Of Legacies, Larcenies, and Litigants (II)

Of Legacies, Larcenies, and Litigants: Russia, Ukraine, and the Cultural Front (Part 2)

by John Rodden

“Let us dwell here further on Nabokov’s Gogol, for the Gogol in “the Russian world” has been valued quite differently from his English-language counterpart—and Nabokov is certainly right that translation has had much to do with the difference.”

This is the second of a two-part essay dealing with the little-known “canon war” between Ukraine and Russia that has witnessed the cultural ministries—and even the presidents of the two countries—issuing public announcements as to which authors belong to each nation’s respective cultural heritage.  Part 1, which was published last week in Hopscotch (and can be read HERE) focused on the larger issues in the Slavic “Battle of the Books” and on the work of Nikolai Gogol, the central figure at issue. Part Two, which follows below, devotes extended attention to Vladimir Nabokov’s stance toward Gogol and to the rival claims staked by Ukraine and Russia to several other major writers, including Nikolai Bulgakov and Anton Chekhov.

Part Two

Does Vladimir N. Support Vladimir P.?

Back to the intra-Slavic canon war for Gogol—er, Hohol?

So which is it: Was he—is he—Russian or Ukrainian? Or both?

Or do we split the difference? The “early” folk-tale Gogol as Ukrainian, the “later” author of The Petersburg Tales (e.g., “The Overcoat,” “The Nose”) as Russian? Perhaps with 1836 as the dividing line, as Gogol staged The Government Inspector and completed the Cossack version of Taras Bulba (1835), before moving on to its revised, Russified version of 1842? That is neat, but perhaps too neat: What about his third period, in Rome (1837-46), where he spent his last phrase of literary productivity? That is where he rewrote Taras Bulba and composed Dead Souls, his devastating critique of the soulless urban existence of Russian bureaucrats and status seekers. (Should we soon expect the Italians to stake their claims to him?)

Or do we just need a government inspector to settle all this? If so, let us give the floor to a Russian who possessed the magisterial bearing and imperious outlook of an Inspector General, a fellow Russian storyteller and world traveler who studied Gogol’s work closely: the self-appointed Inspector General of literature, Vladimir Nabokov.

Imperious he may have been, but Nabokov’s imperial edicts carry weight. It is all the more disconcerting, then, that no less an artist and critic than Nabokov—who would certainly seem to be no more likely a partisan of Putin’s cultural apparatchiks than he was of their Bolshevik predecessors—voiced sentiments that echo Putin and his cultural cadre. In Nikolai Gogol (1944), his eccentric self-described “biography” of Gogol (“a rather frivolous little book,” he later patronized it in his commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), Nabokov gives thanks that Gogol had the ambition to leave both Ukraine and the subject matter of Ukrainian folklore and to write instead in Russian from the empire’s capitals (314). Declares Nabokov in Nikolai Gogol: “We must thank fate (and the author’s thirst for universal fame) for his not having turned to the Ukrainian dialect as a medium of expression, because then he would be lost. When I want a good nightmare, I imagine Gogol penning in the Little Russian dialect volume after volume of… stuff about ghosts haunting the banks of the Dnieper, burlesque Jews, and dashing Cossacks” (pp. 31-32).

Readers have interpreted Nabokov’s statement in various ways, depending on which side of the Gogol culture war they find themselves. Proponents of the “Russian Gogol” spotlight Nabokov’s sneering, dismissive words about “the Little Russian dialect” and the prospective “nightmare” that Gogol avoided by following his “fate” to leave Ukraine and Ukrainian behind forever. For only in Russia and Russian could Gogol have risen to the challenge of creating great works of satire and win “universal fame.”

