Category Archives: Author Interviews

The Ear and the Heart Know: An Interview with Translator Alexander Booth

Alexander Booth is a writer and translator who lives in Berlin.  A recipient of a 2012 PEN Heim Translation Fund Grant for translations from the German poetry of Lutz Seiler, his poems and translations have appeared online and in print at Asymptote, Dear Sir, FreeVerse, Konundrum and Modern Poetry in Translation. In addition, when he lived in Rome he kept a weblog on (mostly) Rome in literature and Roman literature, Misera e stupenda città. His work can also be found on his website Wordkunst. His translation of Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry entitled in English in field latin was published in 2016 by Seagull Books.  I conducted this interview via e-mail in March and April of 2017.

Melissa Beck (MB): How did you come to translate Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry for publication by Seagull Books?

Alexander Booth (AB):I began translating Seiler’s poetry in 2011, just a few days after first reading his work. I was still living in Rome at the time and was in the old Herder Bookshop on Piazza Montecitorio and picked up his first collection of poetry for Suhrkamp, pech & blende. It was electrifying. I read the whole thing through on my bus ride home. I felt such an affinity to the work that I knew I had to try. And so I looked for his latest, which was in felderlatein (in field latin), ordered it, and got started. After having some of those first translations published by the UK journal Modern Poetry in Translation rather early on, I decided to keep going and then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, which, to my great surprise, I was awarded in 2012. And from there I went on to complete the whole collection. However, being a complete unknown and not having any connections to any publishers at the time, it was impossible for me to get through to anyone. As you can well imagine, poetry in translation is a much harder sell than a novel in translation, indeed almost impossible, and I was attempting to do so completely on my own. Be that as it may, around the end of 2014 (I’d relocated to Germany the previous year), I got an email from Lutz (whom I had gotten to know by then) and one from Nora Mercurio, Suhrkamp’s foreign rights manager, saying that they had exciting news: the wonderful and wonderfully unexpected gift that Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books was interested in taking on the manuscript! I couldn’t believe it. I really had more or less given up on finding in field latin a home anywhere. And now here we are in 2017 and I’m working on my fourth book for Seagull, which still surprises me when I think about it. I am very lucky, humbled, and honored to be, and to have been, able to work with such great people.

MB: What in particular about Seiler’s poetry compelled you to translate it?

AB: Well, again, I felt such an immediate affinity to his whole approach, his musicality, his eye, and felt that it just had to be available to an Anglophone audience and, rather selfishly too, that my own poems might benefit from doing the work; furthermore, I wanted to live in that world for a spell, there was something there I needed to touch, something there seemed familiar somehow. Something perhaps in that “concentrated absence” as he calls it. It is indeed an extremely rare occurrence to read something and physically feel it surge through you. Its singular song. Reading Seiler’s poems was one of those moments. “The ear knows” as the poet George Oppen said. Here I’d add the heart too.

MB: You have a lovely mention of your mother in the acknowledgements. How did she influence your decision to become a translator? Do you work with her often?

AB: That is kind of you to say, thank you. Well, I never really made any conscious decision to be a translator, as is the case with most translators I think, it just kind of happened. In fact, as a child, many people said that I had no real talent for foreign languages, and, to be honest, I don’t think I showed all that much interest either! That changed with my discovery of Italian, however, and, in particular, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translations of a selection of poems by the great Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some years later I began to translate poetry on my own, poets with whom I felt an affinity, poets I felt might help me with my own work (especially when, to paraphrase the poet Charles Wright, I was in between poems) or just plain excited me (for example, Hölderlin, the later Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Friederike Mayröcker, Sandro Penna); then, for extra money, I would do academic translations. Moving to Germany at the end of 2013, for various reasons I found myself doing more and more translation work and now find myself even doing novels!

But to return to my mother: over the years we have developed a lovely relationship through my work with some rather challenging writers; in Seiler’s case, she helped a lot with some of the rural and/or East German expressions/language that has remained fairly similar over time (my mother originally comes from Upper Silesia, in Prussia, and grew up in the country as her father was a forester; Lutz Seiler also comes from a rural environment). She is such an inquisitive person and loves to have me ask her questions and over the last few years in particular, since the death of my father, we have developed an even closer relationship through my translations. In fact, having been a witness to my work over the last fifteen years or more, she says she actually reads differently now, thinks about the written word differently, which is an immense compliment. When I get to visit her in the States or she comes back here to Europe, we get the tea ready, then she sits down with her crosswords or journals or what-have-you, and I get to translating and when something comes up, I ask her. Of course I send emails too if need be. In ways, through translating, I was able to get closer to my mother and to some of her interior landscape and, I think, she was able to get to closer to me and mine. That in itself makes the process worthwhile, no? How many people get that kind of opportunity? And it is this aspect of translation, this sometimes disorienting, sometimes rather unsettling sense of inhabitation (and, at times, possession), that intensity, that remains one of the most intriguing and rewarding aspects of the whole process for me. I hope it is so for the reader too.

MB: Are there one or two poems in the collection that you found particularly difficult to translate into English? Are there any pieces of the poems that you felt got lost in the translation?

AB: Oh goodness, yes, there are a few and there are certainly some things that got lost. I think with someone like Seiler, in particular the poetic nexus of individual words, certain phrases, their echoes are so numerous and reverberate not only throughout German culture and history but much of Seiler’s other work that there is no possible way they can be carried over. Furthermore, the point/port of entry into some of the poems is very difficult to locate indeed. So, in the end, I added some notes where I thought it might help and simply let it go where I saw little point.

MB: Is there anything particularly interesting or surprising that you found out about Seiler as you were translating his poetry?

