Posts Tagged ‘Boris Dralyuk’

Maxim Osipov: “You write a poem and a window breaks—such is the strength of your word.”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk alerted me to Joshua Yaffa‘s “A Doctor’s Literary Calling,” in the New Yorker this month. The article is a profile of Russian writer and cardiologist Maxim Osipov. Boris’s enthusiasm is understandable: he is one of the early champions of Osipov’s  writing, and his translator as well. Osipov’s rueful reaction to his newfound fame and the controversy it’s caused in Tarusa, the small provincial town that is his home: “It’s any author’s dream … You write a poem and a window breaks—such is the strength of your word.”

According to Yaffa, “Osipov’s legend grew, and so did the inevitable comparisons to Chekhov, who, in the eighteen-nineties, at his estate outside Moscow, often treated peasants for free and helped contain a cholera outbreak. ‘Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent,’ Chekhov once wrote to his publisher, adding that they share ‘identical goals and an identical enemy—the Devil.’ Osipov bristles at the comparison. ‘All it illustrates is the inclination to typecast people,’ he said. But it is hard not to find something Chekhovian in Osipov’s precision and pitiless honesty.”

“Precision and pitiless honesty.”

More praise: “In the past two decades, Russian literature has been dominated by surreal, dystopian tales—an appropriate genre, perhaps, to describe the convulsions that followed the Soviet collapse. Osipov’s stories, by contrast, are quiet, almost documentary. ‘There’s something of the late nineteenth century in Osipov,’ Anna Narinskaya, one of Russia’s leading literary critics, told me. ‘He allows himself a certain moral judgment. He knows what’s right, in life and in literature.’”

Varya Gornostaeva, who has published Osipov’s books with Moscow’s Corpus Books, told Yaffa: “Russian society is sadly marked by a certain infantilism. Maxim isn’t so much a liberal—though he’s that, too—as he is an adult, a person who can answer for himself. He’s one of the few grownups.”

“A year and a half after his first essay appeared in Znamya, he published an elegiac follow-up called “Complaining Is a Sin,” in which he describes receiving an early-morning summons from the hospital. “Cold, fog,” he writes. “Ten minutes later, you run into the office, shove the plug into the socket, everything is noisy, you put on a robe, look at the canvas-colored twilight outside the window, and say to yourself, ‘One, it won’t get any better, and, two, this is happiness.’ ”

Yaffa’s profile includes the fascinating history of Tarusa, a city 101 kilometers outside Moscow, the nearest former prisoners were allowed to get near the capital. It became a refuge for dissidents:

“As the camps emptied out after Stalin’s death, in 1953, Tarusa became increasingly populated with former prisoners. In 1955, Konstantin Paustovsky, a mid-century Soviet Thoreau, who was an officially recognized writer and was not a dissident himself, sought to escape the distractions of the capital and settled in Tarusa. In his small blue house at the end of a dirt lane, he began hosting the kinds of cultural figures who were treated with varying degrees of suspicion by the Soviet authorities—among them Arkady Steinberg, a poet and a translator who spent eleven years in the gulag, and Bulat Okudzhava, a talented folksinger whose parents had been arrested as ‘enemies of the people,’ in the thirties.”

The town became a sort of “sanctuary city” for those out of favor, “including, in 1959, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, who disappeared into the gulag in the thirties. Nadezhda had spent years evading arrest, moving from one provincial town to the next. In Tarusa, she found a place of refuge. ‘It’s Heaven,’ she wrote in a letter inviting another poet to visit her. ‘It’s wonderful here. I live well.’”

“It was in Tarusa where she began to work on her memoir, which circulated in samizdat copies in the Soviet Union and was first published in the West in the nineteen-seventies. ‘I knew she was writing something,’ [translator] Viktor Golyshev … who is now in his eighties, recently recalled. ‘But at the time I was honestly far more interested in lying on the beach by the Oka and getting a suntan.” …

“A young, relatively unknown Joseph Brodsky came to visit; so did his fellow future Nobel recipient Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulag. Rumor had it that as many as eleven K.G.B. agents were assigned to the town to keep track of all the political undesirables.”

Read the whole thing here.

Man Booker International Prize: a big night for Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft, and one phenomenal publisher, Jacques Testard

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Winners past and present: László Krasznahorkai and Olga Tokarczuk   (Photo: New Directions)

Now the whole world knows: Olga Tokarczuk has become the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International Prize, for her novel Flights. The Man Booker press release called it “a novel of linked fragments from the 17th century to the present day, connected by themes of travel and human anatomy.” The prize was announced this week during a ceremony in London.

Croft ,Tokarczuk, Testard (Photo: Boris Dralyuk)

“Tokarczuk is a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache,” Lisa Appignanesi, who led the panel of judges, said in a statement.  She added that the novel “flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament — where only plastic escapes mortality.”

The £50,000 prize for best translated fiction from around the world will be shared with translator Jennifer Croft.

I heard the news from an unusual source: the boyfriend of Jennifer Croft is my colleague and editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk. We’ve written about him here and here. He’s over the moon, obviously and almost literally, as he’d just flown from Los Angeles when we exchanged messages, and 30,000 feet is as close as any of us will get to that chilly orb.

