Category Archives: Pushkin Press

My Reading List for Poetry Month

Since April is poetry month I thought I would share a few of the poetry collections that I intend to read and write about this month.

I have two poetry books from my favorite small press, Seagull Books.  The first is a collection entitled in field Latin by German author Lutz Seiler and translated by Alexander Booth.  Seiler grew up in the former East Germany and his poetry is full of images that deal with the borders and boundaries of landscapes.

Things that Happen and Other Poems by the Bengali poet Bhaskar Chakrabarti , also published by Seagull Books, has been translated by Arunava Sinha. A deep sense of melancholy pervades Chakrabarti’s poems.

I am especially looking forward to the collection of poetry entitled 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. This volume was edited by Boris Dralyuk whom I had the great fortune to interview about his translation of Odessa Stories.

I also have a collection of poetry from Ugly Duckling Presse entitled The Happy End/All Welcome by Monica de la Torre. The setting for these poems is a job fair by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. So far I have found the first few poems to be both clever and witty.

Finally, I intend to read Dante’s The New Life translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which was reissued by The New York Review of Books Poetry. I have not taken the time to read any Dante in quite a while so I am particularly looking forward to reading this work.

What is everyone else reading for poetry month?

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Filed under German Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman by Stefan Zweig

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  This novella was published in the original German in 1925 and this English version has been translated by Anthea Bell.

My Review:
twenty-four-hoursStefan Zweig is a master at writing short stories that are full of descriptive details, interesting characters and surprise plot twists.  It is truly amazing that he manages to do this all within the span of 100 pages.  The setting of this short piece is a hotel on the French Riviera where a group of upper class citizens from various countries are vacationing.  A shocking social incident has occurred within their social circle and this scandal has all of the guests arguing and gossiping.

The narrator, who never gives us his name, is staying on the Riveria and interacts with the other guests, incluing a German husband and wife, a “portly” Dane, an Italian married couple, and a distinguished and older English lady.  This group of strangers usually just engage in small talk and mild jokes while eating their meals, but the disappearance of Madame Henriette has disturbed their peaceful routine.  A young, handsome and garrulous Frenchman arrived at the hotel on the previous day and captivated everyone’s attention.  Zweig shows his skill at describing characters with just the right mix of adjectives and metaphors:

Indeed everything about him was soft, endearing, charming, but without any artifice or affectation.  At a distance he might at first remind you slightly of those pink wax dummies to be seen adopting dandified poses in the window displays of large fashion stores, walking-stick in hand and representing the ideal of male beauty, but closer inspection dispelled any impression of foppishness, for—most unusually—his charm was natural and innate, and seemed an inseparable part of him.

The shock comes when Madame Henriette, the wife of a wealthy businessman, disappears with the Frenchman after knowing him for only a couple of days.  All of the guests at the hotel are very quick to condemn and judge Henriette for throwing away her marriage, her children and her reputation.  The narrator is the only person who comes to Henriette’s defense and reminds the guests that it might have been possible that Henriette was caught in a “tedious, disappointing marriage” and thus had a valid reason for running off with a young man who was virtually a stranger.  This heated debate has a profound effect on Mrs. C, the distinguished English lady, who requests a private meeting with the narrator.

The story that Mrs. C. tells the narrator involves an incident in her life when she was forty-two, some twenty years earlier.  The incident had left her so embarrassed and mortified that she never told a word of it to another soul, until now.  Henriette’s impulsive decision to run away with the Frenchman has brought up old memories for Mrs. C. and she wants to unburden her soul from the guilt of her own folly.  Mrs. C. tells the narrator that, as a widow who lost her husband to an unexpected illness, she traveled around Europe while grieving for her beloved spouse.  Alone and miserable, she finds herself in Monte Carlo, one of her husband’s favorite places for entertainment, and meets a twenty-four-year old man with a serious gambling problem.

The events that unfold between Mrs. C. and the gambler bring up feelings of passion, anger, redemption, impulsivity and regret.  I don’t want to give away what happens between the widow and the young man, but I will say that Zweig has a gift for writing shocking and unexpected plot turns.  I never would have guessed the ending to Mrs. C’s story and I was riveted until the very last page of this short book.  Zweig shows us that he is an astute observer of human emotions; love, loneliness, passion and sexual desire can make us lose our minds and do irrational things which are completely out of character.

