Archive for March 26th, 2010

“A lesson in how couples should get along”

Friday, March 26th, 2010
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Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joseph and Marguerite Straus Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

One of the more memorable images from the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky talk earlier this month:  Joseph Frank, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Fyodor Dostoevsky, listening attentively in the front row, leaning forward, chuckling, hugging his cane, with his wife, Marguerite Straus Frank, at his side.

I caught Joe before his last class with a small group of a  half-dozen or so students, and asked him what he thought of the translation duo’s gig.  “I knew them twenty years ago in Paris.  He was a translator from the French – of Bonnefoy,”  he recalled.  “I saw him on and off during the Paris years.  Suddenly, he showed up as a translator of Russian with a wife.”

The class asked him about his own latest, a condensation of the thousand-page Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time — Mary Petrusewicz was recruited to condense the book, he said, since “I couldn’t bear the idea of cutting it myself.” He recalled it was “the heaviest book at the book celebration.”

What do you think of Steven Cassedy’s Dostoevsky’s Religion? Do you know him?” another student asked.

“Yes, Stephen Cassedy was once my T.A.,” he said, and gave a characteristic cackle.

He remembered the young Irish-American teaching assistant — also the author of To the Other Side: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America and Building the Future, Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and the Making of Tsukunft — taking the trouble to learn Yiddish.

“I was impressed by that fact, since his name is ‘Cassedy’” — commented the Jewish nonagenarian from New York City.

And Joe disagrees with me, regarding my earlier remarks about the effectiveness of translating in rhyme and meter.  “Rhymes highjack the poetry,” he said.  (Not so:  Think Richard Wilbur.  Think Anthony Hecht.  Think Sir Charles Johnston, who inspired Vikram Seth‘s masterful novel-in-Pushkinian verse, The Golden Gate.)

Joe noted the upcoming Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (can we wait?)  And perhaps Nicolai Leskov is in their future, as they mentioned in a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:

Barnes & Noble:  Is there any writer in that period in Russia who readers of English don’t know about at all?

Volokhonsky: Well, it’s not that you don’t know him at all. He is known but only a little in the West, and partly owing to the fact that he is very difficult to translate. His prose is so rooted, so bound with the element of Russian language that it really is hard to convey its qualities in English.

Pevear: Do you have a name?

Volokhonsky: Yes, the name! [LAUGHS] Nikolai Leskov. He has been translated. He has been translated, inevitably, very poorly, and his translations go out of print, then someone revives them, and the cycle repeats itself.

Pevear: It’s the same book that keeps moving from publisher to publisher. If he’s known, it’s for the story that is the basis of the Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s a great story.

Barnes & Noble: Are you going to rectify Leskov’s neglect in the West?

Pevear: We are going to try.

Barnes & Noble: Is there one book in particular that represents his best work?

Pevear: No. He wrote short stories. Well, he wrote longish short stories. And one big chronicle called Cathedral Folk. Slavist teachers are always in agony, because there’s no Leskov for them to use with their students. For Russians, he’s almost equal to Tolstoy. He’s very high. Some people like him even more.

Volokhonsky: But I think it’s exaggeration.

Pevear: He’s the least Western. He’s the least open to Western influences. He’s very Russian. But he’s an extraordinary writer. We’re going to try.

Back to Joe, recalling the visit of the husband-and-wife translating team:  “I was very impressed with their act,” he said.  “A lesson on how couples should get along.” One might say the same of the Franks, pictured here.