Monday, September 17, 2018

Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night

For the most part, I only collect Russian books, and English-language Russian books at that.  But sometimes I veer of my chosen path and begin minor collections.  For instance, I have a small Bertolt Brech collection and another of and about Hannah Arendt.  The brilliance of these two authors somehow demanded this small token of appreciation from me.  I also have a small classics collection, and have begun a shelf of what I like to think of as world classics, though I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory description of what makes something a "world classic."  At the moment, this shelf consists of mainly religious texts--including the Bible, the Koran, the Ramayana, the Book of Mormon--and a few classical texts, like the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Metamorphoses.  For some reason, Montaigne also made this shelf, but he'll likely be displaced when I get a copy of Dante's Inferno.  The one largely non-Russian collection I have to date is my collection of plays.  Although rearranging shelves according to my current whims is one of my favorite pastimes, the play collection is broken down into Shakespeare, non-Shakespearean British, French, non-British and French European, African-American plays, American (i.e., non-African-American), and of course Russian plays.  The Russian shelf isn't very large, and is largely restricted to Nabokov, Chekhov, Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Gorky, and Ostrovsky, as well as some collections (Symbolist, etc.)

Yesterday I took out Venedikt Erofeev's Walpurgis Night, the thing by Erofeev I've read since Moscow to the End of the Line.  Picking it up, I was immediately struck by the author's erudition, sense of humor, and poetic sensibility.  My astonishment sent me immediately to the Web to see what else he has written that has been translated into English, but at first glance it appears that there's not a whole lot out there.  Of course, the excellence of the play also made me take a look at the famous translator, Marian Schwartz.  In the past, I've paid very little attention to translators.  It wasn't until I read a few different things by Robert Chandler that came to understand how important translators were to me.  In the first place, translators like Chandler and Schwartz obviously make it possible for non-Russian speakers like myself to remain enthralled with the genius of Russian literature.  In the second place, the brilliance of these translators allows me to get at least a glimpse of the magic that a country's greatest authors must necessarily perform.  In the third place, these Russian translators, by their very selections of texts, helps to guide me to new novels and plays.  Without Marian Schwartz, my Russian library would be significantly diminished.  When I looked at her website, I was utterly astonished at how many works of fiction in my library were the product of her labor and art.

At any rate, to jump out of the rabbit hole of translation and return to Walpurgis Night, it's a magnificent play. It's clearly a work of rebellion against authoritarianism, and Soviet rule in the 1980s.  But it's so much more than that.  It's a treatise on the Russian intellectual tradition, on the Cold War, and on anti-semitism in Russian culture.  It's a brilliant play, both profoundly funny and profoundly tragic, and I hope to have access to more of his works.  If that's not possible, I will certainly have to-read Moscow to the End of the Line.

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