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Archive for the 'Thursday Fiction Corner' Category

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: Propaganda, the Absurd, and the Truth of Stalinist USSR in Andrei Platonov’s Plays

Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays

Welcome to Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Ani Kodzhabasheva, a PhD Candidate in Art History at Columbia University, considers Andrei Platonov’s portrayal of the USSR in relation to her experiences growing up in the former Eastern Bloc.

In post-Communist Bulgaria, where I grew up, I often encountered traces of the fallen regime’s language: houses marked “Exemplary Home” with a special blue plaque; stacks of old newspapers reporting that agricultural brigades had overfulfilled their quotas; an inscription on a Soviet Army monument claiming that our republic needs friendship with the USSR just as every living being needs air and sunlight.

The most ridiculous slogans, once posted on factory walls, are now circulated in blog posts:

Communism is inevitable.

Every jar of compote: a fist in the face of imperialism!

Or this literary gem: Public Bath Workers’ Brigade “N. V. Gogol”

And so on. I still can’t help but laugh out loud. It is cheap entertainment, and a bit of therapeutic release from the generational trauma.

Humor creates distance from that which we dread. I laugh at the slogans, and part of me cringes in horror: someone, a reasoning human being, wrote this. People had to believe it, or live their lives as if they did.

I have avoided thinking too much about the experience of having your language corrupted by state ideology – that is, until I read some of Andrei Platonov’s plays. A witness to the famines and Stalinist purges of the early 1930s, Platonov writes about his reality with an honesty that strikes a blow. He uses his characters’ muddled language in order to tell the truth.

Platonov not only pokes fun at state-mandated praise and hyperbole, but also shows the effects that this discourse has on people who are facing unspeakable tragedy. In Fourteen Little Red Huts, workers on a struggling collective farm are trying to live their lives according to socialist principles and to preserve their humanity – even as official directives, combined with despair, lead them to doubt and denounce each other.

The play’s tone easily flips from rambunctious humor to the absurd, and to raw expressions of vulnerability and pain. The workers ponder the meaninglessness of their struggle, and yet are overcome with a tragic need for faith and hope. A character calls himself a “class enemy,” only to profess allegiance to the revolution the very next minute, stating that “Each day of our labor lays the foundation for centuries to come – and on our kolkhoz revolution rests the fate of a hundred millennia.” At the sight of a distant airplane, someone exclaims: “It’s technology, my whole heart thunders! I feel like shouting, ‘Forward!’” This cry, completely at odds with the starving workers’ situation, reduces official reports of progress to bitter mockery. The farmers continue on with their labor in the face of futility, and their incongruous speech explains their predicament. “The wind rocks me as if I were empty. I want to believe in God!” someone says, quietly.

What Platonov does with language surely places him among the best writers of the twentieth century, as Joseph Brodsky has said. His plays at times resemble the absurdist antics of his contemporaries, the Dadaists, but Platonov’s breathtaking mastery of language is never indulged for its own sake. His goal is not to deconstruct all hope for beauty or meaning; it is to dissect reality and to show what propaganda, combined with state violence, does to human beings. The emotional power of Platonov’s writing cuts deep. Yet, improbably, his sense of humor makes it ring even more true. Don’t we sometimes laugh at ourselves in our moments of deepest confusion and loss?

Platonov is outrageously funny, especially when he lambastes his colleagues, the Soviet writers parroting official directives: “I am the prosaic Russian writer Pyotr Polikarpovich Latrinov. I presume that you know my books: Poor Tree, A Year of Profit, A Most Specific Figure, Eternally Soviet,” one of them introduces himself. At times, the tormented kolkhoz workers’ speech sounds just like the ridiculous slogans from my youth: “You know where we put people who’re insignificant? Here we have only the polysignificant!” But elsewhere, the pervasiveness of state ideology can make it hard to tell absurdity from tragedy. When a character says “There is a psy… psyche, stuck in my throat,” I don’t know whether to laugh, or cry out at his crippling pain.

Amid the feverish daze of the workers, swaying between elation and despair, a deeper existential angst comes through. One worker who lost her child says, “I’ve fulfilled my quota, but I haven’t had time to overfulfill it. My hands ache from grief, I can’t even weep anymore, I can only stare like a dead fish.” Bos, a European academic visiting the kolkhoz to study the concrete workings of socialism, states his impressions of the overall situation: “The wind appears to sorrow, and infinity is full of space, like a stupid hole, and the sea gets agitated too and weeps against the shore of the earth. As if all this were truly serious, pitiful, and splendid! But it’s only raging piffle!” The beauty of Platonov’s writing, so exquisitely rendered in English in this translation, can make you feel like the collective pain of the twentieth century’s tragic history is gripping you by the throat.

The majority of Platonov’s writings were not published during his lifetime, and his plays were not necessarily intended to be performed. Even his poetic stage directions – “A gray, boring dawn” – seem intended for readers rather than actors. Yet the power of Platonov’s words may be experienced most directly in the theater. Those of us in New York currently have the opportunity to see a rare staging of Fourteen Little Red Huts, performed by the Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble through November 18. Several shows will include post-performance conversations with experts from the fields of Russian studies and literature. Tickets are available here.
***

Before I leave you pondering the dangers of propaganda, let me share my favorite slogan from socialist Bulgaria, which allegedly hung on the wall of a poultry farm:

Each egg – a bomb, and each hen – a flying fortress against the aggressors!

In the spirit of that age, let me summarize my views on Andrei Platonov thusly:

Every Platonov reader – a nail in the coffin of the polarizing fake propaganda!

You can read an excerpt from the book Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays here.