By contrast, spokesmen for the “Ukrainian Gogol” insist that Nabokov merely expressed an historical reality in strong language—a reality no different than, say, a fellow Irishman pondering the consequences for Yeats if the poet had spent his life in County Sligo writing in Gaelic. How much the world might have thereby lost! On this view, Nabokov’s prospective “nightmare” is one that we all can share: the prospect (thankfully avoided!) that we might have lost a writer of world stature, or that Posterity might not have recognized “Hohol” as such. Nabokov might well have cited another Ukrainian writer as a cautionary example, but it is telling that he does not even think to do so, so obscure did the writer seem to Nabokov in 1944 Massachusetts. That is, Ukraine does have a long-acknowledged “national poet,” a contemporary of Gogol who wrote (and occasionally during his lifetime published) in Ukrainian and after whom Kyiv’s top university is named: Taras Shevchenko. The ex-serf and outspoken nationalist Shevchenko was a prophetic moralist greatly honored in his own country. Even today, however, he is relatively little-known outside his homeland.

So the wider world might never have known and read “Hohol.” And more: Gogol might never have developed beyond Mykola Hohol into the Nikolai Gogol that he became. If he had stayed in Ukraine, or simply continued to write Ukrainian folk tales, he might have remained a regional writer specializing in “local color”—perhaps a Slavic version of Bret Harte, Sarah Horne Jewett, or George Washington Cable. However excellent in their own way, those post-Civil War American writers are regarded as minor authors today. They were local colorists and (often) humorists like the early Gogol, and like him their concern was with manners and folklore specific to a geographical region (Harte’s California, Jewett’s New England, and Cable et al.’s antebellum South).

However intemperate and peremptory his lordly degrees, that hunch of Nabokov strikes me as exactly right: the most original writings of Gogol are his Peterburgskie povesti—tale after tale of his astonishing Petersburg Tales, including “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” “The Carriage,” “The Portrait,” “The Nevsky Prospect,” and “The Diary of a Madman.” Virtually any one of them would have been sufficient to secure him a place in the history of the Russian short story. Taken together—and almost all of them composed before he turned thirty—they represent a miracle of creativity.

This much can be said of such arguments by the Russian claimants of Gogol: they are right that the Petersburg Tales represent his highest literary achievement—and Nabokov is right that they have nothing to do with Ukraine, but with the absurdity and grotesquerie of Petersburg life. Beyond that, whatever else we may decide about the attempts of the combatants in the Gogol culture war to invoke the critical authority of Nabokov—to “claim” Nabokov, as it were, in order to claim Gogol himself—one conclusion seems indisputable. Like most of Nabokov’s criticism, it says at least as much about Nabokov himself: Nabokov’s remarks about Gogol’s fate amount to veiled autobiography. If Vladimir Nabokov had never left the Soviet Union for Europe and ultimately America, what a “nightmare”! Probably no Lolita—or the other great novels: Pale Fire, Pnin, Bend Sinister, and so much more.

The Anglophone Gogol: The Art of Translating and Traducing

We have observed that Gogol is less well known in the West than the world-renowned novelists of the following generation whom he influenced: Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. Why?

In his Gogol biography, Nabokov attributed the difference largely to the far more difficult task of translating Gogol’s exuberantly rich, densely textured, vivaciously irregular rhythmic Russian prose style (dotted with Ukrainian expressions) into idiomatic renderings in Western languages. Let us dwell here further on Nabokov’s Gogol, for the Gogol in “the Russian world” has been valued quite differently from his English-language counterpart—and Nabokov is certainly right that translation has had much to do with the difference. His work on Gogol, probably his favorite Russian author, provides a sharp angle on the issues at hand, even if one disagrees with his extreme positions and Olympian thunderbolts of invective against Gogol’s translators.

The Nabokov translation of the closing paragraph from Book One of Dead Souls, which we quoted above and which appears as an excerpt in the Gogol biography, makes clear that Nabokov the translator believed that Gogol should be rendered in a lush and distinctively Nabokovian English (“The bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy”) resembling the Russian original, though it is questionable as to whether Nabokov’s English translation is idiomatic. Both in the biography and in his correspondence with his publisher (James Laughlin at New Directions), as the Slavic scholar Arthur Langeveld notes, Nabokov repeatedly inveighs against previous English translations of Gogol.

