Category Archives: Author Interviews

My Pythian Interview with Anne Carson

The ancient Greek god Apollo, in addition to being associated with the sun, healing, and music, communicated Zeus’s will through a series of arcane messages at his prophetic shrine in Delphi. Between the seventh and fifth centuries b.c.e., a Greek could visit the Temple of Apollo and participate in the elaborate process involved to pose a personal, religious, or political question or problem to the Pythia, commonly known as the Oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo who delivered the God’s cryptic messages. Her ambiguous responses, written down by the temple priests, were open to interpretation, and often had multiple and even opposing meanings.

As I was interviewing the classicist, poet, and author Anne Carson in June, 2017 via e-mail about her new translation of Bakkhai, the question-and-answer process felt like a consultation with the ancient Pythia. Much like an ancient Greek attempting to get an answer from the priestess of Apollo, I had to go through a few layers—book publicist and agent—and the answers I received back can best be described as intriguing and esoteric; they varied in length from a few words to a paragraph to no response at all. Every reply was also written in all lower case, including the first-person singular “i,” an idiosyncrasy that seemed almost playful, and is something I usually see in the prose or text messages of a student or a younger person. Like a Greek hearing those ambiguous missives given by the Pythia, I was repeatedly surprised by the puzzling, thought-provoking answers I received.

Ann Carson’s newly published translation of Euripides’ The Bakkhai was first staged at the Almeida Theatre in London during the August and September season of 2015 and directed by James Macdonald.  I began my interview by asking Carson how she came to be involved in the production and if she had any role in the staging of the play, and she replied simply, “it was JM’s idea, he commissioned the work from me.  i didn’t interfere in the staging or planning of the production.  i was hired to translate it so that’s what i did.”  The remainder of my questions dealt with the topics and themes explored by Euripides in the The Bakkhai and Carson’s unique style of translation.

The Athenian playwright Euripides wrote The Bakkhai in the last few years of his life, and the play invovles the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult there and punish his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god.  Carson points out in her introduction to the translation that, even though Dionysos is considered a young god, he is mentioned in the Linear B tablets found at the Bronze Age site of Pylos, which date as far back at 1600 BCE.  I asked her if Euripides’ version of Dionysos is different from earlier depictions of the god or if it is unusual or orthodox.  Her response expands on her comments about Dionysos in her introduction:

unfortunately there are no earlier depictions of Dionysos in an extant play.  there is an Homeric Hymn but a hymn is a statement of devotion, rather than a story so hard to compare.   but we know the general lineaments of the myth and the interesting and paradoxical thing about Dionysos (which Euripides exploits probably in a unique way)  is that this historically ancient god is perennially depicted as newly arriving everywhere he goes.  in other words he is a god of beginnings:  when you first start to fall in love or get drunk or have an idea—that is the intoxication called Dionysos, new every time.

The Bakkhai continues to be one of the Euripides’s most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even in the 21st century.  Carson believes the reason for its continued popularity is that “it’s really scary.”  I followed up on her response by pointing out that all of Euripides’ plays are scary—Medea, in particular, during which children are murdered—and asked why she thought The Bakkhai is scarier than his other plays.  Carson elaborated on her initial reaction:

i didn’t mean to create a hierarchy of scariness. There is terror in all the plays.  I suppose the interactions of the Bakkhai have an extra edge because of the way the god plays upon the frailties of the king, making one wonder if he is playing upon all our frailties, in our various pursuits of intoxication or ecstasy.

Carson has translated Euripides’s plays before, and in her introduction to her translation of Hekabe she describes how she keeps a file on her computer entitled “Unpleasantness of Euripides.”  When I asked her what she has recorded in her document about The Bakkhai she said, not surprisingly, “That is a secret.”  But this drama has a lot of unpleasant, disturbing moments, including Pentheus’s murder at the hands of his own mother.  (Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into dressing up as a woman and spying on the maenads, the female followers of the god, and is killed by these women, among whom is the king’s own mother.)

