PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Highlights include Olga Slavnikova’s tale, The Stone Guest, about a woman forced to visit the grave of her gangster boyfriend every day of her life, which features striking imagery of a gangster cemetery, complete with monumental statues clutching mobile phones and Merc keychains; a wonderfully cynical story about a group of Young Pioneers who pay tribute to an armless woman who embroidered a gift for Stalin with her feet; and an old lady who’s been married to a loyal communist for 50 years and starts to visualise her life at a prison camp of the kind her husband used to run.
From the recent appearance of novels by Andrei Platonov, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and Sasha Sokolov to the Nobel-winning works of Svetlana Alexeivich, and the recently recovered stories and sketches of Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhovitskaya) we can now hear a range of voices previously unknown in the West and often muted in Russia itself.
A particularly interesting recent example of this is Natasha Perova’s compilation Slav Sisters, which brings to the fore women writers active since 1900. Some of the women selected by Perova were overlooked, or indeed officially silenced in their own time. Others, like Ludmila Ulitskaya and Olga Slavnikova are better known to readers in Russia than outside of it. In all cases, their works benefit from being grouped together in a collection that allows us to consider their differences whilst recognising an unofficial ‘sisterhood’ built up across the years by a shared desire to have one’s experiences and memories captured in prose. Here, a series of ‘Autobiographical Sketches’ by Anna Akhmatova read like tantalizing fragments of a great unwritten autobiography from someone whose memories cross back and forth across the seismic divide that is 1917 in Russian life. In the same vein, Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘My Jobs’ records the period of post-Revolutionary free-fall in which a young mother, reduced to penury by the regime’s seizure of her assets and her home, attempts to adapt herself to life as a clerk in the world of Soviet bureaucracy in order to stay alive and continue her writing. The episode is brief and unsuccessful but transfigured by Tsvetaeva’s ability to record it and, in doing so, to elevate it beyond the level of an individual’s experience into a comment on a period in history when countless others were in similar situations.
As a matter of fact, just a few weeks ago, the Chandlers’ exquisite translation of “Solovki” — “one of Teffi’s best works,” Haber writes, in which “spontaneous feeling breaks through the stultified surface of human relationships” — appeared in Natasha Perova’s anthology Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature, which also features the prose of Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Svetlana Alexievich, among others. I recommend it to anyone interested in the experience of women — and not just women — in Russia from the 1910s to the present day. (I should say that I translated one of the pieces in the volume, the literary scholar Lydia Ginzburg’s painful reckoning with personal grief and remorse, which I have called “Conscience Deluded.”)
To honour the centenary of women’s votes in the UK, Dedalus has published Slav Sisters to memorialise women’s literature in 20th century Russia and the USSR. This is an anthology which includes many fiercely talented and resilient Russian (along with a handful or Ukrainian and Belarussian) authors who embody the strength required to be not only a woman, but a female writer in the USSR. I found some of the short stories to be excessively abstract, which can often be an effective tool, but made them a relief to finish at times. With this in mind, there’s something to be said for literature where purposefully uncomfortable content is translated into a physical feeling for the reader. Dedalus’ intention to celebrate and promote such work is evidence the shifting progressive climate for European female literature.
That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors and the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading…Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”. These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet… I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.
Slav Sisters is a new collection of English translations of key Russian women writers starting with Nadezhda Teffi (1872-1952) and ending with Margarita Khemlin (1960-2015); its aim, as noted on the back cover, is to “illustrate the evolution of Russian women’s writing over the 20th century”. With its striking and brightly coloured cover (the cover painting is Women on the Volga by Petrov Vodkin, 1915) this excellent compact volume will be a “must” for those with an interest in both the history and development of women’s writing in Russia and also for those who enjoy literature which inspires, challenges and has enormous “impact”.