January 25, 2012 | by Barry Yourgrau
A., my girlfriend, is originally from Moscow. Her mother lives around the corner from us in Queens and throws dinner parties. It’s mainly an older, cultured ex-Soviet crowd. Lots of vodka, lots of overeating zakuski (appetizers to accompany vodka)—hours of nostalgic guffawing (Soviet jokes) and choral crooning (dissident songs and Stalinist patriotic rousers, with equal pleasure). Not speaking the lingo, I grin a lot—a genial, inebriated, slightly patronized potted plant.
The air of these evenings is thick with Russian irony and cultural chauvinism. Pushkin is beyond all criticism. “How dare you even pronounce his name with your filthy mouth,” A. will flare up, not altogether faking her indignance.
Or an old photographer-pal of Brodsky’s from Leningrad (inevitably old pals of Brodsky’s are present) will assert that Russian translations of Hemingway far surpass the originals.
This latter bit of flag-waving causes me to reflect that much of the literature that deeply influenced me as a writer I read in English translation. Foremost stands Isaac Babel, whose compressed, lyric violence overwhelmed me in my twenties. Then there was Bulgakov; even P—n’s fate-haunted tales. Later, in my early days with A., while she was away and I mooched disconsolately in her apartment, I read in translation Shalamov’s horrifying, degraded, flickering Kolyma Tales about his frozen years in the Siberian Gulag. I kept dropping the book and pacing away, moaning and clutching my head at the savagery, the unspeakable pathos. Then there were Cendrars and Simenon, Borges and César Aira (another alchemical Argentinean, rendered brilliantly by Chris Andrews) .
But, however good the English versions, there’s always in these books a slight straining—a hovering sense of idioms being just off. Read More »
May 12, 2011 | by Barry Yourgrau
This is the second installment of Yourgrau’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
11:00 A.M. To the Privoz, Odessa’s signature sprawling bazaar market, alas now overly spruced up. Anya and her mom want to talk to the babushkas. Most of the stalls seem run by women—huge-girthed, older, sharp of tongue (famously), sporting flowery headscarves and preposterously frilly French-maid aprons even while sawing lamb carcasses. The scene suggests a chaotic operetta with edible props. I sample five homemade Bessarabian wines from plastic water bottles, then a scrumptious brownish baked yogurt.
One massive dame, a vast beauty like some folkloric monument to Ceres, asks if I’m Anya’s dad. When told I’m her boyfriend she wisecracks that I must be very rich to be with someone so young and pretty. Anya and her mom guffaw at this notion (me and wealth). Anya compliments the lady on her looks, and the woman sighs, Nyet, she’s too fond of moonshine. With a few friends, she says, she can put away four liters. (That’s a gallon and we’re not talking pinot grigio.) Anya gasps in amazement.
7:00 P.M. At the opera: a great gilded proscenium echoed by ranks of smaller gilded prosceniums, the boxes and balconies. Tchaikovsky's Iolanthe is the offering. The male voices are fine, but the lead soprano playing the blind princess has a vocal wobble of seismic intensity. Jabotinsky’s 1935 novel of Odessa, The Five—only recently translated into English and supposedly an excellent portrait of the city a century ago—opens with a scene here. Jabotinsky: “The beginning of my Zionist activity is connected with two influences. Italian opera and the idea of self-defense.” I think of Walter Benjamin’s line about fascism as the aesthetization of politics.
May 11, 2011 | by Barry Yourgrau
7:15 A.M. Istanbul. A bleary departure from the Pera Palace Hotel after three nights of its punctiliously restored Orient Express–era fineries. We own a sixth-floor walk-up nearby in Cihangir (an arty neighborhood dear to Orhan Pamuk), but my girlfriend Anya decided to rent it out. So we’ve stayed in a “Greta Garbo” suite here, with photos of GG on the wall and a view not of the Golden Horn but of a minor soccer stadium named for Tayyip Erdogan, the moderate Islamist prime minister, a former semipro football player from the poor neighborhood close by. “Footballer” on a politician’s CV is not to be slighted in soccer-mad Turkey. Hakan Sükür, the country’s iconic player, now retired, will run on Ergodan’s party ticket in the June elections.
Last night, döner and leg of lamb for au revoir dinner at Beyti, a sprawling palace of meat. Anya recounted dining beside Ralph Fiennes the night before. The ex–investment banker now at our table ("We like you anyway," I told him, grinning hostilely) told a cute story about Ralph’s cousin Ranulph Fiennes, the preposterously adventurous explorer. Some financial analysts were inspecting a Tesco supermarket in London, and in the main subzero storage freezer they came across a tent. Ranulph Feinnes was staying in it, prepping for the Antarctic. “Any pictures of Garbo?” I asked, to mostly puzzlement.
Pamuk’s name came up, with the inevitable Istanbul confidence-sharing about how admirable a writer he is, but such a tedious read.