Contemporary Russian Literature in Translation
We are happy to introduce the novel-in-verse Gnedich by Maria Rybakova. Maria is one of the winners of the Russian Prize in short fiction for Gnedich.
Maria Rybakova was born in 1973 in Moscow and studied Greek and Latin. At the age of 20, she moved to Berlin to continue her studies. In 1999, her first novel, Anna Grom and her Ghost was published in Moscow. Several other novels and short stories followed. Rybakova’s books have been translated into German, Spanish, and French.Maria Rybakova earned her Ph.D. in Classics from Yale University and currently is faculty at San Diego University. In 2012, her novel A Sharp Knife for a Tender Heart was nominated for the prestigious international Jan Michalski award. The author, who is currently teaching Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University, is working at her fifth novel.
Rybakova’s Gnedich captures the reader’s attention in its first stanzas with a striking allusion to Homeric Greece: “The rage that killed so many/the wretched rage of Achilles/who knew that he would perish/ that he would perish young” . This novel about the life of Nikolai Gnedich (1784-1833) – a romantic poet, librarian, and first translator of The Iliad into Russian – is written in verse, and is a fine example of the revival of the poetic tradition masterfully explored by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin. Like The Iliad itself, the novel consists of twelve Songs or Cantos, and covers the life of Gnedich from his childhood to his death.
The publication of Gnedich in Russia in 2011 was immediately hailed as a landmark event. The novel-in-verse received the Anthologia Prize, the Moscow Account Award, and the Russian Prize (category II), was a finalist for the NoS and the Andrei Bely Prizes, and garnered excellent reviews from both Russian and British literary critics. It depicts the lives of Gnedich and his best friend, the poet Batyushkov, who is slowly losing his sanity, and incorporates motifs from their poetry, from Homer’s epics, and from Greek mythology, as well as magnificent images of imperial Russia and of the Homeric world. The space of the novel covers snowy Russian villages, aristocratic St. Petersburg salons, magnificent Italian landscapes, and the austere Greece of Homer’s heroes.
Rybakova conjures a fittingly romantic vision of the dramatic lives of Gnedich and his best friend. Gnedich’s inner world is intense and clouded by constant melancholy; motifs from The Iliad invade his thoughts and transform his reality. A major part of the novel is the moving correspondence between the two poets. Philosophical reflections on the fate of the individual are intertwined with poignant stanzas devoted to the great but unhappy love that consumed both Gnedich and his maid Elena. The novel culminates in Batyushkov’s final breakdown in the lunatic asylum in Pirna and Gnedich’s ruminations on the Russia’s tragic future fate.
The poetic language of Gnedich is refined: it combines the clarity of Rybakov’s syllabic verses and the beauty and sophistication of her metaphors with distinct, novelistic depictions of certain landscapes, people, and their interactions. In a review in the Times Literary Supplement, Andrew Kahn noted Rybakova’s gift for “seamlessly layering different registers, such as the vernacular of Pushkin’s generation and the archaic of high-style epic,” which lends a unique texture to this “winningly touching novel.” The constantly changing registers in the novel led the translator to incorporate different linguistic modes, from the pure beauty of Homeric hexameter to an imitation of cockney jargon, which allowed to reproduce the speech of a Russian peasant.
Gnedich is one of the most important poetic books to appear in Russian in the past few years, and its translation into English has the merit of broadening the Anglophone reader’s exposure to the diversity of Russian literature. It is an innovative work, and deserves even more recognition than it has already justly received.
Мария Рыбакова. Гнедич. Moscow: Vremia, 2011.
Nikolai Gnedich (1784- 1833) was a Russian poet and translator best known for his translation of the Iliad (1807-29).
Excerpt from Sixth Song
“In the hallway he took
a note from the tray and opened it.
It was from Semyonova.
Why is it that he did not recognize her name
despite seeing it many times?
It was the same handwriting:
long delicate lines, uncertain, tilted,
like a teenager’s,
and on the same fine watermarked paper.
But why the name was unknown?
He always unsealed her letters with a shiver
but not this time.
The letter’s magic omens
were only the Russian alphabet.
This was the name of a woman
with whom he had fallen out of love.
He had ceased loving her,
but she called him
to come in the morning to give her
another lesson in recitation.
As a seminarian,
he invented his own method of tragic speech
and became not himself
but the shadow of the fallen heroes in the war
or the step-mother who loved her stepson,
one of the many who’ve died but live
in funeral decorations of the theater
when the curtain rises between
our lives and the life everlasting.