Scholars have debated for decades about what moral lesson or message Euripides intended to convey in his play.  Is Pentheus’s punishment deserved or is Dionysos unnecessarily harsh and vengeful?  Theories have ranged widely, from a claim that the drama mirrors a deathbed conversion of a poet who had previously rejected the pantheon of gods to an assertion that it is a commentary on religious fanaticism.  In an essay entitled, “Tragedy: A Curious Art Form,” Carson states about Euripides’ dramas: “There is in Euripides some kind of learning that is always at the boiling point.  It breaks experiences open and they waste themselves, run through your fingers.” During our interview, however, she did not wish to provide an opinion about the possible moral implications or lessons in The Bakkhai:

Beck:  What message, if any, do you see in The Bakkhai?

Carson:  works of art don’t have “a message,” do they? they offer an experience and possibly a transformation.

Beck:  What do you think is the central moral issue in The Bakkhai?  Is this another revenge play like Hekabe?

Carson:  here you are trying to reduce to a “message.”

Beck: Is Pentheus worthy of sympathy?

Carson:  yes, he is human.

As is fitting for one of Euripides’s most mysterious plays, Carson’s rendering is unconventional.  Particularly humorous is Carson’s translation of a scene that involves Teiresias and Kadmos dressed in woman’s clothing, as they plan a trip to the mountain where the Maenads are engaging in their mysterious rites and revelries. In Carson’s version Kadmos proclaims: “We must get to the mountain.  Should we call a cab?”  When I asked Carson if the humor in this passage was her own interpolation or if she thinks that Euripides is funny, she insisted that “the humor is entirely Euripides.”

I asked a few more questions about her process of translation and her experience with Euripides’ text:

Beck: In an interview about his translation of The Aeneid, Robert Fagles said, “Every translation is different.  It has to do with the tone of voice of the translator.  Each has a distinctive badge, each comes with its own vocal DNA.  I very much hope my translation sounds like me.  I wanted it to be in my voice, for better or worse.”  What is your distinctive badge, your own local DNA that is reflected in this translation of The Bakkhai?

Carson:  i don’t think i have any idea of my own voice.  perhaps this is a question for a reader to answer?

Beck:  You’ve never thought about a particular authorial voice, but what is guiding your choices as a translator?

Carson:  it depends on the commission.  an academic text has different requirements than a production for the stage and a comic book would be different again.

Beck: As you were translating The Bakkhai, what linguistic, metrical or poetic differences did you notice in the ancient Greek text that Euripides uses when he is depicting different characters? How did you account for these differences in English?

Carson: i’m not sure what you’re asking here.  Euripides uses iambic trimeter for the dialogue portions of the play and lyric meters in the choral odes.   the odes are intended to be sung and danced so they function at a different level of poeticality and thought than the dialogue portions.  in translating the odes i often shape the text on the page to indicate this lyric difference.  and hope it helps the performer shape their voice accordingly.

Beck: I am curious about your translation of theos as “daimon” instead of “god.”  Can you describe the process by which you came to this translation?  Did you have a particular use of this word in another ancient source in mind when you were thinking of using “daimon”?

(No response was sent by Carson to this question.)

The word daimon is an interesting word in ancient Greek and Euripides calls Dionysos a theos (god) or daimon interchangeably throughout the drama.  Liz Scafer, in her review of the staged production of the play, describes a note placed in the program so that audience members could get a better understanding of this enigmatic word: “Anne Carson’s witty version of Euripides’ play has Dionysos helpfully suggest that the audience think of him as a daimon (explained in the programme with a quotation from an old-time classical scholar as an “occult power, a force that drives man [sic] forward where no agent can be named’).”

Carson, in a Cahier entitled Nay Rather that was written for the series that is published by Sylph Editions, argues that a type of metaphysical silence happens when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another.  Carson’s example of this is taken from the word molu which appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Molu is a plant that is sacred to the gods, and Hermes gives this plant to Odysseus in order to protect himself from the magic of Circe.  Carson says about Homer’s use of this word and the intentional silence it engenders: “He wants this word to fall silent.  Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.  You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to the gods, the word stops itself.”

