A Conversation with Peter France
translator of Gennady Aygi’s TIME OF GRATITUDE
Interview by Ryan K. Strader
In 1974, Peter France visited Russia to do research for a new translation of Boris Pasternak. He was invited to meet Gennady Aygi, a Chuvash poet who, as a student in Moscow, had been friends with the much-older Pasternak. France describes that meeting with Aygi as having altered the trajectory of his life, both professionally and personally. For the next forty years, France would translate Aygi’s work, bringing him to a Western audience, a task that has been criticized by those who argue that Aygi’s poetics do not conform to Russian tradition.
France’s most recent publication of Aygi’s work is Time of Gratitude, published by New Directions in December 2017. Based in Edinburgh where he was a professor of French until 2000, France has written widely on French and Russian literature and has published an Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, and translations of Blok, Mayakovsky, and Mandelstam, among others.
I came into contact with France while researching Aygi for Cleaver’s review of Time of Gratitude, and was taken with his warmth and willingness to discuss all things connected with Russian literature, share his photos from his travels to Shaymurzino, Aygi’s native village, and answer questions about the work of translation.
Here I follow up with him regarding Time of Gratitude, his approach to translation, and his decades-long friendship with Aygi, who died in 2006. Images by courtesy of Peter France. —RKS
RKS: You first met Aygi in 1974, when visiting Russia to do some work on a translation of Pasternak. I’m intrigued with the way you describe that meeting as having “changed your life.” Could you expand a little bit on your first meeting with Aygi, and what your first impressions were of each other?
PF: So, it sounds a bit over-dramatic to say that my meeting with Aygi changed my life, but it certainly opened up new worlds for me. For a start, I began to translate his poems, a great challenge, confronting me with a tragic and exciting life experience and a corresponding spiritual vision. This, in turn, led me to translate several other Russian poets, some of them Gennady’s favorites (Lermontov, Annenkov)—I was already translating Pasternak (with Jon Stallworthy) and this was why I went to see Aygi in the first place. Then there was the plunging into Chuvash culture, ancient and modern, translating the Chuvash anthology, and later other poems from folklore and 20th-century literature, and getting to visit and love Chuvashia and to understand something of the many problems of a quite distinct ‘autonomous region’ within the Russian Federation. From our first meeting, he became a point of reference for me, distant but present—as he still is.
When we first met, in September 1974, in a flat on the southwestern edge of Moscow, we seemed to hit it off immediately, talking all day as we wandered in the woods. He talked very eloquently (and I mainly listened and learnt). You couldn’t help being struck by the intensity of his devotion to poetry, culture, and spiritual values. But there was also his simplicity, his humour—he had a great gift for friendship (which shines through his poems too). For him, I must have been a visitor from another world (not the first such visitor by any means), but by the end of a day, we were on familiar terms (Ty, not Vy). We shared a love of poetry of course (though he lived for poetry, and had far more to tell me than I had to tell him). But there was also our love and awareness of the natural world. Trees were a constant theme—and the tree is a sacred being in Chuvash culture.
RKS: In 2013, you did a wonderful interview with Alex Cigale. At the time you stated that, while there was much of Aygi’s work still untranslated, you particularly wanted to gather together his tributes to other writers for publication. The new book, Time of Gratitude, is a collection of these tributes. Out of the material you had, why did you choose to translate these tributes instead of more poetry, or his letters? How do you think Time of Gratitude fits in with Aygi’s other translated work?
PF: I’d already translated some of Aygi’s notes on poetry (see Child-and-Rose and Field-Russia, both with New Directions), but I was keen to publish a volume of his tributes to other writers and artists—and he himself was keen that such a book should appear in English. They belong to a genre characteristic of this poet, called elsewhere “Conversations at a Distance.” It is indeed conversation rather than criticism; as Gennady’s friend, the Chuvash scholar Atner Khuzangay, recently wrote to me in a letter: “In the book/conversation everything flows together in a single stream, poems, essays, memories, impressions… In these conversations there are specific interlocutors, his spiritual companions, he speaks to them, asks them questions, receives from them moral support, advice, an answering word.” That’s what I wanted to present, allowing new readers to enter a conversation that includes prose as well as poems.
