Tag Archives: Russian literature

Dovlatov – The Film

A film about the Russian writer of the same name, that depicts a few days of his life in Leningrad in the early 1970s. Beautifully shot, this film has received mostly positive reviews. Nevertheless, I am somewhat disappointed; the wit and the power of Dovlatov’s books are almost absent in the film, and the plot is a faint reflection of what the writer himself has described in his autobiographical books, especially in The Suitcase and Pushkin Heights. The Dovlatov in the film is a rather colorless character and the artistic milieu of the film is very clichéd. Who wants to know who Dovlatov was, must read his books. And they are anyway by far more entertaining than the movie.

Dovlatov – Russia, 2018, 126 minutes; Director: Aleksei German jr.; Screenplay: Aleksei German jr. and Yuliya Tupikina; Actors: Milan Marić, Danila Kozlovsky, Helena Sujecka, Artur Beschastny, Anton Shagin, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Elena Lyadova et al.

I read the following three books by Sergei Dovlatov recently, and I can recommend them wholeheartedly:

The Zone, translated by Anne Frydman, Alma Classics 2013

The Zone

The Suitcase, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, Alma Classics 2013 

The Suitcase

Pushkin Hills, translated by Katya Dovlatova, Alma Books 2013 

Pushkin Hills
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why I rarely publish negative reviews

Since I started this blog, I have reviewed approximately 120 books here; I share these reviews also in Goodreads and in Facebook. But I read much more books, which means that I am by far not writing about all the books I am in fact reading.

The reasons for this are mainly the following:

Reviewing takes some time; if you want to write something more than just a few superficial remarks, something meaningful, you need to spend a comparatively big amount of time – time I sometimes don’t have, or time I prefer to invest in something to me more valuable in that moment – for example in reading, travelling, working on my actual book project, or spending quality time with people that matter to me! And imagine, I have a job too, haha.

Furthermore, a lot of the books I am reading are not really creating this urge in me to write about them. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe the book is kind of dull and boring, or it is more or less ok, but nothing special and I have already forgotten the plot after a short time, or the topic is too special to be of any interest for a wider audience. So what’s the point to bother someone with my thoughts in such cases?

A special case are awe-inspiring books, books where I feel that at this moment they are beyond my capacities as a reviewer – recent example: Dostoevsky’s Demons. I would need to write a 10,000 words text if I wanted to review it, otherwise I would have to neglect important aspects of the book as I understand it. And if I will ever be able to express my limitless admiration of and fascination with Hans Henny Jahnn’s strange behemoth of a novel River without Banks – a book that literally changed my life and my view of life in general – in an adequate way remains a big question for me. (I reviewed the first part here; the biggest part of the novel was never translated in English.)   

The fourth category are the hopelessly bad, crappy, worthless books that you come across sometimes. I am not particularly inclined to write reviews about books I didn’t enjoy or that I even strongly dislike. In general, I prefer to be silent in such cases instead of wasting valuable time to indulge in negative feelings. In general, I believe that I am usually much better in positively raving about the qualities of a book than to give it the thump-down. Therefore, only about 5% of my published reviews so far are negative; if I would write a review about every single book I am reading, this percentage would be much higher, maybe more like 25-30%.

So, in which cases of this fourth category I am nevertheless making the effort to publish my negative opinion about a book? There are of course, as I see in retrospect now, a few reasons:

There are books and authors that have acquired the status of a “classic”, or at least of being extremely popular. While I have no problem with popular books and authors in general, I have experienced a couple of times the situation that I read a book that was praised as a “masterpiece”, or even as “one of the best novels of the 20th century” – and it turned out to be awfully bad from whatever standpoint you look at it. That’s what I call the “Emperor’s-New-Clothes syndrome”, and in such a blatant case as this one I feel obliged to raise my finger and voice my objection. This specific book and author get in my opinion much more attention than would be deserved if we look just at the – according to me hardly existing! – literary quality of the work; it is more a result of the successful efforts of the author during his lifetime to turn himself into a brand, than of the genuine quality of his writing that he occupies such a prominent place in literary history, and this book is praised by so many people although it is obviously no good at all (admittedly not all books by this author are as bad as the one I reviewed). The purpose of my review is to be a small contribution to a re-assessment of this specific book, and thus maybe also to a re-assessment of other, much better novels published during that period by authors who were not so good in self-marketing, but maybe better writers with some meaningful message in their works, written in a much better prose.

Another category of books are those by contemporary authors, who – supported by an aggressive marketing, a devoted group of friends in the media, and a similarly devoted crowd of “groupies” in social media – blow the horn and thus make a lot of noise around their silly, shallow, obnoxious books and turn this kind of attention into a mass phenomenon, and in extreme cases even into a movement that shares certain elements with a sect. That’s what I call the “One-million-flies-cannot-go-wrong syndrome”, and again I find myself every now and then in a position that I simply must voice my objection against such a book, and may it even be in a very succinct way, like in this case. (This review by a fellow book blogger sums it up very nicely in more detail what is wrong with this book and its author.)

Closely related to the last category are books that are lacking a basic quality a book (and its author) should have in my opinion: intellectual integrity. When the content and the message of a book is in stark contrast with the personal behaviour of its author, it is clearly a case of hypocrisy and lack of integrity. Intellectual impostors like the author of this book, should be always exposed.

Some books simply make me angry. A lot of people like this book and similar one’s by the same author – but to me it is obvious that the book is just an alibi for something else. This author makes his living by providing arousal templates for the needs of a very “special” audience. His sick anal-sadistic torture fantasies are poorly written, and as a reviewer I really hope that I prevent a few readers from exposing themselves to this revolting stuff.  

Very young and inexperienced authors will be usually treated with kindness by me; most bad books I read by such authors will be never reviewed here. In exceptional cases, when for example the publisher is to blame for not editing a book by an inexperienced author at all (and thus doing him a very bad service), like in this case, I will make an exception. Not because I want to slam the poor author for his shortcomings, but because I find it unethical when some publishers don’t protect authors from seriously damaging themselves.

