ZINAIDA VENGEROVA.

This is another in my occasional series of posts bringing to light unjustly forgotten inhabitants of the byways of history (see, for instance, Sofya Engelgardt). Reading Catriona Kelly’s excellent A History of Russian Women’s Writing 1820-1992, I got to her discussion (pp. 152-3) of the disjunction a century ago between the Russian feminist movement (supported by writers in the realist tradition) and the Symbolist/Acmeist modernist crew (“not one Russian woman author of modernist prose or poetry manifested any interest in, or sympathy for, the debates around female emancipation in the feminist movement itself”); in a footnote she says “The critic and writer Zinaida Vengerova, one of those most instrumental in introducing Western modernist ideas to Russia, was another example of how the supporters of ‘new arts’ also had little interest in feminism.” I was intrigued, and did a little digging; my main source of information is the invaluable Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (thanks to Look Inside, since I can’t afford $234.60 even with FREE Shipping).
Zinaida Afanasievna Vengerova (Russian Wikipedia) was born in 1867 in Helsinki (then, of course, part of the Russian Empire). She attended the Bestuzhev Courses in St. Petersburg and studied French literature at the Sorbonne; she also took courses in Vienna, England, and Italy, and met many of the leading lights of European literature. One of her first publications was the article “Poety-simvolisty vo Frantsii” [The symbolist poets in France]; Bryusov said it was a “revelation” that sent him to the bookstore to buy Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Maeterlinck. She lived in London from 1908 to 1912, lecturing on Russian literature (and again in 1914, when her nephew, the director Alexander Tairov, stayed with her); she wrote articles in French («Lettres russes») for the Mercure de France (1897—99) and the Revue des revues and in English for the Saturday Review (1902—1903), introductions to the collected works of Schiller and Shakespeare, and a number of entries for Brockhaus and Efron (available at Lib.ru); her collected critical articles appeared in three volumes (titled Literaturnye kharakteristiki [Literary characteristics]) from 1897 to 1910, covering the pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, Ruskin, Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, Emile Verhaeren, and of course the French symbolists, among others. And back in Petersburg she was an intimate part of the Gippius-Merezhkovsky circle; it was presumably around this time that she visited the Nabokov household on an occasion commemorated by VVN in the Paris Review interview:

H. G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I was a boy. The Passionate Friends, Ann Veronica, The Time Machine, The Country of the Blind, all these stories are far better than anything Bennett, or Conrad or, in fact, any of Wells’s contemporaries could produce. His sociological cogitations can be safely ignored, of course, but his romances and fantasias are superb. There was an awful moment at dinner in our St. Petersburg house one night when Zinaïda Vengerov, his translator, informed Wells, with a toss of her head: “You know, my favorite work of yours is The Lost World.” “She means the war the Martians lost,” said my father quickly.

(Note his characteristic refusal to use the feminine ending on Russian names.) Via Gippius and Merezhkovsky she knew the terrorist/novelist Boris Savinkov, and her translation of his 1909 novel Конь бледный appeared in 1917 as The Pale Horse. I’ll let the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers take it from there:

The height of Vengerova’s career as a critic and literary historian came in 1913 with the publication of the first volume of a projected ten-volume Collected Works. English Writers of the 19th Century. (SS: Angliiskie pisateli XIX v.) This intention was interrupted by World War I, which Vengerova spent in Britain, where she gave public lectures on Russian literature and culture. During this time she became familiar with the English imagists—Ezra Pound and W[y]ndham Lewis in particular—and in 1915 she was the first to write about them for the Russian public. After the 1917 revolution, Vengerova returned to Russia only to emigrate to the West in 1922. In 1925 she married the poet and philosopher Nikolai Minskii, whose first wife had been her niece, Liudmila Vil’kina. They lived in Berlin and then London in the 1920s, and finally in Paris. From the end of the war through the 1920s, Vengerova’s literary activities mainly involved translation work, including [...] two books by Leon Trotsky. After Minskii’s death in 1937, Vengerova moved to New York City to live with her sister Izabella. She maintained contact with the Soviet Union, writing a memoir of Eleanor Marx (whom she had met in London in 1896) which she sent to the Institute of Marx and Engels in M[oscow], and a final article for Literary Heritage (LitN) in 1939. She died in New York in 1941.

What a life!
Oh, and her younger sister Izabella (1857-1956; also known as Isabelle) was a pianist, among whose many students were Leonard Bernstein and Nicolas Slonimsky—who was their nephew! The connections, the connections…

Comments

  1. (Note his characteristic refusal to use the feminine ending on Russian names.)
    I’m not sure what attitude on Nabokov’s part this implies, but isn’t he being pedantic about translation rather than political? I imagine him thinking that if we express number (the Karenins) and case (Karenin’s) by attaching English morphemes to Russian names, we shouldn’t make an exception for gender (Karenina instead of Karenin, or perhaps Mrs./Miss/Ms. Karenin).

