Friday, 4 November 2016

Peer Review: How-To

From time to time, I am asked to blind peer review an article in one of my fields of research for possible publication. (For non-academics, this doesn't mean reading with a blindfold on; the idea is that both the author of the article and the reviewer remain unaware of each other's identities, with the journal editor acting as intermediary between them; the confidentiality system generally works, at least until the day I wake up with an ankylosaur's head at the end of my bed). Peer review is required for journal articles, conference paper proposals, and of course book manuscripts: it's an unpaid responsibility that comes periodically to all academics, rather like jury duty but in the comfort of your own home (and you're unlikely to spend the weekend arguing the finer points of MLA with Henry Fonda). There is a lot to be learned from reviewing, even in one's own area of so-called expertise: each new article for review opens up the latest developments in the field, sharing new insights or research. In addition, the review process enforces scrupulous, critical reading, with frequent fact-checking - refresher training for short-cut-addicted academics. We could, of course, in the time-honoured tradition of book reviewers, simply skip the 'reading' bit entirely and make up our report based on equally reasonable criteria such as font size, or average paragraph length on p. 23  - but then we would forego the faintly vertiginous thrill of opening a new document and discovering whether some unknown colleague has cited, praised, ignored, built upon, or incisively demolished our own work.

I haven't written so very many reviews, but I've been reviewed many times. Good reviewers, who have made my work stronger with acute fault-spotting and positive feedback, have enriched both my career and my faith in human nature. As for the bad reviewers, let's just say they won't be getting any free rides on my onion. (No, I didn't find it helpful when you used the journal's score chart to rate my article zero out of ten because I hadn't read one thing which you considered crucial - you just forced the apologetic editor to reject me without the option of revision, even though the second reviewer rated me eight out of ten. And as for the person who claimed that I write in a macaronic mixture of Russian and English - well, I wish my Russian were that good. Bitter, me? You must have the wrong dinosaur).

The biggest challenge of review-writing is compartmentalization. You must not be emotional (or territorial). You must write one report for the writer (which should be encouraging, even if your verdict is negative), and often another for the editor's eyes only (which can be less tactful). You must pass on your expertise, but without betraying your identity. You do need to state concisely whether the article is good enough for publication, or good enough for publication with minor revisions, or only after major revisions, or whether it and its containing folders should preferably be incinerated in a controlled explosion in New Mexico. Some reviewers have no compunction about more or less colourfully choosing the latter options. Others, like me, more prone to bet-hedging and bush-beating, may resort to euphemistic language of the ilk of  'Little Tommy is lively and opinionated'. You don't actually need to reassure the editor that you know 2.5 times as much about everything in the manuscript as the author does, but you may feel a compulsion to write as if you do. Clearly we need a common language for all peer reviewers, which editors can easily translate for hapless writers, so that nobody ever needs to say what they mean. And here are some highlights from my phrasebook, derived from all the reviews I have ever received, plus absolutely none that I have written:

  • This is an excellent article. (Well yes, now and then I do read an excellent article, and it makes my world a better place).
  • This article is lucidly written and clearly structured. (I'm softening the editor up before I write something really damning).
  • The page reference in note 15 to Robin Feuer Miller's book is incorrect. (I'm not really sure what to say about this article, so I'm going after the footnotes).
  • I'm not certain the writer has really grasped Wittgenstein's point here. (I don't either, but analytic philosophy is a soft target).
  • *Cites a sentence* What does this mean? (The writer can't write).
  • The writer has misunderstood Tolstoy's argument. (The "writer" can't read).
  • The writer has omitted to mention key critical authorities in this field. (They didn't read my book).
  • The article would benefit from integrating key critical commentary into the overall argument. (You think you can get away with MENTIONING MY BOOK ONCE IN A FOOTNOTE? Think again, cupcake).
  • The article shows exceptional insight into this neglected area. (Thank God I wrote my book before they did).
  • Analysis of this neglected figure is overdue and welcome. (That's my future research topic, by the way, but I'm OK with you doing the spadework).
  • This article shows exceptional insight, but could benefit from further analysis of X's chapter on Pilnyak. (Nice try, but I'm going to make you read my book again. Because I can).

Peer review, for all that I jest, is built on trust. As a reviewer, you don't just have the opportunity to advance or to cryofreeze someone's career; you are more than a mere expert in your field; you become a model of academic fellowship. You can genuinely bring out the best in someone's professional practice, and by investing your time and effort, you show just how far-reaching professionalism can be. But first of all, remember Google (and not just for checking footnote 49): don't be evil. 

Disclaimer: No actual review articles were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Munchausen's Return, or Krzhizhanovsky in Bloom(ington)

Halloween again: that time of year when one's thoughts creep around nostalgically to pumpkins, serial killers, and obscure Russian writers. Two of the most ghoulish of the latter are Mikhail Bulgakov (remember the vampires in Master and Margarita? Not to mention its heroine-into-witch subplot) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (more anon). It's surprising that these two aren't more frequently twinned by scholars, given that they were born around the same time in Kiev, and that both moved (in 1921 and 1922 respectively) to Moscow, where they maintained a friendly acquaintance, moving in the same circles, reading their work in the same writers' groups and suffering the same privations.* Both young writers created extended grotesque allegories of the Revolution, and specifically of the consequences for intellectuals who attempt to co-exist with it, in the shape of Krzhizhanovsky's gruesome 1926 short story "The Phantom" and Bulgakov's much better-known 1925 novella Heart of a Dog. "The Phantom" is Krzhizhanovsky's riff on the Frankenstein motif, applied to the Russian Revolution: in this darkling tale, a burned-out doctor hero (just like so many Bulgakov characters) is pursued by a grotesque relic from his medical school, an alcohol-embalmed foetus used for obstetric demonstrations. The technical term for these genuinely is a 'phantom' (check the OED). Accidentally 'born' during the fledgling medic's final exam, the undead infant grows up secretly in Moscow basements before finding romantic love with a shop mannequin. It tracks down its unwitting 'father' to quote Kantian philosophy at him (that, for me, would be the scariest part), as a prelude to explaining that for it to live, he must die. A metaphor for non-party intellectuals' implication in revolutionary violence? A thought experiment elaborating Krzhizhanovsky's obsession with life lived numbly and indirectly, 'in the dative case'?  Who knows? Dedicated readers of this blog will recall that six years ago (gosh) I translated "The Phantom" for Red Spectres. I still think it's an astonishing story, and I recall it as my most challenging translation project to date. Krzhizhanovsky's puns, alliteration, assonance, metonymy, personification and other linguistic fireworks were exhausting; I had to learn to defend my own translation, certainly not because it was the best, but because the original was so divisive, I could never rely on two readers to agree with each other. And ever since, not quite as horribly as a revenge-bent monster leaking embalming fluid while citing Kant, Krzhizhanovsky has pursued me through my career... A research paper here... A comparison with Gogol there... until I was honoured to be invited to this conference at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, organized by Jacob Emery and Sasha Spektor.

Imagine you admire an individual. Then collect almost ALL THE SCHOLARS ever associated with that individual in one room. How stardusted, not to mention starstruck, would you feel? This is what Jacob and Sasha sensationally accomplished, while additionally inviting several postgrad students and other Krzhizhanovsky tourists who gave stimulating papers or simply asked good questions. There were a great many great people present (and if I over-use the word 'great', it's simply for want of better adjectives of magnitude). Among so many Krzhizherati of note, I'll highlight those who have done the most to make this writer accessible to non-specialist audiences (or, in the first case, simply to any audiences, anywhere).

