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.