Saturday, 24 December 2011

Monday Starts on Saturday, or Динозавр не работает

We're into extra time at the Russian Sci-Fi Quidditch Cup Final - it looks like Ivan Efremov's team have this year's trophy in the bag, unless Beliaev's Amphibian Man can tackle Erg Noor - and now the Strugatskii Brothers score! Lovely ninja broomstick work in goal from Arkadii - and Boris has grabbed the Golden Snitch! Game over! The Strugatskiis win again! Not surprising, with their work ethic; after all, Monday starts on Saturday, and this year August starts in July...

I've been overtaken by sub-Hogwartsian match commentary hysteria firstly because I'm excited to finally hold in my hands Andrew Bromfield's excellent translation of the Strugatskii brothers' genre-bending 1964 novel Ponedel'nik nachinaetsia v subbotu (as Monday Starts on Saturday), and secondly because the publisher, London-based Seagull House, attempted to boost this book on their web page by framing it as the Russian precursor of J.K. Rowling's warlock heptalogy. Clearly a doomed attempt, since English translations of this novel seem to dematerialize like badly-transmutated mosquitoes; they're certainly as evanescent. There is a 1977 translation by Leonid Renen, which I have not seen. Bromfield's version has vanished from sight since its publication in 2005; Amazon copies are like gold dust. Its presentation is impeccable; indeed, Seagull deserve praise for including Evgenii Migunov's whimsical original illustrations. And Bromfield copes magisterially with a highly modulated text, designed to baffle, tantalize, and delight the reader by turns. Only the lack of annotations - essential for any foreign language edition - disappoints. For instance, Vasilii the talking cat - muttering incoherently as he staggers around the massive oak tree outside Sasha's window - is a spoof on Pushkin's 'кот ученый' (learned cat) from the poem Ruslan i Liudmila, who 'все ходит... кругом' (constantly walks in circles) around a green oak tree. If he circles right, he sings a song; if left, he tells a fairy tale. Unfortunately, as a sign outside the museum warns, this cat is out of order; hence Vasilii's disconnected quotes and drunken stumbles. Belly laughs for Russian readers who learned the poem in school; polite mystification from everyone else. J.K. Rowling sells hundreds of millions of copies of her books because she doesn't expect her audience to read Pushkin. The Strugatskiis don't, and did. Enough said.
Another point of difference from the Potter saga is that Monday isn't a school story; NITWITT isn't Hogwarts or, for that matter, Gont. Its authors aimed it at 'younger scientists', but not children. Its hero, Sasha Privalov, becomes a trainee wizard when he's already a mature man: he's a computer technician who drives to a remote North Russian town, Solovets, to meet up with colleagues on a walking holiday. He never meets them. Instead, he offers a lift to two chance-met hunters, who find him a bed for the night at the local museum run by an exceptionally witchy hag. Before he knows it, he's exchanging pleasantries with a magical pike that lives in a well; accepting advice from a talking cat; and donning a Cap of Invisibility to dodge police. Inevitably, Sasha gives up his St Petersburg job to work as a programmer at NIICHAVO [Научно-исследовательский институт чародейства и волшебства], dexterously rendered as NITWITT [National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy] by Bromfield. NIICHAVO sounds, of course, like nichego, the Russian word for 'nothing'. The rest of the book describes comical episodes from Privalov's apprenticeship at the Institute. On New Year's Eve, he works the midnight shift at NITWITT (where the apparently simple task of closing the Institute becomes sheer slapstick, as all the staff trick their way back to their laboratories before midnight - Monday starts on Saturday, after all!); in another episode, he rides an improvised (and suspiciously Wellsian) time machine into the 'described future', where all possible science fiction outcomes mingle in reality; and at the end of the book, he learns he will shortly be sent to Kitezhgrad, the factory city that supplies NITWITT's technology - setting the scene for the bureaucratic bad dream of Monday's sequel, Tale of a Troika (Skazka o troike, 1967).

The [anonymous, but obviously Russian] publisher, prefacing Bromfield's translation, writes that 'the book itself, luckily, has nothing to do with politics; it's just pure undiluted fun based on an explosive mixture of folk-tales with popular myths of modern science', only to add half a page later that the Strugatskiis have inherited Gogol's famous hand-me-down of overcoat via Saltykov-Shchedrin, Olesha, and Bulgakov; that is, 'humorous fantasy, impregnated with social meaning and political satire'. Monday Starts on Saturday, like all the Strugatskiis' books, is inseparable from politics. The egregious Ambrosius Vybegallo, head of NITWITT's Department of Absolute Knowledge, with his sheepskin coat and odour of stale herring, is a vicious pen-portrait of the peasant-botanist Trofim Lysenko, whose remorseless self-aggrandization and bad research retarded Soviet science for almost three decades. Or take Merlin, another Pencey-class phony, who survives as director of the Department of Predictions and Prophecies ‘because he had written in all his questionnaires about his implacable struggle with Yankee imperialism even back in the Middle Ages, attaching notarized typed copies of the relevant pages from Mark Twain to the questionnaires’. Moreover, as Bromfield's publisher admits, there is a kind of politics operating in Monday that Western readers might miss, such as the poignant primitivism of the inkwell on the Solovets police officer's desk, or the blank spot on Vybegallo's wall where a suddenly-impolitic portrait has been removed. But the brothers aren't yet condemnatory of either Soviet policy or science itself: their Institute is 'concerned first and foremost with the problem of human happiness and the meaning of human life', and its saving grace is altruism: 'Every man is a magician in his heart, but he only becomes a magician when he starts thinking less about himself and more about others'. In Apocalyptic Realism (1994),  about the Strugatskiis' imbrication in Russian mystical and apocalyptic culture, Yvonne Howell wisely notes that the good cheer and lingering positivism of this book is antithetically bookended a decade later by the disillusionment of A Billion Years Before The End of The World (1976) and Beetle in the Anthill (1979).

How does Bromfield handle this thaumaturgical minefield of in-jokes and irony? Magically well; he ingeniously renders NITWITT's medley of technical jargon, Vybegallo's bad French, arch arch-courtesy, and Merlin's medieval English into viable equivalents. (Alas, that splendid throwaway one-liner 'Выбегалло забегалло?' doesn't translate). I would query 'bozo' for 'detina' [детина], and 'yolki-palki' [ёлки-палки'] is not quite 'Holy cow!', but overall this is a tour de force. I loved 'plywitsum' for 'umklaidet' [умклайдет] - to the layman, a magic wand. Particularly admirable was the alliterative 'The old granny will have my guts for garters' where, in the original, Sasha is concerned that his landlady will tear off his head. Moreover, since the reader shares Sasha's perspective of total bewilderment and frustration with the nonsensical phenomena of NITWITT, making sense of new characters resembles a logic problem (Roman has the hooked nose, the bruiser in the Hawaiian shirt is Vitya, so Volodya must be the bearded one who smiles). Andrew Bromfield makes these introductions as painless as possible.

С наступающим!
No prizes for guessing that I'm watching Charodei, Bromberg's 1982 New Year's classic loosely based on Monday, tonight! Since Monday begins on Saturday, New Year's Day must begin on Christmas Eve. Hence, I'd like to thank all my readers for their support and ever-welcome comments, and wish everyone a rumbustious, lucubrative, and generally magical 2012!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Revising Revizor with Roddy Doyle, or Bobchinskii in Borris-in-Ossory

