When Pushkin Comes to Shove/ Ãëàâíàÿ / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / When Pushkin Comes to Shove
When Pushkin Comes to Shove
How do foreign readers perceive Russian literature? Russians know their classics – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov – and have favorite contemporary authors – but what about foreigners? We decided to gather authentic reviews from typical readers, and it revealed a whole array of opinions: ecstatic, negative, perplexed, ironic…
One of the first quotes about Russian literature to be disseminated widely was the response of a Vietnamese student named Li Wong Yan, who studied in the USSR in the mid-1980s. His writings on various topics were so unusual that they were printed in the children’s magazine Streetcar, and several of his opuses made their way into the Saint Petersburg University journal.
The distinguishing feature of these observations was the fact that Li Wong Yan enjoyed writing in Russian much earlier than he learned to do so. “I’m quite well read and love quotations from well-known and famous writers,” confessed this intrepid author. One of this student’s most interesting notes concerns the symbol of Russian literature: “Pushkin wrote: ‘I remember the wondrous moment when you appeared before me.’ He also wrote really well about a peasant who suffers in capitalist society and compares him with a horse that suffer in the cold winter due to bourgeois exploitation and brushwood, which is to say that the poem starts like this: ‘One frozen winter day I came out of the forest and it was freezing out!’ He was simply a genius author.”
The British drama Onegin (1999) is still a popular film and serves as a kind of reference guide for those who want to read the book.
“After watching the film Onegin I decided to acquaint myself with the original. The book has even more of that special Russian humor, Russian emotions—from sorrow and tragedy to happiness. It was very interesting to place myself in the Russian social life of Pushkin’s time,” writes John in Kensington on amazon.uk.
“All Russians regard Pushkin as their greatest national poet. Nonetheless, not many foreigners can share this opinion,” observes Mr. Chandler in Manchester. Of course, this is a problem of translation, which cannot convey the musicality, simplicity, and subtle humor of Pushkin’s lines. There are few poets who are so difficult to translate!”
“Charles Johnston’s translation isn’t bad. He conveys Pushkin’s humor, but some of the lyricism is missing,” complains Lilly from Birmingham.
“I got interested in Pushkin after my trip to Moscow,” comments E.M. from Cardiff. “Pushkin is the Russian Shakespeare! Of course, I could sense that something was lost in translation, but in the grand scheme of things it’s better to read a lesser version than not at all.”
Pushkin’s works elicit a variety of feelings among all his readers. Some are unhappy with them. For instance, there are those who do not find Russia’s central poetic text to be sufficiently gripping. Frankie from Edinburg stated that the read Pushkin because he really liked the book The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, which was inspired by Onegin. Evidently, Frankie expected some version of The Golden Gate and was disappointed. “I initially liked the engaging action, characters, and rhymed lines, but they were ruined by the constant digressions. And then the climax was somehow resolved too quickly. Maybe it’s wrong to criticize a famous book, but in my opinion it could use more attention from an editor.
When one looks today at the reviews written in the 21st century, one wants to lament the untranslateability of certain passages and the impossibility of conveying the mood and atmosphere of the subtle Russian soul. Arguably, the BBC television channel performed a service when they recently showed the War and Peace miniseries based on Tolstoy’s novel. This became one of the channel’s hit shows and over 100 thousand English nationals bought Tolstoy’s book. At the same time, the countless commentators on Tolstoy’s War and Peace range widely in the reactions.
“After I saw the series on BBC, I decided to read this historical novella. I understood that I needed to keep focused on the Russian names in order to remember who’s who. In general, I skipped over the parts that talked about military campaigns and read more closely during the “light” sections of the text that talked about the main characters and their lives,” writes Terry from Ohio.
But some people find the Russian novel valuable precisely for its complexity. “Although I’ve already read this book 4 or 5 times, I never get tired of delighting in how the author pulls us into the book’s many-layered action, while also presenting the events very simply. When reading other great Russian books I sometimes had to go back several pages to figure out how things were connected and tell myself: ‘Oh, that’s what he meant!’” shares Bobby Muney from Philadelphia.
