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Archive for the 'Russia' Category

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Capturing the tone in the translation of City Folk and Country Folk

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press blog! This week we are featuring Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, which has recently come out in the Russian Library series. Today Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, explores some of the decisions Nora Seligman Favorov made in translating the book.

As a fledgling translator, examining the work of other, more experienced translators is consistently an informative and reflective exercise for me. Translating a work of literature is more complex than simple transmission of meaning across language, for a story is more than the sum of its parts. Often there are cultural and political stakes in the game, factors not easily separated and compartmentalized thanks to the curious way in which words and their arrangement bear the weight of multiple and varied ideas. Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s novel, City Folk and Country Folk, is one such work that contains multitudes: It is a feminist novel, a satirical piece, a reflection on social change in nineteenth-century Russia, and, an entertaining read to boot. Nora Seligman Favorov is the first translator to deliver this literary gem to the English-speaking world, and she has done so with a keen ear for her Anglophone audience.

The beginning of a book sets the tone for the rest of the story. Any translator will tell you that the initial pages are crucial, that these early paragraphs introduce and establish both a sense of the author’s style from the original text and the translator’s stylistic sensibilities within the translation language. In City Folk and Country Folk, one of the first things a reader will notice is the narrative voice. At turns loving and sardonic, the third person omniscient narrator of Khvoshchinskaya’s novel tells the story using language that hints at familiarity. In the original Russian, the tone even feels conversational at times—Khvoshchinskaya practically concludes her opening paragraph with the colloquial “И что же?”, a Russian expression whose meaning, depending on context and intonation, can range from “so what?” to “big whoop” and “can you imagine?” This narrative style guides the audience with omniscient authority, but the tone conveys a figurative wink and a nod, the suggestion that the reader, like the narrator, gets it. Khvoshchinskaya employs the first person plural possessive “наш” (our)—a staple more of Russian speech than prose—to qualify the countryside, the climate, the food, and it ultimately invites the reader to consider these things from an internal perspective. The economic troubles of the day, the laughable habits and opinions of certain characters—these are presented to the reader as they might be to a friend or, perhaps fellow conspirator, and this implicit understanding between reader and narrator is what gives the novel so much of its charm.

Favorov’s English rendering of the opening pages of City Folk and Country Folk demonstrates her sensitivity both to Khvoshchinskaya’s Russian style and conventions of English writing. She maintains the inclusive “our” to bring the English reader into a sense of communion with the narrator, but she adjusts the colloquial quality in search of a more traditional English literary style. Nastasya Ivanovna, a landowner, country resident, and the leading heroine to whom we are first introduced, prefers traditional Russian ceramics and mushrooms to their more fashionable, Western European counterparts. By the social standards of her day, such tastes are “unrefined,” but Nastasya Ivanovna is only somewhat conflicted about this.

“Грубых вкусов своих она не выражала при всех, но зато с людьми, которые были ей по душе, смиренная и откровенная, она каялась в этих грехах своих. Она сознавалась сама, без чужих понуждений; не ясно ли отсюда, что она была способна совершенствоваться?”

[“She did not admit her unsophisticated tastes to just anyone, but, humble and frank, in the presence of people with whom she felt at ease, she repented these sins. Nobody forced her—she confessed them freely. Surely this suggests she was capable of self-improvement,” (Khvoshchinskaya, 4).]

The final line of this excerpt, the matter of improving oneself, is posed as a question in the Russian original: “не ясно ли отсюда, что она была способна совершенствоваться?” In the form of a question, the issue is framed in doubt, but it is unclear on whose part. If Nastasya Ivanovna’s, the question implies self-examination, a bit of desperation in the face of her failings before society; if the narrator’s, it reads more as an inference into Nastasya Ivanovna’s constitution. Favorov’s English translation does away with the question entirely, rendering Nastasya Ivanovna’s self-awareness as a rather definitive aspect of her character: “Nobody forced her—she confessed them freely. Surely this suggests she was capable of self-improvement.”

