Wednesday, 13 April 2011

At the London Book Fair with Valerii Briusov

Briusov under the table. Picture credit: Northwestern University's Poet Page
Valerii Briusov was not at the 2011 London Book Fair. If he had been, he'd have taken the place over; I can just imagine a huge tent in Earl's Court emblazoned with the word 'Skorpion' (the name of his publishing house), and plastered with exotic sketches by Bakst, Feofilaktov, and other Symbolist artists. Interviews with Briusov would be all over BBC iPlayer; he'd probably be on Twitter; and he'd certainly generate copy by parading a host of languorous literary lovelies around West Kensington. The mind boggles. A man made famous by a monostich, or single-line poem ('О закрой свои бледные ноги' - O, cover your pale legs), Briusov grew up to be one of Russian literature's greatest publicists. Although Academia Rossica did an impressive job of co-ordinating this year's Russian Market Focus events, I feel Briusov would have out-PR'd even their best efforts. However, his most famous fashion tip fell on deaf ears: thanks to unexpected spring sunshine, there were plenty of pale legs on display.

Since, unlike Briusov, I was at the London Book Fair, it felt appropriate to be reading his novel The Fiery Angel (Огненный ангел) in between panels. By pretending that the book is based on an original early modern text, Briusov goes one better than the Walpolesque found-manuscript dodge: his Introduction claims that Fiery Angel is a found manuscript that is clearly a copy of an original, even earlier manuscript (as betrayed by certain linguistic anachronisms). I was reading the novel in connection with research on the portrayal of alchemists in Russian literature: the respectively real and invented alchemists Cornelius Agrippa and Faust play important supporting roles in its plot. Briusov's book is a first-person account of how, in the year 1534, Ruprecht, a village doctor's son, medical school drop-out, ex-soldier and New World explorer, finds and loses the love of his life in the Rhineland. Ruprecht is on his way home to Trier, armed with Inca gold and self-made swagger. En route, however, he meets a red-haired damsel in distress, Renata, who swiftly manipulates worldly-wise Ruprecht into a state of sexual and moral subordination by convincing him to help her find the 'fiery angel' which has dominated her life since childhood. To the modern reader, Renata appears plainly schizophrenic, and Ruprecht repeatedly hesitates on the verge of making a similar diagnosis; but he never excludes a supernatural explanation for his beloved's vagaries. Andrei Bely endorsed Fiery Angel warmly while insisting that it was a book for the elite: 'для небольшого круга истинных ценителей изящного' ('for a small circle of genuine admirers of the exquisite'). You can read his review here. I feel Bely was being unjust; despite the very detailed end-notes which testify to Briusov's meticulous historical research, this is not an elitist book. Nor does it attempt to sustain Briusov's reputation for perversity, despite some references to unnatural congress at Satanic sabbaths. Perhaps Bely, aware that Ruprecht, Renata and the angel were avatars of a real-life love triangle involving Briusov, Nina Petrovskaia and himself, wanted to discourage potential readers.

Briusov was intensely interested in German culture, and this novel is his paean to the sixteenth century, when humanism collided with esotericism, global expansion with religious fanaticism. His plot and characters reflect the inevitable inadequacies and imbalances of this fusion. Melodramatic incidents, such as Renata's trial by the Inquisition, are combined with petty but true-to-life details: Ruprecht's involvement with Renata impoverishes him and he is ultimately too ashamed to make himself known to his aged parents. Ruprecht's intellectual flaws, his failure to distinguish between science and superstition, reflect the confusion within sixteenth-century academia. Another underlying issue is social status; Ruprecht is born with a toe-hold on the middle classes, but when challenging a nobleman to a duel, he lies, claiming 'Я такой же рыцарь, как вы' ('I am a knight just like you'). Honesty would have risked invalidating his challenge, since the honour code didn't oblige a nobleman to fight a commoner; but Ruprecht lies primarily because he feels he's earned the right to call himself a true knight. He lives by the honour code, talks the talk and wears the clothes - and he can't bring himself to admit that this will never be enough. He is even more humiliated when his enemy discovers that he isn't noble, but still condescends to fight him. Later in the book, he enters a freethinking Count's suite as an unpaid aide. The Count hails Ruprecht as a 'brother humanist' - but this intellectual bond doesn't prevent him from addressing Ruprecht by the familiar pronoun, as if the latter were a servant. Nor does Ruprecht's resentment prevent him from deferring to the Count, even when Renata's life is at stake. Ruprecht has plenty of convictions, but lacks the courage to act on them; he's observant, but lacks the nous to draw conclusions. I feel that he is all the more interesting for not being either a Conan-style barbarian or a Faustian disillusioned intellectual. The Fiery Angel has been translated into English in a Dedalus edition, although I vastly prefer my quaint, lavender-coloured library copy, with colour plates reproducing Briusov's original drawings. The Fiery Angel is much better known as an opera by Prokofiev; YouTube has many links to some of the more stirring performances.

My adventures at the LBF were not as dramatic as Ruprecht's or Renata's in early modern Germany. Nor did it resemble a witches' sabbath, although the wheeler-dealing among the publishers in the bigger tents looked pretty frenetic at times. Instead of meeting alchemists and inquisitors, I got to meet or gawp at some personal heroes. These were not, for the most part, the authors (many of whom were youthful unknowns). Instead, as ever, the LBF is a great venue to meet the people who make Russian literature accessible to non-Russian readers: translators, critics, and bloggers. Where else would you see Boris Akunin casually telling his translator Andrew Bromfield to 'start writing your own books' because Akunin, as a novelist, gets to 'wake up late, and I only write when I feel like it, although I usually feel like it', whereas Bromfield refers to himself as a 'recluse', working for hours every day to translate Akunin (and others)? It certainly sounds as if translators get the worse deal, despite their dedication and effort.
Pavel Basinskii and Elif Batuman
Where else than at a spin-off event at the South Bank Centre would you find Elif Batuman, columnist, blogger, and author of surprise bestseller The Possessed, comparing her views on Tolstoy with Pavel Basinsky, a seasoned academic and the literary editor of Rossiiskaia gazeta? My positive impression of Batuman, formed from The Possessed, was reinforced by meeting her in person: she has a winning way with an audience and wears wonderful boots (to boot).
Where did she get those boots?
Basinsky was kind enough to give me a copy of his hot-off-the-press reconstruction of Tolstoy's final weeks, Flight from Paradise (Бегство из рая) as a gift; I'll dedicate a future post to reviewing it. Back at the LBF, at a pavilion dedicated to literary translation, Robert Chandler and Sasha Dugdale led an intriguing but too-short panel on translators' values, raising more questions than they could hope to resolve in forty-five minutes.
Robert Chandler looking intense
On a personal note, I met my own publisher, Antony Wood of Angel Classics (himself a noted translator of Pushkin's lyric poems), who reassured me that my collection of Soviet-era ghost stories, Red Spectres, is continuing to forthcome. I was also thrilled to bump into Lizok of the invaluable Lizok's bookshelf, in person. Overall, however, I found the Fair's Russian focus slightly misleading. Despite the lavishness of the pavilions, the relentlessness of the spin, the ingenuity of the graphics, and the clever branding of everything from carrier bags to individual wrapped chocolates, I saw little real communication between authors and audiences (that said, inevitably, I missed many of the often-simultaneous panels). Most of the authors, nannied by agents and (rarely fully bilingual) interpreters, uttered set phrases which they had clearly trotted out many times, looking glazed-over, if not outright bored. I found myself admiring most those who refused to co-operate with the sales formula by blatantly over-performing (like Mikhail Elizarov) or simply looking very uncomfortable (like German Sadulaev or Aleksandr Ilichevskii, who had to suffer the indignity of seeing his name in lights, mispelled). Panels which promised ambitiously  to promote Russian cultural discussion were often stymied by their chairs' superficial engagement with Russian culture and indeed with the panellists, who could hardly be blamed for responding with cynicism or crude, untranslatable humour to crudely posed political or cultural questions. Rosie Goldsmith, a well-groomed but firmly feminist BBC presenter (titanium totty, if you will), drew a particularly unreformed panel consisting of the critic, blogger and ex-Playboy editor Lev Danilkin, the ex-Special Forces captain and dissident Zakhar Prilepin, and Pavel Basinskii. She treated them like three bad little boys, twitting them (essentially) for not being women, for not writing biographies of women, and and for the lack of major women writers in the Russian canon. Surely not all of this was their fault. Prilepin, reasonably enough, pointed out that he wasn't qualified to write a biography of a woman because no man can understand what's going on in a woman's head. Next Goldsmith asked her panel goadingly if they'd be too scared to write a biography of Putin. Prilepin (again) suggested that someone offer Medvedev a contract to write Putin's biography, and vice versa. It fell to Basinskii to chivalrously supply coherent responses in the silences that followed many questions. Danilkin, who spent most of the discussion watching an invisible fly in the middle distance, allowed himself to be coaxed into revealing the subject of his next biography (shock horror: Anatolii Fomenko), and looked disappointed when the audience received this in respectful silence, instead of the fusillade of catcalls he'd clearly expected. The boys only looked happy once: when an Academia Rossica cameragirl, in figure-hugging jeans and blouse, strolled by with a videocamera. 'Ходи туда все время, родная!' Prilepin invited her. 'Тебе честь!' ['Walk past all the time, honey. You do us proud!'] It was gallantry, but not as British equality tribunals understand it. At least the girl had read her Briusov; she'd covered her pale legs.
Left to right: Lev Danilkin, Zakhar Prilepin, Pavel Basinski


  1. A collection of Soviet-era ghost stories? Sounds fascinating. Nice title too. Is this a book you edited? Translated? Both?

    I quite enjoyed, by the way, your interpretation of Prilepin's comment to the passing young woman. Where exactly is the line between gallantry and sexism?

  2. Do you know Khodasevich's touching 1928 essay on Nina Petrovskaia's lonely Paris suicide, "Конец Ренаты"? It's online (though in modernized spelling, unlike my beat-up 1976 YMCA-Press edition) here.

    Where exactly is the line between gallantry and sexism?

    Depends on where you sit, of course. Russians don't believe in feminism or sexism at all -- Russian men for obvious reasons, and Russian women, many of them, because the traditional feminist demand to be allowed to enter the workforce on equal terms with men rings hollow to women who have been forced into the workforce for many decades and still had to do all the housework and babysit their drunken layabout husbands (I'm stereotyping and generalizing wildly, of course, but not, I think, unfairly). For a Western feminist like myself, it's a sad state of affairs, but as an anarchist I'm used to living in a world that goes contrary to my deeply held beliefs, which is doubtless good for me. At any rate, the cameragirl would probably have taken the intended gallantry as intended; that does not, obviously, mean it was not sexist. It would be nice if women could walk around doing their jobs without being considered walking billboards of femininity, but there I go, embarking on a rant. Закрой фонтан, дурак!

  3. @Jamie: Thanks for your interest in the collection. It includes three Chaianov tales, two short Bulgakov stories, some obscure emigre authors, a previously untranslated Grin, and a Briusov. My publisher wants to bring out a simultaneous American edition, and is currently trying to interest several publishers on your side of the pond. Fingers crossed there'll be a publication date soon!
    @Jamie and @Languagehat: I too could go on, and on, about the strange, not always successful balance between sexism and chivalry in Russian culture. There's something heartwarming and honest about the open appreciation of femininity by Russian men. However, one can't help but be concerned whether women's other sttributes are equally respected... still, I think Russian women can look after their own interests. They're not a passive tribe. Languagehat, I really enjoyed the Khodasevich link; he expressed there some very interesting views on Symbolism also. On a lighter note, Petrovskaia's ironic poem
    Устюшкина мать
    Собиралась помирать.
    Помереть не померла —
    Только время провела.
    reminded me of Khrushchev's threat during the missile crisis, 'Мы вам покажем Kузькину мать!' I wonder how many other peculiar mothers are out there in Russian discourse.

  4. One of my proudest moments as a copyeditor was when I told Bill Safire about Khrushchev's "Kузькину мать" and he liked it so much he put it into the new (and, alas, last) edition of his Political Dictionary (on p. 803, s.v. "we will bury you"), crediting me by name:

    "One of the Russian leader's favorite expressions was the picturesque peasant threat “We'll show you Kuzka's mother!” (kuzka being a kind of grain beetle, and its “mother” being the deeply buried larva); the hopelessly overmatched interpreters gave up and started translating this as the more familiar and comprehensible “We will bury you." (For this eye-opener the lexicographer is grateful to editor and researcher Stephen Dodson.)"

    I think Russian women can look after their own interests. They're not a passive tribe.

    Very, very true, as I have learned firsthand.

  5. I have to ask: why is the larva of a grain beetle scary?

  6. Because it's underground. To show someone Kuzka's mother is, by implication, to bury them.

  7. I'm very glad you posted this, Russian Dinosaur! It was a pleasure to meet you -- I wish we'd had more opportunity to talk. I'll be posting later today about the fair. I'm still a bit bleary in the head but am finally starting to return to normal, whatever that might be this month.

    It's funny that you mention Danilkin watching an invisible fly during that discussion: he did the same thing when I saw him, at the trends in contemporary fiction (or some such title) panel. He seemed absolutely disinterested. So, however, did the moderator, Boyd Tonkin.

    I was also interested to see you're reading The Fiery Angel... I read a large chunk of it years ago when I lived in Moscow. I remember enjoying it so am not sure why I stopped reading. I should pick it up again. I suppose Briusov and I are a natural pair, given my drawer full of black tights, my favorite method for covering my always-pale legs.

  8. Thanks Lizok! Meeting you was a high point of the Fair for me. I hope you're not too jet-lagged, and I look forward to reading your impressions in your post later on!

  9. I've had a copy of Огненный ангел for years, and I really should get around to reading it once I've emerged from WWII. (That will take a while, though: I'm about to start Жизнь и судьба...)

  10. This blogging platform just ate up a longish comment. Well, I'll summarize it: I was one of the people in the booths at the panels; untranslatable humour? I thought we did pretty well, considering. I know few of the people who were chaperoning the writers around, though.

    The events, in my opinion, were under-, rather than overadvertised, and some panels were sadly underattended as a result. On the other hand, sitting in the booth we had to miss most of the fun happening elsewhere.

    As for Elizarov, I don't think (as Oliver Ready seemed inclined to think, too) he was overperforming: he really is that, erm, misguided.

  11. Suborno, thanks for your comment. I'd like to clarify that I never intended to belittle the hardworking interpreters who very ably translated many writers whose attitudes could be as challenging as their vocabulary. To judge by the fact that the audience at events like those I described above 'got' most of the Russian jokes, you and your colleagues excelled yourselves. However, some remarks simply don't translate - and are intended as such. I think Prilepin, for example, deliberately indulged himself in several throwaway gnomic syllables.