Friday, 13 September 2013

A translator's tale, Part Three of Three

Early in the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, there is a wonderful passage I have never been able to forget. Frodo and his friends are being hunted by the Black Riders; though ignorant of the latter's true purpose, the hobbits are intuitive enough to hide. Here are the lines that lodged in my imagination:

Frodo crawled to the edge of the road and watched the rider, until he dwindled into the distance. He could not be quite sure, but it seemed to him that suddenly, before it passed out of sight, the horse turned aside and went into the trees on the right.

There it is, that beautiful detail: 'suddenly, before it passed out of sight, the horse turned aside and went into the trees on the right'. There's been no lack of signals that the Riders are not good chaps: we've had psychic Ring-muttering, odd compulsions, strange intuitions (and of course they're wearing black, with black hoods, on enormous black horses, so they're probably not fundraising for Save the Children). Nor is there any later plot justification for the Rider leaving the road for the forest (the Black Horses preferring to feed on tree lichen or subarboreal moss, for example). And Frodo isn't even sure what he's seen. It's the uncertainty itself that signals, in mental neon, that we should all be very afraid. Nor does it really matter whether the horse goes into the trees, or into the air, or joins Cristina Aguilera in a pink Daimler. What matters is the apparent fact of action we don't understand and can't explain (why would the stranger ride into the trees?). The uncertainty of Frodo's perception both augments and aggravates the froideur of the moment.

Bring on Todorov and his definition of the literary fantastic as unresolved hesitation between the real and the unreal (and his wonderfully baroque, increasingly obscure examples from French Romanticism and Jan Potocki). Bring on the Master's slightly less well-known prescription for ghost-story writers: that is, M.R. James's recommendation that 'Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it'. James, whom Lovecraft called 'an artist in incident and arrangement', and who once concisely scolded E.F. Benson for the sin of occasionally 'stepping over the line of legitimate horridness', is my gold standard in ghostly fiction. His ghosts and ghouls (and occasionally worse) are rarely seen; if seen, more rarely recognized. Think of the gown-ripping, night-howling nasty of 'An Episode of Cathedral History', whose existence the Dean of Chapter steadfastly refuses to acknowledge despite its brief reign of terror, or the hideous guardian invoked in 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas'. Yet once these creatures are glimpsed, heard, touched, or smelt, there is a (brief) instant of apocalyptic anagnorisis that compensates by a bolt of terror for the narrator's archly understated tone: 'But of the face which was now rising to within a few inches of his own no feature was discernible, only hair' ('The Diary of Mr Poynter').*

Uncertainty and reticence are my own criteria for perfect ghost stories, and although I will condone forays into illegitimate horridness, I prefer the inferred to the explicit. Many years ago, when I was casting around for a thesis topic during a sunny Lent term in Cambridge, a diplodocus friend pointed out that I liked both ghost stories and Russian. I tended to read one instead of studying the other. Why not, he suggested, study Russian ghost stories? Almost ten years and one doctorate later, Stalin's Ghosts came along, a book which argues that Russian Socialist Realism was 'multiply vulnerable to phantomization', the more so because of its neoclassicist aesthetics and aggressive positivism. Not only was it impossible for Soviet writers to seamlessly discard Russia's rich Gothic-fantastic literary tradition, any programmatic hyperrealism is spectral by default - because it describes a non-existent world. I supported my argument by tracing the use of Gothic-fantastic tropes (villains, monsters, haunted properties) through the fiction of well-known early Soviet-era writers like Bulgakov, Gladkov, Platonov and Zamiatin; I also looked at uncanny technologies (Fedorovian resurrection fantasies, Lenin's tomb, rejuvenation, hybridity and eugenics) which flourished in Soviet children's literature, Red Pinkertons, and science fiction. And I rediscovered the intriguing forgotten writers discussed in a previous post, whose prose eventually deserved a book of its own. One of the pleasures of simultaneously editing two thematically related books was being able to cite my own translation when performing a close reading in Stalin's Ghosts, with my favourite example being my analysis of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii's The Phantom, a major story that deserves more critical attention. One of the mixed pleasures ofsimultaneously publishing two books is watching helplessly as critics favour one child.* Greg Afinogenov's LRB review, for example, is extremely kind to Red Spectres - but allots Stalin's Ghosts only one sentence (surprising, since I thought the LRB reviewers get about 15 000 words per book). Since Afinogenov is a doctoral candidate, he may yet feel the same pangs a few years down the line when reviewers pass over his doctoral opus for the baseball team.

Although Stalin's Ghosts risks being overshadowed by the Gothic glamour it shares with Red Spectres, I'd be happiest if it were read as a reinterpretation of early Socialist Realism and contemporaneous Soviet genres. There is a new school of such books emerging, including the lovely and learned Boris Dralyuk's recent Western Crime Fiction Goes East on the Red Pinkerton phenomenon and Eric Laursen's brand-new Toxic Voices (Northwestern University Press, 2013), an analysis of pre-war Soviet prose villains. Despite my grouchiness, however, at times the Gothic does merge with real life scholarship, and happily. When finishing the final draft of Stalin's Ghosts in Petersburg in summer 2012, I was casting (!) about for an anecdote to kick-start Chapter One. Then I remembered the large box I passed every day on my way to my shared office in Pushkinskii Dom, one of Petersburg's many literary institutes. I asked my colleagues to tell me the story behind the box, and more or less as they recounted it, I translated and wrote my chapter opening:

In a neglected annexe of Pushkin House, the Institute of Russian Literature in St Petersburg, there is a shadowy first-floor landing where literary scholars gather to smoke. A large unlabelled plywood box, festooned with spider plants, towers over their ashtrays. Unseen inside the box lingers the bottom half of a plaster cast for a statue of Maksim Gorky, the mentor, godfather, and chief standard-bearer of Soviet Socialist Realism. The reasons behind Gorky’s exile to a box on the stairs are already obscure. The post-Soviet decades were hostile to statues of Soviet icons; and although Gorky, originally
commissioned for the Institute’s Literary Museum, remained museum property and could not be discarded, nothing was done to repair or maintain his cast. First Gorky’s arms crumbled away; next his head disintegrated; and finally, only the legs remained, preserved perhaps by some superior
ingredient in the plaster. Since Gorky’s remains, however grotesque, could not be buried, they were boxed up instead and relegated to a semi-spectral afterlife on the landing. Gorky’s artistic influence may be defunct, but his legs still invisibly preside over modern scholars of Russian literature, like
an ancestral skeleton content to remain in its closet. 

The aesthetic experiment that was Socialist Realism – a national neoclassicist ideal, designed for an impossible cohort of ineffably perfect citizens – was multiply vulnerable to phantomization.

This posts ends my triad of translator's tales, although I will continue to translate actively and post on related topics - my publisher and I are currently laying groundwork for a sequel to Red Spectres. Ghost story lovers not averse to crossing a $5 paywall can read my newest translation of Georgii Peskov's chilling 'Kum' here. As I remain busy with the giant saurian gene preservation project, and as I am currently starting a new university lectureship, I will continue to post irregularly. Lots of new reviews and commentary coming up as and when, including a new translation of my all-time favourite Gazdanov novel, and some controversial Bulgakov and classical Tolstoy!

*Never base your wallpaper design on human hair.
*This is mere grumbling. I remain pathetically grateful that anyone, ever, has read even one of my books.