Another exception are cases (like this one) in which a young author who in my opinion lacks literary talent is “made” by a publisher, in co-operation with key figures of the literary scene; a system that manipulates the public, arranges that such an author gets literary awards, and plenty of media attention that will in turn help to generate additional money and influence for this person in the literary scene, damages the chances of other young authors with real literary talent (but maybe with less talent for self-promotion), and even corrupts the readers and potential young authors, because a system that systematically ignores literary merit must in the long run have negative repercussions on the literary life in general, especially when the book market in that country is very small. Also in these cases, a reviewer should speak out and make it clear when such a “hyped” book has no literary value, and is obviously more a media or lifestyle phenomenon than serious literature.  

Hey, before I forget it – I know some authors personally. Some of them are nice people, others not so much. It is just like in all other spheres of life. Would the fact that I am in good or maybe not so good terms with someone influence my judgement (as imperfect as it may be) regarding the quality of their respective writing?

The answer is obvious: never!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A short rant on the translation of book titles

You probably all know the phenomenon: you read a translated book, the quality of the translation is excellent, good, average, poor, a crime – and all shades in between; if the language is good or not in the original edition you usually don’t know for sure unless you are able to compare. Many great books have been spoilt completely by an inadequate translation and there are also cases when the translation reads much better than the original. Fortunately, there are many excellent translators, and for a translated book the name of the translator has for me great importance because I know already what I can expect in terms of quality of the translation.

A particular annoying case are book titles that are not a translation of the original title, but that reflect the fact that nowadays the marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have greater importance as, mind you, people who wrote, edited and translated the book.

A few examples: Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (The Blinding) becomes Auto-da-fé, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The unburied dead) becomes The Victors or Men without Shadows, or Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’allemand (The village of the German) transforms miraculously into An Unfinished Business or The German Mujahid. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was for decades published as Der Hund von Baskerville (as if the English title would be The Hound of Baskerville!) and only the newer translations use the correct Der Hund der Baskervilles. Most German editions of Dostoevsky’s Преступление и наказание have been published under the title Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Atonement), some under the title Raskolnikov, when the obviously best translation would be Verbrechen und Strafe (Crime and Punishment), which was used for the translations of Alexander Eliasberg in the 1920s and by Svetlana Geier in the 1990s and which now fortunately seem to stick. And, dear publishers, there was a reason why Herta Müller chose the poetic Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a great pheasant in the World) and not the prosaic Der Pass (The Passport), as the English edition of one of her books suggests. It is a lack of respect to the author and also to us readers to change such a title – do you marketing guys even believe that the book sold better because you invented a new title for it?

It would be easy to add dozens, if not hundreds of examples of wrong title translations. I am sure most readers of this post have their own list for this phenomenon.

There are a few cases when a different title for a translation seems acceptable or necessary. Not in every case the book appears in the original edition under the title which the author had in mind. Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (an exact translation of the Albanian title would be The Castle or The Fortress) should have been published under the title The Drums of Rain (in Albanian), and the title of the French edition Les Tambours de la pluie is therefore highly appropriate.

Another case may be copyright issues or the existence of a book under the exact same title that is already on the market. Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons was published in German as Das letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) probably because almost at the same time another book by Lothar Reichel about Bali was published as Insel der Dämonen – both books referring to Walter Spies and Victor von Plessen’s movie Insel der Dämonen, and both with a cover illustration based on paintings by Spies. In such a case when even the content of the book is similar, a different title seems unavoidable.

The worst are for me always such title translations which seem to be more or less correct, but are indeed not and that even by that change the intention of the author or suggest an interpretation of the text that is wrong or misleading.

An interesting case is the title of Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme in English: Settlement. Settlement is an excellent novel which I intend to review later and the translation is overall good. My first reaction was that the title is obviously wrong. But the case is more tricky as it seems.

The main character is what was called in West Germany a Heimatvertriebener (literally “one who was expelled from his home place”), a German who had to flee from what was after WWII becoming Polish territory and resettled in his case in Eastern Germany, the future GDR (where these people were called Umsiedler, literally meaning “those who have resettled”).

The word Landnahme in German means literally “to take the land”, it is clearly an active, possibly even an aggressive act, depending on if the land was already occupied by someone (in that case it would be translated as “conquest” in English), or if the land was acquired by legal means (buying or acquisition by a lawful redistribution of the land).

Settlement is therefore under no circumstances a literal translation of Landnahme. The author plays with the ambiguity of the word in his text, showing how difficult it is for the main character to make this land (in every sense of the word) his own, and by all means.

Acquisition would have been a much better literal translation of this word, or even Conquest – although the ambiguity of the German word would have been lost. So what to do as a translator in such a situation? Go for the “correct” literal translation and decide to use either Acquisition or Conquest? Or go for another solution? The translator went for the second option, and rightfully so I suppose.

Settlement means in English either an inhabited place, a village, a community of people living in a place, but it means also an arrangement to settle a conflict or a dispute, so although it is not a “correct” literal translation of Landnahme, it keeps the ambiguity of the German title – and that is what counts most in my opinion. So contrary to my first reaction, I have to concede that Philip Boehm, the translator, has done an excellent job to find this title for Hein’s novel in English.

Do you have annoying examples of wrong translations of book titles, or of ingenious one’s as the last example?

 

Hein

Christoph Hein: Settlement, transl. by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008

(review to follow)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reading/Reviewing Plans

The end of the year is approaching with fast steps. This year I haven’t been so active as a blogger as last year until recently – German Lit Month brought me back to the usual pace – and I have done more blog posts on poetry and translations than the year before; also I did more posts in German and one in Bulgarian too. Book blogging is a dynamic process and the focus of such places will always be subject to small unplanned changes, but I will keep also in the next year my habit to publish reviews of books that were interesting to me.

As you already know when you follow this blog on a regular basis, my taste in books is rather eclectic. I am definitely not a person who is permanently scanning bestseller lists or is jumping in on discussions about books that were – usually for marketing reasons – the “talk of the town”. Therefore I avoided so far reviewing books by Houellebecq or Knausgård; it is difficult to not be influenced by the public discussion that focuses frequently on aspects that have very little to do with the literary quality of the books by such authors but a lot with their public persona and their sometimes very controversial opinions about certain topics. Not that the books by these authors are necessarily bad, but I prefer to read without too much background noise. So I will come also to these authors, but most probably not in the near future.

My blog tries to be diverse, but without quota. But of course my choice is subjective and I am aware of the fact that probably most readers will find many authors/books on this list that are completely unknown to them. If you look for just another blog that is reviewing again and again the same exclusively Anglo-saxon authors, then this might not be the best place for you. If you are eager to discover something new, then you are most welcome. 