In comparison to Russian readers, who usually discuss the content of a book and the quality of a translation, Americans devote a lot of attention to the “material side” of things: the print form, especially if they bought the book in paper format. “I don’t understand how you can release such a large book in paperback,” writes Nicki from Pennsylvania. “Of course, a bunch of pages have already got bent up, and they are translucent. The next time I’ll pay a few bucks more for the hardcover!
Those who read the book in the translation of Pevear and Volokhonsky or of Louise and Aylmer Maude looked down on the rest who didn’t take the trouble “to pick the right version.” Several remember the translation by Constance Garnett, who made a “light” retelling of the novel. She evaded certain philosophical passages that were too difficult for her, shortened long sentences with difficult turns of speech, and in many places replaced direct quotation with indirect speech. Russian speakers say that this translation is easy to read but doesn’t at all reflect the original.
“My literature instructor at Hunter College—who was Tolstoy’s granddaughter—said that almost every page of this translation has blunders, and she paraphrases some sentences, ‘improving the original,’” comments Stan at a New York college.
“Interesting but very Russian,” correctly comments Brad from Wisconsin. But what else would it be? Not so long ago we spoke with the linguist Vladimir Elistratov about Leskov’s difficult text, which is complex even for his compatriots.
“If you are not very well acquainted with Russian culture and literature, the themes of his writings will be difficult for you,” writes Brett in Nebraska. “Leskov writes about peasants and religious topics. And he is not as well-known worldwide as some of his more famous contemporaries.”
Still that doesn’t stop some people. Nicholas Gaia from Connecticut was happy to discover him: “I just recently learned about Leskov who was a contemporary of the Russian “major troika”—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev—and who was influential and quoted by Chekhov. This edition confirms that Leskov can take his place among these geniuses.”
“Leskov is called the Russian Mark Twain, and I think that this is very much the case,” writes Pitt Broil in London. “His sharp sense of humor and talent for recording and reproducing the conversations of simple folk entirely support this comparison; his stories are purely Russian, just as Clemens’s (Twain’s real name –A.G.) are American. But if Twain principally concentrates on the social problems of his age, Leskov takes a more philosophical approach, inviting his readers to examine broader questions about a person’s existence on this earth.
They love Dostoevsky, but they often don’t understand him. The author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence wrote back in 1915: “I don’t like Dostoevsky. He is like a rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light, professing love, all love. It is a supreme wickedness to set up a Christ worship as Dostoevsky did: it is the outcome of an evil will.”
As we all know, the most comprehensible and generally accepted of Dostoevsky’s novels is Crime and Punishment, but if you just need to dig a little deeper to find a trove of interesting reviews from people who decided to read something other than the “calling card” of this genius. When I think about his novel The Idiot, I remember right away the incomprehension on the face of Spanish acquaintance when I gave him this book as a present. “You’ve already read Dostoevsky’s most famous work,” I explained. “Yes, of course…” He furrowed his brow, looking at the 600-page tome in horror, and set it aside. “Besides the fact that the book is too long,” he wrote to me half-a-year later, “—with a huge number of dialogues that in no way relate to the main action and too many characters—it’s also anti-Catholic!”
“Terribly written, impossible to follow, definitely doesn’t stand up to the hype around it. Dostoevsky was right in the prologue when he said that it was a terrible book,” an anonymous reader from Edinburg confirms Carlos’s opinion on the site alibris.co.uk.
Nevertheless, there are also many who like Dostoevsky. Leslie in New Jersey comments: “I had a long laugh after reading the section in the ninth chapter of The Idiot about the cigar and the little dog. One of the things I admire is his black humor. You would probably also joke this way if you were an epileptic with debts who found out that he had been pardoned at the last moment before being executed.”
