Archive for July, 2011

Bobby Fischer Against The World, Greenwich Picturehouse 24 July

July 25, 2011


The structure of this documentary was fine:  fit the backstory of Bobby Fischer (and of chess) into the run-up to the famous 1972 match with Spassky and the match itself,  then cover what became of him afterwards.  I was certainly struck by how good-looking  Fischer was in his prime, and by the way he sounded like an articulate and educated man in interviews (unfortunately all of that was to change quite radically).

But there were lots of things left hanging:  most obviously some interviewees were never identified that I noticed.  There was one guy talking about Fischer coming to dinner and then no longer being welcome because of his loony anti-Semitic views.  Was that the Asa Hoffman we saw earlier? I wondered.  No, he spoke of his wife Joan [Bobby’s sister] dying, so it must have been Russell Targ I suppose.

Then there were the points the film really should have covered and didn’t.  For instance, towards the end we saw the deteriorated wreck of Fischer wandering round Reykjavik and haranguing the Icelandic neurologist whose name I forget.  He was followed around by a Japanese woman, completely unremarked-upon in the film, who must have been Miyoko Watai, Fischer’s suppositious wife.

I’d have liked to have known more about Fischer’s older sister Joan, who suffered the same disturbed upbringing but had the protective effects of being female (and also, according to the film, a different father).  As well as wondering how she turned out, I would have thought that an older sister who must at least have helped bring him up would have been Fischer’s best chance of a normal human relationship.

They should have asked Nikolai Krogius (the psychologist in Spassky’s team) whether Fischer would have been better looked after on the Soviet side, I think the answer is certainly yes.  Why didn’t Spassky claim the match by forfeit?–He had more than one occasion to I think.  He must have been under orders to play and win, poor man.

So who would you look to if you wanted to explain Fischer by comparison?  Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were men of similar abilities from the same milieu but were spared the disastrous upbringing, which is more reminiscent of Truman Capote or a number of other American writers.  Then there’s Lee Harvey Oswald–turned out better than him, anyway.

but yet the pity of it, Iago!

Contemporary Russian novels for translation

July 21, 2011
Title To be avoided at all costs Perhaps Strongly recommend Not read/don’t know Rating
Goluboe salo (SOROKIN) 0 1 3 0 2.25
Norma (SOROKIN) 0 1 3 0 2.25
Psalom (Fridrikh GORENSHTEIN) 0 1 2 1 2
30-aya lyubov’ Mariny (Vladimir SOROKIN) 0 1 2 0 2
Pokhoronite menya za plintusom (Pavel SANAEV) 1 1 3 0 1.6
Banan ( Mikhail IVANOV) 0 1 1 1 1.5
Stepnaya kniga (Oleg PAVLOV) 0 1 1 1 1.5

Survey results

The table above shows the most popular books from Question 1 of my surveyA publisher wishes to publish in English Russian fiction from the last 40 years. He would like to publish something worthwhile, and also not lose money. Which of the following would you recommend?

As can be seen, Question 1 elicited 5 answers.

This multiple choice question named 19 different works of 15 different authors.  These were derived from original discussions with the publisher, a query on SEELANGS here, and my own knowledge.  I posted a link to the survey on SEELANGS here  and RUSSIAN-STUDIES here and also sent it around some of my own contacts.

Question 2 was:  If there are any books or authors not listed in Q1 you would like to suggest, please give details below. Thank you!

There were 8 answers to this question, naming a variety of authors and works.  Vladimir Sorokin was the only writer to be named more than once (twice in fact);  there was also a further nomination for Fridrikh Gorenshtein.

There was one expression of support for the publisher in response to Question 3:  Please give any other comments on this survey or the subject-matter below. Thank you!


Clearly Sorokin and Gorenshtein are the favourites here.  That applies to both Q1 and Q2.   It was interesting to see that some well-known writers such as Olga Slavnikova and Dmitri Bykov attracted very little support.  As at December 2015, this lack of enthusiasm for Bykov seems quite widespread.