For instance, the very first sentence of Chapter Three of Nikolai Gogol voices the lament that all previous renderings of Dead Souls into English “are absolutely worthless and should be expelled from all public and university libraries.” This sad state of affairs necessitated that Nabokov “take the trouble of translating myself such passages as I required” for citation in Nikolai Gogol (p. 61). For example, Constance Garnett is “totally lacking verbal talent” as a translator, though her rendering of The Government Inspector is “less irritating than some of the monstrous versions” of Dead Souls—apparently including her own (p. 38). Nabokov tells Laughlin about the horrors of slogging through “Constance Garnett’s dry shit,” which is no better than the other “abominably botched” English translations available, all of which bleach Gogol of his color and vitality (Selected Letters, 41; qtd. Langeveld, p. 128.) They fail utterly to convey that unique “Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to the level of a tremendous epic poem” (Nikolai Gogol, 71). As with most sovereign, indeed czar-like Nabokovian pronouncements about translation, the critic does not bother to cite examples or otherwise specify concretely what makes all these translations so “abominably botched.” (I do not find the Garnett translation of Dead Souls clunky or dry, nor is it—excepting her “flyest thou”—so unidiomatic.) Nabokov is even tougher on Claud Field, whose translation of “May Eve, or the Drowned Maiden” we also quoted earlier. In a 1941 article devoted to “the sins of translation and the great Russian short story,” written as he was undertaking the Gogol study, Nabokov eviscerates Field’s translation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Gogol’s zany, fantastical Russian is reduced to a “prim and perky, and very matter-of-fact English,” bemoans Nabokov, “leav[ing] me with the impression that I am witnessing a murder and can do nothing to prevent it.” If you doubt him, he says, “see—and never see again—the translation” by Field (“The Art of Translation,” p. 161).

As these takedowns illustrate—and as he demonstrated in his famous dispute with Edmund Wilson over how to translate Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin—Nabokov had strong opinions both about particular translations (and translators) of Russian authors as well as the art of translation in general. His vituperations against Garnett and Field are consistent with his oft-repeated convictions. He championed a theory of precise fidelity to the original, nothing less than “absolute exactitude,” insisting that every telltale detail and defining subtlety needed to be captured. Regrettably, he claims, translators such as Garnett and Field are ignorant and lazy, for they both fail to master the original and target languages and refuse to do research to understand the original text.

Specifically, in the case of Gogol, they deflate and flatten him into a ho-hum satirical realist, completely missing that he is a fabulist sui generis. Unlike the traditional critical outlook among Russian scholars of his day, Nabokov does not treat Gogol simply as a satirist of Russian bureaucracy and petty bourgeois society. Rather, he follows upon the Gogol studies by avant-garde Russian critics of the 1920s and 1930s (such as the father of Russian formalism, Boris Eichenbaum, and Andrey Bely), who posited that Gogol playfully experiments with the sounds of words and with syntax (e.g., shifting of adjectives and adverbs to odd locations in a sentence), all of it giving his prose an absurd, sometimes grotesque, sometimes quaint ring. Nabokov goes these critics one better, however, by insisting that Gogol is not merely presenting an absurdist Russia, but rather composing his own self-contained idiosyncratic world, a uniquely Gogol-esque fantasia. That is, Gogol creates a cosmos of his own—and the essence of that world is poshlust—“that fat brute” of a word that has no analogue in the major European languages, conveying a cultural wasteland of kitsch encompassing a limitless range of mediocrity (“cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, highfalutin’, inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy tawdry, and gimcrack”),  Nabokov applauds Gogol for agreeing with him that the nation exemplifying poshlust as “one of the essential parts of its national spirit” is Germany, starting with Goethe’s Faust. To his eternal credit, says Nabokov, Gogol also succeeds in his stories at “express[ing] the immortal spirit of poshlust pervading the German nation…with all the vigor of his genius” (pp. 64-65). Nabokov’s admiring comments on Gogol’s enduring relevance a century after his death in 1944 and to the Nazi-Soviet faceoff in World War II reverberate powerfully in light of the current war in Ukraine almost another century later, both of which conflicts witnessed many of the combatants descend into “that abyss of poshlust” that Gogol’s satirical edge and zany lightness avoided.