Vadim Perelmuter. The Great.*** 
The great Vadim Perel'muter was present: pleased, he revealed, to be formally invited for the first time to an academic conference on his life's work. (An almost unbelievable statement, given his achievement, yet we had to believe him). For those, like me, who have spent years painstakingly MHRA- or MLA-izing the publication details of Krzh's (now) six-volume collected works, finally meeting their editor was enthralling. One by one I have picked up these pleasingly colourful volumes in indie bookshops in Moscow and St Petersburg, with ever-expanding pointillist constellations on their spines and close-up cover images of Krzh looking thoughtful (or just myopic). VP told us that he had invested almost 14 years in seeing the sixth and final volume into print. In person, he is modest, observant, slightly reserved; despite frequent discreet recourse to his pipe, he sat forbearingly through our conference (in a language he claimed to understand poorly). Seated as if at his fireside,VP's keynote was more like an after-dinner tale, regaling us with the vicissitudes of becoming Krzhizhanovsky's posthumous keeper.

My set of five is incomplete. New life ambition...
 He told us, more completely and humorously than in his Introduction to the Collected Works, of that legendary moment in Moscow's RGALI** in the mid-seventies (we all wished we could have been flies on the archive wall). VP belonged to a group of young poets who celebrated the anniversary of the poet Georgii Shengeli; one year, examining Shengeli's diaries, VP noticed that a sentence about the death of a certain Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky had been underlined in black. Puzzled by his own ignorance of a writer Shengeli had respected - and particularly, a pisatel'-fantast, or writer of fantasy - VP asked around, trying to discover why this author had vanished. "I was astounded by [меня ошеломил]", he told us, his eventual realization that a writer of such "genius" had been so utterly forgotten. Even inquiries in RGALI failed to elicit the mysterious writer's archive; Krzh's de facto widow, Anna Bovshek, had acted correctly in lodging his papers with the state archive but, VP emphasized, it never occurred to her or to Krzh's other surviving contemporaries that his memory would lapse so thoroughly that even the catalogue record would be mislaid. Then one day, after asking about a different record and being told by the archivists to "go and have a smoke" while it was fetched, VP happened to loiter past and glimpse the fond, or list of index numbers of Krzh's files, in a pile of documents. Armed with this, he was able to order the actual opis' with Krzh's manuscripts - and so it all began. (Excursus: long ago, when researching my PhD - in which, as you may well infer, Krzh features - I tried to re-enact VP's wow moment by ordering this same opis' in RGALI. But instead of the tottering heap of manuscripts that I expected, all I got was a few photos and personal letters in (to me) illegible handwriting. This may have been because of my relative incompetence in Russian archives, or because the same cataloguing error that temporarily stymied VP's researches persisted thirty years later). Of course, Krzhizhanovsky's climb towards fame with his new and devoted editor was not exactly Andy Warhol's can of soup. VP shared with us how the condemnations of Stalin-era critics (even Gorkii's) were still taken seriously by late Soviet publishers; how his efforts to find missing stories (such as "Red Snow"), Krzh's missing grave (which has never turned up), and living acquaintances of the author led him to Kiev, Odessa, Paris, and stranger places. Once, after a conversation with a friend of Krzhizhanovsky's about the short story "The Bookmark" (which contains an episode about a tomcat trapped on a high ledge, which eventually plunges to its death), a cat plummeted past the balcony and crashed to the ground. VP commented wryly that the situation would have felt even stranger if it hadn't rained cats; with Krzhizhanovsky, one expects such things to happen. He has often felt like a participant in a seance, or at least, in a postmortem conversation with Krzh.

Karen Rosenflanz, author of the first Anglophone academic monograph on Krzh, showed us her well-used first edition of Memories of the Future, VP's first anthology of Krzh's fiction; it came out in an overambitious print-run of 100000 copies.

Karen Rosenflanz's copy of Memories of the Future
The first French translation, however, caused a media sensation. Gradually, VP located and interviewed surviving friends of Krzh, like his line manager at the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, whom Krzh had generously introduced to Bulgakov at Herzen House (the Soviet writers' club) in 1931; actors and actresses from Tairov's theatre who remembered him as the writer of Tairov's version of Eugene Onegin; and others. He even discovered that Krzh had known Boris Pasternak; the latter had consulted Krzh, as a known critical authority on Shakespeare, when he began translating the Bard.

Caryl Emerson and Alisa Ballard
Caryl Emerson, who has perhaps done more than anyone to integrate Krzhizhanovsky within modern Slavic scholarship (see, for example, this special issue of SEEJ which she co-edited and to which she contributed) spoke movingly, with her collaborator (and translator of Krzh's play That Third Guy [Тот третий]) Alisa Ballard, about two of her attempts to move the author into the public domain. The first of these has been reviewed elsewhere: a Princeton performance of the 1936 theatrical version of Eugene Onegin as conceived by Tairov (but never staged), with Prokofiev's original score and Krzhizhanovsky's text. In a unique Spring 2015 Princeton course "Special Topics in Performance Practice: Krzhizhanovsky and the Soviet Fantastic", Emerson and Ballard team-taught with the late Tim Vasen, the director of Princeton's Theatre Programme, a small group of drama students. Using Joanne Turnbull's translations as core texts, they encouraged the students to explore and physically enact the meanings of stories such as "Quadraturin" and "The Collector of Cracks". The students produced brief course essays and brief but intriguing dramatic sketches, some of which we watched at the conference. "The Runaway Fingers" lent itself to physical dramatization; Krzh's dialogue between an actor and his role was more challenging, but also compelling to portray with the help of pre-recorded video projected on stage in sync with live acting. As one student perceptively concluded, "estrangement from reality makes these stories so compelling, and forces the reader [...] to re-think the rules by which he or she perceives and carries on as a human being, as both a dreamer and a dream-ee".

My Krzhizhanovsky rainbow
Joanne Turnbull is another Krzhizhanovskian eminence whom I regard with awe. I've mentioned my struggles with "The Phantom"; she has sustained her relationship with Krzhizhanovskii across four beautifully produced anthologies of his fiction (soon to be five), setting aside her earliest Glas collection Seven Stories, which was my Anglophone portal into the Krzh universe. "Love", she smiled, in answer to my tiresomely predictable Why-do-you-do-it question; and she presented us all with copies of her latest love-child, The Return of Munchausen, a perfect Christmas present for those who enjoy obscure and very funny fiction. She also shared with us some secrets of her approach to translating Krzhizhanovsky, one of which is to immerse herself in the vocabulary of Poe and Chesterton (whom Krzh admired) and of Anglophone writers roughly coeval to Krzh with an eccentric and whimsical lexis rivalling his command of rare Russian idiom (such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Vladimir Nabokov). She compressed her overall strategy under three headers: language , research (she researches her own footnotes, always required in texts of this complexity), and collaboration (as with her longstanding partner in Krzh adventures, Nikolai Formozov). Her new translation, published by NYRB Classics like its predecessors, is a standalone novella like The Letter-Killers' Club. It reworks the Munchausen legend to re-introduce the Baron as a corpulent, world-weary diplomat dispatched by the London government to diagnose the political condition of Soviet Russia. From a mansion on Bayswater Road known as Mad Bean Cottage for its girdle of exuberant beanstalks, Munchausen hypnotizes the English aristocracy with his tall tales (even the Bishop of Northumberland is transfixed) until his chauffeur is squashed by rioting East End terraces and he finally scandalizes British society by standing up the king. This short book is notable not just for Krzh's witty and bittersweet observations on Soviet Russia, which one might expect, but also for its acute consciousness of inter-war London society and its unexpectedly elegiac portrayal of the German backwater where even the great Munchausen finally retreats, finding ultimate refuge (like his author) inside the covers of a book. (The cover of this one is ingeniously chosen, with Yuri Annenkov's Chagall-esque cockerels, choo-choo trains and Biblical symbolism echoing Munchausen's trans-European journeys).