I was so intrigued by her non-translation of the word daimon as another example of this metaphysical silence, that I (stupidly? naively?) tried one final time to ask about her thought-process and selections for The Bakkhai:

Beck:  You’ve written about words that resist translation, that are untranslatable, using molu in Homer as an example.  Did you encounter any such words in The Bakkhai that are similarly untranslatable?

Carson: many, but in what language could i describe them to you?

What an apt and cryptic concluding response to this rather Pythian interview.



John Collier. The Priestess of Delphi. Oil on Canvas. 1891.

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Filed under Anne Carson, Author Interviews, Classics

May You Live in Interesting Times: My Interview with Estonian Author Rein Raud

Rein Raud was born in Estonia in 1961. Since 1974, he has published numerous poetry collections, short stories, novels, and plays. For his works he has received both the Estonian Cultural Endowment Annual Prize and the Vilde Prize. Having earned his PhD in Literary Theory from the University of Helsinki in 1994, Raud is also a widely published scholar of cultural theory as well as the literature and philosophy of both modern and pre-modern Japan.  His book The Brother, translated by Adam Cullen and published by Open Letter in 2016, is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, novella that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world.   Raud has described the book as “a spaghetti western told in poetic prose, simultaneously paying tribute to both Clint Eastwood and Alessandro Baricco.”  The structure of this book is a clever choice to deal with the philosophical and existential ideas that the author explores.

Raud’s second novel to be translated into English is The Reconstruction, also translated by Adam Cullen and published in April 2017 by Dalkey Archive Press.  Enn Padrick, the narrator of  The Reconstruction begins writing in a journal in order to catalog his private investigation into his young, adult daughter’s bizarre death.  In this book Raud captures the general mood of what I would call a resentful acceptance of Soviet occupation through Enn’s memories of his earlier life: “I was a Pioneer and a member of the Komsomol (the Leninist Young Communits League) and hated the Soviet regime just like everyone else—not especially believing that it would even end, but also not of the opinion that it could be served with integrity.”  Soviet rule lingers in the background of Enn’s life and has a great effect on his relationships, especially his marriage and his interactions with his in-laws.

The Death of the Perfect Sentence is Raud’s latest book to be translated into English by Matthew Hyde and published by Vagabond Voices.  The novel traces the plot of a group of Estonian youths who have formed an alliance to collect and smuggle secret KGB files out of Estonia.  The events in the novel take place just before the collapse of the Soviet Union and Raud provides a rich and multifaceted peek into the lives of everyday Estonians during this transitional time period.  I found it especially fascinating that the book allows us to see how different people and different generations dealt with life under Soviet rule.  The best writing and most enlightening parts of the book are the ones in which the author inserts his own voice and commentary into the fictional story.  Raud describes his life as an Estonian living during and after the occupation, his first trip to Finland, and his motivations for writing this book.

Our interview took place via e-mail over the course of a few weeks during May of 2017.  I found Rein to be personable, kind, intelligent and thoughtful.  I hope you enjoy reading his answers as much as I have.

Melissa Beck (MB): In addition to being a widely translated and read author, you are also a scholar and an expert in cultural theory as well as the literature and philosophy of pre-modern and modern Japan. Can you give us a professional background and tell us how you came to write fiction and have it translated into English?

Rein Raud (RR): Both of my parents have been free-lance writers as long as I remember, so books and reading have been a part of my world from the very beginning. Most Estonian homes have a big bookshelf, but even in comparison to those we had a huge library, inherited in part from my father’s stepfather, after whom I am named. He was a scholar with very wide interests, even though his fate did not let him realize those very well. He was deported to Siberia after WW II and never regained the position he had had before. But there were his books, including, for example, some works by D.T.Suzuki and Alan Watts, as well as Richard Wilhelm’s translations of Chinese philosophy into German. This is where I first got a taste of East Asian thought. Reading in foreign languages is a part of a proper Estonian education, since far from everything is readily available in our own. Under the Soviet occupation the knowledge of languages was especially important. The main source of reliable information about the world was the Finnish TV for us – the Soviets could not interfere with it, because then people in Helsinki would not have seen it either. The Finns never dubbed any films, so we could hear proper English, German, French and even Japanese or Arabic quite often from the screen. So when I was 10 years old my parents gave me a university textbook of Finnish and told me to learn the language, which I did. (Finnish is very similar to Estonian, the distance is less than between Italian and Spanish.) After that, learning languages became my hobby – I studied Swedish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and a few more, even a bit of Persian and Kiswahili.

