Thursday, 25 October 2018

The Milkman Always Rings Twice, or Gogol Goes to Belfast

"You're a wit, sir, you really are. Nothing escapes your notice! Such a playful mind, sir! And such a gift for winkling out comedy... heh-heh! They say that Gogol, among the writers, had that knack, do they not?" says Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, with his usual coruscating irony (he can't resist teasing his suspect one more time: despite knowing perfectly well that Gogol is the writer in question, his rhetorical question forces Raskolnikov to confirm it. Never relax around a rhetorical detective).*

As a dinosaur, I don't normally venture into the hyper-contemporary playground of major literary awards; I usually hide somewhere to watch the fallout (also my strategy for surviving the Cretaceous extinction event 66 million years ago). For example, I wouldn't want to stand too close to Tim Parks since he just published an excellent, thought-provoking but unabashedly cycad-shaking feature Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny in the NYRB (he may have rather heavily implied that there are too many awards for translators). But I digress. I have left my cave to discuss Anna Burns' novel Milkman, which, as you probably know even if you do live in a cave, has just won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. This is the fifth year in which American authors have been eligible for the prize, and only the third time since they became eligible in which an American author has not won it. It is also the first time the prize has been won by a Northern Irish writer.  What's more, the author herself, despite having won prizes and acclaim for her previous two novels, has experienced health problems and financial hardship; Milkman's acknowledgements include a food bank and a charity. Hence the allocation of the prize to Anna Burns has become a novel in its own right, a tale that can be interpreted in as many ways as there are literary critics (or indeed, journalists).

The Guardian headlines the story of Burns' success as 'more than a fairytale - it's a lesson', while another article reminds us that the book is considered 'challenging' (which is apparently bad), before explaining why it is not actually challenging, before returning with relief to the more interesting story of its author. A senior Telegraph columnist - and I apologize in advance for not having read the whole article, because, for some reason, I don't subscribe to the Telegraph - on the other hand, calls Milkman  ''not the best book on the [Man Booker] shortlist [...] not even the best book on the longlist" (impressive that the columnist took the time to read all 11 longlisted books). The 'oddest, most impenetrable' Milkman won the prize, she theorizes, for political reasons - as a way of pre-empting accusations that the Man Booker is being reverse-colonized by US novelists. I wonder whether Anna Burns finds it more irritating to be feted for her life story by people who love her book without reading it, or to have her win dismissed as a cheap geopolitical fix by people who read her book and hated it. I'm not going to defend the excellent Milkman here, because others can do that. The New Statesman praises a 'brilliantly realized extended metaphor for a totalitarian state [...] a work of timely universality, it is also a distinctly Irish novel, a darkly mirthful satire with a twist of Beckettian melancholy and an anarchic touch of Swift'.  Christopher Tayler in the LRB does a very good job of justifying Milkman's success. Not only has he read Burns' two previous books as well, he finds Milkman's strengths: 'the density and tightness of the plotting behind the narrator's apparently rambling performance', its combination of 'wild sentences and [...] immense writerly discipline', its 'optimistic ending'.

Enough on Swift and Beckett: not one critic I have seen recognizes Milkman's homage to Gogol. Tayler comes close when he describes one of the novel's standout devices: never using names for individual characters, places, religions, political parties, or even countries. The setting is clearly 1970s Belfast, but it isn't (as Tayler agrees) 'a Russian novel-style town of B___'; it is merely 'town' with coded topographies of 'dot dot dot places' where young people get up to mischief, the 'red-light street', where unmarried couples cohabit,  the 'ten-minute area' with its three empty churches, abandoned shops, and unattended bus stop, and 'the usual place' (or graveyard). Milkman's narrator is a nineteen-year-old girl from a Catholic family whose marked eccentricity is 'reading-while-walking'; everywhere she goes, to work, to French lessons, to the chip shop, even crossing the wasteland of the ten-minute zone, she reads her way through nineteenth-century novels ("because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century"). Reading-while-walking is the first trait the narrator is enjoined to abandon by her would-be seducer, a fortyish paramilitary hard man; soon she realizes this habit is making her an outsider within her own community. She is becoming "beyond-the-pale". Her friends and family consider reading-while walking "unfathomable", "unyielding and confounding" (says the character called maybe-boyfriend), "not safe, not natural, not dutiful to self", "creepy, perverse, obstinately determined", and - according to her best friend - therefore worse than the socially normalized behaviour of handling Semtex. The narrator insists right back that reading-while-walking is not neglect of self, nor even a rejection of her community, as it might seem: it is "vigilance not to be vigilant", a kind of informed non-alignment with the heavily coded public interactions of her fellow citizens. The narrator realizes that,

Even at the outer limits of absurdity and contradiction people will make up anything. Then they will believe and build on this anything. It was true that, given the time and place, I might have been scary, walking around, terrorising the neighbourhood with 'How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich', but it wasn't just me. In their own idiosyncratic ways, an awful lot of other people were pretty scary here as well.

On another occasion, she calls in on car-obsessed maybe-boyfriend to find him mooning over a remnant of a vintage racing car and difficult to distract:

I was unclear if he was still on 'car' or had moved his attention now to me. I suspected it was car but at some moments you can't stop to have an argument, so we kissed and he said he was getting turned on and was I not turned on and I said could he not look how I was looking, then he murmured what's this and I murmured what's what and he prodded something in my hand which I'd forgotten which turned out to be Gogol's 'The Overcoat' so he said he'd just set it there, meaning the table, which he did which was okay and we were about maybe to go to the carpet or to the settee or somewhere when there were voices. They were coming up the path and were followed by raps on his door. 

