Last month I wrote about the experience of coming at Pushkin from the other side (the early 19th century); now I’m having a similar experience with Gogol. The Ukrainian background that I used to think he had introduced into Russian literature now seems utterly familiar from Narezhny and Pogorelsky, both of whom centered their stories around the same northeastern corner of Ukraine (basically, Chernigov and Poltava gubernias); actually, I suspect Ukraine was more familiar to the Russian reader of the day than anyplace in Russia proper outside the capital cities. But the language! It’s not a matter of playing games with framing and narration; everybody had been doing that ever since Sterne and the Gothics. But the voice of other narrators had been reasonable, like that of a well-educated fellow you met in the better sort of coach while traveling: “I say, old chap, let me tell you a story…” Gogol’s narrators are importunate and perhaps drunken guys in flea-bitten coats with ragged, droopy mustaches who come up to you, throw an arm around your shoulder, and start yammering at you in ways that seem repetitious and irrelevant until you find you’re hanging on every word. His first published collection, Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka), begins like this:
“Это что за невидаль: “Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки”? Что это за “Вечера”? И швырнул в свет какой-то пасечник! Слава богу! еще мало ободрали гусей на перья и извели тряпья на бумагу! Еще мало народу, всякого звания и сброду, вымарало пальцы в чернилах! Дернула же охота и пасичника дотащиться вслед за другими! Право, печатной бумаги развелось столько, что не придумаешь скоро, что бы такое завернуть в нее”.
I don’t even know how to go about translating that; maybe Mark Twain could have done it. But I do know how not to translate it:
“What oddity is this: Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka? What sort of Evenings have we here? And thrust into the world by a beekeeper! God protect us! As though geese enough had not been plucked for pens and rags turned into paper! As though folks enough of all classes had not covered their fingers with inkstains! The whim must take a beekeeper to follow their example! Really there is such a lot of paper nowadays that it takes time to think what to wrap in it.”
I don’t want to pick on Leonard J. Kent, the translator [actually Constance Garnett—see Update below]; he was an academic and doing the best he could. But does that sound like a human voice at all, let alone somebody you’d want to listen to all evening? “What oddity is this” forsooth! A passage like Gogol’s begs you to stop looking at the dictionary and instead spend your time creating a voice in English that might have at least something of the same effect. I don’t know: “Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka—never seen anything like it! What kind of ‘evenings’ are we talking about here? And shoved in our faces by a beekeeper, of all people?” But that doesn’t work either. I don’t know, I only know that whereas I zoomed through the other authors eager to find out what happened next, I keep going back and rereading Gogol’s sentences, reading them out loud, often laughing, always admiring. How did he do it?
I was thinking about that when I read this passage in Andrew O’Hagan’s recent NYRB piece about Jack Kerouac:
Walter Salles’s film of On the Road comes to us more than fifty years after the book’s publication. […] The film cannot control its lust for the tang of actuality, forgetting what it takes to dream a prose narrative into being. Yes, Kerouac’s novel was very close to his life, but On the Road is really its prose. One might say the prose is the main character. How quickly it was written and under what conditions, who knows, any more than one can say what was really behind the tone of Charlie Parker when the sound came flowing out of his horn?
The film never finds a way to embody the sound. It just can’t hear it and so we watch a kind of beat soap opera[…]
A jazz musician responded to someone who asked about the title of Parker’s “Klacktoveedsedsteen” by saying “It’s a sound, man. A sound.” Nobody ever captured Bird’s sound, and nobody can capture Gogol’s, but dammit, you’ve got to at least try.
Update. The latest post at XIX век points out that the translation I quoted is not Leonard J. Kent’s but Garnett’s, revised only in punctuation; that doesn’t make it any better at rendering Gogol’s tone, but it makes it more understandable why it sounds that way, and one should give credit and blame where due.