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Russian Literature

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While not in the category of Russian Literature my favorite is "Bronislava Nijinska's Early Memoirs"---it has the sweep of a Russian novel.

There was supposed to be a sequel, but her daughter Irina who edited the first volume passed away.

Thanks for the suggestion - I wasn't aware Nijinska had written a memoir.

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As far as Bulgakov is concerned I understand from a friend who speaks Estonian that a more complete edition of the Master and Margarita has been published recently and has been translated into Estonian. I wonder how long before it appears in English? His other works are well worth reading.

A Country Doctor's Notebook,in which a newly qualified doctor is let loose upon the world,terrified by one procedure which haunts him a bit like the question you dread seeing on an exam paper; he finds support from the nurses who work with him.At the end, during the civil war, he has a run in with someone on the other side who is armed.He survives the encounter and when he is aked by a listener whether he killed the other man his reply is wonderfully enigmatic. He says, if I recall correctly, "I am a doctor".

The Heart of a Dog in which a man's heart is transplanted into a dog by an eminent professor;the result is something pf a disaster.The White Guard, the civil war from the point of view of an ordinary middle class family on the losing side and Black Snow. The latter a brilliantly funny account of the attempt of the innocent writer Maxudov's experience of having a play staged by the Independent Theatre ( a thinly disguised Moscow Arts Theatre).Even in translation it is a comic masterpiece. To add to the discussion about translation the editions that I have read were all translated by Michael Glenny who writes idiomatic English.

I had a look at the Guardian article about translations and I am afraid that I found the modern examples that were quoted in the piece exceptionally poor.They were the sort of thing that as a school child required to translate from Russian into English you would have had returned to you with an order to write it in recognisably idiomatic English rather than Russian as English. Every language has its idiomatic phrases for which there is no direct word for word translation which as a school child you have to learn.I think that the words used in English and French for the activity of rendering a foreign language into the local one contain the warning that you will not receive a verbatim account of the original. You know, if you have any knowledge of a foreign language that when you read a work in translation it can not be a verbatim account of the original text since there are idiomatic phrases that do not transfer from one language to another and in every language their are phrases and words that bring a lot of cultural baggage with them. You trust that the translator will have sufficient knowledge of both languages to achieve the same effect as the original in his or her translation. If the original text has an idiomatic phrase that has something significant in it which can not be translated then you write good English and use a footnote.What you don't want is a translation that creates a wholly erroneous impression. The Guardian article gave two translations of the same descriptive passage. In the older translation the translator had chosen to describe the bird's nest as a "rook's nest" in the more uptodate translation the words chosen was "crow's nest " which conjured up all sorts of unintended images.

I would agree with the person who mentioned Victor Serge he is really worth reading. The Case of Comrade Tuleyev is excellent, as is Men in Prison and the other titles in the Trilogy.One thing I would like to ask and it is this whatever happened to Solzhenitsyn? All the while he was in Russia and having trouble with the authorities there he was the great man of literature.When he came to the West he became critical of the West and eventually went back to Russia. He was engaged in producing a twentieth century War and Peace. The first book August 1914 was translated and published in the West. I believe that at least one further volume was published in Russia but I am not aware that it has been translated and published in the West. Does anyone know about this work ? Did it get published in translation anywhere in the West?

Is Solzhenitsyn a case of a writer being suppressed at different times by both sides? Has his name slipped from general consciousness because he was not that good a writer or was he dropped because he did not remain grateful and positive about life in the West? It really does puzzle me.


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Thank you for reviving this thread, AshtonFan, and your comments on the Guardian piece.

Is Solzhenitsyn a case of a writer being suppressed at different times by both sides? Has his name slipped from general consciousness because he was not that good a writer or was he dropped because he did not remain grateful and positive about life in the West? It really does puzzle me.

A bit of both, I should think.

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Some translations are incompetent of course--and all translations are, from a certain point of view, inadequate--but there is genuine debate among translators (and theorists of translation) about how much a translation should try to make a work sound 'idiomatic' in its new language and how much it should retain a bit of its 'foreign' flavor including unfamiliar idioms etc. For translators into English, the goal is then--at least as I understand it--to push the boundaries of English and make it feel and sound "Russian" or "Spanish" or "Italian" etc. ...(I have no opinion about the particular Russian translations being discussed.)

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As I understand it there are a number of problems with translating nineteenth century Russian literature. One, which many of the exiles spoke of,was the change in the language after the Revolution.According to the late Kyril Zinovieff the change in the language meant that many allusions and idiomatic phrases in these texts which would have been immediately recognisable to a pre- revolutionary readership no longer register with a modern Russian readership let alone modern translators whose first language is English. An interesting question, of course, is whether this change was any more marked in Russia than the changes which took place in most languages during the course of the twentieth century. In most languages the literary form differs from general usage being more concerned with linguistic and grammatical correctness,heritage and allusion than is the case in day to day speech.The literary form often retains words that are otherwise all but obsolete Although few nations go as far as the French who have a special form of the perfect tense reserved for literary use the literary form of most languages retain words, which if they ever were in common usage, are rarely used in daily speech but can be of use in scrabble.

