Monday, June 30, 2014

Nikosha Gogol Sets Off to Visit Pushkin

Despite letters of recommendation he carried with him from the Ukraine, he had no luck finding a job in St. Petersburg. Most notable among those recommending him was his relative, the grandee Troshchinksy, but his influence was considerably reduced when he died in February, 1829, just at the wrong time. Nikosha’s long-suffering but always doting mother, Marya Ivanovna, kept scraping up money to send on to him, while he eked out a humble existence as best he could. Then one day, only three or four months after his arrival in St. Petersburg, he set off to pay a visit on his idol, the most famous poet in the country, Aleksandr Pushkin, who lived in those days right beside the Moika Canal. Although we have no way of being sure, he probably took along with him the manuscript of a narrative poem that he had written back at the Nezhin school. Here, roughly, is how this visit went.
Wrapping his too-thin winter coat tightly around his person, his long nose leading the way, young Nikosha set out resolutely to meet his idol, somehow convinced in his own mind that the great man would receive and welcome a young nobody from nowhere. Short of stature, unprepossessing, with long blonde hair hanging down over both temples, he walked with that strange herky-jerky gait, composing literary passages in his mind.
Yes, the tall man I just passed, he has enormous moustaches dyed white by the winter frost, or powdered, perhaps, by that relentless dyer of mustaches and heads, He who, ever unbidden, arrives in due time in the world of us all, to sprinkle perforce all earthly denizens with the dying white of agedness. How’s that? Is it all right? No. It will take some work, that passage. I’ll rewrite it at my desk tonight.
The herky-jerky gait became ever more hesitant as the unprepossessing figure approached the Moika, where Pushkin’s apartment was located. Various voices were arguing among themselves now in his head.
--What if he doesn’t want to see me, Pyotr Ivanovich?
--He’ll want to see you, Pyotr Ivanovich. A great pee-eet пиит (poet) will be overjoyed to meet a man with the potential to be another great пиит.
--You think so?
--I know so. As sure as I know that he’s a great пиит.
--All I know is one thing, Pyotr Ivanovich: я не трус, но я боюсь (I’m no coward, but I’m afraid).
--It was me that said that first, Pyotr Ivanovich. About being not a coward who is afraid.
--No, it was me that said that first, Pyotr Ivanovich.
--No, me… There’s the building, right up ahead, Pyotr Ivanovich.
--So it is. Tell you what, Pyotr Ivanovich. See that confectionary shop over there? Chances are we could get a little snort on those premises. What say we drop in?
--What say we do, Pyotr Ivanovich.
So they did. They went through the doors of the shop, the two Pyotr Ivanoviches, they sat down at a small table and each ordered himself a shot of liqueur. They raised high the ryumochki (dram glasses), clinked them the one against the other, proposed a toast (“to our literary future”) and downed the liquid in one gulp. Then they got up to go.
--Maybe, Pyotr Ivanovich, it would do us no harm to have just one more snort.
--You’re right, Pyotr Ivanovich; I’ll buy that.
Once again they raised high the ryumochki, clinked them the one against the other, proposed a toast (“to us and our literary future”) and downed the liquid in one gulp. Then they got up again to go.
--Could be (said Pyotr Ivanovich to Pyotr Ivanovich, taking him by the arm) one more snort would not be amiss.
--You’re right, Pyotr Ivanovich.
Once again they etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera, etc. They threw a ruble coin on the table, took each other by the arm, and, staggering, made their way out of the confectionary shop and back out onto the street. Holding each other up, the one supporting the other, the two Pyotr Ivanoviches reached the imposing door of that imposing apartment in that imposing building on the Moika. At this point they shrunk back out of their double selves and became one person again: a small, humble person in a threadbare coat (шинель), with a bald spot beneath his shapka (winter hat). That small humble person raised a shaking index finger and rang the doorbell. Then, shivering in the cold, he waited.
Finally the door swung open and there before him stood a huge giant of a lackey dressed in gold-brocaded livery. The lackey looked down his nose at the nothing of a nobody standing before him, then sniffed out the most supercilious of questions that could ever be asked within the limits of one word: Da?
--Tell me, please (said the nothing of a nobody, in a voice so faint as to be almost a squeak instead of a voice), is he, that is, I mean like, is the I mean to say, like, master, at home?
--Indeed at home (bellowed out his answer the lackey in the livery, whose name was, incidentally, Vaska Golopupenko). At home. But presently taking his rest.
--He is, that is to say, I mean, resting, like sleeping? Then he must have been working all night (blurted out the nobody of a nothing).
--Working? Ha! (bellowed once more the giant Vaska Golopupenko). Playing cards.