There are no ads on this blog and this will also not change in the future. There is zero financial interest from my side to keep this blog alive, I do it just for fun. Please don’t send unsolicitated review copies if you are an author or a publisher. In rare cases I might accept a review copy when contacted first but only when I have already an interest in the book. All blog posts contain of course my own – sometimes idiosyncratic – opinion for what it is worth. In general I tend to write reviews on the positive side. When a book disappoints me, I tend to not write a review unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise.

These are the books presently on my “To-be-read” pile; which means they are the one’s that i will most probably read and review within the coming months. But as always with such lists, they are permanently subject to changes, additions, removals. Therefore I (and also the readers of this blog) will take this list as an orientation and not as a strict task on which I have to work one by one. 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Jim al-Khalili: The House of Wisdom

Ryunosunke Akutagawa: Kappa

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

Sinan Antoon: The Corpse Washer

Toufic Youssef Aouad: Le Pain

Abhijit Banerjee / Esther Duflo: Poor Economics

Hoda Barakat: Le Royaume de cette terre

Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Nicolas Born: The Deception

Thomas Brasch: Vor den Vätern sterben die Söhne

Joseph Brodsky: On Grief and Reason

Alina Bronsky: Just Call Me Superhero

Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

Leila S. Chudori: Pulang

Beqe Cufaj: projekt@party 

Mahmoud Darwish: Memory of Forgetfulness

Oei Hong Djien: Art & Collecting Art

Dimitre Dinev: Engelszungen (Angel’s Tongues)

Anton Donchev: Time of Parting

Jabbour Douaihy: June Rain

Michael R. Dove: The Banana Tree at the Gate

Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes

Isabelle Eberhardt: Works

Tristan Egolf: Lord of the Barnyard

Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria

Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Mani

Milena Michiko Flašar: I called him Necktie

David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace

Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra

Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land

Georg K. Glaser: Geheimnis und Gewalt (Secret and Violence)

Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel

Georgi Gospodinov: The Physics of Sorrow

Elizabeth Gowing: Edith and I

David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules

Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Ludwig Harig: Die Hortensien der Frau von Roselius

Johann Peter Hebel: Calendar Stories

Christoph Hein: Settlement

Wolfgang Hilbig: The Sleep of the Righteous

Albert Hofmann / Ernst Jünger: LSD

Hans Henny Jahnn: Fluss ohne Ufer (River without Banks) (Part II)

Franz Jung: Der Weg nach unten

Ismail Kadare: Broken April

Ismail Kadare: The Palace of Dreams

Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor (Editors): The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia: 1965-1968

Rosen Karamfilov: Kolene (Knees)

Orhan Kemal: The Prisoners

Irmgard Keun: Nach Mitternacht

Georg Klein: Libidissi

Friedrich August Klingemann: Bonaventura’s Nightwatches

Fatos Kongoli: The Loser

Theodor Kramer: Poems

Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter (Thunderstorm in September)

Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star

Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy

Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers

Sandor Marai: Embers

Sean McMeekin: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Multatuli: Max Havelaar

Alice Munro: Open Secrets

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women

Irene Nemirovsky: Suite française 

Ben Okri: The Famished Road

Laksmi Pamuntjak: The Question of Red

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra

Georges Perec: Life. A User’s Manual

Leo Perutz: By Night Under the Stone Bridge

Boris Pilnyak: Mahogany

Alek Popov: Black Box

Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature

Boris Savinkov: Memoirs of a Terrorist

Eric Schneider: Zurück nach Java

Daniel Paul Schreber: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

Carl Seelig: Wandering with Robert Walser

Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Anthony Shadid: House of Stones

Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales

Raja Shehadeh: A Rift in Time

Alexander Shpatov: #LiveFromSofia

Werner Sonne: Staatsräson?

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Way to Babadag

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: A Mute’s Soliloquy

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Buru Quartet (4 vol.)

Lionel Trilling: The Middle of the Journey

Iliya Trojanov: The Collector of Worlds

Bernward Vesper: Die Reise (The Journey)

Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten

Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Marguerite Yourcenar: Coup de Grace

Galina Zlatareva: The Medallion

Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grisha

Stay tuned – and feel free to comment any of my blog posts. Your contributions are very much appreciated. You are also invited to subscribe to this blog if you like.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Luzhin Defense

“What struck him most was the fact that from Monday on he would be Luzhin.”

These words mark a beginning and an end – the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defense and the end of the probably happiest period in the life of the protagonist when he was the pampered only child of a wealthy St. Petersburg family in pre-revolutionary Russia, living the protected existence of children of this class, when life seemed to be a long holiday. But time is not standing still, finally the boy has to attend school in the city where everybody will address him by his family name only. A rather traumatic experience as it turns out, although the child seems to accept the fact quietly.

It is an interesting decision of Nabokov to present this rather strange boy and later even more strange grown-up with his family name only (even his parents and his wife address him half-jokingly only with this name and not with his first name and patronym as would be usual). It is not until the very end when the readers learn the full name of the hero of the book.

And indeed, there seems to be an aura that creates a distance between Luzhin and the rest of the people. He is not communicative, likes to stay on his own, resolving mathematical problems or puzzles, and he seems to be unable to make friends or be even close with his parents who make all kind of efforts to shower Luzhin with their affection and love to which he reacts by withdrawing even more. His parents seem sometimes to be at a loss what to make of this strange bird that grows up in their nest and that shows no sign of serious interest in anything – until the day he discovers a chess set and learns how to play.

Luzhin develops into a chess wunderkind, with an all-absorbing passion for the game that is reluctantly supported by the father (who seems to be too happy that his son will not be a complete failure and be successful even when it is an activity that society doesn’t consider as something worthy of an educated person with his background). A chess impresario, Dr. Valentinov, takes the child prodigee under his wings and Luzhin becomes one of the most serious contenders for the title of a World Chess Champion.

The second part of the novel centers around a game of Luzhin with his main rival Turati, followed by a mental breakdown of Luzhin that forces him to give up on his chess career.

But Luzhin is lucky: he finds a young Russian woman from a wealthy emigrant family in Berlin that falls in love with him; despite strong reservations from the mother-in-law, the couple marries and finally Luzhin seems to embark for the first time in his life on a normal life. Everything would be fine, if he would not see everywhere these chess patterns, and to make things worse, one day his childhood nemesis Valentinov turns up again.

