Adventures in Russian Literature

The reason why I have not posted at all for a week is I have been happily absorbed in studying Russian literature in the 1920s and 1930s for my essay that was due today. (My tutor loved the essay, by the way, so I’m thrilled.) Though I have read some truly inspiring scholarship on the matter, for every good literary scholar, there also exists a not-so-good one.

One scholar I read whose work was less than stellar was Gleb Struve. In his Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953, his brief section on Mikhail Bulgakov (pp.160-65), my favorite Russian writer, omitted any mention of Bulgakov’s magnum opus, The Master and Margarita. True, The Master and Margarita was not published in the Soviet Union until 1966 (albeit in a censored version), but Bulgakov wrote the work before his death in 1940. It certainly bears the mark of the Stalin era and, I would argue, merits at the very least a passing mention.

Struve also subjects Bulgakov’s The White Guard to unwarranted criticism. He writes (p.160) that:

Bulgakov used to say that of all his works he liked The White Guard best. But its value as literature is not very great. It is written simply, in the realist manner, without any stylistic or compositional refinements. Its interest lies in its subject matter and in the author’s attitude toward his characters.

In response to that, my first thought is whether we have read the same book. The White Guard is a very beautiful book and Bulgakov shows much maturity as a writer, despite the fact that he had not been writing professionally for very long.

The next problem concerns the poor translation of a Russian poem from Jürgen Rühle’s Literature and Revolution: A Critical Study of the Writer and Communism in the Twentieth Century. Overall, I loved the book: it is translated from German (by Jean Steinberg; one must always give credit to translators) and reads beautifully. If it is this well-written in the original, then kudos to Steinberg for her excellent translation. (If it is not this wonderful in the original, then Steinberg is guilty of what Breon Mitchell calls the cardinal sin of literary translation: improving on the original.)

The poem in question is by Sergei Yesenin, who wrote it right before committing suicide. In Rühle’s book, it is written as such:

Farewell, my friend. The time to part has come.
Beloved, whom I held close to me.
Predestined separation makes us both
Aware of promised reunion.
Farewell, my friend. No word. No clasp of hand.
Do not frown, steel yourself.
To die is nothing new,
Yet it is impossible to live in any other way.

Not a terrible translation, but I take issue with the last line. It should read: “But, of course, to live is nothing newer.” (In Russian: Но и жить, конечно, не новей.)

Neither of these issues had anything to do with my essay. Yes, this is what I think about in my spare time.