End of scene, describing the ignominious first attempt of not quite twenty-year-old Nikosha Gogol to make the acquaintance of the greatest poet in the history of Russian literature. But the most amazing thing is not that this nobody of a nothing even dared make such a bold move shortly after his arrival in the capital. The most amazing thing of all is that only a couple of years later this nonentity had become more than an entity, had made the acquaintance of the critic Pletnyov, of the great poet and tutor to the tsarevich, Zhukovsky, and then yes, of Pushkin too. Only two years later Nikosha Gogol-Yanovsky was already Nikolai Gogol! How could he have pulled this off? Did the Lord God really have his back?

Bunin's Head Looks Askance at Life

This is a detail of the head, from the Ivan Bunin monument in Yelets, Russia, unveiled in 1995. The sculptor is Yury Grishko. In the years of his emigration Bunin once visualized such statues in his honor:

"In some city square, where, early on a summer evening, slender-legged working-class children will chase each other around that statue with idiotic shrieks, while it stands there eternally mute and unmoving" (cited in Night of Denial, p. 613).

Little did he know what ignominy is in store for the man whose image is made into a monument. The last time I was in Yelets I noticed that vandals had written unseemly things all over Bunin's head, and one leg looked to have been broken off, then reattached. You wonder how far and wide the local police had to search, before they found that plundered leg. Then again there is the monumental problem of the pigeons.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Despite his undistinguished beginnings, much that was characteristic of the later Gogol was already there in the boy. His love of clothing, for example. Later on, Gogol became practically the only male writer in Russian literature who had a fervent interest in women’s fashions. As a boy in Nezhin he loved to walk about, flipping open the folds of his coat, showing off the red checkered pattern on the lining. He dreamed some day of buying a blue frock coat with metallic buttons. Buttons were to play a role in much of his fiction. Why? One reason is for the very flippant sound of the word in Russian: “POO-guh-vitsa.” Gogol’s fiction is, above all, orchestrated for sounds and rhythms. The voice of the narration has ultimate importance. The voice is all.

            Inspired by the romantic literature that he read as a schoolboy, Gogol was already developing that rhythmic prose with artistic effects in the letters he wrote home. Here is part of one of those letters: “My thoughts come flowing out into my letter, and, giddy with joy, with knowing there is someone to talk with, driving away all woe, they take their seats (my thoughts), the whole chaotic mob of them, in the shape of letters seating themselves on the paper.”

The Thing They Always and Ever Refuse to Believe

It was in February, 1852. Ivan Turgenev was attending a meeting of a charitable society in St. Petersburg. It was the usual dreary business. Not much had to be accomplished but no one could cut through the blather and get things wrapped up. Everyone in attendance deemed it imperative that he have his say. Everyone talked. On and on, to no end.
Then Turgenev noticed that I.I. Panaev, socialite, journalist, novelist of the Belinsky circle, was circulating about the room, stepping gingerly on his tiptoes, his face lit up in a strange glow of elation. With a convulsive sort of haste Panaev skipped from one person to the next, bent low to whisper something in each ear he came to. Upon which the face of the owner of the ear lit up in amazement and then fell. Taking great satisfaction, even joy, in the news that he was delivering into those ears, Panaev went tiptoeing on.
When he reached Turgenev, he bent toward the proferred ear and said: “Guess what just happened? Gogol has died in Moscow. That’s right, that’s right. Died. He burned all his papers, he took to his bed, and then he croaked.”

