Russian Renaissance

Fresh translations of lesser-known Russian literature are opening up new horizons

This is an exciting time for new translations of Russian literature. The last year has seen a new version of Babel’s Red Cavalry and two new translations of Anna Karenina. This year Pevear and Volokhonsky will produce their tenth translation of Dostoyevsky. Perhaps the most intriguing of all have been Robert Chandler’s translations of Vasily Grossman (Life and Fate, The Road) and John Glad’s translation of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. These have added two new names to the canon of great modern writers.

Now we have the new Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (£12.99). What is a poetry anthology for? Is it to reflect the established canon, with a tweak here or there? Or is its job to shift our sense of the whole literary landscape?

This is what Robert Chandler and his fellow-editors have boldly done. At first glance the selection seems familiar enough. Nearly all the poets from Nabokov’s Verses and Versions or Peter Washington’s Everyman anthology are here. There are, however, a number of striking features in this new anthology. First, the sheer number of poets. Nabokov’s anthology had 18. There are 70 here. More importantly, there is the massive presence of 20th-century Russian poetry, and, in particular, post-war poetry.

Of course, Pushkin is well represented, as are the Silver Age poets (Blok, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva). But as you read on, the landscape becomes stranger and more unfamiliar, especially as you come to the late 20th century:  almost 30 poets, most of them unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. New names, a new poetic world. And, another surprise, little Brodsky (only five poems over four pages) and almost no Yevtushenko (just two pages).

At the heart of the post-war section is Shalamov. He spent almost 20 years in Stalin’s labour camps. Solzhenitsyn wrote that after first reading Shalamov’s poems in samizdat in 1956, he “trembled, as if from meeting a brother” and invited him to collaborate on The Gulag Archipelago. Robert Chandler’s translations of Shalamov’s poems have introduced us to a great poet.

The editors of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry have used this anthology to open up exciting new horizons. Russian literature, after Stalin, suddenly looks very different. Surely, that is what anthologies are for. 

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