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Conflict between North and South Korea, on an Intimate Scale

Meeting with My Brother
Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Ani Kodzhabasheva, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, reflects on Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother and current events.

Are you confused by the barrage of threats launched daily from North Korea towards the United States, and vice versa? Following the news on the issue has shown me that I’m not the only one. Even policy analysts and military strategists can seem at a loss.

One of this week’s attempts to explain the situation in Northeast Asia is a New York Times piece that takes us to Yanji and Dandong, two cities on North Korea’s border with China. The reporter, Chris Buckley, talks to locals and tourists in an attempt to gauge their mood. What do they think of North Korea? Of the United States? His brief conversations reveal some of the anxieties that those in the region deal with on a daily basis.

But, as is often the case, there is more to the story than one can glean from the news. In fact, the people of Yanji have been affected by North and South Korea’s political fluctuations for decades, and the precariousness of international relations in the region has more or less persisted since the onset of the Korean War. Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother, set in Yanji in the early 1990s, shows that the city has long been subject to secret police spying, as well as a base for legal or not-so-legal cross-border exchange. In Yi Mun-yol’s novella, the South Korean narrator encounters his half-brother from the North for the first time, and the traumas of Korea’s division play out on an intimate scale.

The plot of Meeting with My Brother unfolds over just a few days in Yanji—in a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and on the bank of the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China. Within this tightly delineated setting, Yi weaves together multiple narratives that create a microcosm of whole societies torn apart by military and ideological conflict. In addition to the two long-lost brothers, Yi populates his novella with a Chinese Korean woman from Yanji who is bitter about the prejudice she experienced in the South; the overly zealous “Mr. Reunification,” who often bores his companions with his utopian pronouncements; and a cynical businessman engaged in mysterious trade with the North.

Struggling to make the best of their predicaments, Yi’s flawed characters can sometimes make you laugh, although the overwhelming mood is one of reflection and mourning. Yi shows to what extent our lives are shaped by historical events much larger than us and how, at the same time, these events demand of us that we take a moral stand. During his stay in Yanji, the narrator, who first approaches his long-lost brother with a sense of pity, is forced to reckon with his own life choices.

The little book is written in a dispassionate, reportage-like tone (the narrator is a professor of history in Seoul), yet it carries a surprising emotional heft. Several characters who boast a certain ideology—be it capitalism or communism, nationalism or pro-American beliefs—are brought by the events in Yanji to a new sense of humility. Nobody leaves without any scars, or a bit of redemption. Fiery rhetoric gives way to self-doubt, as the encounters in Yanji make clear that the Korean War has left no absolute winners and losers. Hyeok, the North Korean brother, struggles with jealousy; the narrator, Professor Yi, begins to confront his suppressed guilt about the way he achieved his success. The struggle to communicate leads to many dramatic reversals, as certain words or memories elicit pain or misunderstanding.

The book provides no clear answers about politics, diplomacy, or the future of the Korean Peninsula. It is these very conflicts, which are once again crowding the news today, that are being dramatized in Meeting with My Brother. Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker that “There is no moral to Yi’s story.” That is essentially true. Yet, in the end, the moral is that political divisions have a human dimension and that, in order to understand history and how it shapes current events, we need to look beyond the political agendas of the day.

At this historical moment, Meeting with My Brother’s finely crafted story gives us an occasion to ask ourselves, What would it be like to empathize with people in North Korea? Yi Mun-yol’s narrator, through his self-exploration, serves as an example of how that radical question might be answered.

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).

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

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: Kiku’s Prayer by Endō Shūsaku, translated by Van C. Gessel

Kiku's Prayer

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library and Asian Humanities editor Christine Dunbar shows once again that you can take the girl out of the Russian department, but you can’t take the Russian department out of the girl.

I recently read the novel Kiku’s Prayer by Endō Shūsaku, in Van C. Gessel’s translation. We published Kiku’s Prayer in 2012, shortly after I started working at the Press, but I picked it up now because of the publicity surrounding Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of another Endō novel, Silence. Endō was Catholic, and both novels center on Christians in Japan during the Edo period, when, as of 1614, Christianity was outlawed. Silence takes place in 1639, directly after the unsuccessful Shimabara Rebellion, in which many Christians took part and after which persecution intensified. Kiku’s Prayer, on the other hand, is set at the end of the Edo period, at the moment of transition between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration in 1868. At this point, the remaining Japanese Christians (Kirishitans) have been practicing in hiding for over 200 years. A French priest arrives, searching for them like rumored pirate treasure (yes, there’s a post-colonial aspect to this novel too), and while he eventually finds them, he leads the local officials right to them as well. As the political situation becomes more tangled, the officials become less and less sure how to deal with these unrepentant law-breakers. As Endō is an historical novelist par excellence, this would be enough of a reason to read Kiku’s Prayer, and Van C. Gessel’s sparse but fascinating notes point out characters based on historical figures for readers whose knowledge of the period is spotty. But at its heart, the novel is an investigation of faith, personal ethics, and the question of how to live in a world that contains so much suffering.