Thinking of other possible publications, there are many poems by Aygi that have not yet appeared in English. Indeed I have quite a lot of translations that have not been published, or only published in obscure journals. But this seemed to me less urgent than the book/conversation. In the future I think the best way of publishing more translations would be to translate particular books—he grouped his poems like this, though often they haven’t been published this way. Maybe some of the early books, such as Fields-Doubles (1961-3) or Consolation 3/24 (1965-7).
There’s also a great body of Chuvash poetry, virtually unknown outside Chuvashia. It would probably have to be translated via Russian, with help from Chuvash speakers, as was done recently when Aygi’s sister Eva worked with Mikael Nydahl (Sweden), Gunnar Wærness (Norway), and myself.
Then there are the letters. It’s quite true that there is a vast treasure of letters written by Aygi to friends scattered all over the world—so far I don’t think they’ve been gathered up. I included some translated excerpts from letters to me in Field-Russia, but generally, I’d rather wait until there’s been a proper publication of the correspondence in Russian. Will this happen? I don’t know.
RKS: You’ve translated poets like Mandelstam and Pasternak, poets who are “household” names and recognized as “famous Russian writers” even by people who don’t read non-Western literature. How does your commitment to translating Aygi over the years fit into your oeuvre? Was that greatly influenced by your personal relationship with him, or did something else encourage you to keep coming back to his poems?
PF: I began translating Aygi as a result of meeting him. When I first met him it was to talk about Pasternak—I knew nothing of his own poetry and found it pretty hard at first, but discovered it mainly by translating, which I did as a way of continuing our “conversation at a distance.” For much of the time, this was very different from other things I was doing—mostly academic writing about French and comparative literature. But I had begun (in the 1960s) by translating Blok and Pasternak, working together with my great friend, the poet Jon Stallworthy. It was no doubt the experiencing of translating Aygi that give me the impetus, when I retired in 2000, to try translating many other Russian poets. Some were close to Aygi (Mayakovsky, Annensky, Lermontov, perhaps Batyushkov), others less so. And, of course, I’ve gone on translating Aygi, though less intensively than in the early days. I’ve also gone on from the Chuvash Anthology to translate the great poem by Kenstenttin Ivanov, “Narspi,” due to appear (in Chuvashia) later this year (as with the Anthology, I’ve worked from a Russian literal).
RKS: When I first read Time of Gratitude, I had to “catch on” to how Aygi writes. It certainly is its own genre, and not just stylistically. In an interview with him that is included in Field-Russia, he mentions how he addresses other writers: that he is not addressing their work necessarily, as one would in a critical response, but instead he is attempting “conversation” with the writers themselves “as genuinely living images,” as he put it. It seems to me that part of what makes his work distinct is the spiritual orientation of the writer toward the addressee, where he (the writer) has adopted the addressee as a “spiritual companion” as you described it. To me, this is a profound value of Aygi ’s work—a more mystical connection to writers and poetry. You mention that Aygi wanted to see some of these book/conversations translated into English. What did he want English readers to understand from this genre that was unique to him?
PF: Yes, there’s something special about Aygi’s attitude to many other writers and artists—a kind of mix of friendship/love and reverence. In relation to, say, Pasternak, the two are fairly evenly balanced, but for others whom he didn’t know personally (e.g. Kafka or Malevich) it’s reverence that predominates. His feeling of closeness led him to seek out the places of these figures, notably burial places. I shared this with him for Malevich, the Chuvash poet Mitta, Baudelaire, Nerval, and Robert Burns. When we went, with three Scottish poet-friends, to Burns’ mausoleum, we performed a ceremony—pouring of whisky, laying of roses and Chuvash earth, song and a speech addressed to his ‘brother’ Robert—which reminded me a bit of our visit to the grave of his grandfather, a pagan priest. And I guess it’s this sort of bonding he wanted readers of his tributes to feel, including now the English speakers.
The English-speaking world was more foreign to him than France (he knew French quite well, but no English). But he did visit Britain four times, liked London, felt great affection for Scotland (I remember travelling through the Scottish borders with him, and he dreamed of coming to live here), and loved (in translation) the writing of Burns, Hopkins, and above all Dickens (at the age of six he had read Great Expectations under the title Pip, but only discovered later who wrote it). And for his lovely collection, Veronica’s Book, he wrote a “Foreword to the English-speaking Reader,” which you may have seen. Towards the end of his life we visited America (the land of Emily Dickinson), and again he felt at home, especially traveling through the country between Chicago and Wisconsin. So, yes, he wanted English speakers, too, to be part of this world-wide circle of friends.