As you would expect, this conference abounded in stirring insights and recurring themes. its ostensible purpose was to explore strategies for translating Krzhizhanovsky's non-fiction, but clearly its remit extended well beyond that; boundaries and Krzh were never going to work. Translator Anne Fisher, currently drafting the first English version of Krzh's The Poetics of Titles, suggested that Krzh's youthful training as an opera singer might have influenced the complex sound texture of his prose. We returned again and again to Krzhizhanovsky's love of dichotomy and opposition, and his emphasis on the cracks, or fissures, between absolutes. Organizer Jacob Emery won my silent applause both by using the word 'katabatic' casually before lunchtime and by playfully suggesting that Krzhizhanovsky loved generating dialogues between humans and animated objects or concepts (like the writer and his inspiration, or the actor and his role, or even the doctor and his phantom) as a sort of ongoing Turing test into the nature of reality. A nice anachronism that helps us understand Krzhizhanovsky's philosophical conundrum. His co-organizer Sasha Spektor (a name made for Halloween) displayed an equally inspiring passion for Russian (and comparative) literature.

Sincere thanks to the two organizers...

*Disclaimer: I connected these writers together as contributors to the so-called "Bulgakov generation" of post-revolutionary supernatural fiction in my book Stalin's Ghosts.
** The Russian Government Archive of Literature and Art. A lurking-place for the manuscripts, drafts, personal correspondence, and other lost realia of generations of Russian and Soviet authors.
***Photo credit to Anthony Anemone for the image of Vadim Perel'muter. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Mooching in Maynooth, or the Irish Slavic Studies Conference

Despite spending my undergraduate years splashing in the prehistoric swamps of Trinity College Dublin, I had never attended a meeting of IARCEES, the Irish Association for Russian, Central and East European Studies - or An Cumann Éireannach um Staidéar ar an Rúis agus ar Thíortha na hEorpa Láir agus Thoir as it is known in the old country - until earlier this month, when I finally made it to the organisation's 2016 annual conference in the ancient royal city of Maynooth.

The Maynooth SCR can get boisterous.
The older part of Maynooth University, St Patrick's College, used to be a major Catholic theological college and includes a working farm - making the average on-campus stay more eventful than the bland American Marriott experience enjoyed by most academics attending ASEEES. The newer half of campus hosts its own Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, hence the presence of IARCEES this year.

Moreover, 2016 marks the organisation's forty-first year, celebrated with an engrossing talk on its history by TCD's Dr Sarah Smyth. The small but dedicated conference audience learned about the earliest university lecturer in Russian in Ireland, the often-tragic Maighréad Ni Mhaicín. She remained a member of the Irish-Soviet Friendship Society despite losing her husband to Stalin's terror, and she taught Russian at TCD for almost ten years before (as Sarah told us) losing her job on the grounds that she lacked a degree in the language. She was also a significant translator into Irish from both Russian (including Chekhov, Pushkin, and Turgenev) and French; you haven't read Erckmann-Chatrian until you've read them in Ni Mhaicín's translation: Le juif polonais as An tIúdach Pólach. All this was particularly fascinating to me because I am evolving, at my usual Jurassic pace,  a study of Ni Mhaicín's life, and contribution to translation studies. In generally good news for scholars, Sarah Smyth also shared the organisation's hope of imminently relaunching regular publication of its peer-reviewed journal, Irish Slavonic Studies.

The small but dedicated audience 
Czech children helping to unmask a traitor (image copyright Mark Cornwall)
Even better was to come: a stirring talk on 'Hunting for Traitors' by keynote speaker Professor Mark Cornwall of the University of Southampton, which presented his research on the changing interpretations of the word 'treason' at different points in Austro-Hungarian and Czech culture. The lecture was fascinating in itself, but it also demonstrated that the Eastern European end of Slavic Studies functions perfectly well without the ubiquitous Russian bear. Cornwall's discussion of show trials deliberately all but excluded Stalin's purges, as there were plenty of Czech examples of how trials were rigged to scare and to scandalize both domestic and international audiences, and to inculcate in the wider population the need for vigilance and conformity; even children were trained to recognize and report traitors. He invited parallels and contrasts with modern  (as well as specifically Irish) conceptions of treason, mentioning Edward Snowden, the 2013 execution of Kim Jong-un's uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek, and (inevitably in Ireland in 2016) the fate of Roger Casement and others involved with the 1916 Easter Rising. The Dreyfus case appeared almost  passé beside some of the trials discussed in detail. Cornwall shared a rare photograph of the jurors at the famous (to specialists) 1915 "Czech traitors' trial" of Alois Rašín and Karel Kramář. While Czech patriot and member of the first postwar parliament, Milada Horáková, went to her death in 1950, after a protracted show trial, with the brave words "I have lost the fight, but I depart with honour". Cornwall's essential message was that the nature of treason is transient, if not cyclical; he concluded with a citation from German journalist Margret Boveri, "The meaning of treason changes as the wheel of history turns".

The conference panels revealed strong emphasis on history and social sciences, almost ironically so, since forty-one years ago, the fledgling IARCEES was dominated by philologists. The Maynooth event also displayed an extraordinary diversity of Eastern European topics; as in the keynote lecture, the Russian element felt decidedly secondary. Paper topics included the life of Mika Skaberne, co-founder of the Slovenian Society for the Blind; the political identity of Habsburg Romanian military chaplians; the Irish-Hungarian friendship tour of 1937; and Romanian collective farms. I particularly enjoyed the Jewish Memory and Culture panel, where Radek Przedpelski explained the concept of 'virtual Jewishness' or 'Jewish culture minus the Jews', whereby a gentile pub in Warsaw might trade on sentimental pictures of pre-war Orthodox Jews, or the jazz guitar player Raphael Roginski might syncretize the blues with traditional Jewish music in modern Poland. The panel ended with an unusual paper by Ewa Stanczyk, comparing the curatorship of early twentieth-century photographs of Jews (from family snaps to Gestapo identity shots) in the Jewish museums in Lublin and Prague respectively. In both museums, a constant process of identification is ongoing; some of the subjects are still alive. Stanczyk's study probed the differences in collection development and display agenda between the Jewish-owned and Jewish-run Prague museum, and the gentile-run, partially EU-funded Lublin collection. Even more emotionally testing than these poignant, gradually degrading photos was Galway Slavist Ludmila Snigireva's paper on Sergei Ursuliak's twelve-part 2012 Russian television miniseries of Grossman's Life and Fate; she showed us the tearjerking scene where Viktor Shtrum reads a letter from his mother, who has already perished in the course of the Nazi invasion. (Touching as this scene is, one must note that Ursuliak compresses the Holocaust element - a huge preoccupation of the book - to this brief if harrowing scene in his film, which suggests an uneasy amnesia still operates in Russia's relationship to the Shoah). Like conferences, history is cyclical; and as WB Yeats almost said, there's always some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born - although that's hardly a polite way to talk about dinosaurs.
Maynooth University

Friday, 22 April 2016

A mystery couple, or (no) love at first sight

In the process of avoiding doing my real work, I was amused and intrigued to read this account of the unpromising first meeting between this couple (who would go on to become famous for their mutual devotion, among other achievements). Can you guess who they are? Clue: the author whose memoirs are quoted below would become famous as Russia's first female philatelist. All errors in translation are my own.

Answers on a postcard, please, or in the comments section below.  

[The] study turned out to be a large room with two windows, very bright on that sunny day, but at other times quite depressing. The room was dreary and hushed; one felt somehow oppressed by the gloom and the silence.
A soft couch stood on the far side of the room, covered with well-worn brown fabric; in front of it was a round table laid with a red cloth. On the table was a lamp and two or three albums; around it were soft chairs and armchairs. Above the table, in a walnut frame, hung a portrait of a lady with an extremely thin face, in a black dress and cap. "That must be his wife," I thought, not knowing whether he was married. [...] Opposite another large sofa was a writing table [...]. The study was perfectly ordinary, just like others I had seen in the homes of less than wealthy families.

