(Nearly) two hundred years of the Old Vic

The Old Vic first opened its doors in May 1818. Back then, building a new theatre south of the river was a commercially risky venture, and the Royal Coburg Theatre (as it was originally known) was only made viable by the recent construction of Waterloo Bridge. The first night programme included a melodrama, a pantomime and a harlequinade. Outside, Waterloo Road was unpaved and only half-completed, Waterloo station was still thirty years in the future. The approach to the theatre was across a badly lit bridge and then through Lambeth Marsh and theatre-goers worried about falling prey to thieves…

Terry Coleman’s fascinating history of the Old Vic covers all of the astonishing ups and downs in the theatre’s history from opening night via Lilian Baylis and the Olivier era as first home to the National, to Kevin Spacey and beyond. I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk to him about it in this interview recorded on location in the circle bar last month for the Faber podcast.

And here is an interview from last year of related interest with director Michael Blakemore in which he speaks about his involvement with the early years of the national theatre in the seventies:

terry coleman

Continue Reading · 21 October, 2014 · history and politics, literature, podcasts, theatre

Conversations with translators (II): Rosamund Bartlett on Anna Karenina

anna karenina coverFor this, the second in a series of Conversations with Translators (following my interview with Oliver Ready on Crime and Punishment from earlier this year), we stick with the Russians and turn to a new version of Anna Karenina produced by Rosamund Bartlett for Oxford University Press.

This was in fact my third visit to see Rosamund – we met previously to talk about her Chekhov translations, About Love and other stories, which is published in Oxford World’s Classics and again in 2010 when her acclaimed biography of Tolstoy came out. Of this life, A.N. Wilson (himself one of Tolstoy’s biographers) wrote: “The extraordinary character of the giant is captured better by Bartlett than by any previous biographer” and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams  – who is also a Russianist and translator – chose it as one of his books of the year and called it “superbly readable”. You can hear my interview with Rosamund about the biography here.

In this new interview (click on the Soundcloud player above to listen), we talk about how Rosamund came to translate one of the greatest of Russian novels, what the challenges were and what she learned along the way. Here’s a short extract from the interview:

George Miller: Tell me how you became a translator from Russian…

Rosamund Bartlett: Well, I never set out to be a translator. I’m quite surprised that I’ve become one. I did a few translations of a contemporary woman writer called Victoria Tokareva in the early 1990s. That was before everything really took off and was transformed in Russian literature. Then I got totally absorbed in writing up my doctoral thesis as a book and thought I was going to be mostly writing about Russian literature and Russian culture rather than translating, and in fact was probably heading towards a career  in historical musicology, as my thesis was on the influence of Wagner on Russian culture. And actually it fed into my work as a translator, that musical background. But I wanted to think about a new book to commemorate the centenary of Chekhov’s death in 2004 and had a go at translating Chekhov’s story, The House with the Mezzanine, and was quite surprised by how passionately interested I became in wanting to produce a really good translation and eventually I managed to get a contract from Oxford World’s Classics [for a Chekhov anthology]. And I thought probably that was it. But at the launch of my Chekhov biography, which came out in the same year as About Love and other stories, my Chekhov anthology, my editor at Oxford, Judith Luna, asked me if I knew of any translators who’d be keen to translate Tolstoy, as she was looking to revamp her Tolstoy list, because the major [OUP] translations of the Tolstoy novels had been completed about a hundred years ago. And I’d already conceived in the back of my mind this crazy idea to write a biography of Tolstoy, and had found it so absorbing and stimulating to be at one and the same time translating Chekhov stories and writing his biography that I knew that it would be fantastic if, while I was writing this biography of Tolstoy, I was also engaged in translating him. And I managed eventually to win the commission to translate Anna Karenina and it’s the first new translation of the novel that Oxford World’s Classics has produced in 96 years.

George Miller: So it’s the total immersion method you go for!

Rosamund Bartlett: I would say so. I think if you’re going to be translating a writer, you need every help you can get to understand not only the language they write in and the peculiarities of their style, but also the background they’ve come from, the kind of life they’re leading, and a lot about the kinds of things they’re writing about. So if you’re immersed in the life as a biographer, then you have a way in. And obviously if you’re writing a biography, you have some unique insight as a translator, because you’ve been engaged in a very intimate way with the prose in Tolstoy’s case. So I think they’re mutually beneficial activities.

The character of Tolstoy comes up when you’re translating him, as does the character of whichever author you’re dealing with. It’s been interesting for me to compare my relationship as a translator with Chekhov to that with Tolstoy. With Chekhov I felt there was always some kind of space in which there was almost an element of play involved, whereas with Tolstoy I feel as if I’ve been fighting him all the way through and he’s always determined to get the upper hand. It’s exhausting in that respect. It feels like he’s determined to make it as hard as possible, he doesn’t really want to give an inch. That probably sounds absurd, but that’s how it feels!


