Friday, 18 May 2012

Night Roads: Translating Gaito Gazdanov

Guest post by Justin Doherty (Lecturer in Russian, Trinity College Dublin)

Parisian taxi c. 1927. Copyright info.
Some years ago I read somewhere about a Russian émigré writer who had lived in Paris between the wars and worked as a taxi-driver at night, and had written a novel based on his experiences: this writer’s name was Gaito Gazdanov. The name rang a vague bell, and, intrigued, I managed to get hold of a Russian publication containing a few of Gazdanov’s novels (An Evening with Claire, The Story of a Journey and Night Roads, plus a few short stories) and started reading – beginning with Ночные дороги. Something about the circumstances of this book, as well as the subject-matter and setting, had a special kind of appeal. I had studied French literature along with Russian as a student, and Paris had exercised a particular kind of fascination – not just the real city that I knew, if superficially, but the mythical world of the poètes maudits with its doomed romantic allure. I had loved the novels of Sartre and Camus and Voyage au bout de la nuit by Céline, and now here was a Russian writer who not only described the dark, nocturnal side of this mythical city but did so in a way that seemed to be in tune with the existential writers I knew from my student days – indeed, if Gazdanov had (anachronistically) quoted from Sartre in an epigraph (la vie commence de l’autre côté du désespoir), it would have come as no surprise. What was more, you could trace a line straight back to Dostoevsky in many of Gazdanov’s themes and preoccupations – the wise drunk (Marmeladov), the theme of prostitution (Sonia Marmeladova) as metaphor for all the selling of oneself that the capitalist world requires of us (after all, a prostitute tells Gazdanov’s taxi-driver narrator, their two professions are essentially one and the same), the false allure of wealth (The Youth), insane self-delusion and suicide (plenty of examples of these), and many others – in just the same way that you can see Dostoevsky in the background in Camus and Céline. And then there was Gazdanov’s literary style – the rambling, ‘Proustian’ sentences and seemingly haphazard jumps between episodes and characters that thematize the randomness of experience and apparent lack of meaningful connectedness in our everyday interaction with the world and with others (or at least, for those of us susceptible to the rather nihilistic outlook of La Nausée). This was the kind of Russian I would have written myself, I thought, if I had happened to have been a Russian writer living (or existing) in 1930s Paris – or the Russian equivalent of, well, a kind of more expansive Samuel Beckett, another predilection looming in the background, another Parisian and nihilistic doubter of everything. 
By coincidence (which is the other side of the coin of the randomness of things, if you like), I was finding myself increasingly drawn to translating at that very time (by way of an experiment, I had recently done a translation of the fullest – if one can say that – expression of Russian émigré nihilism of that time, Georgii Ivanov’s Disintegration of the Atom), and Night Roads came along at exactly the right moment – a book that seemed to me to deserve to be called a major Russian novel by an important, if neglected, émigré writer, and yet no one had translated it (at least into English – it had appeared already in a few other languages).

Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971)
It’s a work that presents a good number of challenges to the translator, two of which I think are particularly worth commenting on. First, there is a certain linguistic hybridity in this work that is maybe less apparent in most of Gazdanov’s other works – in Night Roads the great majority of the characters we meet are French, so most of the dialogue in the work (and there is a lot, though it alternates with lengthy passages of introspective philosophizing and reminiscence) is notionally happening in French (and in fact, more than notionally in Gazdanov’s original draft of the novel, where the dialogues were written not just in French but often in Parisian ‘argot’). Does one translate these dialogues into a kind of ‘franglais’? – well, obviously not in any crude way, but I think one does have to try to capture in a more or less nuanced way the flavour of French that can be detected in some of Gazdanov’s Russian. Then, second, there is the problem of Gazdanov’s rambly long sentences: what is at stake here is the thematic and even philosophical importance of the sentence in this work, as Gazdanov’s narrator gropes around for meaning and ways of connecting his experiences of the world and responses to them into some kind of sense. You have to keep in mind as well that these sentences are not actually modeled on the elegant and elusive style cultivated by Marcel Proust, rather they stretch and almost break syntactic tolerance and threaten a complete loss of control (maybe the influence of surrealism is what one should be looking for here, rather than Proust). My feeling as translator is that one has to follow Gazdanov as best one can: you are of course inviting criticism for being too eager to imitate Russian sentence-structure and abuse of the norms of English literary style, but this decision is the opposite of intellectual laziness – indeed, nothing is more tempting for the translator than to sort ‘bad’ sentences out and put them into some kind of proper, elegant and stylish order, but, to reference Sartre once again, this would be ‘bad faith’ on the part of the translator and what was lost would be infinitely greater than anything that might be gained.
I would like to finish by thanking Russian Dinosaur for the opportunity to share these existential ramblings with the wider world, and hope that a few more readers may feel the inclination to join Gazdanov’s taxi-driver on his journey to the end of the night, ideally in the original Russian, failing that in my English translation beautifully produced by Northwestern U.P. I remember being surprised at how interested Russian Dinosaur generally seemed in my Russian avant-garde classes, as the Irish say, ‘back in the day’, and I’m delighted to see his interest in Russian literature still very much in evidence in his splendid blog.


  1. I am glad Gazdanov is being read and translated! He is not exactly my favourite author, but his are some of my all-time favourite prose fragments. The former is for the same reason I don't much like "Night Roads" as a whole, the latter - for the same reason I will forever remember the beginning of "The Ghost of Alexandre Wolf": "Из всех моих воспоминаний, из всего бесконечного количества ощущений
    моей жизни самым тягостным было воспоминание о единственном убийстве,
    которое я совершил. С той минуты, что оно произошло, я не помню дня, когда
    бы я не испытывал сожаления об этом. Никакое наказание мне никогда не
    угрожало, так как это случилось в очень исключительных обстоятельствах и
    было ясно, что я не мог поступить иначе. Никто, кроме меня, вдобавок, не
    знал об этом.". "The Ghost", by the way, is my favourite book by Gazdanov. I don't think it's a truly great novel (some details seem disappointingly cheap), but it is one I will be re-reading.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Maxim. 'The Ghost of Alexander Wolf' is probably my favourite Gazdanov novel also, and I've used the opening 300 words several times as a translation exercise for Intermediate Russian classes because I find it so exciting.