Sunday, April 2, 2017

Favorite Russian Writers from A to Я: Х Marks the Spot

It’s been years, literally years, since I’ve written an alphabet post: I left off with the titanic letter T in July 2014. And then I struggled with the letter У/U, just as I had struggled with O earlier, because I simply didn’t have enough favorite authors to compile a post. I decided to skip a few letters after one of you asked me last week when there would be another alphabet post: since I’d already skipped O (and something else, too, I think…), I decided not to bother with У/U or Ф/F, either, at least for the time being. Hence we’ve arrived at Х, the letter often represented in English as Kh.

And what a productive letter Х/Kh is! My first Kh author to mention is Mikhail Kheraskov, an eighteenth-century writer I studied in grad school. It wasn’t Kheraskov’s Rossiad—a classic epic poem that was/is evidently in school curricula—that drew me, though, but his plays, which Wikipedia rightfully says have been “neglected by posterity.” Kheraskov’s Гонимыя (in the old orthography; I called it The Persecuted in English) was not only the reason I learned how to use a microfiche machine: it was also a good lesson about the literary transition from sentimentalism to classicism. And literary influences. Kheraskov contributed to my love of sentimentalism—The Persecuted’s title pages call it a “teary drama”—and it was his work that got me interested in analyzing literary genres. That’s more than enough to make him a favorite.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Margarita Khemlin, who died a very young death in autumn 2015, is the first writer whose work I loved so much I had to translate it. I’ve enjoyed her long and short stories, and her novels, too, and am very happy I’ll be starting work on her Klotsvog (previous post), for the Russian Library at Columbia University Press, in June. I’ve always admired Margarita’s ability to write about the damage of World War 2 and Jewish heritage with humor, grit, and grace. And I can’t wait to create an English-language voice for Maya, the narrator (and title character) of Klotsvog, my favorite of Margarita’s novels. (Favorite that I’ve read at this writing, anyway: a new one was recently published posthumously.) I missed her terribly when I was in Moscow last fall and think about her constantly: her trust in me years ago means a lot to me as a person and as a translator. And I always loved her sense of humor as a person. (Her husband and sister both took to calling me Becky Thatcher, too.) Melanie Moore translated The Investigator (Дознаватель), which earned excellent reviews and was published by Glagoslav.

Khlebnikov's grave, Moscow, November 2012, my fuzzy photo
And then there are three that I always enjoy reading but don’t have such personal feelings for… There’s the wonderful Daniil Kharms, whom I took a liking to in the early 2000s after reading Старуха (The Old Woman): Kharms is always good for some absurdity: I bought a compact 1991 edition with prose, poetry, drama, letters, and art when I lived in Moscow and enjoy picking it up every now and then for a little weirdness. Kharms has grown on me over the years, like a cucumber. There’s lots of Kharms available in translation, including Matvei Yankelevich’s Today I Wrote Nothing, from Overlook Press (2009), and Alex Cigale’s Russian Absurd, from Northwestern University Press (2017). That “three” includes two poets: Vladimir Khodasevich and Velimir Khlebnikov, neither of whom I have read methodically or even broadly but both of whom I love reading when references or mentions pop up. I’ve always had a thing for futurism so enjoy Khlebnikov for that. And, of course, for his “Incantation by Laughter,” which is mentioned in this fun post (and my comments) about Khlebnikov on Wuthering Expectations. I’ve read less of Khodasevich but he keeps turning up, both at translator conferences (represented by his translators, of course!) and in quotations in fiction. Since I’m utterly inept at writing about poetry, I’ll leave this one to Wuthering Expectations, too, since there’s this post about Selected Poems, which contains Peter Daniels’s beautiful translations. Here’s a sample of Peter’s work, from theguardian.com’s “Poem of the Week” feature. Peter’s collection, by the way, was published by Angel Classics in the UK and Overlook in the US.

Х is an unusual letter for me because nearly all the Kh authors on my shelf are favorites. The only writer left unread is Boris Khazanov: I have a collection that a friend borrowed and enjoyed very much.

Up Next: An Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku. Kir Bulychev’s Поселок (known in English as Those Who Survive): I read very little science fiction (I’ve failed on nearly every attempt at reading the Strugatsky Brothers) but enjoy it when I find something that suits my taste. This Bulychev book feels like a perfect fit for a very frenetic time. I’ll also be doing some preparatory reading before participating in Russian Literature Week events in early May. And I’m still plugging away with Crime and Punishment, though may switch to Oliver Ready’s translation of the novel, which I enjoy reading much more than Dostoevsky’s original, which I’ve been rereading as a remedial measure and as a prelude to reading Robert Belknap’s Plots, which discusses C&P as well as King Lear

Disclaimers: The usual, including knowing the translators mentioned in this post.

8 comments:

  1. Oh, thanks!

    The Ready C&P really does have a lot of energy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The thanks go to you, Amateur Reader (Tom), I enjoy your posts very much! And yes, Oliver's C&P has a lot of energy. Another translator and I were talking a few months ago about how much we enjoyed seeing how Oliver resolved knotty translation issues--that, I think, is why I enjoy his translation (so much!) more than the original. It's just plain fun to see the successes.

      And it's very funny that you mentioned the microfiche machine on Twitter: I'd never used one, let alone made copies using one, before the eighteenth-century literature course. Those materials were hard to come by then... now I wonder how much might be available online, as PDFs.

      Delete
  2. Yay, an alphabet post! I have no names to add, but I'm amused to see Kheraskov’s Rossiad mentioned, since I've just been rereading Aksakov's wonderful Детские годы Багрова-внука, which is where I first encountered Kheraskov -- I found Aksakov's enthusiasm infectious and greatly enjoyed his quotes from the poem!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was glad to write it, Languagehat, thank you for mentioning the alphabet posts! Perhaps this coincidence (?) about Rossiad portends said epic poem making its way into your reading?

      I have to say that I felt a big twinge of something akin to nostalgia when I went through my eighteenth-century literature materials on Sunday. I loved my eighteenth-century Russian literature course, probably in large part because the works don't get much attention, meaning there was an element of discovery that I just didn't feel when studying, say, Pushkin or Mandelshtam. (That element of discovery is, of course, one of the reasons so much of my reading centers around contemporary Russian novels... it's a strange way to get one's thrills, I know!)

      Delete
    2. Yes, that's what hooked me on my reading of early Russian literature; so much has been undeservedly forgotten and is a thrill to rediscover.

      Delete
  3. Great heavens, how could I forget Mark Kharitonov? His Lines of Fate won the very first Booker, in 1992!

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's funny, Languagehat, I forgot about Kharitonov, too, though I have two of his books, including Lines of Fate, on the shelf! Have you read him? I have not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, I haven't, even though I too have two of his books, including Lines of Fate, on the shelf! That's doubtless why I didn't think of him. I'm looking forward to reading him, though; he sounds like my kind of writer.

      Delete