AB: I learned that he was a Pink Floyd fan when he was younger! That was a real shock. Sorry, in all seriousness: learning that one of his favorite poets was Ernst Meister (Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have done excellent English translations of his work for Wave Books) certainly made a lot of sense though, in the end, I’m not sure if that surprised me too much. All the same, it’s an insight that helps to explain a fair amount, even though Seiler is a very different poet.

On a purely personal note that doesn’t really have anything to do with his poems, however, (though you’ll find an allusion to it in one of his stories), I was surprised to learn over a beer with him that he had been a bartender at one of the first bars to appear in East Berlin after reunification, a basement bar near the Museum Island on Oranienburger Straße called Assel (pill bug – sadly, no longer there). Now, that was a bar I used to love to go to whenever I was in Berlin. It was a strange connection. One of those times you think: “Of course he did.” And to realize that he had been in Rome at the Villa Massimo at the same time I was still living there and had begun translating his poems. It seemed to me then that our work together was fated!

One thing I really like about Seiler’s work is that, the deeper you go into it, the more you see how all of it really is connected: all the poems are woven into one another and into the short stories and here and there into the novel and each sheds a certain light on the other. There is no sense whatsoever of “the writer of the poem” as distinct from Seiler. The personal is universal and, as continues to be said, most certainly political. All these fragments making up the greater narrative of the man himself and the time, the place, of which he is part.

MB: Can you discuss some of the current stylistic trends in contemporary German poetry and how Seiler embraces or rejects these trends?

AB: Well, to be rather reductive, it seems to me that there are more or less two poles here (though you could probably say as much for the States too): the quiet, “straightforward” narrative (when not “nature”) poem and a more “experimental”, what I’d be tempted to call a kind of “neo-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” sort of approach to writing. Maybe this will seem evasive or intentionally vague, but I don’t think Seiler explicitly embraces or rejects either nor would he be particularly interested in championing any one tendency over another; acknowledging and incorporating all of his—not only—poetic inheritances he has created his own subtle and singular style: at times dark, it is ecologically aware, haunted, highly personal, historical, syntactically strange, and uniquely lyrical. In short, it is undeniably his own. I don’t think there are too many poets, or writers in general actually, you could say that about today. Before you even reach the end of the first line you know you are in a Lutz Seiler poem.

MB: What translation projects are you currently working on?

AB: My translation of the Gunther Geltinger’s neo-Gothic, experimental novel Moor was published last month by Seagull Books and my translation of Friedrich Ani’s dark, psychological “crime” novel The Nameless Day will be coming out with them this winter. I’ve also just finished translating an art book for Suhrkamp called Berlin Heartbeats: Stories from the Wild Years, 1990-Present, which contains photographs and interviews with a number of important cultural figures from around the time of German reunification (Klaus Biesenbach, Frank Castorf, Sasha Walz, etc.). In addition, I am translating two poems for a trilingual anthology (Chinese – English – German) responding to a poem by the (late) American poet C.D. Wright being put together by the young poet Dong Li. I have also just begun translating a novel by the German-Iranian writer and Orientalist Navid Kermani, which is very interesting indeed, suffused as it is with references to and quotes from Persian poets such as Attar, Ibn Arabi, and Nizami. Quite a challenge. And last but not least, I am working here and there on a fascinating, experimental novel of “journal sentences” by the writer Jürgen Becker, an excerpt of which appeared in the latest issue of Chicago Review.

 

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Filed under Author Interviews, German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

A Soviet Titanomachy: My Interview with Russian Author Sergei Lebedev

Sergey Lebedev

Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981. Before he became an author he had a career as a geologist working in northern Russia. His debut novel, Oblivion, translated by Antonina W. Bouis and published by New Vessel Press in 2016, is one of the first novels in the 21st century to describe the horrors of the Russian Gulag system. Obliviion is loosely autobiographical as the unnamed narrator in this book travels to Siberia as a geologist and during his expeditions he sees the old, abandoned camps where millions of Russians were forced to do backbreaking labor. The narrator of the book is especially interested in learning more about the Gulag that was run by a family friend, whom he only knows as Grandfather II. Lebedev’s mellifluous and poetic prose as he describes the landscape in Siberia and the desolate camps is striking. Oblivion is a haunting, intense, descriptive literary odyssey; the detailed stories he tells about this once-hidden piece of Russian history ensures that the experiences of life under Soviet rule will indeed not fade into oblivion.

Sergei Lebedev’s follow-up to Oblivion, which is also loosely autobiographical, is set in Russia just as The Soviet Union is nearing its collapse. The Year of the Comet is translated by Antonia W. Bouis and was published by New Vessel Press in February 2017. The unnamed narrator in The Year of the Comet describes his boyhood in the mid 1980’s and his two grandmothers that have the most influence over his life. Although they are very different women—one grandmother is of peasant stock and the other is from a long line of nobility—their strong wills have allowed them to survive many hardships during World War II and Stalinist Russia. The boy suspects that the grandmothers have something to hide so he takes to snooping about their apartments for clues. At the same time as he is becoming more aware of his family’s secret past, the Soviet Union is showing its first signs of collapse. There are everyday things in life that start to disappear: there are plenty of shoes but no shoelaces, binding materials such as glue, wire and pins become scare. Lebedev’s second novel is equally as poetic and insightful as Oblivion as he describes the history of Russia and the Collapse of the USSR through the eyes of a child.

I conducted this interview with Sergei Lebedev via email over the course of a few weeks in December 2016 and January 2017.  I want to give a very special thanks to Sergei for his thoughtful and fascinating answers, for being so open and kind and for his time.  Of all the posts I’ve written and worked on for my blog this interview is one of my most favorite and cherished pieces.

Melissa Beck (MB): Your first career, before you were an author, was working on geological expeditions in northern Russia. In your first book Oblivion the narrator is a geologist doing this very job and in your current book, The Year of the Comet, the narrator talks about his early love of geology. Can you trace the progression of your career from geologist to journalist to author and poet?