One final aspect of Zweig’s writing that must be mentioned is his careful attention to detail, even in a short work like this novella.  When Mrs. C. arrives at the casino, she describes the chiromancy—guessing a person’s moves by observing their hands— that her husband had taught her.  This English woman spent hours observing the players’ hands which are much more telling than facial expression.  Zweig writes about Mrs. C’s practice of chiromancy:

All those pale, moving, waiting hands around the green table, all emerging from the ever-different caverns of the players’ sleeves, each a beast of prey ready to leap, each varying in shape and colour, some bare, others laden with rings and clinking bracelets, some hairy like wild beasts, some damp and writhing like eels, but all of them tense, vibrating with a vast impatience.

Zweig’s description of the players via their hands is absolutely fascinating and absorbing and is another surprising gem found within the pages of this short piece.

November is German Lit. Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  The full list of reviews for this event can be found here: http://germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk/ and on Twitter #GermanLitMonth.

About the Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Novella, Pushkin Press

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

Review: Whispers Through a Megaphone by Rachael Elliott

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.

My Review:
MegaphoneThe two main characters in this book have allowed other people to influence their lives to the point of misery.  When their stories finally intersect, they serve as a comfort for each other and form a kind of unconditional friendship that both of them have desperately needed.  Miriam hasn’t left her house in three years because of a traumatic incident for which she wrongly blames herself.  As we get to know Miriam we learn that her mental health issues have stemmed from a lifetime of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her mother.

It is very difficult to read about Miriam’s story and I usually avoid books that describe child or animal abuse because it is just too upsetting.  But Miriam’s resilient spirit and her drive to put the past behind her is uplifting.  She is told when she is a very young child that her father died when she was an infant and the only other family member that she has any contact with is her maternal grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother has not allowed her to see her grandmother and so her only source of comfort are letters from her grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother is so cruel and jealous that she puts a stop to the letters which causes Miriam additional mental anguish.  The cruelest punishment that is imposed on Miriam is that she is never allowed to talk above a whisper because her mother can’t stand any noise.  The punishment for speaking above a whisper in her mother’s presence is nothing short of torture.  As an adult Miriam continues to speak at a whisper and cannot break this abusive habit forced on her by her mother.

Ralph is also unhappy when we first meet him, but the source of his anxiety is his bizarre, demanding and overpowering wife.  Ralph and Sadie met while in college and if she didn’t become pregnant with twins then the relationship would never have lasted.  Sadie is bitter that she is forced to give up on her degree and the budding relationship with her roommate Allie.  Sadie’s questioning of her sexuality and her unhappiness in something that has always stood in the way of Ralph and Sadie’s marriage.  When Ralph accidentally uncovers this astounding secret, he flees his house and decides to live alone in the woods.  It is in this woods that Miriam comes upon him during what is her first day out of her house in three years.

I have to admit that I was reading their separate stories at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t convinced that these two people with such separate lives would meet in a way that was believable.  But Elliott masterfully weaves together the story so that Ralph and Miriam encounter each other under just the right circumstances.  They are both kindhearted people and their sincere compassion allows them to give each other honest and frank opinions.  Miriam slowly comes back to the world of the living and gains the courage to get a job and even go on a date.  Ralph finally decides to go home and face his teenage sons and the wreck of his marriage.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is an uplifting book that shows us it’s never too late in life to form a friendship that is meaningful and gratifying.  Great characters, an interesting plot and clever writing all make for a successful first book from Elliott.

About the Author:
R ElliottRachel Elliott is a writer and psychotherapist. She has worked in arts and technology journalism and her writing has featured in a variety of publications, from digital arts magazines to the French Literary Review. She has also been shortlisted for a number of short story and novel competitions in the UK and the US. Rachel was born in Suffolk, and now lives in Bath. Whispers Through a Megaphone is her first novel. It was longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For more information about the book and to hear Rachel read an excerpt visit the Pushkin Press website:  http://pushkinpress.com/rachel-elliott-reads-from-whispers-through-a-megaphone/

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Filed under British Literature, Pushkin Press, Summer Reading