As these glimpses of The Overcoat as gooseberry and of the two quarrelling Ivans suggest, Gogol is something of a leitmotif in Milkman. For starters, he has the privilege of a name. Moreover, he, like other mentioned novelists, adds structure to the narrator's life: '"Where's my Gogol?"' she thinks, protectively, when maybe-boyfriend's house gets over-crowded with classic car enthusiasts. The entire novel is woven out of skaz, Gogol's infamous interpolation of colourful and idiosyncratic oral narrative. The narrator's tale, half-deposition, half-anecdote, winds in and out of the voices of her community, her parents, her charismatic French teacher, Milkman, 'real milkman', 'maybe-boyfriend', 'chef', 'third brother-in-law', 'wee sisters', and the rest of the surprisingly empathetic cast. This is satire, certainly, and most certainly Irish satire despite the carefully neutral labels of 'renouncers-of-the-state', 'over-the-way', 'the country over the water', but comparisons to Swift and Beckett are simply a different kind of cheap geopolitical fix. Burns' studied anonymization of a very specific community at a very specific (and troubled) historical epoch has the odd effect of creating an allegorical u-topia (in the literal sense of nowhere-land) which reminds me of Saramago's magical realism, those suspended plots where readers and characters adapt to an insane but internally coherent system, until a final shock or reversal, as in Blindness or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Moments of absurd horror (a cat beheaded by an antique Nazi bomb, a pile of dead dogs in a residential street) do elevate Milkman momentarily into dark fantasy. Both absurdity and observation are united by Burns' gift for 'winkling out comedy' even in the middle of crisis and of personal and social disintegration, which according to that leading literary critic Porfiry Petrovich, quoted above, makes Milkman such a Gogolain book. No surprise to Nabokov, who felt that only an Irishman (or Irishwoman, one hopes) should translate the Russian author. Burns, who studied Russian at UCL in the late eighties, clearly spent time there under Gogol's Overcoat.

Anyone curious whether Milkman makes suitable reading for their daily commute will appreciate the diligence of the Daily Mail, which skips over the book's boring plot and Burns' uninteresting indigence to ask the Man Booker judges where you can safely peruse your copy.** 'Questioned on whether the work was too challenging for the average reader, [Kwame Anthony] Appiah defended the choice saying: “I have never thought that being readable on the Tube was an important feature of a novel.”'. So, best not to read Milkman on the train. But can you read-it-while-walking?

*As ever, I am citing Oliver Ready's 2014 translation of Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics), p. 425.
**The Mail's journalist (who may have misread Burns' publishers' bio-note) entertainingly represents Milkman as her "fourth" novel, raising the possibility that there is a lost "Milkman Part I" out there in manuscript limbo, a kind of mirror image of the destroyed second half of Dead Souls...

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Over the Precipice with Cardinal Points

I rashly promised a review of Volume 8 of the literary journal Cardinal Points. This issue is edited by Boris Dralyuk and intriguingly dedicated, like the previous seven, to "DeStalinization of the Air". Here are my impressions of my first real Cardinal Points experience, greatly facilitated by the ease of downloading the journal issue to Kindle at minimal cost. The pagination isn't pretty, but the selection of translated prose, poetry, and ruminative essays more than makes up for this shortfall.

Yuri Felsen, 1894-1943
First revelation: exciting translations of forgotten works by two outstanding Russian emigre authors, Yuri Felsen (pen name of Nikolai Berngardovich Freydenshtein) and Vasily Yanovsky (two short stories translated by Yanovsky's wife, Isabella Levitin). Cardinal Points 8 features an extract from Felsen's novel Deceit [Obman], 1930, translated by Bryan Karetnyk, who is himself a former guest on this blog and has recently published yet another volume of Gazdanov in translation. Yanovsky, one of the great Russian tradition of writer-doctors, is represented by two short stories translated by his wife, Isabella Levitin; both Yanovsky and Levitin were friends of W.H. Auden.

Even without having read Felsen's original, I take my hat off to the fiendishly complex prose mastered by Bryan in, for example, the following lines, where Deceit's protagonist Volodya writes about his quest to find the perfect woman:

I have always wanted not only to become a support, but also to find a support - a friend, an opponent, an intellect, a force - and not on account of weakness, but rather because of some (granted, inconspicuous, not even wholly intentional) hubris, so that there come about a fascinating, daring contest, a comradely and romantic union, on equal terms, instead of a swift and foolish takeover, so that my partner already be on the same spiritual plain [sic?], rarely attained by women [thanks, Nikolai Berngardovich!], when everything dignified and precious, everything characteristic of love - mutual reliance, ennoblement, support - becomes, for both parties, deserved and assured. Such emotional depth in women, one that rivals my own (or that which I ascribe myself), is the vestige of experience, struggle, happiness and failure, and is in no wise the result of a miracle.

