Boris Dralyuk (bdralyuk here on WordPress) has put together an amazing anthology of contemporaneous writing from the 1917 Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. It opens with the suspicious Marina Tsvetaeva’s post-February poem “You stepped from a stately cathedral”–the “you” is Freedom itself, and Tsvetaeva’s not sure she’s all she’s cracked up to be–and ends with Mikhail Bulgakov’s angry, despairing, yet overly optimistic Civil War-era essay “Future Prospects” (he predicts the British will aid the Whites and the Whites will win, but that it will take a long time to restore the standard of living and catch up with the recovering Western Europe). In between are poems and short stories and essays from all over the political spectrum. The quality of the poetry is generally higher than that of the prose (Bulgakov’s article is kind of a mess, and I wonder if it would have been included if not for his later work), but the prose introduces us a variety of lesser-known-in-the-West writers and gives voice to the defeated–as Dralyuk points out, the literature of the Red side really came into its own in the 20’s, outside the scope of this anthology (thus, no Babel, a writer Dralyuk has translated extensively elsewhere).
In the poetry section, the undoubted standout is Peter France and Jon Stallworthy’s translation “Spring Rain,” a beautiful poem from the hard-to-translate Boris Pasternak. It’s a lyric about the rain and the crowd going to the theater, but it’s also about the feelings evoked by the February Revolution, feelings of amazement, pride, and beauty. Stallworthy and France really unfolded the genius of Pasternak’s poetry for me, and even if I have a few quibbles here and there, I am in awe of their ability to make the translation a great poem in English in its own right. Their version of the poem ends:
“Not the night, not the rain, not the chorus
shouting “Hurrah, Kerensky!” but now
the blinding emergence into the forum
from catacombs thought to have no way out.
Not roses, not mouths, not the roar
of crowds, but here, in the forum, is felt
the surf of Europe’s wavering night
proud of itself on our asphalt.”
Alexander Blok is represented here by “The Twelve” and “The Scythians”, the latter in a rhyming translation by Alex Miller. Though it depends on the opposition of East and West which normally drives me crazy, and though its language is dated in places–the term “slit-eyed” recurs–it’s a powerful piece, a plea for peace and a threat all in one, calling on war-torn Europe to “hear the summons of the barbarian lyre” which is simultaneously “the ritual feast and fire/of peace and brotherhood!”
“You have forgotten there’s a love on Earth
that burns like fire, and like all fire, destroys…
…We love raw flesh, its colour and its stench.
We love to taste it in our hungry maws.
Are we to blame, then, if your ribs should crunch,
fragile between our massive, gentle paws?”
The prose section is, as I said, more mixed. Privshin’s “The Blue Banner”, mentioned in the Wuthering Expectations review of the anthology and translated by Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf, was definitely a discovery. Though I was initially frustrated with its folksiness and slice-of-life style, it soon shaped up into an interesting allegory as the hapless main character travels to revolutionary Petrograd, winds up jailed by the Bolsheviks on transparently false charges of “marauding”, hears of a plan to recruit “godly” thugs to save Russia, and later becomes a marauder in truth (albeit that his gang consists of his delusional self and one drunk guy). The author was a nature writer and he represents the city itself as a deadly place full of traps both physical and moral.
I also enjoyed the humorous stories of Teffi–I couldn’t help but do so, even when the humor was really not my sort of thing. “The Guillotine” was translated by Rose France, and satirizes the middle class, obsessed with trivialities and minor inconveniences but seemingly indifferent to their own doom. At the end, the guillotine victims, distressed by the lack of orderly queuing, think about forming a union–“Why should it only be other people who enjoy the perks of being guillotine operators?” It’s a dark commentary on human nature, but very funny. “A Few Words About Lenin” was also translated by Rose France, and it’s a very cutting portrait of a party and a politician who are unscrupulous and also incompetent–failing to anticipate events or spot agents provocateurs, unable to deal with situations not described by Marx and Engels. She also goes after their taking advantage of their supporters’ illiteracy, describing a soldier who, hearing the slogan “Down with annexations!” believes it refers to a woman named Anne Exations. I have no doubt that something like this anecdote must have happened (unlike the joke about soldiers in 1825 thinking that the Constitution they were demanding was the wife of Constantine) but, much like that joke, it’s not actually funny when you think about it. Anyway, my personal gripe about political and actual illiteracy not being funny aside, Teffi’s wit and powers of observation are wonderful.
Yefim Zozulya’s “The Story of Ak and Humanity” is a great satire on dictators, their arbitrariness, sentimentality, illogic, and ultimate insignificance (“But the people, among whom there were some good men, some of indifferent quality and some very poor human material–they continue to live to this day as if Ak had never existed and there had never been any perplexing problem about the Right to Life.”). The name “Council of Public Welfare” in the story is clearly a mix between the Soviets, or more literally Councils, of 1917 and the Committee of Public Welfare from the French Revolution. The translation was done by Emma Goldman’s partner, the anarchist Alexander Berkman.
In “The Dragon”, Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, which I recently reviewed here, showcases his imaginative powers but doesn’t really tell a complete story–there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about his sketch of a city beset by dragons of the void, who speak in the Bolsheviks’ slangy, casually violent idiom. This piece is translated by Mirra Ginsburg.
Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “A Wonderful Audacity”, translated by Rose France, is built around a simple idea–the country wanted a “strong” government, and in the Bolshevik dictatorship, it got it. Be careful what you wish for. Punchy one and two sentence paragraphs and simple yet vivid rhetoric make his point.
“They were weak; and you cried, “Stronger!”
And now your wish is granted. Kiss the whip that is raised above you.
It’s cruel, you say? Yes, but, on the other hand, it is powerful?
There is a lot of blood, you say?
Perhaps there is. Perhaps there is.
But then again, not so much that we shall drown in it….”