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“To most Anglophone readers, Russian books are long and serious”

August 7, 2013

The Short Form has an interview with Robert Chandler (via SEELANGS). Here’s his answer to “What do you think is most misunderstood about Russian literature by Anglophone readers?”:

To most Anglophone readers, Russian literature is, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; but to almost every Russian reader, their greatest writer is Alexander Pushkin.  To most Anglophone readers, Russian books are long and serious; but most Russians would include among their favourite works many short stories that are extremely funny.  And when we get to the Soviet period, the distortions become still greater.  Without the “help” of an international political scandal, it was almost impossible for a Soviet writer to be taken seriously in the West.  For a long time, Pasternak (whom the Soviet authorities forced to decline the Nobel Prize) and Solzhenitsyn (whom they forced into exile) were the only Soviet novelists we took seriously.  Vasily Grossman, a far greater writer than Solzhenitsyn, has only become noticed during the last 7-8 years, though my translation of Life and Fate was first published in 1985.  Varlam Shalamov, whose stories about the Gulag are remorselessly truthful yet endowed with a Chekhovian delicacy, remains little known.  And Andrey Platonov, whom many Russian writers consider the greatest of all C20 Russian prose writers, is only gradually winning the world recognition he deserves — though I am grateful to Random House and NYRB Classics for their dogged efforts on his behalf.

I agree with all of this except the part about Shalamov. Here in the US, I feel like I run into Kolyma Tales much more often than Pasternak’s prose. I read Shalamov’s stories as an undergraduate and taught them as a grad student T.A., and thanks to Sarah J. Young, there’s a lot of interesting Shalamov blog posts in English too. Meanwhile Pasternak seems huge among poetry fans who read Russian, and the movie Dr. Zhivago was a hit 48 years ago, but I don’t think he’s read by that many Anglophone non-specialists. Certainly not by as many as, say, Bulgakov. (Of course, Bulgakov hiding The Master and Margarita fits Chandler’s pattern of only writers seen as anti-Soviet finding success in the West.)

He recommends five short stories in the interview. The only one that’s from the nineteenth century is Leskov’s “The Steel Flea” (or “Lefty,” “The Left-Handed Artificer,” etc.):

This is one of the funniest, and craziest, of all Russian short stories.  The action moves between the Russian provinces, Petersburg and London.  William Edgerton, whose dazzling translation we republished in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, says of it: “Much of the delight that generations of Russian readers have found in ‘The Steel Flea’ arises from the fact that Leskov puts only a part of his verbal effects out in plain view. He hides many others in the bushes of innocent-looking prose or camouflages them to make them look so familiar that the unsuspecting reader may pass them by completely before he realizes that crafty old Leskov has put one over on him again.”

Here are previous posts involving Chandler, and a post on Hugh McLean on the reception of “The Steel Flea.” For a story called untranslatable, “The Steel Flea” gets translated a lot: by Isabel Hapgood in 1916, Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky in 1943 (rev. ed., 1964), David Magarshack in 1946, George Hanna in 1960, Bernard Guerney in 1964 (in a bilingual short story collection), Edgerton in 1969, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 2013. McLean in 1977, like Chandler now, admired Edgerton’s translation. McLean calls Magarshack’s and Hapgood’s “the least satisfactory” while mentioning Deutsch and Yarmolinsky’s and Hanna’s translations without comment.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2013 1:10 pm

    Thanks for the plug! You’re right that Shalamov gets more attention now, though I think our experience is hardly average, and if you go out into the wider Anglophone world you’ll still find very few readers who know about Shalamov, certainly compared to the number who know Solzhenitsyn (whether or not they have read Solzhenitsyn is another matter). I suspect Pasternak is still better known amongst the general reading public than Platonov, for instance, even if he is seldom read nowadays.

    • August 8, 2013 2:10 pm

      If you find Shalamov is still not well known, I’m sure you and Chandler are right. Maybe the name Shalamov is unfamiliar even to some people who’ve read him but think of him as part of a general category of gulag literature, while the name Pasternak is recognized even by people who’ve never opened Dr. Zhivago?

      I certainly agree that Platonov is underrated in the English-speaking world!

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