Somewhat untidier artist's version of a room based on this room

I sat, listening. I kept fancying that at any moment I would hear children shouting or the noise of a child's drum; or that the door would open and the same thin lady whose portrait I had been examined would walk in. But instead he entered and, after apologizing for being late, asked me: "How long have you been a stenographer?"
"Just a year and a half."
"And has your teacher got a lot of pupils?"
"At first more than a hundred and fifty signed up, but now only about twenty-five of us are left."
"Why so few?"
"Well, many thought that stenography would be very easy to learn, but then they saw that you couldn't pick it up in a few days, so they gave up their classes."
"That's how we are with every new task," he said, "we take it up with enthusiasm, then swiftly cool off and cast it aside. They see that they must work, but who cares to work these days?"

At first glance, he seemed to me quite old. But just as soon as he started speaking, he became younger, and I thought that he could hardly be more than thirty-five or thirty-seven. He was of average height and held himself very straight. His light chestnut, even slightly reddish, hair was thickly oiled and carefully combed. But what struck me most were his eyes; one was dark brown, but the other was colourless because the pupil had expanded across the whole eye. This difference between his eyes lent his gaze a mysterious quality. His face, pale and sickly, seemed extremely familiar to me, probably because I had seen his portrait before. He wore a rather tired blue cloth jacket, but his cuffs and collar were snow-white.

Within five minutes a maid brought us two glasses of very strong tea, almost black. There were two rolls on the tray. I took a glass. I didn't want any tea, and the room was hot, but I began drinking so as not to seem too stiff [церемонной]. I sat by the wall at a small table, while he sometimes sat at his writing desk and sometimes ranged about the room smoking, often stubbing out his cigarette and lighting a new one. He even offered me a cigarette. I refused.
"Did you, perhaps, refuse from delicacy?" he said.
I hastened to assure him that not only did I not smoke, but I did not even like to see ladies smoking.


Finally he said that he was assuredly not in the right mood to dictate to me now, but could I perhaps return at about eight o'clock. Then he would begin dictating his novel. Returning again was very inconvenient for me, but, not wishing to delay the work, I agreed.
As he was bidding me good-bye, he said:
"I was glad when Olkhin sent me a young lady stenographer, and not a man. Do you know why?"
"Why might that be?"
"Because a man would more than likely drink, and you, I hope, don't drink?"
I had a dreadful desire to laugh, but I restrained my smile.
"I most certainly won't drink; you may rest assured of it," I replied in a serious tone.

I left his house in a most unhappy frame of mind. I hadn't liked him, and he made an onerous impression. I thought that we would scarcely be able to work together, and my dreams of independence threatened to scatter like dust... This was the more painful for me as, the day before, my good-hearted mother had been so happy about the start of my new employment. 

Picture credits (1) Room:
(2) Typewriter heart:

Friday, 1 April 2016

Adventures in titology: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii and book titles

Last month the lovely people behind the Books at Bristol blog included me in a one-day workshop on paratexts which took me fascinatingly far out of my academic comfort zone. Paratexts are those invaluable aspects of books - covers, titles, prefaces, even fonts - which we may discount when analysing literature, although they often predetermine our attitudes and reactions. Don't judge a book by its cover? Perhaps, but why does my publisher feel the need to include my book's exact weight on its web page (0.48kg, or 1.058 lbs, if you're interested)? The Times Literary Supplement's J.C. recently joked that that eminent publication employs someone in its Basement Department to measure the height and width of every new book. Apparently, the man who literally wrote the book on paratexts (Paratexts, 1987) is Gérard Genette, whose structuralist analysis of the chronological context, sender and addressee of book titles is oddly similar to Krzhizhanovskii's. At the conference, I was tipped off about another useful study, First Pages: A Poetics of Titles, by Giancarlo Maiorino, which helpfully introduces the term 'titology' for the study of book titles, which he visualizes as semi-architectural 'frontispieces' of literature, indexing and 'etymologizing' the essential arguments of the book.

My guide through the labyrinth of paratexts was my old friend and frequent visitor to this blog, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii. Like me, he lacked formal grounding in titology; unlike me, his encyclopedic knowledge helped him to invent a framework for a Russian branch of the topic. Below, I'm going to paste the main body of my talk. The Bristol workshop participants were generously enthusiastic about this obscure scholar, and in particular, they were keen to read him in translation. While translations of Krzhizhanovskii's non-fiction may be forthcoming, they remain spectral rumours; acute readers, let me know if you spot errors in my translations below.
SK in happier times - an Italian holiday in 1912

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii, whom Adam Thirlwell has called ‘a Ukrainian writer with a comically unpronounceable Polish name’*, was active as a writer of fiction between 1920 and 1940. Because he failed to publish any of his five novellas and as almost none of his many short stories appeared during his lifetime, at his death in 1950 his reputation rested primarily on occasional journalism, encyclopaedia entries (for the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia), and a few scholarly articles, including his Poetics of Titles, the subject of this paper. Ironically, these non-fiction works are now at risk of neglect in favour of his recently rediscovered fiction, issued by NYRB Classics in prestigious English translations. The Poetics of Titles was probably written in 1925, but actually published in 1931 by a friendly firm** when the newly unemployed Krzhizhanovskii desperately needed a publication in support of his application to join a Moscow writers’ organization, which in turn would enable him to retain his Moscow residence permit. The permit was renewed, but Krzhizhanovskii’s interest in titles ran much deeper than a single expedient monograph. He would produce, in all, three short works explicitly dedicated to front matter: The Poetics of Titles (1931), The Art of the Epigraph: Pushkin (1936), and The Play and its Title (1939). These works reflected not only the vicissitudes of his career (the second essay, on epigraphs, was rejected by numerous editors, while the third was delivered as a speech to a meeting of Soviet playwrights and therefore marked the zenith of Krzhizhanovskii’s acceptance by contemporary élites); they also reflected the wide, if rather whimsical, temporal and geographical span of his interest in literature. He would have loved the Bristol conference – not just because of its theme, but also because of the erudition and eclecticism of the papers (from Ursula Le Guin, to Roman Emperors, to Peter the Great and back again). I want to summarize Krzhizhanovskii’s poetics of titles, drawing primarily on his 1931 long essay of the same name.

Krzhizhanovskii’s essay The Poetics of Titles opens by emphasizing the physical qualities of the title and its indivisibility from the text of the book; he ends by suggesting that the fashion for penning so-called ‘Tales without a Title’ is being countered by a trend for ‘Titles without a Tale’. In between, he identifies nine categories of book title. I want to quote Krzhizhanovskii’s definition of a title in full and briefly recap these categories.

For Krzhizhanovskii, the title was essentially a micro-book, delivering its message synchronously with the macro-book of the text: it was simultaneously a physical, quantifiable object and a textual component: the first line of his essay reads, ‘We are accustomed to call the ten or so letters, which draw behind them thousands of letters of text, a title’. Precisely because it unites the text and the thought behind it, the title is the most important part of the book (‘заглавие [...] вправе выдавать себя за главное книги’, p. 7). The title is constrained by the size of the page, and has shrunk over the centuries in both actual length and typographic extent, but it still maintains the same proportional relationship with the book: ‘the book is the title unrolled as far as it will go, the title is the book restricted to an extent of two or three words’. Or as he allowed himself to say macaronically, the title is the book in restricto; the book is the title in extenso.  Krzhizhanovskii’s analysis also benefits from the connections between the word for ‘title’ (заглавие, literally, by the head) and ‘главный’, meaning ‘important’, both derived from the Russian word for ‘head’ (голова́) which is cognate with the word for ‘chapter’ (глава). This gives him endless scope for puns which I have not even tried to reproduce in English; it also affords him semantic means to reinforce the literal importance of titles.