Nellie in Los Angeles got it right: “Maybe it’s just because my ancestors are Russian but this book seemed familiar and straightforward. It’s about an honest person who is mistakenly taken to be an idiot, and many people suffer as a result of this misconception. I don’t know, is it worth repeating that Dostoevsky is irreproachable?”
The Master and Margarita is one of the five most read books abroad.
Of course, readers’ evaluations on Amazon are surprising in their variety.
Jenny from North Carolina complains: “It’s terrible that in the place of the incomparable Mirra Ginsburg today only the lifeless Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is available. Marketing controls even this. But nonetheless, the novel is genius, even they couldn’t ruin it.”
Andy from neighboring South Carolina gives condescending praise: “It’s an interesting enough novel, especially if you’re interested in cats, Russians, witches, and so forth. It’s as if they crossed Harry Potter and Orwell’s Animal Farm with a sprinkling from the New Testament.”
My acquaintance from the Italian city of Faenza told me: “One time a young Italian woman asked me to explain The Master and Margarita to her. It turned out that everything but the Biblical section was absolutely incomprehensible to her… Just imagine the historical lecture that I had to give her… But then I thought about it—and really, how could someone who does not know the details of socialist existence in those years understand what this great book is about?”
By the way, some readers sincerely thank Pevear and Volokhonsky for their detailed endnotes, which explain the realia of the USSR in the 1930s. The New York photographer Nina Alovert told me a story about a theatrical production based on the novel that ran in the 1970s in New York: “After my arrival in America I saw the play The Master and Margarita in the interpretation of Andrei Serban at the La Mama theater (off-off Broadway). Serban, who had left Soviet Romania, understood what the book was about. Now, 40 years later, I cannot remember it exactly, but he transferred some of the action from real life to a mad house. Otherwise, I don’t think he could have made it accessible to a Western viewer. But the Biblical part was, of course, understood by everyone.”
One can read these readers’ reactions forever while taking a break from Facebook and other social networks. “Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov imparts an entirely needed intellectual humor to the crude and harsh Soviet bureaucracy. I would be happy to have a drink any time with this dog, who is the ideal product of evolution!” This is the only comment made by a certain JCHJR about Heart of a Dog on the site alibris.co.uk.
Come to Moscow, JCHJR. On Neglinnaya street, in a restaurant called Bar, a dog will be waiting for you. Or a person. He will wait for you to order him the daily special: mushrooms with sauce picquante for three rubles and seventy-five cents a portion. Come, you won’t regret it.
Western readers react with no less excitement to contemporary Russian writers. One of the most popular authors in translation is Viktor Pelevin. For instance, one can find quite a few reviews on Western social media for his book Oman Ra, written back in 1991.
“Pelevin’s satire of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods is surrealistic, humorous, and absolutely precise. His descriptions of psychosis, drug addiction, and strange behavior somewhat recall the books of Will Self, although Pelevin is more emotional. Most importantly, he never loses connection with the humanity of his characters,” writes an anonymous booklover in the London neighborhood of Brighton.
But Mr. Forester from Liverpool wasn’t so excited about Pelevin. “A satire of the Soviet era”—he gave it only three stars.
S.T. in Hastings comments: “This book is beautiful. Subtle, intelligent, brimming with humor. It combines fantasy, utopia, hooliganism, and at the same time a quite dim view of the world. This book certainly isn’t for everyone but it is a true treasure.”
Moving on to this author’s more recent work, Pelevin’s 2011 novel S.N.U.F.F. has earned 50/50 positive and negative reviews.
“It was hard for me to get through this book,” writes John Crombay in Hollywood. “I was not interested in the characters at all, and I kept asking why I was wasting my time. But nonetheless, there were some interesting moments that got me to keep reading. After reading Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez I wanted to read another science fiction thriller, and so I bought S.N.U.F.F.”
Valentina in Dubai has a completely different opinion of the book: “The plot carries us off into a fantasy world of the future, in fact we travel between two worlds. Pelevin expects that his readers will be able to read between the lines. One of my favorite authors once again did not disappoint.