It is difficult not to quote excessively from this book – although written and published originally in Russian the English translation reads very smoothly and elegant, no surprise since Nabokov who co-authored the translation grew up bilingual – because there are simply too many parts which show the great mastery of Nabokov even at this comparatively early stage of his career. I will refrain myself and will give only two examples:

Dr. Valentinov, the chess impresario, is described as a cold, cunning, profit-oriented and extremely unsympathetic person (I was wondering: thinking of Silvio Danailov, a famous present day chess impresario, I suppose these character traits are part of the job description. Well, the real-life Danailov seems to be even more unlikable than the novel character Valentinov!).

When young Luzhin loses his wunderkind appeal and becomes just a strong chess grandmaster, Valentinov is walking away without saying much – but with a full bank account (while Luzhin remains quite poor and receives only a few “crumbs” from his income). While Valentinov becomes a film producer – there was much more money to make in the booming film industry of the 1920s – he comes up with a project idea for which he needs Luzhin and some other chessmasters as “staffage”. The few lines that describe their meeting after many years not being in touch are masterful and give in a nutshell a description of the character of both men:

“At this moment the door opened with a rush and a coatless, curly-haired gentleman shouted in German, with an anxious plea in his voice: “Oh, please, Dr. Valentinov, just one minute!” “Excuse me, dear boy,” said Valentinov and went to the door, but before reaching it he turned sharply around, rummaged in his billfold and threw a slip of paper on the table before Luzhin. “Recently composed it,” he said. “You can solve it while you are waiting. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” –

He disappeared. Luzhin cautiously raised his eyelids. Mechanically he took the slip. A cutting from a chess magazine, the diagram of a problem. Mate in three moves. Composed by Dr. Valentinov. The problem was cold and cunning, and knowing Valentinov, Luzhin instantly found the key. In this subtle problem he saw clearly all the perfidity of his author. From the dark words just spoken by Valentinov in such abundance, he understood one thing: there was no movie, the movie was just a pretext…a trap, a trap…he would be inveigled into playing chess and then the next move was clear. But this move would not be made.”

There are also many scenes where I had to laugh, especially the dialogues between the grubby, unworldly Luzhin and his future mother-in-law, a rich and very sophisticated woman – actually these are more monologues of the eccentric lady who doesn’t have exactly the highest opinion of the future husband of her only daughter. Or the attempts to find Luzhin a new occupation after the end of his chess career – rather sad, but also highly comical attempts at times that reach its climax when Luzhin acquires a typewriter:

“It was proposed to him that one of the office employees come and explain how to use it, but he refused, replying that he would learn on his own. And so it was: he fairly quickly made out its construction, learned to put in the ribbon and roll in the sheet of paper, and made friends with all the little levers. It proved to be more difficult to remember the distribution of the letters, the typing went very slowly; there was none of Tot-tot’s rapid chatter and for some reason – from the very first day – the exclamation mark dogged him – it leapt out in the most unexpected places.

At first he copied out half a column from a German newspaper, and then composed a thing or two himself. A brief little note took shape with the following contents: “You are wanted on a charge of murder. Today is November 27th. Murder and arson. Good day, dear Madam. Now when you are needed, dear, exclamation mark, where are you? The body has been found. Dear Madam! Today the police will come!!” Luzhin read this over several times, reinserted the sheet and, groping for the right letters, typed out, somewhat jumpily, the signature: “Abbe Busoni.”

At this point he grew bored, the thing was going too slowly. And somehow he had to find a use for the letter he had written. Burrowing in the telephone directory he found a Frau Louisa Altman, wrote out the address by hand and sent her his composition.”

I would have liked to see Frau Louisa Altman’s face when she read the letter.

Nabokov knew about what he was writing in this novel. He came from exactly the same milieu as the Luzhin in the book (even his father was like Luzhin’s father, an author). He knew the Berlin milieu of the Russian emigrants of the 1920s from his own life there. And he was a strong chess player that even composed and published chess problems – chess was his other life-long interest beside butterlies. It is very probable that he knew Alexander Alekhine (or Aljechin), the later World Chess Champion with whom Luzhin has many similarities personally – the Nabokov’s and the Alekhine’s were neighbors in St. Petersburg and both fathers were deputies in the Duma.

The chess part of the book is so much better and superior in every respect to Stefan Zweig’s Chess! (I don’t want to denigrate Stefan Zweig’s writing, but for me it is obvious that he had only a quite shallow knowledge of the game.) Needless to say that also the other chess masters mentioned in the book are inspired by real chess masters (Turati/Reti, Moser/Lasker); and even the end of the novel is based on the fate of a real chess master, Curt von Bardeleben, who was Nabokov’s neighbor in Berlin if I am not mistaken.

The Luzhin Defense is a fascinating book about an obsessive character and in my opinion the best chess novel ever published. It is also an excellent starting point to discover one of the greatest novelists of all times. Maybe his most mature English works are even better – but I can’t imagine any better starting point to discover the continent Nabokov than The Luzhin Defense.

Do you really need more reasons to read this book?

Luzhin

Vladimir Nabokov: The Luzhin Defense, translated by Michael Scammell in co-operation with the author, Penguin Books (originally published as Защита Лужина, by V. Sirin, Slovo, Berlin 1930)

The copy I was reading contained Nabokov’s very sarcastic foreword to the English edition “with a few words of encouragement to the Viennese delegation” (i.e. the psychoanalysts for whom N. had so much mockery and contempt) and an instructive afterword by John Updike.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Everything Flows

Ivan Grigoryevich has just been released after 30 years in the GULag. He is set free after Stalin’s death – if one can call it “freedom” what a former political prisoner experiences in a just slightly changed country that is still run by the basically same dictatorial regime and totalitarian ideology. Ivan Grigoryevich comes back to a life that is physically and morally still devastated by war and terror.

The brilliant novel Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, based on the fate of Grossman’s brother-in-law, describes the destroyed, almost extinguished life of a man that – like many millions of others – fell victim to the great purges of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, after his release from a slave labor camp in the Kolyma region in the Far North East of Siberia.

We follow Ivan during his train ride to Moscow, listening to the conversations of some typical representatives of the “new” society, a society which is alien and repelling for Ivan.