Sergei Lebedev (SL): Geology was my cradle. My mother and father were geologists. I was growing up among the books about minerals and ores, among the beautiful crystals, black and white photos from North and East, expedition equipment… Nobody pressed me as parents sometimes do, but with this intriguing environment, I was doomed to be a geologist. When the USSR collapsed, geology as a science and as an industry was fast to deteriorate. At the same time, the geological spaces were opened for Jack London style expeditions, searches of old abandoned mines, and deposits.

This was my geology. We were collecting specimens and selling them to museums and private connoisseurs. There was no USSR anymore and the new states were like newborn babies. No borders, no authorities, money was calculated in millions. It was something like the period of Civil War that my grandmother witnessed as a young girl and described to me.

It was during this time that I first encountered the remains of the Gulag: ruins of barracks and bridges, old glades and roads, cyclopic heaps of exhausted rock – like the sum of prisoners’ eliminated lives. It was shocking. I thought the former camps existed only in memoirs. They were in fact present on earth, but nobody had seen them.

Later I found that the language of geology was very helpful to me in dealing with the past. “Geology is working with time and pressure” (that is my favorite quote from the Shawshank Redemption). Geology is working with substances transformed by time and pressure, transformed not only once – three, four, five times. This is a perfect parallel with Soviet history, because the USSR was constantly rewriting its history, denying the past and declaring a new future.

In addition, the search for minerals is like an exciting hunt. You cannot simply rely on professional skills. Intuition, luck, a sixth sense also matters. You are like a detective looking for what happened hundreds or thousands of millions of years ago, tracing the marks of mineral veins in the landscape, in the river sand and pebbles, reading the Book of Creation. It is a perfect school for a writer and an investigator!
My own transformation from geologist to journalist and writer occurred when I made an astonishing and eerie discovery in my grandmother`s archive. I found that her second husband was a state security officer of a high rank, a former chief of the Gulag camp. This discovery was my initial impulse to dive into my family`s history. I assumed that this history was quiet, simple and guileless, but it happened to be elusive, dark and unwilling to reveal its secrets.

MB: In The Year of the Comet Grandmother Tanya is an editor for Politizdat and she is also secretly writing a memoir. Did your own grandmother or anyone else in your family encourage you to write and to inspire you to want to become an author?

SL: As I remember from my Soviet childhood, writing was always something a little bit suspicious. I was writing in school where we had ideologically assigned topics like partisans, official holidays like Women`s day, the Day of Victory etc. But this was not writing, it was only repeating ideological formulas. But to write on your own? To write whatever you wanted to write? This was something unbelievable.

I think my grandmother Natasha, who wrote the memoirs about the family`s history, had a different goal. She was writing her memoirs in the late years of the Soviet Union, but had no idea that the USSR would soon collapse. So hers was a text with two contradictory intentions. On the one hand, it gave a wide overview of the past, it reestablished links with the past. On the other hand, it shaped the Soviet approved version of the past, and it excluded some dark pages which could have been an unnecessary burden for future generations.

Her book of memoirs was like the final book, the final piece of knowledge, because she was the family`s only survivor and, just as the Soviet state, she had the monopoly over writing about the past. The memoirs were her precious gift, her testament in a way. However, I don`t think she wanted anybody to go further.

MB: Two strong-willed yet very different Grandmothers have the most influence over the narrator in The Year of the Comet and the narrative is centered around stories about them. What made you choose to make Grandmother Tanya and Grandmother Mara such important characters in your book? Is there a particular memory that you have of your own grandmothers that stands out in your mind?

SL: My own two grandmothers were the most impressive figures of my childhood. Others, like my mother, father, and various relatives, were just regular people like I am. My grandmothers were like pillars of the Soviet Universe. One was from a noble aristocratic family, and one was from a poor peasant’s family. Only the revolution of 1917 made it possible for them to meet, to become relatives.

They embodied struggling times, Red power and White, defeated power (there were no Reds without Whites). All the hidden contradictions of history and society were personalized by their presence. I was feeling two different gravitations, like two different wizards, two magicians were competitively whispering in my ears strong spells shaping my fate, my future, my conscience. Therefore, The Year of the Comet at its core is a Soviet Titanomachy.

MB: The Year of the Comet is full of personal and Soviet history, stories and anecdotes. How did you prepare to write this book? Were there particular family members you went back and Interviewed, old photos you perused or other family documents you read to refresh your memories so that you could include personal details in the book?

SL: The novel was written without any assistance or surveys. I had the idea to write the book of a generation, the book about the last children of the Soviet Union, about those who inherited the full extent of the Soviet mythology produced in Stalin`s era, Khrushchev’s era, Brezhnev`s era, in different USSR`s, as I worded it in the book. I was trying to understand why this mythology survived the crash of communist ideology and twenty years later has once again become vivid and effective. I did spent time in my preparations for writing the novel with Robert Graves’s book about ancient Greek mythology and dozens of memoirs, sociological and historical research, and with newspapers and magazines of that period.

MB: I am actually a classicist myself, I teach Latin and Ancient Greek at a high school here in the US, so your reading about Greek myth in preparation for writing the novel is especially interesting to me. I also noticed your reference to Theseus in The Year of the Comet. Was there a particular story or ancient author that attracted you to reading about Greek myth?

SL: It is a funny story of how I was attracted to read about the ancient Greeks. All the soviet kids were fans of D`Artagnan and the Three Musketeers film. It was shown on TV during every school vacation. I was a fan too. Once my father told me that when he was a teenager he was friends with the actor Veniamin Smekhov, who played Atos in the film. I didn`t believe him because actors were like celestial beings and I asked him to prove it. He showed me a book which he received as a gift from Smekhov with the actor’s signature in it. It was a rare book, the complete editions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For me it was a book recommended by my beloved film hero, by the musketeer Atos himself. And I started to read it while fighting with the hexameter.