To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it—and would like to see it destroyed to the last beer-mug and last forget-me-not—means walking dangerously close to that abyss of poshlust which yawns so universally at times of revolution or war (p. 65).

Russian scholars do not dismiss Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol so readily as did its author. As Langeveld writes of the quality of Nabokov’s translations of Gogol:

It is a pity that Nabokov never did a complete translation of any of the works of Gogol discussed by him, since the various initiatives to do so taken in this book are promising and might well have resulted in a breakthrough of the Anglo-Saxon culture of translation of that time, the standard of which was pathetically low. It can safely be maintained that, to a certain extent, the book’s success is due to the translated fragments, from which a witty, acerbic, absurdist Gogol was emerging who had nothing in common with the one the English-speaking world had known until then (pp. 130-31).

The Slavic Gogol with the Outsized Overcoat

All this may go a long way to explain why Gogol has been less honored abroad than at home. Nonetheless, to return to his place in the Slavic world, we may note that Gogol was acknowledged by those Russian greats of the previous generation as the “father” of Russian fiction. In that sense, Putin is just repeating their own words—deviously, of course. Dostoevsky himself is said to have remarked that “we all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.” (Gogol’s most acclaimed story in The Petersburg Tales is “The Overcoat.”)

Dostoevsky’s comment possesses historical ballast. Virtually every leading novelist and playwright of mid- and late nineteenth-century Russia acknowledged a debt. Gogol belonged to the generation preceding theirs, the same generation as the poet Alexander Pushkin. Russian teachers have long presented Gogol as the “second father” of Russian literature, a junior partner of Pushkin, the hallowed national poet universally honored as the father of Russian verse. The two are usually paired in Russian literary history, for it was Pushkin, Gogol’s elder by a decade, who touted Gogol’s tales and promoted the ingenuous young villager from “the provinces” in elite literary circles.

Certainly the 23-year-old Gogol’s sudden rise to national prominence as a relative newcomer to Russia was assisted enormously by his friendship with Pushkin, whom he had met just months before the publication of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. The timing coincided with the arrival of Pushkin’s first notable prose work, The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin. Their joint appearance that year grouped Gogol with Pushkin in literary minds and consolidated their connection as fraternal literary twins. The year 1831 has since been enshrined by literary historians as the moment when the Russian short story emerged from the fertile womb of Mother Russia.

Many Ukrainian critics argue, however, that “the Pushkin connection” is exaggerated. For one thing, despite Pushkin’s seniority, Gogol’s Evenings volume is a far more impressive achievement than the Belkin stories. Ukrainians will say that Pushkin’s patronage is overemphasized by Russians in order to burnish the impression of Gogol’s Russian identity and his debt to Russia. They also contend that the popularity of Gogol’s folk tales among Russians—then and even now—partly owes to how they flatter the Russian superiority complex as embodiments of a prevalent Russian stereotype: Ukrainians as superstitious yokels and country bumpkins.

Still, nobody can deny that the two men were extremely close during their all-too-brief five-year friendship, cut tragically short by Pushkin’s death at 37 in a pistol duel.

Until Gogol came on the scene in 1831, fiction in Russia was drenched in piety and sentimentality. Gogol’s comedy, The Government Inspector, and his stories (“The Overcoat,” “The Nose”), were unprecedented and trailblazing. Within a span of three years, Gogol had revolutionized three genres: the novel/novella, the drama, and the short story. He was not yet thirty.

Yes, Gogol’s outsized overcoat is a mantle well worth stealing.

So that is why the debates about Gogol are so fierce—and why many Ukrainians will defend their claim to Gogol as if it were the siege of Kyiv. However ambivalently and reluctantly they went along in the past with Russian contentions of Gogol’s Russianness, Ukrainian independence since 1991—and the ongoing war today—have brought with them an insistence on establishing a Ukrainian identity rooted in a specifically Ukrainian cultural heritage. And central to that heritage are revered cultural figures.

Vladimir N.
Vladimir P.

Beyond Gogol, Beyond Hohol?