The switch from interrogative to declarative is a conscious move on the translator’s part, one whose intent I understand to be a departure from the more personal, dialectic quality of nineteenth-century Russian literature. (If you’re hungry for examples, see War and Peace.) With the declarative, Favorov’s prose shifts towards the English literary style. And while the frequent comparison may be tired, it is valid—City Folk and Country Folk is reminiscent of the works of Jane Austen, and Favorov’s choice in this instance seems to embrace the comparison. Treatment of Nastasya Ivanovna’s dilemma with a statement through free indirect discourse lends the translation the kind of third person narrative authority with which Austen presents the opinions of her British characters. As a result, some of the underlying anxiety Nastasya Ivanovna feels with respect to her own potential for “refinement” in the Russian text falls away, but what the translation gains is greater Englishness.

Favorov’s careful attempts to honor Russian and English stylistic norms operates at the word level, too. In the very first paragraph, the reader learns that Nastasya Ivanovna qualifies everything that happened that fateful summer using the word “напасть.” This word can be translated in English in various ways; its meanings including “tribulation,” “bad luck,” and “disaster.” But “напасть” also contains implications of action and transitivity. It suggests assault or attack. Favorov renders this word as “calamity,” a choice that initially seemed odd. For me, “calamity” carries connotations of natural disasters, but it also calls to mind ironic, almost cartoonish imagery (i.e., “Calamity Jane” or dialogue in Looney Tunes set in the Wild West). The latter implication stems from the rarity of this word in modern spoken English. It feels hyperbolic, old-fashioned. But given these considerations, “calamity” is in fact a rather apt translation. It works to convey an old-timey feel and the meaning of an onslaught of misfortunes. Nastasya Ivanovna considers the events of the story to have happened to her, events that were out of her control. Khvoshchinskaya’s Russian text implies this with the word “напасть” and a character named Nastasya, as they appear together in the old Russian saying “Пошла Настя по напастям,” a version of “when it rains it pours.” For Nastasya Ivanovna, there was no calculated attack on her peaceful country life, but rather these events were fated. Favorov’s English underscores Nastasya Ivanovna’s exaggerated perception of the events as a string of disasters imposed upon her: “It is… a shame that fate did not earlier, before the events of last summer, send Nastasya Ivanovna someone who could have prepared her for these events, who could have warned her, for instance, that proclaiming a fight for one’s convictions to be a disaster and a punishment from God is far more shameful than blurting out a preference for local mushrooms over truffles” (Khvoshchinskaya, 4).* These words are, of course, dripping with irony, throwing the intended meaning of “напасть” against a backdrop of absurdity, and this shows the choice of “calamity” in a favorable light: its semantic shades bridge the gap between expressions of misfortune and the nonsense of the circumstances.

Favorov’s translation is full of potential for this kind of analysis, but the opening moments of City Folk and Country Folk demonstrate Khvoshchinskaya’s style. Her comic and astute observations illustrate and poke fun at her nineteenth-century reality, and so landing the narrative voice in the English is key. Our introduction to Nastasya Ivanovna, with her simple tastes and her bouts of anxiety, sets the stage for the story to follow, but it is also a proving ground for style. These early pages show Favorov’s thoughtful work; her translation captures Khvoshchinskaya’s wit and wisdom. And though reflective of traditional English literary conventions, in her translation the novel’s charm—its Russianness—shines.

*After writing this piece, I learned that Favorov finally decided upon “calamity” after consulting English translations of the Bible. A brilliant insight into her problem-solving process, this fact also bolsters what Nastasya Ivanovna wishes to convey, that she was subject to greater forces.

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: City Folk and Country Folk as a Feminist Novel

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, introduces Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk as a 19th century feminist novel.

Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation of City Folk and Country Folk is the first of its kind—never before has this story been accessible to a strictly Anglophone audience. And yet it feels familiar to the English-speaking reader, for its headstrong heroines speak their minds and engage their male interlocutors with Jane Austen-esque confidence and wit. It would be unfair to qualify the heroines of this story as simply Russian interpretations of an English literary model, however, as the words—and actions—of the Russian characters have grand implications beyond the events of the story. City Folk and Country Folk is a feminist work. The women central to Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s novel do not fit the docile, domestic gender stereotype of their century. The youngest heroine, Olenka, makes no secret of her disdain for society’s expectations. The ease with which she rejects men of ostensibly superior social station and her desire to live a life in accord with what she—not social mores—finds to be appropriate, make Olenka a rather unnatural 19th century literary heroine, but a very relevant one in our modern world.

