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.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Celebrating Tolstoy in Oxford

This blog marks a departure from my translation theme, but also my return after a long silence caused by work obligations: my new job in Oxford is wonderful, but very demanding of my time. Half-completed translations languish in remote computer folders, waiting for the Christmas holidays to start.
Tolstoy's bedroom in Astapovo
One hundred years and three days ago, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy departed this world - famously, in a railway station in Astapovo, a small railway junction near the border of the Kaluga and Smolensk provinces. He had been on his way in the general direction of the Caucasus - final destination unknown - when he developed a high temperature which eventually became a fatal case of pneumonia. He was eighty-two.

I plan to mark this occasion by inviting my students and colleagues to view a screening of the film The Last Station (Michael Hoffmann, 2010), which is based on a novelisation of the last year of Tolstoy's life by Jay Parini, an American Professor of English. Parini based his story on close reading of the many diaries and letters left by Tolstoy and those close to him in his last year at the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana: and they were quite a crew. Tolstoy's intimate circle included his wife of forty-eight years, who had borne him thirteen children over the course of their stormy marriage, taken down drafts of his major writings, and even held power of attorney over his possessions, Sofia Andreevna; their eight surviving children including Sasha, the youngest daughter, who was dangerously resentful of her mother; Vladimir Chertkov, a passionate Tolstoyan who venerated Tolstoy as much as he despised the great man's family and wealth; and Valentin Bulgakov, a newly appointed private secretary, William Shirer's 'ubiquitous Bulgakov', who chronicled the last months of Tolstoy's life with a sympathetic but penetrating eye. It was a group doomed to constant and humiliating strife: tantrums, quarrels, secrecy and even suicide attempts followed one after another. As A.N. Wilson wrote in his biography of Tolstoy, 'The last years of Tolstoy's life were scandalously horrible - this unedifying series of horrible disputes and emotional disruptions... [Tolstoy's] odious, humourless disciples'.
Valentin Bulgakov and Tolstoy at work
Like the book, the film is largely historically accurate; Helen Mirren's enthusiastic portrayal of the half-crazed, half-desperate Countess Sofia redeems Parini's slightly unsympathetic portrayal of this loving wife doomed to go down in history as Tolstoy's Xanthippe. All she wanted to do was protect her husband's royalties so that her children would inherit them - Tolstoy and Chertkov were constantly revising her husband's will in the hope of placing all his work in the public domain. As she wrote in a defensive letter to Chertkov's mother, " No-one has the right to interfere in the relations between husband and wife. I helped him and lived one life with him, soul to soul." After her husband's death, from which both Chertkov and her family succeeded in excluding her almost completely, the Countess entered upon and eventually won a bitter legal battle against Chertkov for control of her husband's copyright. The victory was little more than moral, however - the case was closed in 1913, and four years later the Revolution would abolish private property.
Kerry Condon as "Masha" in the movie
James McAvoy as Valentin Bulgakov in The Last Station
One point the film does completely invent is the existence of Valentin Bulgakov's love interest, "Masha", played by the Tipperary actress Kelly Condon. Masha is a Tolstoyan who feels out of place in the 'odious, humourless' Tolstoyan commune at Telyatinki, Chertkov's estate near Yasnaya Polyana. She sets out to seduce the ingenuous private secretary, who is a vegetarian and a virgin. She succeeds with remarkably little trouble; Bulgakov finds himself awoken to love and increasingly resistant to the dry utopianism of Chertkov and his ilk. The historical character of Bulgakov, who remained a sincere and prolific Tolstoyan propagandist all his life, is unlikely to have undergone such a conversion. He spent most of his life as an emigre in Europe, remaining true to Tolstoyan principles of chastity and fraternity, eventually returning to Russia in 1948 to live out his remaining decades as curator of the Yasnaya Polyana museum. The film's epigraph, "All that I know I know only because I love", and ascribed to Tolstoy, is more accurately placed in the mouth of Tolstoy's character, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky of War and Peace, reflecting on his death-bed after a life spent largely without love. Of course, this huge novel was completed in 1869, a time when Tolstoy was remarkably more cheerful and sanguine about love's place in the world. The later Tolstoy explored the darker side of love in Anna Karenina and The Kreutser Sonata. It might have been more appropriate to choose the epigraph from a 1917 essay by Bulgakov called 'A Christian Ethic', in which the still-young man wrote, 'True life is granted to man under two conditions: that he do good to others and that he increased the strength of the love that lies within him". Whether any of the characters in 'The Last Station' succeed in fulfilling Bulgakov's conditions, I leave it to my viewers tonight to decide.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster

I'm borrowing the title of one of Vladimir Nabokov's short stories - an unfinished account of the lives of a pair of male Siamese twins - to summarize a tale on a similar theme by a less well-known writer, Aleksandr Chaianov (1888-1937). Chaianov was better known to his contemporaries as a progressive agronomist, eventually exiled and executed by Stalin for opposing collective farming. However, he earned a unique place in literary history by writing (under the pseudonym of Botanist X) five Gothic-fantastic short stories and a single, unfinished science fiction utopia.  The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin, or, The Last Love Affair of a Moscow Architect (1918), written in an ironically Romantic style, is the first of these five unusual short stories . It is also one of three tales by Chaianov to be included in the collection of supernatural fiction I'm currently translating. It precedes Nabokov's Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster by thirty-two years. The story opens in Moscow in the late stages of the Belle Époque;  cafés chantants offer passers-by liqueurs and muscial recitations, while well-dressed flâneurs amble the city's boulevards. The hero, a successful architect called Vladimir M. (biographers of Chaianov have at least two suggestions for his real-life original), is a middle-aged Casanova and an art collector, on the point of completing his latest conquest of a society beauty. Abruptly, however, Vladimir is overtaken by a sensation of utter futility:
'All the fancies, that had so recently stirred his heart, now struck him as banal, wearily repeated for the hundredth time, and even that evening’s encounter, towards which he had endeavoured for so many months and which was meant to inscribe a new chapter in the annals of his life – even this seemed needless and tedious. Only the autumn leaves, falling from the trees and lying under the feet of the evening passers-by, touched his soul deeply with a sensation of grievious sorrow.'
Perplexed by his sudden ennui and unable to shift it, Vladimir impulsively takes flight to the small town of Kolomna, less than a hundred miles south-west of Moscow. He feels better there and is soon contemplating a new affair with the local veterinarian's fashionable wife. But a stranger encounter is reserved for Vladimir... in the window of the pretentiously titled 'Moscow Hair Salon', he sees a remarkable wax mannequin:
'Thick snakes of reddish, almost bronze hair framed a pale face with a greenish opal cast, a burning flush and scarlet lips. Huge black eyes reinforced the composition'.

Vladimir purchases the mannequin from the salon owner at an inflated price; in so doing, he discovers that the wax model has an identical twin, held by the owner's son-in-law. Both were obtained as securities for debts from the owner of a travelling curiosity show, or panopticon. After purchasing the second mannequin at an even more ludicrous price, Vladimir turns detective. He painstakingly traces the originals of both mannequins across Europe, eventually discovering that they are a pair of celebrated Siamese twins who perform as the 'Henrickson sisters' in a travelling circus. Unfortunately, the Henrickson sisters appear to have gone to ground; they don't respond to Vladimir's desperate advertisements. At long last, after expending most of his personal fortune, Vladimir decides to abandon the search, promising himself a brief recuperative stay in Venice before returning to Moscow. As soon as he opens the blinds in his hotel room on his first morning in Venice, he sees an advertisement for the 'American Panopticon', starring the world-famous 'Henrickson sisters'. The twins turn out to be just as beautiful and entrancing as Vladimir had hoped as they perform an erotically suggestive Egyptian dance. Vladimir swiftly persuades the circus owner to introduce him to his star performers. Although they behave with well-bred maidenly reserve offstage, both women are soon charmed by their Russian visitor. Vladimir and Berthe, the more sensuous of the twins, fall rapidly in love - or in lust - while Kitty - described as a 'good-hearted', 'typical German beauty', looks on in horror. Kitty's unwilling but inevitable presence in Vladimir's and Berthe's sexual encounters lends their affair added elements of voyeurism and even violation, reminiscent of the remark made by one of Nabokov's male Siamese twins: 'Not only did our public want us to talk, they also wanted us to play together. [...] I suppose had we happened to be opposite sex twins they would have made us commit incest in their presence'.