And what about those others cultural figures, especially writers, beyond Gogol—or beyond “Hohol? What about all the other claimants, the other “Ukrainian-born” writers? Even though it is true that the stakes are lower—and the claims less secure—to these other writers, Ukrainian cultural authorities know that a literary tradition must be founded on far more than, say, Gogol and Shevchenko. Still, the problems with other potential candidates to join the canon are notable, which is why many educators have tended either to shy away from lavish claims or advance them more diplomatically, less assertively—though some politicians have not been so bashful.

Take, for example, Mikhail (Mykhailo, in Ukrainian) Bulgakov (1891-1940). Born and educated in Kiev, he attended Kiev University and trained as a physician, practicing first at Kiev Military Hospital and then privately in Kiev and in southwestern Ukraine. Unlike Gogol, he did not finally leave Ukraine until he was almost thirty; he possessed a much broader and deeper experience of the country. Abandoning medicine in 1921 to write full-time, he settled in Moscow, where he wrote his most brilliant novel, the posthumously published Master and Margarita, which is partly set in the capital. Another accomplished novel, The White Guard, is set in Ukraine; the family is based on the author’s own.

Does not Bulgakov, therefore, deserve to be pronounced Gogol’s successor—the greatest indubitably Ukrainian writer of the twentieth century? Consider, too, Bulgakov’s impressive influence—not only does Salman Rushdie acknowledge that his celebrated and controversial novel The Satanic Verses owes much to Bulgakov’s chef d’oeuvre, but Mick Jagger has also said the same about The Rolling Stones’ hit song Sympathy for the Devil. And how about “3469 Bulgakov”? What other writers—of any nationality—have a minor planet named after them?

Granted, Bulgakov is not a figure whose literary impact matches Gogol, who renovated three genres and inspired the very greatest Russian writers of the following two generations. Still, even if Bulgakov is not a world author of the first rank, he is an internationally known and respected author. So what’s not to like?

The catch is that Bulgakov openly expressed derogatory views about both the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian identity that exceed even Nabokov’s putdowns. Not just in conversation but in his work: the Bulgakov-identified hero of The White Guard lampoons “that damnable language,” Ukrainian. Bulgakov himself was a native Russian speaker; his parents were Russian and he seems to have regarded most Ukrainians much as did the Russian writers who treasured Gogol’s caricatures of them. He is honored in Kyiv, yet without fanfare. His statue in bronze sits proudly next to his former home, which is now the Bulgakov Museum. Opened on May 15, 1991 to mark the writer’s centennial—just three months before Ukraine’s declaration of independence that summer—it is located on Kyiv’s main street and attracts many tourists. (Russians point out, however, that Moscow has two Bulgakov museums.)

So perhaps it is unsurprising that, even before former President Yushchenko declared that Gogol “belongs to us” during the Gogol bicentennial of 2009, “because his roots go back to the Ukrainian Cossacks,” the former prime minister whom he had appointed to the office, Yuriy Yekhaurov, championed Chekhov in official contexts, leaving the impression that he regarded the playwright as “just as much Ukrainian as Russian.” Throughout Yekhanurov’s term as prime minister, Chekhov’s portrait hung in the prime minister’s office. Not unusual? It was the only portrait. Asked about it by a foreign reporter, the prime minister gestured to the painting and replied simply and instructively: “Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. No other portraits.”

Yet both leaders were easily outdone by a political rival, Viktor Yanukovych. As a presidential candidate in 2010, Yanukovych campaigned to succeed Yushchenko and—perhaps surprisingly, given his pronounced pro-Russian stance—hailed Chekhov as “the great Ukrainian poet.” (He later even threw in Anna Akhmatova.) Of course, he was playing both sides: the tribute occurred during a campaign stop in Crimea, where Chekhov spent his last five years in a failed quest to ease his tubercular agonies. When both educators and journalists, Ukrainian as well as non-Ukrainian, ridiculed Yanukovych as half-educated, the candidate tried a bipartisan approach: “Ukrainian or Russian, Chekhov is a world-class poet.” (Nonetheless: On winning the election, before being ousted amid the waves of Maidan protests, Yanukovych made good on his promise to restore the famous “White Dacha,” where Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters.)