While limiting, the Austen connection is not a casual observation; Olenka’s stubborn, sometimes insolent nature and easy laughter in the face of urban socialite and occasional, albeit hopeless, suitor, the “enlightened” Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, recall aspects of Austen’s willful Marianne Dashwood. But unlike Marianne, Olenka never finds herself wounded by a man she loves. In fact, Olenka never even falls in love. Khvoshchinskaya’s female leads are more empowered than their fictional British counterparts most notably because they neither act nor reflect on their actions with regard for male opinion.

In Snetki, a village situated in a rural province outside of Moscow, the arrival of an eligible bachelor (the aforementioned Ovcharov) means different things to the female inhabitants of the small town—humorous curiosity, opportunity for hospitality, and even a means to assume a position of self-righteous indignation—but at no point does Ovcharov’s arrive incite any romantic story arc. What would have held romantic possibilities (or at the very least, possibilities for marriage) in Austen’s writing exists as a more of a nuisance for Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s heroines. Much of the comedy of City Folk and Country Folk comes from Ovcharov’s multiple frustrated attempts to ingratiate himself with the female residents of Snetki. He is more pest than protagonist; from his insistence upon a strict diet of thin soup and whey to his desperate epistolary cries for attention, Ovcharov is weak and needy to the point of absurdity. Khvoshchinskaya’s prose flaunts this absurdity as a direct response to the literary models of femininity written by her male contemporaries: women as fragile and emotional creatures, frequently victimized by men. City Folk and Country Folk turns this stereotype on its head. One of the most telling scenes of Khvoshchinskaya’s refutation of the delicate 19th century Russian woman takes place in chapter eight. Ovcaharov repeatedly insists that he carry Olenka across a dried up stream bed measuring only a few inches across. An exasperated Olenka, with “coarse candor,” rebuffs these pathetic suggestions of chivalry: “What on earth are you doing? I’m stronger than you are. If you like, it might be better for me to carry you.” (98).

Khvoshchinskaya doesn’t just undercut traditional gender roles through Ovcharov’s inferior strength, she also shows him to be fashion-conscious, emotional, and impetuous. When Olenka laughs at his “magnificent” panama hat, Ovcharov’s inner monologue is instantly petty: “The little fool—she failed to appreciate how stylish it was.” (155). Self-conscious to a fault, “despite all of his European courtesy,” when Olenka laughingly dismisses his flirtation, Ovcharov is “unable to control himself.” (98).

When Katerina Petrovna, a Moscow socialite and former acquaintance arrives in Snetki, Ovcharov agonizes when she does not contact him immediately. His emotional distress manifests as a childish cry for attention:

“Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov most humbly requests the most venerable and kind Katerina Petrovna to explain to him why she so ungraciously saw fit to fail to remember him this morning when he had the pleasure of seeing her carriage in the village of Snetki at the home of Madame Chulkova.” (110).

Katerina Petrovna’s reply is slightly (and understandably) defensive, but overall the inverse of Ovcharov’s irrational correspondence:

“If I was so ungracious as to fail to remember you, as you put it, Mr. Ovcharov, it was only because you seem to have arranged things so that your friends would not remember you. Please pay me a visit, and then you will be convinced of the unfailing and devoted friendship of yours truly, KPD.” (153).

As an aristocrat of considerable reputation, Katerina Petrovna’s acknowledgment signifies a great deal to Ovcharov, as it would grant him the thing he values most: validation of his own bloated sense of self-worth. He seeks validation of his philosophical and political opinions, both from potential publishers of his writings, and in his attempts to enlighten Olenka and her mother through written and verbal lectures on gender roles and the means of women’s education. The reader never learns how the publisher reacts to Ovcharov’s treatises, but Olenka and her mother are generally indifferent to both the lessons and the man.

And that is one of the most remarkable aspects of this novel—indifference to men. Ovcharov is the story’s lead male protagonist; the other principle masculine characters, at least, those who physically appear within the story, are limited to four: Father Profirii, a timid, non-confrontational priest; dull and portly Simon, the potential match for Olenka; George, Katerina Petrovna’s young son; and Fyodor Fyodorovich, Ovcharov’s surly German servant. These men play their supporting roles in near silence, exerting little to no influence on the protagonists. Their existence and activity are important relative only to the principle female characters. Ovcharov’s role is the most self-determined, though the only thing of consequence he manages to fully achieve is to get in the way.

