Here’s a picture from this month’s Best Translated Book Award, with some of the winners and several judges.
A good time was had by all.
Our latest review is by Margarita Shalina, who reviews a collection of writings by and about Vladimir Mayakovsky, Night Wraps the Sky, which was edited by Michael Almereyda.
“A Mayakovsky Bestiary”
Don’t you want me?
You don’t want me!
“A Cloud in Pants” (p. 103), Vladimir Mayakovsky
Big man with a big voice, Futurist, prisoner in solitary confinement, graphic designer, propagandist, early Soviet film star, Poet, suicide. There is no comprehensive collection of Mayakovsky’s poetry available in English and in response to the lack Michael Almereyda has assembled “a Mayakovsky bestiary.” Night Wraps the Sky: Writing By and About Mayakovsky is a scrapbook assemblage of prose and poetry, a carefully edited montage of language and imagery—imagine a book-length Rodchenko collage with the atmosphere of a black and white silent film. Mayakovsky’s more autobiographical and better known poems including A Few Words About Myself, with the scandalously infamous opening of “I love to watch children dying,” are presented in a single language edition with fresh translations by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur and Matvei Yankelevich.
Early on, John Berger’s spot-on essay explains how the stars aligned for the young Mayakovsky as he was discovering his way in life. Pushkin wrote language and plot which combined the colloquial with the erudite and Mayakovsky— combining the low brow with high brow—is a direct descendant of this tradition. After the Revolution, as part of the sweeping reforms that the new government was imposing, the Russian language itself was simplified. A growing literate proletariat audience found Mayakovsky’s muscular verse to be accessible and stirring. “Then he reads his poems. The whole hall, opponents and supporters, cools into an attentive, tense silence. With unrivaled mastery Mayakovsky recites. His famous voice rings out bold and sincere, filling every nook and cranny of the museum hall. Even the attendants, who have heard many, many things in that hall, listen spellbound.”
He was dynamic, street-smart and handsome. He understood how to Talk Dirty and Influence People as Lenny Bruce would say, though Vinokur compares him to Eminem. Whether intuitive or intentional, wielding his larger than life being and his booming voice, Mayakovsky understood performance and crowd psychology.
Mayakovsky carried the Revolution in his coat pocket and wrote leftist political poetry as he carried Lili Brik in his heart. Completing the triad forming an already open relationship, Mayakovsky met Lili and Osip Brik in July, 1915 which he classified as “Happiest Date” in his journals. Lili Brik began establishing herself as Mayakovsky’s muse. In Lilichka! written in 1916, the poet celebrates his love for his Little-Lili but even through the coarse of the celebration there is an overt desperation present; a foreshadowing of loss that can derive only through uncertainty. He could command an auditorium of people but Mayakovsky could not control Lili or his own seeming obsession with the Briks.
In the bleary front hall,
my arm, broken by trembling,
doesn’t fit into the sleeve.
I’ll run out,
throw my body into the street.
lacerated by despair.
The imagery is reminiscent of early Akhmatova’s famous poetic moment, from the collection Evening, where silently and internally shattered but self-contained a woman places her left glove onto her right hand. Mayakovsky has none of Akhmatova’s tempered restraint. He is feral but he loves too. What is the difference? “Acmeism [Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Gumilyov] was an apartment with a window that looked out on an imagined green and blue landscape from Italy, and an old library with very few books; Futurism [Mayakovsky, Shklovsky, Lili and Osip Brik] was a house with a red-haired dog, a Mexican blanket, and thin paper for printing magazines.”
While post-Revolution Russia seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux, Lenin’s death served as the water-marker denoted that all things ahead were deeper and murkier. By the time Mayakovsky was to have his twenty year retrospective, Stalin was solidly in power. “His exhibition Twenty Years of Work, which opened on February 1, 1930 . . . was boycotted by all official writers’ groups, and was visited almost exclusively by students. He paced the empty rooms, with a ‘sad and austere face, arms folded behind him.’”
Perhaps the most important thing that Almereyda brings across is showing how Mayakovsky has survived through time. Regardless of the lack of a comprehensive selection of his poetry in English, he has been able to influence the English speaking world in addition to the Russian.