With some of these languages I am still more or less comfortable, even though they need a bit of brushing up before going to these countries, some others I have forgotten. So when it was time to decide what I am going to study at the university, I already knew it had to be Asian languages and cultures. But I do not consider myself primarily an Asian Studies scholar, I’d rather like to think that what I have is a proper contemporary education, which is not based on any one single region of the world. And I am happy it lets me earn my keep, as freelance writing is no longer an option.

M.B.: Your three books that have been translated into English are so very different. But one common feature that I have noticed in all of them is your interesting choice of narrative structure and narrative voice, especially in The Death of the Perfect Sentence. Not only does the narrative change between the different characters, but you also insert your own voice into the text with personal experiences. Is there a particular author or books that inspired you to use and experiment with such interesting viewpoints?

R.R.: Estonian critics have also pointed that out and this may indeed be a characteristic of my writing – some authors keep writing the same book all over again, and sometimes very interestingly, but for me a book is done when it is done. Sometimes I want to revisit some topics and some moods, but there has to be something substantially different in the effort. And each story dictates its own way of telling. For The Death of the Perfect Sentence I did not find the proper form for a long time. I had even applied for a scholarship in order to write it and went to a beautiful writer’s home in Italy to work in peace and quiet, but when I had written a few pages I understood that I could not do it yet, I did not have the form. And wrote The Reconstruction instead, another story that had been bothering me for quite some time and was waiting to come out. But then, at a certain point, I realized that what had been missing from The Death of the Perfect Sentence was precisely my own voice. This was not a story that I could write as if standing on the outside. Maybe more than with any other of my novels it was difficult to take leave from it – even after I had written it, I felt its presence. So I also kept rewriting, inserted some new textboxes, left out some previous material and so on.

As to an influence – no, I don’t think there are any strongly present in that book. In some others, such as The Brother, for example, or Hotel Amalfi, which has not been translated, I know my text is the meeting point of several other authors who have been important for me for various reasons: The Brother is a “spaghetti western” conjoining the aesthetics of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood with a particularly sensitive way of writing that has haunted me since I first read Alessandro Baricco. Hotel Amalfi, in turn, is in dialogue simultaneously with Richard Brautigan and Gustav Meyrink, the Austrian teller of sombre tales. In both cases I thought that the streams that have come together in my book should in principle be incompatible, but when I later met Alessandro Baricco he told me that he had been just as fascinated by spaghetti western films in his youth.

M.B.: The complicated relationships that evolve between family members are a recurring tension in all of your books: Brother/sister, father/daughter, husband/wife. Did you write with these specific tensions in mind or do they materialize as your plot progresses in the writing process?

R.R.: Family has always been very important to me. I was raised that way and my own family is also like that – both me and my wife are in daily communication with both our children, and as we all work in creative areas, we can provide each other with outsider’s views of what we are doing. My characters have not always been so lucky, that is true. I think sometimes it is the source of people’s problems that they adopt, in regard with each other, the positions social conventions have suggested they should, instead of interacting with each other as the persons they are.

M.B.: All of your books have larger philosophical and existential themes. In the Brother, we are asked to contemplate freedom and what that means for an individual. In Reconstruction the role of religion, personal belief systems and the consequences when they are taken to their extremes is explored. And in The Death of the Perfect Sentence, the concept of trust, especially in Estonia as its citizens are struggling for freedom, is explored in great detail. Why do you think that fiction is the best genre to write about these ideas? Why not just write philosophical treaties or essays?