Unexpectedly, by the end of the extract, Volodya seems to have found himself the perfect woman - the lovely and forthright Lyolya. Can it last? We'll have to wait for Bryan to publish his translation of the full novel, or else find the Russian original. Sadly, for all the sparkle of his prose, Felsen's life was tragically cut short. Yanovsky enjoyed a much longer span: his two stories published here are entertainingly diverse. The first describes the personalities of mutinous nurses in a hospital ward, while the second, "The Adventures of Oscar Quinn", is a science-fiction fable about the lost continent of Atlantis which reminded me of Wells. In non-Russianist news, I also enjoyed the extract from Romanian author Delia Radu's contemporary novel The Book of Becoming Mothers.

While I won't comment on the poetry translated in this volume (dinosaurs should stick to prose), my second revelation was Maria Tsvetaeva's drama Fortune (Fortuna, ), translated by Maya Chhabra. I did not know that Tsetaeva had written a play (in fact, she wrote at least three verse plays); this one retells, in five colourful episodes, the life of Armand-Louis de Gontaut, Duc de Lauzun (later Duc de Biron and generally known as Biron, 1747-1793). Lauzun is remembered for commanding a French Legion alongside George Washington in 1781 during the American War of Independence; Tsetaeva, however, is more interested in her hero's emotional development, specifically his dalliances with beauteous Polish princesses, his platonic relationship with Marie-Antoinette, and a flirtation with the jailer's daughter on the very day of his execution (I briefly hoped she was going to dress him up as a washerwoman to help him escape, but Lauzun was no Mr Toad).

For me, the final revelation was Stephen Pearl's humorous and interrogative article about his translation of Ivan Goncharov's 1869 novel Obryv, always known in English as The Precipice. Pearl has taken the radical step of re-naming the novel Malinovka Heights. His title is chosen in order to retain the thematic centrality of the obryv in question, while avoiding the vertiginous connotations of the usual translation. Obryv, Pearl tells us, has the double meaning of "bluff" (in the geographical sense) and "rupture" or discontinuity, which is of course why Goncharov used this word to name his love-story-cum-novel-of-ideas. What's more, the bluff in question, on the estate of Malinovka (modelled on an estate in Goncharov's home town of Simbirsk) is a far from precipitous slope above the Volga - and Pearl includes a photo as proof! Elsewhere in this ruminative piece, he discusses translation problems peculiar to Goncharov's novel: the promiscuity of "passion" (strast') experienced by the protagonist Raisky, and how literally the word should be translated; similarly, how to deal with a superabundance of diverse relatives known casually as "cousins"; and also a problem familiar to readers of the Dinosaur: the issue of adjectival false equivalents. (I discussed different approaches to this problem in recent translations of Anna Karenina here.) The Russian language, Pearl reminds us, uses intensifiers like "strong" much more frequently than English as both adjectives and adverbs; and clearly it would be silly to take these too literally by translating a sil'naya prostuda as a "strong cold" rather than a "heavy cold". But what to do when these problems emerge on the narrative plane? Pearl notes that when Goncharov's characters lapse into silence, which they apparently quite often do, they never lapse silently; they always lapse zadumchivo (pensively) or tikho (gently) or fall into razdum'e (rumination). If a translator renders each of these oft-repeated qualifiers punctiliously, inevitably the reader gets the impression that all 19th century Russians were thoughtful, pensive, calm, and, well, ruminant. Yet arguably this is a false impression; these decorative adjectives would have been transparent to the contemporary Russian reader, who would ignore them as merely more of Goncharov's characteristic "purple prose" (which Pearl discusses separately). The modern Anglophone reader is unlikely to be privy to this sort of narrative code and therefore takes it on trust that the folk of Malinovka Heights were an exceptionally reflective bunch. Should the translator, therefore, act as code-buster?

Marguerite Bryant with novel, c. 1925
I'll be buying Cardinal Points on Kindle again, but I wish that the other journal I want to mention, East-West Review, were as easy to access. East-West Review is the official journal of the Great Britain-Russia Society, but it's currently print subscription only. In the latest, Autumn 2018 edition, Michael Pursglove has an interesting piece - part of an informal series about obscure translators - about the only known translator of Obryv into English, at least pre-Pearl: the mysterious M. Bryant. If you look up The Precipice's Wikipedia entry, you'll see that M. Bryant's translation gets pride of place; yet Pursglove warns us that it's incomplete - very possibly because it was a translation, and occasionally a mistranslation, of an equally incomplete German version which appeared in 1896 from the pen of one Wilhelm Goldschmidt. Pursglove proposes that Marguerite Bryant (1870-1962), a well-known British novelist, may have pirated Goldschmidt's Der Absturz for Hodder & Stoughton in 1915. This kind of indirect translation, via an intermediate language, was quite common at the time. So we can very probably blame Marguerite Bryant, who also gave the world The Dominant Passion and Christopher Hibbault, Roadmaker, for turning an unassuming hilltop above the Volga into a dizzying precipice. The titular misfortunes of Goncharov's novel don't end here: one French translation rendered Obryv as Marc le Nihiliste, while a Belgian newspaper re-named it La Faute de la Grand-mere (Grandmother's Mistake)!

Disclaimers: On realizing that Bryan Karetnyk had published The Beggar and other stories, I promptly ordered a copy... this blog still owes Pushkin Press and Bryan a review of The Buddha's Return. It's in the pipeline...And while Stephen Pearl's Malinovka Heights is still forthcoming, you can buy his translations of Goncharov's other two novels here.