We meet his cousin with wife, his only relative, who – although not a bad person – made many compromises and committed small acts of treachery in the past in order to make the career he (and his ambitious wife) felt he was entitled to have.

We meet the person who decades ago denounced Ivan (which meant death or long term imprisonment as a slave worker in the GULag; in the case of a death sentence, the families were usually informed that the convicted was being sentenced to “ten years without right of correspondence”).

We see Ivan in front of the house where his big love is living, a woman that long ago stopped to send letters to the prisoner, either because she thought that Ivan is dead or because she simply moved on with her life.

Ivan feels that all these people have got nothing to do with him anymore. But how to live and for what purpose? And how to make sense of this wasted life since the decades that are missing will not come back?

With a little bit of luck, Ivan finds a job in a workshop where he is accepted despite his past. (By the way a bit similar to the workshop in Kharkov in which my father used to work for many years during the Stalin era.)

And he finds against all odds love: he meets the widow Anna and experiences for the first time in his life a form of warmth and tenderness that was unknown to him. But Ivan’s and Anna’s happiness lasts only for a short while…As Anna puts it:

“Happiness doesn’t seem to be our fate in this world.”

Everything flows is an extremely touching novel. It contains many scences that leave their mark on the reader for a very long time.

There is for example the scene when Anna describes how she as a young party activist participated in the so-called “dekulakisation”, i.e. the forced expulsion of the so-called kulaks (usually small landowners) to remote and uninhabited areas, which meant for hundreds of thousands of them death by starvation.

Or the few pages that describe the fate of a gentle, meek, family of Ukrainian farmers in the early 1930s, who – like their whole village and thousands of villages in the Ukraine – became a victim of the so-called Holodomor, the probably biggest man-made killing by starvation in history. (The grain, including the seeds, that the OGPU, Stalin’s ruthless secret police extorted from the farmers was exported – with the money, Stalin bought machinery that should help to modernize the Soviet Union fast. At the same time 5-8 millions of potential “enemies” of the system “disappeared” by starvation and cannibalism.)

The novel contains also a mock trial that sheds a light on the absurdity of the great purge which sent dozens of millions of people to the camps; and chapters that try to explain the nature of the Soviet system by the character of its leaders, especially Lenin. An interesting thought is Grossman’s explanation that progress and slavery in Russia were always combined: periods of great progress (like under Peter the Great or Katharina) were always periods where individual freedom was even more reduced than before – a model which also Stalin seemed to have in mind when he made himself a “Red” Czar that was aiming to exterminate freedom completely in his empire.

Stylistically and regarding its composition the novel is slightly uneven. Grossman was still working on the book when he died, so what we have as readers is not the version that Grossman would have considered as ready for publishing. Anyway, it was obvious that he couldn’t have published this book during his lifetime. Too open is his criticism not only against Stalinism but against the roots of the Soviet system as a whole. Still, despite this unevenness, it is a great and extremely impressive achievement.

Grossman is not condemning anyone that denounced his neighbor, or who was a political activist that participated in what he or she later recognized as monstrous crimes, or who in order to protect his/her own family stopped social contacts with the family members of someone that was arrested. He is particularly sympathetic with the women who became a victim of Stalinism; their fate was frequently even worse than that of the men. He tries to understand why it all happened.

Many Russian authors have written about the GULag (and about its Czarist predecessors in the 19th century). In the West, mainly the books of Alexander Solzhenitsyn about the GULag are known and read; A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a great story, but unfortunately Solzhenitsyn’s other works are too frequently marred by his reactionary, anti-semitic prejudices and rhetoric.

To me, the beautiful novels of Vasily Grossman and the breathtaking stories of Varlam Shalamov about the GULag, are far more important and worth reading.

Grossman

 

Vasily Grossman: Everything Flows, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Anna Aslanyan, Vintage, London 2011

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Handed Gunsmith from Tula and the Steel Flea

The 19th century was an extraordinarily rich period for Russian literature. Among the numerous gifted and productive authors of that period is at least one that – according to my impression – is not valued and read outside Russia as much as he would deserve it: Nikolay Leskov.

His probably best work The Steel Flea (full title: The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Handed Gunsmith from Tula and the Steel Flea) contains on about 50 pages everything that makes this author so interesting in a nutshell, such as: a folk-like story about an unsung Russian everyday-life hero of the past; a narrative spiced with mild irony; a playful voice that uses many neologisms that are so up to the point that many of them achieved proverbial status and found their way into everyday communication of many Russians; a not condescending sympathy of the author/narrator with the “ordinary people”.

What is it about: Czar Alexander I (we are in the 1820s, more than half a century before Leskov wrote the story) is visiting England, then the technically most developed country; he is accompanied by Platov, a Cossack ataman, who represents the ordinary Russian that is proud and less easy to impress than the Czar by the display of technical superiority with which the English hosts shower their Royal guest. While the Czar views everything he sees as a sign of the hopeless inferiority and backwardness of his country, Platov makes it clear to the Czar that he thinks otherwise (ironically his opinion is confirmed in one instance much to the embarrassment of the hosts.)

As a gift, the Czar receives a tiny steel flea that can even perform a dance when properly wound up. How this complicated and perfectly crafted mechanism that can be seen properly under a strong microscope only is constructed is not revealed and leaves the Czar wondering how such a miracle of engineering was possible.

After the coronation of Alexander’s brother Nikolay a few years later, the steel flea becomes a political issue. Platov, in the meantime retired, is re-activated to service in order to investigate if somewhere in Russia craftsmen can do something that even “tops” the English feat of the dancing steel insect. Platov finds in Tula a left-handed and cross-eyed craftsman who, together with several of his colleagues indeed “improves” the English invention. (You have to read by yourself how.)

In the end, the Russians have a field day to see the impressed English who cannot believe their eyes when a Russian delegation with Lefty is visiting the island. So impressed are they this time that they try to lure the nameless Lefty to stay in England; but to no avail: the man from Tula is homesick and returns to Russia, where he dies soon after his arrival as a consequence of a drinking contest with a sailor. The last important message he has and that could have change the fate of Russia is not delivered.

In the end, Leskov tells his readers:

Lefty’s real name, like the names of many of the greatest geniuses, has been lost to posterity forever; but he is interesting as the embodiment of a myth in the popular imagination, and his adventures can serve to remind us of an epoch whose general spirit has been portrayed here clearly and accurately.