I kept returning to Homer repeatedly, especially the Odyssey. I was deeply, unconsciously obsessed with the theme of escape; escape as a category of human actions that I never witnessed because Soviet values taught us to endure, to wait, to reconcile with circumstances. I felt these values and was astonished with Odysseus who never stopped escaping from all kind of traps, temptations, encumbrances, dangers. He was my hidden hero in a way.

Theseus was my second love. The story with the sandals and sword left under the stone, the symbol of his heroic origin… I imagined something like this about myself, imagined I was a Soviet Theseus. My sword and sandals were the orders and medals kept by my grandmother. I thought these orders and medals belonged to her first husband, my grandfather whom I never met, the officer who fought in the battle of Stalingrad and was wounded while crossing the Dnieper River. When nobody was looking, I put the Red Star order on my shirt and dreamed about carrying out feats and attaining glories equal to my grandfather’s. In these moments, I wanted to be his grandson more than to be the son of my parents, to be the successor of his deeds, of his heroic epoch.

Only later, when my grandmother died, did I learn that this orders and medals belonged to her second husband, the chief of the concentration camp, the mass murderer. I wrote the novel Oblivion about this discovery – about a Theseus who finds not the sword and sandals under the stone, but something else that he never expected to find.

MB: In The Year of the Comet, the dacha that the narrator spent the summers in as a child was a happy place full of interesting memories. Helping Grandma Mara in the garden, playing with the other boys in the neighborhood and even solving the mystery of the serial killer were all a part the narrator’s childhood summer at the dacha. Do you have a dacha in your family and do you still visit it as an adult?

SL: Our dacha was an axis of family life since the early fifties. We lived in different flats, but we always had the same dacha. Flats were Soviet-built, anonymous houses, faceless and indistinguishable from each other. Our dacha was built by my grandfather with some trash timber, but it was ours.

At the same time, however, the dacha was a kind of a trap. We possessed our dacha – it represented not only a certain style of living, it was also a safe retreat from ideology and stress and it imperceptibly became a cellar. All our desires and perspectives were connected with the dacha. But, by the very fact of its existence, it diminished our horizons, it diminished our willingness to develop, to discover. Our dacha is the place I was writing about in The Year of the Comet but I am glad to be free of it now.

MB: Some authors who have written autobiographical fiction have angered family and friends for revealing too many private, family stories. Karl Ove Knausgaard and his family’s negative reactions to his books come to mind. What was your family’s reaction to your books? Did they think you revealed too many private family memories or did they enjoy revisiting old stories through your books?

SL: As I said previously, writing was always treated as something potentially dangerous in my family. I didn`t expect my books to be accepted easily by family members. I didn`t want to shock them or to punish them, so I tried to write with patience and tenderness. I think it was tough reading, we had some discussions, but in general my parents’ always supported me and I am grateful for this.

MB: One of the prominent themes in both Oblivion and The Year of the Comet is secrets and the process of discovering them. Do you still have that investigative spirit of the child narrator who is always snooping around his grandmothers’ apartments in search of family secrets? Are there still family secrets or other secrets about The Soviet Union that you want to unravel?

SL: Soviet life is still full of secrets. The archives of state security are still closed and guarded. Secrets, or secrecy itself, is still a main feature of Russian life. Secrecy is the aura of the authoritarian (now quickly becoming totalitarian) Russian state, the mythological evidence of its sacred power and supernatural historical mission. Or, in a more pragmatic way, secrecy serves as a repressive measure against civil freedoms. Because of this secrecy, opening up these secrets, penetrating the curtains is still something important to me.

Later I want to write a book about famine in the USSR. The state-organized famine of the thirties that was used as a repressive measure against peasants brought about the deaths of millions of people and caused wide-spread cannibalism. Famine is not considered a “modern’ mechanism of repression which instead uses arrests, prisons, concentration camps. Famine is a return to prehistory, to Neanderthal times, the bottom of the bottoms, the Ninth circle of Dante`s Hell. Bolsheviks and their successors today are eager to justify Stalin`s rule because, as they insist, he brought modern civilization to Russia. But this is the type of “civilization” he brought: the return to prehistory.

Even repressions carried out during the Great Terror are reluctantly and partially recognized by the Russian state as a crime. Famine, however, is not and it is instead viewed as a “natural disaster.” I want this so-called “natural disaster” to be exposed. This is also part of my personal story since my grandmother`s sister survived the famine in the Ukraine and wrote a few letters about her experience.

MB: In The Year of the Comet you chose to have the narrator tell his story from the point of view of his childhood. You not only capture the spirit and innocence of childhood through your narrator, but you also deal with some very sophisticated topics through his perspective. It seems very difficult to write such a complex book from the mindset of a child. What were the challenges you faced when writing from this point of view?

SL: It is a common thing for elders to have some kind of conspiracy in a family, to keep away from children facts they are too young to know – like a biography of an uncle who was the shame of the family or an old quarrel between twin sisters. Children are very sensitive to such things, they don`t know the rules of silence and obeyance.

In the USSR the family conspiracy was keeping secret the system of life itself. I do remember getting an exciting or chilling feeling sometimes, the feeling that I was a spy or detective in my own family, the feeling that everybody had two faces, that everybody was hiding something. Of course, these were not feelings I had daily, but when they came it was like a sudden breakthrough. For example, I was used to seeing my great-grandfather`s photo in his Red Army uniform. The photo was taken in the early twenties and this was the only image of him given to me. And I remember a feeling of great astonishment when I understood that I didn`t know who he was before this photo was taken, because “before” didn’t exist for me; the revolution in 1917 was like a border between light and dark. In reality before the revolution he was an officer of the Russian Imperial Army –a Tsarist officer was a compromising and unwelcomed job to have in a Soviet citizen’s dossier.

