Dralyuk on Russian Extras.

Boris Dralyuk is a longtime LH favorite (starting with this 2012 post), so I am pleased as punch to share the news of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Translation going to his version of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees; see this page (scroll down) for a description.

In his response to my congratulatory e-mail, he sent me a link to his new essay for the New Criterion, “A White Russian on the rocks,” which begins with a discussion of one of the more picturesque occupations of Russian exiles after the Revolution:

Some twenty pages into Nabokov’s first novel, Mary (1926), the protagonist, Ganin, an émigré displaced by the Russian Revolution who has found a precarious home in Berlin, returns to his pension—“a cheerless house in which lived seven Russian lost shades”—and sinks into despair. In that moment, “the whole of life seemed [to him] like a piece of film-making where heedless extras knew nothing of the picture in which they were taking part.” Despair is the characteristic mood of the so-called White émigrés, who fought against or simply opposed the Bolsheviks and ended up scattered across the cities of Europe, Asia, and the Americas; it is also the title of Nabokov’s seventh novel. The image of dispirited Russian-speakers wasting away in the boarding houses and smoke-filled cafés of Paris and Berlin is indeed something of a cliché. Like most clichés, it has a basis in truth.

When Nabokov’s Ganin reaches for a cinematic metaphor to express his ennui, he alludes to something that became another cliché of Russophone émigré life—one to which he returns later in the novel. At the deathbed of the poet Podtyagin,

he looked in the old man’s face, and once again he remembered these flickering, shadowy doppelgängers, the casual Russian film extras, sold for ten marks apiece and still flitting, God knows where, across the white gleam of a screen.

Ganin knows firsthand whereof he speaks. In emigration, asserts Nabokov’s narrator,

Nothing was beneath his dignity; more than once he had even sold his shadow, as many of us have. In other words he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness. They would fire a barrage of murderous brilliance, illuminating the painted wax of motionless faces, then expiring with a click—but for a long time yet there would glow, in those elaborate crystals, dying red sunsets—our human shame. The deal was clinched, and our anonymous shadows sent out all over the world.

It wasn’t just Nabokov’s protagonist and narrator who had sold their shadows. The émigré author’s chief biographer, Brian Boyd, tells us that on March 12, 1925, Nabokov himself “left [Berlin] at 7 a.m. for a day’s work as a film extra [and] returned at 5 a.m. with ten dollars in his hand, greasepaint on his brows and klieg-light spots in his eyes.”

This wasn’t the only day Nabokov spent filling out the background on Weimar film sets, nor was he the only Russophone émigré to sell his shadow and write about it. […] It’s no surprise that Nabokov and Felsen, deprived of agency and chased from land to land by forces far larger than themselves, would find the experience of playing “the sorriest part”—that of mute foreigners in foreign films—to be a fitting figure of the broader existential predicament of their fellow émigrés.

Dralyuk eventually gets to the main focus of his essay:

Alexander Voloshin has not gone unmentioned in the few existing accounts of Hollywood’s White Russian colony, but when I finally acquired a fragile, hard-to-find copy of his slim collection of poems and prose, Na putiakh i pereput’iakh (“On the Tracks and at Crossroads,” 1953), and read it cover to cover, I was astounded that he hadn’t received more attention. Then again, the copy had been extremely hard to find. Even the best volumes of émigré writing were often vanity productions, printed cheaply in small numbers. By these standards, On the Tracks received rather respectful treatment at the hands of its publisher, Delo. The book is laid out well and features a poignant watercolor of a ragged exile clutching a stamp-covered suitcase at a train station at twilight on its paper cover, as well as a frontispiece sketch of the author. To tell the truth, the stories and many of the lyrics in the book are little more than charming, but the titular poem, which occupies fifty-eight of the book’s 148 pages, is to my mind nothing less than a tragicomic masterpiece. First, let me summarize what I’ve been able to reconstruct of the life that went into the making of the great mock epic of White Russian Hollywood.

As always, his prose is irresistible, and his verse rendition of the parts he quotes of the “tragicomic masterpiece” are delightful as well:

Not many Russians “break through,” though.
Believe me, it’s a thorny road
that leads up to the starry skies . . .
You’ll need some “pull” here, otherwise
you’ll have to squirm and beg and wail,
hold on to someone else’s tail,
keep beating down producers’ doors,
give gifts on holidays, and more . . .
You’ll have to sweeten every pot
or you won’t even have a shot.
Those who don’t give, who play it straight,
are asked to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . .

(You can see the cover, frontispiece, and title page of Voloshin’s book here.) Read the whole thing, and my renewed felicitations to the deserving winner!


  1. PlasticPaddy says


    Все держали хвост трубой…
    «Прапор» — желто-голубой —
    На флагштоках развевался,
    Всяк, по мере сил, старался —
    Веселиться, пить, гулять
    И — на «мове» размовлять…
    Сбросив иго злого сплина, —
    «Ще не вмерла Украина»
    Пели, громко и вразброд, —
    Киевляне в этот год …

    Translation at link

  2. “Hudibrastic,” says Dralyuk. Close but not quite. Hudibras is in iambic tetrameters with AABB rhyming. Most rhymes are masculine, interspersed with feminine (including delightful couplings like “accouter’d – outward” or “religion – ass and widgeon”). Alexander Voloshin’s mock-heroic poem is in trochaic tetrameters, also rhymed AABB – couplets – but with feminine As and masculine Bs.

    The first Russian prototype that comes to mind is Конек-горбунок, The Little Humpbacked Horse by Pyotr Yershov (first published in 1834). It was once immensely popular, and deservedly so. But I’m also thinking of Mme Kourdukoff’s European tour, Ivan Myatlev’s macaronic masterpiece (Сенсации и замечания госпожи Курдюковой за границею, дан л’этранже). Alexander Voloshin uses the same meter and rhyming scheme as Yershov and Myatlev, and that gives his poem a mock-heroic flavor.

  3. An excellent comparison!

  4. Thank you again, LH, for the pat on the back! And thank you, Alex, for your excellent comment!

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