In the next section, ‘The theme and its surroundings’, Krzhizhanovskii discusses titles which become inseparable from material aspects of their presentation. This can include the author’s name (he suggests, as examples, the respective confessions of St Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Lev Tolstoi); a printed year or place of publication; even colour or shape, as in the case of an anthology titled ‘Motley Tales’ by a nineteenth-century Russian author***, where the first edition actually printed the letters of the title in colourful jester’s motley (p. 9). However, Krzhizhanovskii warns that these are all exceptional cases; the true function of a title (as he warns in the following section on the ‘reduction of thoughts’) is to guarantee the survival of its book. Books are long and life (and memory) is short; all too soon, a book comes to be remembered by its title only (rather than its content), and only those titles which manage to convey the content of their books with brevity, concision, and memorability can hope to be preserved in our cultural heritage. Historians, Krzhizhanovskii suggests, are storytellers: ‘as in the history of political events, so in the history of libraries only what is easily told sinks in’ (p. 11). He suggests the Satyricon, In Praise of Folly and Vanity Fair as successfully snappy titles.

This brings us to Part Two, where Krzhizhanovskii begins his main task: listing categories of title. He starts by lamenting the decline of titles with both subject and predicate, following the simple pattern of X=Y – one example is the Spanish playwright Calderón’s play Life is a Dream. This brings him to the phenomenon of ‘doubling titles’, where a book receives two titles separated by the word ‘or’ (such as this intriguing title published in Kiev in 1849: A Pharmacy for the Soul, or A Systematic Alphabetical List of Books). As in the latter example, one half of the title may appeal to the emotions, the other to the logical or calculating faculty of the brain. Similarly, one half of the title may be written in simple language to appeal to a less educated audience, or to children, while the second half offers a more complicated summary to appeal to a different audience or to the children’s parents. The double title may also aim to sell the same book to two different political or religious parties (just as Bouncing Back from Bankruptcy, or How To Sell Your Soul to the Devil could be a bipartisan double title for a biography of Donald Trump). Krzhizhanovskii doesn’t refer to the ironic nostalgia implicit in more recent manifestations of this type of title, but he does express its function in remarkably sensual terms: ‘where the title does not immediately succeed in containing the entire text in itself, it tries to do this by parts, as if in several swallows’ (p.13).

The next section discusses half-titles, often missing either subject or predicate – or simply not making much sense in isolation. Krzhizhanovskii notes that the omitted portion will be recognized by a privileged audience; examples include the respectively religious and philosophical readers of Abelard’s Sic et Non and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. The following two sections look at how titles can characterize their authors or preselect their audiences (an extreme example of the latter being Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, titled ‘To Myself’ by their author). Part Three introduces titles which are carefully designed as a work of art in themselves (a goal sadly achieved, Krzhizhanovskii comments, in inverse proportion to the artistic success of the text), before moving on to titles which involuntarily reveal a preoccupation of their author (e.g. Jack London’s apparent obsession with titles invoking family relationships (Krzhizhanovskii lists A Son of the Wolf, The God of His Fathers, The Children of the Frost, A Daughter of the Storm, but there are additional examples), or the Ivan Goncharov’s fondness for titles beginning with the syllable Ob). The section titled ‘titlo’, after the Church Slavonic diacritic used to shorten regularly used devotional terms, discusses what is revealed about audience expectations by an editor’s or translator’s decision to lengthen or annotate an original title. A final category of titles simply steals (or builds upon) an earlier title: Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which in Russian is also the word for Sunday, was parodied by the subsequent publication of Monday (by the apocryphal Count Tonkii); similarly, the mid-19th century witnessed a rash of ‘parasitic’ titles such as The Russian Werther or The Russian Decameron. The section on ‘The Pulpit and the Shop Window’ contrasts the complex, diffuse, and honest titles of medieval and religious manuscripts with the attention-getting short titles characteristic of the modern market.

Finally, Krzhizhanovskii points to the modern tendency towards laconicism, the avoidance of words in both texts and titles, such that even the title itself is sometimes purged from the finished work. Books calling themselves ‘A Tale Without A Title’ have become common. Krzhizhanovskii suggests, however, that given the modern trend for brevity and compression, the title is more likely to replace the book, than the reverse, thus creating the phenomenon of the title without a tale. As he writes on the final page of his essay, ‘We are beginning to understand that both in the little world made from paper and typographic ink, and also outside its borders, everywhere where words are heard, the most important thing is in the title (самое главное в заглавном). […] Our quill has been taught by the speediness of our now not only to slide along the lines, but to strike from the printed line with all its strength: the style of brevity, the skill of settling a theme in two or three words, has become the style of our era. This is something we must understand… and accept’ (p. 42).

Krzhizhanovskii was deeply interested in theatre, particularly in the plays of Shaw and Shakespeare, on which he wrote numerous essays. Caryl Emerson writes that although his own plays were never performed, he stubbornly ‘self-identified as a theater professional’ and indeed remained on the roster of Alexander Tairov’s Kamernyi Theatre until 1948****. Hence it follows that on admission to the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1939, Krzhizhanovskii should dedicate his maiden speech to the titles of plays. This was P’esa i ee zaglavie, The Play and its Title, first published in Krzhizhanovskii’s collected works in 2006.  Krzhizhanovskii’s posthumous editor Vadim Perel’muter suggests that the speech should be viewed as a continuation of The Poetics of Titles, to which it refers directly, while it suggests that the titles of plays differ from all other kinds of titles by appealing directly to the senses (‘чрезвычайно чувственно,’ p. 622). The theatrical title is more fully a title than any other kind, apparently because of its ephemerality and sensuality (it is shouted on the street, represented by crude poster images, bandied disdainfully by critics)#. Krzhizhanovskii humorously identifies and deplores the tendency of both Western and Soviet plays of his own time to appear, as he puts it, ‘half-shaved’. The ideal play title has both a subject and a predicate; the current fashion, he warns, is for one or the other to be missing. Either the protagonist or the situation is namechecked, but not both. 

Krzhizhanovskii divides play titles into two categories: who-titles and what-titles (заглавие-кто and заглавие-что), respectively featuring the protagonist’s name or situation. Hence Schiller’s 1784 play Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe) offends in the second category, Shakespeare’s Henry V in the first. Noting the Soviet preference for who-titles, he jokes that if Gogol’s 1836 play The Government Inspector (whose title character appears only in the final scene) were produced today, it would have had to be re-named Khlestakov after its protagonist.