Monday, 3 September 2018

A Tourist in Tula, or Yasnaya Polyana 2018

Yasnaya Polyana archive with unknown child

It has been, astonishingly, six years since my first jaunt to Yasnaya Polyana for the 2012 International Tolstoy conference. Although last month marked my fourth event (it’s biannual), I see I haven’t blogged about it since that first exciting convention. I was remiss not to write up the Great Heine Scandal of 2016, in which thirty middle-aged Russian scholars almost rioted when a German academic attempted to explain Heine’s poetry in a paper misleadingly entitled “Heine and Tolstoy” – it mentioned Tolstoy once (although we did learn that Goethe liked playing with model engines). Or the Great Escape of 2016, in which another delegate and I daringly skipped a panel and walked (Tolstoy would have approved) three miles to the historic train station of Kozlova Zaseka. (I remember less about 2014, as I spent most of that visit in the archives taking notes on Tolstoy’s collection of classical literature, and minding my hatchling, who came too). When the 2018 conference came round, I felt quite the old hand. 

The organizers, Galina Alekseeva and Donna Orwin, created a full schedule in spite of last-minute cancellations; the Tolstoy bus ran on schedule to and from Moscow; we were treated to a retired American general (Rick McPeak, formerly of West Point) as well as an American colonel (Mary Olea), both paper-givers; there was a welcome meal and a lavish farewell spread, and the once-onerous process of hotel passport registration was actually painless. The peaceful birch forest around the hotel was flooded with sunlight every day, and Yasnaya Polyana itself – where Tolstoy spent most of his life – was accessible to delegates by the front gate, although sadly the “hole in the fence” that offered delegates the illicit thrill of out-of-hours access in past years, had been stopped with some rather unTolstoyan-looking barbed wire.

Galina Alekseeva & Donna Orwin
There were some splendid papers at this conference, all given in Russian. I particularly enjoyed Anna Gorodetskaya on the evolving relationship between Tolstoy and Turgenev; Alexei Vdovin on how Tolstoy’s writings were integrated into the Soviet school curriculum; and Sergei Kibal’nik on Tolstoy’s Resurrection as a rewriting of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Kibal’nik claims that Resurrection is Tolstoy’s most Dostoevskian novel, although also informed by readings of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island and the landscapes of Isaak Levitan’s art. My own paper cunningly followed the tried-and-trusted model of “Tolstoy and X”, where X is an obscure Anglophone author. This plan was designed to flatter Russian Tolstoy scholars (tolstovedy) by demonstrating Tolstoy’s ubiquity abroad, while simultaneously evading difficult questions by making sure no-one had heard of X. I think it worked. When presenting in Russian, not my native language, I feel even sorrier for my hearers than myself, so I gave them a nice handout with colour pictures to look at. Papers were supposed to last strictly twenty minutes, but the panel chairs were not equally strict and each panel had up to seven speakers. This led to serious overruns and much audience frustration. Just as my turn came (I was fourth or fifth), someone demanded a break (pereryv) in a tone which did not brook refusal. Everyone rushed out. My chair was anxious about time, so she tried to re-start my panel on schedule; but it takes quite a while to get thirty mostly Russian academics back in a conference room, even if the tables are piled with fresh apples from Tolstoy’s orchard. I resisted starting my paper before we were quorate, but possibly as a result of this delay, all too soon I heard the chair’s gentle throat-clearing. A scrap of paper with a five-minute warning, rapidly reducing to minus numbers, began undulating in my peripheral version. (I’ve been on both sides of this infraction before – I’ve been the badly behaved speaker picking up speed in extra time begged from the chair, and I’ve been the chair wondering if a heavy book to the skull is the only way to shut the speaker up – but as I forgot to time myself on this occasion, I have no idea whether I got my lawful twenty minutes or not). Poor X, the writer I’d picked as Tolstoy’s straight man, sank into even greater obscurity when five minutes into my paper, one of the senior tolstovedy present took the first of two mobile phone calls. A groundswell of whispering started up at the same time in the audience. I’ve never felt so demoralized mid-paper than I did during the second phone call, nor come closer to pointedly giving up and walking away, but Russian conferences are not like other conferences, and Yasnaya Polyana conferences are a law unto themselves, so I persisted. Apart from my slightly fraught experience, I would say this conference actually lacked the scandals – and here I really mean skandal, or dispute – which, when conducted in a humorous and respectful spirit as they always are, make Yasnaya panels so rich (I am not, of course, referring to the 2016 discussion on the bra sizes of Tolstoy’s heroines). But this unwonted peacefulness was because certain regular conference-goers, who can always be relied upon for an intelligent heckle, were absent. It was also a minor shame we didn’t have a conference outing to a local Tolstoyan site, although I compensated for this by skipping half a day to see Tula, the nearest city.

