From Chekhov to Akunin, Russian literature is being condensed

Dmitry Bak: 'The level of Russian literature is notably high, just as it always was.' Source: PhotoXpress

Dmitry Bak: 'The level of Russian literature is notably high, just as it always was.' Source: PhotoXpress

It seems more than enough for many people merely to know that Tolstoy exists; selling the “ultra-texts” of Russian literature is another thing altogether.

Translated literature commands just over one percent of the literary market in the United States. And within this one per cent, the niche occupied by Russian literature is shrinking all the time. There is simply not a great demand for foreign literature, or if there is, people turn not to Russia to find it but to some coral islands somewhere. The bottom line is that the majesty of Russian literature has fallen from favor, or rather it has dissipated, just as happened in the case of German, French or African literature. There has been a literary globalization, and they now all share the same footing overall.

Go into any general bookstore in the West and you will see that any national literature has been condensed into a few titles which are no longer regarded as obligatory reading - it is enough for people to know that they exist: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Then there is the Solzhenitsyn brand, and the Pasternak and Bulgakov brands. Pelevin and Akunin seem set to join their ranks from the new authors, but for now the jury is still out.

Beyond that, the literary field fills out depending on the efforts of literary agents, as we see with author Vladislav Otroshenko. True, he is not among the big-hitters, but in Italy for example he is very actively translated. Someone figured that this author and stylist from the Nabokovian tradition could make it on the Italian market, and it worked.

Then there are authors who fare rather well in the country of export, namely Russia, but then flop in the import country. There are many of these, but they flop not because they are too Russian or too provincial, but for more indistinct, more sociological reasons. Much like a stock market index, interlinked with the subtle ups and down of the market.

The level of Russian literature is notably high, just as it always was, but it is extremely difficult or even impossible to transpose this into another context. And accordingly, immigrant literary authors stand a far greater chance of being successful exported, as we see in Joseph Brodsky and his English language essays–or Vladimir Kaminer writing in German, Andrei Makanin and Andrei Kurkov writing in French. All of them were sufficiently well received, but none came even close to the success of Nabokov, who not all Americans even realize was Russian. Is this even Russian literature in that case, one might ask?

I recently reread Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader,” which was later made into a Hollywood movie. I was staggered to see how very calculated it is, how he is perfectly attuned to the target audience, the generation finding its way by means of revision of the past, of the Holocaust, Nazism and the war. To get one’s book onto the shelf of the overseas reader like that is a great feat. Schlink writes in German and is read around the world because of the global interest in Germany, which unlike other countries has this unique stance towards the Nazi legacy. But this is more the exception than the rule.

We know that in his day, Thomas Mann did not go down well in the United States, while Remarque took it by storm, giving voice to a psychologically castaway generation perhaps even better than Hemingway.

I recall how once at a conference in America a Japanese professor stood up and announced: “I have studied Russian literature my whole life and have pinpointed four key qualities of Russian prose. One, it is something inordinately large in scale, and two, it purports to edify the reader. Three, it is very somber and devoid of humor. And four, the author conceitedly places himself above the reader. But then we have the author Sergei Dovlatov, in whose case all four of these qualities are reversed. It is not edifying, he converses with his reader on equal terms, he writes with brevity and is funny.”

This was an exaggeration on the part of the professor. The point there is that Russian literature is not conceited, it simply digs too deep for most ordinary people. And if we want to isolate the enzyme of Russianness, then it lies in the perception of literature as some kind of ultra-text, literature that goes beyond its boundaries and directly influences life, much like a sermon. Such a stance towards the world is not meant to be unpalatable, and there are certainly comparable situations elsewhere. But the crux is the nearly unattainable goal of translating and re-rendering this for broad consumption. 

Dmitry Bak is a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities and director of the Museum of Literature.

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