All of them were obedient little boys from good families, only Kasymov was capable of doing what was suggested by the close proximity of glass and brick, not thinking of the consequences for even a second. And later, after years had gone by, he could with ease bring to life whatever was in the air, about which others merely talked, or even simply thought.

Translation from a Literal Paraphrase, Evgenij Chizhov

It brings me pure, unadulterated joy when an author can jumpstart a characterization with a couple of sentences that immediately lock a character into my imagination. Tolstoy is a great master of this–just a few phrases can snap a character into such sharp focus that you realize you know exactly who they are. Even when such characters are minor and fade soon after their debut on the page, it enriches my reading to feel that jolt of connection.

Now that the Russian Booker Prize winner has been announced, I’m dipping back into more contemporary literature. I was not able to get into the winner, Vladimir Sharov’s Return to Egypt, nor could I really enjoy Sharov’s earlier book, Before and During. I am, however, reading Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Paraphrase (Перевод с подстрочника), which did not make the Booker shortlist but was on the Yasnaya Polyana shortlist, and am loving it–in large part because the characters are clear and sharp very early on.

This two-sentence bit of characterization is a great example. One of the novel’s main characters (I assume from the first few chapters) has snuck into a construction site with the protagonist and other friends when the two were children. They see huge panes of glass waiting to be installed, sitting right next to a pile of bricks. The obvious suggests itself to all the boys, but it is Kasymov, who will become PR man for a Central Asian dictator, who sets things in motion.

Original text:

Все они были послушными мальчиками из приличных семей, один Касымов, ни секунды не размышляя о последствиях, способен был сделать то, что напрашивалось из соседства стелка и кирпича. И позже, спустя годы, он с лёгкостью воплощал то, что носилось в воздухе, о чём другие лишь говорили или даже только думали.

«Перевод с подсточника», Евгений Чижов

It is worth noting, furthermore, that such accuracy [of feeling] and elegance [of proposal in literary criticism] belong only to the very few. The entire notion of research in modern letters is vitiated by the evidently false postulate that tens of thousands of young men and women will have anything new and just to say about Shakespeare or Keats or Flaubert.

Real Presences, George Steiner

It’s difficult to know what to make of a (masterful) literary critic aiming his lance at literary criticism as an enterprise. It certainly requires a great deal of self-confidence!

Steiner’s thought experiment in this book, of a world without secondary criticism, where all criticism of the arts is in some sense immanent, embedded, is fascinating, though. The first chapter does point at the kinds of secondary criticism that might meet with approval by the author’s artistic values, however–works in which the critic does not pretend to any kind of objectivity and in which he or she becomes implicated in some deeper, artistic way for the success of the critical work.

Agree or no, it is a principled attack on secondary criticism, unlike, say, Nabokov’s penchant for trashing literary translators (who are not named Nabokov) without setting up real, attainable criteria by which to condemn their work. (“This is the first English translation of Lermontov’s novel. The book has been paraphrased into English several times, but never translated before.”)

Happily, I find Steiner generally stands up to Steiner’s own rigorous standards for criticism!