Conversely, the women in this book—even the villains—exercise control over their own affairs independent of any male influence: Olenka rejects Katerina Petrovna’s manipulative plan to marry her off and maintains her right to choice; her mother, the widowed Nastasya Ivanovna, is a careful landowner and effective manager of the family estate who tries to keep the peace and finances in order; Anna Ilinishna, an opportunistic spinster, masks her social ambitions with false piety and secures herself a series of benefactresses; Katerina Petrovna, separated from her gambling addict husband and refusing to “live for the children alone,” maintains a reputation she built for herself by orchestrating financially and socially advantageous marriages.

City Folk and Country Folk is a feminist novel confronting the oppressive sexism of the 19th century, but it is also a work that resonates very strongly in the 21st century. Austen’s heroines shine with their witty repartee, but for all their self-assuredness, even the Dashwood girls and Lizzie Bennett are moved by the words and waning attentions of the men in their orbit. Khvoshchinskaya’s Snetki heroines never need to prove themselves to any man, nor do they feel the desire to do so, as the stakes are never romantic. These women are confident, carving paths for themselves with no aid or validation from husbands or suitors. Olenka’s character might have developed through a romantic story arc, but the sexual tension is purely one-sided, suffered by Ovcharov alone. Sex and romance aren’t unrealized potential—Khvoshchinskaya doesn’t allow it a meaningful place in her character’s lives—but rather shapes them into strong-willed intellectual creatures. And while Ovcharov feels acutely Olenka’s absence from the carriage, she does not “[give] him a moment’s thought.” (209).

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Ovcharov meets Nastasya Ivanovna: A City Folk and Country Folk excerpt

City Folk and Country Folk

“Order is necessary in all things, Nastasya Ivanovna. Germans understand this, but we Russians haven’t appreciated it. Why should you pass up an opportunity for gain, and why should I accept gifts or sacrifices from you? That’s nothing but Russia’s outdated lack of moral discipline—simple disorder. If I live on your property, there is no question but that I will pay you for everything. It would be better if you just told me whether or not I can live in your bathhouse.” — Erast Sergeyich Ovcharov

This week, our featured book is City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. Below you will find an excerpt from the book. Erast Sergeyich Ovcharov has planned to spend the summer on his country estate, but arrives to find it uninhabitable. Here he negotiates with his neighbor about staying with her for the summer, but not, heaven forbid, as her guest!

We originally featured this excerpt in our roundup of recommended reading for #womenintranslation month. See that list here. #WITMonth

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of City Folk and Country Folk!

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

The Russia of City Folk and Country Folk

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press blog! This week we are featuring Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, which has recently come out in Nora Favorov’s translation in the Russian Library series. Today Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, delves into the historical backdrop against which the novel plays out.

“Can a woman be a good mother and a good housekeeper if she spends half the day in a bureau or office filled with men, where liaisons are inevitably formed and demoralization occurs?” –Count Pyotr Andreyevich Shuvalov, counselor to Alexander II

The concept of separate spheres—distinct realms appropriate for male and female sexes, public and domestic, respectively—was widely accepted in the 19th century western world, Russia included. Still, in contrast to many European societies at this time, the number of rights guaranteed by law to Russian (upper class) women was rather significant; even prior to the reforms enacted by Tsar Alexander II, women of the privileged classes could exercise economic independence, own and manage property, issue lawsuits, engage in business transactions, and even file for divorce (Pushkareva). But while Russian women enjoyed more rights and protections than their European counterparts, they were far from privileged citizens. One need only look to the language of the Code of Laws to understand these rights were granted within a larger socio-political framework that ultimately upheld the idea of a woman’s separate sphere and her limited ability to participate in society. The role of the judiciary was to “protect the honor and tranquility of women” from “insults” and free them “from responsibility for some obligations in which they could become involved because of inexperience and gullibility” (Pushkareva). Such language matches the sentiments of Count Pyotr Andreyevich Shuvalov, counsellor to Alexander II during the 1860s and 70s and author of the quote above. But while Shuvalov’s remark is indicative of the predominant patriarchal attitude at the time, it is also reactionary to another question that occupied Russia with increasing urgency amidst the reforms of the mid 19th century: what roles could and should women play?

The answer—and society’s approach to the question—were evolving, right along with ideas regarding other kinds of social and political issues. It is within this changing climate that Sofia Khvoshchinskaya lived and wrote, and these shifting social and political attitudes shaped the characters and circumstances that appear in her works and provide important context for her novel, City Folk and Country Folk.

