The Bookshelf: Telluria.

As I said here, NYRB Classics was kind enough to send me a review copy of Telluria, Max Lawton’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s 2013 Теллурия, and having finished it, I’m here to say a few things about it. It’s not really a novel in the traditional sense, in that there is no continuing plot and no consistent set of characters (except for chapters 39-41, which describe the same event from the points of view of the three characters who take part in it); it consists of fifty vignettes set in the neo-medieval future Sorokin created in День опричника, translated by Jamey Gambrell as Day of the Oprichnik, each with its own style and use of language (often a parody of some well-known writer). To give you an idea, the first is about two “littleuns,” Zoran and Goran, creating a set of brass knuckles; here’s a paragraph from Lawton’s translation:

Goran extended his hand demonstratively and poked his finger through the smoky stench of the packhouse. And there, seemingly at the command of his tiny finger, two biguns removed a crucible with the capacity of a hundred buckets and filled with molten lead from the furnace and carried it over to the casting flasks, a peal of thunder seeming to escape from their bellies. Even the steps they took with their bare feet made the packhouse tremble. A human-size glass clinked around in a glass-holder on the table.

The second takes the form of a letter from a visitor, beginning:

My sweet, most venerable boy,

I have arrived in Moscovia. Everything happened faster and more simply than usual. Though they say that entering this state is much easier than leaving it. In that fact lies the metaphysics, if you will, of this place. But to hell with that! I’m sick of living based on rumors and conjectures. Us radical Europeans are biased against and wary of exotic countries up until the moment of penetration. To put it more simply — until we become intimate with them.

And the third is a sort of sermon beginning:

By the grace of the Sovereign Top-Manager, ad majorem gloriam the CPSU and all the saints, for the happiness of the people by the will of the Lord alone, at the behest of world imperialism, as per the request of enlightened Satanism, by the burning of Russian-Orthodox patriotism, having a solid consensus and peace of mind built on financial expertise and based on capitalistic concepts […]

That should give you some idea of how it operates, as well as of Lawton’s style. Biblioklept recently interviewed him (calling Telluria “my favorite book this year”), and here are some enlightening excerpts:

TELLURIA is about pushing one’s mastery of style to the point where it begins to break down—in the mode of late Miles. It is at these moments of breaking down that something new begins to come into being. On the level of content, TELLURIA suggests that the small is always more charming—more desirable—than the master narrative. Nationalism, he suggests, can only be cute if it’s a doll-sized state that’s doing the nationalizing. Anything bigger is monstrous. The book, then, is an ode to difference. And a challenge to land-grabbing, logos-hijacking imperialists who believe in a single story. For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph. […]

Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices. I felt like a guitarist called up to play with Miles Davis on the DARK MAGUS tour. I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations––what a blessing that we have a commensurate American tradition of SOUTHERN SKAZ FICTION able to render the Leskovian oral narratives that Sorokin fucks with), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others. Sometimes, Sorokin’s deranged signifiers come forth from very specific literary and historical phenomena. At others, he plays freely. In the former case, I tread very carefully (and Sorokin also watches my step). You’re right to say that TELLURIA was fun to translate for precisely that reason. […]

As for Sorokin’s moral compass, it’s hard to say. It seems to me that Sorokin mostly portrays God by way of His absence. THEIR FOUR HEARTS is a particularly striking example of this. But there’s also a strain of more old-fashioned Russian mysticism (which I’ve alluded to above) sometimes at play. The religious chapter is a good example of this (the Jesus trip), as is the hankering for a more simple rural life—the plagal cadence with which the novel comes to an end.

And that ending is a fine one, perhaps the best thing in the novel; at any rate, it provides an essential perspective on what has gone before. The penultimate chapter, on the other hand, is one of the funniest, and a good example of Lawton at his best, channeling Ginsberg:

I saw the worst minds of my generation torn out of black madness by tellurium, minds
who overcame the quotidian morass of the swamp of an ordinary life,
who cast the concrete crust of idiotic self-assurance and dull complacency off from their souls,
who trampled the chimera of earthly predestination in an instant,
who shook the ashily shaggy mold of tired perception of the
world off from their eyes…

I would say Sorokin is lucky to have found such a dedicated translator, one willing to dig as deeply as needed into both sources and English models of style. I think Lawton is least successful in conversational passages requiring a convincing equivalent of the mesmerizingly unique original, which unites slang, obscenity, archaisms, and the sweet rhythms of spoken Russian; I simply am not convinced by things like “he ‘n ‘is wife […] ‘ad three kids, ‘re waitin’ on a fourth, an’ he’s goin’ to visit ’em fur Christmas” or “And but this, so’s such slighter?” There is too much reliance on “ye” (as a substitute for “you”), which (for me) doesn’t work at all. But, as I have often had occasion to complain, English (of the General American kind) has no useful equivalent to conversational Russian, so there is never going to be a solution that satisfies everyone.

As for the novel itself, I concur with The Untranslated:

Vladimir Sorokin’s new novel is a feast of self-repetitions, which might work better for those who haven’t read the Russian author’s previous works. Here we find all his major preoccupations, idiosyncrasies and quirks most of which date back to his early major novel Norm (Норма [see my review; the new novel is most like Part 1, with tellurium replacing “the norm” as the McGuffin]). […]

The novel is definitely a fun ride. This is vintage Sorokin, and for those who don’t expect from him a quantum leap into some uncharted territory and are still benevolent towards his staple hi-jinks, Telluria will make for a pleasant reading experience.


  1. Huh? Just a few short minutes ago I found that the translation of Telluria has “Thy shall be done” for whatever reason.

  2. Yes, that was the novel I was reading along in — I didn’t want to encumber my review with such a trivial point, so I gave it its own post.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Do you have access to see the Russian text to see what wording there the translator decided to English as “thy shall be done”?

  4. /Sorokin is lucky to have found such a dedicated translator/
    frankly, I just don’t see how it is possible to translate/convey this kind of writing. I am simply in awe of whoever is trying to, like Lawton.

  5. Do you have access to see the Russian text to see what wording there the translator decided to English as “thy shall be done”?

    Yes, and the Russian is perfectly normal — nothing to prompt the odd English.

  6. Trond Engen says

    A translator may translate (hah!) jokes or purported misunderstandings into places where they are natural in the target language. How does it fit the general style of the original?

  7. I don’t know how to answer that question. There is no “general style of the original,” each chapter has its own style, and the phrase is used in two different chapters with no apparent relevance to the original. I continue to think it’s either a misunderstanding of the language of the prayer on the part of the translator or a failure on the part of an editor (whether made of bits or flesh).

  8. Update: Max says he used “thy shall be done” as representative of Sorokin’s idea with the New Medieval language and what he wanted to convey in the translation; he agrees that “it perhaps should have been explained in the afterword.”

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