About Vladimir Sorokin

Sorokin would certainly be the practical recommendation.  At the technical level of putting the right words in the right order so you want to read more he’s a very very good writer.  A couple of his books have been translated into English, and a lot have been translated into French and German so it’s easy to find out something about him.  One could look at Den’ oprichnika (Der Tag des Opritschniks/Journée d’un Opritchnik) or Goluboe salo (Le lard bleu/Der himmelblaue Speck) as being the most immediately appealing perhaps–there’s lots of useful stuff on  [Oops!  The first of these has just been published in English, and no-one picked me up on it…]  Sorokin certainly suffered some problems with the authorities on account of the second of these, and also with an opera he did the libretto for, so there’s publicity material as well.

About Fridrikh Gorenshtein

You can see my views of that wonderful book Psalom (together with something about Gorenshtein in general) here, and also read about some of the issues to do with publishing him in English here.

Personally, I think you might need to be a US publisher of Jewish material with some kind of captive market to bring it off.  Or a US publisher of heavyweight literary fiction, but those possibilities seem to have been prejudiced by the unfortunate experience with Poputchiki.

Finally, anyone who knows what ‘original’ of Psalm 88 Gorenshtein had in mind is invited to let me know!

For the record

The remaining books listed in Q1 were (in descending order of popularity): Latunnaya luna (Asar EPPEL’), Pervoe vtoroye prishestvie (Aleksei SLAPOVSKY); Eltyshevy (Roman SENCHIN), Malaya Glusha (Mariya GALINA), Pers (Aleksandr ILICHEVSKY); Tsvetochniy krest (Elena KOLYADINA); Schast’e vozmozhno (Oleg ZAIONCHKOVSKY), Kroshki Tsakhes (Elena CHIZHOVA), Lyogkaya golova (Ol’ga SLAVNIKOVA); Evakuator (Dmitri BYKOV), Orfografiya (Dmitri BYKOV), Spisannye (Dmitri BYKOV).  I’ve posted something about Kroshki Tsakhes here.

If anyone is interested in the complete results of the survey, feel free to write to me.  I think that Academia Rossica would also like me to mention their translation grants !

Bel-Ami White Bear 17 July

July 17, 2011


I had a friend once who advised me not to earn my living as a gigolo in Paris.  I took his advice.  He, on the other hand, got a job in corporate finance and married a Frenchwoman. ..He would have fitted in well in this musical adaptation of the novel by Guy de Maupassant.

The story of Bel-Ami is of an ambitious young lad from the provinces who rises to the top in the murky world of journalism through being of service to women.   I thought it worked well as a musical, and the music (by Joe Evans, who also played the keyboards) was a lot better than I expected; I also liked the way the other instrumental parts were played by members of the cast.

The cast were uniformly strong, though they hadn’t yet necessarily all quite mastered their lines.  Gary Tushaw had true naughty boy charm as Bel-Ami, while for me the best performance came from Penelope Dudley as the conflicted older woman Madame Walther who betrays her husband’s secrets to Bel-Ami and ends up pimping her daughter to him in an attempt to keep him.

The production was both imaginative and lucid, though given the constraints of the form the love intrigues came through more clearly than the political ones.  There was a nice elegant set that easily suggested a bar, the interior of rich people’s homes, and several other locales as well.

I’m not sure that the production quite decided on its approach to the story–a gay acceptance of “Fortune’s a whore, and so are we” would have been the natural thing in a musical, but there were traces of moralising.  The singing was of variable quality–in particular, there was a song that came round twice about SOMETHING being a bitch that poisoned the moonlight, but WHAT it was I still don’t know.  If you don’t trust yourself to say ‘Sharl’ in place of ‘Charles’, then say ‘Charles’–‘Sharlz’ is the worst of both worlds.

