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Rapture, by Iliazd: an excerpt

Translated by Thomas J. Kitson

Columbia University Press recently released a new translation of Iliazd’s (Ilia Zdanevich) seminal, surreal and avant-garde novel, Rapture. It was censored for decades by the Soviet Union and, on its publication in 1930 in Paris, failed to receive the attention it deserved as a pathbreaking contribution to the canon of Modernist literature. Joshua Maserow, of Public Seminar, interviewed Thomas J. Kitson, who translated Rapture into English, about his encounter with Iliazd’s oeuvre and the work of translation.

Public Seminar [PS]: How did you find yourself translating Rapture? Are you an admirer of Iliazd’s work? I guess I’m interested to know why you chose Iliazd, and Rapture in particular?

Thomas J. Kitson [TJK]: When I was in college, I was attracted to the varieties of zaum (beyonsense) practiced by Russian Futurist poets, especially Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh. Ilia Zdanevich’s typographic experiments for his cycle of short beyonsense plays stunned me, but I don’t  think I ever really tried to read them. I just loved looking at them. Later, in a reprint of some short prose by Kruchenykh, I discovered that the same small press (Hylaea) was publishing novels by Zdanevich (known in France as Iliazd), all of them new to me (as they were to most Russian readers in the 1990s). I tried translating the first chapter of Rapture for a class in literary translation with Dick Davis and knew immediately that I wanted to translate the whole novel and that I wasn’t ready – there was something crucial and baffling about it that I didn’t get. After many more years of reading, study, and living, I went back to it. I’m still not sure I get it (I like to paraphrase Pound and say that Rapture is “mystery that stays mystery”), but that’s part of what draws me to the novel.

PS: Can you talk us through some of the difficulties translating this text? Translation is bracing work even when the source text is conventional. Iliazd, as a linguistic experimenter and Avant Gardist, must have been especially elusive?

TJK: Iliazd’s text in Rapture is almost entirely free of the spectacular distortions we encounter in his beyonsense dramas. Here, beyonsense plays a thematic role. Still, plot and psychology are far less important in the novel than all kinds of rhyme structures and metaphorical associations at all levels from phonemes to mythological plots. If Iliazd’s novel is elusive, it’s by being allusive, both internally and externally. Finding ways to tighten internal allusion and suggest external references without, I hope, being too heavy-handed, meant making multiple drafts and recognizing opportunities that didn’t occur to me in prior drafts. I was also fascinated by the reaction of some of the first Russian readers of Iliazd’s manuscript in 1928: they felt that it had been translated from another language. So, I wanted my English to be occasionally off in a way that wasn’t obviously wrong. Reading my translation aloud was extremely important.

PS: Why should we read this novel now? What is magical about it?

TJK: Iliazd called the novel “a commentary on the idea of poetry as an always vain endeavor.” But given that he also thought of poetry as “a criminal attempt using unsuitable means,” it’s a pretty lively commentary. Iliazd draws the reader into a peculiar world full of violent mayhem and reverent contemplation in order to explore the ambivalence of “rapture.” Because it’s so allusive, it’s a prodigal book, both wayward and generous. It’s a novel about looking for hidden treasure, and you’ll find something in it, just not what you were expecting. It’s unsettling, in the best sense.

PS: Can you describe your writing practice for us? How do you proceed, moment-to-moment?

TJK: I like to make a quick draft – whatever seems right on the first pass. I also make notes about the text, almost anything that occurs to me as I’m working. Then, I go carefully over the draft, rewriting with the whole in mind, but also taking care of local issues like register. I develop some of my notes further as I continue rewriting and gradually determine what features of the text I’m translating I can reasonably convey in the manuscript that’s taking shape in English over successive drafts. I’m very slow.

PS: What’s next? Do you have other book projects in the works?

TJK: Valentina Izmirlieva and I are translating a recent Bulgarian novel by Emilia Dvorianova, At the Doors of the Sea. Dvorianova’s novel is also highly allusive, shaped by musical structures and the influence of écriture feminine, so the translation is no less challenging, but the problems and solutions are quite different. I’m translating another novel by Iliazd, Philosophia, a very paranoid novel set in Istanbul in 1921 among Russian refugees and Soviet agents plotting to seize Hagia Sophia and possibly “blow it sky high.”

Rapture, by Iliazd: Chapter 2

The hamlet with the incredibly long and difficult name, so difficult even its inhabitants couldn’t pronounce it, was situated right next to the glaciers and forests and renowned for being populated exclusively by cretins and people with goiters — an undeserved reputation explained by its extreme inaccessibility. It really was inconceivable to climb up through the canyon along the stream. You had to go north, ascend against the current of the main river, and then, taking to the east, surmount a forested ridge accessible in good weather not just to people on foot, but to horses, and finally descend to a modest glade, where you would have counted, all told, about twenty chimneys. But since good weather was rare in this place noted for abundant precipitation, the inhabitants had to lug building materials, manufactured goods, and salt up on their own backs.

