Posts featuring Daniil Kharms

In Conversation: Alexander Cigale

Mandelstam's “argument” is inseparable from his music and, for me, it is that music that has always been primary.

The post-symbolist Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, as dazzling and immediate as he is daunting and complex, is best known in English for the early formal work of Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). Mandelstam would mature into a poet of visionary modernity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Translator Alexander Cigale is working on an as yet unpublished new volume of selected works by Mandelstam and considers himself part of a Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, after the Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. While earlier translations established Mandelstam’s reputation in English principally through Tristia and Stone, Cigale chooses to render many of the middle-period “Moscow” poems by Mandelstam, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, and heretofore less well-known in English.  

Cigale has also translated Daniil Kharms, a contemporary of Mandelstam and a poet of nonsense and absurdity akin to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, a poet who seems, at first blush, almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam in temperament and aesthetic. Both Mandelstam and Kharms have become pillars of Russian twentieth-century poetry. Since publishing a volume of selected works by Kharms in 2017, Cigale seems poised to become an esteemed translator of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth Century—and, perhaps, of the twenty-first, since Cigale is also at work on the contemporary poet Mikhail Eremin thanks to an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation.  

As a longtime reader of Mandelstam and Kharms, poet Alexander Dickow asks Cigale about the difficulties and rewards of scaling the highest peaks of Russian poetry, and especially that of Mandelstam’s glittering verse.

Alexander Dickow (AD): Alex, you just published in February 2017 a new translation of selected work by the OBERIU (Russian absurdist) writer Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, from Northwestern University Press. Your latest project is a volume of selected poems by the celebrated Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. I’d like to start with a question about the historical situation of these writers who both reached their poetic maturity in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Kharms and Mandelstam were both destroyed by Stalin. How do you think this manifests differently in these poets’ work?

Alexander Cigale (AC): Stalin was cognizant of and acknowledged the genius of Mandelstam (in a phone conversation with Pasternak). I’m not sure Kharms was on anyone’s radar. He outlived most of his friends because the authorities dismissed him for a madman.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The most important literary news from Slovakia, the UK, Mexico and Guatemala.

This week brings us some exciting news from Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and Mexico, thanks to Editors-at-Large Julia Sherwood, Paul Worley, and Kelsey Woodburn as well as Senior Executive Assistant, Cassie Lawrence. Here’s to another week!

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Slovakia:

Two festivals concluded the hectic literary festival season in Slovakia. LiKE 2017, a contemporary literature and multimedia festival was held in Košice, the eastern metropolis, running parallel with the 14th Žilina Literature Festival in the country’s north. The latter, held from September 28 to October 8 in the repurposed New Synagogue and entitled Fakt?Fakt! (Fictitious Truth or Truthful Fiction?), focused on the alarming spread of disinformation, pre-empting the decision by Collins Dictionary to declare “fake news” the official word of the year 2017. The programme featured student discussions, workshops on how to distinguish fact from fiction, as well as readings and meetings with literary critics and writers. Michal Hvorecký discussed his latest novel, Trol (The Troll), a dark dystopia set in the murky world of Russian fake news factories, which has acquired a frightening new relevance far exceeding what the author had anticipated when he set out to write his book a few years ago.

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