R.R.: Well, I have written quite a few philosophical texts as well. But academic philosophy is not what philosophy used to be. In one of my earlier novels entitled Hector and Bernard, one of the main characters (himself a professor of philosophy) says that “philosophy” means “love of wisdom” and so “professional philosophers” are “professional lovers of wisdom” and we all know what the expression “professional lovers” means. I do not quite share the scepticism, but it is true that such philosophical debates that could really change your life do not occur very often in academic philosophy, which is more and more about what A said about what B said about what C said. Fiction can thus be the ground where philosophical ideas can re-enter the world, so to say, even if it is only in the form of the stories we can tell about it.

M.B.: Your novel Reconstruction, in particular, deals with the aftermath of Soviet occupation and its impact on Estonian youth. The characters in this book are searching for a place to fit into the world and struggle with existential crises. What would you say has been the lingering effects of the Soviet era on Estonian society as a whole and in Estonian youth in particular?

R.R.: I have been teaching at universitites for the most part of my life now and have thus always had the opportunity to see what young and inquisitive minds are concerned with. And the transition between the intellectually fairly secure world of high school and the unfathomable world of possibilities offered at the university is difficult to many of them. You tell them that the jury is out, has been out for centuries, and most likely will stay out on one question or other, and it bothers them – they want the truth. Answers, not questions. Because if you are being told what the answers are and you then mould your world according to them, you have also escaped the basic responsibility that the fact of your personal freedom has stranded you with. And then it is so much easier later in life to blame anyone – the government, the society, your close ones – for your wrong choices. I have been wondering for years how it is even possible that when our societies become more and more pragmatic and science-based, religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are still on the rise rather than a forgotten thing of the past. I suppose the question is much more relevant for the United States than to Estonia – it is just that for us, the situation arrived in a much more abrupt manner. When the country was occupied and we thought of what it would be like to live in a free and democratic society, we never imagined that human stupidity will have such an important role in forming our environment. School shootings? Never. We just are not this kind of people. Unfortunately, the first school shooting has already occurred in Estonia as well. We haven’t yet had a collective religiously inspired suicide like the one I have described in my book – if it has contributed even a little toward avoiding it, it has done its job.

M.B.: What are the biggest differences you have seen in the type of literature being written by Estonian authors pre-occupation and post-occupation?

R.R.: The best writers whose main work was done during the years of occupation – Jaan Kross, for example, or Arvo Valton, or the many fine poets – contributed a lot toward the formation of a rather sophisticated literary culture. Books could be published in tens of thousands of print runs and were still not very easy to get – and that with a population of about one million. Of course, all published works were carefully censored, and the readers knew that very well. But they, too, had learned to read between the lines. Rich metaphors, subtle irony, abstract and absurd situations or historical narratives that had certain parallels with the present – all these were the only ways to describe the present that could not be touched directly. When the occupation ended, the literary culture changed quickly, as the naked present dominated the writing of many new authors and also the literary institution itself switched to capitalist mode. Books became less affordable especially for those in whose lives they had played a major part. Print runs became smaller, traditional bookstores gave way to new ones or just disappeared. Luckily, we have an institution called the Cultural Endowment, to which certain amount of the taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gambling are directed, and which gives out grants also for publishing houses so that they could publish Estonian literature – on purely economic terms this would not be feasible. So, to a certain extent we have managed to preserve the literary culture and many people still consider reading as one of their favourite ways to spend the time they can have for themselves. But, paradoxically, even though many of the most successful books published now are much easier to read, there are still fewer people who read them.

M.B.: Since you yourself are an expert translator and understand intimately the delicate art of translation, how closely do you work with the translators of your novels? How does this process work? Do conflicts arise and how do you solve them?

R.R.: I have been trying to read the translations of my books into the languages I can read in. With both my English translators I have also had a very good working relationship. Maybe the fact that I have translated myself makes me even better able to respect their choices. After all, what matters is that the end result sounds natural in the language of the translation, not that absolutely everything of what was there in the original gets transmitted at the expense of the clarity and readability (which, after all, were also there in the original). So normally I read the translation and only compare it to the original when something starts to bother me – and usually that is an expression the translator has misunderstood. Of course, some phrases and turns are more important than others, but I think a good translator feels them intuitively.