It’s at once a novel saturated with Christianity and Christian suffering—it’s impossible to shake the subcontext of Jesus on the cross, not to mention Catholicism’s long history of martyrs—and a novel that leaves lots of room for parallel ethical decisions. For Endō, ethics is not the sole purview of Christianity, or, to put it a slightly more Christian-centric way, Christian belief is not a prerequisite for Christian behavior. The titular Kiku is a young woman who falls in love with Seikichi, one of the hidden Kirishitans. Kiku herself has little use for Christianity, which she rightly fears will lead to trouble for her beloved. Nonetheless, when Seikichi is taken away and tortured in an attempt to force him to renounce his faith, Kiku prostitutes herself, first to one of the officials overseeing the torture, and later to others in order to earn money for bribes and food for the prisoners. In doing so, Kiku endures pain and humiliation, ostracizes herself from her family, and sacrifices her very future with Seikichi, to whom she believes she can no longer make a proper wife. She carries on an outwardly heretical but authentic relationship with the Virgin Mary, whom she sees as the other woman, in the sense that she has stolen Seikichi’s love. This is the opposite of the tension between outward quiescence and inner rebellion that recurs throughout the novel, from Father Petitjean’s promise, immediately broken, not to proselytize to the Japanese to the officials’ promise that the apostasy of the tortured Kirishitans need be in word only.

For me, the pleasure of the novel is heightened by the references Endō makes to that other author obsessed with faith and doubt, Fyodor Dostoevsky. These references are fluid—in most ways, Kiku is nothing like Sonia Marmeladova, though both turn to prostitution to help relieve the sufferings of others—but specific textual moments makes such parallels clear. Lord Itō Seizaemon, for instance, gets drunk in a tavern on Kiku’s money, and then wails to his companions about his wretched nature, much in the manner of Marmeladov with Raskolnikov in the tavern, drinking away Sonia’s earnings. At other times, Itō more closely resembles Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. He is jealous of his bureaucratic peers, who are more successful, and veers between pity and cruelty towards those under his power. He even has moments of clarity, as when, leaving the teahouse where Kiku works, he says to himself: “I’m…I’m a despicable man. A truly despicable man.”

Endō and Dostoevsky share common concerns regarding logic, faith, evil, and forgiveness, but I wonder if the turn to the Russian author might not also be motivated by the process of writing an historical novel. After all, in 1868, when Kiku’s Prayer takes place, Notes from the Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866) would have just come out. Clearly, now I must read Silence to see if Dostoevsky’s anachronistic influence can be felt there.

Click below to read the first chapter of Kiku’s Prayer. In this excerpt, Kiku is still a child, but the promise of her later bravery can already be seen.

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Between Dog and Wolf in Translation

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

Between Dog and Wolf

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library intern and Columbia Russian Literary Translation MA student Elaine Wilson delves into Alexander Boguslawski’s translation of Between Dog and Wolf.

Sasha Sokolov’s novel Between Dog and Wolf is intimidating in its complexity: time is non-linear, character names are inconsistent, register moves along a wide spectrum from peasant dialect to sophisticated, even Biblical style, and the language is filled with neologisms. It is highly intertextual, astoundingly rich in its reference to Russian literary tradition across the centuries. Space, time, life and death are all uncertain—rarely is any one of them clearly demarcated—and events are told and retold from differing perspectives. And that’s just the content.

The structure likewise poses a challenge: dialogue, monologue and third person omniscient narration coexist on the page with no breaks, no indentation, no typeset cues or even general conventions of reported speech, but rather flow freely along in a train of associative (and sometimes seemingly unassociated) thought. Sokolov’s writing style belongs in a category all its own, a genre Sokolov himself categorizes as somewhere between prose and poetry, or “proetry.” And speaking of poetry, there are plenty of poems throughout, too—complete chapters of poetry tucked among the “proetic” sections of the novel.

How can something like this find its voice in a foreign language? For a long time, publishers and translators asked themselves that very question. When the Russian version of the novel was first published in 1980, critics gave it a rather mixed reception, and many within the literary community—capable translators among them—balked at the idea of an English-language version, suggesting it could never be done.

And yet it could. Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf is being published in English for the very first time, and so the idea of the “untranslatable” returns to the realm of translation mythology. Or does it?

I am a student of translation. Russian into English literary translation, to be specific, and so I feel a personal kind of victory in the release of this novel, a sense of celebration in a triumph over apparently insurmountable linguistic odds. Yet for all my excitement I still wonder about the inevitable losses that occur when we bring a literary work from one language into another; in the back of my mind I can’t help but hear Nabokov denouncing the “sins” of our “queer world of verbal transmigration,”* crying out that all translation but for literal, scholarly renderings are false. (Though perhaps Nabokov would find the most egregious transgression of all to be the lack of exhaustive notes on the same page of the referenced text, an organizational decision specified by Sokolov himself.)

Nabokovian doubt on the value of translation aside, can translation of something like Sokolov’s convoluted work be done well? The novel is difficult, packed with myriad obstacles that translators don’t frequently face, much less all at once. Puns, peasant dialect, a general sense of disorientation—translator Alexander Boguslawski tackles these challenges by the best means possible: culturally conscious creativity, or what Philip E. Lewis calls “abusive translation.” When a translator must force an idea from a unique mode of expression in the source text into a new linguistic framework, the translator’s job is to convey sense and meaning while still communicating the uniqueness of the source form in the receiving language. Often what “works” in Russian won’t work in English, and so the translator needs to “abuse” the text, that is, creatively engage the receiving language so that it can carry the meaning, the humor/ irony/ sadness, etc. and the unorthodox medium of the source in its new linguistic code. Consider Boguslawski’s translation of the Russian dva sapoga para: “two boots of leather flock together.” This is a clever blending of the Russian subject and English idiomatic structure to convey the literal scene—two characters sharing a pair of boots—and the spirit of collaboration implied by the Russian proverb Sokolov uses to describe them. The Russian, literally “two boots are a pair,” folds into “birds of a feather flock together” to create an English-Russian proverbial hybrid.