I gave my hero in The Year of the Comet this same type of disturbing feeling as his guiding line, as an Ariadne`s thread.

MB: You write such beautiful and lyrical prose and I wasn’t surprised to find out that you also write poetry. Do you have any favorite poets that have influenced your writing?

SL: Of course, it is Josef Brodsky. We are living and writing within a Russian language that was transformed by Brodsky, we are writing inside his literary universe.

MB: What aspects of Brodsky’s writing in particular have influenced your poetry? Can you elaborate on that?

SL: Brodsky`s poems deeply affected not only my poetry, but my use of language itself. When I first read one of his poems, I don`t even remember which one, I was amazed. I felt the rhythm, the intonation – as behavior, as pace. I understood that I had never met people who behaved like this, people who are not using Aesopic speech.

The Soviet-Russian language was full of crippled words, perverted words, corrupted words, words with forgotten meanings, ruined words, decayed, descended words, turncoat words, dead words, eliminated words, twisted words, poisonous words… People spoke this language. He didn’t. He appeared to me as a linguistic Luther in a way because he clarified and reestablished the language. He was for me like a personalized rebellion against linguistic oppression and depravity. He made it possible for us to stand on the field he prepared, to speak words he transmitted through his magic poetry machine that made them connected with The Word as it was in the beginning.

MB: What are your writing plans for additional books? Your last two books were about your family and growing up in Russia and experiencing the fall of The Soviet Union. Will you write another book about your experiences growing up there or are you exploring other topics? Do you have any plans to publish a book of poetry in English translation?

SL: I have just finished the fourth novel, the last novel of the tetralogy about my family`s history. The fourth book is about the German roots of the family, about two centuries of Russian – German relationships, about two totalitarian machines producing fake identities.

I will be glad if my poetry is translated. But if not, you can find it in the novels. Poetry is my sketchbook that preserves the most inconstant, ephemeral impressions or shapes that later become parts of my novels.

MB: You mention a fourth novel, but what is the status of the third novel, the follow-up to The Year of the Comet that you also wrote about your family?

SL: The third novel is called The People of August and it will soon be translated into English. It was published in Russia and Germany and the French translation of it is currently in process. So there will be a total of four novels based on my family history.

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Filed under Author Interviews, Russian Literature

Review: Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Edelweiss.  The collection was published in the original Russian in 1931 and this English version has been translated by Boris Dralyuk.  Boris graciously agreed to an interview which is included after the review.  His answers are inspiring and enlightening.

My Review:
odessa-storiesBabel’s band of Jewish gangsters, thieves and smugglers make up the first part of this collection of highly entertaining and lively stories.  The setting is the author’s hometown of Odessa, the Russian city on the Black Sea which saw a population boom in the nineteenth century and became a place for Jews to settle and seek out their fortunes.  Babel begins his stories by introducing the Godfather of all Jewish gangsters, Benya Krik, also known as “The King” in Odessa.  The occasion is the wedding of Benya’s ugly forty-year-old sister and he is delivered some news by an informant that the cops are going to stage a raid on the King’s headquarters.  The clipped, rapid fire sentences are reminiscent of a scene from Pulp Fiction or Scarface.

Benya ends up with his own wife by doing a typical mob style “shakedown” of a local farmer.  When the farmer, Sender Eichbaum,  ignores The King’s increasingly hostile messages, Benya shows up and starts slaughtering the farmer’s herd.  The innocent bovines get knifed right through the heart.  Finally, negotiations commence:

And then, when the sixth cow fell at the King’s feet with a dying moo, Eichbaum himself ran into the yard in nothing but his long johns and asked, “Benya, what’s this?”  “Monsieur Eichbaum, I don’t get my money, you don’t keep your cows.  Simple as that.”  “Step inside, Benya.”  Inside they came to terms.

After the gangster and the farmer come to an agreement, the farmer’s daughter, Celia comes outside in her nightshirt and the King is immediately smitten.  The next day he goes back to Eichbaum’s farm, returns the money, presents gifts to Celia and asks for her hand in marriage.  Even a tough gangster is not immune to the temptation of a pretty face.  Babel’s depiction of these Jewish gangsters is humorous, hard-hitting and full of ridiculous plot twists.  The local police station catches on fire, Benya contemplates knocking off his own father, and a local innkeeper ignores her infant in order to conduct her business.  We are introduced to characters like Froim the Rook, a one-eyed redhead, Tartakovsky who is also known as “Yid-and-a-half” or “Nine Shakedowns,” and Lyubka the Cossak.

A word must be said of Boris Dralyuk’s translation which is nothing short of brilliant.  He captures the essence and spirt of the Jewish culture in the booming city of Odessa where law and order are matters decided by criminals instead of cops.  Boris’s introduction to the translation is a must-read as he describes what techniques he uses to bring Babel’s characters to life for an English speaking audience:

In general, I’ve tended toward concision, feeling it more important to communicate the tone—the sinewy, snappy punch—of the gangsters’ verbal exchanges than to reproduce them word for word.  A longer phrase that rolls of Benya’s tongue in Russian may gum up the works in English.  For instance, in the original Russian, Benya refuses to smear kasha “on the clean table.”  In English, “on the clean table” felt superfluous.  Both the tone and the image were sharper without it.  To my ear, the pithy “let’s stop smearing kasha” has the force and appeal of an idiom encountered for the first time.

