new russian writing
A Glas - SRF partnership
Blog postings 2016-
Failed Forecast: Slavnikova’s dystopia 2017
Each time Olga Slavnikova presented her Russian Booker prize-winning novel 2017 (English edition: Overlook Press, 2010, translated by Marian Schwartz) she insisted that the revolutionary events concluding her novel would definitely take place in 2017, the year of the centenary of the 1917 Russian revolution, and that we’d all live to see them with our own eyes: “Mark my words!”. I remembered that and closer to the predicted event I waited with bated breath for a new revolution or coup, or at least some violent protest movement. When nothing much happened on 7 November I was even a bit disappointed, despite my aversion to any violence. I waited until the end of the year, then until the end of the presidential elections in March this year – nothing special occurred. Were her predictions of a social upheaval just wishful thinking or a miscalculated estimation? On the other hand who knows what the mood is in the industrial Urals and when resentment may erupt into a revolt.
And yet, Slavnikova’s magnum opus is a must read and should not be missed if you want to get an in-depth picture of today’s Russia. The novel immerses you into a world you are not likely to visit: the heart of the Urals with its extraordinary natural beauty, unique mythology, stern and sturdy people, illegal gem hunting and stone-cutting. Slavnikova grew up in the Urals and like most locals spent many weekends hunting for precious stones with a heavy backpack, risking her life in the dense mountain forests and steep slopes. Her protagonists have real prototypes and the events are based on actual facts.
As rumour has it, a huge deposit of rubies exists in the Urals but no one has been able to find it yet. The main character, Krylov is a stonecutter of exceptional talent who works for an illegal jewelry business, for which gems are supplied by the so-called “hitniks” or rock hunters: illegal prospectors for precious stones. The rock hunters are constantly aware of the presence in their lives of a mystical connection with the mountain spirits who either help them or interfere with their plans. According to the local legend, the mountain treasures are guarded by the beautiful Stone Maiden. Her love for a mortal man brings out his real worth. She comes to Krylov as an ordinary woman whose beauty is visible to him alone. In a particularly harsh street riot Krylov loses her in the crowd and thus loses her for good because they agreed not to exchange home addresses and each time to set a new date and place for the next rendezvous. The Stone Maiden made Krylov experience true love, both sensual and spiritual, but finally abandoned him.
Meanwhile a team of rock hunters finds the legendary ruby deposit only to discover that excavations would mean an ecological disaster because the deposit happens to be in too close proximity to a dump of poisonous industrial waste. Krylov’s boss and mentor, geology professor Anfilogov perishes on the dump leaving his huge secret heritage of precious stones to his wife, which completely transforms her nature. The novel shows how corrupt business undermines morals and damages personal lives.
The last hundred pages of the novel depict the commemoration of the centenary of the 1917 Russian revolution, which is marked with a historical reconstruction of the event: two crowds dress up as Reds and Whites and recreate the uprising. However, what starts as a game, a spectacle, develops into a serious street fight and confrontation with the police showing how close Russia is to another social revolution, at least in some areas.
Women’s Rights and Women’s Stories
In early March everybody in Russia is preoccupied with the Women’s Day which has long ceased to be perceived as “the day of solidarity of the working women of the world in the movement for their rights”. Nowadays it is just a nice day off when women get gifts from their male acquaintances and children do the dishes to give dear mummy some rest; women teachers get flowers from students, and women employees get flowers, if they do, from male colleagues accompanied by warm wishes which they don’t hear on ordinary days. This year’s holiday was somewhat marred by the recent harassment scandal involving a powerful politician in the Duma who is notorious for pestering pretty young journalists, who approach him for interviews. When several of them protested publicly not only the “dirty old man” himself was genuinely surprised, not seeing what he did wrong, but many other high-placed officials reacted sarcastically accusing the young women of provoking such attitude to themselves by dressing frivolously (meaning short skirts, low necklines, and tight trousers). They obviously assumed that the right to paw women comes with a position of power. Even women were not unanimous in censuring men’s harassment attempts which are quite common everywhere but unmentionable - it is simply not proper to discuss such things while most victims of male violence are ashamed to admit it. However, many women, especially the young, showed their full support and sympathy and talked about their own experiences. So inevitably Russian women are joining the “MeToo” movement and has probably been encouraged by it to act.