In Chaianov's story, Kitty is both performer and public: 'Passion blazed up, the fierce stream carried everything away, and even I, chained by our deformity to my sister, was somehow strangely carried away on its crests. His words, his smiles, his touches, like melted metal, branded stigmata of desire on our souls. And then came a time when, as I sank my teeth into the pillow in a maddened frenzy, Berthe gave herself to him'. The story, which up to this point has been a third-person narrative with Vladimir as hero, is interrupted at this point with a coyly elliptical chapter heading, 'Disaster' ('Катастрофа'), followed by a quote from an Ovid love poem and a row of actual ellipses. The next chapter unfolds from Kitty's perspective via extracts from her diary, describing Berthe's pregnancy, the surgical separation of the sisters during Berthe's labour, the birth of a little girl and Berthe's death. Kitty decides to flee with her niece, ordering the doctors to tell Vladimir that all three died. Vladimir (and the narrative) retreat back to Moscow, a broken man who listlessly resumes his career for want of any other interest in life. In this state of emotional vacuity, Vladimir consciously experiences the same objectivized condition to which he had implicitly reduced all previous women in his life: Vladimir felt himself to be a mannequin, a marionette, dangled on a string by an unknown hand. After the passage of a year, he decides to allow himself a holiday in Venice. All the details of his arrival are repeated: the same touts and porters at the station, the same ambient sounds of gondoliers and street vendors, the same hotel room. But this time when Vladimir opens his blinds in the morning, he is confronted by a sight that consigns him to final collapse and death: the mannequins of the Henrickson sisters, which he had left behind in Venice, now mounted in the window of a stylish hairdressing salon and staring accusingly into his eyes.

When reading a Chaianov story, one often feels as though browsing an old-fashioned panopticon: the progression of curiosities, antiquities and helpful facts is not dissimilar to the touring displays of human and animal freaks, random paraphernalia and historical trivia that recur in Chaianov's fiction (another example is the travelling circus in his 1924 story The Unusual, but True Adventures of Count Fedor Mikhailovich Buturlin, which contains a mermaid, or the valuable furniture and other curios stored in an antiquarian's cellar in The Venetian Mirror (1923)). Chaianov's love for situational and especially historical detail frequently overwhelms his narrative. But when it works, his determination to embed realia in his fictional framework allows the patient reader to experience the same story on several levels. For example, in The Tale of the Hairdresser's Mannequin, Chaianov mentions that a cafe observed by Vladimir has been painted by the Russian artist Konstantin Iuon. Iuon's works (of which two are included on this page) capture the multichromatic, sensual, yet ephemeral essence of deeply traditional country landscapes and street scenes. By looking at a Iuon painting, such as the 1909 Noch. Tverskoi Bul'var (reproduced here, second image from top), which is probably the painting Chaianov had in mind, the reader can almost see with Vladimir's eyes the urban life of Moscow before the First World War. (To illustrate Vladimir's Venice, however, I've chosen a 1924 painting by Aleksandra Ekster, which Chaianov could not have seen at the time of writing: its harsh, kaleidoscopic splinters of colour seem to have more in common with Vladimir's traumatic experience of the city. See above right). Similarly, later in the tale, Vladimir tries to read himself to sleep with a copy of a much-loved historical novel, Ivan Lazhechnikov's The House of Ice (Ледяной дом, 1835). While the Petersbug plot of this novel has little to do with Chaianov's narrative, it does reinforce both works' emphasis on re-experiencing the historical past. Chaianov is constantly finding windows in the present - art objects, books, even buildings and street names - that allow the reader to visualize the past. He also finds windows, or at least parallels, between different layers of the past: Vladimir's early twentieth-century peregrination through continental Europe in search of the twins is apostrophized with citations from the Nikolai Karamzin's autobiographical account of his own European grand tour in the 1780s in his Letters of a Russian Traveller (Письма русского путешественника, 1792). Whether Chaianov also intends, conversely, to use the past as a window on the present, is open to debate. One Russian scholar, Il’ia Gerasimov, uses Jungian analysis of Chaianov's fiction to argue persuasively that each of Chaianov's five short stories expresses some aspect of his engagement with the Soviet regime - from hopeful compromise to ultimate despair. See his Душа человека переходного времени: случай А Чаянова  (Kazan,1997).

What is certain is that Chaianov is knowingly, and knowledgeably, experimenting with a number of Romantic and Symbolist themes: unlicensed love, incense, deformity, madness, solipsism, and the hallowed theme of the double (which recurs in almost all his fiction). Many of Chaianov's themes were explored by his immediate predecessors and contemporaries - Fedor Sologub, Valerii Briusov, the émigré writer Pavel Muratov - with greater aesthetic success, largely because they practice greater self-restraint. They also have clearer authorial aims: Nabokov's doubles, for example, typically serve as (often rebellious) analogues of the author-subject relationship. Chaianov lacks any such analytic purpose: he is too diffuse and self-indulgent. Yet he is at his most irresistible when he submits to his own whimsicality: in The Hairdresser's Mannequin, Vladimir leaves Venice for a market town near Pavia in considerable agony of mind. He has just been dismissed by the woman he loves and he has no idea whether she or his child will survive labour. Yet Chaianov can't resist forcing on Vladimir a few of the impressions that appealed to his own specialization (Chaianov was one of the Soviet Union's leading agronomists): breeding cattle, land drainage, super-phosphates and Randall’s disc harrows - an innovation in ploughing techniques - all make an unexpected appearance at the tragic dénouement of the story. The barely restrained chaos of Chaianov's authorial style is consistent with the determination shared by his heroes - all collectors of one kind or another - to accumulate unique objects and discover patterns between them.