Englishwomen (even regrettably Englishwomen who work as actresses) tend to have an ineradicable well-scrubbed wholesome quality that only becomes more pronounced the more kit they take off, so having the female characters adopting basques and luscious kimono-style dressing-gowns as their indoor wear didn’t really do it for me in suggesting how corrupt and sinful they were.

But enough of these reservations!  This is a highly enjoyable show, and well worth seeing.

Update 25 July  Two commentators below who have been more recently say the show is rotten and well worth avoiding.

If not Gorenshtein, then who? A survey

July 14, 2011

'Friedrich Gorenstein'

Not Gorenshtein

A publisher writes (about Psalom):

Another question in my head is how many UK readers would find the
centrality of its religious discussion puts them off the book? Not a
literary question, but just a question of not losing money, which
happens very easily in publishing.

Of course Dostoyevsky puts religion centre-stage too, but then he
cannily puts in a murder ‘whodunnit’ as well (in the Brothers

I could imagine a US publisher might find it easier, with religion
being so much more widely discussed and practiced there..?

Further witnesses testify:

When Gorenstein was alive I tried to find him a US publisher but the answer was that his novels are too long and complicated and unless there is a generous grant the project is unrealizable. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky might have got the same response today if they tried to get published for the first time.


In 1991, Houghton Mifflin published Bernard Meares’s translation of TRAVELING COMPANIONS. At the time I heard that the book did so poorly, Gorenstein became unpublishable here.

This is a situation I come across fairly frequently. If a foreign author’s first book doesn’t do well, other publishers are reluctant to touch anything else. In this case, I think part of the problem was the choice of book, which, unlike other works by Gorenstein I’ve read, is largely talking heads. Pity the poor translator expected to make something marketable of that.

I have no idea who made the decision to publish that particular book, but I suspect this was simply the one that was brought to the publisher’s attention.

Well there could be some whiff of an underpriced (intellectual) property there, at least in the US.

Who then?

But what are the alternatives?  The trouble with very many contemporary Russian novels is that they require far too much knowledge of the Russian background (historical, literary, day-to-day) for what the foreign reader is going to get out of them.  There’s a general question as to whether Russian writing is drowning or indeed has already drowned in intertextuality, but that’s another question.

So who is there if you’ve decided you want to publish a translated Russian novel?  Olga Slavnikova often (not always) comes on like she wants to be a Russian Henry James so that you would be completely unable to draw a picture of what’s happening in any particular scene, never mind say why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Dmitri Bykov’s books tend to be long and complicated and also pretty slackly written.  Mikhail Elizarov’s Bibliotekar’ requires an unhealthily-detailed knowledge of Russian and Soviet history to understand, and there’s always the unpleasant possibility he might mean it seriously.  Something like Pokhoronite menya za plintusom (Pavel Sanaev) is fine in its own context, but will it mean anything to anybody else?

Take a survey!

Anyway, I’ve created a survey ( Click here to take survey) for people to give their own views and suggestions. The question is:

A publisher wishes to publish in English Russian fiction from the last 40 years. He would like to publish something worthwhile, and also not lose money. Which of the following would you recommend?

Do have a go! I’ll publish the results here…

88-й Псалом у Фридриха Горенштейна

July 6, 2011

Фридрих Горенштейн

В своем Псалме Горенштеин пишет:

…русская Библия в ряде мест переведена неумело.  Так, необходимый сейчас умирающему псалом No 87, стих 4-й переведен: <<Ибо душа моя насытилсь бедствиями, и жизнь моя приблизилась к преисподней>>.  В то время как в подлиннике : <<Ибо душа моя насытилсь обидами, и жизнь моя приблизилась к могиле>>.

(М. изд-во ЭКСМО-Пресс, 2001).

При этом возникают разные вопросы.  Конечно, нумерация не так проста, но тоже не так трудна–Псалме 87/4 по русской Библии соответствуют Пс 88/4 по Танаху и Пс 87/4 по Септуагинте.  Как и стоило ожидать.

