In today’s post, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta reflects on the many books that accompanied her during a year abroad in Brazil, ranging from classic Japanese novels to contemporary fiction in translation.
Early in 2018, as I was preparing to move to Brazil, I picked up a faded old book from my parents’ bookshelf. Junichirō Tanizaki’s classic novel The Makioka Sisters, originally published in serial form in the mid-1940s, follows four sisters, two of whom are in need of husbands, as they navigate their own altered fortune and the clash between tradition and modernity in inter-war Japan. There’s nothing I love more than a really long novel, and this one, for me, was an ideal blend of familiar (the Jane Austen-style plot) and different (the specifics of Japanese society in that era, which I knew little about). In hindsight, it was probably my favorite of all the books I read this year.
As soon as I finished The Makioka Sisters, I started The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (who, notably, was shortlisted for Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award this year). Though the two novels were written nearly a half-century apart and have little in common, I enjoyed reading them back-to-back, especially since one of Murakami’s characters, who would have been a contemporary of the Makioka sisters, tells war stories from his time in the Japanese army during World War II.
As my trip to Brazil drew nearer, I rushed through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and, fortunately for my suitcase, managed to finish it just before I had to leave for the airport. Once at my gate, I got started on Charles Dickens’ massive Bleak House, which I had tried—and failed—to read once before. I promised myself that I would finish it this time, no matter how long it took. And so I spent the next two months carrying Bleak House around the streets of Curitiba, Brazil, reading it on the sunny couch in my apartment, and occasionally using it as a yoga block (it was about the right size).
Nobody had told her how bright it would be. Cold, yes, dangerous, of course (this was 1894, after all). But the light! It surrounded them like an ocean, assaulting the tiny sled with a relentlessness that would have been painful for anyone but was torture for her, whose eyes had been sensitive from birth. Later in life this photophobia would become so bad that she would have to hire someone to read the pages she was translating out loud (a method one amanuensis described as “very tedious and exhausting”). But at this point, there weren’t any assistants: there was just Russia, which shone during the day but emitted a soft glow after dark, like a horse steaming in its stable. When the sun went down, the sled stopped at a village for directions, and a peasant whom Constance Garnett described as having “an ivory face and jet black hair and beard, rather like some picture I have seen of John the Baptist” invited her into his hut:
I was blinded by the steam on my spectacles at first, then I saw the interior of a Russian izba for the first time. Two women and several children got up from their lockers on which they had been asleep… In the middle of the fearfully hot airless hut swung a sort of large birdcage covered with a large red cotton cloth, and from it came the miauling of a baby… I could not stay more than a few minutes in the izba—I was afraid of fainting—so I went out and sat in the sledge where the temperature was somewhere about zero under the immense dark blue starry sky. The peasant directed our driver. I remember one of the women ventured to put in advice—and was at once told to hold her tongue—that this was not a woman’s business .
It was a scene straight out of Turgenev, a writer whose unexpected vogue in late 19th-century England turned out to be the first wave of a fascination with Russian literature that would grip the anglophone world until the late 1920s. Over the course of its thirty-year run, this “Russian fever”  would influence not only specific artists, but also the way that writers, and readers, thought about fiction. It would transform the novel in English, swinging interest away from corseted descriptions of late-Victorian drawing rooms, and towards what D. H. Lawrence, writing about Anna Karenina, called “the bright book of life.” And it would do so, for the most part, in the voice of a single translator: Constance Garnett.