A Novel of London.

Vesna Goldsworthy has an interesting — and depressing — Asymptote review of a book I’d definitely like to read:

Miloš Crnjanski’s A Novel of London (1971) is one of the key works of twentieth century Serbian fiction. Given the novel’s significance in the former Yugoslavia, its powerful and enduringly relevant story of East–West migration and exile, and its meticulously evoked setting based on the author’s first-hand experience of London during and immediately after World War Two, it might seem surprising—shocking even—that Crnjanski’s work remained unpublished in English for so long. Yet all too often that is the fate of even the most important literature from small languages and small countries.

This belated English version appears half a century after the original, largely as a result of the personal endeavours of Will Firth, one of the pre-eminent translators of writing from the former Yugoslavia. I would love to say that it has been eagerly awaited. That may be true for the small number of Crnjanski scholars in the West, and for those members of the Serbian diaspora who already knew the novel. However, in the twelve months since its publication by the New Orleans-based publisher Diálogos, Crnjanski’s masterpiece has, so far as I know, yet to be mentioned on the pages of a literary review, let alone properly reviewed, barring a piece from the novel’s translator in the Los Angeles Review of Books. […]

As a prolific novelist and poet, in Serbia, and in the former Yugoslavia, Crnjanski has enjoyed—with a brief exception in the mid-twentieth century when he was in exile and out of favour with the post-war communist government—the status of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot combined. Lines from his poetry and prose are so widely known that they are quoted casually in everyday conversations. Yet, beyond ex-Yugoslavia, he remains little known and even less translated. The only other book by Crnjanski to have appeared in English was Michael Henry Heim’s translation of the first of the two volumes of Crnjanski’s novel Migrations, published in 1994 by Harvill (his name in that edition was transliterated, French-style, as Tsernianski).

In his excellent essay, “Filling the Gaps: On Translating Miloš Crnjanski’s Novel of London,” published on the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, Will Firth recounts the hustling involved in his role not just as a translator but also as a posthumous agent struggling to generate interest in the project. Notwithstanding a pledge of funding from the Serbian Ministry of Culture, he searched in vain for a publisher in the UK—a natural home given the novel’s setting—before finally finding an outlet for A Novel of London in Louisiana.

I can almost see a wry smile on Crnjanski’s face. If he could but hear about this saga, it would confirm every prejudice he bore towards the British. “So sorry,” they keep saying in A Novel of London, “So, so sorry.” […]

Tolstoyan in its epic scope and yet richly lyrical in its tone, as befitting the work of a novelist who was also his country’s leading poet, A Novel of London is both a bittersweet story of a marriage and a devastating portrait of mid-twentieth-century Britain. At its centre are two dispossessed Russian aristocrats, Count Nikolai Repnin and his wife Nadya, living hand-to-mouth in the North London suburb of Mill Hill. I won’t spoil the story to reveal that, for much of the novel, Repnin teeters on the brink of suicide. He lives only because he cannot leave Nadya.

Their lives already devastated by the Russian Revolution, the Repnins’ existence is rendered even more precarious by new waves of post-World War Two immigration, and particularly by the thousands of East Europeans now competing for the same miserably paid jobs. (His descriptions of London’s Tube and buses echoing mournfully with the cacophony of Slavonic languages offer an uncanny sense of recognition for readers now.) Crnjanski’s London is not a jolly place, but it is still a pulsating refugee Babylon—one that is familiar yet seen through alien eyes, as British readers have not encountered it before.

Earlier I mentioned the external challenges that A Novel of London poses to the translator. Yet the work carries just as many internal, practical challenges because its original already involves many and multilayered implicit acts of translation. Although A Novel of London was completed and published in Serbian in 1971, it was first conceived in English in 1946 when Crnjanski began writing what was then titled The Shoemakers of London. This ur-version was inspired by Crnjanski’s stint as a bookkeeper in a Bond Street shoe shop, one of a series of menial, short-lived jobs that constituted his increasingly desperate, patchwork émigré CV. Along with the hardships of exile in the British capital, where he had arrived as a suspicious foreigner from a diplomatic posting in Rome in August 1941, the deficiencies of Crnjanski’s English—functional but unequal to writing fiction—conspired to leave The Shoemakers unfinished. The proposal failed to elicit any interest from British publishers, in spite of efforts by eminent friends and supporters, among them the novelist Rebecca West.

Many years later, once again living in Belgrade, Crnjanski returned to the story—this time in his mother tongue—and transformed it into A Novel of London. Thus, the original began its life as a double and delayed translation. Its account of London is personal and raw, yet linguistically there is also the distancing inherent in the choice of Russians as its central characters. Crnjanski did not want to write about his compatriots: there was no love lost between him and the exiled London Serbs. He was not, to use the euphemism loved by British obituary writers, the easiest of colleagues.

A Novel of London uses an elevated, highly charged Serbian prose to recreate an imaginary Russianness, in a voice deliberately anachronistic even at the moment of its writing (it is not an historical novel but does read like one). When you say “pure Crnjanski” in Serbian, you call to mind a long sentence punctuated by startling commas and full of inversions impossible in English, often closing in on itself with a “moreover” or a “nevertheless.” Then there is A Novel of London’s near-total immersion in Englishness: it is about lives lived in England, after all. The narration—some of the most richly nuanced Serbian prose ever written—is peppered with phrases of often imperfect English, as well as equally imperfect French and Russian, to create a unique voice.

In addition to a thorough introduction by David Norris, the leading scholar of Crnjanski in the West, the Diálogos edition carries a prefatory note on translating A Novel of London by Will Firth. In the process of translating, Firth has also added a vast apparatus of foot- and end-notes, creating what amounts to a critical edition and a valuable contribution to the study of the author and his work.

I have reluctantly omitted an excursus on difficulty of getting works translated and the wretched fate of those that achieve that goal (“Sales of two hundred copies are considered a success even for the widely reviewed titles by those foreign authors who are still alive and available for readings and interviews in fluent English”), as well as a touching account of the novel’s effect on Goldsworthy herself, but from what I have posted you can see why I would like to read it. Alas, the translation costs forty bucks for the paperback — I guess I’ll check a nearby library. Anyway, many thanks to Trevor for the link!

Here, by the way, is Firth’s LARB essay, which is well worth reading in its own right:

Despite its literary significance, the vagaries of reception are such that A Novel of London has only been translated into five languages (Polish, Hungarian, French, Russian, and most recently Italian). Crnjanski and his works seem to have been overshadowed by those of Ivo Andrić, author of The Bridge on the Drina, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. A similar neglect has befallen Crnjanski’s Croatian peer Miroslav Krleža, whose significant 1926 travelogue Journey to Russia, for example, was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. I translated that powerful book and saw it into print in 2017, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. But there were still many gaps to fill…

Of course now I want to read Journey to Russia as well (I already have Krleža’s On the Edge of Reason); thank goodness it’s priced more affordably. And I posted about Firth’s “10 Books by Women We’d Like to See Translated: Balkan Edition” back in 2016.


  1. David Marjanović says

    full of inversions impossible in English, often closing in on itself with a “moreover” or a “nevertheless.”

    …That’s harder in English, but it’s possible nevertheless! It’s also feasible, moreover.

  2. It was out in French in 1972 and my review (https://www.themodernnovel.org/europe/europe/serbia/milos-crnjanski/london-novel/) is based on the French edition

  3. Thanks! I have to say, your review makes me less eager to read the book, since it drives home how depressing the story is.

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