As far as Russian literary language is concerned the most obvious change in the twentieth century was the elimination of the monied leisured class from which the majority of nineteenth century Russian writers were drawn, but there are other factors.The push for universal literacy in Russia also had an impact on its modern literature . A significant number of the short stories written and published after the Revolution were, as I understand it, required to be relatively simple in language and structure as part of the literacy drive.I have always assumed that the persecution of the orthodox church and the adoption of atheism also played their part in cutting the now literate population off from a full knowledge and understanding of their literary past.In much the same way that reading English literature without any knowledge of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book has an impact on reading and appreciating much English literature.

The question about how far a translation should attempt to reflect the words and usage of the writer of the original language is an interesting one. Surely it is the difference between a "student's crib", which is a word for word translation however weird the result, and a rendition of the work in readable form. I am not sure that I need a translation that shows me that it is common practice to switch between tenses in the way that happens in some of the most modern translations. If it is commonplace in Russian prose then it will have no impact on the Russian reader unlike the English reader for whom the effect of this uncertainty of tense may render the prose heavy going, if not, unreadable. For everyone who finds the student revision notes type of translation a revelation because it reminds the reader that it is a work of foreign writer, there is someone who finds the resulting prose jarring, awkward,off putting and weird. Now that would not be so bad if there were a large number of translations readily available at the one time but that is not the case everywhere.At the present moment it seems to be the case that the most recent translations are pushed relentlessly and you have to search for the older more readable ones, even on the internet.

I am not sure what proportion of the population, other than students, read literature.A relatively small one I expect. Of those who read literature voluntarily only a small portion seem to read translations of foreign classics and far fewer read modern works in translation.I am not convinced that translations that a significant number of readers find annoying and jarring are the way to encourage people to try foreign literature. As far as Russian literature is concerned many potential readers are put off the works of nineteenth century authors by the idea that their books are heavy tomes that would have benefitted from the intervention of a ruthless editor;peopled by characters whose names seem to change page by page and whose lives are involve lots of suffering and are rarely touched by humour.I am not sure that the body count is any higher in Russian literary works but lots of people believe that characters in these works are more inclined to suicide than the average perhaps it is a stereotype but it is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of other European literatures.

I know that it is just a question of picking up the right book in a readable translation but the fact that the short story seems to be completely out of fashion does not help. There are plenty of Russian short stories but because the form is not fashionable you have to look for them and in order to do that you have to know that they exist. I think that the best starting point for getting to know Russian literature are works like the Captain's Daughter and Chekhov's short stories.Works that entrance and infuriate because they are so perfect in their construction and economy.You would love to write like that but you know that you never will because, unlike Chekhov, you were never anointed with oil.

I think that I may be able to answer my own question about Solzhenitsyn's four volume work about the coming of the Revolution. The first two volumes were translated and published in the West.I wonder how well the second volume November 1916 sold ? I imagine that Western publishers thought that the two volumes set in 1917 weren't worth the effort of translating given the likely sales.It will be interesting to see whether they will take the same view in 2017.Perhaps the third and fourth volumes will be published in English then.


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I read my first great Russian novel as a teen for a Russian history course I took while a junior in high school. I then gobbled up most of the Tostoy and Dostoyevsky novels in the next couple years. Most of the translations were the Garnett ones, although the first time I read Anna Karenina, the translator was Rosemary Edmonds. I reread it two years ago, a different translator, but can't recall who it was. Throughout my life, I've reread most of these novels - War &Peace every decade ( I'm beginning to identify with the elderly characters, hehe) - a different translator quite by accident each time. Until a few years ago, my heart was with Garnett and the two Maudes.

But then I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. More recently, I read their translations of Crime & Punishment and "The Brothers Karamazov" (finished it a month ago). I love them. They revived the humor in those novels, especially War & Peace. I think that reading more than one translation has provided me with a deeper understanding. Translations are always flawed. What one translator misses, another corrects, and the cycle continues.

Here's the article I read in 2005 that sent me to the Pevear/Volokhonsky versions: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/11/07/the-translation-wars

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Having tracked down and read Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 I can only assume that the muted response that it received on publication was the combined effect of its length and subject matter.It is well over six hundred pages in length and deals with the first few days of Russia's disastrous involvement in World War I rather than following on with the themes which had made his reputation.The Battle of Tannenberg is not of much significance to people in Britain for whom World War I is about the war poets; the.Rush to the Sea;the Old Contemptibles;Mons;the Marne; the Somme;the Western Front; the Dardanelle campaign; the U Boat campaign and the Battle of Jutland not about east Prussia in the first few days after war was declared. I suspect that its subject matter is even more remote and obscure for readers in the US.

