Let the question asked and answered by one German critic stand as introduction to Vasilii Golovanov’s “documentary novel” The Island (Original Russian title: остров or Ostrov):
“A travelogue, a novel, an ethnographic report, a historical narrative, a cautionary tale, an autobiography, or a collection of stories and myths? It is all of this and more. It is the kind of book that only appears a handful of times in a century.”
Now it’s my turn. I say The Island is a transcendently beautiful book, both formally innovative and emotionally charged, possibly the first deep engagement with the extremes of the Russian Far North that is truly post-Soviet. And by “post-Soviet” I mean it is less concerned with bearing witness to great suffering and great crimes, and more concerned with the allure of the north (although Golovanov acknowledges crimes visited upon living beings and living land).
By “post-Soviet” I also mean a work that is not explicitly political (and much of the fiction we call “post-Soviet” continues to identify itself in terms of its stance toward the power of the state). In The Island, the state is marginal, marginalized. The focus is on the individual, his environment, and whatever informs him–past traumas, personal history, education and engagement with the world around him–and as such is liberating, for any reader, not just the Russian reader.
The Island details a number of journeys Golovanov made during the nineties to the island of Kolguev, a “tiny planet” in the Barents Sea. Golovanov claims these sojourns were a therapeutic response to a personal and professional crisis brought on by his work as a war correspondent. Over time, his involvement with Kolguev broadened into a meditation on the Russian Far North, its inhabitants, its natural beauty, and its tragedy; along the way, the work he produced to document this engagement deepened into an exploration as to the meaning of travel itself.
Formally, it may be the first Russian nonfiction novel (it is billed as such). It is certainly the first Russian work I know that mixes a wide variety of genres, and puts them all at the service of a rhapsody. It is a cut-and-paste picaresque, filled with lengthy discursive asides on flora, fauna, indigenous inhabitants, earlier encounters with the landscape (by Scottish explorers, by Soviet scientists, by other late-20th-century dreamers and refugees), myths, legends, personal stories, and the vast Russian literary tradition to which Golovanov lays claim, from Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Aksakov, Platonov (to whom he consciously acknowledges a deep debt), and even the Babel of Red Cavalry. The theme of the book, or its impetus, is that of flight–and for the first time in Russian literary history this flight takes place within the vastness of Russia, because of Russia and not in spite of it, constituting challenge, possibility, and opportunity–for redemption, for self-discovery, for a deeper understanding of what it means to go to extremes.
– Adam Siegel
I never thought about translating my own work into a foreign language, yet with this story I decided to try for the first time. The reason, it seems to me, lies in the story itself (and not just in the fact that my native country is under the spell of an evil man and is descending into madness). The story plays out in a Southern California beach town. Everyone in it is an English speaker, so when I was writing the story in Russian I tried to echo the intonations of English. Translating the story was almost like re-translating it into the language that was original to its plot; but translating is always, in some way, a rewriting. This is a story of death-in-life, of alienation. Nothing spells alienation more clearly than a story told in a language alien to its teller. When I reread my translation, a chill goes down my spine because the form and the content coincide perfectly, and I can barely recognize myself either as the author or as the character of the story–similar to how the heroine can barely recognize her existence in the beach town as the life she was supposed to live.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ha Nguyen for her corrections and suggestions.
– Maria Rybakova
Elena Andreyevna Shvarts (1948-2010), a legendary Russian poet, until 1989 was published in samizdat (self-publishing) and abroad (New York, Paris, Ann Arbor). Born in Leningrad, where she lived her entire life, Shvarts attended the University of Tartu, where her first poems were published in the university newspaper in 1973. After that, however, she did not publish for another decade in her own country; her work began to appear in émigré journals in 1978, and she published two collections of poetry (Tantsuyushchii David and Stikhi) and a novel in verse (Trudy i dni Lavinii) abroad before a collection (Storony sveta) was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Birdsong escaping from a cage is a metaphor running though her work. Shvarts was awarded many prizes: in 1979, the Andrey Bely prize; in 1999, the Northern Palmira (Severnaya Palmira); in 2003, the Triumph, and others. In 2002–2008, a four-volume edition of her work was published in Saint Petersburg.
