Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Pursuing Pisateli in Perm: Reviewing Dmitrii Mamin-Sibiriak

Dmitrii Mamin-Sibiriak (1852-1912)
One of my students has revealed himself as a secret follower of Dmitrii Narkisovich Mamin-Sibiriak, one of the almost-forgotten second-rank classic novelists of the nineteenth-century Russian canon. Undeterred by Mamin-Sibiriak's peculiar names and marginal status, my student dedicated his year abroad in 2009-10 to completing original research from the writer's books, archives, and even his dom-muzei (in Ekaterinburg). Equally undeterred by my confessed unfamiliarity with Mamin-Sibiriak, he has asked me to supervise his essay, which will combine biographical survey with literary analysis and historical contextualization of Mamin-Sibiriak's most successful novel, Privalovskie milliony (1883), an account of a factory owner with philanthropic tendencies who attempts to effect positive socio-economic change in a provincial Russian town.

Mamin-Sibiriak (centre), with Chekhov (left) and Ignatii Potapenko
Mamin-Sibiriak (the extra surname was an addendum he earned in his earlier years as a radical journalist, when he often signed articles with the pseudonym Sibiriak) was born near Perm in 1852, into a priest's family. He was educated in Perm and Ekaterinburg, and briefly in St Petersburg, but returned to Ekaterinburg where he established his literary career. After Privalovskie milliony brought him a degree of fame, he became acquainted with other major writers of his time, including Korolenko, Chekhov, Gorkii and Bunin. He married a famous actress and moved back to St Petersburg after their marriage; sadly, she died shortly after giving birth to their daughter. Dmitry Mamin-Sibiriak died in St Petersburg in 1912. Lenin and Gorkii both reviewed him favourably, but (according to my student) he was ignominiously trashed by Stalinist critics, ushering in a long period of eclipse.

And that's really all I know about D M-S at the moment: I'm looking forward to reading my student's extended essay next month on this most famous son of Perm (although Perm was known as Molotov between 1940 and 1957, after Stalin's infamous diplomat, Molotov wasn't actually from there). Perm is certainly starting to loom larger in my own life as I am meeting an unusual number of academics from Perm University; at a conference in Sheffield recently, I heard a very entertaining paper by Galina Yankovskaia about 'Permistics' - Permians' belief that their region is the centre of the world (after all, they did have their own geological epoch, even if it's best known for the greatest mass extinctions the world has ever seen). In any case, I have found myself promising to read Privalovskie milliony over the Christmas break, not simply out of a sense of duty to my student, but also because I can never resist an obscure, neglected author. I will blog again in a few weeks about my impressions of Mamin-Sibiriak's novel. (You can read my student David Ellard's thoughts on Mamin-Sibiriak here, in a later blog post).

Incidentally, the poet Bella Akhmadulina passed away today, aged seventy-three. I'm barely familiar with her work, but this obituary in Kommersant is a useful summary of her career.

Picture credits for most of the images in this post are owed to Allerleiten.


  1. I'm curious, Dinosaur, did you read the novel? I've never read it, but for some time I've been thinking of translating some of Mamin-Sibiryak's children's stories into English, so any information about him is welcome.

    I look forward to hearing more from you on this topic!

  2. I did indeed read it over the Christmas vacation, Jamie, and I enjoyed it much more than I'd expected. It's astutely and sometimes viciously witty, although it's let down by somewhat weak plotting and a hero you just want to shake. I'm trying to persuade my student to write a guest blog post about his project. I know he's read several of M-S's stories. Which ones are you planning to translate?

  3. Since writing my first comment, I've begun translating one of the Alenushka stories, "Сказка о том, как жила-была последняя муха". I picked it because I enjoyed reading it to my daughter when she was a baby. (Now she's two and a half and won't sit still for more than a page.)

    Actually, the title itself is a bit tricky to translate. My working title is "Tale of How There Once Was a Fly Who Outlived the Others." For some reason, "last fly" just doesn't sound right to me in English. One translator back in the 1970s entitled her version "The Last of the Flies," which is okay, but it oddly brings to mind Golding's "Lord of the Flies" and leaves off a good chunk of the Russian title.

    I hope your student agrees to write the guest post!