Thursday, November 25, 2010

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.


  1. Would be great if others were interested in reading along!

  2. Sorry, Gintaras. I would love to read along with you on this one, but have my hands full with work and other commitments right now.

    When the time comes, maybe I can tackle this one like I did their translation of War and Peace after completing my dissertation exams -- only to discover it was really just another book of history. Great history, but not really what I was expecting when I wanted to take a long, leisurely break from a year of nothing but reading history.

    I also just picked up a copy of the Last Station which at some point I'd like to read.

  3. Maybe not as evocative, but pretty cover none the less.

  4. There's less history in Doctor Zhivago. It is more an impressionistic novel as I remember, set against the changing times in Russia and later the Soviet Union.

  5. That would be my hope in reading it. And as we discussed earlier, my only exposure to the book has been through the movie, which I think of as a polemic -- beautiful, romantic polemic, but a polemic none the less.

    I've always read about "Tolstoy's theory of history" in War and Peace as something akin to the natural history in Moby Dick -- like something that gets in the way of the novel's story.

    But I found it just the opposite (as in Melville) -- it _is_ the story. I loved it, but was a bit shocked to find myself in the middle of a historical argument after hoping to dive into something totally different as my reward for a year of study.

  6. I just ordered Doctor Zhivago for the holidays just in case I have time to read it.

  7. A little slow going in the beginning. He introduces so many characters separate from each other, and the language is kind of banal. Maybe that is what Pasternak intended, I don't know.