Under Alexander II, Russia experienced many significant changes, from the abolition of serfdom and greater investment in infrastructure and industry to reforms within the judiciary and educational system. These renovations were steps toward modernization, facilitated in large part through the establishment of local assemblies, or zemstva, which saw to the administration of regional affairs and local welfare. Alexander II’s new policies were generally considered to be a means of enlightening the countryside, though their reach was sufficiently broad that Russian society as a whole underwent a paradigm shift.

The abolition of serfdom in 1861 brought centuries of feudal agricultural practices to a halt and sparked new social and economic realities; in the 19th century, the majority of Russian subjects lived in rural areas, and four fifths of that rural population consisted of serfs and the peasantry (Curtis, 34). The serfs, newly freed, were obligated to pay the government for the land they received (most often a portion of the land they had always worked) through a series of “redemption payments” over the course of forty-nine years. In 1860s Russia, agriculture was not sufficiently advanced to accommodate large scale farming, and only a small percentage of land was truly arable. Even when they were still legally tied to an estate, most peasants had only survived through subsistence farming. Upon emancipation, this limited agricultural output posed a problem, both for the peasantry and the government. Peasants began their lives of freedom deeply in debt with no recourse for stability, much less economic growth; the government, which had hoped the peasant farmers would use their land to feed themselves and cultivate food for export, found itself still unable to pay off foreign debt and burdened with new economic complications (Curtis, 34).

Landed nobles likewise suffered financial losses. Many members of the aristocracy who owned homes in the country did not live on these provincial estates, but rather maintained the land and its properties as distant assets, entrusting their management to someone else. With the abolition of serfdom, these landowners (many of whom infrequently visited their estates), effectively lost a portion of their assets. The government issued bonds to landowners whose serfs were freed, but as the peasants failed to make redemption payments and the government accrued more debt, the value of these bonds fell dramatically. Those landowners who could neither farm nor manage their estates sought to shed their losses and sell their country holdings.

In Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s fictional village of Snetki, many of the country estates have been accordingly affected by agricultural reforms. The novel’s principle male protagonist, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, “had not looked in on his property for many years, and upon arriving he discovered that he could not possibly live there. The manor house had long since been sold and carted off to town” (Khvoshchinskaya, 7). His walk through the village reveals that many of his neighbor’s homes have met similar fates:

“The cluster of houses was devoid of life. He walked past one of the manor houses built right on the road. The house, its windows boarded up, was gray and utterly lopsided. Of course, it had once been surrounded by outbuildings, but now it sat amid wasteland; only crumbling brick rectangles, overgrown with wormwood and nettles, hinted at the foundations of past structures.” (Khvoshchinskaya, 10)

Ovcharov’s initial impressions upon his return to Snetki are set in stark contrast to the vibrant, idyllic recollections of the summers of his youth. But these estates which have fallen into ruin also underscore the success of Nastasya Ivanovna, the sole remaining landowner in Snetki whose careful management has allowed her house and its inhabitants to maintain a comfortable life. Upon entering Nastasya Ivanovna’s foyer, “Ovcharov noted that it was clean, whitewashed, and orderly. Unlike nine-tenths of rural entrees, it was not cluttered…. This cleanliness made a pleasant impression on Ovcharov, who rightly concluded that the rest of the house and Nastasya Ivnovna’s entire estate were kept in a similar order” (Khvoshchinskaya, 16).

Nastasya Ivanovna is not the only female character notable for her success in a changing era. The Malinnikov sisters—whom we never see—are former Snetki residents who have taken to supporting themselves through translation and writing stories and articles. These women serve as a kind of novelistic cameo for the author and her sisters who worked as authors and translators themselves. But in the context of the story, the hushed tones and subtle sense of scandal surrounding the mademoiselles Malinnikov aren’t just a playful bit of self-effacing humor—Khvoschchinskaya uses this autobiographical nod to illustrate the absurdity of the moralizing attitudes of the era.