In the main section of his speech, Krzhizhanovskii praises successful play titles, such as Chekhov’s 1896 The Seagull. He traces the importance of the seagull as prop, symbol, and metaphor throughout the play’s key scenes, finally concluding that this five-letter word (in Russian, чайка) acts as a needle pulling the thread of the play’s idea through the fabric of the text. This very physical image chimes with Krzhizhanovskii’s insistence on the very sensual quality of theatrical titles. Tolstoy also comes in for praise for his ponderous and allusive titles (such as The Power of Darkness, The Fruits of Enlightenment, and The Light Shines in Darkness) which, Krzhizhanovskii writes, show that Tolstoy ‘understood that a title is not a stamp on a letter, not a signature, but something which travels ahead of the play, as its herald; and that it must be considered and supplied with the words the reader will need and which will summon people to the play’.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with Krzhizhanovskii’s rather lovely allegory from both The Poetics of Titles and The Play and its Title:

‘Everyone knows that on every telescope there is a thing known as a finder, a small tube, about the same length as, for example, a book title; its job is to seek out an object, a star. It must align its sight, its axis, as astronomers say, with the axis of the larger telescopic tube. It seeks out heavenly bodies. A title has the very same function. It seeks out the object, the word, which is common to the finder, the title, and the text’ (The Play and its Title, p. 621). Krzhizhanovskii expands this metaphor in a little more detail in the first section of The Poetics of Titles: ‘An accurately and truthfully made title is just such a finder for a book; for it to work, strict parallelism must be observed; the smaller tube with the greater, the name with the text. Otherwise, whether the object in view is a star or a thought, it will be lost from the field of vision. A title should be tested thus: having determined the most important part of the book by feeling and thinking your way inside it (путём вчитывания и вчувствования), compare this with the title’s form of words; whether or not they agree conceptually, whether or not they coincide. And only where we can acknowledge that the letters (знаки) and the meaning (значимость) of the micro-book and the macro-book coincide, can the title, for the main part, be found (заглавие, в главном, найдено)’ (The Poetics of Titles, p. 8). It wouldn’t be Krzhizhanovskii without an untranslatable pun.

I'm off to weigh some books. There might be a vacancy soon in the TLS Basement.

Note: All citations from Krzhizhanovskii’s texts are my own translation. The originals are in Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii, Sobranie sochinenii v 5 tomakh, vol 4 (St Petersburg: Symposium, 2006). Poetika zaglavii: pp. 7-42; Iskusstvo epigrafa: Pushkin, pp. 387-415; P’esa i ee zaglavie, pp. 621-635.
Picture credit: by way of RGALI.


*Adam Thirlwell, ‘The Master of the Crossed-Out’, New York Review of Books June 23rd 2011.                          <>
**Nikitinskie subbotniki. See Vadim Perel’muter, ‘Commentary to Poetika zaglavii’, in IV, pp. 708-729.
***Vladimir Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki s krasnym slovtsom (St Petersburg, 1833).
****Caryl Emerson, “Krzhizhanovsky as a Reader of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw”, The Slavic and East European Journal 56.4 (2012): 577–611 (pp. 577-8). Web.
#  '[З]аглавие – наиболее заглавие именно в области драматургии' (p. 621).

Monday, 21 March 2016

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Rosamund Bartlett's Tolstoy: A Russian Life has been on my bookshelf almost since it was first published in 2010. I've recommended it to students. I've mined it for facts and key dates. But I never, dear readers, actually read it start to finish until recently... and I am now more impressed than ever with this book as a scholarly achievement. Although readable and indeed almost conversational throughout, it teaches a great deal about Tolstoy and his times. Not only does Bartlett manage to remain more or less in sympathy with her exasperating, idealistic, hypocritical, inexhaustible subject, she adds a final chapter exploring Tolstoy's posthumous legacy in Russia, of which more below. She even succeeds in staying neutral in the great scholar-polarizing soap opera of Sofia Andreevna (Sonia) versus Vladimir Chertkov, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each party involved.

For example, as Bartlett negotiated the complicated prehistory of the Tolstoy clan, I realized for the first time how much of War and Peace is recycled family history. I was vaguely aware that the novel's Bolkonskys owed much to Tolstoy's relatives the Volkonskys (the rhyme is a heavy hint, after all), but I hadn't realized clearly that Maria Nikolaevna Volkonskaya, Tolstoy's mother and the heiress of Yasnaya Polyana, was an important model for Maria Bolkonskaya - or that the marriage the latter contracts with Nikolai Rostov (saving the Rostov family's fortunes) was a reflection of the real-life match between Tolstoy's parents. Tolstoy's own father, Nikolai Ilyich, also had to pick up the pieces - just like Nikolai Rostov - after the death of Tolstoy's benevolent but spendthrift grandfather, Ilya Andreyevich Tolstoy, left the family almost bankrupt, and the logical way to fix their finances was to marry a wealthy wife. This was Maria Volkonskaya. While showing how embedded his fiction was in Tolstoy's family life and cultural milieu, Bartlett also succeeds in defamiliarizing the man himself - or at least stripping him of his sanctity as a cultural idol. For instance, she quotes Tchaikovsky's impression of him as a 'fatuous and offensive' bore, who when they met in 1876 announced without any prologue that 'Beethoven lacked talent' (372). Tchaikovsky struggled to reconcile his respect for Tolstoy the artist with his inevitable contempt for Tolstoy the man. Bartlett's own love of music shines through in a brief riff noting the similarities in worldview and artistic aims between Tolstoy and Wagner, despite the former's vocal disdain for the latter in What Is Art? - a disdain which, Bartlett points out, Tolstoy apparently founded upon a single visit to one performance of Siegfried (which he left early). Turgenev called him 'a mixture of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, nobleman [...] highly moral and at the same time unattractive' (133). It was an insightful, if harsh, assessment.

One of Bartlett's most important achievements in this biography is to emphasize the golden thread running through Tolstoy's career: his self-perception as an educator first and foremost. This is why his post-Anna Karenina return to simple language, his retellings of the New Testament and the classical philosophers, his devotion to Chertkov's popular publishing firm Posrednik and to his own edited collections of wisdom such as Weekly Readings and Circle of Reading, was less a rejection of his career as a feted novelist than a resumption of his life's obsession. The Azbuka (Alphabet, or basic reader) he laboriously compiled for peasant children in the early 1870s, and which he vigorously supported (and compelled others to support) despite the first edition's embarrassing failure, was inspired by lessons at the first school he organized at Yasnaya Polyana in 1849 (even though this was a brief experiment that would not be resumed until 1859).

Mature Tolstoy, the moral philosopher, is in many ways admirable, but he is much less likable than the bear-hunting repentant playboy of the earlier chapters. Bartlett's sympathies are clearly and justifiably with Sofia Andreevna, as she describes the worsening fault lines in their marriage. It's difficult not to sympathize with Sonia's desperation for a break from childbearing, or with her efforts to obtain financial security for her children, or her longing for opportunities to enjoy Moscow society - all aspirations which were misunderstood, thwarted, and eventually demonized by Tolstoy. In what other family could a wife declare war on her husband simply by hiring a wet nurse? The section dealing with Sonia's gradual decline ([after her son Andrei's death in 1916] 'Sonya steadily lost interest in life; she took to sitting for hours in the old Voltaire chair that Tolstoy had particularly liked because it had been in his family since before he was born', p. 421) is one of the most touching parts of the book. After the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, Tolstoy's other heirs - his daughter Alexandra, Chertkov and the various Russian Tolstoyan communities -  gradually declined from an initial position of considerable cultural influence. Alexandra was arrested three times before finally leaving the country for good; Chertkov obdurately fought Stalin for the miserly sums required to eke out the publication of the Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy's Collected Works; and individual Tolstoyans were exiled, absorbed into collective farms, sent to gulags, or shot for conscientious objection. The story of the many pitfalls in the publication of the Jubilee Edition (which finally appeared, intact but uneven in quality, in 1958) is a fascinating one, as told by Bartlett. Most importantly, she explains how the Soviet regime managed to claim Tolstoy as a classic Soviet writer avant la lettre, absorbing his fiction into their canon, despite this attitude to Tolstoyism. The secret was to ignore Tolstoy's philosophical legacy completely and focus on his fiction. His religious essays, after appearing in the Jubilee Edition, were 'banned from future publication' (443). Tolstoy the writer of fiction was welcome in Soviet literature; Tolstoy the moralist was forgotten. Before we condemn this sleight of hand on the part of the Soviet literary establishment, it's worth looking at the contemporary reception of Tolstoy. I've got A Confession of my own to make: I've read very little Tolstoy that isn't literary fiction. And yet all Tolstoy's final hopes were placed in his non-fiction, educative texts, rather than his novels, which he rejected (in a very real sense, by signing over the rights to others). If some of my readers have read Tolstoy's non-fiction, do comment below with your views on your favourite text.