Is this reflected in literature? Practically not at all. Moreover, women authors increasingly tend to write in men’s voices and avoid specifically female issues because of the general lack of interest in them. Although the Russian readership, as in other countries, consists predominantly of women. Men also write in female voices occasionally, but such portraits are not convincing or downright false. There is no getting away from the fact that nature created us different, and that male and female biological functions inevitably affect our psychology and behaviour. So why not accept this situation and put it to your advantage.
Even from just this one anthology of 20th century Russian women writing in English translation, which is coming out in the UK this month, one can see clearly how women’s consciousness was awakening in the course of one century: Slav Sisters. The Dedalus Book of Russian Women's Literature (Dedalus Books, March 2018). Full details on http://www.dedalusbooks.com/our-books/book.php?id=00000321. The process continues and there is hope that maybe in another hundred years gender equality will be taken for granted while different biological roles will be duly respected.
I strongly advise all Russian literature lovers not to miss Slav Sisters (the title was imposed by the publisher although he was informed that half of the contributors are not Slav.) As the editor of this anthology I realize that the list of authors is certainly incomplete. Unfortunately I was allowed only ten names (I squeezed in eleven) while at the same time expected to present a true picture of Russian women writing as well as the portrait of the age. I’m anticipating lots of criticism for the omissions and I accept all criticism beforehand. But the limitations are the publishers’ responsibility and there was nothing I could do.
In the Glas series of Russian writing (where I had complete control over the choice of authors, and the only limitation was the availability of funds) you’ll find many more women authors, and from collection to collection you can trace this process of awakening consciousness and psychological progress made by women in Russia from dependent position of second-rate citizens to the present-day status when they can openly challenge men in power insisting on respectful treatment and equal rights at any level.
Mikhail Levitin: Reviving Forgotten Classics
The latest premiere at the Hermitage Theatre is yet another stage adaptation of a literary work from the early 20th century, this time by Valentin Katayev. It compelled me to sing the praises of Mikhail Levitin, the artistic director of the Hermitage Theatre, who has done more than many to revive and popularise the forgotten literary celebrities of our Silver Age. He was the first to produce on stage Daniil Kharms and other stars of the absurd (OBERIU), and also Yuri Olesha, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Erdman, to name a few. Thus he re-introduced them to wider audiences and brought them back to us after decades of oblivion. And he enthusiastically continues to seek forgotten classics and promote them in his innovative theatre productions, TV shows, talks, and literary works.
Born in 1945 in Odessa he left it at the age of 16 to study at the Academy of Theatre Arts in Moscow. He worked with Yuri Lubimov at the Taganka Theatre before starting a company of his own in 1979, the now famous Hermitage Theatre.
Levitin is more known internationally as a stage director, but in Russia he is also well-known as a prize-winning author of more than twenty books and numerous magazine publications. Suffice it to mention his novel Total Impropriety which was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. The novel is a tribute to the now forgotten experimental stage director Igor Terentiev in which Levitin recognized his “brother-in-arts”. He writes: “I came across some notes on Terentiev describing him as an ‘artistic wonder of the twenties’, ‘a remarkable artist, a poet of the left-wing’, ‘the most left-wing of the left’. I felt insulted on behalf of Terentiev, myself and all those who have been or may in future be put in quotation marks."
Francis Greene, a noted specialist on Russia and lover of Russian culture, gives the best recommendation of Levitin: “Your theatre has very often brought me to laughter or to tears and has, just as often, shocked, startled or amazed me by the originality of its productions. This to be sure is the hallmark of its protean director Mikhail Levitin, whom I first encountered not in his theatrical persona but in one of his other guises as a writer whose novel Total Impropriety had been short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. Somehow even the name of the book gives a vision of its author, of his outrageous iconoclasm to which all responded with enthusiasm.”