“Mademoiselles Malinnikov—one is thirty, the other thirty-five years old—and they are both writers.”
“And at this point, they won’t be getting married,” Nastaya Ivanovna lamented.
“Why not, Nastasya Ivanovna?” Ovcharov asked, noting that his hostess’s verdict had less to do with the ages of Mademoiselles Malinnikov than their vocation. (Khvoshchinskaya, 23)

Absurdity is a common component of many scenes in the novel. At times the characters engage in discussions so silly that they could pass something out of a Monty Python sketch (see the conversation regarding the relative virtues of Swiss and Circassian whey in Chapter 1).

All characters are not unaware of the absurdity, however; Nastasya Ivanovna’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Olenka, rarely makes an appearance without a smirk or a laugh. Young and willful, Olenka embodies the growing sense of independence and choice among women of her century, a foil for the pseudo-intellectual and arrogant Ovcharov, a man with pretensions of “liberating” the women of Snetki through the newest, most fashionable spin on centuries-old misogyny. Indeed, all of the characters of City Folk and Country Folk can be said to represent one of the prevailing attitudes of the changing social reality of 19th century Russia. It is helpful to keep in mind then, exactly what kinds of external factors helped to shape them and the changing landscape of their world.

Curtis, Glenn E. Russia: A Country Study. Library of Congress, 1998, 34.

Khvoshchinskaya, Sofia. City Folk and Country Folk. Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, Columbia University Press, 2017, 7.

Pushkareva, Natalia. Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century. Translated by Eve Levin, Routledge, 2016.

Monday, August 21st, 2017

Book Giveaway! City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

City Folk and Country Folk

“Favorov’s brisk translation and helpful notes make the novel very accessible to present-day readers. This consistently delightful satire will introduce readers to a funnier, more female-centric slant on Russian literature than they may have previously encountered.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

This week, our featured book is City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Thoughts on Rapture by Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevich)

Iliazd’s Rapture is one of the upcoming titles in the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Rapture

Today Veniamin Gushchin, CC ’18, Russian Library Intern responds to Rapture by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson

The term emigrant, as opposed to the more commonly used immigrant, is inherently backwards facing, focusing on the country of origin rather than the destination. In the popular imagination, the immigrant arrives in a land of opportunity, while the emigrant flees from an oppressive regime, hopelessly yearning to return to their past. Though the two words have vaguely the same meaning, though the distinction in writing is but a few letters and in pronunciation is often barely detectable, the terms are antonyms due to the complex set of relationships an individual has with their countries of departure and arrival.

As the son of Russian immigrants that grew up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, I am very sensitive to this distinction. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 90s for greater job opportunities in the field of medicine and made the deliberate choice – mostly to spite my grandmother, who believed such efforts to be in vain – to raise me speaking Russian and aware of my cultural heritage. From watching the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh before Disney’s to listening to tapes of the actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky reading Eugene Onegin on road trips, my parents recreated a small island of Russian culture in our home. They spoke of their Soviet past with a mixture of nostalgia and disillusionment, as many Russians do. My childhood experience was one of continually balancing my parents’ past with the pressures to assimilate to American culture. Living in suburban Maryland rather than in an immigrant enclave like Brighton Beach, my sole source for my Russian identity was my parents, my only chance to use my Russian my home. As a result, preserving this heritage grew in significance. Now, studying Russian literature in college, I seem to have come to some sort of compromise between these identities. Nevertheless, I do often feel as if I am still that child coming back from school to my parent’s home, part of and distant from both worlds. More importantly, my experience is different than those of denizens of Brighton, than those whose heritage becomes but a percentage mentioned in discussions of ethnic background.

To turn things back a century, and three waves of Russian migration, the tension between cultural preservation and assimilation is reflected in the most prolific Russian émigré writers, Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov. Especially in the works of the nomadic Nabokov, nostalgia for an idealized version of prerevolutionary Russia is central to the artist’s identity. In terms of assimilation, even in Paris, Bunin wrote exclusively in Russian and interacted mostly with his immediate circle of fellow emigrants. Though Nabokov appears to have shown a greater degree of adaptability, becoming internationally renowned as a writer in English, his constant relocation – the only “Nabokov house” is in St. Petersburg where his family lived before the Revolution – betrays his inability to settle down and fully reconcile his lost past with the present. The idealization of this prerevolutionary period has influenced perceptions of the Soviet Union and imperial Russia both abroad and in Russia. More recently, post-Soviet discourse, exemplified in artistic expression such as Govorukhin’s film “Russia That We’ve Lost,” returns to portraying the turn of the twentieth century as a time of cultural brilliance and sophistication. These notions about the first wave of Russian immigration and that era have become so widespread that they have come to represent its dominant narrative.

The figure of Ilia Zdanevich, or Iliazd, complicates this simplistic view of the reactionary emigrant. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, his first act of migration was to Petrograd, where he became involved in a number of avant-garde artistic groups associated with the movement of Russian Futurism. His reason for migrating to Paris was to establish new artistic relationships between the nascent Soviet avant-garde and similar artistic movements in Paris, such as Dada and surrealism. Both political and artistic, he stands in contrast to the more conservation Nabokov and Bunin. While the latter two writers proudly continued the traditions of Russian nineteenth century literature, Zdanevich eagerly embraced the possibility of reshaping and developing his genre. Despite his efforts, however, once the Soviet government turned against the avant-garde, Iliazd found himself in “poetic reclusion,” effectively exiled despite having emigrating for an entirely different set of reasons. Nevertheless, the artist continued to live in Paris, collaborating with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Léger, developing a reputation in the European art world and, at least in part, assimilating.

Rapture is a doubly nostalgic novel, set in Iliazd’s native Georgia and written as an allegory of the Russian Futurism movement. Published in a doubly distant Paris, it is a thick mixture of avant-garde and traditional folklore, of Russian, Georgian, and Western influences that is impossible to fully separate into its constituent elements.

This new translation of Rapture allows Anglophone readers to experience Iliazd’s complex and thrilling artistic vision for the first time ever. In addition to placing the novel on the same shelf as the modernist masterpieces of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann, the publication of this translation complicates the simplistic binary between emigrant and home country present in the most influential narratives about this era. Iliazd’s voice joins the already dominant voices of Bunin and Nabokov to paint a more detailed and nuanced portrait of the first wave of Russian immigration in Paris. Immigration, emigration, and migration are all messy concepts, crossing the boundaries of identity as much as geopolitical borders. Each individual within these processes has a unique relationship to both the country of arrival and departure, the experience only able to be captured in polyphony.

Want to learn more about Rapture? Join the event TODAY, May 4, cosponsored by the NYU Jordan Center and PEN America World Voices Festival, with translator Thomas Kitson and scholar Jennifer Wilson. “What’s Old is New: Gender and Power in Iliazd’s Neglected Rapture

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Thoughts on and an Excerpt from Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov

This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here

Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays

Today Adham Azab-Xu, Ph.D. candidate in French and Romance Philology at Columbia University and current Fellow in Academic Administration here at Columbia University Press, responds to Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler and translated by Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen.

When Christine Dunbar, the editor of the Russian Library Series, asked me to read Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—I certainly don’t have a background in Russian literature, and have never been an enthusiastic reader of plays. But once I began reading, I was quickly engrossed in the stories these plays have to tell, which is why I am writing this post and urging you, our readers, to give Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays a chance.

In his excellent introduction to this book, Chandler writes that “like all great art, [Platonov’s] stories and plays can speak to a reader who knows little or nothing about the author and his times. Platonov’s deepest concerns were, in fact, always universal—philosophical and psychological more than political” (xxvii). We often perceive great art as great particularly because it continues to appeal to us in changing times, or because changes in our own perspective fill it with new life. In a way, then, great art is both timeless and ephemeral—it endures, but it variously reflects differing perspectives across physical and temporal boundaries.

Wanting to disconnect from the world for a bit, I began reading Fourteen Little Red Huts on November 8th—the day Donald Trump won the presidential election—and Chandler’s observation resonated deeply with me. Like many people I know, I was up in arms for the whole presidential campaign about the unmitigated triumph of disinformation. Even now, fake news sites spread it relentlessly and virulently, and large groups of people (some of whom I know intimately) only double down on their beliefs when presented with information that contradicts the most damaging and outlandish conspiracies. On November 8th, I saw that ours is not unlike the world to which Platonov bears witness in Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays—his characters, in spite of their suffering, and in spite of the obvious signs of falsehood that surround them, cleave ever more closely to their beliefs, or to what they are told to believe, and it certainly doesn’t do them any good.