The Tula Armour Museum

Tula is a Second World War hero-city – a gorod-geroi – and it never lets you forget this. The broad squares, impressive kremlin, handsome eighteenth- and nineteenth-century frontages in the centre (many of which are being restored by the city), and steep, seemingly endless streets are magnificently Russian, and hundreds of posters, slogans affixed to buildings, and video screens in various places all summon the visitor to due appreciation of local and national patriotism. Tula is famous for manufacturing samovars, priyarniki (or gingerbread cakes), and armour. The latter industry (based at a factory founded by Peter the Great) is celebrated today by not one but two military museums, old and new; the latter is designed to look like a gigantic medieval Russian helmet, and the very modern interior included a floor-to-wall screen spooling extraordinary propaganda videos like this. It’s easy to forget Russia’s military heritage in pacifist Yasnaya Polyana, but in Tula it is unavoidable; the scars of the Great Patriotic War are everywhere. They remain a source of great and justifiable pride; and also of dangerous nationalism. I tried to debate this point with a Russian tolstoved on the bus back to Moscow, but it turned into a (very interesting) one-sided lecture on the production of Russia’s Panzer-beating T-34 tanks. In this ideological climate, it’s important that the Yasnaya Polyana organizers host speakers like Rick McPeak, who teaches Hadji Murat to American servicemen in the hope that Tolstoy’s words will feed their empathy with Russian soldiers, as he described in his talk. And it was a triumph of multiculturalism at the post-paper party when the same American general broke into a rendition of “Kapitan, kapitan, ulybnites’” (“Smile, my captain!”), which caused the stately Olga Slivitskaya, dowager conference queen, to tell him firmly that he was a russkii chelovek.

Tolstovedy in conference, August 2018. Dinosaur not in shot
I might add that the only way to travel the 15 miles from Yasnaya Polyana to Tula is by marshrutka, a kind of minibus where you tell the driver your destination, pay a token sum, squash in next to the other passengers, and then shout “Stop at the next one!” when you’re nearly there. To reach the marshrutka halt, you have to follow a winding paved track from the conference hotel through the les, or forest, for about 800 metres, constantly intersecting with even narrower paths leading between the trees. I had just emerged onto the motorway when an old lady hailed me. Which way to the hospital, she wanted to know? I still get paralyzed with anxiety about revealing myself as a foreigner, and a Jurassic, cold-blooded one at that; so even though I knew very well from previous visits how to get to the village hospital, I stuck to monosyllabic words to hide my accent. I told her to turn right along the paved road, and right again, to reach her destination. “Thanks!” said the frail old lady, and dived into the les

The les at Yasnaya Polyana
Now there was a path through the les to the hospital, but it was long and twisting, and I worried she might get lost. I yelled at her to wait. To my relief I saw a young man approaching. “Young man!” I shouted (this mode of address is quite normal in Russian). “Please tell that old lady how to get to the hospital!” “Of course!” he said, helpfully, and leapt over to where the old lady was still hesitating dubiously. And then – they both disappeared into the les, like mythical creatures. The last glimpse I had of either of them was the bright pattern on the babushka’s headscarf. On the way to Tula, I had no idea where to stop; my hope the driver would remember that I’d asked for the Kremlin evaporated when he drove on past it. I squeaked, “Next one!”, escaped, and backtracked a kilometre or two (Tula is built on a Brobdingnagian scale, with gaps between bus stops to match). On the homewards journey, I caught my marshrutka without accident and looked out carefully for Yasnaya Polyana. When I saw it coming up, I opened my mouth, but I suddenly suffered an intense attack of what you might call marshrutka mutism. (My panel chair might have wished I’d been afflicted earlier). I somehow couldn’t open my mouth in that squishy minibus, betraying myself as a foreigner in front of all these peaceful Russian shoppers and commuters. I devoutly hoped someone else would get off at my stop. But they didn’t. Nor at the next one. Or the next. And the les closed in around us again. Perhaps five miles later we stopped in a town called Pervomaiskii (First of May), where I promptly crossed the square and hopped on the next marshrutka in the opposite direction. This time, for fear of being carried back to Tula and ping-ponging across the district until someone else finally chose my stop, I forced myself to speak up – too early, as it turned out; I had to walk two stops back to the Yasnaya Polyana gates. 

But, for future reference, I found the local supermarket and the Tolstoy family graveyard. Time to plan 2020’s adventure, if I am lucky enough to join the tolstovedy in conference one more time.

Lenin in Tula
One final shout-out: My week in Yasnaya Polyana and Moscow gave me much-needed me-time to remember why I love Russian literature. I rediscovered the wonderful Phalanstery (Falanster), a bookshop hidden on a staircase off a courtyard off a side street in central Moscow, where I found a new translation passion (more soon). I refreshed my contemporary Russian writing collection, and in so doing I revisited some pages by my fellow bloggers who keep alive (in a much more dedicated way than I manage to do) their excitement for Russian books and writers. Among my favourites: here’s to the inimitable Lizok of Lizok’sBookshelf, my go-to book critic for that it’s-all-got-to-fit-in-carry-on shortlist; to Languagehat, who is unique; to the lovely Boris Dralyuk and his long-standing blog (and whose guest-edited edition of Cardinal Points is up next on Russian Dinosaur). Thank you all for sharing your knowledge – and long may you blog!