RKS: I’m intrigued with your trip to Chuvashia. The pictures that you’ve shared of the countryside there are beautiful. I can see that you went to great pains to become better acquainted with Aygi’s village and his native countryside. You’ve also mentioned other travels to Russia when working on other translations. I’m curious about how critical geographic familiarity is to you in your work. How important was that trip to understanding Aygi, and how important is geographic familiarity to you in general, in a translation project?
PF: It’s good to be able to visit the places of the texts you’re translating, but not essential. I’ve recently been translating some 16th-century French poetry, and while I know France well, I can’t visit the 16th century. Similarly, when I did most of my translation of Aygi and other Chuvash writers, I was able to visit Russia but Chuvashia was still closed to foreigners. I went there for the first time in 1989, by which time my English version of the Anthology of Chuvash Poetry was pretty well complete. Of course, when I went there I understood certain things better. A good example is an ancient text entitled “Parents’ Valediction to the Bride and Bridegroom”; I had translated this and admired it, but during a visit to Chuvashia I participated in a village wedding, and was amazed to see the young couple, having driven round the nearby villages hooting motor horns, returning to the wife’s house, passing through the courtyard where a disco was in full swing, and going in to kneel in front of the elders while the traditional ‘valediction’ I had translated was spoken. Obviously it meant more to me when I’d seen this, but I don’t think the translation was affected.
I guess the essential thing, if you don’t have direct access to the place and the culture, is to have a good source of knowledge. This can be books or pictures, but for me, it was ideal to work with Gennady who helped me understand so much about his own poems and about his native culture (of which I knew nothing before meeting him). While he was alive my translations of Chuvash texts were done from his beautiful literals with comments, reading aloud, etc. Later I got help from other Chuvash friends.
All in all, it was a great piece of luck for me that this great Russian poet was also a Chuvash village boy.
RKS: It seems that for some time Aygi was rejected by Chuvashians for having “switched” to Russian, but then later he was embraced by them. Can you talk a little bit about what the Chuvashian perception of Aygi might have been, and how Aygi felt about being “disowned” by Chuvashia?
PF: I don’t think it’s quite right to think of him as being disowned by the Chuvash for writing in Russian—his Russian poetry, together with his work on the Chuvash Anthology, helped to put Chuvashia on the international literary map. And in any case, he continued to write and translate in Chuvash.
In the Soviet period, he was harassed in Chuvashia for a variety of reasons, all to do with literature rather than politics. At first, he was regarded as a ‘hostile element’ mainly because of his friendship with Boris Pasternak, though his expulsion from the Moscow Literary Institute was also a factor. Together with his poetic credo, it was totally at odds with Socialist Realism. He was arrested in Cheboksary in 1960, accused of ‘vagrancy,’ but managed to escape to Moscow and didn’t return to Chuvashia for fifteen years or so. And then in 1976, he was attacked by the Chuvash authorities for having poems published in the emigre journal Kontinent (in Paris, associated with Sinyavsky). All this was very painful for him. Even when I first went to Chuvashia in 1989, in the dying years of the old regime, there were voices accusing him of “cosmopolitanism.” It took a few years for him to be fully accepted and proclaimed the national poet.
RKS: It’s interesting that you separate literature from politics here, a separation which works a little differently in the American imagination than in the Russian imagination. Can you clarify the distinction as it relates to Aygi?
PF: Clearly the two are not easily distinguished, especially in a Soviet context, when a certain style of writing could be construed as a hostile act. In particular, openness to foreign influences such as Kafka or Kierkegaard could be seen as a kind of treason. What I meant was that Aygi was not a dissident in the normal sense of the word—he didn’t take public stances on such questions as the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn. Of course, his poems were often, a response, direct or indirect, to the evils of the regime (from the invasion of Czechoslovakia to the misuse of psychiatric hospitals), but they weren’t public statements.
RKS: When I was trying to track down critics who had some experience with Aygi, one writer explained to me that Aygi was sometimes seen as a “fraudulent” presence in the Russian canon. Could you comment a little bit on this critical perception of Aygi and his work?