A rather strained historical argument? So it would seem. That is, however, the point: The fact that a leading Ukrainian politician would canvas for votes with a “Chekhov campaign” and even go to the trouble of joining with those “claiming” him for Ukraine on such questionable historical grounds indicates the scale of Chekhov’s prestige and the intensity of the urge to have world-class writers like him in Ukraine’s pantheon. Chekhov, typically regarded as the foremost modern Russian-language storyteller and, along with Gogol, a “father” of modern Russian drama, would certainly be a Great “Russian” Writer “well worth stealing.” (Tolstoy famously lauded Chekhov as “the most Russian of writers.”)

While the basis for such claims may be shallow, therefore, the issues they raise are substantial, particularly because those justifications have been advanced by at the highest official levels. Yushchenko has not been alone in his cultural politics—or perhaps his creative storytelling—among prominent Ukrainian officeholders. Both his protégés and his enemies have adopted the same view. The arguments of the politicians notwithstanding, the obvious difficulty with presenting Chekhov as a “Ukrainian” is that the claim seems a bridge too far, an appeal to revisit boundary lines on a medieval map.

So, too, any grand claim to Odessa-born poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1965), the so-called “tragic queen” of Stalinist-era poetry whose husband died in the Gulag and who suffered censorship throughout her career. She never wrote a line in Ukrainian and did not know the language; her Russian aristocratic family emigrated to St. Petersburg when she was just eleven months old.

A closing observation that is seldom made by Westerners is in order. All these examples should also alert us to two facts self-evident to Ukrainians yet little realized by outsiders, sometimes not even by neighboring Russians: the rich diversity of Ukraine and the major role that language politics plays in regional loyalties.

It warrants emphasis that Ukraine is the biggest country within Europe and perhaps the most culturally diverse. (Most of Russia is located in Asia.) Ukraine is a nation roughly equal in size to Texas and (until recently) more populous by fully a third—and both its expanse and its history as a site of wars and redrawn borders account for its variety. Culturally speaking, Western Ukraine bears a Catholic and Polish/Austrian imprint of families like Conrad’s, the Odessa region of Babel is marked by a Russian-Jewish tradition, whereas Crimea and the industrialized Donbas area is Russian and the historical scene of anti-Semitic persecution. Linguistically, Ukrainian is the dominant language in western and central Ukraine, whereas Russian has traditionally predominated in eastern and southern Ukraine. Politically, the hotbeds of nationalistic fervor and rage for de-Russification tend to be there. The east and south include the Donbas and Crimea regions, respectively, which were staunchly pro-Soviet (with the significant exception of the Crimean Tatars). Of course, the Donbas was formally annexed by Putin in late September. As Russian initiatives during the last decade well reflect—both regions are, generally speaking, pro-Russian today (and pro-Putin). By contrast, when it comes to cultural politics and nationalism, central Ukraine (including Kyiv) has traditionally been more moderate.

A whopping paradox rarely mentioned by either side in the “Russia vs. Ukraine” paternity suit: after the Stalin years, ethnic Ukrainian leaders led the USSR for three quarters of the nation’s history—Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Chernenko were Ukrainian-born; Gorbachev’s maternal line was from Ukraine. But no Ukrainian cultural officials—let alone presidents—seem eager to embrace those names as part of the nation-building program.

It is a reminder: the multifaceted project of canon-making, establishing pedigree, promoting a national heritage, and engaging the politics of reputation cuts both ways. It is not only about claiming attractive historical figures—but also disclaiming unattractive ones.

A list of works cited can be found at the end of Part One.

John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. His books include The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell (2007), Dialectics, Dogmas, and Dissent: Stories from East German Victims of Human Rights Abuse (2010), Of G-Men and Eggheads: The FBI and the New York Intellectuals (2017), and most recently, The Intellectual species: Exile or Extinction? (2022). He lives in Austin, Texas and can be reached at jgrodden1@gmail.com.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 22, 2022

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