Levitin's novel Total Impropriety is a highly sympathetic attempt to imaginatively recreate an intimate portrait of Terentiev. Some major cultural figures such as Mayakovsky and Lily Brik, Kruchenykh, Malevich, and Meyerhold also appear in the novel which evokes the irresponsibility and self-assuredness of the theatrical left, and their total separateness from the supposedly left-wing regime which, for a time, they were allowed to serve.
We meet Igor Terentiev when he is trying to flee from the Bolsheviks to Constantinople. Instead he ends up in Moscow where he mounts a wildly unconventional and unpopular production of a Soviet play, then returns to his native city of Yekaterinoslavl and mischievously applies for Party membership, giving his father's occupation as Colonel of the Tsarist Gendarmerie. He is arrested, naturally, and is facing execution but reprieved at the last moment and exiled to a labour camp on the White Sea. We encounter the curiously unreal reality of Terentiev's mistress Emilia who supposedly spent her youth in exalted circles in New York and Paris, but in fact came from the little town of Skadovsk near Odessa. She has a totally improper relationship with Terentiev with the complaisance of her husband Vladimir who unreservedly admires Terentiev’s genius. Terentyev’s wife Natasha is the daughter of the owner of a flour mill, very pretty, and totally devoted to him, if also excluded from what it is his theatre is all about. She actually has been to Paris when she was little, and is indeed thoroughly European and ill at ease in Russia.
Of much interest is Levitin’s fictionalized biography of Alexander Tairov, the founder of the famous Chamber Theatre which made a great impact on Russian theatre culture, and particularly on Levitin himself. The book features many prominent cultural figures of the 1920s and 30s. In With Only Sandals on his Feet Levitin then a precocious young man with a passion for theatre, discovers a book about the mysterious Chamber Theatre in a second-hand bookshop and makes it his mission to find out more about it. In the course of his quest he discovers many interesting details about the Chamber Theatre and shares them with the reader.
“I am a literary nonexistence working honestly for existence”
Today Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950) has been internationally recognized as one of the world’s foremost authors. He has been published in many countries, conferences are devoted to him, and his works are studied at universities. Krzhizhanovsky is compared to Swift, Poe, Gogol, Kafka, and Beckett. However, in his lifetime practically none of his stories appeared in print. He tried approaching Maxim Gorky for a recommendation but the proletarian classic found Krzhizhanovsky’s brilliant mind and fantastic erudition too much for working class tastes and refused to support him – another case of “woe from wit”. Only in the early perestroika times was Krzhizhanovky finally published to the delight of Russian literature lovers, who immediately saw that here was another great Russian writer.
The very discovery of Krzhizhanovky’s manuscripts was extraordinary: a young scholar specializing in the arts of the 1920s was working in the literary archives on a completely unrelated theme and happened to catch a mention of an unknown name, whom the then distinguished critic called “a writer-visionary, an unsung genius”. The scholar was intrigued because he thought he knew that period inside out. He did not have to look far: in the same archives he found a thick folder with 3,000 pages of typed text waiting to be discovered – it had been there for almost three decades, since Krzhizhanovsky’s wife deposited the folder there after his death. When the first book came out in 1989 people were stunned, it was too good to be true. Since then his complete works have been published and re-published, and translated into foreign languages. I’m proud that Glas was the first to publish a Krzhizhanovsky book in English and inspired publishers in other countries to translate his works.
His remarkable stories are noted for a boundless imagination, wry humour and breathtaking irony, depicting “something aberrant, which is strongly rooted in something true, with a unique mixture of heresy and logic.” In short, there is nothing like it.