The Great Pond at Yasnaya Polyana

Monday, 27 August 2018

Dostoevsky and Poldark, or the Brothers Carne-mazov

The Brothers Carne - Dostoevskian body doubles?
When watching the BBC's latest season of Poldark, a series based on the novels by Winston Graham about a swashbuckling Cornish landowner, my first thought was how Dostoevskian it was. (Well, if not my first thought, certainly my seventh, or ninth.) The opening episode of Series 4 (and here comes the first of several spoilers) ends with a dramatic public execution scene: will the Carne brothers, also the brothers-in-law of hero Ross Poldark, be hanged by the neck until they are dead, or not? Inevitably, I was reminded of what Dostoevsky's biography Joseph Frank euphemistically calls "the incident in Semenovsky Square" on December 22nd, 1849, when the 28-year-old writer and his fellow members of the "Petrashevtsy" reading group, all young men, were led out in the snow and formally condemned to execution by firing squad. Three of the prisoners were marched forwards, tied to stakes in a square in the heart of St Petersburg, and hooded to await the final volley (Petrashevsky himself, the so-called ringleader, defiantly refused a blindfold). An Orthodox priest, armed with crucifix and Bible, instructed them all to repent. Dostoevsky stood in the next group, fully expecting to be shot within a few moments. As he wrote later, a 'mystic terror' overcame him. These men had been condemned for treason, yet they were all quite innocent; Dostoevsky's crime, for example, had been to read Belinsky's controversial Letter to Gogol aloud to the group. They had already spent eight months in the ominous Peter and Paul Fortress. And yet, as we know, the order to fire never came; instead a drummer sounded the  retreat, and a rider announced that the men's death sentences had been commuted to exile with hard labour. The entire torturous incident (which cost one of the prisoners, Nikolai Grigoryev, his sanity) had merely been an additional moral punishment dreamed up by the Tsar. The charges on which the Carne brothers and their friend stood accused in Truro market-place were equally trumped-up, but here the suspense and mystic terror were, fortunately, vicarious.

Aidan Turner and his chest

I owe Viv Groskop, the Guardian's brilliant Poldark blogger and out-of-the-closet Russianist (I'm working through her very funny The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature) for my other Dostoevskian interpretation of Poldark. The actor Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, is widely celebrated for his chest (I can't imagine why). Since Turner proved reluctant to keep displaying his chest in semi-nude scything scenes after the first series, his on-screen wife Demelza's two brothers were 'bussed in as Replacement Torso action', in Groskop's words. (These are the same pair who face public asphyxiation in Season Four.) It really shouldn't have taken two more series before I realized that the brothers are, as Groskop all but points out, Dostoevskian doubles of Poldark himself. Just think of the complicated sequence of doubles in Crime and Punishment  - the rational side of hero Raskolnikov is reflected by his 'good' friend, Razumikhin, his evil sub-Nietzschean id by the monstrous Svidrigailov, and so on, so mise en abyme, as the doubles get doubles. The Idiot is even worse, with female doubles joining the fray, and Demons, if it had a plot, would lose it entirely, such is the proliferation of alter egos. The Carne brothers may be body doubles (torso doubles) of their brother-in-law in a crudely material sense, but they are also a pair of sensible Razumikhins to Ross's hell-raising Raskolnikov. Meanwhile Ross' nemesis George Warleggan, who glories in the Groskopic moniker of Evil George, is clearly Svidrigailov, attempting to debauch the women Ross/Raskolnikov loves. (I'm managing to oversimplify and distort both plots here, which is no mean feat).
Ross Poldark and Svidrigailov, alias Evil George
The final episode of Series 4 hammers home the tragic truth that Ross, Ross' late cousin Francis and Evil George all loved the same woman - making it more obvious than ever that they are essentially variations on the same man. And one of the final scenes of that episode - where former love rivals Ross and EG weep over the corpse of an (arguably, murdered) woman - was practically identical to the denouement of The Idiot, where saintly Prince Myshkin and the dynamic but all too materialistic Rogozhin weep beside the body of Natasha Filippovna, the woman they both loved.

Expired Elizabeth Warleggan, Ross Poldark's first love
Ilya Glazunov's impression of The Idiot's finale

A parallel which I could extend further, but not without risk of descending into the same gabbling incoherence as Myshkin or poor Nikolai Grigoryev post-mock-execution. 
If you've missed Poldark on-screen, there's always the books. Or the originals. And Series 5 in 2019....

Acknowledgements: I relied heavily on Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 for the facts presented about the mock execution staged in 1849 in Semenovsky Square.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Kingdom of Agamemnon: In Memory of Vladimir Sharov

Vladimir Sharov 1952-2018

"I am very glad", wrote Vladimir Sharov, who died after a long illness yesterday on 17 August 2018, "that my novel The Kingdom of Agamemnon has been first published in Znamya, a journal which has been important to me in every way and practically my family home.  The novel, part of which (about 150 pages of typescript) appears below, I finished under extremely difficult personal circumstances, but now I feel that this was all to the good for Agamemnon. Difficulty in one's private life readily colludes with the story one is writing; the two find a common language from the first syllable. With this conviction in mind I wrote the final section of the novel and corrected the proofs."

And the novel opens:

I'll begin from the finale, which transformed this story into farce. I might even say, into a shameful farce. The last point has become particularly offensive for me, since the terror ended. Now I think more and more often that what I was involved with, what occupied me for so many years, deserved a different outcome. However, who knows? In the past, in 2015 - I had just returned from an expedition - a friend, deciding that I would be intrigued by it, emailed me a long article from the English magazine Esquire. The article is about one of our spies, active in Argentina from 1968 to 1990. [....] The grandson of Grand Prince Mikhail Romanov, Evgenii, was possibly a bastard - Prince Michael had no lawful offspring; however it is even more likely that Evgenii was just a typical pretender - fled in 1967 from Soviet Hungary to Argentina.