Nobody could believe the news. Died. They all had heard the stories about Gogol. How he was blocked and would write no more. How he still was working on the next volume of Dead Souls but could never seem to finish it. How he was deranged in the head, had thought of going into a monastery and becoming a monk. And much much more. How, for example, he had gone to Jerusalem, to pray at the tomb of the Savior, but had returned disillusioned. How he had left instructions that after his death he was not to be buried immediately, for fear of being buried alive. Much more. But still, death, somehow, despite the deaths that take place on a daily basis, all over the world, people still can’t believe it when they hear it. Death? No. For after all, the thing that people marvel at most of all on earth, the thing they always and ever refuse to believe, is death. And Gogol? He was not even ill, except in his own hypochondriac mind. Not Gogol, no, not the pride of Russian literature. He was only forty-two years old.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A.A. Foethe (Fet), Russian Poet, 1820-1892

Some of his best poems don't use any verbs. Like this one:

Чудная картина,
Как ты мне родна:
Белая равнина,
Полная луна,

Свет небес высоких,
И блестящий снег,
И саней далеких
Одинокий бег.

Young Fet once asked the historian and publicist Pogodin to read his poems and tell him what he thought. This was in late 1839 or early 1840, when Nikolai Gogol was living at Pogodin's house in Moscow, as freeloading boarder. Fet would have been only about twenty years old.

Pogodin said, "Ja vashu tetradku, pochtennejshij, peredam Gogolju. On v etom sluchae luchshij sud'ja (I'll pass your notebook, my most esteemed dear fellow, on to Gogol. In this case he's a better judge than me.)"

Just imagine the trepidation on the part of Fet, while he waited for the verdict from the man who at that time was the most famous writer in Russia.

And just imagine the joy, the untold bliss when the verdict  came back: "Gogol skazal, eto--nesomnennoe darovanie (Gogol said that this poet is indubitably talented)."

Saturday, June 14, 2014




 link to amazon Night of Denial




Most Helpful Customer Reviews

By Paul E. Richardson VINE VOICE on October 17, 2008
Format: Paperback

Some months ago, I praised Graham Hettlinger's superb translations of Bunin (The Elagin Affair and Other Stories). This new collection, translated by Robert Bowie, is equally astonishing. And a much broader collection of the Nobel laureate's work to boot. As if that were not enough, there are nearly 200 pages at the end of the volume with copious notes on the stories, a biographical afterword by Bowie, and a fun chapter, "On Translating Bunin." (Reviewed in Russian Life)
By Dale W. Boyer on May 6, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

I had never heard of Bunin before I stumbled across this book, but Bunin is a major find - kind of a bridge between Chekhov and Nabokov (whom he obviously influenced), but with a sensibility all his own. The Consecration of Love is one of the best evocations of first love's irrational, insatiable, jealous nature I've ever come across. It's written in the kind of ornate, painterly language that will drive some crazy, but will make other fellow writers jealous. There are a number of gems here, including Drydale and The Gentleman from San Francisco. But it is in The Consecration of Love that Bunin and his translator reach their artistic peak. Robert Bowie's translations are impeccable: as careful and gorgeous as Dmitri Nabokov's of his father Vladimir's work. That is, they are some of the finest things ever written in the English language.

Nature is Beautiful, not so Human Nature
By Claudia Etheridge on April 29, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

Talented both in poetry and prose, Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) - author of "Night of Denial" - was the first Russian to be awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.
Described as an "archaist innovator" (by scholar Oleg Mikhaylov), Bunin carried on the classical Russian traditions, with a language - sometimes referred to as the "Bunin brocade" - that is very rich in verbal expression. His literary style forms a link between the realistic approach of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), and the modern form of Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977).
Along with the autobiographical novel "The Life of Arseniev", Bunin is best known for his short stories, 40 of which - written largely between 1900 and 1945 - are collected in "Night of Denial". The stories vary in length from two to over seventy pages, the longer ones - for example, Drydale, The Gentleman from San Francisco and The Consecration of Love - being comparable to actual independent novels. The stories are all dated, but not presented in accurate chronological order. The title - "Night of Denial" - is also the title of the last short story.
In addition to the stories, also included at the end of the book are: Notes, providing interesting details and other information on the stories themselves; an extended Afterword (sic), including abundant data on the author and his work; a section On Translating Bunin and the Acknowledgements, all by the translator Robert Bowie.
Very attractive, in the stories, and usually bright, are the descriptions of nature, which extend from the fine details of a small flower to the vast spectacular extensions of the Russian landscape.



