Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Old Country

It's a frightening thought that I've reached an age where there are now books that I first read almost fifty years ago, and I'm not talking about The Cat in the Hat. A case in point is this Signet Classics edition of Turgenev's The Hunting Sketches, which I first read so long ago that I remembered only that it had about as much to do with hunting as Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America had to do with angling. But I did know that I enjoyed it at the time, and some vague recollection of its mood, coupled with a desire for an antidote after suffering through The Idiot, led me back to it.

I had long ago discarded my old copy. There are newer translations that for all I know may be better than Bernard Guilbert Guerney's, but nostalgia drew me back to this edition and I found a second-hand but still sturdy replacement copy easily enough.

The Hunting Sketches was Turgenev's first book, and its narrator, a member of the Russian landed gentry who seems to have unlimited time on his hands, is thought to have much in common with the author. Not much actual hunting takes place, just the odd game bird or two, but the narrator's travels in search of sport lead him to various encounters with the peasants and gentlefolk of the Russian countryside, a cast of characters that, for a Westernized Russian like Turgenev, must have seemed intriguingly exotic. The individual sketches range widely in tone and subject, encompassing "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral...," and so on. Here and there the descriptive passages get a bit florid (at least in this translation), but overall the tone is dispassionate, even anthropological; at times I was reminded of that other meticulous explorer of foreign lands, Lafcadio Hearn. The most memorable tale is probably "Bezhin Meadow," in which the narrator, having become lost, stumbles onto a night encampment of five adolescent boys, who exchange eerie tales of local ghosts and horrors once they think that the narrator has fallen asleep. It's a wonderful piece of writing.

The book was published in the 1850s, and the Russia it describes has been transformed and transformed again since then, but Turgenev seems like our contemporary, or the kind of contemporary we would have if we deserved him. Within the limits of his class and his background and the inevitable constraints of literary creation he described life as he found it. Naturally the authorities were displeased.

In addition to extensive work as translator, Bernard Guilbert Guerney, who died in 1979, had a second career as the proprietor of the Blue Faun Bookshop in New York City, which was in existence from 1922 into the '70s. (There is a Walker Evans photograph of the shop's exterior.) He was born near Odessa as Bernard Abramovich Bronstein or Bronshtein, and one source indicates that he may have been related to Trotsky. Walter Goldwater, a fellow bookseller, had this to say of him:
He was a great talker and one of the ones who was very resentful about the way things were going: things always used to be better; people are now illiterate; he can't stand people coming in; they don’t know anything, and so on. He was very difficult to do business with, but we got along quite well because we used to talk in Russian or talk about Russia.
Vladimir Nabokov called Guerney's translation of Gogol's Dead Souls "an extraordinarily fine piece of work."


Tororo said...

Nabokov was a picky reader, especially for translation from Russian, so his praise surely means something!

I happen to have read this book for the first time some 50 years ago, too (amazing, how time flies… did you say frightening?) and then re-read it, years later, in another translation. I don't have either book at hand anymore, what I remember is how the many differences in translations gave me food for thought (example: one was entirely written in impeccable academic French, the other one made some attempts at transposing into a patoisant French the Russian peasants mannerisms, I suppose Turgenev used in the original).
Both books dated from roughly one century ago. I assume there are newer translations to French, as there are to English; I plan to look up for at least one, or more if I can, and re-read the book anyway, for it made a lasting impression, at both readings.

Chris said...

Yes, the translator of this edition struggled a bit with dialect. In one story he attempts to re-create in English what I think was supposed to be Yiddish-accented Russian, and the effect is fairly bizarre. He also uses words like "lave" that long ago dropped out of the English vocabulary. Still, on the whole I think he did a good job.