The narrator continues with the exotic adventures of Evgenii in Argentina (first backtracking to describe his birth, his early years in Russia, his mother's grief when he disappeared). By page five I was hooked. But according to the novel's back cover, The Kingdom of Agamemnon is about the life story of another character entirely, and in any case (the blurb promises) this book is vintage Sharov: "unrestrained fantasy and leaps through time, unexpected historical parallels and profound religio-philosophical analyses, large-scale group scenes and the most subtle psychology". Reading a Vladimir Sharov novel is like making your way through the whorls of a sea-shell: once lost in the tunnels, you lose all sense of direction, but the sound of the sea pulls you onwards...

  This post was originally to have been called "Rehearsals in Bloomsbury", to mark a fascinating talk at London's Pushkin House in April 2018 by Oliver Ready, Sharov's English translator, about both The Rehearsals (then just out) and Before and During (discussed here on this blog).  I had just finished reading The Rehearsals in Russian and was full of admiration for Oliver's nimble, ingenious, and very naturally styled translation. Both novels, written in the final decade of the twentieth century, are readily comparable, but as Oliver explained that evening, all of Sharov's books are interlinked. Ever since the 1970s, Sharov has been single-mindedly researching his books (just as some of his characters research family secrets), producing one every four or five years, working in national archives and in his Moscow flat. Each book is, in a sense, a rehearsal of the next: Oliver quoted Sharov's description of his own plots as "loving satire", a lovingly satirical work-in-progress to understand Russian mentality and Russian pain. Sharov's father was also a writer; the writer's childhood imagination was shaped by overheard conversations about the Gulags and other Soviet repression between his parents and family friends. Like another contemporary writer I greatly admire, Evgenii Vodolazkin, Sharov still reads Gulag survivors' testimonies. While Before and During explores the cultural currents that led up to the Revolution of 1917, The Rehearsals traces the self-destructive urges in Russian society all the way back to the mid-seventeenth-century Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, when the Patriarch Nikon forced through radical changes in text and ritual against the will of many, including his former mentor Archpriest Avvakum. Sharov develops Nikon as a brooding, complex, deeply religious and profoundly dangerous character, who all but kidnaps a travelling Breton player, De Sertan, commissioning him to direct and produce a religious mystery play at Nikon's New Jerusalem monastery. But before the "first night" takes place, Nikon is arrested and De Sertan and his Russian players sent into Siberian exile, where they form a unique sectarian community. Not only do they continue rehearsing their mystery play about the birth of Christ for centuries, they live permanently, and pass on to their children and grandchildren, the roles they act - so the community divides into "Christians", "Jews", "Romans", and others. The role of Christ is never cast - Nikon's hope, and the community's unspoken conviction, is that the day the rehearsals are finally complete, Christ will appear and the world will end.

By documenting the evolution of this sect between the 1660s and the 1960s, Sharov models the emergence of dictatorship and dogmatism in this microcosm of Russian society: the community accepts De Sertan's script as literal, divine Truth, but they periodically despair of summoning Christ through rehearsals alone and fall upon each other in cycles of mutual destruction. (I read The Rehearsals at the same time as Jonathan Safran Foer's 2016 novel Here I Am and I was duly baffled by the unintended parallel in their first lines. Safran Foer writes: "When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish home." The Rehearsals begins (well, its second paragraph begins): "In 1939, Ivan Trofimovich Kobylin ceased being a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of whom he was the last, ended with him [my translation]." Both books presuppose a post-Jewish world, from very different perspectives.) I won't go into detail here on the extraordinary arcs of upside-down-thinking engaged in on both sides to provoke and justify internecine slaughter, but clearly Sharov has a gift for exploring the pain of a nation often torn by antisemitic and interreligious persecution. He leads the reader to empathize with entire groups (for example, with the "Jews" who persecute "Christians" in order to invite the process of revenge persecution and extirpation which will supposedly expedite the Second Coming) even more than with individuals, although the plot unwinds through a labyrinth of interconnected lives. Like Before and During, where a cast of fantastic survivals commit mass murder in firm expectation of an apocalyptic flood (which never happens), The Rehearsals ends (and begins) on an aporic note. The "Jewish nation" has died out, but Christ has yet to appear to those Chosen.

Sharov loves to thematize translation, as Oliver noted: De Sertan's diary is translated from Breton into Russian; it is destroyed, memorized, and re-copied; the words of the Bible is translated into daily ritual, and history is translated into different conceptions. Oliver described the difficulties of translating Sharov's long, rambling, never quite disorganized sentences into English, often sending questions to the writer (relayed by Sharov's wife, Oliver Dunaevskaya, as the former preferred to avoid email) to clarify religious or stylistic nuances. On one occasion they even visited the site of Nikon's New Jerusalem monastery together, which must have been an intriguing experience (ah, to have been a pterosaur on the wall). Oliver is not only Sharov's translator but a literary scholar who has written illuminatingly about Before and During as a '(failed) experiment in "literary therapy"' and 'the outstanding Russian "madhouse" novel of the 1990s' in his monograph Persisting in Folly: Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963-2013.

