From an email written by a friend's son in February 2014:
‘In Kiev everything is very bad… I wasn’t even allowed through with my passport and my pass… yesterday I came under fire on Arsenalnaya; fighting broke out just as I was on my way home, stones and grenades were flying, I hid myself with some other people behind a kiosk, and made it home by running from shelter to shelter [перебежками].’
Here’s Nikolka Turbin in December 1918:
‘Panting heavily and feeling his legs weakening and giving way under him, Nikolka ran along the empty Razyezhaya Street and made his way without incident as far as the crossroads at the junction of two streets […]. By the side of a pillar he saw a pool of blood and a pile of manure, together with two abandoned rifles and a blue student’s cap. […] The crackle of machine-gun fire from the Upper City was now constant.’
Modern reality and Mikhail Bulgakov's fiction dissolve into each other on the strange, steep, seductive streets of Kiev, as civilization blurs into chaos overnight and two young men, a century apart, flee sniper fire through the same ancient capital city. Roger Cockrell’s definitive new translation of Bulgakov’s The White Guard (1925-9; Alma Classics, 2012) has appeared at a tragically apposite time for those who frame Ukraine’s current conflicts in the context of her even more turbulent transition from Tsarist to Soviet imperial possession. The White Guard, Bulgakov’s first novel, follows the Turbin family – elegant Elena, deserted by her callous, tergiversating husband; dourly patriotic Alexei (the author’s alter ego); naïve Nikolka, and a coterie of colourful neighbours and friends – through the bitter winter of 1918-19. They occupy the first floor of a townhouse modelled precisely on Bulgakov’s own, down to the famous caricatures and doggerel inked on the tiles of the Dutch stove and the well-loved volumes of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Nat Pinkerton in the family library. Bulgakov hymns the middle-class luxuries of home, although clearly on the ebb, in contrast to other, inimical cultural riptides: the Jew-hanging, cadet-shooting nationalist army commanded by quasi-mythical Semyon Petlyura; the desperately decadent nightlife of billetless officers and cash-rich refugees from Bolshevized Moscow; the grief of the newly bereaved; and the sudden, senseless deaths of loyalist Ukrainian forces, abandoned by their own high command as the latter follows its government into exile.
Bulgakov’s novel is confusing, winding,
structurally flawed (he later reworked the plot into Stalin’s favourite play, The Days of the Turbins). It is also
enticing, richly evocative, and in places maddeningly skilful (such as the
constant sub-audible dialogue with Tolstoy). I don’t mean the intentional echoing
of War and Peace; the resonances are subtler. A minor character – an archetypally
downright, inspiringly simple sergeant-major, not even a character proper as he
predeceases the narrative by two years – is named Zhilin after the similarly
ordinary hero of Tolstoy’s novella The
Prisoner of the Caucasus. This is typical intertextual finesse. On the other hand, Bulgakov’s lyrical
descriptions of the magical ‘City’, or melodramatic scenes like Elena’s
passionate bargaining with the Virgin Mary for her dying brother's life, are
beautifully written but feel forced; their intensity distracts. I prefer
more plebeian set pieces such as the burgling of Vasilisa (the Turbins’
avaricious downstairs neighbour) or the wonderful inanities of Lariosik, their
bumbling country cousin who turns up in the middle of the civil war with a
canary and a sheaf of currency, and falls quietly and immediately in love with
Elena. Lariosik’s mini-Bildungsroman unfolds in the second half of the book,
unfairly but perfectly concealed behind the storylines of other family members.
|Bulgakov in 1913|
This new translation goes further than the previous versions by Michael Glenny (1971) and Marion Schwartz (2008), and succeeds better than either. Cockrell’s version is more rigorously authentic than Glenny’s very good translation, even where accuracy challenges the capacity of the language. To give just one example, he is the first translator to find an English equivalent for Colonel Nai-Turs’s distinctive Serbian accent. For Schwarz, Nai-Turs is simply the 'burring, laconic colonel' (p. 146). Glenny ducks the issue, thus ignoring Bulgakov’s comic portrayal of this otherwise repressively gloomy character. When Cockrell’s Nai-Turs is forcing a senior officer at gunpoint to release footwear for his men, he says, ‘You pick up phone, you sirry old man, and my gun shoot you in head… Then you rie on froor.’ Even dying in front of terrified Nikolka, Nai-Turs is laughable: ‘Don’t be so damned heloic’ are among his last words.
Cockrell also pulls off the novel’s difficult introduction (original here); this is one of several places where Bulgakov’s deliberately elegiac style, keyed to the Book of Revelations, teeters constantly on the verge of tendentiousness. Translators can easily fall over the edge. Here’s Cockrell: ‘Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, the second year after the revolution. The summer was abundant with sun and the winter with snow, and two stars stood especially high in the sky: the shepherds’ star – the evening Venus – and red, quivering Mars. […] that very same week the white coffin containing the body of [the Turbins’] mother had been carried down the steep St Alexei’s Hill to the little church of St Nicholas the Good in Podol, on the Embankment’. Glenny tumbles off the cliff, or rather, the embankment: ‘Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars, quivering, red. […] the white coffin with the body of their mother was carried away down the slope of St Alexei’s Hill towards the Embankment, to the little church of the [sic] St Nicholas the Good’. Schwartz is oratorical: 'Great was the year and terrible was the Year of Our Lord 1918, the second since the Revolution has begun. Sun had been abundant in the summer, snow in the winter, and two stars had risen particularly high in the sky: Venus, the Evening Star; and Mars, red and quivering. [...] a white coffin with his mother's body was carried down steep Alexeyevsky Slope toward Podol and the little church of St Nicholas the Good, on the Embankment'. Here as throughout the novel, Cockrell restrains Bulgakov's rhetoric whenever it becomes incompatible with English literary prose, without sacrificing accuracy. Such skilled compromises more than justify his new translation.
‘I will be terribly sorry if I’m mistaken and if The White Guard is not an exceptional piece’, Bulgakov, modest as ever, confided to his diary on January 5, 1925. Mikhail Bulgakov: Diaries and Selected Letters (Alma Classics, 2013) is the latest of Cockrell’s Bulgakov translations (which include The Fatal Eggs, also for Alma). It is beautifully presented (every page headed by the year of composition, making navigation easier) and thoroughly endnoted, as is The White Guard. As a cold-blooded reader, I prefer footnotes (endnotes force you to break the flow of concentration by flicking to the end, or else they generate guilty guesswork if you refrain and read on). Their sheer plenitude in this edition is distracting. Two other immediately striking points about the presentation reflect the unstable status of translation in the UK: Diaries and Selected Letters was subsidized by the Arts Council, a sobering reminder that literary translation is a niche, unsustainable activity; and the disappointing absence of the translator’s name from the front or back covers (it is sequestered, instead, on the flyleaf).
Unlike The White Guard, however, this volume begs an existential question: was there any need to replace Julie Curtis’ groundbreaking translation of largely identical material, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: A Life in Letters and Diaries (Bloomsbury, 1991)? Moreover, Curtis’ translations were made at a time when the goodwill of Bulgakov’s widow (the apparently adipose Lyubov’ Evgenyevna – see below) was required to obtain original documents, not forgetting the goodwill of an intimidating network of Soviet scholars. Manuscripts Don’t Burn remains a more important scholarly resource, primarily because it provides fuller historical context by including letters from Bulgakov’s family and acquaintances (and helpfully prefaces each chronological section with a characterful commentary). Curtis’s collection, however, achieves its range by omitting or editing sections of Bulgakov’s own correspondence. These are restored in Cockrell’s new translation, which excludes all voices except Bulgakov’s own. The writer emerges through his own words: bitter, observant, whimsical, flippant, conceited, bizarrely unjust to his first wife (he asked her not to acknowledge him if she ever saw him in the street with another woman; she apparently consented), extravagantly uxorious toward his third.
Curtis’s and Cockrell’s books
complement, rather than replace, each other; moreover, Cockrell is probably the better stylist, reproducing
Bulgakov’s suave yet idiosyncratic flow in absorbingly natural English. But because
he is less literal than Curtis, he is also, in places, less strictly accurate. This
sample comparison demonstrates both Cockrell’s
smoother style (and tact, in his choice of adjective for Bulgakov’s
wife), and his slightly misleading version of the phrase ‘унижаюсь даже до легкой ревности’. Here's the original (and my deliberately 'straight'
|Bulgakov and poklonnitsa [female admirer]|
Ужасное состояние: все больше влюбляюсь в свою жену. Так обидно--10 лет открещивался от своего... Бабы, как бабы. А теперь унижаюсь даже до легкой ревности. Чем-то мила и сладка. И толстая. Газет не читал сегодня.
A dreadful state of affairs: I'm falling more and more in love with my wife. It's offensive - for 10 years I've been swearing off my... Women are women. And now I'll even humiliate myself to the point of feeling slightly jealous. There's something nice and sweet about her. And plump. I didn't read any newspapers today.
I'm in a dreadful state: I'm falling more and more in love with my wife. It's so infuriating: for ten years I've refused to have anything to do with... Women are just women. And now I am demeaning myself to the extent even of slight jealousy. Somehow she's very dear to me and sweet. And fat. [last line omitted from translation]
I'm in a terrible state: I'm falling more and more in love with my wife. How annoying: for the last ten years I've kept on turning away from anyone close to me... a woman is just a woman, after all. But now I allow myself to be humiliated by even the slightest twinge of jealousy. She's sweet and lovely. And large. Didn't read the newspapers today.
|Lyubov' Evgenyevna, Bulgakov's second wife. Large? Fat? Or just plump?|
|Bulgakov in 1928|
Disclaimers: Julie Curtis is a personal friend. Roger Cockrell has previously written kind reviews of my work. Many thanks to Alma Classics for sending me review copies of both books, and to YK for sharing her son's message with me. RD
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