It goes without saying that Tula no longer has such master craftsmen as the legendary Lefty: machines have evened up the inequalities in gifts and talents, and genius no longer strains itself in a struggle against diligence and exactness. Even though they encourage the raising of salaries, machines do not encourage artistic, daring, which sometimes went so far beyond ordinary bounds as to inspire the folk imagination to create unbelievable legends like this one.  

One of the things I like particularly are Leskov’s neologisms that are translated quite ingeniously in the edition I had at hand. For example: the steel flea and its dance can be seen properly only when viewed under a strong microscope, or nitroscope – as the narrator says (it seems Leskov was the Godfather of nanotechnology); and when the steel flea is dancing, he is doing it in various fairiations.

Another thing I found amusing was the fact that the steel flea, a childish toy after all, becomes a state affair and the main object of national pride of two European leaders and their nations they represent; on a more serious note: how much better seem these old times to be where a Russian leader paid attention to the shoe strings of a tiny steel flea – especially considering most of the Russian leaders that came later… – !

Leskov had a difficult time as a writer in his days. The progressives viewed him as a conservative, the conservatives suspected him to be a leftist; the Slavophiles considered him as a propagandist of Western modernism, and the Westerners saw in him a romantic that was spreading nostalghia for Russia’s backwardness. A writer whose work is still so fresh and who was caught between so many stools is definitely worth it to be read again.

My edition was the one from Penguin’s “Little Black Classics”. This series contains many (re-)discoveries; the small format and limited number of pages make it (together with the very attractive price) the perfect companion for the daily commuting routine or on other occasions. When you carry (like me) always at least one book with you to use every opportunity for reading, this is an excellent series for you.

Leskov

Nikolay Leskov: The Steel Flea, translated by William Edgerton, London 2015

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

L1, L2, indirect – and a few more words on translations

When I have some free time, I love to browse blog posts of my fellow book bloggers. It is always interesting to see what the colleagues and friends are doing, which books I missed but should read soon, what they think about books I reviewed recently – and sometimes what they are thinking about other book-related topics.

As I have said several times before, I am much more aware now of the fact that translations matter and are extremely important. Even when you can speak and read five or six languages it will still widen your horizon beyond imagination when you have access to translated books. The availability and also the quality of translations are therefore two of the most important defining elements of an existing book market.

In an older blog post which I have just recently discovered, one of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, was writing about an interesting book by David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Among other authors Bellos has translated the Albanian author Ismail Kadare into English – from the French, not the Albanian language. This is called “indirect translation”, contrary to the direct translation from the source to the target language. Depending on the question if the translator translates into his or her native language, or from his native language into the target language, direct translations are differentiated into so-called “L1” or “L2” translations. Many experts view L2 translations with scepticism or reject them completely, while some consider indirect translations as acceptable when there are no translators available for this particular combination of languages.

I think what counts at the end of the day is the quality of the translation, no matter if it is L1, L2, or indirect. Of course, chances that the translation is excellent are much higher with direct translations. When writers are sometimes using a language that is not their native one, why shouldn’t some translators be able to do the same? (Since Nabokov grew up bilingual, I wouldn’t include him in this list of writers, but there are plenty of them and not the worst) –

An indirect translation might be a kind of second-best solution in cases when there are really no translators available for this particular combination. For Kadare it shouldn’t be a problem to be translated directly into English, since there is not one, but plenty of literary translators for that combination.

But Kadare is a special case: he revised and rewrote all his books that were originally published in the time of communism in Albania when he prepared them for publication in France. That means that a translation of the same book from French to English contains a sometimes very different text than when you would make a direct translation from the Albanian version. And for the novels originally published before 1990 Kadare considers the French and not the Albanian version as the “real”, uncensored text. The revised editions of the pre-1990 novels of Kadare in Albanian language were published after the French versions, if I am not mistaken. For the past-1990 novels, the situation is different: as far as I see they are translated directly from Albanian to English because there is no need for a text revision.

There are also other authors we know mainly from indirect translations. The works of Israel Bashevis Singer are usually translated from English – there are even a lot of people that think Singer was an English-language author. Especially in the case of the translations of Singer to German that is a real pity: Yiddish is so close to German, so why not translate the books directly? (The result would be a very different text, much more close to the original, as I can say from practical experience when I made a sample translation of one of his stories once from the original text to German, comparing the result with the “official” translation from English)

Why do publishers choose to publish indirect translations instead of direct ones? One reason may indeed be a shortage of available translators for the respective combination – although this case may be much rarer as some publishers make us believe. But the problem exists: when I investigated for the possibilities to translate a book from Indonesian to Bulgarian, I realized that there is only one person who can do the job – now imagine if he would be not available for some reason: the only option remaining would be to work with an indirect translation. Otherwise the book would be never available for the potential readers whose native language is Bulgarian and who don’t read in other languages. Although an indirect translation might not be perfect, in the best case it could be a reasonable approximation of the original text. And that would be still far superior then the virtual non-existence of a book in that particular language.

Another reason for indirect translations may be that in some cases publishers can save money – it is cheaper to translate from languages where you can find plenty of competing translators than from languages where there are only a very few translators, or where possibly the translation rights might be cheaper to acquire (depending on the contractual relationships between the involved publishers, the author and the literary agency).

Also literary agents can play a role in this process. Agents try to increase the income of their clients (and by that their own income), so they try to redistribute money from other stages of the book value chain – mainly the publishing houses, but obviously to a growing extent also from translators – into the pockets of their writing clientele, by auctioning off book and translation rights, increasing the royalties for the author, etc., and by that forcing everybody else in the book value chain to decrease their income. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as professional and ethical standards are respected, which is not always the case.

A particular vicious example is a recent case in which Egyptian bestselling author Alaa al Aswany and his agent Andrew Wiley (together with Knopf Doubleday publishers) are involved and that was made public by the Threepercent website of the University of Rochester.

A completely unacceptable treatment of a literary translator – and hard to believe but obviously true: a world famous author, the Godfather of all literary agents and a renowned publishing house use their combined power and leverage to cheat on a hard working professional, for reasons that are as it seems of exclusively pecuniary nature.