Next post: Adventures in titology: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii and book titles

Disclaimers: Rosamund Bartlett is a personal friend. And some of my current research is on Tolstoy and classical literature (what he read, what he translated, and what he wrote about the Greek and Roman classics). Of which, more anon.

Image credits: Both photos of L.N. Tolstoy and his wife Sofia Andreevna Bers, commemorating wedding anniversaries, can be found on William Nickell's UCSC page.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

When Magarshack met Penguin: Guest Post with Cathy McAteer

In March 2015, Russian Dinosaur attended a one-day workshop on 'Translating and Publishing Russian Literature', held at the University of Bristol and organized by Cathy McAteer, a departmental research student and tutor on the University's MA in Translation programme. I was so intrigued 
by Cathy's research on the translator David Magarshack - like many other readers, I cut my Dostoevsky teeth on his prose - that I invited her to contribute this guest post about her PhD project.
Cathy McAteer (University of Bristol)

RD: RD: Welcome to the blog, Cathy. Tell us about your PhD research.
CM: Although I didn’t know it at the time, my project really goes right back to my teenage years when I started out on my journey into Russian language-learning. A keen interest in Russian literature emerged at the same time but it soon became apparent to me (and my purse, and my elementary language skills) that the best route into classic Russian novels would be to get hold of anything published in translation… which, at that time, meant the Penguin Russian Classics series. A reputable household name at reasonable, affordable prices and easily found (or ordered) via the local library or bookshop… Penguin provided a perfect solution. Starting with my very first purchase (thanks to a £3 birthday book voucher, yes, back then books really were that cheap) of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Russian Classics became my steadfast companions, throughout my GCSEs, A-Levels, and then as a Bristol University Russian undergraduate (when time wouldn’t allow for everything to be read in the original).

Nearly twenty years on, I went back to Bristol to study a Masters in Translation, and it was only then that I really started to scrutinise the journey which classic, nineteenth-century Russian literature has taken in order to find its way to our bookshelves. For the first time, I started to evaluate life before Penguin, the launch of Penguin Books and Penguin Classics, and the calibre of those much-loved Penguin translations. With a more critical eye, I began to question what it was that Penguin had set its stall out to achieve, who the individuals were behind that mission, and what had been their frustrations, surprises, obstacles, successes, sacrifices? Shortly after I completed my MA, I became the very grateful recipient of alumnus funding allowing me to focus more significant attention on these questions.

RD: So how has your research taken shape over the last two years or so?
CM: Well, in the early days, I compiled my own literary road map to take in the landscape of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature in translation and was struck by the chronological gap between Garnett’s translations of Russian classics and the next efforts in the UK, roughly fifty years on. After such a long period of dependency on Garnett’s translations, it was mainly Penguin that sprang into life, mobilising fresh (not revised) versions of the core classic Russian texts, starting with Chekhov’s plays (translated by Elizaveta Fen, 1949), Turgenev’s On the Eve (Gilbert Gardiner, 1950) and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (David Magarshack, 1951), before embarking on a steady programme of re-translation of many other Russian classics. With his own translation of Homer’s The Odyssey launching the Penguin Classics series in 1946, Classics scholar E.V. Rieu took the editorial helm, drawing on university and publishing contacts for Russian literary advice, gathering capable and skilful Russian translators (often linguists who had utilised their language skills during the war effort and were, by now, looking for peace-time employment), and acting as a vital bridge between Allen Lane (founder and MD of Penguin Books Ltd) and those successfully commissioned freelancing translators.

To gain a clearer picture, I’ve spent many visits trawling the Penguin archive ‒ the Penguin Russian Classics’ correspondence, contracts, and proofs ‒ and I’ve identified key figures and events behind Penguin’s twentieth-century re-launch of the Russian literary canon. One recurring theme has emerged through this analysis: the interconnectivity between translation and publishing agents operating within the literary field. Even with their different positions, needs, preoccupations, backgrounds, and aspirations, the polarised mix of agents at Penguin somehow succeeded in disseminating Russian literature to the Anglophone world, which just a century or so before had been politically opposed to Russia as foes during the Crimean War.

RD: Tell us more about this interconnectivity between different agents at Penguin.
CM: In neat terms, the interconnectivity at Penguin Russian Classics binds three forms of agency: the Publisher (Allen Lane), the Penguin Classics editorial team (initially Rieu and his rather unconventional co-editor A.S.B. Glover) and the Russian-English literary translators. I’ve specifically chosen to focus on the period 1949 to 1977, from the earliest Penguin Russian Classics titles, when commercial connections and networks were first being established, through to the death of David Magarshack, the most enduring and perhaps best-remembered translator of the Penguin Russian Classics series.
This focus on ‘agents’, whose combined literary efforts for Penguin gradually transformed a relatively hostile readership into a more Russophile one (luring young newbies like me to keep coming back for more), coincides with an interesting, relatively new phase in translation studies, the ‘sociological turn’, which has been harnessed by some translation theorists since 2005 and attempts to put people back in the translation process. For a long time, from St Jerome to Schleiermacher to Nabokov, translation studies concentrated on the text itself (is the translation faithful, domesticated, foreignised?); more recently, translation studies progressed to consider the ‘cultural turn’ (which seeks to reveal specific ideologies exhibited in translation: politics, feminism and gender, colonisation); and more recently still, the sociology of Bourdieu has been adopted by theorists. They have applied it in an attempt to gauge the parameters and nuances of agent interconnectivity: the personal, professional, commercial, literary successes and sacrifices, the social trajectory of agents connected with the field, and the operative nature of these different relationships, all of which aspects are relevant and revealing when applied to Penguin’s founder-editor-translator triumvirate.  
With the help of the Penguin archive and by transferring Bourdieu’s terms and interpretations to the Penguin publishing model, I have been able to examine how a network of agency operates within a structure, a Penguin microcosm, of institutionalised terms, conditions and work ethos, and explore the ways in which agency adapts both to externally imposed structures (market, and socio-political forces) and to internal, corporate structures (in-house style, deadlines, pay rates). There are fascinating notions of patronage, leverage, subservience and domination at play.

RD: Have you got a favourite agent?
CM: Yes, there have been many… Penguins for starters (I love that bird!), editors, advisors but, most of all, I’ve found the freelance translators fascinating. They all brought their own backgrounds, personalities, translating styles and cultural-linguistic capital to the Penguin Russian Classics series. Among the early corps, David Magarshack elicits particular interest.
Our guest blogger looking Chekhovian
Born in Riga in 1899, Magarshack spent his childhood and youth, essentially his formative years, in a Russia straddling two centuries, two political eras (Tsarism and Revolution), the first world war, and a temporal proximity to family and friends who remembered the era of nineteenth-century Russian literature which he would then go on to translate. Magarshack’s emigration to the UK at the age of 19 forced him to learn English, which he achieved through an evening university-degree course in English language and literature. 
Magarshack worked in journalism and also tried his hand at writing novels. He married his Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated wife, Elsie, and became naturalised as a British citizen (1931), never to return to Russia and forsaking all links with his parents. To his disappointment, he never received the authorial storm of success to which he aspired, which must have come as a blow given that his novels attempt to recreate a largely Dostoevskian style. With the war over, Magarshack turned his attention to writing biographies and translations with works published by Allen and Unwin in 1944, Hutchinson in 1945 and 1947, and then back to Allen and Unwin in 1949. In that same year, Magarshack also embarked on his first Penguin commission, a translation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. 

