Thursday, April 14, 2011

Parallel Lives: Russian Literature At Home And Abroad

Recently I received a review copy of an English translation of The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia’s most controversial authors. In the early 2000s, his novel Blue Lard, which featured sex scenes between clones of Stalin and Khruschev, led to Russia’s first post-soviet obscenity trial and inspired bizarre scenes whereby “patriotic youth” flushed copies of his books down a giant toilet erected in front of the Bolshoi Theater.

At the time I remember thinking that if I were an American or British publisher, I’d snap up Blue Lard for publication. Scary Putin stories were all the rage in the press, and here was a (seemingly) classic case of Freedom of Expression Under Attack™. In fact, the obscenity case was swiftly dropped and Sorokin today is feted as a modern day classic. But who needs nuance when it comes to marketing? Alas, Anglo-American publishers are notoriously reluctant to publish foreign authors and remained resistant to Sorokin’s charms.  
Until now, obviously, when it’s about eight years too late to capitalize on the giant toilet.

Still, the impending U.S. publication of Ice is good news for anyone curious about Russian literature today. For most of the 1990s, the only contemporary Russian author readily available in English was Viktor Pelevin, although his metaphysical- absurdist tales were decidedly “cult” reading. Over the last decade, however, other popular Russian writers have had works translated into English, the most successful of them all being Boris Akunin. The popularity of his post modern detective stories seems to have tailed off in the United States, but in Britain they are still going strong.

It is not strange that a tiny fraction of Russian books get translated into English, of course. But it does have a weird, distorting effect on English speakers’ perception of Russia’s literature.

For most of the 20th century for instance, there were two parallel Russian literatures. Since the USSR practiced censorship, most people in the West believed that only Solzhenitsyn and other anti-soviet authors could be worth reading, and even relatively obscure dissidents could secure book deals. Authors of the soviet establishment however, who enjoyed print runs in the millions at home, were barely read outside the Eastern bloc, even though the Moscow-based Progress publishing house tirelessly churned out translations for the Western market.

Some authors managed to straddle this East/West divide: Mikhail Sholokhov for instance. But he achieved fame when there were still large numbers of intellectuals favorably inclined to the USSR in the West. After Stalin’s depredations became undeniable, it wasn’t so easy for a soviet author to secure a wide readership in America or Europe. Indeed one of the most famous of all soviet novels, Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs, is practically unknown in the West.  It doesn’t help that The Twelve Chairs is a comedy either:  Westerners like their Russian authors bearded and serious.

Since 1991, the situation has changed again. Dissident writers once banned in Russia are now widely read at home and forgotten in the West. Vasily Aksyonov, for years a professor at Georgetown University, couldn’t even find an American publisher for his last few novels. Eduard Limonov, the notorious leader of the National Bolshevik party now deemed illegal in Russia, hasn’t been published in English since 1990.
However it’s not just contemporary writers who suffer from this distorting effect. Even the classics are subject to it.

All educated readers in Britain and America know the names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even if they haven’t read them.  Chekhov is almost regarded as an English writer, at least in terms of the influence he has had on the short story.

Step back a little farther in time, however, and things become murkier. It’s easy to get your hands on Gogol’s Dead Souls and Petersburg Tales but as for Taras Bulba, Dikanka or even some of his plays, well, not so much. And of course, most obscure of all is Alexander Pushkin. People might know the name, but hardly anyone has read him.

The problem is that Pushkin was primarily a poet and poetry is difficult if not impossible to translate. For instance, I own an English verse adaptation of Eugene Onegin and it’s absolutely horrible. And yet in Russia most people revere Pushkin as a literary god, thanks to his spectacular way with words. Indeed, Andrei Bitov once wrote a book entitled Pushkin House, in reference to Russian literature as “the house that Pushkin built.”
For non-Russian speakers, however, the central “Pushkin hallway” that leads to all the other rooms is forever sealed off. Many don’t even know it’s supposed to be there. In fact, considering all the other dead ends, trick staircases and doors that lead nowhere, Russian literature isn’t much of a house for foreigners. Rather, it’s a vast, intricate MC Escher style 3-D labyrinth, which nevertheless makes it a fascinating place in which to get lost.