Why not simply use the English idiom here? Wouldn’t the spirit of the proverb be enough to convey the characters’ sense of comraderie? A translator could take this easy way out, but more than just sounding trite, the imagery would be lost, deafening the line’s descriptive power in Russian. Boguslawki does not take the easy road, and thank goodness, for his solution is lovely: it retains the visual and sense of the Russian while infusing some “foreignness” into the English text, an “abuse” that works in service of conveying the character and style that we experience in Sokolov’s Russian.

So much for linguistic obstacles. What about literary density? Again, Nabokov’s cynicism echoes in the back of my mind: the translator of a text “must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses.”* Between Dog and Wolf is packed with references to past and modern Russian artists, particularly Pushkin, something which only a reader with comprehensive, arguably exhaustive knowledge of Russian literary tradition would understand. Careful Russian readers have trouble identifying everything that is layered within the story, so how can we expect anyone but the most meticulous scholar to identify these layers, much less translate such a text? Of course, Boguslawski’s friendly relationship with the author establishes him as the closest thing to a Sokolov specialist for this translation, but Nabokov’s standards still reach impossibly high; in the case of this extremely learned text, is anyone capable of translation? Or perhaps the “untranslatable” does not exist, but is it possible that scholarly translation and Nabokov’s towering footnotes are the only recourse? If so, are there “prerequisites” in literary pedigree for both translators and readers of these works?

To silence this existential questioning I could turn again to literary and translation theory for inspiration, but I don’t need to. A novel’s complexity notwithstanding, translation is ultimately a dialogue between cultures and an exchange of ideas. And even though things are certain to get left by the wayside as they move from one linguistic and cultural framework to another, the receiving language and audience still gain. Perhaps readers won’t or possibly can’t identify all that the author has folded into the text, but this is an invitation to study, to revisit the story and look closer.. No matter how deep the reader chooses to go, reading a text in translation is an entry point into another literary tradition and culture that was previously closed; exhaustive research can be nice, but ultimately we have reason to celebrate because one group has gained insight into another, and that is a beautiful thing.

*Nabokov, Vladimir, (August 4,1941). The Art of Translation. The New Republic.
Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/62610/the-art-translation

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Many Annas Karenina

Repin's Volga Boatmen

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar comments on Janet Malcolm’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books on translations of Anna Karenina.

Janet Malcolm’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books on translations of Anna Karenina has spurred many discussions in the Slavic studies community. Malcolm comes down hard on the translating duo Pevear and Volokhonsky, who are as controversial amongst Russian scholars as they are feted by the non-Russian-speaking book world (chosen by Oprah!). On the other hand, she praises Constance Garnett, who is having a reputational renaissance in the scholarly world.

Arguing that Garnett is superior because she is more readable, Malcolm in turn insists that translators not sacrifice readability for textual fidelity. Like most generalizations, it’s easy to pick holes in this one: translation invariably requires an interpretive move, but if the source text is ambiguous or confused, perhaps reflecting, in the case of Anna Karenina, Anna’s disordered state of mind, smoothing it out is not in the reader’s best interest. The example Malcolm ends on—the confusion the reader feels when reading that Stiva Oblonsky’s hunting attire includes “linen bands wrapped around his feet” (in the Kent and Berberova edition of Garnett) and the additional explanation (in the Maudes’ translation) of “instead of socks,” not present in the original—is one I suspect many translators would sympathize with. I have heard Marian Schwartz, whose translation of Anna Karenina Malcolm casually and unfairly dismisses, say that if she can avoid unnecessary confusion (or a footnote) by inserting one or two extra words in the text, she may do so. Scholars tend to worry about what is lost in translation rather than what the reading public gains from works being translated, and so are more likely to quibble with this kind of deviation from the source text. (more…)

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

Thursday Poetry Corner: C. D. Wright

Words and the World

In (slightly belated) celebration of National Poetry Month, we are happy to present a guest post by intern Lizzie Tribone on the inimitable C. D. Wright, who passed away early this year.

International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong is a biennial gala celebrating poetry that unites poets from all over the world under a single theme. Each festival yields a box set of chapbooks written in connection with the festival theme and an anthology, which collects selections of the participating poets. The theme for the 2011 festival was: Words and the World. Poets in this year’s festival included Ling Yu, Paul Muldoon, María Baranda, Tomaž Šalamun, and the late C. D. Wright.

Wright was raised in Arkansas and after earning her MFA from the University of Arkansas, she went on to garner many accolades, notably the MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. She is praised as a true American poet who experimented with language and incorporated images and stories from her Southern upbringing. For the 2011 International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong Wright penned the chapbook, Flame, which is a part of the Words and the World twenty-volume set and the Words and the World anthology. Both feature a bilingual format, placing the English and Chinese translations side by side, as if in conversation. (more…)

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man

Notes of a Desolate Man

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar tries to explain why Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man is so awesome.

I have been struggling to write about Chu T’ien-Wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man, which I read in Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin’s translation, because by starting with one aspect of the text, I am unavoidably not starting with any number of other aspects, all equally deserving of attention. In other words, I am finding hard to write about this book because I love it so much.

It is a book about belonging and mortality and art, which is just about the least informative thing I could say. It is also a book about a Taiwanese gay man, Xiao Shao, watching his best friend die of AIDS. The beginning of the novel foregrounds this information, as though the implied author is conspiring with the first-person narrator to show the reader that being out and proud kills you. But the narrator’s language of guilt, sin, and unnaturalness only partially obscures a life rich in love, art, and, above all, words.