The final stories in the collection are Babel’s recollections from his own childhood as his family moves from Nikaloyev to Odessa.  “The Story of My Dovecote” is both funny and heartbreaking when Babel remembers wanting more than anything else a dovecote as a ten-year-old boy.  He makes an agreement with his father that if he gets high marks and is accepted into the preparatory class at the Nikolayev Secondary School then he can have his own dovecote.   When, on his second try at the exams, Babel is given a spot at the school his family is overjoyed to the point of throwing a ball for their son’s success.   The depiction of his mother and her skepticism that any Babel would achieve greatness is humorous but also foreshadows a dark time that will follow: “Mother was pale; she was interrogating fate in my eyes, gazing at me with bitter pity, as if I were a cripple, because she alone knew just how unlucky our family was.”

Young Isaac finally does get his doves and he is on the way home from picking them out in the market when a terrible and sad tragedy befall him.  The boy gets caught up in the confusion of the Russian pogram and his doves are smashed on his own head.  The dazed boy returns home bloody with the remains of feathers on him and finds that his family are in a state of utter turmoil because of their persecution.  The young Babel suffers an awful case of hiccups and the doctor diagnoses him with a nervous disorder caused by the trauma of the pogram that he and his family were victims of.

Much to my own dismay and sadness, my country yesterday elected a man who has promoted xenophobia, racism, and violence against groups of people based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.  We have to remember that Babel’s persecution in Russia could easily happen again if we let hatred and ignorance rule the day.  We must do whatever we can to insure that we stand up to bullies, and not allow such bigotry and violence to become acceptable in any way, shape or form.  Babel’s lesson on the horrible consequences of bigotry is just as relevant today as it was nearly one-hundred years ago in Russia.

About the Author:
Isaac BabelIsaak Emmanuilovich Babel (Russian: Исаак Эммануилович Бабель; 1901 – 1940) was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote, and Tales of Odessa, all of which are considered masterpieces of Russian literature. Babel has also been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry.” Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Isaak Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge due to his longterm affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Babel was arrested by the NKVD at Peredelkino on the night of May 15, 1939. After “confessing”, under torture, to being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, Babel was shot on January 27, 1940. The arrest and execution of Isaak Babel has been labeled a catastrophe for world literature.

About the Translator:
boris-dralyuk-edit-1024x683Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.

An Interview with Boris Dralyuk:

  1. How did you become interested in a career as a translator?  Can you trace the progression of your career from the beginning to this impressive achievement of translating two works of Babel for Pushkin Press?

My family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1991, when I was eight years old, turning nine. I had two words of English at my disposal – “hello,” a good start, and “poppy,” California’s state flower. Those weren’t going to get me very far. So I plunged into the language, soaking up as much as I could, at first by way of I Love Lucy, which I would watch with my grandmother, and then through the local public library. Then, at 13, I realized I had been neglecting my Russian. I could still speak and read, but… If I didn’t apply myself, I’d soon be back to “hello” and “poppy,” as it were. So I began reading poetry. At 14 I came across a poem by Boris Pasternak, dedicated to Anna Akhmatova. It lifted me off the ground. And I had the urge to share it — to share that experience with a friend who didn’t speak Russian. The first line popped into my head in English, all on its own: “I feel I’ll pick words comparable…” I did about as well as you’d expect, for a 14-year-old. And I still remember the last two lines of that first stanza: “I’ll make mistakes, but I don’t give a damn — / No matter what, I’ll never part with error.” I try to live by those words.

So it was something of a calling. I applied to UCLA to work with Michael Henry Heim, a legend in the field. He was a true mentor, as he was to so many. When he passed away in 2012, I wrote about our first meeting, about his generosity — which was a uniquely pure and powerful example of a quality common to translators. And in 2010 I met Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, from whom I continue to learn every day. They invited me to join them in editing The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). So that’s how I got here: my luck and the generosity of others.

  1. Translation is obviously not an exact, one-to-one science.  What do you think are the pieces of Babel that get lost in the English translation, that don’t quite carry over to the English version?

You put it perfectly: “not an exact, one-to-one science.” In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s no kind of science. Translation draws on specialized knowledge — of languages, of cultures, of literary traditions, etc. — but so does any art. And that’s exactly what translation is: an art. Korney Chukovsky, one of the great Soviet-era translators (and, incidentally, Mike Heim’s hero), titled his wonderful book on the subject A High Art. It was a bold gesture, a plea for the redheaded stepchild of literary creation to get a seat at the table. Regarding translation as a purely technical endeavor leads to bad translations — and to bad criticism. We should judge literary translations as literature first, not as exam papers. Does it touch you? Does it make you laugh? Does it make you feel as if the top of your head were taken off?

And yes, of course, accuracy matters, but words don’t just denote — they connote, they link up, they build to a cumulative effect. A good translation remains faithful to those cumulative effects, not to any individual word. I don’t like to think in terms of losses; for me, translation is a net gain. The trick with Babel — my Babel, at least — was to find native idioms that would allow me to communicate the effects of his stories. With the Odessa Stories, I didn’t have to look far… Jewish-American fiction, hardboiled detective stories — it was all there, on my nightstand, ripe for the picking.

  1. Babel’s cast of gangster characters are very entertaining.  Do you have a favorite character from Odessa Stories?

What a great question! That would be the Odessan broker Tsudechkis, a little shyster with ten tons worth of personality. He’s the narrator of one of the earliest Odessa stories, which I translated as “Justice in Quotes.” Babel gives Tsudechkis the run of the place, linguistically and otherwise. He never included the story in any of his book-length collections — it didn’t quite fit — but I love it precisely for its looseness, its square-peg-in-a-round-hole incongruities, which mirror the narrator’s spirit. Babel brought the broker back in “Lyubka the Cossack.” He couldn’t keep the little fellow out!

  1. What did you learn about Babel and his writing that surprised you the most as you were working on this translation?

I knew these stories so well… I first read them cover-to-cover at 13 or 14, but I had heard them all throughout my childhood. My family quoted them in conversation — and they sounded as if they were quoting them even when they weren’t. My ears were full of Babelian cadences and turns of phrase, both in Odessa and in the Russian-Jewish community in Los Angeles. I listened for — hungered for — those same cadences in English, and I found in the likes of Bernard Malamud. I suppose what I learned while working on Babel’s stories is the degree to which they are a part of me.

