Category Archives: Russian Literature

Review: The Underground By Hamid Ismailov

My Review:
the-undergroundCaveat lector.  Let the reader beware.  This book is deeply sad and does not have a happy ending.  But for many readers a happy ending is not a necessary factor for a book to be considered successful  The narrator of Ismailov’s novel is a child nicknamed Mbobo whose mother is from Siberia and whose father is an unknown African athlete that visited Moscow, and his mother, during the Olympics in 1980.  The boy’s sad story of a tumultuous childhood fraught with domestic violence and racism is told posthumously: “My mother died when I was eight, and I died four years later.”

As a boy, Mbobo oftentimes finds himself being taken from one part of Moscow to another via the city’s subway.  Each of the title chapters in the book is a station from the Moscow underground which is appropriate for the themes of darkness and death that are woven throughout the narrative.  The chapter entitled “Kropotkinskaya Station” begins:

If I ever wanted a tomb for my dead body, I would have picked the Kropotkinskaya Station. That is my vault: elegant and airy, impractical and absurd, standing all by itself, in the middle of the road, like an arch from nowhere to nowhere. If you find yourself on Volkhonk Street and pass under this frilly gape of an arch, you should turn left, you’ll end up in my underground hell, the very station where I, the stoker-imp, am covered in soot. There fountains of flames spurt up toward the hot ceiling from the torch-like pillars, where the light of day is never seen.

Because Mbobo is black he suffers from horrible, daily episodes of racism throughout his young life.  His nickname, Pushkin–the poet’s maternal great- grandfather came to Russia from Ethiopia with Peter the Great— is even a cruel reminder that he is not like everyone else.  When he is at school he is pushed by a bully and he suffers a severe concussion.  While recovering at the hospital, which should have been a safe resting place for him, two other boys tie him up and call him awful, racist names.

The only real solace in his life is the unconditional love shown to him by his mother, whose name is Moscow. He calls her “Mommy Moscow.”  But she has her own issues with alcohol and promiscuity which also affect Mbobo’s life.  Her husband,  whom the child calls Uncle Gleb, is a struggling writer.  On the rare occasions when he does get paid he spends his earnings on vodka and then beats his wife.  Mbobo witnesses regular episodes of domestic violence and oftentimes tries to intervene to stop Uncle Gleb from killing his mother.  When she finally gets tired of his drunken beatings, Mbobo’s mother takes up with a railway police officer named Uncle Nazar.  Even though his second stepfather is kinder to his mother, he is stern and distant with the boy.

When Mbobo’s mother succumbs to her intemperate lifestyle, he is left orphaned.  He bounces between his uncles who attempt to care for him but with the loss of the unconditional love of his mother he is drowned in his feelings of utter and complete loneliness.  These tragedies happen to Mbobo with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union as the backdrop.  One of the final tragedies that the boy experiences is the renaming of his underground stations that had been one of the few constants in his short life.

The book is fused with literary allusions to the Russian greats: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Platonov all peak through Ismailov’s text.  The greatest of greats, Tolstoy himself, makes his appearance at the end of the novel which has a conclusion similar to that of Anna Karenina.  Despite the melancholy ending, Ismailov’s talented writing about identity, race, loneliness and the collapse of a government make it a highly successful literary novel.

Ben Winston, who has founded the site Vibrant Margins which is dedicated to bringing small press books to readers through a subscription service, has agreed to give a copy of The Underground as well as Country Life by Ken Edwards to one of my readers. Both of these books, which are great literary reads,  are included in the first subscription season of Vibrant Margins.   If you would like a copy of these books then just leave me a comment and I will randomly pick one US reader.   So that my friends outside the US will also have a chance to read these books,  I will also pick one International reader to win my own copies of these books.

About the Author:
hamidismailovBorn in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials. Under threat of arrest, he moved to London and joined the BBC World Service, where he is now Head of the Central Asian Service. In addition to journalism, Ismailov is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his books have been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and other languages. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan. He is the author of many novels, including Sobranie UtonchyonnyhLe Vagabond Flamboyant, Two Lost to LifeThe RailwayHostage to Celestial TurksGoogling for SoulThe UndergroundA Poet and Bin-Laden, and The Dead Lake; poetry collections including Sad (Garden) and Pustynya (Desert); and books of visual poetry including Post Faustum and Kniga Otsutstvi. He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages.

 

 

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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Filed under Classics, Novella, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Written in the Dark—Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

My Review:
written-in-the-darkThe official, state sponsored view of the Siege of Leningrad was one of heroism and valor and any piece of writing whether it be fiction, non-fiction or poetry that did not align with the Soviet vision of the Siege was suppressed.  The dark and shocking works of the five poets in this collection were written in secret and not uncovered or published until many years after the war and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Nazi siege of this Russian city lasted from September 1941 until January of 1944 with an estimated death toll reaching nearly 1,000,000 lives.  The Soviet Union propogated a version of this event that portrayed stoic Russians valiantly enduring the long, German offensive;  the brutality and horror that occurred in the city were buried with those who died during the Siege.  In the introduction to the collection, Polina Barskova writes about the official, state approved, Soviet poetry that was allowed to be published about the Siege:

The “exemplary” Siege self presented to the world in this kind of literature was that of the stoic Soviet soldier.  Even women, children and the elderly were depicted as warriors and likened to the city’s monuments —carved of marble and decorated with gold.  It is these ubiquitous monuments that told, as I recall from my Leningrad childhood, the retouched story of the Siege—filled with hypocritical pathos and barren of the horrific truth.  The truth, however, does emerge, sooner or later.

During the era of perestroika, poetry that was written during the Siege and suppressed by the Soviet regime began to emerge and to give the world a more accurate glimpse into the suffering and death that was thrust upon this city during World War II.  The poets in this collection include Gennady Gor (1907-1981), the artist and film set director Pavel Zaltsman (1912-1985), the philologist Dmitry Maximov (1904-1987), the avant-garde painter Vladimir Sterligov (1904-1973), and the poet-philologist Sergey Rudakov (1909-1944).

The most brutally shocking poems in the book are written by Gennady Gor who became a well-known scholar, science fiction writer and collector of the art of Northern ethnicities when the war was over.  There is an emphasis throughout his poems on cannibalism which is believed to have been widely practiced during the height of the Siege. Even carrion birds are deprived of any meals because there simply is nothing left:

I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom.
At hwo slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing.
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Gor’s poems are obsessed with rotting and cold body parts, even when they are not being eaten.  His emphasis on descriptions of  body parts evokes the images of citizens lying in the streets, completely forgotten. His description of the pervading darkness reminds us of the black nights endured by the citizens because they were constantly under attack by the Germans. Even the moon is not welcome under these horrendous circumstances. Gor reveals the mental and emotional toll that this Siege took on its survivors, which stark details were forbidden to be written about in the official, Soviet poetry:

With a shock wave in my ears,
A cold moon in my soul,
I am a shot to insanity. I am both
Check and mate to myself. I am mute. Now I
Am nothing and running toward nothing.
Now I am no one’s and rushing to no one.
A shock wave in my mouth,
A cold moon in my dark,
A leg in my corner, an arm in my ditch,
The eyes that fell out of my sockets,
A finger forgotten in one of the clinics,
An unneeded moon in my dark.

After reading Vladimir Stergilov’s poems I was stunned that this man could not only survive the Siege, but also serve at the Leningrad Front, and then after the war return to this city where he became a successful artist in the underground, unofficial, avant-garde world of art.  One wonders how could a man who wrote this poem go on after these experiences:

Raised a spoon to your lips—Death
Stretched out your hand to hello—Death
Saw a little goldfinch—Death
On the branch of a little leaf—Death
On a walk with your friends—Death
Looked at the cabbage on the plate—Death
Seeing your friends off, two of them—Death
Happened to glance to the side—Death.

Stergilov’s use of epistrophe with the word “Death” underscores the sheer terror that hovers over the most mundane, daily activities like eating or greeting a friend or walking in the park.

One final poet in the collection that stands out is Sergey Rudakov who elevates the themes of his poetry to encompass the larger event that is the destruction of Leningrad,  a once proud and prosperous stronghold of the Russian state.  He is the only one of these five poets who mentions his native city repeatedly in his Siege poems. In this first excerpt there is a feeling of nostalgia for his beloved city which is no longer recognizable to him:

The poor heart is both happy and unhappy
To recognize in searchlight crosses, to the west,
The native sky of Leningrad.

In the next poem in which he mentions the city there is an emphasis on the wasteland that  his city has become with its empty apartments, streets and shops:

In the wasteland of Leningrad
Clocks still tell time somewhere.
But do not trust their wheels’ gait
Nor the arc of their springs.
Blind Charon keeps idle:
There are no normal burials.

RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Leningraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

And in one final poem he uses the city’s former name, perhaps in an attempt to remember what a great city it once was before the Germans invaded. There is also an emphasis in this poem on the scores of unburied dead that were strewn on the city streets:
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…In those far off years
Which future grandchildren
Will never come to know
In pale accounts of science,
Those days immemorial
Were lost in dreadful frosts.
In makeshift huts, the futile fires
Warmed soups of glue
And glucose for the living.
The dead outnumbered coffins.
The rout of Petersburg abandoned
Without a burial their own.

As difficult as these poems are to read, they are a reminder of the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit.  Rudakov aptly writes that future grandchildren will not come to know the true brutality of the Siege because as time slips by, so do our memories fade.  Our minds, our hearts, our souls have the greatest capacity to overcome the most unspeakable tragedies; this collection of poems puts into perspective the seemingly trivial problems that we might have on a day to day basis—trivial, at least, in comparison to surviving the Siege of Leningrad.

For more information on each of the authors of the collection as well as the editor visit Ugly Duckling Presse.

 

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Filed under Poetry, Russian Literature

Review: Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Boris Dralyuk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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