By the way, I find it very interesting to see the approach of different writers to the question of translations of their works. While some authors take a great interest and discuss details of the translations with their translators, or even organize like Günter Grass (on their own costs) workshops for their translators to ensure a high quality of the translations, others like Thomas Bernhard show the extreme opposite approach. From an interview with Werner Wögerbauer, conducted 1986 in Vienna:

“W.: Does the fate of your books interest you?

B.: No, not really.

W.: What about translations for example?

B.: I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

W.: What happens to your books in other countries.

B.: Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!”

And for those of you who are familiar with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s books with the untranslatable titles Quand Freud voit la mer and Quand Freud attend le verbe, it may be not surprising that I am very sympathetic to Bernhard’s opinion. A translation is indeed always a different book, and sometimes – as is the case with the terms created by Freud in the framework of psychoanalysis, the meaning and specific connotation of central words and expressions are so inseparably linked to the particular language in which they were created (in the case of psychoanalysis: German) that each translation is already an interpretation, over-simplification, reduction of ambiguity, and even falsification of the original text. – But I guess I am digressing a bit. The highly interesting books by Goldschmidt would deserve a more detailed review as is possible here.

Translations are a wide field – I have the feeling that I will return to the issue again sooner or later.

Bellos

David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Particular Books, 2012

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud attend le verbe, Buchet Chastel, 2006

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud voit la mer, Buchet Castel, 2006

Chad W. Post: A Cautionary Tale

Chad W. Post: The Three Percent Problem, Open Letter, e-book, 2011

The interview with Thomas Bernhard was originally published in the autumn issue 2006 of Kultur & Gespenster, the English translation by Nicholas Grindell was published here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Case of the General’s Thumb

“Kiev, night of 20th-21st May, 1997
Sergeant Voronko of the State Vehicle Inspectorate loved his snug little glass booth on Independence Square in the heart of Kiev, and never more than in the small hours, when Khreshchatik Street was free of traffic, and nipping out for a smoke was to experience a vibrant, blanketing silence very different from the fragile night stillness of his home village.”

But on that particular late evening, things turn out to be very different from usual for Sergeant Voronko. First he gets a call to go urgently to another post due to an emergency there, and when he has almost arrived there with his old Zhiguli car, he gets another call to go back again to his glass booth at Khreshchatik Street because his presence at the other post is no longer needed. When he is arriving back at his usual workplace, a corpse is hanging attached to an advertising balloon. The deceased is not only a distinguished general but also a presidential advisor and the circumstances hint at a crime with a political background. And, strangely enough, one of the general’s thumbs is missing. (At the end of the book we will know why.)

It is clear from the very beginning of the book that this is not an ordinary crime. The general’s connections, his links to the Ukrainian and also Russian Intelligence networks are uncovered step by step by the young investigator lieutenant Viktor Slutsky. Slutsky, and not one of his more experienced colleagues is dealing with the case – maybe someone thinks the rookie Slutsky will get (conveniently for certain people) lost in this complicated, entangled and twisted network of relations between all the players involved; or maybe he can be easily directed by someone who is pulling the strings behind the scenes? Both is very probable, and indeed Slutsky gets permanently calls on his mobile phone by a mysterious voice that is always strangely very well informed and tells the lieutenant what to do next. But when Slutsky meets Refat, a mysterious Tartar who works for the Russian Intelligence, he starts to be for the first time keeping a few secrets from the voice on the phone…

The other main line of the story follows Nik, an ethnic Russian that was recently expelled from Tajikistan with his family. Nik, with a background in police/intelligence work and a sound knowledge of German, is trying to get a job in Ukraine where he was born and where he intends to relocate his family too. Luck seems to be on his side when he is offered a job where exactly his abilities and experiences are needed. But he soon realizes, just like lieutenant Slutsky that he is mainly a pawn in a political chess game. He and Sakhno, the other agent he is joining to do some unclear business – including tossing fish over a garden gate, or carting a parrot around – in not exactly exciting German cities like Koblenz, Euskirchen or Trier, are always told what to do without any explanation – and they are also not supposed to ask too many questions.

It would spoil the fun if I would retell the story here in detail, so I better stop here with the synopsis.

You can read Kurkov’s novel like you would read any fast-paced crime/espionage genre novel. It is a real page-turner and I read it in one evening. There is a lot of action, good dialogues, very credible characters and an interesting story. All ingredients you need to enjoy a book of this genre.

But there is also a second, less obvious layer of the story. Kurkov is a master of intertextuality. The book is full of allusions to other works and writers of the genre but also to Russian literature. Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, John Le Carre, but also Michail Bulgakov, Ilf & Petrov, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, to name just the few references which I have discovered – and I am sure there are much more in the book. If you are well-read, you will enjoy this book therefore even more.

Additionally, there is a dry humor in many scenes, for example in an early chapter when Slutsky goes home after work to his family:

“Now, up to the eigth floor, and supper. The lift had yet to be installed, a fact for which the tenants, except perhaps the elderly couple on the twelfth floor, were physically the fitter.”

And, although on the surface this is not the main topic of the book, the strained relations between Russia and Ukraine cast already their long shadows over the story:

“RUSSIA AND UKRAINE – NEITHER PEACE NOR WAR? Ran the eye-catching Izvestiya headline. It was a question, it appeared, of determining the frontier, or, more exactly, of the two sides being able to agree where it ran.”

In this novel, things are rarely as they seem to be at a first glance. Even an innocent turtle keeps a dark secret.

Kurkov is a compassionate author. Viktor Slutsky and Nik Tsensky, the two main characters in this book share the same dream: to have a normal life in a decent flat with their families. And when Kurkov is granting almost all surviving characters in the story a happy end, it is like he is winking at us readers. They might be pawns in a political chess game, but they keep their dignity, and as a reward deserve a fairy tale-like ending.

Andrey Kurkov was a new discovery for me: it was the first book by him I read, but it will be definitely not the last.

Kurkov

Andrey Kurkov: The Case of the General’s Thumb, transl. by George Bird, Melville House, New York 2012

 
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Isaac Babel meets King Kong

If you love Russian literature as much as I do, then Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed is a treat for you. The title refers to Dostoevsky’s novel (also published under the title The Demons) but also to the possessive love of many readers and scholars to the Russian literature in general. And of course to the Russian writers and many of their literary heroes as well.