  1. You also have a volume of translated poems and prose from the Russian Revolution forthcoming from Pushkin Press.  What other projects and translations are you working on at the moment?

I’m very proud of 1917, and I hope it touches all readers, no matter how they feel about the Russian revolution. It was a time of great promise and of great tragedy. I worked hard to reflect the period’s contradictions, and was aided by a team of brilliant translators — Josh Billings, Maria Bloshteyn, Michael Casper, Robert Chandler, Peter France, Rose France, Lisa Hayden, Bryan Karetnyk, Martha Kelly, Donald Rayfield, Margo Shohl Rosen, and James Womack. My next project is a collection by the great Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, called Sentimental Tales, for Columbia University Press. Their new Russian Library is doing wonderful things. Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Irina Mashinski, and I have also translated a volume of poems by the Soviet-era poet Lev Ozerov, called Portraits Without Frames — a nuanced and deeply moving sequence of verse portraits, a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture. NYRB Classics will bring that out in 2018

Thanks again to Boris for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully.  You can also read an interview that Boris did for Pushkin Press here: http://pushkinpress.com/behind-the-book-boris-dralyuk/  and a review of Odessa Stories from The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/01/odessa-stories-by-isaac-babel-review.  Boris also has an impressive resume of translations and writings, the full list of which can be viewed on his website: https://bdralyuk.wordpress.com/

 

 

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Filed under Author Interviews, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature

Interview: Annie Holmes co-author of Breach

I am so excited today to post an interview with Annie Holmes, co-author of Peirene’s new release breach.  The book will be released in August and below is information about the book tour and launch.

About Breach and the Peirene Now! Series:

breach“The Jungle is like a laboratory”

In the refugee camp known as The Jungle an illusion is being disrupted: that of a neatly ordered world, with those deserving safety and comfort separated from those who need to be kept out. Calais is a border town. Between France and Britain. Between us and them. The eight short stories in this collection explore the refugee crisis through fiction. They give voice to the hopes and fears of both sides. Dlo and Jan break into refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. Marjorie, a volunteer, is happy to mingle in  the camps until her niece goes a step too far. Mariam lies to her mother back home. With humour, insight and empathy breach tackles an issue that we can no longer ignore. It is the first title in the Peirene Now! series. This exciting new series will be made up of commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day. breach beautifully captures a multiplicity of voices – refugees, volunteers, angry citizens – whilst deftly charting a clear narrative path through it all. The story that emerges is an empathetic and probing mosaic, which redefines the words ‘home’, ‘displacement’ and ‘integration’ as the plot progresses towards a moving finale.

Author Interview- Annie Holmes:

Q. This book is very comprehensive in that it covers so many aspects of the refugee experience.  What do you hope is the biggest lesson that readers will take away from your stories?

A. At least two of the non-refugee characters in the book comment on the surprising normality, the village vibe, of the camp in Calais. I hope that when readers put the book down, they too will have met and will remember a host of individual refugees as normal people, albeit in exceptional circumstances – triumphant or defeated, morally compromised or steadfast, amusing or tragic, or the common human mix – each with a full life before her or his journey, looking to the future with some blend of hope and trepidation, just like you or I do. Through fiction, the reader can come to know a character inside as well as from the outside, as a human being rather than a statistic or a type. That’s the effect that I hope our book achieves.

Q. Why did you choose Calais to study and conduct interviews of refugees?  What are typical aspects of the refugee experience there and what is unique to that refugee camp?

A. For the UK and for those seeking to get there, Calais became a symbol. This was the place to across from Europe to the English-speaking refuge you hoped to reach. The last hurdle for would-be refugees to cross. From the other side of the Channel, Calais encapsulated the problem – whether you saw the problem as a threatening “horde” of migrants or as the failure of your own and other European governments to respond to a major human rights crisis and to abide by international law. Refugees headed to Calais – old, young, from many countries, alone or in families or groups – and so too did British and other volunteers, individuals and groups spurred to make up in good will and practical support the shortfall on the part of governments and most international NGOs. Into this convergence flowed the news media, storytellers like us, actors and artists, along with the French authorities, most visible marching bullet-proofed through the camp, and the smugglers, largely invisible. Every player in the migration saga was represented, and then some. The Jungle was a pressure cooker.

Who knows what Calais will come to mean now? Will the town continue to be the platform for dreams and dread, or was the Jungle a short-lived world of its own? Either way, that camp at that time contained multitudes – the many varieties of refugee experience as well as its own unique experiments.

Q. Why did you choose to write short stories instead of focusing on a novel or novella?  Why is the short story a more appropriate genre for your project?

A. We could invoke Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s maxim about the stereotyping danger of the single story. By contrast, in eight stories we could present a real range of experiences and characters. But I wouldn’t like to rate different genres as less or more appropriate. A novel format worked brilliantly for Dave Eggers, for example– Zeitoun burned the experience of Hurricane Katrina into the memory of anyone who read it. The more perspectives, the better.

Q. After visiting the refugee camp and speaking with so many displaced people, what is the one memory that most stays with you?

A. I lived in the Calais camp in memory for a long time, writing the book – re-walking paths, re-living conversations, remembering images. Here’s one that didn’t make it into my stories in any way. On the tiny veranda of a brightly painted shack hang three baskets of flowers, as if it’s a beach cottage or a holiday chalet. Beyond, a young man pedals like a maniac on a stationary red cycle, generating power to charge the cell phones lying in a basket fixed to the handlebars. He looks up, catches my eye and waves, a smile on his sweaty face. A bright blaze of energy, despite everything.