In fact, there was only one entirely goitrous, or wenny, household, with a few more cases peppered among the other families: a share no greater than in neighboring villages. The cretins, also just one family, occupied a hastily constructed stable. They normally crept out in the evening, heedless of bad weather, and, seated on a log structure that had once served as a trough, broke into abstruse songs composed just like the hamlet’s name. At some distance rose the house, made entirely out of mahogany and distinguished by lavish carvings, that belonged to the former forester, although no one could conclusively confirm that this man had ever been deemed competent to hold such an office.

The entirely wenny family consisted of an aged wenny, his wenny old lady, and fourteen wenny children, ranging in age from four to sixty. The old man was approaching eighty and had irrevocably lost his mind, without, however, losing his ability to sleep with his wife, shoulder loads of firewood, and be the wisest shepherd in the neighborhood. He knew the mountains and their scant pastureland so well that whenever the goats consumed all the fodder underfoot, the old man was the one the shepherds turned to for advice on where to find grass, and the wenny would unfailingly locate, in the most unexpected place, a completely uncharted dale or outcropping where they could find sustenance until winter. In his contempt for the canine race, the wenny did the howling and barking himself, and at night, whenever he was scaring off a bear, even the glaciers would cringe at his piercing, plaintive howling, bitterer than a brute beast’s. Several neighbors maintained that the wenny had long been dead and that a satyr was living in his hide.

The wenny wife was a very ordinary old lady, well-preserved and beautiful, despite her monstrous goiter and hunchback; they sharply distinguished their children by class: toiling and spoiled. Their progeny thirty and older belonged to the first class: six sons and a daughter, likewise very ordinary. The grown sons had been deprived of all liberty and lived in accord with the will of their father, who had invented a unique occupation for each. The oldest supervised the bridges that served the hamlet and the road to the pastureland. There were four bridges, one made of planks, while of the other three, further upstream, the first was a log thrown from one bank to the other, and each of the two following bridges was a pair of towering firs felled so their tops dipped into the water. Here, in crossing, you had to crawl along one tree until you were level with the stream and then leap skillfully onto the other tree that dropped down from the opposite bank.

The second son’s trade was whittling quarterstaffs for the great hunt. The old wenny was chairman for life, and that’s why he presented this kind of weapon to everyone who participated. The other sons’ occupations followed along the same lines. As for the daughter, an exceptionally old maid, she never left the kitchen and, strumming a guitar of her own design, sang songs borrowed from the cretins, mixing them up and misquoting them every time.

The spoiled class of children, thirty and younger, sons and daughters, was not even suited for the work mentioned above, since all were epileptics. They were not allowed to leave the confines of the hamlet and either shuffled all day about the squalid yard or hung around the former forester’s place and carved even more novel wooden ornaments for his magical house.

When the wenny was neither absent on business nor in the pastures, he invariably grabbed his rifle as the evening approached and headed off alone to the neighboring mountain. His progeny sat quietly in the yard, listening intently. In an hour, a shot would ring out, the children would cry in chorus, “Got it!” (the wenny never missed) and in another hour, the old man would return with a roe deer they roasted whole and consumed on the spot, their cheering backed by the guitar.

The former forester’s habits in no way resembled the wennies’ way of life. Likewise wenny, but with a modest goiter that could pass for his Adam’s apple, the prematurely widowed former forester had moved there from town many years back, and, after buying land, spent a large sum constructing a whimsical, spacious house that would have served to embellish even a hamlet not quite so absurd as this one. There he lived, never going out, with his only daughter.

The former forester got married late in life, when he was already bald and paunchy (he’d been an Adonis in his youth), to a girl about twenty-five years younger, if not more. He wanted to have a son— not for reasons that direct men’s minds in such cases, not out of propriety, but for rather extraordinary reasons he explicated at length to the future mother and to everyone within earshot. “I’m too much past my prime for a daughter,” he would repeat. “Just think, in about sixteen years, when my daughter starts blooming, who will I be? A decrepit old man who doesn’t excite any rapt admiration! Will she really grasp how handsome I had once been? And the slight age difference between her and her mother will make them rivals, since her mother, as she fades, will envy and obstruct her daughter’s success. I need a son: what will my mug and my goiter matter to him? He’ll respect me and find his mother still beautiful”.

But events refused to comply with the forester’s wish, and a daughter was born. And the next year, when his wife died before delivering the son she was carrying, and the cesarean section failed, the old man shaved his head (another caprice), sold all his goods, decided to take to the back of beyond, anyplace he could scare up, and made no mistake in selecting the hamlet with the unpronounceable name.