Wise words from Daniel

It was cheering news to others who attended the ceremony as well. Daniel Medin of the American University in Paris wrote me: “I’m delighted by the result. Flights is an original and formally adventurous novel. Great translation, too.” Daniel is associate director of the AUP’s Center for Writers and Translators and one of the editors of its Cahiers Series. He is also co-editor of Music & Literature magazine and a contributing editor to The White Review. He also tells me he’s now on the jury for the Berlin-based Haus der Kulturen der Welt  Internationaler Literaturpreis. (We’ve written about him here and here.)

He continued, “I’ve taught an earlier novel by Tokarczuk – also in a wonderful translation, in this case by Antonia Lloyd-Jones – in my course on Central European literature and history. Her fiction clearly belongs in that tradition.”

Boris at Pushkin House

But in the applause for the author (and in this case translator, too), many forget the role of the publisher. Not Daniel, who also had praise for Fitzcarraldo Editions and its founding publisher Jacques Testard, with whom he has worked closely at The White Review for many years. “He is the best thing that has happened to the anglophone literary world in years. Firstly, for co-founding The White Review, which helped launch the careers of so many compelling English-language writers in the UK and in translation. Then, for Fitzcarraldo, which has brought the work of intrepid writers like John Keene, Kate Briggs and Claire-Louise Bennett to a larger audience. These are the first three that came to mind but his list is strong across the board, and includes of course many works in translation.

“It’s extraordinary that his books have won the Nobel and Man Booker International within a few years of launching. The best part’s that this is only the beginning. Jacques is playing the long game: his first translated title was by Mathias Enard, a finalist last year who will be eligible with his forthcoming novel, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants.

“Fitzcarraldo should be competitive next year with Esther Kinsky‘s remarkable novel, River. (Incidentally, Kinsky translated Flights into German and won a major prize for her rendering of Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night.)”

And Boris was doing double-time, too: during his week in London, he celebrated his new Ten Poems from Russia (Candlestick Press) with a reading at the Pushkin House.

Author and translator (Photo: Janie Airey/Man Booker Prize)

Eugene Ostashevsky: “Blessed be the undiscovered person whose language is his.”

Thursday, April 12th, 2018


“An outcast whose language is all his own.” (Photo:Kritzolina/Wikimedia)

You know how it is. The stack of books piles up by the bedside. With the best of intentions, you commit to reading it all. But you’re already reading and writing all day and all night long, and you’ve long since given up any kind of a normal life so that you can do both… and you still can’t catch up…

So it has been with Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pipublished by one of my favorite houses, New York Review Books. I’ve been meaning to read it for quite some time, but the backlog is formidable. Fortunately, fortunately, we have people like Boris Dralyuk (we’ve written about him here) over at The Los Angeles Review of Books who goes forth to read for us. Here’s what he has to say about Ostashevsky’s glorious treasure: 

From Homer to the relative merits of Ginger and Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island, nothing is lost on Eugene Ostashevsky, the Russian-American poet and translator who’s hatched The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi. This “poem-novel” is a seriocomic linguistic performance the likes of which we rarely see, in any tongue, but it wasn’t plucked out of thin air. Ostashevsky, whose two preceding collections are titled, tellingly, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008) and Iterature (UDP, 2005), has been developing his patchwork technique for years, stitching high theory onto deliriously playful, Edward Learian rhymes, in an effort to make each element pull more weight than it would in isolation, but also to loosen things up. Hierarchies be damned; the pursuit of wisdom is a free-for-all, a real “pirate party, so shake your booty”: “Never mind The Groundwork / For the Metaphysics of Morals — / Shimmy with your scimitar and uncorral some quarrels.”

The Pirate has his forebears. Lear is one, as are Lewis Carroll, the Dadaists, Joyce, and the loopier representatives of Oulipo, but few of Ostashevsky’s predecessors have plumbed the philosophical depths of nonsense with the aplomb of Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), and the other members of the short-lived Soviet avant-garde group OBERIU (“The Union of Real Art”). It’s not by chance that Ostashevsky has dedicated so much of his creative energy to introducing the work of the “Oberiuts” to a broad Anglophone audience, editing OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern University Press, 2006) and co-editing and co-translating, with Matvei YankelevichAlexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets, 2013). Like The Pirate, the Oberiuts’ writings are perched (AARGH, is there no escaping the psittacine puns?) above a chasm of meaninglessness. Their delightfully comic gestures always point to the failings of language, its propensity to undermine itself, and, hence, to the impossibility of communication. The matter of incommunicability should concern us all, but it’s especially pressing for an émigré poet. And this brings us back to the pirate’s confession:

I suddenly became frightened — I don’t really know of what — that I wouldn’t be able to represent any of this in language
and the experience would vanish from the sensory world but at the same time take root inside me

unformulated; ineffable; and therefore not even truly a thing; certainly not truly mine
yet also no one else’s but mine; mine exclusively, inalienably

and so locking me at once inside and outside itself
although always in solitary confinement…

He concludes: “And yet, it is a beautiful song, broadcast by an outcast whose language is all his own: ‘Blessed be the undiscovered person whose language is his…'”

Read the whole thing here. By the way, the book is currently on sale, here.

