BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 17, 1944
A Treasury of Russian Life and Humor.
Edited, with an introduction by
John Coumos. New York: Coward-
McCann, Inc. yo6 fages. $3.75.
A Treasury of Russian Literature.
Selected and edited, with a foreword
and biographical and critical notes, hy
\Bemard Guilbert Guemey. New
York: Vanguard Press. 7,072 fages,
Some fifty writers are represented in Mr. Cournos' anthology and some thirty in Mr. Guerney's. Except that the latter goes much farther back into the past while the former includes a much greater number of contemporary authors, both volumes cover much the same ground. Both contain Gogol's "Overcoat" and his "Inspector General"; Pushkin's "Queen of Spades"; Lermontov's ballad about Kalashnikov, the amateur pugilist; and Bunin's "Gentleman from San Francisco." Both have Sologub-—that very minor writer for whom England and America show such an unaccountable predilection. Both open with the rather too obvious prose poem by Turgenev concerning the greatness of the Russian language. Both republish some of Baring's excellent translations of Russian lyrics. Here the similarity ends.
A good example of Mr. Cournos' powers of interpretation is afforded by his explanation that Blok wrote "The Scythians" because he was angry "when British and French troops were sent to intervene on behalf
of the Whites." A glance at Blok's diary would have revealed to Mr. Cournos that the poem was prompted by the Allies' refusal to sign peace with Germany as urged by the Soviets in the days of Brest-Litovsk. Blok warns the Allies that if this plea, "the last call to a bright fraternal feast on the part of a barbaric lyre," is not heeded, gigantic, slant-eyed Russia will be through with the West. Mr. Cournos misses the point completely and mistranslates the penultimate stanza (and the one before) in a most astounding manner, making utter nonsense of the text. Thus Mr. Cournos:
We shall close our ranks like the savage Hun, ghoul-like, rifle the pockets
of corpses, burn down towns, drive human hordes into churches and roast
the flesh of our white brothers.
The style of Mr. Cournos' introduction agrees with the quality of the translations in the volume. The conventional, dull, inexact versions by Constance Garnett are supposed to be samples of Gogol and Turgenev. The chunks of Dostoevsky are of the same cardboard quality. I do not know who is responsible for the "translation" of Gogol's "Overcoat," but really one wonders what on earth is the use of printing or reprinting this abominable version, which flaunts more omissions and blunders than poor Akaki Akakyevich's old cloak had holes. The number of contemporary second- class and third-class writers welcomed by Mr. Cournos greatly exceeds the necessity for their existence. I was particularly impressed by one gem. It is a story of a certain Alexander Poliakov, which Mr. Cournos introduces with the cry "How closely akin to life is Russian realism!" The story is about a dog which Russian soldiers take prisoner:
"Well, let's give him a name," said someone. From all sides came suggestions: "Fascist," "Gangster," "Adolf," "Hitler," "Goebbels" and 10 forth. "None of these will do, boys," Dormidontov interrupted his friends. His eyes flashed gayly as he drawled in a mock reproachful tone: "Comrades, is it really proper to give such a name to a dog? Why insult an animal?" His words were drowned out in a loud burst of laughter [realism! humorl]. "Then what name shall we give him?" insisted the tankmen. "Well," said Dormidontov, "we took the dog along with other German war materials. He's one of our trophies. Let's call him Trophy" [paragraph] This suggestion was enthusiastically accepted [paragraph]. Several months passed [period]. Trophy became inseparable from the battalion. He quickly grew accustomed to his new name [I cannot stop quoting]. He was particularly attached to Dormidontov and when the jolly driver was away with his group. Trophy visibly missed him. All the tankmen became fond of the big pointer. They especially . . ."
No, this is not a parody, this is a "true story" (teste Mr. Cournos), but it is curious how often stark realism and "simplicity" are synonymous with the tritest and most artificial literary conventionalities imaginable. The plot is so easy to deduce that it hardly needs to be hinted at. "The bold and intelligent pointer made three more trips with ammunition." As a matter of fact the bold and intelligent pointer had made—oh, many, many more trips than that in his steady course from magazine to magazine, in all countries, through, all wars. Innumerable times, tamed by innumerable lady writers and fireside correspondents, has the "intelligent animal bounded forward as though he understood clearly what was wanted of him." Mark you: "as though." Soviet literature, being human, never despised the oldest bourgeois cliches (the avant-gards touch being of course automatically supplied by political enlightenment), but I doubt whether the kindest Soviet critic would approve of this trash.
Compared with the translations in Mr. Cournos' volume, those by Mr. Guerney seem close to perfection. The two great qualities of his work are: a rich, pliant vocabulary and a gallant determination to render the original in full. One feels he loves tricky passages for the pleasure derived from the English quadrature of a Russian circle. The ingenuity of his verbal devices is so brilliant that at times the result seems a trifle too elegant, not to say precious (which on the whole is only welcome after the drabness one is accustomed to in these matters). Thus his rendering of Gogol's "Overcoat," although admirable in many respacts (it is of course incomparably better than all previous attempts), does not quite convey the chaotic grammar, the splutter, the mumble, the nightmare logic (e. g. that "old mother" which crops up in the description of the hero's birth) and the other irrational values of the prodigious story.
Mr. Guerney has also tackled "The Twelve." This is a bumpy poem—but then the bulk of Blok's writings is a heterogeneous mixture of violas and vulgsirity. He was a superb poet with a muddled mind. Something somber in him and fundamentally reactionary (remindful sometimes of Dostoevsky's political articles), a murky vista with a bonfire of books at the end, led him away from his genius as soon as he started to think. Authentic communists were quite right in not taking him seriously. His "Twelve" is a failure, and no wonder its strangely irrelevant end made one Soviet critic remark: "It was hardly worth while climbing our mountain to cap it (nakhlobuchit) with a medieval shrine." Guerney's version of it is not on the level of his prose translations, and certain passages are quite incorrectly rendered. The longhaired passer-by who bewails the betrayal of Russia is meant to represent the liberal-minded, second-rate, widely read writer of the general pre-revolution period, such as, say, Korolenko or Chirilcov, and not at all "some writing gent paid a penny a line," as Mr. Guerney has it.
Again, although exquisitely worded, the translation of the celebrated "Lay of the Host of Igor" (presumed to have been composed by an unknown minstrel of unique genius at the end of the twelfth century) is not free from certain slips. Instead of the smooth, lovely Persian miniature that Guerney makes of it, one would have preferred a really scholarly presentation of the thing, 'fattened on copious footnotes and enlivened by a thorough discussion of the various readings and obscurities which have been the distress and delight of Russian commentators. Even if it be accepted that in one mysterious passage the reference is to a squirrel a-running all over a tree, still this animal is not the impossible “flying squirrel” which Mr. Guerney sends "soaring away""over a tree's bark." I also question a couple of other zoological details: the "tawny" wolf, whose coat is of a different color in the original text, and the "linnet," which is generically quite distinct from the bird mentioned therein. But it would be ungrateful to pick out flaws in this or the other translations by Mr. Guerney. This seems to be the first Russian anthology ever published that does not affect one with the feeling of intense irritation produced by the omissions, the blunders, the flat, execrable English of more or less well meaning hacks.
By Vladimir Nabokov