M.B.: In one of the personal asides in The Death of the Perfect Sentence you discuss the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But you turn this into a positive commentary about the fact that living in Estonia during the occupation gave you a great deal of perspective.  You state: “So what if this has stirred hungers in me which have damaged me? I am willing to pay that price, if only for the perspective it gave me, which is something I do not encounter in people who have lived under only one political order.” As someone who has only lived in one political system I have to agree with you.  Can you elaborate on this? 

R.R.: I most certainly hope that you will go on living in the same political system that has ruled in the United States throughout its history. Although the present situation has exposed some of its very significant flaws, it has historically been in the nature of democracy to self-correct and adapt to circumstances, which is something totalitarian systems cannot do. They either stand or fall, which is why in the end they always fall. Unfortunately they may inflict a lot of suffering on the people before that.

I personally believe that it is the capacity of human beings to think and act freely that is ultimately the reason for the greatest achievements of us all. But there is also another side to human nature, an instinct to value stability over risk, a willingness to believe in simple and truthful-sounding answers to complicated questions instead of thinking about them for oneself. It allows certain powers to cajole people into giving up their freedoms and submit to the caring gaze of various Big Brothers for the illusion of safety. I think my own experience makes me very sensitive to such things as ideologically motivated activities that concentrate the power of the state, or extol the alleged pre-eminence of one culture at the expense of others (even if that extolled culture is what I consider my own).

M.B.: In Sergei Lebedev’s book The Year of the Comet, he wrote that the impending fall of the Soviet Union was seen in very subtle ways by its people.  For instance, there was a lack of strange things in stores—there were plenty of shoes but no shoelaces.  In The Death of the Perfect Sentence you mention experiencing shortages and food rationing before occupation came to an end in Estonia. What other signs pointed to the collapse of communist rule in Estonia?

R.R.: Well, the fate of the regime was decided when the fear it was based upon started to go away. Gorbachev probably had no clue about the extent to which the regime was dependent on the currency of “alternative facts” when he encouraged the people to speak freely about the problems of the society. Its very structure was its basic problem. Even though for many people “freedom” also, or perhaps even primarily, meant the bountiful stores and supermarkets of capitalist economies, the revolt against the system in the Baltics was not an economical one. On the contrary – the was a common saying that we agree to eat potato peel, if only we can be free. But as long as the very basic principles of freedom do not matter to you, you cannot really be free. Even if you live in a free society.

M.B.: There a poignant scene in The Death of the Perfect Sentence in which one of the Estonian young men, Erwin, travels outside of Estonia for the very first time and gets a taste of freedom.  I know that you love to travel and visit different countries.  Do you remember the first time you traveled outside of Estonia and what that felt like?  Did this experience contribute to your love of travel nowadays?

R.R.: Yes – I had a hobby of learning the basics of quite a few foreign languages while still in high school. This allowed me to travel in my mind. The skills have come in quite handy now that I have been able to visit many of these cities I could only imagine in my thoughts, and many more. You may remember how, in The Reconstruction, the narrator tells about having to explain during a French lesson how to get from the Louvre to the church of Notre-Dame, while neither himself nor his teacher believed they would ever be able to visit Paris. This was very much what happened during our English lessons at school.

When my mother, who was born in 1932, was first able to visit Finland somewhere in the late 1970s, she said that the trip felt a bit like returning home after a long stay in a foreign country. Indeed, I suppose Estonia would have looked more or less what Finland looked like, if the occupation had not taken place. For me, it resembled a home I had never visited, but which had existed as an idea throughout my life.

M.B.: I found it interesting that The Death of the Perfect Sentence veers into a romantic plot of sorts between an Estonian woman and a Russian man.  For me it served to highlight the tension between these cultures and the occupier versus the occupied.  What made you decide to include this romance as part of the plot?