Elif Batuman is of Turkish origin but grew up in an obviously wealthy upper middle class family in the U.S.. She fell in love with literature and more specifically with Russian literature at an early age. And when she took violin lessons later, her teacher was an enigmatic and somehow secretive Russian – this first Russian she met in real life left a mark on her. When she decided to study linguistics (in the vague hope to become a novelist later), she took up Russian lessons as well. And while linguistics proved to be a real disappointment, Russian language was not, although it took her a long time to learn it well.

When I started The Possessed, I had the expectation to read a book about Russian writers and literature. But it is first of all an autobiographical book by Elif Batuman on her intellectual coming-of-age. That was unexpected – I came across this book by chance in an antiquarian bookstore in Sofia, and since the good hard cover cost only about 5 Euro, I thought I give it a try. Despite my slight momentary disappointment (I had simply wrong expectations), I enjoyed this book very much because it is overall so well-written, funny, interesting, fresh. And it is also a travelogue, kind of.

Batuman describes her time in Stanford and her participation in some international conferences with a lot of (self-)irony and humor. How two well-known Babel scholars “give each other the finger” in a parking lot over a dispute regarding the last free parking space is hilarious. The Babel family (widow and two daughters of the great Isaac Babel) prove to be not easy to handle when they participate in an international conference to Babel’s honor. And also the Tolstoy conference in Jasnaya Polyana turns almost into a disaster because Aeroflot loses her luggage and she has to spend a week in her flip-flops, T-shirt and jeans – not because she is a “Tolstoyan” who prefers the most simple outfit, as most participants seem to assume. Also how she successfully collects travel grants on rather dubious scientific projects, or how the famous New Yorker magazine sends her to Sankt Petersburg without willing to pay her travel expenses, but expecting that she spends a night in the Ice Palace – a real palace made of ice, built according to an old design – these and other stories make for a very entertaining read.

On a more serious note, Batuman provides interesting background information on the writers and works she is covering: mainly Isaac Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. I didn’t know Ivan Lazhechnikov before, but her extremely interesting chapter on The Ice House, his book published in 1835 makes me curious to read this work (Batuman makes excessive use of her New Yorker reportage in that chapter).

Another part of the book that I found extremely interesting, was the description of her time in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. While she studied Uzbek language and literature there, she gives very interesting insights into the history and everyday life of people in this now independent country with an ancient literature of high level (especially the works of Mir Ali Nevai, sometimes also referred to as Alisher Navoi).

As I mentioned, this is also an autobiographical work. The author is also the main character, and it describes her changing private life as well. Boyfriends come and go, also interests shift somehow, but the love for literature and the wish to write are the interests which give the authors’ intellectual journey such a strength and continuity.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been almost a masterpiece. I say almost, because there are a few things that irritated me a bit and that could have been easily avoided.

Batuman mentions somewhere the fact that Tolstoy introduces in Anna Karenina many characters without a name, or he is using the same name (such as Andrey) several times. That can be a bit confusing when you don’t read Anna Karenina very focused. As if to make an allusion to Tolstoy, she is introducing a certain Matej, a co-student and friend from Croatia in an early chapter. In a much later chapter, a Matej, co-student from Croatia is introduced to the reader again, this time he is the boyfriend of the author. I suppose this is the same person, but then why to introduce him twice? The second time it was very confusing because unless it is an oversight by the author (and the editor), it doesn’t make sense to introduce him again. (I suppose that the two chapters were published before the book edition separately in some journal, and later it was forgotten to remove the double introduction of this person) Or did I miss something completely? I am still confused, and that distracted me a bit from the beautiful prose Batuman writes.

As for her literary likes: they are excellent, and I share most of them. Isaac Babel is one of my biggest heroes in the literary world. And as everyone, she has her idiosyncrasies, which is fine. Still, I would have liked to understand what exactly is so boring about Orhan Pamuk. She doesn’t explain it.

Abdulla Qodiry, the author of Past Days, the most important Uzbek novel of the 20th century might be a great author, world class – but when she writes that he is writing on a thousand times higher level than Cechov, I simply have to believe it as a reader because she doesn’t explain what’s so terrible about Cechov’s writing, or so great about Qodiry’s abilities as an author. (I love Cechov very much and simply cannot believe her.)

The same goes for her rejection of any literature from the “periphery” – come on, you just told us how great Abdulla Qodiry is – and doesn’t he come exactly from the periphery: Uzbekistan?. Or her strong dislike of Creative Writing courses. What exactly is so terrible about them? I didn’t get it – beside the fact that the weather was better in California than in New England where the course she fled from was to take place.

My point here is the following: these opinions – which I don’t share – are all fine, but when the author is not explaining me (or at least not in a way that a reader would consider somehow enlightening or satisfactory) WHY she has these opinions, I get the impression that these are just resentments. Probably it’s more, but it is a pity she didn’t put more effort in explaining her strong opinions on (some) literature. 

Another aspect of the book that I found a bit difficult was the way, scholars or experts that teach outside Stanford are described: the Babel scholar that teaches in Tashkent and makes his own research in Odessa and Moscow is considered a moron: the whole truth is in the American archives, and who wastes his time to interview people who knew Babel or find documents in former Soviet archives is simply a poor idiot. The same goes for the Babel family, three monsters, driven by paranoia and maliciousness. (By the way, Babel was shot on the 27 January 1940, not on the 26th. Who is so strict in his judgement of others should have his facts correct.)

And I could have also done without the anecdote about the poor old Tolstoy scholar, his “accident”, and the resulting bad smelling underwear – Batuman doesn’t give his name, but I am sure for insiders he is easy to identify. Why to embarrass a person by dwelling on his incontinence, a medical condition, not a character deficit? That put me a bit off.

I see my complaints about the book are rather longish. But don’t be deceived: this is despite my ranting in the last paragraphs a book I enjoyed, partly travelogue, partly autobiography, partly literature study. It’s the first book of this author, and I will gladly read what she publishes in the future. It’s just the fact that with a bit of editing, this would have been really a masterpiece. As it is now, it is still a good book.

And Babel and King Kong? There is an almost uncanny connection between the great writer from Odessa and the famous 1933 movie. I am not going to spoil the fun of future readers, so if you want to know about it: read this book.

 

the-possessed

 

Elif Batuman: The Possessed, Granta Books, London 2011

 

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