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Liza’s Journey. Part 8.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In these internet times, it is so easy to be sucked into the rabbit hole of information with its vast network of enticingly clickable taglines leading to an infinite supply of must-read articles. And so it was with my project. Having translated Poor Liza, and then found a plentiful supply of other stories by Karamzin that I just had to translate, I went on to explore the other writers of the time who influenced Karamzin, or who were influenced by him. As I result, I learned about Gessner, Emin, Rousseau, Locke, Mme de Genlis, Ovid and many others with whose works Karamzin was familiar, and then I proceeded to spot echoes of Karamzin in the writing of Pushkin, Lermontov and other pillars of Russian literature who followed in his wake. Karamzin really did exist at a pivotal time when Russian literature was beginning to emerge in all its glory, and his work had an impact not only on the literary scene, but also on the Russian language itself. Being well-read, having travelled widely, and given his aptitude for languages, Karamzin was clearly attempting to reproduce the Western European Sentimentalist genre in a Russian language that was more accessible to a wider readership.

Intrigued, I began to read some of these Western Sentimentalist works, and found some striking parallels with Karamzin’s stories. Mme de Genlis’ Eugénie et Léonce, for example, has much in common with Karamzin’s Eugene and Julia, while Poor Liza features many of the stylistic elements found in Salomon Gessner’s poetry, and Karamzin also refers directly to the works of other writers in many places. Pushkin’s story The Stationmaster, meanwhile, seems to be written as a response to Poor Liza, with a similar storyline, although its heroine is rather more robust and it is told with Pushkin’s characteristic sophisticated flair. A passage from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, where the narrator encounters a strange girl singing a mysterious song, bears a striking resemblance to a scene in Karamzin’s Bornholm Island featuring a strange young man singing a mysterious song. Even the title of this novel is blatantly reminiscent of Karamzin’s A Knight of Our Time, published almost forty years earlier. And so the list goes on…

My only problem was where to stop. I had to set myself some kind of limit. So, I chose one story to accompany each of the four Karamzin stories already in my collection (plus a sprinkling of poetry for a little extra flavour!). Consequently, the final(ish) version of my much-larger-than-planned translation project will probably look something like this:

Eugene and Julia by Karamzin and Eugénie et Léonce by Mme de Genlis

Poor Liza by Karamzin and The Stationmaster by Alexander Pushkin

Bornholm Island by Karamzin and an extract from A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Knight of Our Time by Karamzin and an unusual version of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

More details of the fate of the finished project to follow in my next post…

Liza’s Journey. Part 7.

Travelling Companions

As with all good adventures, Liza’s journey seems to have diverged from the route that was originally planned. Having completed the first draft of my translation of ‘Poor Liza’, I happened upon some other stories by Karamzin, and Liza has now been joined on her journey by a motley crew of travelling companions, such as the supremely innocent if not angelic Julia, a singing Dane with a tragic story to tell, and an unlikely knight. The more I read by and about Karamzin, the more fascinated I became by the development in Karamzin’s writing, which is apparent in the stories, and which led to him becoming one of the founding fathers of Russian literature as we know it today.

‘Eugene and Julia is a sweet yet tragic love story, not unlike ‘Poor Liza’, but much simpler and more idyllic in style, having been written some three years earlier in 1789. ‘Bornholm Island’ was published the year after “Poor Liza”, and although it can still be described as a tragic love story, there are also plenty of Gothic overtones, as the author begins to experiment with new techniques. The later ‘A Knight of Our Time’, published in instalments in a journal in 1802 and 1803, is different again, its tone slightly tongue-in-cheek, as the now older Karamzin injects his writing with a certain amount of sarcasm and wit.

So, while I am gathering, reviewing and wondering about a home for my now numerous translations, here is a snippet from the first draft of my current favourite, ‘Bornholm Island’:

The scarlet hue of sunset had not yet faded in the bright sky, its rosy glow falling on the white granite rocks and, in the distance, beyond a large hill, it lit up the pointed towers of an ancient castle. The boy could not tell me to whom the castle belonged. “We do not go there,” he said. “And God only knows what goes on inside!” I redoubled my steps and soon neared the huge gothic building surrounded by a deep moat and a high wall. Silence reigned all around, the sea could be heard far away, and the last ray of evening light was dying away over the bronze spires on top of the towers.

I walked around the castle – the gates were closed and the drawbridge raised. My guide, although he himself did not know why, begged me to go back to the huts, but how could a curious person agree to such a request?

In the same story, a mysterious stranger with a guitar sings a song, hinting at the rest of the plot. The narrator kindly translates it from the Danish for us:

O Bornholm, dear Bornholm!
My soul for you doth yearn
Never resting, where’er I may roam,
and yet I weep in vain.

Here I languish and lament,
now banished from your shores
by the oath of a scrupulous parent,
to sigh forever more.

The current Karamzinian chaos on my desk