Granted, to put things in historical context, Platonov’s characters, living—or, more accurately, starving to death—on collective farms (or kolkhozy) in Soviet Russia, are faced with a choice between what they’re told to believe, on the one hand, and the Gulag* on the other. While it is reassuring that relatively few people in the world today have to make such a choice, it is important not to forget that these plays’ most dystopic scenes represent Platonov’s real-life experience as a land reclamation expert in the 1920s, and as a writer sent to report on events in the Soviet countryside between 1929 and 1932. Between 1932 and 1933 alone, the Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that six to nine million people died of hunger in the fields, but even as Platonov’s characters wither away and die, many of them refuse to acknowledge the direness of their reality. They continue to toe the party line.

The plays’ jarringly unnatural, morbidly jocular language, especially in The Hurdy Gurdy and in Fourteen Little Red Huts, testifies to the unbelievability of the situation their characters find themselves in, and I sense that in using this kind of language in these two plays, Platonov was walking a fine line—struggling to find a truthful way to express the dystopic suffering he witnessed without getting himself sent to the Gulag. On several occasions, though, it seems a wonder that Platonov got away with writing so openly about the famine, since the Soviet government denied its existence and criminalized all discourse about it. To this effect, the cries of starving children in Fourteen Little Red Huts are both poignant and remarkable—a true act of literary bravery, even if none of these plays, and only one of the works Platonov wrote about the collectivization or about the famine, were published during Platonov’s lifetime.

In light of this fact, it is perhaps not surprising that Platonov expresses a distinct ambivalence about the value of writing in his plays. Reading Fourteen Little Red Huts in particular, it seems fair to say that he would reject the notion of literary bravery altogether; the three writers in Fourteen Little Red Huts certainly do not come across in a positive light, and, in the same play, reading appears to be little more than a diversion for those who are both starving and bored to death on the kolkhoz. And yet, Platonov still wrote these plays—plays that have often been deemed unperformable on account of their unusual stage directions, which seem more aimed at readers than at potential viewers. Why write plays that aren’t really plays? And why write at all, when it won’t get you anywhere?

If there is any value at all in writing, I would argue that, as far as these plays are concerned, it has more to do with revealing the suffering of the voiceless than with trying to assuage that suffering, which would be an exercise in futility. Platonov offers these voices up to us, and, eighty-five years later, they still speak to us, reminding us in so many ways that we “shall languish without motion amid the historical current, […] the same piffle as everything living or dead” (159).

At any rate, I hope all of you will read Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays! Especially now, it will give you a lot to think about.

*Editor’s note: Not yet called the Gulag, but the point still stands…

See below for an excerpt from Fourteen Little Red Huts:

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Stephen Cohen on the Russian Spy Scandal

Stephen CohenIn an interview with CBS News, Stephen Cohen, most recently the author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, questions the timing of the arrests in the Russian spy scandal.

More precisely, Cohen, who is a former White House advisor, suggests that the arrest might have been a backhanded political move to embarrass Obama in light of his high-profile meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The move might have also been used to upset Obama’s attempts to “reset” the U.S.-Russian relations. In the interview Cohen suggests, “If this was done by someone to undermine Obama’s reset policy toward the Russians it reminds us how strong the opposition is.” Moreover, Cohen wonders what, if any, advanced knowledge Obama had of the arrests.

Cohen argues that the “heavy hand of the historical legacy of the Cold War lives on,” and that in both the United States and Russia a degree of mistrust exists between the two nations. As to the degree to which these accused spies represented a real danger, Cohen says, “These people were up to something, or some of them were, but it seems pretty innocuous. There are no charges of espionage.”

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Has Obama averted a new Cold War with Russia? Stephen Cohen weighs in.

Stephen CohenAt a recent talk at the Carnegie Council, Stephen Cohen, author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, discussed some of the key features of his book as well as assessing Obama’s policy toward Russia. (You can also watch a video of Cohen’s talk or listen to the audio.)

In Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Cohen’s argues that beginning during the Clinton administration and continuing through the George W. Bush’s presidency the narrative of the U.S. as victors of the Cold War took hold and caused new tensions to emerge between the U.S. and Russia. NATO expansion, disrespect toward Russia, missile policy, and other U.S. policy decisions have allowed for what some see as a new “Cold War.”

Some of Obama’s decisions and policies have reduced tension, and establishing a friendly relationship with Medvedev and a rhetoric of cooperation have improved relations. Most important, reviving the arms-control process, abandoned by Bush, have made U.S.-Russian relations in a much better state than when Obama took over in 2009.

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