Krzhizhanovsky made his own lonely way through literature; he was one of those doomed literary innovators who ran in his lifetime into a brick wall of suspicion and outright hostility by the authorities and unquestionable adoration by posterity. Unlike so many other writers of the time, Krzhizhanovsky did not disappear into the Gulag. Instead, frustration and rejection pushed him into poverty and alcoholism.
He was also a Shakespeare scholar and his essays on the subject are still relevant. Reading Shakespeare "I felt that I had a friend who could protect me from the metaphysical delusion."
Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction has been brilliantly translated by Joanne Turnbull who was awarded several prizes for her work. After the Glas edition of his “Seven Stories” five books have already been published by the NYRB Classics which specializes in translated world classics. These books are not to be missed.
A copy of the Glas edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s "Seven Stories" (in English) is available on loan from the SRF Library.
It may seem ridiculous that in Russia the Christmas holiday season starts when the festivities are long over in the West. It is even more ridiculous that our winter holidays happen in reverse order: first we celebrate New Year's Eve on 31 December (when believers are supposed to be fasting before Orthodox Christmas), then Christmas on 7 January (now an official holiday), and then what we call Old New Year on 13 January. The thing is that the Russian Orthodox Church is still using the old Julian calendar and not the Gregorian one used in the West and adopted by Soviet Russia in 1918. The decision of the church to adhere to the old calendar was a kind of protest at the time and now it is too late and would confuse churchgoers even more..
Christmas was banned by the Soviets and until the 1930s there was no official winter holiday. Later New Year's Eve was declared a public holiday and celebrated with all the trappings of Christmas. It was only in 1991, with the downfall of the USSR, that Christmas was restored to its former status.
Curiously, with the coming of glasnost in the late 1980s it suddenly transpired that most communists, even presidents and high-ranking officials, were devout Christians all along. For many ordinary people in the post-perestroika dislocation the church represented something solid in a world of crumbling ideals.
The ban on religion in post-revolutionary Russia and the persecutions of the 1920s led to the imprisonment and executions of tens of thousands of priests and believers. No wonder that few Russians today remember the old Christmas rites. Apart from the partying the one ritual which many people are keen to observe is the Mass held on the night of 6 January, the Orthodox Christmas Eve. The main service is held in the huge Cathedral of Christ the Saviour not far from the Kremlin, conducted by the Patriarch and attended by the President, top public figures, and many celebrities from the world of arts.
Worshippers are supposed to fast on Christmas Eve until the first star appears. Then the feasting begins. There should be 12 dishes on the table, one for each month. The main dish is a special porridge called kutya. It is made of grain, usually wheat or rice, symbolizing hope and immortality, and contains honey and poppy seeds which are meant to ensure happiness and success. The kutya is eaten from a common dish as a mark of unity. Other dishes include various pies and dumplings, roast suckling pig or goose, various pickles and of course vodka. This is also a night for fortune telling. The most popular method is to pour molten wax into water and guess the future by interpreting the thickening outline it forms. Alternatively you can put lighted candles before a mirror in a darkened room and wait patiently for the image of the future to appear in the looking-glass.
Another feature of Russian Christmas is kolyada: house to house carol singing and the sharing of good wishes for the New Year. It's a little like Halloween with young people going around in carnival costumes asking for treats and money. Most of the carols have rustic rather than religious themes as the custom has more to do with the old Pagan tradition marking the passing of the winter solstice. This tradition is followed mostly in the countryside.
One aspect of the Russian Christmas, which is markedly different is Grandfather Frost. He looks very much like Santa Claus: a red coat with white fur cuffs and collar and a long white beard. But Grandfather Frost, or Ded Moroz is accompanied on his journeys by Snegurochka, a young Snow Maiden always clad in white. Grandfather Frost survived the seven decades of Communism and is now being widely commercialized in Russia. You can arrange, through one of the numerous Christmas agencies, for Grandfather Frost to visit you for half an hour to play with your children and give them presents bought by you beforehand. Since 1998 the official residence of Grandfather Frost was opened in the town of Veliky Ustyug in northern Russia. His estate includes a banya (steam sauna) with a swimming pool, a museum, workshops for toys, a post office and a souvenir shop. The place is a popular tourist attraction.