Theory and narratives—particularly from films—provide a structure with which the narrator makes sense of life, but words provide comfort. When his partner leaves on an extended business trip, Shao combats debilitating loneliness and anxiety by reading lists of colors from an article on visual imagery in Chinese poetry: “moist red, light primrose red, fingernail red, vale red, light peach red, light poppy red, apple red, cheek red, melon pulp red, molten iron red, strawberry red, distiller’s red, escargot red, cassia red, pomegranate red, mercury red, cooked-shrimp red, blush red, and crab-pincer red” (65). These reds return, in a lover’s well-kissed lips, in a sister’s first lipstick and menstrual blood, in the communism of a mainland China Shao will never see.

Shao’s alienation from what he sees as normal family life is reinforced by the book’s non-linear chronology—and how could it not be, with a narrator whose default touchstones are arthouse cinema and French theory. But in the novel’s penultimate chapter, Shao recognizes that the China he both longs for and shuns, which he has been conflating with the space on the map occupied by the mainland, doesn’t actually exist, or if it does exist, exists only in language, only as a concept that he himself creates. I would argue that on a higher authorial level, a symmetry is being drawn between the false outsider status of the homosexual and the Taiwanese people. That is, perhaps in time Shao will recognize that his idealized notion of a heterosexual nuclear family that flawlessly insulates its members from loneliness and loss cannot be found in reality, and to the extent that a family can mitigate sorrow, his own is no less capable.

As a Slavist, I can’t help but compare Notes of a Desolate Man to Notes from the Underground, and there are many similarities: the intimate tone; the defiant embrace of irrationality; the loneliness; the non-linearity; the centrality of thoughts about sex and power. Even the way Shao weaves together personal reflections with critiques of social theory mirrors the narration of the underground man. And the narrators, both of whom are 40, are going through something of a midlife crisis. But Dostoevsky’s narrator is an outward-facing one, ranting to an audience, seeing himself as set against all of society. Shao’s narration is quieter. He’s unreliable, but not slyly so. This is a man attempting, if not quite managing, to be honest with himself, to gain meaning through details and grand theory alike. The underground man would scoff at Shao’s naiveté, but I appreciate his attempt to use the tools at his disposal—Lévi-Strauss, Fellini, Miyazaki—to make sense of a life not governed by reproductive cycles, and that will eventually end in death.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel

The Blue Wolf

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on the (unfair) expectations readers put on translations after reading The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel.

I am wary of treating literary texts as windows into the soul of a people. Presupposing the existence of the individual stable concepts of “soul” and “people” is bad enough; putting them together inevitably smacks either of nationalism or racism. I think of Dostoevsky’s 1880 Pushkin speech, where he calls Tatiana “the apotheosis of the Russian woman.” I find Belinsky’s equally political remark about Eugene Onegin—that it is “an encyclopedia of Russian life”—to be more congenial, if also limiting. (This is, after all, the same guy who told Gogol that his books could be aesthetically bad as long as they weren’t bad for society; not really an art for art’s sake type.) This is a very roundabout way of saying that I am so pleased that we published Joshua Fogel’s translation of Inoue Yasushi’s The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan.

It could easily never have been translated. Originally serialized (I learned from the brief but informative Translator’s Note) in 1959-60, and immensely popular in Japan, it took almost 50 years for the book to appear in English. And I can imagine why. There’s something rather odd about the idea of translating a Japanese novel about Mongolia into English. But why is that?

I think some of it has to do with our tacit expectations of a translation. With some exceptions for genre fiction—Swedish crime novels, say—we expect a translation to be excellent literature; after all, a translated book has been elevated above its peers, one of the chosen few to appear on a world stage. But at the same time, we expect it to fulfill an anthropological function. We want to learn something about its country of origin. Our (well, my, at least) ignorance is so vast that the simplest of details becomes a revelation. We don’t read Wordsworth and think, “oh, so daffodils grow in the Lake Country, how interesting,” but we may well have such a thought about the flora of the steppe.

The Blue Wolf is remarkably effective in this way. There isn’t, granted, much discussion of flora, but in reading the novel I learned a great deal about social mores, battle tactics, and political maneuvering on the Mongolian plateau. As for any historical novel, these details are the result of painstaking research, not the chance-met details a reader might glean from reading something of foreign origin. According again to that very useful Translator’s Note, Yasushi was well regarded in the academic community for taking the time to get these details right. All that is missing is the reader’s feeling of delight (if we’re being charitable) or self-righteousness (if we’re not) in the immersive, two-for-one nature of reading something set in the same foreign locale that produced the author. That is, the feeling that you are increasing your knowledge not only of Japanese literature but also of Japan.

Perhaps a Japanist would feel comfortable drawing some kind of conclusion from the fact that this book was so popular. I do not. But I found it to be an enjoyable and fascinating look at the life of Chinggis Khan, and the book’s language of origin, in regard to that basic fact, is neither here nor there.

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom

Trees Without Wind

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on sound, names, and the ethical stakes of translation after having read Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom.

In their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky propose translation as a way out of having to choose between a fragmented world, rich in cultural specificity and a more culturally homogenous, English-speaking world, rich in unmediated communication. Translation, they argue, “works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native tongues” (xv). However, Allen and Bernofsky do not ignore the ethical dangers inherent therein: “As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture” (xvii).

To look at this binary from a slightly different perspective, is the role of translation to give the reader a glimpse of a piece of the fragmented world to which she would otherwise not have access, or is it to bring stories to a larger audience, who will appreciate their universal appeal? Is it in service of celebrating otherness or commonality? Like many binaries, I find this one fascinating to contemplate and not all that useful to answer. It’s a little bit of both, of course, or maybe that means it’s neither.