Apart from the subject matter concerning "far away people of whom we know nothing" the fact that the first seventy or so pages are given over to exposition is,no doubt a barrier to some readers.You do have to want to read it to get through the introductory chapters in which the reader meets the characters both historical and fictional with whom the reader will follow the first few days of Russia's involvement in the "War to End All Wars", but it is worth it. It is fast moving and really brings the campaign to life in a way that I suspect that only someone who has been to war can do.I do not think that Michael Glenny's translation gets in the way of the author in his description of the endurance of the troops and the general incompetence and self serving actions of the Generals on the ground and the General Staff who all seem to owe their positions to their connections or lack of them. I came across a review of the book on a website in which the reader said he was unsure whether it was intended to be a work of fiction or a history which I think is high praise for this type of large scale historical novel which can so easily go wrong.

I now feel compelled to read the second volume in this series of novels which deal with Russia in the lead up to the Revolution which was translated into English and am seriously contemplating wading through the third and fourth volumes which are available, but only in French.

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Slightly off track but connected to August 1914 here are a couple of books that should not be missed one a work of fiction and two autobiographies.The first is Joseph Roth's Radetzky March which follows the fortunes of the family of a peasant who accidentally saves the life of Franz Joseph in battle and becomes a man whose heroic exploit is recounted in school textbooks.It ends with the death of a junior officer carrying water to his men at the beginning of the Galician campaign .

The second book is a short autobiographical account of the effect of the first weeks of war on a young artist who is on holiday when it is declared. We follow him to war, again in the Galician campaign, where he is wounded and then returns to his parents and a life which now feels unreal. Although the book does not dwell on it, the description of the way in which his fellow guests who only the day before had been on friendly terms with each other react to the declaration of war by sitting in culturally and linguistically defined groups makes it clear that WW I was not only the end of peace but of a way of life that was only possible under the linguistically and culturally diverse empire that was Austria Hungary.

Each year when I was at senior school we were given a reading list which I suspect most of us ignored. I can only recall reading one of them and that was only because I had read other books by the same author.The book in question was Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves which tells the reader about Graves' school days and his experience as a junior officer on the Western Front.A quite extraordinary account of what proved for most young men posted there to be a life to be counted in weeks rather than months. It really is a must read book.

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As the topic has shifted its focus may I point you in another direction as far as English fiction is concerned ? The rural novel a genre favoured by great writers such as Thomas Hardy and lesser ones like Mary Webb.Their books are not concerned with the middle classes but with the rural working poor, usually living in remote locations such as rural Dorset, whose way of life, the author and their readers liked to believe, was untouched by the rapid changes which had affected the town dweller.The characters in these novels live simpler and more "real" lives than the town dweller ever can.

Stella Gibbons' novel Cold Comfort Farm sends up the entire genre and effectively demolished Webb's reputation. Although it was published in 1932 it is still very funny.Gibbons clearly has the authors of overwrought sentences in her sights. She assists by drawing the reader's attention to her best prose passages and grading them. Enjoy!

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If you happen to be well-versed in classic Russian Literature, I recommend Vladimir Nabokov's last novel written in Russian, The Gift. It is essentially autobiographical-fiction, borrowing many details from his own life as a young man in Berlin. The book is full of Russian literary references, and supposedly each chapter follows the style of a figure of Russian literature: "There is a chapter written in Pushkin's style, one in Gogol style, and the fourth chapter is reproduces the style of Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin." I won't say it is an easy read, Nabokov delights in difficulties, but every few pages the reader will come upon another marvelous passage.

"One night between sunset and river
On the old bridge we stood, you and I.
Will you ever forget it, I queried,
- That particular swift that went by?
And you answered, so earnestly: Never!

And what sobs made us suddenly shiver,
What a cry life emitted in flight!
Till we die, till tomorrow, for ever,
You and I on the old bridge one night."
"Thus it transpired that even Berlin could be mysterious. Within the linden's bloom the streetlight winks. A dark and honeyed hush envelops us. Across the curb one's passing shadow slinks: across a stump a sable ripples thus. The night sky melts to peach beyond that gate. There water gleams, there Venice vaguely shows. Look at that street--it runs to China straight, and yonder star above the Volga glows! Oh, swear to me to put in dreams your trust, and to believe in fantasy alone, and never let your soul in prison rust, nor stretch your arm and say: a wall of stone."
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Perhaps it's time to make mention of that brilliant book The Witnesses by MW Waring. The author's identity is unknown, just a hint of a childhood spent in Russia on the blurb, and published in 1967 it is possible the author wasn't Russian as pre-revolutionary Russia was far more cosmopolitan than it is now. At almost 600 pages in small print, it covers a lot of ground, but is essentially an account of the revolution through the eyes of those that experienced it. Curiously the personalities we all know, i.e. Lenin, Trotsky are referred to by other names, the non famous characters are all drawn from people known to the author.

A modern review regards the novel as 'dense', a contemporary review more accurately refers to the book as "worthy to be placed in the Tolstoyan genre. Has anyone else read this book? It deserves to be regarded as a classic.

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Recently read Nabokov's Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. I felt as though I lived -trancelike - more in those pages than in my own life. Nabokov's prose creates the most vivid images I've ever experienced. This is not a standard autobiography at all, but more akin to a series of paintings that can evoke texture and scents as much as the voices of the past.

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