#RusTRANS – Packaging Bulat Khanov’s Ire

A quick scan of the books stuffed into the various shelves around my home reveals that three well-known authors crop up most frequently: American master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe, atmospheric English author Daphne du Maurier (Cornwall is my home, after all), and last, but certainly not least, Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky. A few decades ago, as a self-absorbed undergraduate student of Russian, the appeal of the latter’s works, with titles like Crime and Punishment, The Devils, The House of the Dead and Notes from Underground, seemed immediately obvious. I devoured almost all of them over one summer break in anticipation of studying a Dostoevsky module that autumn, so you can imagine my dismay when a last-minute staffing change meant the name of the module was switched to Leo Tolstoy two weeks before term started!

I’ve never regretted it, though, and, given my taste for what I’d call ‘psycho-lit’, it was fairly inevitable that, when the opportunity to be part of the RusTRANS project arose, I chose something in a similar vein. Bulat Khanov’s Ire, with its existential depiction of troubled, dissatisfied academic Gleb Veretinsky, leapt out at me. What was there not to like about a contemporary novel entitled Gnev (which simply translates as Anger or Rage)? (Though I have chosen to call it Ire to capture better the lingering, simmering condition exhibited by the book’s protagonist.)

Of course, what I like doesn’t necessarily translate into what a prospective Anglophone publisher is looking for. At the outset, Khanov’s Russian publishers Eksmo acknowledged to me that, for now, Russian readers still prefer post-modernism to realism in their novels, but I am not sure the same necessarily applies to the Anglophone market. I have therefore sought to frame and package my pitches to publishers in ways designed to tap into a number of prevailing cultural narratives: mental health, toxic masculinity, violence inflicted by men against women, and the prevalence of pornography in mainstream society. To some degree, Khanov’s work shines light on all these issues, and, I believe, in doing so he adds an important, and relatively young (the author has just turned 30), male voice to the debate.

The porn addiction seems to be an integral part of his developing psychosis, his impatience with his wife Lida and his exasperation with the world around him. He is used to quick fixes, and there aren’t any.

Discussions in the UK media around toxic masculinity are sometimes notable for the glaring absence of contributions from, well, toxic males, to explain their own understanding of their behaviour. I listened to one, rather unenlightening radio debate about the free availability of pornography in the internet age, for example, in which balance was sought by pitting female sex workers against feminists, while male consumers of the product were reduced to mere context, a silent voice – perhaps too ashamed to participate, perhaps unwilling to be judged. Khanov’s portrayal of Gleb Veretinsky offers a bold, unflinching exposé of one such heterosexual male: an amusingly sardonic, high-minded academic on the one hand, and a porn-addicted, (mostly) horrible husband on the other. As Khanov states simply in Chapter 6, ‘Gleb Veretinsky was a dopamine addict, used to deriving satisfaction in the simplest of ways.’ The porn addiction seems to be an integral part of his developing psychosis, his impatience with his wife Lida and his exasperation with the world around him. He is used to quick fixes, and there aren’t any. In fact, as suggested to me recently by one of the RusTrans team, Veretinsky could be perceived as a modern-day version of Dostoevsky’s existentially unhappy Underground Man and indeed, my 1972 Penguin Classics edition of the English version of that story (translated by Jessie Coulson) opens with the words: ‘I am a sick man…I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.’ Gleb Veretinsky in a nutshell, perhaps.

…the novel is awash with striking cultural references, from frequent quotes by early 20th century Symbolist poets to discussions about contemporary fiction, the benefits of tea drinking and references to rock bands like Oasis, Razorlight and Muse.

Maybe it is the former journalist in me that feels the need to make claims about the novel’s relevance to what’s topical. There is plenty to enjoy besides about Ire: the way the reader is drawn down through the streets of the beautiful city of Kazan and its highly regarded university where ‘trees that had observed meetings and farewells, eavesdropped on thousands of private conversations’ greet Gleb ‘with the whisper of rustling leaves’; the way snippets of local life intersperse with amusingly caustic portraits of pretentious academics, lazy students, painters, even amateur whisky connoisseurs; the way the protagonist bemoans the commodification and bureaucracy of higher education, as well as his irksome relationships with his parents, his in-laws and his ex-girlfriend (who left him for a female lover). Some of the novel’s most engaging passages are Gleb’s periodic pep talks with his straight-talking best friend Slava and the novel is awash with striking cultural references, from frequent quotes by early 20th century Symbolist poets to discussions about contemporary fiction, the benefits of tea drinking and references to rock bands like Oasis, Razorlight and Muse.

And all the while, the protagonist’s ire is bubbling away underneath.

I realise some of the subject matter, and my framing of the novel, will not necessarily sit well with some mainstream publishers. But I’m not sure, either, that I accept the idea that the novel and the issues it invokes are especially ‘fringe’ or ‘edgy’. To me, Ire is a fascinating portrayal of straightforward mental breakdown which confronts an honest truth about the reality of male existence in contemporary society. My attempts to find the right Anglophone home for it are ongoing and I am extremely thankful for the continuing support provided by the RusTRANS project team. I hope you enjoy the extract provided.