At an event during Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week 2015, Mark Krotov told an anecdote about his mother’s take on this question. She was frustrated by Anglophone readers using the difficulty of parsing Russian names as an excuse to avoid reading Russian literature. She advocated a simple fix: Anglicize the names. After all, the names aren’t the important part. Later the same week, if my memory does not fail me, Marian Schwartz supported a similar, if slightly less extreme, solution. If a character is called by five different variations on his name throughout the book, she’ll choose two (I think she said two—it could have been three—but the principle stands) and use those throughout.

But what about when the names themselves carry meaning? Or when the sound of the name plays an important role in the aural landscape of the work? Or, heaven forbid, both?

I recently read Li Rui’s Trees Without Wind in John Balcom’s translation, a book in which sound is important not only for establishing a sense of setting but also for maintaining a link between the stream of consciousness narration and the outside world. The text is full of people chewing “crunch, crunch, crunch,” a donkey digging “dig, thud, dig, thud,” a saw sawing “chi-la, chi-la, chi-la,” leaves rustling “hua-la, hua-la,” and other such sounds. This selection of sounds combines words that refer to sounds and pure sounds. This same dichotomy is preserved in Balcom’s decisions regarding the names in the book. He has chosen to identify most characters by their transliterated names—and I am assuming here that he has not simplified them for an Anglophone audience, but I do not know. In any case, I did not find them difficult to follow. For some characters, however, he has translated their “speaking names”—for example, Uncle Gimpy, Second Dog, or the name of the town where the action takes place, Stunted Flats.

This decision—which, for the record, seems to me to be entirely the right one—does limit the instances of non-English words in the text, but Balcom has chosen to leave some non-name terms in the source language as well. The most common example of this is “kang.” In phrases like “how could you wet the kang again?” (47) this is clearly something akin to a bed, but in other contexts it appears to have an even more central role in daily life. Choosing one English word would have fixed the meaning. In a book set during the Cultural Revolution, a time that erases boundaries between public and private (which is to say, a time when who is sleeping with whom has potentially stark political consequences) stating that two characters were eating in bed—when the kang is in fact an entirely standard place to eat—would have been significantly misleading. At the same time, for better or for worse, the unfamiliar word kang draws the Anglophone reader’s attention in a way that is probably not the case for a reader of the original text. This seems to me to be not a tragedy, as it is a productive place for the reader’s attention to be. It highlights questions of gender disparity, outside scrutiny of communities, the meaning of home and belonging, etc. that are important in the novel. But it is an interpretive lens that is maybe not forced, but at the very least thrust upon the reader of this translation.

It will come as no surprise, I think, to hear that I enjoyed Trees Without Wind for both its specificity and its universality. The passages that mock the formulaic heroes of proletarian fiction remind me of similar responses to socialist realism in Russia, and the use of kang solves a problem readers of Russian literature face when they read that so-and-so was sleeping on the stove, a completely standard activity for certain designs of pech’, but rather masochistic-sounding for the initiated. (The Wikipedia article references the Kang bed-stove, further cementing this similarity.) Drawing connections between two pieces of the fragmented world to discover commonalities—yet another way in which translation defies binary thinking.

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls

There a Petal Silently Falls

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar asks how much, if any, contextualizing information should be provided to the reader of a translation?

I was once astounded by the return of a bizarre detail late in a Krzhizhanovsky work—so astounded, in fact, that I flipped back to see in what context it had originally appeared—and found that I had read it not early in the text but rather in the preceding scholarly introduction. But introductions can serve an important function, particularly for translations, where a reader often lacks background knowledge assumed in the original audience. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton’s translation of Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls eschews an introduction for a brief translators’ afterword, and this fact—combined with my own ignorance—led me to read the title novella without any knowledge of the Kwangju Massacre of 1980.

This has, in my view, two main consequences. First, it allowed me to read the work as primarily about rape. The narration combines chapters in the voices of 1) a construction worker who rapes and beats a mute teenager, 2) the traumatized teenager herself, and 3) a mysterious group attempting to locate her, and this structure serves to underline the teenager’s inability to speak aloud in the world of the story. Her misadventure is sparked by the deaths of her brother and mother, leaving her wandering the countryside alone, looking for her brother’s grave. (more…)

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

The Lost Garden

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, Author Li Ang, arguably Taiwan’s most controversial feminist writer, discussed her newly translated novel The Lost Garden with a panel that included her translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt as well as her editor Jennifer Crewe.

Her fiction is known for her frank depictions of female sexuality and violence. In the video below, she discusses her motivation for writing The Lost Garden, Taiwan’s national identity, and the decadence of capitalism. Goldblatt and Lin discuss the problems of translations and the censorship of the White Terror Period.

Thanks goes to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of New York and Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library Reading Room for sponsoring the event. Please enjoy!

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Closing of the Russian Mind?

The Closing of the Russian Mind

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! Last night, Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar attended “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia,” sponsored by PEN America (watch the video here). She wrote up a brief reaction to the event for today’s post.