When he was becoming a god or a woman
he knew that the life he was destined to live
was only a chapter
in the big thick book of opportunity.
Rising on tiptoes and turning his face to the sky
he captured the audience with his voice…
* * * *
also was rising on her tiptoes
and turning her face to the skies,
and the sky looked at her face
as if at its own reflection.
Out of the grey the sky became a purple evening.
The servant brought some coffee in china cups,
and the conversation switched to intrigues at the theater,
then he was given his coat in the hallway
and went out into the Petersburg winter night,
which fell at four in the afternoon.
He left the fairy tale
in which all wishes come true
and entered the Greek epic where the hero
wants only one thing – to be faithful to fate.
And if death was waiting for him,
he would love his defeat.
But how beautiful were years
Semyonova was everything to him:
how she put the big vase with flowers on the floor,
how she threw back her head
exposing her white throat,
and resembled a swan,
you could swim in my tears,
Translated by Elena Dimov. Edited by Austin Smith
He wrote his thoughts down
in the small notebook
without hope that someone would read them.
The soul’s breath,
my son’s lovely soul,
your father created you
at my lips by his kiss.
Infinity is in
the forest breeze,
in the man’s voice
but since we went around the globe
it’s no longer here.
the Greek marble,
the poem of Simonides,
contour on a vase,
hard as the justice of ancient times
that punished the smallest of crimes
aren’t you the amber?
Saadi asked the piece of clay
No, I am simple dirt
that lived with a rose
dying like a flower
that dries without leaving a trace
of August’s fragrance.
It is unlikely that to doubt immortality
means to deny God.
We are so small and the world is so big,
our pretense for eternity
is clearly exaggerated.
Who put gates on the sea?
Hitherto shalt though come, but no further:
and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?
In the night between the 18th and the 19th
I had a wonderful dream:
someone with the voice of Batyushkov
told me that Homer and Jesus, son of Sirach,
lived in almost the same times
and not far away from each other.
But Homer had so many words:
powerful, quick, the fastest
and the other had so many thoughts!
Homer was a chatterer
and Sirach’s son was a contemplative.
Annoyed by these words
I woke up.
Gnedich wrote down dreams in the morning, thoughts in the evening.
During the day he worked at the library
where he got a salary
and had a desk near the window.
There were always new books in neat piles,
he cataloged them,
writing in his clear handwriting
the title of every volume on a note card
he put it in a box,
an aide put the book on the proper shelf,
but he always was afraid the youth got it wrong
so Gnedich went to check
to be sure everything was in its place.
This continued into evening.
He forced himself not to look out the window,
not to pay attention to the people going by,
not to count the weeks and months
not to think
that he had already spent years in this hall,
that more years came and went,
and then a few more.
Instead he wished to rejoice in
the titles of the books,
the clarity of his own handwriting,
the fact that the library
had more collections,
that it expanded like the capital
that the aisles between shelves
were similar to streets and canals,
only straighter, and that there
the shadow always reigned,
and there was never any wind; he consoled himself with silence
which was so similar to eternity that between these walls
the shadow always reigned,
and there was never any wind; he consoled himself with silence
which was so similar to eternity that between these walls
you might not to be afraid of time.
He knew that he would never get old, that the illnesses
would beat him before life could make him tired,
and that a life devoted to cataloging
was not so bad: and something (the library cards) was growing
but look at the years – they are contrary.
We have only those which are not inscribed
and they are becoming fewer
with every spring.
We need to look at life philosophically,
he used to say
reaching for the bread with butter wrapped in paper;
then shook crumbs from the table and
took out a little volume of Pascal.
Something childlike in his soul sighed:
ah, why I am not as clever as he is!
What a blessing it would be for a soul
to soar into the pure empyrean space.
and notice neither dust nor bread with butter.
But the voice fell silent and the eyes were reading.
When I am looking at the blindness and misery,
at the silent world, at the darkness, where a man
is abandoned, alone, lost
in this corner of the universe and doesn’t know
who sent him and why,
nor what will be after his death –
I am terrified as though while sleeping
I was blown to a desert island
and, upon waking,
how I got there
or how to get out.
And the library suddenly ceases to be
and the straight hallways cease to be straight
and the catalogs disintegrate
and the letters become
just hooks and squiggles
and in the midst of it Gnedich (but is he Gnedich?)
grasps with one hand for the desk
and with another for the chair
so he will not fall into the gulf
that from the left is tearing the floorboards,
and then from the right.