– Ian Probstein
Benjamin Aisenshtadt (1921-1999) chose the pen name Benjamin Blazhennyi, “Benjamin the Blessed.” In Russian the word blazhennyi can mean a freak, a jester, or a saint. The Soviet authorities treated the poet as a fool, a freak, an utterly unpractical person. Needless to say, none of Aizenshtadt’s poems was published until late 1980s. After the war, the poet was not allowed to finish his education because he was not a member of the Communist Party. Moreover, for his anti-social behavior he was from time to time put in a mental institution. Otherwise he worked in a facility for the disabled and took care of his wife, a disabled veteran of WWII. For the last 20 years of his life, he barely left his apartment in Minsk, Belarus. Beginning in the late 1980s, his poems started to appear in periodicals and immediately startled the critics who did not know how to classify them: Blazhennyi did not fit into any school or trend. It was well after the time of so-called perestroika when poets, critics, and publishers frequented his tiny apartment, taking interviews and asking for poems. This activity led to his books being published in Belarus, Russia, and Israel under the pen-name of Benjamin Blazhennyi (the Blessed).
It is notable that St. Augustine is called “Augustine the Blessed” in Russian. Therefore “the blessed” is a saint, the one who communicates with the Divine spirit. Blazhennyi’s poetry is full of powerful images: it is both pious and iconoclastic, sacred and profane, tranquil and full of fury.
Benjamin Aisenshtadt was born in 1921 to a Jewish family in the small Byelorussian shtetl Kopys’. His father Michail was an unpractical man as well. As the poet wrote:
My father Michail Aisenshtadt was the biggest fool in town:
He claimed that wolf and lamb had soul.
He claimed that a mosquito and a fly had soul as well
He wore worn-out trousers and never learned to sell.
When a Jew was sorry for a wounded nestling of a jackdaw,
He did not need a store. Why would he need a store?
Before World War II, Benjamin finished one year of a pedagogical college, majoring in history. Since he had poor health, he was not drafted into the army. His family managed to escape to a small village in Gorky oblast (now Nizny Novgorod) where he taught history at a school. He discovered a rich library there untouched by Bolshevik purges, and began copying books into his notebooks. After the war, he visited his favorite poets, Boris Pasternak and Arseny Tarkovsky, in Moscow. Pasternak was reluctant to meet with young emerging poets, perhaps fearing the ungifted who had the nerve to get a reference to publishers from famous authors. After reading Blazhennyi’s poems, however, Pasternak not only welcomed him, but initiated a lifelong friendship and correspondence. Blazhennyi eventually wrote essays and memoirs about Pasternak.
– Ian Probstein
Roald Mandelstam (1932-1961), who died of tuberculosis and intestinal hemorrhage at the age of twenty-eight, was a gifted and singular poet who unfortunately was not published in his short lifetime. He called himself “the last poet on earth” in his last poem, entitled “Epilogue.” In fact, he was perhaps the last romantic poet, a sparkling splinter of the Russian Silver Age. There is an evident affinity between the poetry of R. Mandelstam with the poetry of the Silver Age—first and foremost, with the poetry of Blok, Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam, but Roald Mandelstam’s work differs from theirs due to his unique syncretic imagery, vision, and intonation. Moreover, he is an existential poet and, as such, he continued the highest traditions of the Russian poetry from Derzhavin and Tiutchev to Gumilev and O. Mandelstam. He was one of the first postwar underground poets in Leningrad, a forerunner of the brilliant constellation of poets that included the so-called Leningrad Philological School, Leonid Aronson, Vladimir Uflyand, and Joseph Brodsky, as well as the poets of his circle, Victor Krivulin, Elena Shvarts, and many more.
In his review of Mandelstam’s third posthumously published book, Kirill Medvedev compares his poetry to the French les poètes maudits. True, such poems as “My Friends,” “A Grim Guest,” or “Junkman” are akin to Rimbaud’s poems and Corbière’s “Night Paris.” There is an evident trace of antagonism and protest against the totalitarian system, against those who accept their slavery, but the rebel-poet calls his fellow citizens to revolt. Even alluding to Roman history, Roald Mandelstam draws parallels with his contemporary life. Mandelstam’s lack of agony, decadence, and narcissism distinguishes him from the French les poètes maudits, however. Among other distinctive features of Mandelstam’s poetry are his artistic vision in images and syncretic imagery revealing all five senses. As V. Kreyd mentioned in his essay of 1984, in Mandelstam’s poetry “nature is spiritualized; there is no borderline between human nature, organic and inorganic nature” (Kreyd 22).*
He was rediscovered by Mikhail Shemiakin, who published Mandelstam’s poetry in the almanac Apollon-77, and by K. Kuz’minskii, who published selected works in the anthology U Goluboi Laguny (At the Blue Lagoon). From 1982 to 1997, four books of Mandelstam’s poetry were published in Israel and Russia, including Complete Poems (St. Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh Publishing, 2006), which was compiled and edited by the poet’s sister, Mrs. Helene Petrov-Mandelstam. She and I are currently compiling a bilingual English-Russian edition of Roald Mandelstam’s Selected Poetry.
