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