Here Kevin Kinsella interviews the fascinating Anya Ulinich, whose first novel, Petropolis, he’s been recommending to me for months. I defy you to read the interview and not come away with the sense that you should pick up a copy immediately. (The image below, Marx, Bird, Monster, is one of Ulinich’s own paintings.)
Imagine my surprise upon learning that someone had written a book entitled Petropolis. Okay… now imagine it after learning that I recently spent two years of my life translating from Russian a book of poems originally published in 1922 that I was beginning to think that no one in the twenty-first century United States could possibly care about but from which Anya Ulinich ultimately takes the title of her remarkable debut novel.
For me, what started as an over-earnest graduate thesis (“Transparent Spring: Problems Translating Osip Mandelshtam’s Tristia into English”) quickly graduated from a pet project to an obsession. And like most people with a personal obsession, I couldnÃ¢’t understand why no one else seemed to care about — or at least understand — the urgency of my project: to bring a general reader’s edition of what was, arguably, the best poems of one of the greatest of the Russian Silver Age poets to an English-speaking audience. Now imagine my dismay — and then my delight — upon actually reading it, when I learned that Ulinich’s novel, which references Mandelshtam’s poetry in such a smart, funny, and contemporary light, isn’t really about the poet at all, but rather is a coming-of-age story that starts in a tiny Siberian town and ultimately ends in Brooklyn, not far from where I currently live. Okay, just trust me that translating poetry from Russia’s Silver Age is a monkish business, but also understand that reading smart, highly entertaining novels written by young Russian-American authors is anything but.
Anya Ulinich was born in 1973 in Moscow. She began studying art as a child. When she was seventeen, her family left Moscow and immigrated to the United States. Anya attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received an MFA from the University of California at Davis. In 2000, she moved to Brooklyn, “abandoned” painting and began to write. Petropolis is her first novel.
Sasha Goldberg, the protagonist of Petropolis, is a biracial, Jewish, socially maladjusted “child of the intelligentsia” from the Siberian town Asbestos 2. Sasha’s father takes off for the U.S., leaving her to navigate adolescence under the shadow of her overbearing mother. At fourteen, Sasha falls in love with an art school dropout who lives in a concrete half pipe in the town’s dump. When following her heart gets her into trouble at home, Sasha leaves Russia as a mail-order bride and, with the help of the Kupid’s Korner Agency, lands in suburban Arizona. Soon, she escapes her Red Lobster-loving fiancé and embarks on a misadventure-filled journey across America in search of her father.
I interviewed the author by email.
You’ve said that you chose Petropolis as the title of your novel because it was the only one from Osip Mandelshtam’s collection Tristia that you thought you could translate well enough (excellent job, by the way). But I think this is just too easy an answer. Not only is it the title of your novel, but the whole story is sandwiched between the poem. Also, “Petropolis” the poem, is in many ways Mandelshtam’s key lament on the end of Western civilization, as he sees at the beginning of the 20th century. What does “Petropolis” mean to Sasha Goldberg? Could another poem from that collection have sufficed if you felt that you could have done a better job translating it? I don’t think so.
Before I talk about the particular poem, I’m going to say a couple things about the Soviet “intelligentsia” class.
Russian culture was interrupted in the 1920s. After that time, for sixty-odd years, all forms of expression remained tightly regulated. While American culture is a vast collection of subcultures that enjoy different art, music, writing, movies, fashions etc., the Soviet Union had no organic pop culture (with some exceptions such anecdoti jokes and prison folklore). In this cultural vacuum, certain landmarks of Western civilization (the so-called “high” art, basically, cultural artifacts of a freer world) — classical music, ballet, some types of painting, poetry — attained an exaggerated, cult-like status, becoming a signifier of the “intelligentsia” class.
Poetry becomes especially powerful in times of oppression — it’s compact; it can be memorized, its paper evidence can be discarded, you don’t need an orchestra to perform it. Had Russian culture developed organically, Mandelstam would have been as obscure there as he is in the U.S. But in the Soviet Union, he and the other Silver Age poets became kind of folk heroes of samizdat-reading “intelligentsia” underground.
Okay, so the point is — this “intelligentsia” designation is very important to Sasha’s mother, Lubov Goldberg. In her mind, it distinguishes her from her drunk, fish-off-newspaper-eating neighbors, although her daily life is exactly the same as theirs. Continue reading…