The change of scenery saved him from the physical and spiritual transformations that are inevitable in such cases. So, at least, he thought. The former forester remained just as devoted to chess and the collection of books he purchased only when he found them completely incomprehensible or impenetrable because they were printed in foreign languages. And since there was no one in the hamlet he could play chess with, and he never had occasion, over the course of many long years, to teach any of his neighbors, the former forester played against himself for hours or composed problems, pretending he didn’t know their solutions beforehand. He even asked one of the spoiled wennies to carve some special chess pieces and assigned them wild names, nothing like the usual ones – names that corresponded to the mountain and forest powers he possessed knowledge of.

The former forester was neither a believer nor an unbeliever and thought there were neither angels (evil or good) nor miracles; everything is natural and normal, but there are, so to speak, unusual immaterial objects we know nothing about since, for now, generally speaking, we don’t know anything, but will come to know, if we diligently study nature, the way he had in his youth and still did now, as a widower. In his account, the immaterial objects contained in all things constituted their souls and could, under special conditions, influence the world. They brought a man blessing or bane and bad weather, as was appropriate; and in order to bring about one and not the other, one had to know. For his part, the former forester knew enough not to fear misfortune, although, remarkably, the chief sorrow of his life, the deaths of his wife and son, never came to mind. He imagined himself secure against the forest, against the mountains, against his neighbors, and this was more than enough to justify calmly dedicating himself to leafing through books or shifting chess pieces from square to square.

Busy with his chess, his speculations, and his books, the former forester overlooked his daughter growing and maturing beside him. Until she was about ten, it seems, she was under the watch of a nurse whom the father didn’t notice, as though she were invisible. He never set foot in his daughter’s room, never wondered what his child was up to. Then one day, to his surprise, he discovered that the nurse no longer put in an appearance (he had seen her, after all), but a moment later he forgot about her for good. Then the day arrived when his daughter — who had for some time been regularly setting the table, serving each course, and withdrawing — set a place for herself instead of leaving, sat down opposite her father, and ate dinner with him. During the meal, the former forester imagined that today he was seeing his wife anew, although somewhat changed, and he wasn’t sure what to ascribe this change to. Several weeks later, he concluded that this was his wife, only dead, and began to study her new state. Observing was easy because his daughter didn’t conceal herself, but spent her days in the same room with him or on the balcony. Only when, one day, the former forester caught her reading books (she was really reading, not leafing through them), the old man’s heart was roused. He grasped that right beside him, imperceptibly, someone who might be stronger than he was had settled in and, living harmoniously with him until the appointed time, would, sooner or later, challenge him. And although he couldn’t treat the dead woman inhospitably when she gazed, walked, and laughed the way she did, although he couldn’t escape her by locking himself up, and didn’t want to anyway, she was, all the same, his enemy, and the immaterial object deep in the old man watched and waited to see what would happen. And since, from that moment on, anyplace else was more serene than home, the former forester gave up his fifteen-year confinement and, after rummaging through the storeroom for his rifle and borrowing some cartridges from his neighbors, surprised the hamlet by heading out to hunt black grouse.

But the old man didn’t notice the most important difference between the live woman and the dead one. Among other things, even in this land where all women were beautiful, Ivlita was an altogether exceptional phenomenon. And not just because her body was ideal — while not, like all perfect things, dead — but also because it roused such vigorous sensations and attuned the observer to such rare harmony. Her movements were intrinsic to fleshly perfection; her eyes and voice signaled that more than her body was divine. And, to be precise, the young woman hadn’t grown up, hadn’t suffered the ponderousness of earthly existence and the tedium of growth, but had emerged all of a sudden from the mist when she appeared once upon a time beyond her father’s yard, unanticipated, her existence unsuspected by any of the hamlet’s inhabitants.

But while her father knew nothing of his daughter’s qualities, the highlanders received the young woman into their everyday lives.

Whenever anyone had to go out into the neighboring country, each of them, ducking into a tavern or a friend’s place, would blurt out, “We’ve had a supernatural event,” but would immediately fall silent, fearful that others, once they found out, would profane this treasure, and their listeners never managed to catch what exactly the event was and decided: Likely some satyr’s or water sprite’s new mischief, or some such nonsense. Why did Ivlita go on living beyond reachless mountains, unbeknownst to the world and in the company of subhumans? Even the old wenny voiced this concern, with some qualification: We don’t know whether she’s a good or evil incarnation; later on, it goes without saying, we’ll see; in the meantime, there’s no use worrying about it. But no matter how much the old man tried to calm their fears, it was clear that something was evil, since why else would all the villagers do nothing but watch for Ivlita fetching water or calling the goats, and, when they were traveling, pine not so much for their native hamlet as for the young woman’s presence there.

