Friday, May 25, 2018

Literature in Translation: Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Городские и деревенские, known in Nora Seligman Favorov’s pleasantly readable English translation as City Folk and Country Folk, is the sort of book that makes me just want to tell you to read the book because it’s a fun, smart nineteenth-century novel. I’m feeling especially minimalist about this post because the description and blurbs on the back of the Russian Library’s edition (check them out on Amazon) of Favorov’s translation cover the essence of the book so well that I’d love to just copy and paste them in here. I can certainly agree with the summarizer that City Folk and Country Folk truly is “a seemingly gentle yet devastating satire of Russia’s aristocratic and pseudo-intellectual elites in the 1860s.”

City Folk and Country Folk particularly struck me as an entertaining comedy of manners—and manors—by detailing the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova, “a fifty-five-year-old widow and the mistress of fifty souls” who lives in a place called Snetki with her teenage daughter Olenka and two houseguests: a neighbor named Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a writer and big traveler who’s rejected staying at his own estate thanks to his heightened appreciation of cleanliness; and Nastasya Ivanovna’s rather difficult second cousin, Anna Ilinishna Bobova. Although Ovcharov settles in the bathhouse, moving in with plenty of worldly goods, the novel could almost be called The Hazards of Houseguests.

And of course it could! Khvoshchinskaya piles on (in rational portions, of course) history, awkwardness, and wonderfully standard plot turns—there’s the recent emancipation of the serfs, Olenka’s marriageable age, talk of “little people” and class and places in society, Erast Sergeyich’s preferences for fresh whey and social commentary, Anna Ilinishna shutting herself in her room, and a pushy neighbor—to good effect, ensuring that both hilarity and insights will ensue. Exactly what I’d hope for from a comedy of manners and manors that contrasts urban and rural ways. I think what I enjoyed so much about City Folk and Country Folk is its brand of ordinariness, something Hilde Hoogenboom mentions in her very helpful introduction to the novel, albeit taking a more specific angle by describing Nastasya and Olenka as “unusual Russian heroines in that they are emphatically not extraordinary.” (Hoogenboom references Barbara Heldt’s Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature…)

In some senses, the very circumstances of the phenomenon of the novel—that Khvoshchinskaya wrote the novel under the pseudonym Ivan Vesenyev and was one of three writing sisters—seem almost more remarkable than the novel itself. But then, well, the fictional women really do, as they say, kick butt in City Folk and Country Folk, something that lends them automatic “extraordinary” status, given their setting. Olenka makes decisions for herself and almost literally runs circles around the pathetic suitor the pushy neighbor’s trying to set her up with and, as Hoogenboom notes, Nastasya’s a far better estate manager than the hapless Erast. There’s also a scene Hoogenboom rightfully calls “extraordinary,” when Nastasya treats her serfs “humanely” during conflict, choosing reason. That felt so natural to Nastasya’s character that I nearly missed it in all its extraordinariness. This, I think, is exactly what fiction should do, particularly when the writer (and the translator, too, in this case) make the feat look easy. I love this sort of extraordinary ordinariness, both in Russian fiction and in English translation.

Nora Seligman Favorov translates all this extraordinary ordinariness very nicely, so the book reads smoothly, from its preserved and footnoted French phrases to its feel for country life. She’s right that the novel offers lots of opportunities for “both scholarly investigation and pure reading pleasure” and, based on the result of all her work (as well as hints in her acknowledgements), it’s clear that she went to great lengths to ensure the text reflects the meaning and spirit of the Russian rather than (this is especially admirable!) making the novel feel like an academic exercise. I certainly enjoyed reading City Folk and Country Folk for fun but I’d also love to take a closer look at Khvoshchinskaya’s other writings as well as the fictional Erast Sergeyich’s essays, to see the novel a little better within its broader historical context. And, of course, to gain a more nuanced feel for the book’s humor.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a review copy of City Folk and Country Folk from the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, thank you! I am also working on a translation for the Russian Library.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation, among others. Plus, in very short order, the NatsBest winner and the Big Book Short list.


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