Friday, June 13, 2014

Epigraphs to My Book in Progress on Gogol

If mere creative force is to be the standard of valuation, Gogol is the greatest of Russian writers. In this respect he need hardly fear comparison with Shakespeare, and can boldly stand by the side of Rabelais. Neither Pushkin nor Tolstoy possessed anything like that volcano of imaginative creativeness.
                                                                                                                            …D.S. Mirsky

Nobody can ever imagine what Gogol was really like. From beginning to end everything about him is incomprehensible. The individual features are blurred, inchoate—they refuse to add up to anything.
                                                                                                 … Anna Akhmatova

What are you like? As a person you are secretive, egotistical, arrogant, and mistrustful, a man who sacrifices everything for fame. As a friend what are you like? But then, do you really have any friends?
                                                                                        Pletnyov letter to Gogol, Oct. 27, 1844

Your nose? No, my dear sir, you are mistaken. I’m not your nose; what I am is just me.

                                                                                                  … Gogol, “The Nose”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Дар напрасный, дар случайный,
Жизнь, зачем ты мне дана?
Иль зачем судьбою тайной
Ты на казнь осуждена?

Кто меня враждебной властью
Из ничтожества воззвал,
Душу мне наполнил страстью
Ум сомненьем взволновал?

Цели нет передо мною:
Сердце пусто, празден ум,
И томит меня тоскою
Однозвучный жизни шум.

This week is Pushkin's birthday. The above poem is one of my favorites. Of course, Pushkin is essentially untranslatable, but here is the rough sense of the original:

Useless gift, this chance gift called life--why have you been given to me? And then why did some mysterious fate sentence you to death? What inimical force summoned me forth out of nothingness, filled up my soul with passions, disturbed my mind with doubt? I see no goal ahead of me, I'm empty-hearted, idle-minded, and the monotone hum of life runs grieving through my soul.

Updike, Bunin, Nabokov

Interesting fact:

John Updike, who considered Nabokov the greatest American writer of his time, had never read Ivan Bunin until I sent him my book of Bunin translations in 2006 (see posts of Updike's note to me). Immediately he recognized in Bunin's "Gentleman from San Francisco" the stylistic imprint of Vladimir Nabokov.

Except that this story was published when Nabokov was sixteen years old. The influence of Bunin on Nabokov, especially in the early, Russian-language works, is unmistakable. Nabokov himself would later take pains to distance himself from Bunin, even disparaging him at times. But the influence is there.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Updike on Bunin's Night of Denial

John Updike's postcard, sent to me in response to my Bunin book, a copy of which I mailed to him in 2006.

The "jaunty photo" refers to a photograph of myself, sitting in the lap of the Ivan Bunin statue in Yelets, Russia, 1998.

There's an eerie kind of foreshadowing here when Updike mentions having caught cold on a trip. When he and his wife returned home in late September, 2008, from a trip to Russia and the Baltic, almost exactly two years after this postcard was written, he was nursing "a cold that wouldn't let go." Then he discovered that he had pneumonia. Then, at the end of November, came the devastating diagnosis: stage-four metastatic lung cancer. See Adam Begley's biography of John Updike, p. 479-80.

I was corresponding with John Updike at the time that my book of Ivan Bunin's translations was published: Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial, Stories and Novellas (translated, with annotations and an afterword, by R. Bowie): Northwestern University Press, 2006.

Updike was generous in his praise. Above is the front side of his postcard. See the previous blog posting for the message.