The Closing of the Russian Mind?
By Christine Dunbar

Last night I attended a PEN America-sponsored event at the Manhattan JCC titled “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia.” These events are always a little surreal. All six people on stage—headliner Ludmila Ulitskaya, novelist Anna Nemzer, poet Maria Stepanova, publisher Ilya Danishevsky, moderator Masha Gessen, and the interpreter—were native speakers of Russian, and only Gessen is bilingual. The audience was comprised of at least 80% native or heritage speakers, and I revised that estimate down during the closing Q and A. In my immediate vicinity in the top row of the sold out event, I saw only two other non-native speakers. The desire to reach a wide public, however, necessitates an English-language event. So you have either very smart, very eloquent people attempting to express complex ideas, on the fly, in a second (or third, for all I know) language in which they are highly, impressively competent but far from fluent (Nemzer, Stepanova) or you use an interpreter (Ulitskaya, Danishevsky), and most of the audience hears the same thing twice. If you are lucky, they are polite about it, keeping quiet while they mentally quibble with the interpreter’s word choices, which is easy to do when you don’t have to consider syntax, grammatical agreement, or cultural references. (How, for instance, is the poor interpreter to render Ulitskaya’s seemingly simply statement, “We have the kitchen again,” where the kitchen is a cultural shorthand for, well, literally sitting in the kitchen, which becomes the central location of cultural life, a place where poems are read, songs are sung, and issues are debated, in the absence of a functional public square?) If you are unlucky, the audience loses patience, and the whispering starts. It’s a bind, and one I saw no way out of, until today.

Of the six people on the stage, other than the aforementioned beleaguered interpreter, Ilya Danishevsky is probably the least well known. And he seemed the least comfortable. But he was a masterful performer. He spoke with animation and conviction, but softly, forcing the auditorium to quiet in order to hear him. But to me, most impressive was his orchestration of the interpretation, which tended toward short statements with frequent pauses, allowing him to retain control of the momentum throughout his statement, rather than losing it after each three or four sentence block. The high point, however, was his use of the interpretation to create an enjambment, when he says something along the lines of “we are speaking about the Russian landscape, and for me, this landscape is connected to two concepts” and then he signals for the interpreter to take over, forcing the audience to wait to find out what those two concepts are. (Fear and solipsism, in case you are curious.) I had noticed before that a practiced public speaker, used to working with an interpreter, could make the process seem less onerous for everyone involved, but I had never before witnessed a speaker using the very fact of interpretation as a rhetorical device. I’m looking forward to checking out more of Danishevsky’s work.

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Henry George and Leo Tolstoy

A Portrait of Henry George, Owned by Leo Tolstoy

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week, in honor of our new series of Russian literature in translation, the Russian Library, editorial intern Beatrice Collison has delved into the fascinating connections between Leo Tolstoy and the subject of a recent Columbia UP book: Henry George.

Henry George and Leo Tolstoy
By Beatrice Collison

Last month’s feature on the book Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age, by Edward T. O’Donnell, emphasized the similarities between contemporary America and that of the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th century, an era marked by rapid progress at the same time as crippling poverty. In 1879, Henry George’s bestselling book Progress and Poverty called out this inequality as unjust, and went on to propose a solution. As 21st century America continues to face many of the same problems as the “Gilded Age,” some scholars and biographers find themselves looking back to Progress and Poverty and to its author for lessons, or even answers. As O’Donnell urges us to reexamine George, perhaps it is fitting to consider other great thinkers of that era, who dealt with persisting questions about inequality, individualism, and laissez-faire government, to name a few. Besides George, there are many American names of that age that come to mind, from Mark Twain (who coined the term “gilded age”) to John D. Rockefeller. As we were reminded earlier this month during a visit to Russia to promote our new series of Russian translations, another, somewhat unexpected name comes up in conjunction with George; this would be Leo Tolstoy, who owned a portrait of George. He also happened to be one of George’s most devoted supporters and admirers—and the admiration was mutual.

It is not too difficult to see some basic similarities in both men’s lives and experiences that may have contributed to this reciprocal fondness. Though they lived through the “Gilded Age” in different countries—George in the US, and Tolstoy in Russia—both George and Tolstoy were highly attuned to similar forms of social and economic inequality in their respective societies; the same hypocrisy appeared to them, though different events. George lived through some of the United States’ greatest feats of the century (the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, the completion of the Atlantic Cable, and the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance), but also saw the extreme poverty that lay just beneath the surface, a poverty that the privileged attempted to justify by arguments ranging from religious to scientific (social Darwinism comes to mind). Tolstoy lived through similar times of inequality, including many years of political, economic, and social unrest in Russia. He was alive when serfdom was still legal, as well as when it was outlawed—though many of the same injustices persisted even after the emancipation of serfs in 1861. Tolstoy in fact writes about George’s political philosophy in relation to the politics and immorality of serfdom. Clearly, he believed that Russia experienced many similar problems to the US, and that George’s philosophy could be useful not just to Americans. (more…)

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — A New Perspective on Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

As Anne Fernald suggests in her very thoughtful review of Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by Viviane Forrester, we don’t suffer from a lack of books on or biographies of Virginia Woolf. However, Forrester’s work, which won the Prix Goncourt award for biography, in its distinct approach to Woolf’s life does offer something new and important in our understanding of Woolf’s life and work. Fernald writes:

[Virginia Woolf] offers unexpected insights and useful challenges to settled ideas about Woolf, her friendships, her marriage, and her imagination. Progressing in sections through five key relationships in Woolf’s life—her husband, her family of origin, her sister Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury, other writers, and death itself…. Bad or lazy biographers draw straight lines, linking historical figures to fictional characters. Forrester never does that. Instead, she shows patterns of imagery, suggestive links, taking up seldom-quoted diary entries and juxtaposing them against less-familiar passages from the novels to illuminate something that, at its best, seems both fresh and apt.

Much like her subject, Forrester’s own life was both accomplished and complicated. As Fernald writes, these similarities color and strengthen Forrester’s book:

In short, Forrester’s life contained many of the key elements of Woolf’s, but arranged differently: haute-bourgeois family, close acquaintance with painters (a husband, a sister), intellectual background, a mixed Jewish-Protestant marriage that saw strains but endured, and suicide. These personal connections, these experiences, similar but different, add poignancy and authority to her several meditations on living in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, the artist’s life, and the complex factors that lead to suicide.

(more…)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Portrait of the Artist as a Thrusting Spiral

Brancusi's portrait of James Joyce

Extending the concept of Bloomsday to Bloomsweek, we take a look at James Joyce for our Thursday Fiction Corner. Specifically, we feature a short excerpt from Nico Israel’s Spirals: The Whirled Image in the Twentieth-Century Literature and Art, in which he examines the use of spirals in Joyce’s work and Brancusi’s spiralesque portrait of the writer (see above) :

In 1929, the editors of the newly formed, Paris-based English-language publishing house Black Sun Press commissioned a drawing of James Joyce from the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi for a limited edition of fragments of the ongoing Work in Progress that they planned to publish later that year. Brancusi
produced two drawings that certainly resembled Joyce but did not have the modern signature style sought by the editors, so the editors asked the artist to try again. This time, Brancusi created a far more abstract work, titled Symbole de Joyce, consisting of three vertical, straight lines of varying lengths spaced at intervals along the paper and, on the right half of the drawing, a large Archimedean spiral (figure 28). Brancusi later commented that this portrait captured le sens du pousser (the sense of pushing or thrusting) he thought to be his model’s principal characteristic. Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann claims that when Brancusi’s drawing was eventually shown to Joyce’s father, who had not seen his self-exiled son in many years, the elder Joyce wryly remarked, “The boy seems to
have changed a good deal.”

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Thursday, May 14th, 2015

On the making of trout amandine and cauliflower gratin, an excerpt from “The Author and Me”

The Author and Me

In this week’s Thursday Fiction Corner, we continue our celebration of The Author and Me, written by Éric Chevillard and translated by Jordan Stump, which has been named as a finalist for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award in Fiction! Today, we are happy to present a short excerpt from the book which truly gets to the heart of the story: the contrast between the delicate and delightful preparation of trout amandine and the brutal and horrifying cooking (if one can use a word with such limited negative connotations to describe the process) of cauliflower gratin. Bask in the glory of the description of the first, and shiver in fear at the description of the second:

On the making of trout amandine and cauliflower gratin, an excerpt from The Author and Me
By Éric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump

So you begin, of course, by cleaning the trout, through the gills if you know what you’re doing, or more simply by making an inch-long incision in its belly, starting from the anus, taking care not to puncture the bile sac, lest you impregnate the fish’s pink, delicate flesh with a bitterness it succeeded in containing better than I, I must confess, Mademoiselle, but I have my reasons. Now rinse your trout, with care once again: there are sometimes little clots of blood still clinging to the spine. Cut off the fins, slash the end of the tail to prevent it from curling up in the frying pan like a scorpion’s, which would introduce into your lunch a note of aggression that will sooner or later be sounded by one of your tablemates anyway—whereupon you will lower your nose to your plate to find the exquisite tenderness your fellows deny you. Next, melt a tablespoon and a half of butter in a frying pan and, in another, dry roast a half cup of sliced almonds, stirring them gently with a wooden spatula. In your enthusiasm, you will have grown a third hand for snipping the parsley. Lower the heat under the first pan and, while in the other the almonds turn golden, brown your trouts (I put in two: I’d like one myself), dusted with flour and perhaps stuffed with a sprig of thyme. After eight minutes—men will have been born by the thousands, men will have died, that will give you a sense of those minutes’ import—turn the fish, salt and pepper the browned side, and add the parsley along with half the almonds. Let a few more minutes go by, turn the fish once again, scatter over the reserved almonds, drizzle the whole thing with the remaining butter and a little spray of lemon.

What do you think?

How much we’d have to say, if it weren’t rude to talk with your mouth full!

Whereas.

Whereas that woman.

Whereas, quite to the contrary, that woman.

Whereas, quite to the contrary, that woman began by dividing a cauliflower into little florets! (more…)

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Friday Fiction Corner: Éric Chevillard, the Best Translated Book Awards, and Cauliflower

The Author and Me

Congratulations to Éric Chevillard, Jordan Stump, and the team at Dalkey Archive Press! Chevillard’s The Author and Me has been named as a finalist for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award in Fiction!

The last line of Éric Chevillard’s brief biography on his website reads: “Hier encore, un de ses biographes est mort d’ennui.” Once translated: “Yesterday, one of his biographers has died of boredom.” For the non-Francophone reader researching Chevillard, it is difficult to uncover more biographical details on this French author. While he is relatively young, he published his first novel at age twenty three, and has been prolific enough to publish more than twenty works of fiction, including The Author and Me and Demolishing Nisard, both published in translation by Dalkey Archive. Writing in support of The Author and Me in the BTBAs at the Three Percent Blog, Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review gives a more complete run-down of Chevillard’s translated works. (more…)

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: David Foster Wallace on Ironism

Freedom and the Self

“Wallace’s insight on irony is this: when worn as a mask, irony helps one cast a striking figure, but it is privately, personally destructive.” — Nathan Ballantyne and Justin Tosi

This week our featured book is Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace, edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert. In the concluding essay in the collection, Nathan Ballantyne and Justin Tosi argue that David Foster Wallace’s “writings suggest a view about what philosophers would call the good life.” In today’s post (an intersection of this week’s feature and our weekly Thursday Fiction Corner), we’ve excerpted the section of Ballantyne and Tosi’s essay in which they discuss DFW’s conception of irony as a source of unhappiness in contemporary culture.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Freedom and the Self!