LA LEGENDE DE NOVGORODE.

It’s not often I scoop the Anglophone world on a news story, but this may be one such occasion—I can’t find anything in English on the Cendrars scandal a Francophone reader noticed in Le Figaro (story by Raphaël Stainville, 28 juin 2007) and promptly alerted me to. As I wrote in the early days of LH, Blaise Cendrars (born Frédéric-Louis Sauser) is one of my favorite modernist poets. It so happens that his first publication (or alleged publication) is one of the great mysteries of modernism: he always insisted that as a teenage employee of a Saint Petersburg jeweler in 1907 he had written a long poem called “La Légende de Novgorode” [The legend of Novgorod], a friend had had fourteen copies of a Russian translation printed up (in white on black paper) to surprise him and encourage him to pursue a writing career, and no copies were available (according to the surprisingly detailed French Wikipedia article on the poem, he called it « épuisée » or « hors commerce »). There the matter rested for decades, many scholars deciding the whole thing was an invention of the playful poet.
Then, in 1995, a Bulgarian scholar announced he had found a copy of the Russian edition at a Sofia bookstall. Mon dieu! The world of Cendrars studies was shaken, and people got to work eagerly examining this new find, with its invocation of Rimbaud, reminiscences of the author’s stay in Russia (in particular the 1905 revolution and the Russo-Japanese War), and prefigurations of the great Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (discussed in the LH post linked above). The unique copy was bought by a Swiss collector for a price said to exceed $50,000.
Recently a young Russian grad student doing a dissertation on Cendrars, Oxana Khlopina (Оксана Хлопина), decided to investigate the work more closely, and she was disturbed to realize that the Russian of the supposed translation, though printed in pre-1917 orthography, contained errors that would not have been made by anyone who’d grown up with the pre-reform spelling. She then analyzed the typeface and discovered it was Izhitsa, created in 1988 and apparently the only computer font available in the 1990s that could reproduce text in the old orthography. (She also claimed that a mention of “l’hôtel d’Angleterre” was anachronistic, saying the hotel did not have that name before 1925, but that’s ridiculous and easily disproved—the 1914 Baedeker lists it under that name on page 88, and a quick googling shows it mentioned in a 1900 book.) Convinced it was a forgery, she put clues together and decided it must be the work of the very scholar who claimed to have found it, though out of respect for him she refused to point the finger at him. (Kiril Kadiiski, the scholar/poet in question, has denied the forgery, but the interview, “Ce n’est pas moi qui ai écrit ‘La Légende de Novgorode’,” is hidden behind a subscription wall.) You can see images of the original white-on-black publication and of a Bulgarian reprint edition here, and if your German is better than your French you can read about it here. I have no idea where the truth lies, but I do love a good literary scandal. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)

Comments

  1. His photos remind me of Kerouac, Camus, and various other rugged-looking guys with a cigarette hangiung out of their mouths. I’d love to see a study of that. (Yeah, I’m serious. He had a great pose.)

  2. A lot of possible literary forgeries, however, such as Montale’s “Diario postumo” or the Hitler diaries appear too soon after the deaths of their purported authors for linguistic or typographical analysis to be useful.

  3. Really, though, I think we need a post on this mysterious ‘Paul’ who seems to be indirectly responsible for so much of your material…

  4. That’s flattering – but there are at least two Pauls, and this one only suggests the very occasional link. Over to you, LH !

  5. des von bladet says:

    That first internal link should be to: http://languagehat.com/transsiberian/

  6. Takk merci!

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