So, on account of her useless qualities, because of the mountains, and thanks to the back of beyond, Ivlita’s lot was becoming more complicated and confused, although thus far she herself suspected nothing. And for that reason, the girl’s existence remained just as dull and even as ever, nothing more than a reflection of the seasons. The onset of snow was presaged first by a cobalt sky that exchanged its dark blue hue at night for the same dark blue, only thicker, and after a few days, by winds that blew their gray currents even into this secluded dale and brought the odor of a vile sea. In the mornings, the fog lay too long, smothering the hamlet, dispersed slowly, and the shoots it bedewed shrank back: the dew was bitter and brackish. The lavishness of falling stars constantly lighting up the heavens made sleeping difficult, and the roosters’ crowing was particularly throaty. There were no green leaves, only gold, but more often rose and purple; the needles turned gray until they poured from the surrounding cliffs. Fish were jumping very frequently up out of the river; you couldn’t leave the hamlet without running smack into a bears’ wedding. The forest, anticipating snow, was gripped with fever, and moans and groans burst from the thickets. The population grew: after stamping out the campfires that had been burning in the pastures since spring and collecting every last one of their goats, the sleepy shepherds returned, muttering something under their breath, and locked themselves away. There was no rain. There might have been some drizzle, but it was so fine, like steam, and no one could tell where it was falling from. But one morning, when she awoke, Ivlita noticed right away how especially bright her room was and guessed that beyond her door lay nothing but snow, dry and crumbly. How many new tasks and troubles she faced: getting out the skis, the special clothing, and clearing the roof. But her animation soon drained away, replaced by a stupor, a dormancy full of visions, a daily life rich in emotional turmoil and short on events. A few passages shoveled out from the snow that had now reached the roof, leading to the outbuildings and the unfrozen spring — these were all the space for taking a walk: the skis were for others; others went into the forest, set traps; Ivlita stayed home. The rumble in the woods from the avalanches that had never rolled all the way to the forest-protected hamlet was her sole worry at the moment. And if the snow had gone on for years, she would have felt neither more joyful nor more melancholy.

And then, one day, the sky turned from white to azure; no new snow came, the old was melting. First it receded from walls, making way for snowdrops. Their armies, ever increasing in number, efficiently crowded it out until, at last, only a few patches remained here and there in the shade and on the northern sides of buildings. True, the snow was about to counterattack, but it ran out of breath. New needles and buds. Apple trees blossoming. Every creek, so pitiful toward the close of the year, now a whole river, muddy, raging — waterfalls resounding everywhere. The shepherds creep out from their hovels and head off on business to their neighbors and the city. Cattle and swine take possession of the clearing. At home, water is heating up and you can clean away the accumulated grime. Women’s bellies swell. Now there’s singing in the woods, woodpeckers, lilac, panpipes, circle dances, the first festivals — but not for Ivlita. Rains. There’s never any summer. Spring drags on overlong, longer than the winter and more restive. More superfluous variety. And by the time spring with its incessant rains and overly fickle mists becomes tedious to the point of revulsion and women stop giving birth, the herald of snows appears, autumn is coming — for about two weeks, not more, judging by how long the heart’s ease endures. And so it was now, August was ending and, for Ivlita, autumn was blushing in the yard.

And yet, no matter how simple this sensitive life and how alien Ivlita was to desires, she was short on rapture. Her cultivated and complex mind’s mind, endowed with inward contemplation at the expense of outward, was conscious of being its own enemy. The wenny children who made up her company saw in life’s phenomena, in nature’s minutiae, the presence of powers she knew did not really exist. Therefore, the annual round was empty and water could not quench her thirst. Beliefs and rituals — she fled them to keep the emptiness from expanding even more. Ivlita didn’t even wonder what people did beyond the passes. And that autumn, after languishing to her heart’s content during the course of the year, Ivlita was thinking of snow as though it were death.

Excerpted from RAPTURE by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson (Columbia University Press), part of the Russian Library series.

Rapture can be purchased on the Columbia University Press website, here; or on Amazon, here

Iliazd (1894–1975) is the nom de plume of Ilia Zdanevich, an émigré who arrived in Paris after the Russian Civil War in time to participate in the last days of Paris Dada and the birth of surrealism. He forged a new career in book art, collaborating with Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Legér, Giacometti, Miró, and Max Ernst, among others, on books of his own poetry, anthologies of “nonsense” poetry from all ages and traditions, and works by rediscovered poets, travelers, and romantic astronomers. 

Thomas J. Kitson is a freelance translator in New York City. He holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature from Columbia University.

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