Но откуда берется такой подлинник?  В Септуагинте написано:

ὅτι ἐπλήσθη κακῶν ἡ ψυχή μου, καὶ ἡ ζωή μου τῷ ᾅδῃ ἤγγισε·

(точно как в русской Библии), а в Танахе:

כִּֽי־שָֽׂבְעָ֣ה בְרָעֹ֣ות נַפְשִׁ֑י וְחַיַּ֗י לִשְׁאֹ֥ול הִגִּֽיעוּ׃


Ибо душа моя насытилсь бедствиями, и жизни мои дошли до  преисподней.

Разницы, в основном, нет.  А откуда у Горенштейна подлинник?

Ведь в Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia не указано других возможностей в данном месте.

Ответ надо отыскать…

Days of Heaven Ritzy Picturehouse 3 July

July 4, 2011

That looks very like Levitan to me

Before this showing of Days of Heaven as part of the Ritzy’s Terrence Malick season we had an introduction by Asif Kapadia, the director of Senna who had once almost worked with Malick on a project.  He said that TM was a regular guy, he just didn’t like doing press–what was on the screen was the important thing for him.  Nature and Graham Greene were important themes in his work, and he liked to keep things simple.  He would visit locations with a camera before the crew got there to capture what the places were really like.

Asif Kapadia

He said that there were few prints of this film around and he didn’t know how good this one would be–apparently the studio had tried to make space by getting rid of some crap called Days of Thunder and a slight error had occurred…

So then we had Days of Heaven.  I was glad to see a film with working people as protagonists and there were some lovely images.  In principle the story was quite credible.  The idea is that Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are lovers who are pretending to be bother and sister and run away to work on a farm after Richard Gere gets into trouble at the factory.  Then rich but sickly farmer Sam Shepard falls for Brooke Adams and Richard Gere decides that Brooke Adams can marry him and then they’ll be rich once the farmer hurries up and dies.  There’s also Richard Gere’s real kid sister who provides voice-over narration and is played by someone.  Of course it all ends badly.

To me that’s good mainline Thomas Hardy and it’s also the kind of thing I can imagine my grandfather doing in the not terribly adjacent Canadian wheatfields.  In fact pimping his wife would probably have been a bit much for him, though I’m not so sure about at least one of my uncles.  But Richard Gere was awful, a kind of mass of grey tedium.  I couldn’t understand a lot of his words.  He sounded like an Italian trying to speak English and suppress his natural modulations. Brooke Adams managed both to be extremely beautiful and to look like a real person, which is something American cinema actresses often fail at.  But she seemed too much like your pretty kind sensible American girl to undertake anything so stupid.  You needed more words to make that real.

Sam Shepard was good as the farmer though!

Psalom/Psalm (Fridrikh Gorenshtein)

July 2, 2011

Well this is a wonderful book.

The idea is that Dan, the Antichrist, the Viper is sent to earth by God to carry out necessary punishment according to the four afflictions of the Lord:  hunger, the sword, lust and disease.  At the beginning in a brilliantly-observed scene he is the only one in a Ukrainian tea-room who will give food to a beggar girl.  Later on he realises that he has been sent to earth by the Lord not to effect damnation, but to be damned himself.

At the end he goes out into a wintry landscape in a family party with his son Andrei Koposov from the parable about fornication; his adopted daughter Ruth (also the prophet Pelageya) from the parable about the torments of the impious; their son Dan from the parable about sickness of the spirit; and Savely Ivolgin, the alchemist and sinner from the same parable.   The sign of the trees in the woods burning with  holy whiteness of snow causes them to realise that after the four grievous afflictions of the Lord there will come the most terrible–hunger and thirst for the Word of the Lord.