He is believed originally to have approached Rieu offering his services as a literary translator (perhaps in response to the 1946 announcement in Penguin’s Progress of the launch of Penguin Classics inviting translators to send in samples of work). This was to be the start of a fifteen-year relationship with Penguin and the first of seven major translations for the Penguin Russian Classics series (four key Dostoevsky works, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog). Magarshack became a recognisable and reliable name amongst readers of Russian literature – in homes, schools, theatres and universities – and is credited (anecdotally) with whetting the Russian literary appetites of many a Russian scholar (readers, if you are just such a person, please get in touch so that I can turn something anecdotal into something empirical).  

Having arrived with nothing, not even English, Magarshack was thrilled and proud to enjoy such a long career with Penguin. With a wife and children to support, translation was not something he could treat as a hobby; his correspondence reveals a man doggedly staying on top of his royalties, assertively negotiating favourable arrangements for the payment of advances. He regularly prompted Penguin to keep local bookshops stocked with his translations and, when necessary, he did not hesitate to remind his editors of the better rates he could earn elsewhere.  What's more, Magarshack's wife Elsie played a significant role in his translations. She is rather the unsung hero of his work, proofreading and correcting his commissions. According to family members, she never particularly sought the limelight and was more than happy to put her English degree to good use. So, in fact, these translations weren't just David Magarshack's, they were the result of a collaborating husband-and-wife team. Judging by some of Elsie's correspondence, I get the impression that she was, indeed, a formidable lady - she died in 1999 aged 100 - pretty good going!

Compared to other translators in the early Penguin Russian Classics cohort, Magarshack was clued-up and proactive commercially; he was also good at delivering readable manuscripts quickly and on time. Where other Penguin Russian translators, for whatever reason, fell by the wayside, Magarshack remained a devoted and active agent of Penguin (compare his tenure with that of Fen, Gilbert, Edmonds). Magarshack is, and has always been, a memorable translator for me, but through my research, I intend to resurrect his name, dust off his Penguin works and review his translation strategy for the benefit and interest of the broader fan base of Russian literature in English translation.        
RD: Many thanks for sharing your work with us, Cathy, and good luck with finishing your PhD. One last quick question (by special request): how would you actually pronounce Magarshack?  

CM: This is an interesting one. I only ever hear Brits referring to him as MAGarshack, but of the Russians I know who are familiar with Jewish surnames, they say MagarSHACK. Alas, I do not know how he talked about himself here in the UK, but I guess it's the same sort of conundrum facing anyone who says NabOkov/PasterNAK/RomAnov amongst British lay listeners.. 

Thanks again, Cathy. Next post: Revisiting Rosamund Bartlett's Tolstoy.    

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Year of the Dinosaur, or Russianists Have Feet of Clay

Faithful readers of this blog will note, and lament, its sad irregularity of late - a condition I blame entirely on the two dinosaur eggs, or rather hatchlings, I have acquired since accepting that cheque from that nice billionaire John Hammond at Ingen. One of my posts is almost a year overdue. It describes my most exotic Russian Studies conference yet, my trip to Xian for the April 2015 conference of the Chinese Association for Russian Literature Studies (CARLS - if only they'd called it the Chinese Union instead, it could have been CURLS). Everyone knows one thing for which Xian is celebrated: the garden gnomes, as my fellow presenter Mike Nicholson of Oxford fondly calls the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Me and the garden gnomes
Professor Liu Wenfei at CARLS
My invitation had been arranged long before, thanks to networking between Mike and his old friend Professor Liu Wenfei, one of China's most respected Slavic scholars - now located in the reassuringly named Capital Normal University. Later in 2015, Professor Liu would receive a formal Friendship medal from Putin in person, setting a seal of retroactive celebrity on the conference. Alas, despite advance planning, one of the most basic details still went wrong: when I arrived at Xian airport, the promised aspirant (postgrad) was not there to collect me. Xian International Airport is a vast structure set in a wilderness sixty miles from the city. No-one spoke English, or Russian. Eventually, I found a taxi willing to transport a distressed saurian to the conference hotel - the Long March - and with some help from the partially Anglophone girls on reception, the driver even issued a byzantine and entirely incomprehensible receipt. Almost immediately the conference organizer, local Slavist Yang Li, intervened and helped me check in, and provided my missing postgrad - Ksiusha, an extremely sweet student with some English and very good Russian, who was seconded to protect me for the next five days. It transpired that I had not been met (although arranged weeks in advance) because I had not responded to Yang Li's last-minute email checking whether I understood that I would have to pay the postgrad's travel costs as well as my own.  In the end, my postgrad was so attentive I had very hard work to persuade her to let me travel alone around the city - but the crossed wires over the airport meeting showed me that CARLS don't make a habit of inviting foreign scholars. (Conversely, it's hard to imagine the committee of the UK Slavist organisation, BASEES, taking any responsibility whatsoever for meeting an obscure Chinese presenter at Heathrow).  

A thoughtful moment with Dr Yang Li
A hospitality girl tweaks the PowerPoint
Who goes to CARLS? Most Chinese scholars of Russian literature; language teachers, including expats, at the host university; and a sprinkling of native Russian intelligentsia, ranging from scholarly-minded TORFL teachers to the conference's star turn, Moscow intellectual Vladimir Agenosov. Papers were delivered in a building on the vast, very Socialist Realist campus of Xian International Studies University, which we participants reached every day in a convoy of buses.
The library on Xian International Studies University campus
Breakout seminar
 Disappointingly for me, almost all the papers were given in Chinese (a very few, including my own, in Russian); topics ranged from Lermontov and Baratynskii to Solov'ev and Pelevin, with a concentration on 20th century authors. Kindly efforts were made to include me, from whispered simultaneous translation into Russian by the host University's departmental head, to an impressive booklet of notes written in longhand in excellent Russian - and later scanned to me - by Ksiusha; even friendly breakout seminars, with satsumas and fly-cemetery Chinese pastries. Some papers offered a Chinese angle (such as Sholokhov or Shevchenko in China). My friend Dr Li Xinmei from Fudan University in Shanghai, who works on first-wave Russian émigré literature as well as late Soviet postmodernism, introduced me to Beijing Russianists over buffet dinners in the Long March dining room.  

Like ASEEES in the States, CARLS travels to a different Chinese city every year. I would go back - although, given the language barrier with most of the papers, probably to a city whose touristic opportunities equal those of Xian. Knowing a little about Chinese hospitality (to make sure I missed nothing during a two-day visit, a colleague once offered to drive me around Beijing's sights at 9pm), and sorely intimidated by the terrifying traffic and sprawl of the city, I was perplexed when not a single local offered to show me the terracotta warriors. Ksiusha had already done her bit by taking me for a saunter on the reconstructed city wall, but she was literally too kind: her constant concern for my health as a foreigner and as a miniature extinct reptile was all too solicitous. After the fourth day of the conference, everyone melted away, leaving me with a free 24 hours. I braved the one-hour bus journey on an overcrowded jalopy to the terminus at the foot of the city wall; walked seven kilometers, or two sides, of its massive fourfold enclosure; descended at the city train station and tracked down the authentic bus bound for the terracotta complex; two hours later, I was fighting Chinese cameras out of the way for my own selfie at the edge of that genuinely awe-inspiring pit. In the evening, I wended my way home through the city centre, catching the last bus for a chaotic but strangely satisfying ride back to the hotel past (at first) breathtaking pagodas, then endless cheap shops and restaurants, shabby garages and burgeoning tower blocks.

 I will leave you with these remarkable words of wisdom by a Chinese sage, glimpsed in north-central Xian from the window of a speeding bus. "Limited youth. Do not waste waiting on that is to buy existing homes real live." Profound and mysterious; a moral for our times. 
Limited youth. Do not waste waiting on that is to buy existing homes real live.