Continue Reading · 18 August, 2014 · literature, podcasts

Sunny Brain, Rainy Brain – the science of optimism

“The core components of optimism surprisingly don’t really have too much to do with positive thinking at all. One of the major components actually is a sense of control; what psychologists have found is that optimists are people who have a sense that they’re in control of their own destiny [...] there are lots of experiments demonstrating that that’s one of the reasons why optimism is so beneficial, and in fact even some experiments have shown that sometimes that sense of control is an illusion, but nevertheless, even though it’s an illusion, it still has a bit of a benefit.”

Rainy Brain Sunny Brain coverElaine Fox is professor of cognitive and affective psychology at the University of Oxford. In this interview (recorded in summer 2012, when Elaine was still at the University of Essex) she talks about her book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism, in which she explores such questions as: how does having an optimistic or a pessimistic outlook affect the successes and failures in our lives? How do small biases to look on the bright or the dark side become confirmed, even ingrained? What part do genes play in all this and how do they interact with environmental factors? And if we find ourselves on the pessimistic part of the spectrum, how can we nudge ourselves in a more positive direction?

Continue Reading · 8 June, 2014 · podcasts, science and philosophy
Keith Kahn-Harris

Uncivil War: the Israel-Palestinian Conflict and the Jewish Community

  “For Jews, Israel goes very close to the heart, whether you’re a Jewish supporter of Israel or you’re a Jewish critic of Israel and of Zionism, it’s very hard to be indifferent about it. In fact, it would be very odd if most Jews were indifferent about Israel because this is the major project […]

Continue Reading · 1 May, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts, religion and belief

Anton Chekhov: About Love and other stories (an Oxford World’s Classics audio guide)

Without quite planning it, Podularity seems to have been having a bit of a Russian season of late, so I thought it would be worth re-presenting this audio guide which OUP commissioned me to produce a couple of years ago with Rosamund Bartlett, translator of Chekhov’s short stories (and also Anna Karenina (forthcoming, 2014)). Here’s […]

Continue Reading · 8 April, 2014 · literature, podcasts

Conversations with Translators (I): Oliver Ready on Crime and Punishment

I visited Oliver Ready recently at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where he is a research fellow in Russian society and culture, to hear about his five-year engagement with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics, 2014): what persuaded him to take the project on? how did he limber up for it? and why – unusually – […]

Continue Reading · 7 April, 2014 · language, literature, podcasts, translation

Rebecca Mead on The Road to Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead is an English-born, Brooklyn-based, New Yorker staff writer. I met her recently when she visited Toppings bookshop in Bath to talk about her new book The Road to Middlemarch. Rebecca’s book explores her fascination with George Eliot’s great novel, which started when she first encountered it at the age of seventeen, and has […]

Continue Reading · 4 April, 2014 · biography and memoir, literature, podcasts

Catriona Kelly St Petersburg interview – part II

I don’t want to normalize it completely, but I think Britain has many of the same problems as Russia actually: mass alcoholism – there’s plenty of that – a governing elite that doesn’t really give a toss for anybody, doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of what’s going on, what happens when you administer […]

Continue Reading · 3 April, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts

Catriona Kelly on shadows of St Petersburg’s past

The present and the past are intertwined and it doesn’t matter if what people remember about the past isn’t true – it’s got significance for them now. I’m going between lots of different layers, because that’s what people do in their conversation. My guest in this programme is Catriona Kelly, who is Professor of Russian […]

Continue Reading · 21 March, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts

Historical novelist Maria McCann on Ace, King, Knave

[An] exuberant revivification of grave robbers and gamblers, hucksters and whores in 18th-century London: like Hogarth sprung to life. – Hilary Mantel, Books of the Year 2013, Observer This is my second interview with Maria McCann – I first interviewed her back in 2010 about her previous novel, The Wilding, which was longlisted for the […]

Continue Reading · 16 February, 2014 · historical fiction, literature, podcasts

Jon Ronson on The Psychopath Test

Early on in his book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson writes: I’d never really thought much about psychopaths before that moment and I wondered if I should try and meet some. It seemed extraordinary that there were people out there whose neurological condition, according to James’s story, made them so terrifying, like a wholly malevolent space […]

Continue Reading · 15 February, 2014 · medicine, podcasts, science and philosophy

Inside Writing: The Faber Academy podcast (1)

We recorded the first Faber Academy podcast last autumn. The aim is very simple: to bring together two writers (or a writer and editor) and get them to discuss a theme or a skill likely to be of interest to other writers. The guests on each programme select a text to focus the discussion and […]

Continue Reading · 11 February, 2014 · literature, podcasts

On the siege of Leningrad

My guest in this podcast is Anna Reid, a historian of Russia and author of Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege 1941-4, the first book in English to be devoted to the siege since 1969. The siege by the German army lasted 900 days and led to the deaths of three quarters of a […]

Continue Reading · 31 January, 2014 · history and politics, podcasts