Friday, 26 September 2014

Put a lock in it

As lovers of Russian literature know, vse techet (Everything Flows, the title of Vasilii Grossman's last, unfinished novel). Rarely is this phrase more apposite than to the elusive literary subgenre of canal fiction. From Mr Toad's clumsy impersonation of a laundress on a canal barge in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind and the Willows, to the more complex mechanisms of deceit behind Soviet literary responses to the construction of the infamous Belomor Canal (1931-33), only a Martian could fail to notice that canals are an important, if understated, topos of literary production. In Russian prose in particular, canal-related plots flow straight to our troubled human core of hubris, hope and vulnerability - perhaps the more readily because, as an artificial river, the canal expresses both our mastery over nature and our hapless subjection to natural law. The pair of canal tales I've chosen below, although written seventy years apart, share a common theme: individual endurance. One protagonist is a lock-keeper, the other a canal-builder: both pursue spoiled hopes with a persistence only equalled by that of water.

Andrei Platonov's Epifanskie shliuzi (The Locks of Epiphany, 1927) is almost a true story: Platonov, a young writer working on engineering projects near drought-stricken Tambov in the mid-1920s, borrowed a historical character (the Englishman John Perry) for his protagonist. The historical Perry was hired by Peter the Great to oversee construction of a canal between the Black and Caspian Seas, and died peacefully in England after writing up his memoirs. Platonov's fictional version, Bertrand Perry, is a lovelorn engineer from Newcastle whom Peter employs to build a canal between the Don and Oka rivers. The project fails, and Bertrand is summoned to Petersburg for execution. The story's title comes from the town of Epifan, where Perry bases his operations. Platonov excels at writing gloom - especially nostalgic gloom - and this story skilfully contrasts Perry's painful exile from Newcastle with his unwilling absorption in the dry steppes of Central Russia. The canal's abandonment by nature - there is not enough water in its bed to float a vessel - culminates a succession of prior failures or flights: the machines break, the foreign engineers flee, the Russian peasants refuse their labour. When Perry, a 'little man' with essentially small dreams, is scapegoated, he consciously offers himself up as a sacrifice - although the reader realizes the real culprit is Peter, a big man whose vast dreams have estranged his own nation. It is a trope familiar from Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman (1833), where the unambitious civil servant Yevgenii briefly acquires tragic grandeur after losing his hopes for marriage and family life for no other reason than the fact that Peter the Great decided to build a city on a flood plain. Yevgenii's sacrifice, unlike Perry's, is both involuntary and unconscious - making Perry's decision to submit to state injustice all the more chilling. Although Platonov was a relatively conforming Soviet writer, an 'Aesopian subversion' of Stalin's plans to transform nature is clearly at work in this early short story.*

The reader learns almost accidentally that Sonia Polorotova, the heroine of Yuri Buida's Vse proplyvaiushchie (All these that sail through, 1998), is a lock-keeper. She takes over her husband's role after he plunges into a coma a few hours after their wedding, apparently caused by a disclosure from Sonia's best friend followed by his first glimpse of Sonia en déshabillé. The story follows Sonia and Misha through a shared life defined by this incident, much as the water flows through the canal. We never learn what the friend told Misha, because she dies of cancer before passing on the secret; and Sonia never marries again or has children, although temptations come her way. Her days settle into routine:

She looked after the gates of the locks, the winches, the drainage of the sluices; she painted and cleaned and helped the workmen who visited the lock several times a year. With the old woman, she took care of the orchard and the herd. Twice a week, screwing up her eyes in terror, Sonia washed her husband with soap and a scrubbing-brush; afterwards, glowing scarlet all over, she would put on a clean lace nightie and tuck herself in beside him. Misha's body was scarcely warm. Before she fell asleep Sonia would tell her husband all the town gossip: on Saturdays she would read aloud to him from some book or other: 'The Three Musketeers' or 'Evgenii Onegin'. After turning off the light she would stare at the small, semicircular window for a long time. Then she dozed off.
The blend of innocent eroticism (the nightie) and baffled romanticism (Onegin and Dumas!) described here seems doomed to bitter disappointment: yet Buida's denouement is gentler and more mysterious than one might expect. Fed by Misha's grandmother's recollection of visiting Venice as a girl, Sonia dreams of gondola rides on the Canal Grande. At night she floats on her own canal until the evening when her husband finally awakens and searches for her to re-enact their failed wedding:

Misha descended to the front room on trembling legs, somehow got into his rubber boots, and went out onto the dam, along which wound the river Pregol, silvered with moonlight and overhung by dew-drenched osiers on both banks. Just beyond a bend he saw a black boat which the current was carrying towards the lock gate. In the boat sat a woman in white, with bowed head.
Misha stepped into the water and stopped the boat with his hands.
'Sonia,' he called her, softly.

