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!

He thought about the fact that each of those houses had its dead. And everyone who had lived in those old houses fifty years ago, they had all died. Some of the dead he still remembered.

“When a person dies, they should burn down the house, too,” Peredonov thought wistfully, “it’s just too frightening.”

The Petty Demon, Fyodor Sologub

Almost halfway through, I’m still not sure what to make of Sologub’s masterpiece. There are clear affinities with Dostoevsky’s Demons, which I just finished earlier this month—for good and for ill. The characterization in the first half has been Dostoevskian (that’s the “for ill”), certainly. (Edit: the second half was amazing, though still without much movement of characters not named Sasha or Lyudmila, and put this in the pantheon of my absolute favorite books!)

This little moment of Peredonov’s captures something interesting and true about human experience, however. We can’t shake the ghosts around us, especially if we continue to inhabit the same physical ground where we encountered them in life.

Original text:

Он думал, что у каждого здесь дома есть свои покойники. И все, кто жил в этих старых домах лет пятьдесят тому назад, все умерли. Некоторых покойников еще он помнил.

“Человек умрет, так и дом бы сжечь, — тоскливо думал Передонов, — а то страшно очень”.

«Мелкий бес», Ф. Сологуб

In sentimental retrospect, the Russian reader of the past seems to me to be as much of a model for readers as Russian writers were models for writers in other tongues. He would start on his charmed career at a most tender age and lose his heart to Tolstoy or Chekhov when still in the nursery and nurse would try to take away Anna Karenin and would say: Oh, come, let me tell it to you in my own words (Day-ka, ya tebe rasskazhu svoimi slovami [slovo-word]). That is how the good reader learned to beware of translators of condensed masterpieces, of idiotic movies about the brothers Karenins, and of all other ways of toadying to the lazy and of quartering the great.

And to sum up, I would like to stress once more, Let us not look for the soul of Russia in the Russian novel: let us look for the individual genius. Look at the masterpiece, and not at the frame–and not at the faces of other people looking at the frame.

“Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers,” Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov

I find more to disagree with in Nabokov’s critical work than to agree with, and his tone is often petulant verging on offensive. I like him only as a novelist, almost never as a critic or translator. But when he’s right, he’s right.

I had already stopped translating, and we sat there silently, just watching the screen. I had a moment where it felt like an ordinary evening, like many we’d had in our life together, and we were just watching a trashy end-of-the-world movie with a slow-moving plot.

Vongozero, Jana Wagner

This little moment from Jana Wagner’s (so far excellent) first novel brought me back to September 11, 2001, in Krasnodar. I was an undergrad studying at Kuban State for a semester. I recall a bunch of us Americans piling into our professor’s apartment near KubSU, watching the horrifying events unfold on Russian state television.

Only a couple of us had good enough Russian to understand the quick speech of TV news, so we took turns translating for the others. It had exactly the surreal, cinematic quality that Wagner’s protagonist describes.

I highlighted the quote because it’s relatively uncommon for characters in these end-of-the-world novels and films to show any awareness that their situation recalls those of countless other zombie, natural disaster, and similar stories. I appreciated Anya’s moment of unreality in the midst of the epidemic.

Original text:

Я уже ничего не переводила, мы сидели молча и просто смотрели на экран, и на какое-то мгновение мне вдруг показалось, что это обычный вечер, каких уже было много в нашей жизни, и мы просто смотрим нудноватый фильм о конце света, в котором немного затянулась завязка сюжета.

«Вонгозеро», Яна Вагнер

видавший виды – worn, seasoned, world-wise

No etymology, really, since it’s a stock phrase rather than a word. But when I ran across it, referring to a coat worn by one of the characters in Jana Wagner’s post-apocalyptic debut novel, I immediately liked it. As if the coat were saying, “Hey bub, I’ve seen things.”

(Found: «Вонгозеро», Яна Вагнер.)

Feeling something familiar in the situation and trying to get to the bottom of it, he remembered, completely inappropriately but with stunning clarity, the face of a young prostitute in black stockings, her shoulders bare, standing illuminated in a doorway off a dark alleyway in a nameless city. And ridiculous as it seemed, he imagined that this woman was her, that she had shown up now, wearing a decent dress, having lost her looks a little, as if she had washed off her rouge, but having become more approachable in the process. This was his first impression when he saw her, when he realized with surprise that he was talking to her. And he felt a little sad that she was not as pretty as she could have been, not as pretty as the strange signs scattered in his past suggested she could be.

The Luzhin Defense, Vladimir Nabokov

For context, this is a description of Luzhin meeting his future wife for the first time–and his first thought is of a prostitute!

Original text:

Стараясь уяснить себе это впечатление чего-то очень знакомого, он совершенно некстати, но с потрясающей ясностью вспомнил лицо молоденькой проститутки с голыми плечами, в черных чулках, стоявшей в освещенной пройме двери, в темном переулке, в безымянном городе. И нелепым образом ему показалось, что вот это – она, что вот, она явилась теперь, надев приличное платье, слегка подурнев, словно она смыла какие-то обольстительные румяна, но через это стала более доступной. Таково было первое впечатление, когда он увидел ее, когда заметил с удивлением, что с ней говорит. И ему было немного досадно, что она не совсем так хороша, как могла быть, как мерещилась по странным признакам, рассеянным в его прошлом.

«Защита Лужина», Владимир Набоков

безалаберный – disorderly, disorganized

безалаберный безала́берный также безала́борный (Преобр.). Произведено от ала́бор “порядок”, которое до сих пор объяснялось неудовлетворительно: от лат. elaborāre (см. ала́бор), нем. albern (Горяев; против. см. Ягич, AfslPh 15, 603), д.-в.-н. alwâri (Маценауэр, LF 7, 7) и тюрк. alp är (Гордлевский, ОЛЯ 6, 326); см. об этом ниже, на олберы. Этимологический словарь русского языка. — М.: Прогресс М. Р. Фасмер 1964—1973
(Found: «Защита Лужина», Владимир Набоков.)

I have a BA in Russian from a tiny college in the Midwest. Somehow that led to a career in business (not in or concerning the FSU).

I once took a crack at translating Sokolov’s School for Morons, but I’m not a literary translator (yet). I wrote a thesis on computational linguistics and know what a clitic is (it’s not as dirty as it sounds), but I’m definitely not a linguist. I’m an amateur in the worst sense of the word, but aspire to be one in the better sense.

I don’t have serious ambitions for this blog but hope you find some good words here!