent, Sincerely Yours, Shurik, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, and Yakov´s Ladder (the last two won Russia’s topmost prize: the Big Book.) And most of her novels have been published in many countries.
A geneticist by training Ulitskaya has an extraordinary insight and understanding of human nature. Her prose is always wise and witty without being accusatory or condescending. There have never been heroines in literature who were less heroic while at the same time being so striking and psychologically precise. In her intelligent narratives human dignity triumphs against all odds over misery and oppression.
And yet her first literary efforts published in Russia were met with hostility or simply ignored, as is often the case here with works by independent-minded authors who have a distinctive voice and critical eye for detail. Her Funeral Party, devoted to Russian emigre life in the USA, was the first novel which was noticed in Russia and reviewed positively, but only after it came out in America. As her success in other countries grew, especially in France and Germany, she was increasingly appreciated at home. Today she is a bestselling author of fine fiction.
In the UK she was noticed almost at once thanks to the competent and elegant translations by Arch Tait. Readers of Glas invariably singled her out in all our collections. The press has been generous with their praise. Suffice it to quote from Lesley Chamberlain’s review of Sonechka in The Observer:"Ulitskaya's fresh, delicately sensual writing, full of the joys and pitfalls of every day, is a world away from gloomy, fear-driven reflections on the plight of human beings under the Soviet heel. Sonechka, twisting and turning unexpectedly among a small group of sympathetically drawn characters and across the generations, is in the end a tribute to the civilizing, humanly sustaining power of reading. With Ulitskaya, contemporary Russian fiction rediscovers a consoling and universal normality."
Or from the World Literature Today: “Ludmila Ulitskaya’s writings combine telling sociological detail with acute psychological portraiture. Her heroines contend with trying, at times even agonizing circumstances in a manner that evokes compassion and admiration without bathos. It is a pleasure to enter Ulitskaya’s fictional world.”
Ulitskaya is very much like her books: wise and witty. This small woman fearlessly defends human rights and always speaks out when the truth is trampled.
How can translators help
The prestige of the translation profession has grown markedly in the past decade. And rightly so. Translation is crucial for international cultural exchanges, which are, in their turn, crucial for preserving at least a semblance of peace in this world. Translators’ role as “post-horses of culture”, to quote Chekhov, cannot be over-estimated. This profession makes translators citizens of a cross-cultural space where they are busy building bridges between different national cultures whether they are aware of it or not. Often the cultural gaps are so wide, or simply insurmountable, that translators have to be double-inventive to the point that they practically become co-authors of the translated work, and should be recognized as such.
Moreover, they are helping to put right the history of 20th century Russian literature which has been misrepresented for a long time. It should be noted that in the post-perestroika years many formerly banned or overlooked Russian classics were finally published and this completely transformed the literary map of Russia. Add to this the new works written today and you get a largely different picture from the one presented in textbooks. Regrettably, most of these newly found treasures remain unavailable for the non-Russian reader. And here again the role of literary translators is invaluable. In the last 25 years that I’ve been promoting contemporary Russian literature I saw the rise and fall of interest for it. The highest interest came with the perestroika and it has never risen so high again, and probably never will. Unfortunately the political situation plays a role here, but all the more reason to discover and spread the news about the positive aspects of a culture you work with.
What can translators do in practical terms? They can be constantly on the lookout for interesting books and offer them to publishers they know. To do this a translated excerpt of about 10-15 pages is necessary, but surely if you like a book you won’t mind spending a couple of weekends to translate an episode from it as a sample: it won’t take too much of your time. But then you’ll probably continue translating the selected author for many more years and share his/her success. Many translators did just that. Andrew Bromfield translated excerpts from Pelevin long before the latter became an international celebrity, and since then he’s been Pelevin’s main translator. Robert Chandler introduced Platonov, Grossman and Teffi having first produced translations of their works on his own initiative. Arch Tait translated Ulitskaya when she was still little known even in her home country. And Joanne Turnbull gave Krzhizhanovsky to the English reader. It is noteworthy that the first English translation of a Krzhizhanovsky story, published in Glas 8, went unnoticed because the translation, made by a retired Slavist, was rather colorless. But then Joanne translated a collection of Krzhizhanovsky stories for Glas (No. 39) and everybody gasped. Since then Krzhizhanovsky has been published all over the world while Joanne translated several more books by this author of genius for the NYRB Classics and each won her a prize. This is a good example of the power and importance of the translator’s talent.
Translators can also share information about Russian books in blogs and social networks, at conferences and in the press, and thus create awareness of the wealth of literary talent in Russia, regarding this work as a mission. There are not so many literary agents dealing with new Russian writing, their efforts don’t bring them much remuneration because translated literary fiction is not seen as commercially viable in the West. This is why what translators can contribute to the process is so important, and can be really rewarding. We all want to do something for the heart and to feel good. Literary agents, including me, will really appreciate translators’ help in creating sample translations. Occasionally I get such voluntary help and it always leads to something constructive both for the author and translator. Translators look up the list of authors on my site and select the one which seems like “their cup of tea”. The latest such offer came from Melanie Moore, an excellent literary translator, who wanted to work with Liza Alexandrova-Zorina, one of the most talented and sharpest young authors today whose themes and manner were likened to Zvyagintsev’s films. I have high hopes for this collaboration.
The language barrier remains part of the cultural barrier which exists between Russia and the West. There is not enough awareness of this situation on both sides, and translations can help in overcoming the problem more than diplomacy or politics. The role of translators in cultural exchanges is crucial – no one else can do what they can.
Russia worries about its image.