'So I say to Petr Ivanovich, That fella's got the look of a cute hoor, and Petr Ivanovich calls over Vlas the innkeeper - you know Vlas, his wife just had the babby there three weeks ago; a fine lad he is, he'll be an innkeeper like his daddy - and he says to Vlas, quiet like, he says, Vlas, who's yer man? And Vlas says to us, He's a civil servant, down from St Petersburg'.
It's Bobchinskii speaking, but not quite as we know him; this is Bobchinskii by way of Borris-in-Ossory, in Gogol's The Government Inspector  'utterly – and often delightfully – steeped in Irish demotic speech' by Roddy Doyle in a new adaptation for Dublin's Abbey Theatre. That line about demotic Hiberno-English is probably the only nice remark made by Fintan O'Toole in his scathing review of the production in the Irish Times (which I would largely endorse, although the quality of the acting is much better than he suggests).
The playwright, papped during the interval by the Dinosaur, smiles benignly
O'Toole represents the play as a missed opportunity for the Abbey to reassert itself as an arbiter of Ireland's cultural destiny, and as a ham-handed attempt at political satire that is neither topical nor pungent enough. I found Doyle's The Government Inspector all too topical; its fervid reproduction of trending political buzzwords as one-liners and its use of economic crime as slapstick comedy serve to embed it in a cultural context Ireland already wants to forget and the rest of the world won't remember.

Osip on his master's bed
The glory of this new adaptation is its language. Khlestakov, surrounded with cushions and sweetmeats by the Mayor's family, is heartily assured, 'You're at your granny's'; the Mayor, rejoicing in his daughter's engagement, remarks to his wife, 'Did you ever in your wildest imagine anything the like of this, did you now?' only to reproach himself bitterly minutes later for being an 'eejit' and even 'an out-and-out gobshite'. The men who run the town are 'chancers' and 'wasters', cheerfully inhabiting a culture of brown envelopes and proto-Rabelaisian physical violence. 'We speak the same language', characters reassure each other on several occasions, acknowledging both a lingua franca of venality and a rich lexical transfer between provincial Ireland and provincial Russia. If only Doyle - who turned the tribulations of running a chip van into the greatest sundered bromance since Achilles and Agamemnon, largely through his mastery of the modulations of Dublin conversation - had stopped with this discovery. As he coyly points out in his introduction to the official programme, no less a critic than Nabokov proclaimed that 'only an Irishman' should ever tackle Gogol's verbiage. But instead, as draft followed draft and the Irish economy steadily foundered, Doyle felt impelled to seed his play with political commentary. He couldn't, he felt, actually namecheck markers of disaster like the IMF intervention. But each new, topical failure was an 'elbow' added to the body of his play - as he admits in this short interview. Elbows for nudging while winking, elbows for digging in spite, elbows for pushing yourself or someone else to the front of the queue. Unfortunately, as a Russian proverb warns, you can't bite your own elbow. Similarly, there is no bite in The Government Inspector. It sheds the universality of Gogol's Russian u-topia, but it fails to sink its teeth into the here-and-now of Irish politics. When every character malapropizes Khlestakov's name and patronymic as Ivan Austerovich (instead of Aleksandrovich), or refers aphoristically to community policing and sustainable growth, the audience didn't even laugh. Instead, they reacted uproariously to sheerest slapstick - the fag clamped in the mouth of the Mayor's obstreperous maidservant, or the bathetic epicureanism of Khlestakov's valet Osip, with his endearing gurrier rumble. And the cast are brilliantly selected to supply these predictable laughs (although Khlestakov is hopelessly miscast; O'Toole's snarl about Jedward ten years on is all too accurate).

Both O'Toole and Doyle miss the main point about Revizor, to restore its original title. Gogol would have 'eaten the face off' Roddy Doyle, were he to see the Abbey production, for compounding a misconception that has haunted its author. This play is not about systemic corruption, and it is emphatically not about specific governments; Gogol reacted to the near-universal misunderstanding of his play as daring satire by leaving for Europe. Gogol's writing always suggests much stranger things about human nature than can be contained in any political continuum. In this downloadable article in Scando-Slavica, Jostein Bortnes argues that Revizor is about the inescapability of human evil: Khlestakov is 'a living symbol of evil' which Gogol conjures 'in order to destroy it by laughter'. Khlestakov's escape, followed by the sinister, suspended presence of the real Inspector during the famous dumb scene, allows evil to transcend the limitations of the narrative. Gogol's genie gets out of its bottle, and into the audience - who are we laughing at, after all?

Clearly, Revizor is a play capable of working brilliantly in international contexts. But the contextualization should be carried through completely, if it is to be effected at all. Localizing Gogol kills the universality of his portrait of evil; but if the play must be localized, then give us names and places. Turn Pushkin into Flann O'Brien; turn Baron Brambeus into Joseph O'Connor; and turn Anna Andreevna into Maureen O'Flaherty, since the actors aren't going to get the stress right anyway. Set the whole thing in Kiltimagh for authenticity!

Good man yourself.
That fella's gas altogether....


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Hodge's The Collaborators: Collaborating Against Bulgakov

According to Robert Service's Stalin: A Biography (2004), Stalin 'ushered [Mikhail Bulgakov] into the pits of depression. He perished a broken man in freedom in 1940. [...] Unlike Bulgakov, [Akhmatova] endured her situation with lasting fortitude' (p. 307). What, one wonders, did Bulgakov do - or not do - to earn Service's faintly expressed contempt? Not suffer lyrically enough? Not get shot? Die, instead, of an untreatable inherited condition that no dictator could have inflicted (unless Stalin had corrupted the family gene pool prior to 1859, the year Bulgakov's father was born)?

Unfortunately, the National Theatre's new production of John Hodge's play about Bulgakov's last years - The Collaborators - appears to be singing from the Service song-book. (Please note that any negativity towards Robert Service's book is entirely unprejudiced. This blog is NOT written by O. Figes, his relatives, or his research assistants. O.F.). Hodge portrays Bulgakov as a noble, ever-so-slightly smug martyr perishing gradually on the pyre of apolitical aesthetics, then unexpectedly "invited" by the NKVD to write a play in honour of Stalin's forthcoming sixtieth birthday. If he agrees, his play Molière will be un-banned and staged; if he refuses, his beloved third wife, Elena, may be shot. Unable either to refuse categorically or to start composing, Bulgakov is summoned to a secret subterranean meeting with Joseph Stalin. Coyly outing himself as Bulgakov's 'number one fan', Stalin offers to ghostwrite the play if Bulgakov will sign the infamous directives authorizing collectivization, grain requisitions, interrogations and purges. Terrified, amused, and flattered by their pact, Bulgakov finds himself enjoying the material advantages of his new situation (a car with driver, hot running water), and even cautiously defending Stalin's policies - which are now, in equal measure, his own. Bulgakov's 'collaboration' on the play's text is limited to its final scene, written as a vicious exposé of his patron... and yet, illogically, this is represented as an irrevocable concession on the author's part. As Michael Billington's insightful Guardian review argues, Hodge's play jemmies Bulgakov into the role of a 'fatally compromised artist', and, as a result, 'its satire does not strike its intended target'.

The social polarization in this play - lovely, endangered intelligentsia versus knuckle-dragging secret police - is enough to send historians with a sense of nuance screaming into the woods. It's beautifully acted, but Englishly acted: Alex Jennings plays Bulgakov as a faintly pompous conscientious objector who obviously fagged at Eton, while Simon Russell Beale's joyfully disjunctive Stalin is a Lancashire farmer with a Jekyll and Hyde complex.
Although Jacqueline Defferary is a luminous choice for 'Madame Bulgakov', even her role exhales an air of crisp cucumber sandwiches and breakfast marmalade. Why the 'naive proletarian' character has to be Scottish is anyone's guess; why the hint that things weren't going to end well had to be headlined from halfway through the second act by a proliferation of the word 'fuck' is downright mysterious. What's more, I viewed The Collaborators as a stage performance broadcast to the cinema, a mode which allows the producers a unique opportunity for propaganda double-dip. Playwrights and directors necessarily manipulate presentation for emphasis and affect; the recording camera further pre-empts viewers' visual choices by determining perspectives, angles, and close-ups. The play becomes a case study in the science of 'breaking' a humanist intellectual - by means of manipulation, humiliation, and cumulative implication.

What will truly upset those with any knowledge of the period, of course, is why Hodge had to pick on Bulgakov. Weren't there enough real collaborators in 1930s Russia without selecting a genius who was unscrupulous enough to wish to remain both alive and professionally active? Julie Curtis, a British Bulgakov expert who advised on the play, admitted in print that Bulgakov's four-act play on Stalin's revolutionary youth, Batum, was the 'the one act which has come close to tarnishing his reputation' (particularly because it was NOT written under duress). She adds, however, that '[o]n the whole, Bulgakov can be said to have preserved his political integrity'; she gives the example of a letter Bulgakov wrote directly to Stalin in defence of his friend, the exiled playwright Nikolai Erdman (Curtis, Bulgakov's Last Decade, 1987, p.205), as late as 1938. In a diary entry for 17 August 1939, the day rehearsals for the play were abruptly and cruelly cancelled, Elena Bulgakova wrote in her diary that the excuse given for cancellation was that the fictionalization of Stalin was viewed from 'above' as unacceptable, and also as a transparent ruse to regain status. 'How could it be proved', she wrote, 'that M.A. had no intention of building any bridges, but simply wanted, as a dramatist, to write a play with material he found interesting because of the material, and with a hero, and that the play should not lie in his desk drawer, but should be performed on stage?!' (Manuscripts Don't Burn: A Life in Letters and Diaries, ed. Curtis, 1991, p. 288). Bulgakov had long resigned himself to the truth that his real work, his 'sunset novel', would remain unpublished.

John Hodge looking Stalinist
The Collaborators cleverly evokes The Master and Margarita (and Teatral'nyi roman) without ever mentioning either, by weaving (distorted) fragments from both Molière and Batum into its structure: two plays-within-a-play in apparent homage to Bulgakov's novel's alternation between historical fallacy and contemporary fantasy. One character even comments 'Didn't someone say manuscripts don't burn?'. The closing citation from Molière ('The reason for his death was the king's displeasure') is as poignantly profound as you wish to make it (although those aforementioned historians will have already left the building). Another silent but pervasive presence  is the agency which actually effects violence, punishment, and social transformation. Who runs the system? Stalin? Bulgakov? Is it Marcus Cunningham's lividly evil Stepa, the NKVD bodyguard-turned-psychopath? Is it the victims who 'collaborate' in their own destruction by signing false confessions? Make no mistake: The Collaborators is neither stupid nor simplistic. But it perpetuates a crime of conscience: turning its audience into collaborators in the defamation of a great twentieth-century author. Hodge recently had the front to 'insist' to the Guardian that 'this is Bulgakov's story, not his own'. It's neither.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Crime in Translation, or Fibbing like a Horse

Me and the Capitol

To my regret, no blogging has happened for a while - I have been lecturing and world travelling (if successive trips to Norway, Ireland, and Washington DC qualify as such), and my adventures left me very little time to write. But tonight I attended two unrelated and very disparate cultural events which sent me back to my keyboard.

