Cooper’s London




 by Mel Cooper

For the past few months I have been suffering from something called Hepatitis E. The doctors in my home town were thrilled; they have never seen it before and now I am on a national register in the UK and being monitored like crazy. However, because of this I am also wildly behind. I miss having opportunities to sound off about what I believed was worth seeing in London. So I am going to sit at my computer and start saying things again.

The first of which is that I have rarely been so aware of the consolations of the arts as in this past few months. In a world that is increasingly in a bad way on so many fronts, they do offer not only consolation and distraction but articulation of human folly and the human condition in ways one would not come up with oneself, necessarily. All this does seem to help. There is something profoundly important about recognizing echoes of the present and one’s own problems in the arts, all the way back to the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Chinese were right: the worst curse is “May you live in interesting times!” These are, unfortunately, interesting times. And there are worse things going on in life than turning to the arts for consolation, articulation and sheer distraction.

So partly I am thinking: what is noticing a new young violinist or enjoying a production of a play or opera compared to tsunamis in Japan and chaos in the Middle East? But that way lies Tolstoy’s turning against not only art in general but his own writings in particular.

Does it make any difference to vast numbers in this world that he wrote War and Peace and that the recent translation I finally caught up with by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is very readable and illuminating?

Not really. And yet the novel is full of characters that can seem as real as anyone you know; stories that re as memorable as anything you have experienced and to which you cannot help referring; and the way they live their lives and handle everything from a first ball to a major battle somehow helps us with our own lives and thoughts about the epic and terrible things that are happening in our world. I am convinced of it.


Which brings me to the whole issue of translation. There’s a lot of amazing material out there in languages, living and dead, that I do not while While ill, I re-read Pushkin for the first time since I was a teenager. And although I totally believe that it is impossible to find, in these translations, in any translation, the full weight of his poetry, the way his words mingle with their sense— certainly, in the prose tales and even in his dramas, you can still feel the mastery and understand why he is so universally considered to be the first progenitor, the father of all Russian literature, the master of all forms, and the Shakespeare of his own language.

What was most amazing was rediscovering what a terrific story-teller he is. Once you have read about three sentences of any of his stories, you are pulled forward. You have to know what happens next. He has the gift of the balladeer and the sophistication of the most intellectually daring modern writers. He writes stories that grip you as you read them and then will not leave you alone afterwards.

The version I got hold of, the Collected Short Prose of Pushkin in the Everyman edition, was translated by Paul Debreceny. His work as a Pushkin translator into English has been highly acclaimed and I found it completely and easily readable. The Everyman edition was published to coincide with the Bicentenary of Pushkin’s birth in 1999.


Leap forward one hundred and fifty-odd years and you encounter another recognized monument of Russian literature, poet Boris Pasternak’s amazing novel, Doctor Zhivago. It has taken fifty years for anyone to do a decent translation into English based on the original Russian and not filtered through other translations and without politically motivated cuts.

Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve our gratitude once more for coming up with a text in English that is complete and readable in a way that I have never experienced before. I am sure that, as always, elements are lost in translation; but forget what you might be missing and enjoy what is so fully there.

When the turgid translation of 1958 was released it was promised that it was a temporary solution because everyone wanted to read the novel immediately so badly. But it was such a best seller that no one bothered to tamper with what was there, inadequate though it was. And then the novel was further translated to another medium, to film; and that is a whole other issue to think about, especially when you read or re-read the text in this new translation and do comparisons in your head. It is a stimulating and worthwhile task.

So thanks to the publishers for finally making good on their promise of half a century ago. I also think that, given the fame and ubiquity of the MGM film, it is good to go back to a translation from the original source and realise that it was not just politics and a romantic tale that provoked the Russian authorities and the Nobel Prize committee, but something more starkly profound and pained.

While surfing the net about the novel I also discovered that there is a Russian TV version of the book with the amazing Oleg Menshikov in the title role, in eleven episodes, from 2006. Now if we all agitate, do you suppose we could get it fully released on DVD with subtitles so that we can see it without deepest Web search? I would love to see how the Russians themselves and Menshikov in particular translate Yuri Zhivago onto the screen for a contemporary audience. Not least because Oleg Menshikov is one of the most profoundly gifted actors, directors and entertainers working anywhere today. If you have not already done so, see him in the Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun, which is available on DVD.



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