One could be excused for imagining that a book with the title Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking might be a collection of recipes, with details about the finer points of food preparation in the former Soviet Union. The subtitle, “A Memoir of Food and Longing,” hints at a more personal account. Neither of these, however, prepare the reader for the epic of family history, biography, autobiography and scholarly assessment of the Soviet Union presented in this excellent new book by Anya von Bremzen, former citizen of the USSR and three-time James Beard Award winner. While this may seem like too much for a single volume, it is artfully stitched together using food, in all its meanings, as thread. The tale of the creation and eventual dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is one of, if not the grandest narrative of the 20th century. Anya’s stories of herself, her grandmother, and especially her mother, are engaging and endearing, and breathe life into the stock of familiar characters and events in the history of the USSR. Her well-crafted distillations of the theses and arguments of prominent academics on subjects such as the “nationalities question” and Stalinist totalitarianism are usually spot-on. All this is brought together by how it informs, and is informed by, food.
Any illusions that this is a book celebrating the quality of Soviet cuisine are quickly put aside when the author admits, in mentioning her mother’s love for sosiski, i.e.- Soviet hotdogs, that “besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for desert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.” Continue reading →
What’s in the Brown Paper Bag? Just Some Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Karamzin.
A media fascination with works of Russian literature delivered to Edward Snowden, the American NSA analyst turned leaker/defector, burst forth today with speculation as to why certain books were included, and what Snowden might take from reading them. I feel compelled to join the fray, mainly to point out some important elements of this story that have, as far as I’ve read, been missed. Continue reading →
Getting back to another of my favorite subjects relating to Russian culture and history—80’s pop music—I decided recently to write a complete translation of Хочу Перемен! (Khochu Peremen, Eng.= I Want Change!) a singular song of its time and place, by the russian band Kino (see also my translation of Kino’s Aluminum Cucumbers).
Перемен!- I Want Change!
Instead of warmth- greens of glass, Instead of fire- smoke. From the calendar grid a day is torn. The red sun fires its entire mass, The day is burned out by its stroke. On the flaming city a shadow descends.
Change!- Demanded by our hearts, Change!- Demanded by our eyes, In our laughter and in our tears, And in the pulse of veins Change! We wait for change.Continue reading →
Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm in the bathtub scene from ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook.’
Bulgakov’s A Young Doctor’s Notebook to be aired in the U.S. on the cable channel Ovation.
An article in The New York Times today (July 14, 2013) announced that the British four part mini-series of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, based on the stories of Mikhail Bulgakov and starring John Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe, will air in the U.S. this Fall on the cable channel Ovation. This is especially good news for me as I had managed to view the first episode, but have been unable to find any version, paid or free, of subsequent episodes. Hopefully I will be able to view this series from Ovation’s website, and not have to get cable TV.
Previous to hearing about this production last year, I had not read the collection of Bulgakov’s stories that inspired it—Notes of a CountryDoctor. Having decided to read an English translation of this collection before viewingA Young Doctor’s Notebook, and now having seen the first episode, I am more eager than ever to watch the rest as I am interested in how they handled Bulgakov’s unexpectedly dark, and deeply disturbing conclusion. I don’t know what to expect, really, as this production introduces the new and significant element of having the older doctor (Hamm) visiting and engaging with his younger self (Radcliffe) as he stumbles through his first assignment as “a real doctor” in a hospital in remotest rural Russia.
Andrey Dmitriev’s character, Panyukov, marks time according to the life-cycle of his televisions
‘Sunrise’-Soviet Television Set
I have shifted back into translating prose for the time being. The poetry break was nice, but I want to try to actually finish a novel at some point. One of the attractive things about translating a poem, excepting epics like Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin, is that it can be started and finished in a few days, maybe even just one. A novel, on the other hand, is a long term project.
I will present here another passage from The Peasant and the Teenager(Крестьянин и Тинейджер), by Andrey Dmitriev. As mentioned in an earlier post, this novel begins with the introduction of Panyukov, a man living in a village in rural Russia. Panyukov’s character is initially described through his own reflections on his past, on the “best of times” he had enjoyed when his friend Vova still lived across the road and they worked together raising livestock and growing food in their private gardens and greenhouse. The excerpt below hints that the passage of time for Russians living in farm country could be marked by the life-cycle of televisions. It is funny, poignant and sad in a way that only the relatively minor misfortunes of others can be. Continue reading →
Khlebnikov’s century-old poem resonates with the Russia of today.
I do love translating poetry, agonizing as it can be sometimes (see previous post- It Has to Be “Love”). My latest effort puts into English a poem written by one of the founders, and leading lights, of the Russian ‘Futurist’ movement, Velimir Khlebnikov (Viktor Vladimirovich; “Velimir” was his pen name). Below is my translation of Не Шалить (pron.-Ne Shalit’!= Don’t Be Bad!), followed by a discussion of Khlebnikov, the futurists and the resonance of this poem with Russian society today.
Don’t Be Bad!
Hey, cut-throat racketeers, Heads full of sludge! In old Cossack leathers Through Moscow I trudge! Not for its grandeurs Is truth on our side, So that in rich furs We may haughtily ride. Not in that strife Did blood flow without check, So that each merchant’s wife Could wear pearls round her neck. It’s no good to rail All the night long I will sing, I will sail The Volga, the Don! I will go tonight Ahead where fate tends Who’s with me in flight? There are with me–my friends
A Translation of Boris Pasternak’s poem, ‘A Winter’s Night’
Feeling the need to take a break from translating prose, I decided to finally make an attempt to translate a Boris Pasternak poem that, while not seasonally appropriate in May, is one of my favorites—’A Winter’s Night’.
A Winter’s Night
The blizzard swept over all the land Beyond the furthest road A candle glowed near at hand A candle glowed Continue reading →
Andrei Viktorovich Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер-The Peasant and the Teenager: A view of Russia in its last decade as a Republic of the U.S.S.R.
Recently I have been engaged in translating and studying certain novels that have won the Russian Booker Prize, an award presented yearly since 1992 to honor outstanding Russian fiction . With this exercise I seek to gain a broader understanding of contemporary Russian thought and culture. My primary interest is in how Russians today view their own history, especially that of the Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet period.
The two works I’ve looked at most recently serve to bookend this period: Казус Кукоцкого (Kazus Kukotskovo = ‘The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky’), by Lyudmila Evgenyevna Ulitskaya, and Крестьянин и Тинейджер (Krest’yanin i Tinyedzhyer = ‘The Peasant and the Teenager’), by Andrei Viktorivich Dmitriev. In a recent post (‘Казус Кукоцкого’) I examined Ulitskaya’s novel as to how it portrays the Revolution and its aftermath, finding her views consistent with my own narrative of this period. Turning to Dmitriev’s ‘The Peasant and the Teenager,’ I was delighted to find not only a portrayal of Russia in the decisive last decade of the U.S.S.R., but one from the perspective of rural, ‘collective farm’ Russia. Continue reading →