Beyond the walls, it feels like Petersburg,
or some other city
where people walk on the streets,
having not yet managed to die.
rises like a slow snake
over the Finnish swamp
and moves toward the capital, gaining strength.
It sings and, within its song there is
as much meaning as in the aria that
the public will listen to in the evening.
He cannot remain at the service.
He grips his fur coat and throws it over his shoulders,
his hands barely obeying him, as if
they belong to someone else;
he descends down the stairs,
steep as a cliff, -
the one who descended to the bottom is already not the same
as the one who began descending. A snowstorm
hits him in the face:
- This will teach you humility -
but does he need to be taught? He always knew
that he was a nonentity,
and this nothingness under the weight of the fur coat
moves his feet along the street,
and the blizzard again whips at his cheeks,
and, in tears,
he says: – I am still something!
Moisture and wind blind his eyes, but he feels
the warmth and salinity of his tears,
wanders up to his house, inserts the key
into the keyhole.
He shakes the snow off the heels, and his
poodle Malvina, ears waving, hastens to meet him.
In a hurry he starts a fire to warm him up,
but cannot get warm.
When I am looking at your blindness and misery,
at the silent world,
at you in darkness,
as though you were brought to a desert island
and were left there….
He gets up and walks around the room
walking, walking, walking, and trying to reassure himself that
he has a body,
that there is furniture around him and wallpaper on the walls,
his glance falls on the bookshelf
and his cheeks flush with shame:
for some reason he still keeps
the fruit of his youth’s madness –
the novel “Don Corrado de Guerrera;
or the Spirit of Revenge and Treachery of Spaniards”.
He wrote it through long lonely nights
when he was twenty
imagining this would win the hearts of his female readers.
He takes the book with two fingers and
cast it into the garbage.
He thought he was a writer,
but it turned out not to be so.
(We know who we are merely when we are loved,
we are those who are loved, and only that.
Otherwise there is nothing).
He falls into a chair and buries his face in his hands.
Malvina caresses his feet, a cat on a couch
is awakening, stretching paws
and showing the world his fair belly;
the room is getting warmer
and Gnedich is sleepy but he forces himself
to get up and go to the desk
where there is a copy of the “Iliad.”
He should light candles,
otherwise he will go blind
(already a Cyclops), and pour the fresh ink.
A sun then
a sun then touched
a sun touched the valley with rays
now the morning sun – which rays – merely struck the meadows….
climbed into the sky
from the ocean, where waters
roll softly, deeply flowing
they (who are they? Two armies or
dead Greeks with the living?)
they met each other
it was so difficult to recognize the dead
the living ones loaded them onto carts
washed off the blood, felt
tears roll down
but Priam forbid them
to cry out in grief
and in silence
they put their dead into the fire
and when it had eaten everything, they left
to go to the sacred city of Troy,
the Achaeans too put their dead in a fire
and when it had eaten everything – departed
to the empty ships.
He falls asleep and he dreams about the empty field.
And in the morning he cannot remember his dream.
He carefully dresses in front of the mirror
and goes to work
where he stays until evening, and in the apartment
Elena enters with a soft smile.
She cleans while he’s not there,
cleans the dust from them plaster heads in the study room,
from a clock, and from many-a ‘book.
Before there were less;
once there was only one sofa, and now there are three,
and the carpet on the floor, belike looks Persian,
The three-foot mirror need be cleaned again
so there are no smudges.
Master is reflected in it.
(She almost forgot his face;
before ’twas the porter as let her in,
and now a valet).
But she reckons there are more books,
more candles burned down.
There is a woman on the wall dressed like a savage-
maybe she is an outlandish queen.-
to pull out the paper basket from the desk,
and there she finds a small book in the trash
and another one.
What she can do? Carry them to the garbage?
What if he looks for ‘em?
But if she leaves ’em,
They ’ull say she worked badly.
So she hides the books at her bosom
If they ask her, she will bring ’em,
if not, she’ll throw ’em out later herself.
Elena shakes up a bed in his bedroom.
Do the gentries
have noble dreams?
Or do they dream the same filth as everyone else?
Coming back home at night, she hopes to
have some noble dream,
sumthin’ like princess from that pic’ter
or dances as that agoin’on
in them stone manors.
For at the river-sides are such low banks
and beggars a-sittin’ at the bridges,
danglin’ their stumps,
main thing to not look at them for long
so they won’t spook ye at night.
( 2012) Translated by Elena Dimov.
Translations of the excerpts of works by contemporary writers are used for educational purposes only.