R.R.: There are two such pairs actually: the relationship between Lidia and Raim, even if twisted and poisoned by insincere motivation, is a mirror image of that between Maarja and Alex, the young lovers. I never thought of Alex as the personifier of the occupier – rather, he seems to me as a representative of the Russia that might have been, and that could be briefly glimpsed during some of the Yeltsin years. Alex is a kindred spirit of those thousands of Muscovites who stood up against the coup in 1991 and defended their parliament from the military – and who had never had a problem with the independence of the Baltics or any of the satellite states of the USSR. However, in the relationship between Raim and Lidia, a young and nationalist Estonian man with an apolitical, but kind and decent Russian woman, a bit of the problem is reflected that was to emerge between Estonians and Russian-speaking minority after liberation. Quite a few Russians were not very enthusiastic about the Soviet system either, but a long period of totalitarianism (and not much to remember from before that time) had lured them into a disposition of submissiveness to the powers. After all, they considered the Soviet Union to be their state, which Estonians never did – for us, it was just an evil that had to be lived with, until there was a chance not to. So Lidia does not see working as a typist for the KGB to be a moral problem, but betraying herself and her higher human values is something she is not capable of. For Raim, unfortunately, the opposite is the case – unless we concede that the fight for freedom can be the highest human value that can justify other betrayals. A complicated question, yes, but things are never simple. And this is precisely where the duty of the writer emerges – to speak about the fates of those singular people who were, but should not have been crushed by the wheels of history, even if those wheels are moving in a very desirable direction. It is only later that narratives of history are produced for mass consumption, and I thought it my duty to write against the current narrative of the history of Estonian liberation – not because it would be completely wrong, of course, but because it is too simple.

M.B.: In one of your personal aside in The Death of the Perfect Sentence you write about your Grandad who, among other adventures, trained to become a nurse under tsarism.  Do you think will ever write that book?  What writing projects are you currently working on?  Can we look forward to more of your novels being translated into English?

R.R.: I certainly hope that I will at one point be able to take up The Plague Train – this is the intended title for the book about the humanitarian train that Tsarist Russia sent to Manchuria to vaccinate people and to help to stop the spread of plague there. One of the wagons of that train carried huge amounts of spirits and the nurses, my grandfather among them, who did the vaccinations, were almost constantly drunk – because of fear. My grandfather never spoke about these experiences to my mother (he died before I was born, so I only know all this second-hand), and I can infer something only from one episode – in a station he went to the toilet and saw a corpse there, immediately retreated, but never told anyone else, as then they would have feared that he might be infected and refrain from contact with him. A secluded, even if moving space, with lots of ambitious drunk young men in it, all afraid of their environment, and possibly of each other – a really dramatic situation, if you think of it. So yes, I definitely want to write that one day, but it needs lots of research.

And that book will have to wait, as I have several others on my table. I am just now putting the finishing touches on another long-term project entitled The Clock and the Hammer after an ancient Nordic card game. This is my longest novel yet (longer than The Reconstruction and The Death of the Perfect Sentence put together) and happens mostly in an imagined country manour on the Northern coast of Estonia. We see it in four historical periods: the early 19th century when it was reconstructed by an eccentric Baltic German aristocrat (of whose travels in the world we also learn), in the late 1940s, when an orphanage works in that same building, in the end of the 1970s, when it is a kolkhoz office and is reconstructed so that it could become a cultural centre (as many such manours historically were), and, finally, in 2016, when it is a museum that houses the art collections of the aforementioned aristocrat. Each historical period has its own bit to add to the general narrative. The first pages of this were written down already in 1987, but after that it was always too difficult to write it, because the present was changing so quickly. Other ideas took over in the meantime, and now I am actually very happy I never had the chance to finish the book in such an early period of my life, as it is now quite obviously much more mature than it would have been. Then there is another manuscript, more or less ready, but cooling off for almost a year now, a story that runs in two parallel lines – one in an experimental prison that tries to reform a small group of convicts by teaching them creative writing, and the other dealing with a journalist’s independent murder investigation of a controversial politician. At a certain point, the lines converge. So yes, there will be more novels, and these, too will all differ from each other.


Filed under Author Interviews

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


© K. Redondo

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.



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.


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:  and a review of Odessa Stories from The Guardian here:  Boris also has an impressive resume of translations and writings, the full list of which can be viewed on his website:




Filed under Author Interviews, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature