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