Read an extract from my translation of Ire here.

Please note, this blog post first appeared on the RusTRANS website on July 23, 2021.

The Euros, Psycho and Russian body parts

The last time England faced Germany at Wembley in the European Championship, I was sat in the press box as a journalist for United Press International, watching in barely suppressed agony as Gareth Southgate fluffed his penalty to seal England’s exit from the Euro 96 semifinals. Twenty-five years later, I’m hoping for Southgate’s sake it doesn’t go to spotkicks!

While I felt for the future England manager at the time, I had a suspicion that as a defensive midfielder he’d miss, just as Stuart Pearce (aka ‘Psycho’) had in the 1990 World Cup semis in Italy against the same opponents. England had their chances to win both games, failed to take them and then suffered the consequences at the hands of the apparently nerveless Germans.

Thunder thighs Pearce was one of the heroes of my early adulthood (I’m a Nottingham Forest fan) and he twice made amends for 1990 by ramming home his own spotkick in the Euro 96 showdown with the Germans, just as he had done in the quarter-finals against Spain when his demented, contorted response to exorcising the ghosts of Turin provided one of the most memorable sights of the last 25 years in English sport.

Leading a Forest side that enjoyed considerable success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Psycho’s crunching tackles and lacerating free kicks provided a happy backdrop to my early days studying Russian as an undergraduate. And, as can be seen, I found a great use for his characteristic pose before the start of each game (pictured). I was having trouble remembering the Russian words for all the different parts of the body, so pinned this annotated portrait to my bedroom wall, much to the amusement of my housemates.

The image, which I believe was from The Sunday Times, is as memorable for the startling caption as anything else. It reads: ‘Stuart Pearce: a picture of an aroused Englishman determined to sort things out once and for all.’

England could probably do with a few of those on the pitch on Tuesday.

#RusTRANS – The peril of the patronymic

Oh Russian names…to this native English speaker, one of the biggest barriers of entry to classic works of Russian literature. Sat here at my desk, the closest book to me is Penguin Classics’ 2005 collection of Gogol’s short stories Diary Of A Madman And Selected Stories (translated by Ronald Wilks). If I open it, the first two stories listed are entitled Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka And His Aunt and How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich. (The aunt, it turns out, is called Vasilisa Kashporovna Tsupchevska and the story also features a Grigory Grigoryevich Storchenko, but in truth I never got that far.)

If you speak a bit of Russian you at least understand the point of the middle name, or patronymic, and you can get your tongue around the names and attempt to lodge them in your consciousness. But if you’re reading an English translation armed with nothing but curiosity and an understanding of ‘nyet’, ‘da’ and ‘vodka’, I’m sure it all seems so convoluted and unnecessary.

Yes, the patronymics, with their -ovich and -ovna suffixes, are actually quite informative and even fun to an Anglophile. (I enjoyed working out that, given my father’s name is Colin, my Russified name and patronymic is William Colinovich; my Dad’s is Colin Malcolmovich, which is frankly ridiculous.) But I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to flick back to the start to remind myself who’s who in Russian literary works. As a student I resorted to writing out a list of the main characters and how they were related on the inside cover of the book as a sort of crib note, like the cast at the start of a stage play, (the example displayed is my defacement of a 1988 copy of Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk and Other Stories, translated by David McDuff.)

And that was then, before we all developed the attention span of expresso-fuelled gnats thanks to the information and communication overload of social media and 24/7 news. Even while draughting this post I was distracted by reports of the terrible school shooting tragedy in Kazan, multiple emails in need of instant replies and a once-in-a-lifetime offer to buy a £500 cricket bat, as well as the need, well, for another cup of coffee. So I fear that seemingly gratuitous patronymic repetition is even less likely to cut it with distracted Anglophile audiences in 2021 and beyond.

Kazan happens to be where my current literary translation endeavours are focused as the city is the location of my RusTRANS-supported translation of Bulat Khanov’s Gnev (publisher sought!). And I have had an interesting exchange with the author regarding his use of names in the novel. Assuming you’ve not had time to read my previous posts, the main protagonist is Gleb Viktorovich Veretinsky, an existentially challenged university academic. Throughout the novel he is referred to in Russian as ‘Gleb’ and as ‘Veretinsky’, the first name and surname interchanged seemingly at random.

I put it to Bulat that using his first name feels friendly and collaborative in English, as if you are on his side. And, believe me, you probably aren’t. Whereas using the surname creates a fairly neutral, formal relationship between the reader and the author in English that allows space for both distancing and rapprochement as needed. Consequently, for now at least, I’m translating every reference to him as Veretinsky (except in dialogue). For as Bulat said to me, ‘хочу показать, что в нем сосредоточено обыденное зло’ (‘I want to show that everyday evil is concentrated in him’).

Translation is a long process of distillation and I may or may not stick with this approach. But when it comes to his patronymic, I’m pretty certain that the fact that Veretinsky’s Dad was called Viktor has absolutely nothing to do with anything.