I'll post again about Chaianov as I continue to discover patterns and resonances between his stories: you can explore them for yourself at http://az.lib.ru/c/chajanow_a_w/
Please bear in mind that all translations given in this texts are drafts: if you would like to compare them with the original and offer alternate suggestions, please do so.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Delivering Phantoms with Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii

I'm currently working on a translation of a 1926 short story called Фантом (Phantom) by the Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii. (You can read it in Russian here). Krzhizhanovskii is one of the most obscure and most challenging twentieth-century Russian authors you can choose to read; in fact, his life's work - thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts - was very nearly forgotten after his death. When researching another writer (Georgii Shengeli), the Russian researcher Vadim Perel'muter accidentally discovered a treasure trove of short fiction, criticism, letters, and even several novellas in the state archive RGALI (Moscow). Perel'muter was intrigued by this unknown yet prolific author's unique style, and has heroically devoted the three decades since his find to editing and publishing Krzhizhanovskii's fiction with extensive annotations. Krzhizhanovskii is an intellectually demanding writer, often referencing Kant, Schopenhauer, Leibnitz and other less well-known continental philosophers; his vocabulary was exhaustive and frankly exhausting, especially for the translator. Joanne Turnbull, Krzhizhanovskii's main English translator, calls him 'an otherworldly man of enormous erudition [...] who was constitutionally incapable of accommodating the coarse commissars of Soviet culture'.  A self-avowed misfit in the grey and forced conformity of Stalinist Russia, Krzhizhanovskii nevertheless wrote with the helpless freneticism of a graphomaniac.  He wrote encyclopedia articles, book reviews, screenplays, even a study on the significance of titles: and meanwhile, he constantly referenced other worlds, Hadean, Stygian, futuristic, hyperborean, transatlantic. Krzhizhanovskii was an admirer of G.K. Chesterton, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift; his work is frequently compared by critics to Borges, Beckett and Kafka.

While Квадратурин (Quadraturin) (1926) has become his most frequently anthologized short story (and deservedly - it's a classic of psychological horror), I feel that Phantom is equally terrifying. It's a story that resonates with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and with the Faust legend (Marlowe's rather than Goethe's) and with Greek tragedy, but it also comes about as close as Krzhizhanovskii ever does to direct historical critique. The word phantom, as the Oxford English Dictionary will tell you, has the additional meaning of 'a model of the body or of a body part or organ, esp. one used to demonstrate the progression of the fetus through the birth canal'. This is the definition Krzhizhanovskii uses to construct his short and horrible tale. In pre-revolutionary Russia, a stressed-out medical student is asked to demonstrate a forceps birth during his final exams. As he manoeuvres the preserved corpse of an aborted foetus through the pelvis of a wooden mannequin, he imagines that the little 'phantom' gives a cry and starts to move. Eventually he persuades himself that he's experienced an hallucination; he forgets the incident and moves far away. The Russian Civil War ensues and, in the midst of its turmoil, the young doctor is confronted by the phantom 'son' he rejected at its birth. Now grown up, the phantom has tracked him down in order to commit an act of quasi-Oedipal patricide - but not before expatiating on its comically grotesque existence as a living corpse. One of the more obvious ironies of the story is that the Russian Revolution is the real 'phantom' child of the story - cynically destroying its human progenitors to prolong its own unnatural existence - and the young doctor's casual creation of a monster is exemplary of the culpable carelessness of other intellectuals of his generation.

In my next blog, I'll talk a little more about the difficulties - and the fascination - of my translation of this Krzhizhanovskii story. While it will be published in due course (probably 2012), the translation is very much a work-in-progress right now.

If you would like to read Krzhizhanovskii's other stories in Joanne Turnbull's wonderful English translations, try either her original collection Seven Stories (Glas, 2006), or her latest, even more rewarding selection, Memories of the Future, published in 2009 by NYRB Classics. (See a review here).