About the Authors:
Annie HolmesAnnie Holmes was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Her short fiction has been published in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the US. She now lives in the UK. “This is the third continent I’m calling home. My life here in the UK is somewhat precarious (African passport) and somewhat privileged (education and ‘white’ skin). This is also the third continent where I’m witnessing migrants and refugees vilified.”

 

PooplaOlumide Popoola is a Nigerian German writer of long and short fiction. She lectures in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. “breach is my answer to the new wave of racism, views that are becoming acceptable again because of old ‘the boat is full’ narratives, because of the fear of the Other. These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”

 

All of the dates for interviews and reviews are listed on the banner below:

breach_blog_tour

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Filed under Author Interviews, British Literature, Opinion Posts

Review and Author Interview: Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, ECW Press.

About The Book:
Elephant TentKathleen’s life has always been an itinerant one and from the time she was seventeen she took off from her small hometown and Oregon and went on the road.  She tries out different things that take her through various parts of the U.S. and Europe.  She finally lands in Spain where she starts to work for a circus and meets the Elephant trainer who completely changes her life.

What is interesting about Kathleen’s story is that there are a lot of bumps on the way to finding her true happiness.  She does immediately have feelings for Stefano but her parent’s rocky marriage has a negative effect on how Kathleen views commitment.  It is interesting to follow Kathleen on her emotional journey.

I also liked the fact that Kathleen talks about animal cruelty and the elephants she encounters.  Stefano tells her that elephants are nomadic animals and should be roaming free.  She does not gloss over or hide the fact that their captivity in a circus is not the best environment for them.

If you love memoirs and travel writing then LOVE IN THE ELEPHANT TENT is a great book to put on your reading list for the summer.

Author Q&A:
1. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an author?
I have always aimed to create my own space in this world, and I have been self-employed for most of my adult life, usually in ways that incorporated art and creativity. In part, my inspiration to carve my own pathway through life comes from rebelling against the pain I saw my mother experience when her marriage dissolved, so I steered my life in the opposite direction by running away from any situation that even hinted of domesticity. Instead, I sought out adventure and refused to bend to others’ expectations and desires – which made life exciting but also lonely. It wasn’t until I met Stefano in Spain that I found someone I could imagine sharing a life with – but imagining something and living it are quite different, of course. It took a lot of growing up on my part, and Stefano’s, for us create a life together.

Once we did make that leap and moved from Italy to America, many people were curious about how we met, which of course brings up circus stories. Most people were anxious to hear more. I heard, “You should write a book,” so many times, that I finally decided to do just that. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – I ran away with the Grateful Dead and then the circus instead of pursuing a college education, so I had to learn how to write before I could complete a book-length manuscript. Without any formal training, that took a lot of trial and error, and Love in the Elephant Tent is the product of all those years of work.

2. What is the best book you have read in the past year that you would recommend to my readers?
Oh, boy, does it have to be just one? Off the top of my head, three come to mind: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I’ve read before but found myself reading again this year. Great book. Love the deep, sometimes flawed, but always real relationship those women shared and how they pass its essence on to the next generation. I also read Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer for the first time. Wow. It’s written in such a straightforward manner but conveys such depth and adventure and willingness – no, need – to put your life on the line to obtain freedom and knowledge and feel fully alive. And last, but certainly not least, is Chiseled, a memoir by Danuta Pfeiffer. Full disclosure: she’s a member of my writing group and I’ve been reading successive versions of her book for about 17 years. She finally published it earlier this year, and reading a finished copy was a moving experience. This woman basically went to hell and back multiple times. In her youth, she wanted to be a nun, but events prevented that. Over the years, she was “saved” by God, rejected by his followers. Grew from being a hard-scrabble youth in rural Minnesota to becoming “the most prominent woman in Christianity” and co-hosting The 700 Club with Pat Robertson – only to walk away from it all, bike 1000 miles from Canada to Mexico with little experience, and finally reconnect with her liberal roots, as well as find love, peace and fulfillment in an Oregon vineyard. Great read, well told, highly recommended.

3. Since your book is an autobiography were you nervous about exposing details about your life for the public?
Absolutely. The thought still wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes. Close friends who know my story with Stefano well have told me they’ll never look at us the same again. Those types of declarations freak me out as much as they make me smile with relief. As scary as such revelations are, it’s also a shame that we must fear exposing our vulnerabilities and sharing with the world who we truly were and are. Ninety-nine percent of what happened in the book took place over 25 years ago. I’ve grown since then, of course, become stronger and more confident. I look back on those years and judge my own actions, don’t agree with all of them, and sometimes would like to reach back in time and talk some sense into myself, so I won’t be surprised if others express the same desire. However, it is only through those long ago feelings and experiences that I have become the person I am today. A lot has happened between when Stefano and I left Italy and today. Those years we shared in the circus had a strong effect on who we’d become and how we’d deal with adversity and the challenges life threw at us individually and as a couple. Can’t say we would have made it this far without them. Back to your question: Nervous? Sure. Afraid of what might come of the exposure: I’ll meet those challenges as they come. Willing to share in case it could help another young woman find her place in this world or a couple keep their love alive? Definitely!

4. What writing projects are you working on next? Will you stick with non-fiction or will you delve into fiction this time?
I have made some initial strides in both genres, jotting down stories that cover everything from past generations to the twists and turns my life with Stefano took after we left the circus. I also love to write about food and travel, and I have been experimenting with the outline of a mystery. Which of these projects will flourish into a full-fledged manuscript remains to be seen – and I wouldn’t have it any other way at this time. I like to live in the moment as much as possible.

Thanks so much to Kathleen for her thoughtful responses.  To visit all of the stops on her book tour visit the link below.

Elephant Tent Banner

 

 

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Filed under Author Interviews, Nonfiction, Travel Writing