  2. There is, of course, something exotic and appealing about Europe when it was at the height of its powers: the fact that it was in many ways multilingual and multicultural, that it was the centre of so much influential thought, and that its cultural interconnectedness allowed people to flourish across national boundaries, especially if they moved in the right circles. That was before it blew itself apart in WWI. And of course, much of its economic basis was industrial and imperial.
    What part of the world would you have to live in to experience the same thing nowadays? The locus of influential thought appears to have shifted towards the U.S., but the US is still largely monolingual (although arguably multicultural). Asia is still culturally peripheral and politically (therefore culturally) divided. It would be hard to be a ‘citizen of the world’ in Asia, moving easily among its different cultural elites. Japan is too comfortable and isolated, China is warped by its politics, both countries are distorted by their ethnic attitudes, and there aren’t many other countries that offer either the cultural or economic depth for anything but parochial cultural pursuits.

  3. isn’t he being pedantic about translation rather than political?
    I don’t think it’s political, but rather a version of Hat’s beloved dictum that all you need to know to speak English is the English language. In other words, the gender endings on Russian family names are part of the Russian language, not of the names themselves, and shouldn’t be carried over into other languages. Except, I suppose, those that also gender their family names: are there any such outside the Balto-Slavic languages? And what are the rules, if any, for gendering family names that look too non-native? Do they just get -a regardless when used for women, or are they treated as indeclinable?
    its cultural interconnectedness allowed people to flourish across national boundaries
    This is the argument of the latter part of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Given that Eurasia was predestined to modernize first, given its diverse package of domesticable plants and animals and its east-west orientation (meaning that technologies could travel a long way without meeting significant climatic barriers), why did the western end dominate the eastern end when the world became really global, despite the eastern end’s millennia-long head start? Diamond’s answer is precisely Europe’s unity in diversity; negatively expressed, its constant warring that gave a huge advantage to technological first movers. By comparison, the water-monopoly empire in China, being immune to internal rebellion (just turn off the water!), could afford to become complacent and extraordinarily weak, while being so large that although politically it often collapsed, it then ate any invaders almost without a trace.
    I really don’t think it’s in the cards to ever see anything like Europe again. The threat of nuclear annihilation changed the unity of all humanity from a long-held goal to an established fact (h/t Arendt), yet the whole planet is just too large and too complex to be anyone’s home base. Our unity will have to go on being something completely different from what has come before. Nor can Europe rise to its old position even after a complete collapse of the planetary civilization: its biological and other resources are too thoroughly dispersed around the world now, along with everything else.

  4. I’m not sure what attitude on Nabokov’s part this implies, but isn’t he being pedantic about translation rather than political?
    Sure, I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything political about it. I just think it’s silly—not in the abstract, but in the actual world we live in, where everybody but VVN refers to Russian women by the feminine forms of their names. Surely nobody but Nabokov has ever talked about “Anna Akhmatov.” He lived just long enough to see Martina Navratilova become famous; I wonder if he insisted on calling her Martina Navrátil?

  5. Re: Tandoori
    САНДАЛӢ сандали (низкий столик, который ставится над углублением с горячими углями и накрывается одеялом; используется для согревания ног)
    Source:
    Фарҳанги Тоҷикӣ-Русӣ. Иститути забон ва адабиёти АИ ҶТ ба номи Рӯдакӣ. – Душанбе: Дониш. 2006.
    Таджикско-русский словарь. Институт языка и литературы АН РТ имени Рудаки. – Душанбе: Дониш. 2006.

  6. Surely nobody but Nabokov has ever talked about “Anna Akhmatov.” He lived just long enough to see Martina Navratilova become famous; I wonder if he insisted on calling her Martina Navrátil?
    Nabokov’s in the minority on usage, I guess, but he’s not alone: here’s Constance Garnett using “Madame Epanchin” (and never “Epanchina”) in The Idiot. More broadly I can see why a celebrity like Navratilova would want to keep her name in the form she was used to for an international audience, but in a novel or newspaper article where you want it to be clear people share a family name because they’re in the same family, it’s unfair to expect everyone to know every language’s practice. Maybe Vengerov/Vengerova is transparent, but Navrátil/Navratilova not entirely. Or how about the onetime Polish practice of distinguishing Pług/Płużanka/Płużyna for man/unmarried woman/married woman?
    And what are the rules, if any, for gendering family names that look too non-native? Do they just get -a regardless when used for women, or are they treated as indeclinable?
    In Russian women’s surnames that sound too foreign are treated as indeclinable.

  7. Whereas in Czech everybody gets it; Navrátilová’s birth name was Šubertová (i.e., Schubert), and when I was in Prague I rejoiced to see a movie poster featuring Meryl Streepová.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    In French translations, women’s last names are the same as men’s names, as in Anna Karénine, the wife of Alexis Karénine. The final written e does not indicate the gender of the nouns but the pronunciation of the final n as a separate consonant after the vowel i.

  9. That only holds for names in -in. Cf. Akhmatova.

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