By the letters, not the numbers
Dedalus Press
A Night in the Nabokov Hotel: 20 Contemporary Poets from Russia

A collection of poetry translated and edited by Anatoly Kudryavitsky.

Dedalus Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Dennis Kilfoy

"Western readers," Anatoly Kudryavitsky explains in his introduction to A Night in the Nabokov Hotel: 20 Contemporary Poets from Russia, "are well acquainted with poetry written in [Russia] over the last three centuries, from Alexander Pushkin to Anna Akhmatova, mostly through translations [. . .] This book offers an opportunity to hear a few newer voices." While that first statement - that Western readers are well acquainted with Pushkin and Akhmatova - may be overly optimistic, Kudryavitsky is right to conclude that readers are, at least, far more familiar with them than with Russia’s contemporary poets. He is right also to address that concern and this collection of twenty Russian poets from the last half of the last century is a noble effort. It contains over ninety poems from twenty different Russian writers (including, however immodestly, Kudryavitsky himself) in both the original Russian and parallel English translations. The translator and editor also includes a short introduction and a generous appendix providing brief biographical sketches of each author.

Returning, though, to Kudryavitsky’s opening comments; his choice of title, A Night in the Nabokov Hotel, represents an interesting phenomenon. It is, in fact, a reference to a poem included in this collection: Sergey Stratanovsky’s "In the Nabokov Hotel." That selection plays on the forbidden fruit aspect of Nabokov, particularly his novel Lolita, pairing his infamous prepubescent with biblical images of serpents and seven-headed beasts. The émigré Nabokov was, indeed, a kind of forbidden fruit - a dangerous temptation - in the former Soviet Union, his work only becoming wildly available after perestroika and the collapse of the USSR. It is a status he shared with many of the writers included in this volume. Their works largely outlawed; they only rarely appeared in official publications and more often in illegal samizdat editions. These poets, then, are only recently being discovered in Russia itself, and Western readers enjoy the unique opportunity of sharing these poems for the first time almost simultaneously with their native audience.

This anthology, then, is a bold venture and no less bold is Kudryavitsky’s decision to publish his translations side-by-side with their Russian language originals. That approach invites criticism and some may object that Kudryavitsky has taken the position of author/translator too far; that he has for instance, imposed order on chaos, forcing stanzas and grammar on what is often decidedly unordered, elliptical Russian. I, however, would disagree. The translations here are more than adequate, but I will leave that for the individual reader to ascertain - instead I would point to the text’s illusion of order and cohesion.

"Where have they not written!" Ivan Akhmetiev asks in his poem 'Writing', which also appears as the inscription to this edition’s back cover. He may as well have asked, at least in reference to this book, "When?" Kudryavitsky has ordered the poems and their authors not by date or even literary circle, but alphabetically. Appearing by letter, not by number or date, they place literature over the forced mathematics of government regimes. Without their specific historical context, they are made even more enigmatic for the foreign reader. S/he may, of course, simply flip to the biographical appendix in the back, but I would recommend reading all the poems first and maintaining the mystery for as long as possible. Recognize that these works are not simply a reaction to a specific moment or event, but a rejection of the strict logistics and resulting intolerance of ideological systems at large. If there must be a pattern, then let us say that they represent the shared frustrations and oppressions of multiple generations of poets, all of whom, Akhmetiev might argue:

would write in jail
in a labour camp
in an asylum

The only thing, he adds, is "to go unnoticed."

Dennis Kilfoy is currently completing a PhD in Russian Literature at the University of Alberta in Canada.



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