The first was a talk by Oxford-based academic and translator Oliver Ready. Oliver is currently revising his forthcoming translation of Crime and Punishment, and he spoke to the Russian Graduate Seminar about his travails. Oliver's talk pointed up some general, almost philosophical issues faced by all translators as well as some Dostoevsky-specific problems. His title, for instance, 'Suddenly, Somehow, Even - On Retranslating Crime and Punishment', emphasized the misleadingly superfluous, apparently almost meaningless adverbial qualifiers and particles with which Dostoevsky scatters his prose. 'Dazhe', meaning 'even', is a favourite in Crime and Punishment; I seem to remember that 'davecha', 'just now', abounds throughout The Idiot. But do these words deserve translation, and, further, do they deserve a literal (equally meaningless) translation? Or should the translator choose to reduce and/or intensify them in order to achieve a more coherent paragraph? Similarly, should Dostoevsky's tendency to recycle different versions of the same verb, or cognates of the same root, in a single paragraph or sentence be reinforced or amended by the translator? And a very Russian conundrum - if different aspects of one verb are used in a single sentence, should they be translated by different verbs in English, or by different tenses of the same verb?
Oliver Ready
Oliver revealed that he keeps, perforce, a personal dictionary of Dostoevsky's 'fillers' - the 'suddenlys', 'somehows', and 'evens' - in order to make his translations consistent. Overall, any translator has to choose whether to accept the apparent incoherence, or the lexical limitation, as a deliberate aesthetic effect of a given text - or whether to 'correct' it. With Dostoevsky's writing, in addition to this nearly ethical responsibility, should we ascribe the hurried, jumbled style and plot to the pressures the writer suffered? Or, alternately, were they deliberately calculated to enthrall, confuse, and even moderately torment the reader? Was Dostoevsky a divinely inspired vaticinator, or just another talented hack with a deadline?  Literary scholars locked horns over this long ago, and the innocent translator risks getting trapped in a fight with no winners.

A general problem affecting nineteenth-century classics: whether the translation should provide matching 'vintage' style (as David McDuff apparently opted to do in his 1991 Penguin Classics translation, which has a consciously Dickensian, and therefore relatively verbose, tone) or whether it should be updated, risking anachronism. Oliver, to his credit, hasn't picked - yet - a single narrative tone for a novel that (he claims) still lacks a definitive English translation. Nor does he yet have final or consistent answers to the many specific translation problems that he posed. What he did offer, intriguingly, was a selection of choice passages from Crime and Punishment - followed by different translators' efforts to convey their meaning. This was a revealing and often amusing exercise. For instance, here's Razumikhin on 'lying like a horse':

  • 'Ну, конечно, бабушкин сон рассказывает, врет как лошадь, потому я этого Душкина знаю’
  • Garnett: ‘Of course, that's all taradiddle; he lies like a horse, for I know this Dushkin’
  • Pevear/Volokhonsky: ‘Well, of course, that’s all his old granny’s dream, he’s lying like a rug’
  • McDuff: ‘Well, of course, this was all a load of moonshine, he was lying like a horse’
  • Oliver: ‘Well, this is all just an old woman’s dream, of course; he’s fibbing like a horse’.
The idiom of the mendacious equine sounds bizarre, and seems to lack precedents in either Russian or English; but as Oliver pointed out, the horse, whether truthful or not, is a central image in the novel (and certainly shouldn't be prematurely converted into a rug).  

Perhaps one of the most important findings expressed in Oliver's talk was the significance of just such isolated words - such as 'delo', 'business' or 'matter', and 'konets', meaning 'end' - as markers of hidden purpose in the many-layered fabric of C and P. These recurring individual words, and their cognates, carry greater meaning than the rapid reader or the careless translator ever suspects. They betray the secret, unrealized obsessions of characters; their lexical shifts reflect psychological transitions, and they may point the way to ethical resolutions. Repetitiousness - one of Dostoevsky's most publicly criticized failings - may in fact be central to his moral and psychological message. Oliver retold the old Russian joke about this particular novel: 'Not to have read it is a crime, and reading it, is the punishment'. From what I've heard to date, I'm convinced that his new translation will take the punishment out of the sentence (if not yet out of the title).

My second cultural adventure of the day - a trip to the cinema to see a performance of John Hodge's new play The Collaborators, beamed in from the National Theatre - will have to wait for its own post. Don't bring impressionable young Bulgakov fans to see this play, however; they may throw stones.