* Kreyd, V. Zametki o poezii Roal’da Mandel’stama. (Notes on Roald Mandelstam’s poetry). Strelets 4 (1984): 22-24.
– Ian Probstein
Margarita Meklina traverses multiple literary and social worlds as a bilingual, transnational writer and omnisexual traveler. Writing in NLO of her 2003 Andrei Bely prize-winning book The Battle at St. Petersburg, the critic Kirill Kobrin said of her: “Having departed Petersburg for San Francisco [in 1994], Meklina took with her not only a tendency toward Bely’s rhythmic prose, Nabokov’s fondness for punning playfulness, but also that characteristic of Petersburg ‘being in two worlds,’ and its ambiguous, imprecise relationship toward the so-called ‘fiction’ of ‘literature,’ its opposition of so-called ‘reality,’ ‘life’….” An online biography asserts that, “Her stories, often built around themes of marginalized sexuality, in combining postmodernist sensibility with New Sincerity-like elements created a new Russian lexicon in that genre.” For my own part, I find these, Rita’s miniatures, particularly imbued with lyricism and resonant with pathos, something that presents me as a translator with the immensely pleasing challenge of getting her wistful tone precisely right.
– Alex Cigale
Alexander Kabanov (born 1968) is a Russian poet residing in Kiev, Ukraine. A 1992 graduate of the School of Journalism of Kiev State University and the author of nine books of poetry and numerous publications in major Russian literary journals, Kabanov is said to be one of the leading poets of his generation. He has been awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes, among them the Russian Prize, International Voloshin Prize, Anthologia Prize, and the Novy Mir Literary Magazine Award for the best poetry publication of the year. His poems have been translated into German, English, Dutch, Ukranian, Kazakh, and other languages. Since 2005, Kabanov has been the chief editor of the journal of contemporary culture SHO (“WHAT”) and coordinator of the International poetry festival Kyivsky Lavry (Kiev Laurels).
“Wish You Were Here” is a delightful memoiristic short story by Pavel Lembersky. It brings together the grungy old 42nd Street porn theaters, the New York City blackout of ’77, JD Salinger, John Lennon, Central Park, American tourists in Moscow, and an immigrant’s gradual acculturation in one of the most exciting cities in the world, to form a work of beauty, humor, and intelligence.
The story is a cacophonic symphony that celebrates all the ugliness and prettiness and nastiness and love that make New York City such an interesting place to live. Con Ed goes bust one day and the streets go dark, but for a young Russian immigrant who’s just learning to make the city his own, there’s no need for panic. In the small armies of men breaking into stores and stealing vacuum cleaners, televisions, and lamps, he divines a sign of salvation: at least the criminal faction believes the electricity will eventually go back on. “Wish You Were Here” is also a romantic picaresque about a guy who’s just trying to find a place to make it with his girlfriend: a movie theater, a dark alley, his parents’ home. The story ends, as all New York stories should, with a miserable apartment search and a wall that looks out onto nothing. We are told, at one point, that “to stay in Brooklyn is to stay an immigrant forever.” This is a million-dollar line, but one that’s also bankrupt–for immigrant, as Lembersky shows, is just as much state of mind as street address.
– Ross Ufberg
Temptations of Translation
It is virtually impossible to render one’s visions in poetry, let alone in translating it. Ezra Pound wrote in ABC of Reading, “Poetry…is the most concentrated form of verbal expression.” The task gets even more difficult if we take into consideration that Georgy Ivanov’s later poetry is marked with a minimalist economy of means. One has to sacrifice something without losing what the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once defined as “points of anguish” (bolevyie tochki), that is, the points of tension in the poem. In the first poem featured here, I changed the line that reads “I do not care what is going to be afterwards” into “I don’t care if after me there’s the deluge.” But I believe I preserved the unexpected hit of the last line “There is, finally, suicide.” In the second poem, I deemed it necessary to combine two perspectives: the poet’s rather skeptical view of life and his restrained and even estranged view of himself.
– Ian Probstein
Anatoly Gavrilov is a contemporary Russian writer of short stories. Born in Ukraine, and a graduate of the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute, Gavrilov now lives in Vladimir and works as a postman. His work was not published in the USSR until 1989. A writer of modest output, Gavrilov’s laconic style and experimental narratives have left their mark on modern Russian prose, particularly the so-called “new prose” movement. The mood of his works is pessimistic. His heroes are despondent and confounded by unexpected twists of fate. His basic theme is the futility of the little man’s existence–the writer has little faith in his heroes’ attempts to change the world. His artistic approach is one of unwavering authenticity and specificity.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).