On the centenary of the Russian Revolution: what was it like before it was a fait accompli?

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Bolsheviks on the Red Square, 1917

Spiked Review has thrown a spotlight on 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, an anthology of prose and poetry, edited and often translated by Boris Dralyuk, executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

His book “does something remarkable for an event seen all too readily in hindsight. As Dralyuk himself puts it, 1917 aims to capture the experience of the revolution among those for whom it was yet to be a fait accompli. We see that for some, it was a source of trepidation, to others, inspiration. But to all, it was unfolding, its destination uncertain.”

From the interview with Boris Dralyuk:

spiked review: Do you feel that many of these writers and poets – the big names like Mayakovsky or Pasternak excepted – have been unfairly neglected outside Russia? And perhaps even inside Russia, too? And, if so, why do you think this is?

Funny Girl: Nadezhda Teffi

Boris Dralyuk: You’re quite right: many of the authors in this anthology have been neglected. The reasons for this neglect are not too difficult to surmise. Writers who fled Soviet Russia out of hostility to Bolshevik rule – and, often enough, fear for their lives – preserved their freedom of expression, but at great cost. Literary stars like [Nadezhda] Teffi – a great humorist whose work had won the admiration of both Nicholas II and Lenin – found themselves writing almost exclusively for an isolated émigré audience. Paris became the capital of the Russian emigration, but many French intellectuals perceived members of the Russian colony as unfashionably conservative and retrograde; to their minds, the émigrés were, in Nabokov’s words, ‘hardly palpable people who imitated in foreign cities a dead civilisation, the remote, almost legendary, almost Sumerian mirages of St Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1916’.

There was far more interest in translations of new Soviet works than in the melancholy scribbling of Russians who had split off from the march of history, consigning themselves to oblivion. I quoted Nabokov, who saved himself from oblivion by switching languages. Few of his fellow émigrés could manage that transition. They had to wait, on the one hand, for Soviet censorship to collapse, and, on the other, for translators to take up their causes. Teffi won back her Russian readers after 1991, and it is only in the past decade that Anglophone audiences were exposed to sparkling translations of her prose; Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France, Irina Steinberg, Anne Marie Jackson, and Clare Kitson have ushered in a proper Teffi renaissance in English, and I was grateful to feature two of this master’s pieces, in Rose France’s translation, in 1917. Anyone interested in the great variety of prose that Russians produced in emigration between the wars should pick up Bryan Karetnyk’s brilliant anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, which was released by Penguin Classics earlier this year.

But it isn’t only émigré writers who have suffered from neglect. Ironically, some of the authors who were most enthusiastic about the October Revolution – the true believers – had been most thoroughly effaced from Russian literary history. I’m thinking of the poets associated with the Proletkult, or ‘proletarian culture’ movement, whose verse from the first years of Soviet rule radiates fiery conviction. In subsequent years, as Soviet economic and literary policy shifted, this conviction gave way to disillusionment. I include the work of three Proletkult poets in my anthology. The dates of their deaths – 1937, 1937 and 1941 – say a great deal. Mikhail Gerasimov and Vladimir Kirillov were both arrested and executed at the height of Stalin’s purges, and Alexey Kraysky died during the blockade of Leningrad. Their work was suppressed or simply forgotten for decades.

Read the rest here


Mikhail Bulgakov couldn’t figure out what the Soviet bigwigs wanted of him.

Saturday, June 24th, 2017

Our friend Boris Dralyuk of the Los Angeles Review of Books has a fascinating review of J.A.E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov over at the Times Literary Supplement, and unlike the recent article by Humble Moi, it is not behind a paywall (an excerpt of my review of Andrzej Franaszek‘s biography of Czesław Miłosz is here). We don’t get a chance to write about Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Marguerita, very often, so this is an opportunity for us:

One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us a serious Soviet historian, he would have been able to tell us many interesting things about Molière, and about his times”.

This incident captures a central tragedy of Bulgakov’s life: almost all his efforts to win official acceptance, if not approval, were stymied by his inability to produce – and at times even deduce – what was asked of him. The fate that befell the seemingly innocuous Molière biography also befell a number of his plays, including The Last Days, about Alexander Pushkin – timed to coincide with the 1937 commemoration of the centenary of the poet’s death – and Batum (1939), about Stalin’s youth. The Bulgakovs were informed that Batum “received a harshly negative review up there (in the Central Committee, probably)” for making fiction out of a romanticized Stalin; it was also seen as “representing a wish to build bridges and to improve attitudes towards [the author]”. Yelena Bulgakova “indignantly repudiated these latter suggestions”, Curtis writes, “although it is hard to believe that this was not to some extent what had motivated Bulgakov in agreeing to take on this project”. In the 1930s, any Soviet author who craved an audience needed approval “up there” – and Bulgakov certainly craved an audience.

Read the whole thing here