. . . always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.
A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island, Frank O’Hara, 1958
Night Wraps the Sky: Writings By and About Mayakovsky
Edited by Michael Almereyda
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pgs, $27.00
The latest issue of Stop Smiling has an excellent interview with Matvei Yankelevich about his translation of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing.
A good portion of the interview consists of Yankelevich talking about the process of translation and other translations of Russian literature, including this bit encapsulating one of the main debates in the world of translation:
really enjoy Nabokov, particularly the work he did on Onegin, although I think it’s flawed in many ways. I have to confess to not having compared Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations with others, or with the original. A lot of the early twentieth-century translations veered toward making Russian literature fluent and readable and pleasant, whereas someone like Dostoevsky, who’s a rather clumsy writer in certain ways — or perhaps on purpose, who knows — that took away from the dynamic of the original Russian. Smoothing it out is something that happens in translations a lot. It’s something you become more and more aware of. In a way, I like Nabokov’s way of making Onegin really difficult, although I think he does it to an extreme, by using words that are obsolete in English, in a way that the Pushkin text in its original Russian does not. Nabokov’s Onegin is a new text, very different from Pushkin’s, and yet it claims to be hyper-literal. It’s a strange kind of paradox there, because the English text is certainly not as light and easy to read as the Pushkin original. The translation is heavy-handed and obtuse, whereas Pushkin’s Russian is light and airy and feels very contemporary. When Nabokov did this very closely read, very literal, very exact translation, he made something out of Onegin that is really not as pleasant to read. [Laughs] On the other hand, there are the translations of Russian literature that tried to be overly readable, and they lose some of the specific style of the writers.
And for anyone curious about Kharms himself, he sounds like he was a, well, curious guy:
I think you’re onto something. In forcing himself to not look at the world the way others did, he acquired — either on purpose or through the process of training himself to think along these anarchic, chaotic lines — some nervous tics and habits that were somewhat close to going mad. He had this thing about hiccups. He apparently created a tic that would happen without his actually wanting it to happen. He practiced having this tic, and finally it became uncontrollable. His friends in the late thirties would remark that he had these weird body movements, these spasms, these hiccups. He was trying to create this moment of unpredictability — as if life wasn’t unpredictable enough — but to break up the continuum and to be aware of the present moment in a different way. He seemed to desire that kind of destabilization. It was his idea of what he wanted to be: he wanted to implement his thinking about the world into real action. That demanded of him an abnormality: in the way he dressed, the way he behaved, and the way cause and effect worked in his own life. His belief in miracles, obviously, something that would disrupt the chain of cause-and-effect, was really important to him. In some ways, it probably did drive him to a certain level of — I wouldn’t say insanity or madness, but he was probably on the way to a schizophrenic state. That was also fueled by the stress of being hungry, of not being able to publish his work, of knowing, at some point, that somebody would come and arrest him, like many of his friends had been arrested.
KRUI, the University of Iowa’s public radio station, held a discussion this morning featuring our own Chad Post; Dedi Felman of Words Without Borders, Matvei Yankelevich of Ugly Duckling Presse, Hugh Ferrer, Associate Director of the International Writers Program, and Keisha Lynn, Project Assistant at the International Writers Program. Their discussion was a brief preview of the panel they’ll be on this afternoon—World Lit Net, where they’ll discuss the value of the Internet as a tool of dissemination, a locus of literary community, and a potential engine for (or roadblock to) “world literature”—which is a part of the 40th Anniversary of the International Writers Program.
If you’d like to listen to this discussion, you can download the . (The file is about 24MB and the discussion lasts about 40 minutes.)
Now if they’d only get rid of the lame cartoons, I’d really like the New Yorker. Anyway, on top of the Kunkel review of Robert Walser, this week’s New Yorker includes some pieces from the OBERIU-founding, grand-absurdist Daniil Kharms.
Any Kharms books, stories, excerpts you can get your hands on are definitely worthwhile, and this November, Overlook is releasing Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms translated by Matvei Yankelevich, who also runs the very interesting Ugly Duckling Presse. UDP may be the best source for European poetry—especially of the more avant-garde variety.
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We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
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Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .