This week we are highlighting our Russian Library series as part of our ongoing feature for National Translation Month. Today’s post is about the experimental novel Rapture by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson. If you haven’t yet, enter our drawing for a chance to win an entire set of the Russian Library series!
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Iliazd is the the nom de plume of writer and artist Ilia Zdanevich, who is perhaps best remembered as an artist and bookmaker who worked with Pablo Picaso, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Alberto Giacometti. Zdanevich was involved in the Futurist movement and other avant-garde movements in Russia until he emigrated to Paris in 1921, where he took up with the Dada movement. His novel Rapture, a fast paced adventure-romance that mythologizes the life of the Russian avant-garde, was overlooked when it was first published in Russian in Paris in 1930. Censored for decades in the Soviet Union, the book was nearly lost. The English language edition was published in May 2017 to praise. The online magazine The Arts Fuse is one publication that published a review of Rapture by Lucas Spiro, saying:
In one sense, Rapture is a daredevil novel. Murder, romance, betrayal, and treasure hunting push the fast-paced, helter-skelter narrative forward. Laurence is a deserter from the army who demands that he shape his destiny. His quest for independence takes the form of banditry in a mountainous dreamscape based on Iliazd’s childhood home in the Caucasus. He terrorizes the countryside, robbing and pillaging, but somehow leaves the traditional society of peasants, hunters, and loggers unruffled. Laurence comes across the ethereal Ivlita, the daughter of a former forestry administrator who has lost his mind. She has been trapped in her father’s house (built of ornately carved mahogany), reading the books in the library and communing (at least indirectly) with nature. Laurence is eventually propelled by political turmoil, and his devotion to Ivlita, to move his illegal operations into the lowland cities. His need for plunder leads to ever more dangerous and elaborate heists, often involving people he does not know or trust, including a parodic revolutionary cell who want to score big in order to fund their movement.
“Rapture is a daredevil novel. Murder, romance, betrayal, and treasure hunting push the fast-paced, helter-skelter narrative forward.”
Of course, Rapture is more than a parody of the picturesque adventure genre; it represents Iliazd’s declaration of personal transformation, an announcement that the next stage in his metamorphosis was on its way. […] The result is a kind of impish experimentalism. Iliazd eschews time and space; the novel’s setting is never made clear. […]
Rapture also raises philosophical questions about perspective, discouraging us from identifying with any particular character. […] Iliazd’s characters are subject to a cruel, capricious Writer/God, the victims of a kind of sadistic black comedian whose imagination anticipates the pratfalls of postmodern humor. Underneath the hijinks is a serious intent: to mangle fiction and language in ways that raise primal questions about the value of realism, naturalism, even economics.
This unruliness will undoubtedly be frustrating for some. Inexplicability abounds. Ambitions and desires are discarded the moment they are achieved. The relentless illogic of Rapture undercuts all human activity (art included), seeing it as “an attempt made with unsuitable means. […]
Spiro later interviewed translator Thomas Kitson about Rapture for The Arts Fuse. Below is an excerpt from their conversation where they discuss the novel’s place in Russian (literary) history and Kitson’s hope for the translation.
Arts Fuse: Why Rapture? Why Iliazd? Why now?
Kitson: It’s something I first picked up 20 years ago when I was working on Russian Futurist poetry at Ohio State, taking an evening class in translation with Dick Davis. I was working on another Futurist poet, Aleksei Kruchenykh, who did these short prose bits that are completely absurd, like a marriage between a bear and a flower. He was one of the originators of ‘beyonsense.’ But I discovered that Ilia Zdanevitch (pen name Iliazd) had this novel which I had never heard anything about. I thought I would do a translation of the first chapter for my final project. And I did and decided at the time I just didn’t get it.
I wasn’t getting the translation right even though, linguistically, it’s a relatively straightforward novel. Jump ahead 15 years. I’ve gone through a doctoral program in Russian literature, done a lot more reading, done a lot more living, and I decided I wasn’t going to teach anymore and thought: what am I going to do now? So I thought I’d go back to Zdanevitch. This time I fell in love with his prose and felt much more at home with it, so I just decided I’ll do a translation and start shopping it around and hope someone would be interested. If not, then it was a pleasant experience; it was a kind of a growth thing.
AF: How does Rapture change or fit into common conceptions of modernism?
Kitson: I don’t know that it drastically changes anything. Even though the Russians were connected with transatlantic and international movements among modernists, Iliazd himself was quite isolated, so it sits a little differently. When Iliazd was working on Rapture he had already been involved for several years with writers in France and with emergent surrealism, so it absorbed some of the things that were fascinating to the latter writers, like Gothic novels and Freud, and brought them into contact with things that were coming out of Russian modernism, which was reworking of Dostoyevskian themes. Iliazd’s writing is also intimately connected to Russian symbolist poetry, especially Alexander Blok, as well as the prose of Andrei Bely. On a secondary level, there’s modernism’s interest in the occult and theosophy.
AF: Why did publishers in the Soviet Union object to the novel?
Kitson: A lot of it was just bad timing. If Rapture had been written 2 years earlier it would have been published in the Soviet Union. Iliazd had every expectation that the book would be published; there were influential publishers who had been open to this kind of experimentation on European modernism. But in 1927 and ‘28 there were shifts in the political situation: Stalin was shutting down Lenin’s NEP (New Economic Policy), which had allowed for more independent economic activity. Stalin was working toward gaining more control over publishing, centralizing it with the party affiliated houses.
At this point in time Stalin was also expelling Trotsky and the publishing house that was thinking of bringing out Rapture had recently been accused of being Trotskyist, which caused some problems. But you couldn’t make the jump to calling Rapture Trotskyist. Rather, publishers feared that the novel might be condemned as a religious or mystical tome rather than a political one. In addition, Stalin was generating a war scare; he was fostering suspicion for anything, even cultural, that was coming from outside the country. And there was increasing suspicion toward the avant-garde internally.
AF: What do you think your translation will do in terms of generating interest in Iliazd?
Kitson: I feel some responsibility to the novel because this is the most visible publication it has ever had. It wouldn’t surprise me if some Russians encounter the translation and go back and read Iliazd in the original. I would hope that it could even be a vehicle for Russian readers to rediscover him. Though I don’t know how realistic that is.
AF: Iliazd seemed to believe that the best thing for a poet was to be forgotten so that he or she could be discovered again. Are there intimations of resurrection in the book?
Kitson: On the one hand, he conceived Rapture as a kind of summing up. It marked the end of something. Yet, though the novel ends with everyone dead, there’s an ambiguity posited, a potential circularity. Right at the beginning, Mocius can hear the whining of an infant in pain, which might be the dying child at the end. And there’s the mahogany coffin and the mahogany cradle, so there are circular elements.
And there are resonances with the mythological basis of Eleusinian mysteries and Christian resurrection in the novel. The character Ivlita insists that trees are people who have finished one form of life and have entered another. So Rapture may not settle for a vision of closure; there’s something open, and that is optimistic. The word rapture has different valances; there are times when life means sacrificing everything to the point that everything is used up. Yet the word is also associated with new possibilities.
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Want to know more about Iliazd? Read translator Thomas Kitson’s introduction.
Read an excerpt from Rapture.