Perhaps tellingly, both these tales became the title stories for the collections in which they first appeared.
Picture credit Timofei Yarzhombek
Note: The Buida translations above are my own. Oliver Ready's translation of this story as 'All Those Sailing Past' can be read in his anthology of Buida's prose, The Prussian Bride.

*Alexander Volkhovsky, Text Counter Text: Rereadings in Russian Literary History (Stanford, 1994), p. 289.

Monday, 8 September 2014

"Playfulness and Beauty": Bryan Karetnyk on Translating Gazdanov

Russian Dinosaur interviews translator Bryan Karetnyk

As regular readers know, this blog loves Gaito Gazdanov, one of the most important - and least remembered - of Russian émigré novelists. Previous posts include this guest post by Gazdanov translator Justin Doherty, and my review of Bryan Karetnyk's version of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (Pushkin Press, 2013). I'm therefore delighted to follow these up by interviewing Bryan Karetnyk himself. I believe in resisting extinction: Bryan K does just this on a literary scale, by turning a largely forgotten Russian writer into a contemporary publishing success. His Spectre garnered some splendid reviews, notably in the Guardian, the LRB, and the Independent. His translation of Gazdanov's 1950 novel The Buddha's Return (Возвращение Будды) is just out with Pushkin Press.

Bryan, welcome to the blog! Your work as a translator is very much in harmony with our interests. But what led you to choose Russian translation as a career? Tell us about your background.

Thank you for inviting me! As your more eagle-eyed readers will have no doubt spotted, my surname is a bit of a give-away. I have mixed Russian–Ukrainian heritage, and so on account of a youthful passion for language and literature, I went to read Russian (and Japanese) at Edinburgh. Since graduating, I’ve worked in various guises as a translator, and three years ago I moved into publishing, as an editor, with a large focus on classic and contemporary literature in translation, so the various strands have come together quite nicely over the past few years.

Why Gaito Gazdanov?

The literature of the Russian emigration has always fascinated me. I first came to this through Nabokov – without a doubt the best-known literary figure among Russian émigré authors, although he is now often considered apart from them because of his later success. I first came across Gazdanov while reading Nabokov’s ‘Torpid Smoke’, and immediately began to wonder about the identity of this author with a strange-sounding name, who merited a mention in Nabokov’s short story. By a chance collusion of events (a very Gazdanovian one, come to think of it), a month or so later, while browsing in a Russian bookshop in London, I came across the small Azbuka edition of Gazdanov’s first novel An Evening with Claire.
Gaito Gazdanov
I loved it and soon began tracking down editions of his other novels and short stories. I suppose what captivated my interest in Gazdanov’s work was not only the stories he tells and the way in which he tells them, but also the latent mix of autobiography and fiction in his writing. Gazdanov’s own life was fascinating, and he weaves so many aspects of it into a number of his works; more than that, he was an extremely complex figure, a man whose own life story went through so many of the vicissitudes that his characters endure, a man whose history contains so much by way of contrast and contradiction.

You’ve now translated two Gazdanov novels. What are the most difficult aspects of working with his prose? What do you find most rewarding?

A number of points in both respects can be made here. First, and more generally, I suppose, is trying to convey the particular rhythm and cadences of Gazdanov’s prose. We often see lengthy, complex, and often philosophical excursions contrasted against airy, often ironic and very well-characterised dialogue. Secondly, almost without exception, Gazdanov’s works are set predominantly in France, often among Russian expatriates living there; the characters slip in and out of French and much of the dialogue, at least notionally if not literally, takes place in French. (After years of living in Paris, Gazdanov acquired an exceptionally good command of French idiom.) In many ways, though, this can give a translator more options to play with: a particularly pleasing example came in The Buddha’s Return, where a night-club by the name ‘Золотая Звезда’ figures; after initially worrying that ‘The Golden Star’ sounded rather like a pub in East Anglia, it struck me that a French name, ‘L’Etoile d’Or’, would be much more appropriate – and far less pub-like.

You’ve published both your Gazdanov translations with Pushkin Press, a small but highly regarded publisher very active in publicizing less well-known authors from Antal Szerb to Teffi. How did you and Pushkin Press find each other?
They’re certainly a fantastic publisher to work with, and I can’t thank the whole team enough for having had such faith in Gazdanov and me from the very outset. As it happens, I’d been working with Pushkin for some time, even before Gazdanov came onto the scene. After the major success of Rosemarie Tietze’s translation of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf in Germany in 2012, we began to discuss the possibility of reintroducing him to the English-speaking world in a new translation, and things progressed from there.

You have worked in publishing yourself. What do you think the future holds for small publishers like Pushkin, Angel Classics, Noise Trade or And Other Stories, to name a few? Will they remain financially viable? How can they adapt to changing markets?

Publishers naturally have a lot to compete with, and they continually have to keep readers excited and engaged. I think that for small indy publishers like those you mention the future looks promising, so long as they maintain a high degree of innovation and creativity, as well as a commitment to publishing the best fiction around. There’s so much excellent writing out there, classic and contemporary, home-grown and from further afield, and that’s precisely what all the publishers you mention do – and do very well at that.

Reacting to the eBook-versus-paper debate, of course, you have to innovate and adapt to the market and changing reading habits; I think Pushkin in particular have reacted well to this, apprehending the need for both high-quality production and beautiful design: to make people part with hard-earned cash, you have to offer them something that looks and feels as good as it is to read; their books, as well as those from And Other Stories, are universally acclaimed for their design as well as content. As far as eBooks are concerned, they can actually be a great asset to publishers, if only they embrace them: the production costs are relatively low in comparison with print publishing (effectively there’s only a single production cost): the rest is revenue. There are also a lot of innovative things that can be – and indeed is being – done with eBooks: for example, multimedia formats, dramatic readings, commentary and expanded apparatuses… Just look at the iPad app Faber produced for Eliot’s
The Waste Land.

As a translator, what’s your philosophy?
You must have a certain degree of daring, I think. There are so many layers to a text: first, the author and his (or her) voice, but also how this voice has developed along the author’s career; secondly, the world created by the book itself, and where the book is situated within the author’s oeuvre; finally, the rhythms, cadences, semantics and aesthetics of the text – all of this has to be accounted for in some way in a translation.

In striving for this, I always hold close two principles: invisibility (of the translator) and mirroring (of the text). By mirroring, I mean that the translation ought to be a reflection of the original in as much as it can be: if something sounds odd in the original, the English should sound equally odd; if it’s obscene, then make the English obscene (but always beware that an eye for an eye isn’t always equal in the world of ‘verbal transmigration’!). If we take Gazdanov, for example, his writing is very much situated in a specific time, place and literary tradition; of course, no modern-day translator is going to be able to recreate the prose a contemporary English writer might have produced – to strive to do so would be folly, I think – but that doesn’t mean that a translation cannot suggest all these things; you can hint at them through word choice, phrasing, and so on. It’s all about finding the appropriate tone.

Who’s your favourite translator – living or dead?

Nabokov has to be a favourite, if only for his vision of what a translator ought to be; naturally, however, the vision and its result were quite different when it came to translating his own works. But then, there’s quite a different magic involved in self-translation, which is wholly admissible.
That aside, the two translators I’d have to point to are Anthea Bell and Len Rix. Any readers unfamiliar with Bell’s work need only digest her recent interview in the Guardian to see why: her work has been so prolific and consistently inspired over the years as to humble every aspiring translator. And it is to Len Rix that we owe so much for bringing Antal Szerb so elegantly and sensitively into the literature he loved so well – English.

Can you share your forthcoming projects? Do you have a wish list of would-be translatees?

Well, what I can hint at for the moment is that readers will be seeing even more Gazdanov in the not-too-distant future, so watch this space! As for would-be translatees, the world of Russian émigré literature is such a treasure-trove of largely forgotten, but top-drawer authors, many of whom I’d love to translate further down the line. It’s so good to see that publishers are now taking a serious interest in them, especially with recent publications like Subtly Worded, a collection of short stories by Teffi, expertly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and others.

Do you have a favourite writer – not necessarily Russian? Or perhaps a (very short) shortlist of favourite writers? 

Apart from Gazdanov, naturally? I’d be hard pushed to name just one, but what draws me to an author or a work is a sense of playfulness and beauty in the use of language and form. I’d have to say, in no particular order: Bunin, Nabokov, Spark, Tanizaki and Waugh.

Bryan Karetnyk

Thank you, Bryan!

You can read Bryan Karetnyk's translation of a Gazdanov short story here on Pushkin Press's website.