Thursday, November 25, 2010


Interesting to read that Boris Pasternak's father, Leonid Osipovich, was an accomplished portrait artist and took Boris with him to Astapovo station to see Tolstoy before his death.  Pasternak had painted and sketched several portraits of Tolstoy over the years, including this one of the Count at Yasnaya Polyana in the late 1890s.  I love this painting entitled The Night Before the Examination.

They walked and walked and sang "Memory Eternal" . . .

I have to say I like the British book cover better than the American one, but it is between the covers that counts, and it seems in this case you get the same narrative.  Ann Pasternak Slater is not happy with the literal Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, preferring the more lyrical original English translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.  You can read her review in the Guardian.

I did notice that P-V can be too literal in previous translations like that of The Master and Margarita, to the point of calling Bezdomny "Homeless" throughout the book, when it would have sufficed to provide a footnote that the surname Bulgakov used means "homeless."  In that case, I preferred the earlier Michael Glenny translation.

It has been a long time since I read the Hayward-Harari translation so it will be hard to compare, but from what I read in Richard Pevear's introduction he and Larissa Volokhonsky have chosen to maintain the awkwardness of Pasternak's original text rather than smooth out the rough edges as Hayward did to make it more palatable to an English-speaking audience.

Pevear also provides an interesting short bio of Pasternak, noting his earlier brushes with the Symbolists and Futurists before being suffused in the "socialist realism" of the Stalinist era.  Being a poet, he was drawn to Blok and Mandelstam and of course Ana Achmatova, who were all looking for something beyond the lyrical, something that challenged themselves as well as readers.  Here is a classic collection of his poems, My Sister - Life.  Not surprisingly, this didn't fit with Stalin's vision of a new Soviet Union, and these great poets found themselves struggling to deal with the constraints of the newly created Writers' Union which all Russian writers were forced to subscribe to.

The story surrounding the book is as fascinating as the book itself.  When Pasternak sought Soviet publishers for Doctor Zhivago in 1956 he was rejected, and only by a fortuitous turn of events did the book find itself into print thanks to an Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who printed it in both Russian and Italian.  The Hayward-Harari edition followed, adding to Pasternak's new found international recognition.  He initially accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1958, but under pressure from the Soviet Writers' Union subsequently rejected it.  Pevear quotes both telegrams.  This is too bad because shortly thereafter a thaw occurred in the Soviet Union, which saw a number of previously banned books find their way into print, including Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.  Pasternak had died in 1960, and it wouldn't be until 1988 that his son pressed to have Doctor Zhivago printed in the Soviet Union, at the time of Gorbachev's Perestroika.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Books to be 'Dreamed Through'

‘I heartily recommend taking as often as possible Chekhov’s books … and dreaming through them as they are intended to be dreamed through’  -- Vladimir Nabokov

For those with an unbridled passion for Anton Chekhov there is this box set of Collected Stories, weighing in at 1400 pages, bound in buckram, that would be a very handsome addition to any book shelf.  It appears to be lavishly illustrated as well.  I have a copy of The Shooting Party which I cherish.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Theater of the Absurd

I've been enjoying the bits and pieces of the literature and theater of the absurd which characterized a part of the Russian avant-garde in the late 1920s.  Daniil Kharms kick started the movement with his reading of the OBERIU manifesto in 1928, although the organization apparently dates back to 1926 (read more).  Kharms along with several others contributed greatly to this movement, and many of their writings have been collected into anthologies like The Man with the Black Coat and OBERIU - An Anthology of Russian Absurdism.  In many ways, this movement seemed to echo that of the Italian Futurists and Dadaism, but the Russian absurdists tended to shun all political relationships, preferring to explore universal ideas and playing these ideas out on stage with the theater group, Radix.  Nice to see this movement getting more attention.