PF: Aygi was not ‘fraudulent’ in the sense of deliberately setting out to pull the wool over people’s eyes; it is quite wrong to see him as trying to bamboozle readers so as to achieve fame. He was totally committed to his poetic work. Undoubtedly some readers and critics and fellow poets didn’t (and don’t) accept what he was doing (not just free verse, but his use of language and his poetic aims). For some readers, his writing was not truly Russian and not poetry as they understood it. At one point, a critic in a London-based Russian-language newspaper stirred up a storm in a tea-cup by arguing that his reputation had been manufactured by foreign Slavists (for their own ends, no doubt). Against this, you could quote many Russians, from Roman Jakobsen to the major contemporary poet Olga Sedakova, for whom he had become “the first Russian-language poet to become a world poet in his lifetime.”
RKS: One of the pictures you shared with us is of Aygi’s funeral in 2006. Can you share how you came to have this picture, and what thoughts it brings to mind?
PF: This is one of a group of black-and-white photos sent me by a Chuvash friend and showing Gennady’s funeral in the wintry spaces of Shaymurzino—extremely moving for someone who knew the poet and his village. He had a state funeral in the Cheboksary, attended by the President of the Republic, then the body was taken to be interred in the village graveyard. One or two of the color photos I sent you show the place in summer. Gennady is much remembered. The village school bears his name, as does a street in Cheboksary, and every year there are gatherings, large and small (often with associated publications), to celebrate his memory.
RKS: You have commented elsewhere that, because of Kierkegaard, Aygi “came back to his own form of Christianity.” The idea that he had his “own form” of belief is intriguing to me. You mention that he felt a bond with the old pagan beliefs of Chuvashia, but also kinship with more contemporary Christian theologians. Could you comment further on this blended spiritual identity that Aygi seems to have, and how that might help readers to understand Aygi’s poetry?
PF: It’s difficult to speak in a few words of Aygi’s religious views. He was certainly a religious poet, seeing poetry as a kind of “sacred action” which could create communication between people, and also communication of people with the natural world. The old Chuvash ‘pagan’ religion with its rituals and ethical values meant a lot to him (for a description see the Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, now available online via Duration Press), but he didn’t agree with those who want to revive this religion today. Chuvashia had been Christianized over the centuries, and this was often oppressive, but he also saw it as a great enrichment. His own return to Christianity (from an earlier Nietzschean phase) he attributed largely to Kierkegaard, discovered in 1969. Before this he had read Pascal, later he read a lot of the early Orthodox Church Fathers, and of modern theology (when in Daghestan, which he loved, he had a sympathetic interest in Islam too). All of this came together in a religious synthesis. I don’t think he went to church much, but he regarded himself as Orthodox and was buried as such. Let me quote a letter he wrote me which gives an idea of his spiritual vision, sent from a Russian village in 1980: “I write—and with my shoulders I feel-and-know that the hawthorn is flowering now in the mist (the human soul cannot know such tranquil solitude: I am reading here the writings of Russian holy men; behind their sayings there stands their silence…).”
RKS: In Aygi’s obituary that you wrote for The Guardian, you make a comment about Aygi that is very moving, that he “wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century.” Sometimes it seems that we are dangerously removed from understanding men like Aygi and their historical context. What do you hope that readers today learn from Aygi, either from his poetry or from the story of his lived experience? What is the most important takeaway for us, as English readers in 2018?
PF: Although Aygi writes a great deal about flowers, snow, fields—nature, as we say—his poems are full of the awareness of the often terrible things that happened in his lifetime, both personally (hardship, political harassment, the sufferings of friends) and more publicly (the Holocaust and war, the oppressions of the Soviet regime). He’s a tragic poet for the tragic 20th century. But at the same time, he insists on the positive nature of poetry, bringing warmth to a cold world, as he puts it somewhere. He said in an interview (printed in the volume Field-Russia, published by New Directions) that his impression of much contemporary poetry was that it was written as if its vocation was to “curse the world.” He wanted to do the opposite, to search out and celebrate life in the face of death. I think this was what he so loved in Pasternak. In the same interview, he remembers a starling in a Moscow suburb on a dank spring day with wet snow falling. “The world was like a curse,” he says, but the starling was whistling and bubbling, “it must be bursting with gratitude—even for a day like this.”
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.