I was privileged to meet Vladimir Sharov when he visited Cambridge a few years ago. He was undoubtedly a profound and talented writer, but he was also a modest and approachable human being, with a twinkle in his eye. We will keep reading and re-reading his books - and treasuring the twinkle.

You can read a Russian-language extract (cited above) from The Kingdom of Agamemnon here, and extracts from two of Sharov's other novels here. Светлая память!

Friday, 12 January 2018

The Silence of the Oligarchs: Why James Norton's Keeping Mum

For a man who consistently refuses to speak the language, actor James Norton can't leave Russia alone. He made a fetching, if not exactly voluble (and, like the other actors, exclusively Anglophone) Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the BBC's notorious 2016 adaptation of War and Peace. Already in the home-grown Yorkshire police drama Happy Valley (2014), where Norton plays a homicidal psychopath, we note which book his character grabs in order to pass for a soft, fuzzy, studenty type: War and Peace. A subtle in-joke? A heads-up to viewers?

Happy Valley - spot the psychopath

(In a previous post, I've discussed how the BBC cunningly deploys Russian classics as clues to the real identity of baddies. This is an ever-growing list).

In the 2018 oligarch drama McMafia, a high-profile co-production between the BBC and AMC, Norton plays Alex Godman, the 'handsome, rich, and eligible' (in his girlfriend's words) only son of a minor Russian oligarch, now living in exile in London.

James Norton, expressionless hedge fund manager
The elder Godman, played by Alexei Serebryakov, intrepidly drinks vodka from an Evian bottle, especially when driving; behaves inappropriately with everyone (including the ducks in the park); and switches between just two emotional settings: melancholy sentimentality and raging grief. (This role is essentially a reprise of his part in Leviathan, even down to both men's real estate woes - in each plot, Serebryakov's character has been pushed out of his home by a bigger player). Rather than regretting the loss of a bricks-and-mortar property, Serebryakov's McMafia character mourns for all Russia, which he can never re-enter on pain of assassination. To compensate, he insists on speaking exclusively in Russian to his adult children. Young Alex, on the other hand, is an ethical banker with his own fund, which he refuses to invest in Russian interests in order to retain his reputation for probity. He never responds in Russian to his dad, usually citing the presence of his monolingual English-rose girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) as an excuse for using English only. His father, unable to object, mutters that Alex speaks Russian like a six-year-old child - the age at which his son left Russia.
James Norton, milking that perfect blankness

Both Godman Sr's slur, and Alex's determined silence, contradict current research. Heritage speakers of Russian (like the Alex Godman character) do lose language-specific morphosyntactic structures in the L1 (here, Russian), but evidence shows that these tend to be minor vocabulary errors rather than incorrect grammar, particularly when the L1 has been used consistently at home.* Odds are, therefore, that instead of doing a Tyutchev, so to speak, Alex and his sister should be well away with the cúpla focal.

Moreover, the BBC is very proud of its decision to use Russian actors (speaking Russian with English subtitles) in McMafia, thus saving the world from cod Slavic accents yet again. (I was slightly disappointed that the Mumbai drug runners spoke the Queen's English instead of Marathi, but I suppose one can't have everything at once). This is why Serebryakov, Maria Shukshina, and others have been hired. Even Alex's preferred martial art is the intimidating Russian Sistema. So why is the man so tongue-tied? In all of episodes 1 and 2, he manages one word in Russian: "Da". At the end of Episode 3, he really goes for it, with two words: "Nichego, Papa." How a man who braves death threats while buying milk can be afraid of speaking Putin's Russian is beyond me. In any case, it will be fun to watch the BBC negotiate the challenges of bilingual filming as the series progresses.
The Platonov Puzzle - a new Ludlum title perhaps?
Will Alex speak THREE Russian words in a row? Will the English subtitles continue to be amusingly inaccurate? Why does Alex's dad have a Platonov anthology stashed in his bedside drawer next to love letters from his mistress?

Where are you taking my girlfriend's passport?
My own suspicion is that James Norton's silence, in character, is simply the logical continuation of a new acting style characterized by extended, awkward reticence and by facial expressions finely calibrated between quizzicality, blankness, and constipation. Ryan Gosling and Tom Hiddleston (the star of another BBC series, 2016's The Night Manager, with which McMafia is readily compared) are both trend leaders. In this series, James Norton spends most of his screen time not saying what we certainly hope he's thinking (Stop sitting on my uncle! Where are you taking my girlfriend's passport? What bloody man is this? Take your hand off my nose, etc) and instead, working truly hard on looking completely blank. It's exhausting just watching him show no expression at all.

Or perhaps he's just really, really keen on Tyutchev.

Молчи, скрывайся и таи
И чувства и мечты свои –
Пускай в душевной глубине
Встают и заходят оне
Безмолвно, как звезды в ночи, –
Любуйся ими – и молчи.

(Nabokov's translation of Silentium can be found here).

James Norton looking faintly quizzical in the buff
*See Eva G. Bar-Shalom and Elena Zaretsky, “Selective attrition in Russian-English bilingual children: Preservation of grammatical aspect”, International Journal of Bilingualism, Vol 12, Issue 4, pp. 281 - 302,; or Olga Kagan and Kathleen Dillon, “Russian Heritage Learners: So What Happens Now?”, The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1, Special Anniversary Issue (Spring, 2006), pp. 83-96,