Sunday, March 29, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Bulgakov and Brodsky

The Russian letter Б – B in the Roman alphabet – is tremendously busy! A letter has to be pretty good if the list of not-favorite authors includes Isaak Babel, Andrei Belyi, and Ivan Bunin.

But then there is Mikhail Bulgakov, whose novella Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog) has been a favorite for years, thanks to Bulgakov’s humor in depicting bureaucracy, the Soviet housing shortage, and what I will just call a medical transformation. I thoroughly enjoyed Bulgakov’s play Иван Васильевич (Ivan Vasilyevich) in late 2007, too. (Previous post)

Though I have a more complicated relationship with Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita), I love the Soviet-era passages -- particularly Satan’s ball and certain other scenes involving unclean forces -- more than enough to put Bulgakov onto my favorites list. Next time I read M&M I will use Kevin Moss’s Master & Margarita Web site to compensate for my embarrassingly anemic knowledge of the Bible. Maybe then the many sections of the book set in Biblical times will mean more to me, and I’ll be able to connect the novel’s two tracks.

I also want to mention a poet: Joseph Brodsky. I first read Brodsky in grad school, rather incidentally, when a professor handed out Brodsky’s “Бабочка” (“The Butterfly”) as an example of a poem whose shape mirrors its content. A few years later, I was asked to translate a few Brodsky poems for a stage production. The poems were horrifically difficult for me, and when I asked a Russian co-worker for help, he also found them difficult and told me he thought of Brodsky’s poems as an uncomfortable house that he didn’t enjoy visiting. I’ve heard similar comments from other Russians.

I understood. But now that nearly 20 years have passed and I’ve increased my Russian vocabulary and cultural knowledge, I love visiting Brodsky’s poetic house. I read his work rather randomly so don’t know why I seem to have a preference for his poems from the ‘70s, though I know it’s the existential themes I like best. One of my favorites so far, Я сижу у окна,” reads as an interpretation-translation in Howard Moss’s English-language New Yorker version, “I Sit by the Window.”

The B-List for Future Reading: There’s a lot to look forward to in the letter Б: I want to make amends to Ivan Bunin by reading beyond Солнечный удар (“Sunstroke”), the first story in a collection I never quite seem to get into… perhaps something longer, like Жизнь Арсеньева (The Life of Arsenyev) or Деревня (The Village), will hold my interest. Then there is Isaak Babel’, whose Конармия (Red Cavalry) scared me off with its brutality. I think it’s finally time to read all Babel’s Одесские рассказы (Odessa Stories). One of these years I will also get to Petr Boborykin’s Китай-город (transliterated: Kitai-gorod; the translation Chinatown is a false friend... see comments for more), which has been sitting on my shelf, untouched, for years, though it comes highly recommended by several friends.

My reread list includes Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog and Andrei Belyi’s Петербург (Petersburg), which I remember as a difficult but very rewarding symbolist novel. I also want to put in a better effort at reading Bulgakov’s Белая гвардия (The White Guard); maybe the third attempt will be a charm. 


  1. That's a lot of names and titles there, Ms. Lisa. Thanks for the suggestion re Turgenev back in my blog. I'm reading The Master and Margarita right now (one of the two books by Bulgakov I own). I like your suggestion re the biblical references but I guess it's too late for that now. I'll have to pick up the Bible again before reading the novel again next time! :)

  2. And thank you for the comment, Mr. Karlo! I don't think I realized how many good Russian writers there are whose names begin with B until I started on this post.

    Enjoy Master and Margarita. I'll be looking forward to reading about it on your blog!

  3. It certainly is a rich letter! Blok, Bryusov, Baratynski, Bitov, and Bykov also come to mind, not to mention lesser lights like Lidiya Baranskaya and Yuri Bondarev.

    I haven't read Petersburg in a while and look forward to reading it in Russian (I've been reading Bely's criticism and poetry lately), but first I want to finish Серебряный голубь, for which Петербург was meant to be a sequel; the language is striking, with many reminiscences of Gogol. Brodsky is now one of my favorite poets, but it took me a long time to grow accustomed to him; he's very far from an easy poet.

    One of my pet peeves, by the way, is the usual translation of Китай-город as "Chinatown"; of course it's an obvious rendering, since that's the apparent literal meaning, but "Chinatown" in English brings up associations that are utterly irrelevant to the Moscow neighborhood, where there have never been any Chinese other than tourists. Furthermore, though Китай is the modern Russian word for China, here it is probably from a Turkic word meaning 'stronghold, fortress' -- in any case, it has nothing to do with China. So my recommendation is to render Китай-город as "Kitai-gorod." [End pet-peeve rant.]

  4. Thank you, Languagehat, for the comment... I hadn't even thought of Lidiya Baranskaya and her Неделя как неделя! It is one of the first novel(la)s I read in Russian for pleasure.

    Someone else (or maybe your blog?) has mentioned Серебряный голубь recently so maybe that's a sign to put it on my B-list, particularly since it's yet another book that's been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting.

    Thank you, too, for ranting about the translation of Китай-город. I'd meant to add a note about the translation of the term but just plain forgot to go back and do it... I swear I had no intention of perpetuating an irritating translation!

  5. The English language bookshop near me had "The Master and Margarita" last time I was there. This post reminded me of how I almost bought the book. Watch- next time I go it won't be there.

  6. Ah yes, gypsyscarlett, the agony and the ecstasy of the foreign-language bookstore! You just never know what will be there... or disappear. I hope you're able to find M&M if you still want it!