According to a poll eight out of ten Russians celebrate Christmas on 7 January and a significant number also celebrate it on 24-25 December. So the birth of Christ is celebrated twice, on two different days. The more the merrier, you might say.
18 December 2017
The Beauty and the Horrors of Solovki
Yuri Brodsky, a professional art photographer and writer, has recently been awarded the prestigious “Prosvetitel” (Enlightener) prize for his book Solovki: Labyrinth of Transformations published by Novaya Gazeta. This is Brodsky’s second book on the Solovki Archipelago, which he has studied for more than forty years. Solovki is notorious for its 15th century monastery which was turned in the 16th century into the most forbidding prison by Ivan the Terrible; and for the first post-revolutionary labour camp, which set the example for other such camps around Russia, and was called “the mother of gulags” by Solzhenitsyn.
I know that I’m expected to write about books which exist in English translation. But in this case I can’t help making an exception for two reasons. First, because half of the 450 page book consists of Brodsky’s photographs and pictures of notable individuals imprisoned in Solovki - some 500 pictures telling their own graphic story that need no translation. Second, because I find this book a most suitable visual illustration for the centenary of the Russian revolution which is marked this year.
Brodsky tries to be dispassionate in his description of Solovki’s history unfolding amidst its majestic nature, and of its present fight between the defenders of the gulag memorial and the greedy aspirations of the church. He says: “What gorgeous beauty nature has created there and what hell inside this beauty man has created.”
The monks’ prayers and the prisoners’ curses rose to the skies simultaneously day and night. The monks served as executioners and jailors, and nothing much changed after the revolution. Both the Whites and the Reds exiled their opponents to Solovki during the Civil War. They were received by the monastery administration against a receipt. Then came the Bolsheviks who organized a POW camp there. From 1923 it was turned into a “special prison camp” which officially existed until the end of 1939. Many of the early Bolshevik jailors ended up as prisoners there. The chiefs of the prison camps were inevitably killed one after another, often without any obvious guilt, simply for “loss of Party and Cheka vigilance”. More than a million prisoners served time on Solovki, including those who organised and administered the camp. After each change of management the entire documentation was liquidated. Prisoners were dying in hundreds, mostly of hyperthermia, felling logs in severe winter cold – in the 1930s Russia exported not oil, as today, but timber and the prisoners’ free labour allowed Russia to export timber at dumping prices. The slogan on the main gates of the Solovki labour camp said: “Through Labour to Freedom!”. In 1934 it was borrowed by the Third Reich who translated it as “Arbeit macht frei”.
Brodsky is trying to understand why the phenomenon of Solovki happened in Russia, why gulags became possible in this country and specifically in Solovki. He comes to the conclusion that the Moscow form of Orthodoxy is partly responsible for it, not Orthodox Christianity as such, but precisely its Moscow form, meaning that Orthodoxy was created in the interests of the Moscow rulers and Solovki has become a place of self-identification of Russia as a whole.
The situation persists to this day. The monastery authorities are trying to get rid of the museum of gulag victims and to suppress any mention of them. The monastery wishes to monopolize all tourist activities on Solovki. In fact they don’t need secular residents and tourists there but only monks and pilgrims – they want to be the sole owners of the island. True, monks came there first but the inmates of the prison camp outnumbered monastery residents by at least ten times for five centuries.
The monastery authorities have long been trying to stop Yuri Brodsky’s research and when his new book came out they declared it insulting to the church because Brodsky talks, among other things, about the monks’ collaboration with the GPU and their unsavoury role in the running of the prison and the labour camp. Now signatures are being collected against the author and letters come in threatening his physical liquidation. Brodsky is a brave man and believes in the cause of defending the memory of the innocent victims of the Solovki gulag. But watching the outburst of religious radicalism in Russia today you start fearing the worst.
7 November 2017
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.