As the  book goes on the religious and eternal themes break through into the narration more and more clearly, like the painted-over pictures of Jesus becoming visible in the converted church where Annushka, the impious martyr later driven away into slavery so that she can curse the German land, lives with her mother (also called Annushka).

Many of the episodes especially at the beginning achieve a genuinely Biblical concentration and intensity.  We see people who are still people rather than allegories or symbols and who are in the grip of things outside of themselves they do not understand.  And the defamiliarised newness of life in towns and institutions to a beggar girl from the country is wonderfully realised, as is her uncomprehending servitude in the home of her sister and his husband and her lover.

Much  of the book represents a reply to Dostoevsky from a Jewish standpoint.  We see characters and scenes typical of the Old Testament on Russian soil, and a depiction of the terrifying life of people who have abandoned the Law.   Dostoevsky is first of all referred to as a Russian literary man gazing at a tablecloth soaked with wine and then his presence becomes steadily more explicit.  Russian Christianity, or pagan Christianity, has diverged from the real Jewish Christianity and the real Jesus, who continued the line of Moses rather than rejecting it.  When Dan first of all appears in the Ukraine of the Great Famine he sees that everywhere there is idolatry, and especially idols of a moustachioed Assyrian bath-attendant.

As far as I know, this book has never been translated into English and I don’t know why.  I would have thought that the Old Testament basis would be a lot easier for the Anglo-American reader to understand than the Russian one.  There would be less shock value of course, since (to skate over a few issues) our native Protestantism is certainly a Judaising type of Christianity, if not quite the Jewish Christianity that Gorenshtein would approve of.

There are translations into French and into German.

Biography of the author

Fridrikh Gorenshtein was born in Kiev in 1932.  His father, a professor of economics, was arrested in 1935 after the assassination of Kirov.  His mother fled to the countryside and Fridrikh was brought up first of all by relatives and then–after the death of his mother–in a series of orphanages.  In 1949 he worked as a labourer, after which he studied in a mining institute and then worked as an engineer while starting his career as a writer.  He studied screenwriting in Moscow in 1961, after which he worked on the screenplays for a number of Soviet fims, including two very famous ones–Solaris and Slave of love.

Psalom was written in 1974/75 and like almost all of his prose had no chance of publication in the USSR.  After publishing in the Metropol almanac, Gorenshtein was forced to leave for the West in 1980, where he lived first of all in Vienna and then in West Berlin.  He was married twice and had one son.

Fridrikh Gorenshtein died of pancreatic cacer in March 2002, a few days before his seventieth birthday.

A few extracts:

And Grisha got what he wanted from Maria and at the same time groaned like one suffering from typhus.  (p70 in edition pictured above)

And the beggar girl Maria, who had been rejected by her mother and older brother and sister, who had lost her younger brother Vasya and whose absence from God’s world would displease only the rapist who had made use of her body in a barn, through God’s weeping between a white heaven and a white earth was borne up and achieved through this unreasoning but  heartfelt weeping the Lord’s comfort, which he pronounced through the prophet Isaiah. (p82)

In Russia the brawler has always been very keen to weep once he has finished his business, crippled somebody or killed them.  […]pity me, good people.  And they pitied him.  One well-known Russian literary man indeed saw in this the most valuable national characteristic. (p210)

And all of this [Siberia] was populated by Russian women.  But to fill such wide spaces with people one has to know one’s business.    There are two cases where a woman has to know her business well–when a people is constantly exterminated and needs to be restored, and when a people lives in spaces that are too large, that need to be populated…In such cases, a high level of skill is required from women…(p 222)

Already for a long time there had been between her and Savely those relations, friendly and–in feminine terms–open, with aid of which a clever woman keeps a man she does not love back from taking rash steps .  (p379)

Every life and every fate, even a bitter life and an agonising fate, when it passes, should form a Psalm.  Praise the  Lord that it came to pass, in contrast to lives that were never born and fates that never came to pass. (p 445)