Category: literature

Ishiguro on Nocturnes

And here is the part of my interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in which I talk to him about his short story collection, Nocturnes. This was recorded first (hence it’s part 1) but six years on, my feeling is that Part 2 is in fact the best place to start as he sets his earlier books in context.

Two-part interview with 2017 Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro

Half a dozen years ago, I was delighted to be asked by Faber & Faber to interview Kazuo Ishiguro for a special two-part podcast to mark the publication of his first collection of short stories, Nocturnes. In the first part, we focused on the new book, and in the second I asked him about his background, previous novels, and the effects of early success (and intriguingly, he makes what I think must have been one of his first public indication that he was working on an idea which would become the 2015 novel, The Buried GiantIshiguro The Buried Giant). To listen to the podcasts, click on the links below. To whet your appetite, here are a couple of extracts from our conversation.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Early on, when I was six or seven, I very much thought of Japan as my home and I very much thought we were about to return at any moment. And I was much more in touch with Japanese culture then. I was being sent comics and books so there was an attempt to keep up the Japanese side of me…

But I think as the years went on, in that way that children do, I stopped thinking really about Japan in any conscious way. Of course when you’re eight or nine, what’s going to happen in three months’ time is just far too distant to worry about, let alone what’s going to happen at the end of the year. So I still intellectually knew that we were likely to return to Japan at any point… But I know that another part of me never believed that would happen. Perhaps that was foolish, but I was quite confident I was going to remain in Britain.

It was really when I was fifteen when that big decision was made. That was the first time it occurred to me that it was for real, that there was a possibility that my parents could go back and leave me in England… And then the decision was made – my father turned down a university position. And that was a kind of a watershed point in my life, I think, when I thought, ah yes well, I am here now but Japan actually remained an important part of my life in my head, but it ceased to be somewhere I was really going to go.

And so I was left with this strange alternative home that I didn’t know what to do with, because I wasn’t going to go back there. It was fading in my head, in memory. I was old enough to realise it was literally fading in the sense that that kind of Japan was disappearing. Japan changed enormously between 1960, when the family left, and the beginning of the 70s.

So in a sense although I started to think of myself very much as British, I think something was born in me that became much more concerned about Japan – how do I place Japan in my head, what does it mean to me? And if it’s going to just fade in my mind, shouldn’t I do something to preserve it? And in fact aren’t there many things that are very precious for me in that little world of memories and speculation, that I used to call Japan? Isn’t there something very precious about that? And I shouldn’t just let it disappear with the years, so I’ll just turn into some sort of Englishman.

Now looking back, I think it was the culmination of that process that started me writing, because when I started to write fiction I did so quite suddenly. I didn’t really have any great ambitions to be a writer before that, and in my early 20s, I found myself writing stories that very much recreated that Japan that I always thought about, and so I began by writing Japanese stories and then Japanese novels, set very much in my Japan. And I think that was very much some sort of answer to this question, what do I with this precious, but non-existent and rapidly fading Japan? Well, the answer ended up, preserve it in a novel, put it in a novel…

Philip Hoare on Leviathan

philip hoare leviathanI see that Philip Hoare is publishing the third volume of his trilogy about the sea next week. RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR comes nine years after his award-winning book on the culture and history of whales, Leviathan, so I though I would re-present the interview I did with Philip about that book back then in a coffee shop in Bath (to listen click on the player above or download here)… As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

The story of a man’s obsession with whales, which takes him on a personal, historical and biographical journey – from his childhood to his fascination with Moby-Dick and his excursions whale-watching.

All his life, Philip Hoare has been obsessed by whales, from the gigantic skeletons in London’s Natural History Museum to adult encounters with the wild animals themselves. Whales have a mythical quality – they seem to elide with dark fantasies of sea-serpents and antediluvian monsters that swim in our collective unconscious.

In ‘Leviathan’, Philip Hoare seeks to locate and identify this obsession. What impelled Melville to write ‘Moby-Dick’? After his book in 1851, no one saw whales in quite the same way again.

This book is an investigation into what we know little about – dark, shadowy creatures who swim below the depths, only to surface in a spray of spume. More than the story of the whale, it is also the story of our own obsessions.

Congratulations to Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma Family Life pb coverLast week Indian-American novelist Akhil Sharma won the Folio Prize for his novel Family Life. I met Akhil when he visited London last spring to talk about his eagerly awaited second book. Akhil was born in New Delhi and migrated to the US in the late seventies. Having initially pursued a career in investment banking, he came to prominence as a writer in 2001 with his first acclaimed novel, An Obedient Father, which won that year’s Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award (available from Faber). Akhil Sharma was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007, so expectations around his second novel were considerable, but the process of writing that book was for Akhil a long and painful one – as you’ll hear in this interview, he likens the many drafts the book went through to a war of attrition. It’s testament to Akhil’s skill that the reader is unaware of those years of labour, as she races through the story of Ajay Mishra who, like his creator, came to America aged eight, and like his creator had a brother who was left permanently brain-damaged by a terrible swimming pool accident, which changed the lives of everyone in the family beyond recognition. It’s a story of immigration and of illness, yes, but perhaps most of all, as the title puts it with disarming simplicity, a story of family life, warts and all, told with humour, warmth, and a complete absence of sentimentality. This novel comes with a reputation of having been a dozen years in the making, so my first question for Akhil was about the transition from those years at his desk to at last going out into the world to talk about it.

Anna Karenina revisited

Anna Karenina Bartlett OUP“The text of Anna Karenina is like a Persian carpet of intricate symmetrical design, whose workmanship can only be appreciated by seeing the reverse side.”
Rosamund Bartlett

I had the pleasure of chairing Rosamund Bartlett‘s event at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday afternoon in which she talked about Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, and the experience of producing the first new translation of the novel for Oxford World’s Classics in almost a century.

For people who didn’t make it to the event, I thought I would repost this interview I did with Rosamund last summer in my (fledgling) Conversations with Translators series.

(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

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!


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

Chekhov: About Love cover

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 a link to all the OWC audio guides.

“Seventeen peerless examples of how much life you can put into a few pages of fiction if you have Chekhov’s economical mind, his eyes and ears, his feel for comedy and his sense of humanity. Chekhov is better known for his plays. But these are small masterpieces of their own, in a revelatory new translation.”

The Economist

Click on the links below to hear Rosamund Bartlett, who edited and translated the stories in the collection, About Love, introduce Chekhov and his work and read from her translations.

Who was Anton Chekhov?

  • Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) came from an unlikely background for a future literary celebrity. Unlike most of his fellow writers, he wasn’t from an aristocratic family but a conservative, merchant one. Click here to hear more about his early years. [2:18]
  • In 1879 Chekhov moved to Moscow, thereby taking the first step to his literary and medical career. Click here to find out why he himself felt that he had entered the literary world by the back door. [2:29]
  • A “period of small deeds”: click here to find out more about how the politically reactionary climate of his times was better suited to the short story form than sweeping novels. Rosamund Bartlett also discusses the effect Chekhov’s declining health had on his life. [3:16]

Writing in a minor key

  • Chekhov’s early readers in both Russian and English were uncertain what to make of his stories: they didn’t have regular beginnings or endings and they also lacked conventional heroes. As Rosamund Bartlett explains here, modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf were among the first to appreciate what an innovative writer Chekhov really was. [5:06]
  • How hard is it to capture the elegiac, musical quality of Chekhov’s prose in English? Here Rosamund Bartlett describes what she was trying to achieve as a translator. [5:29]
  • The stories in the collection About Love extend from early works written in his mid-twenties to the majestic story “The Bishop”, which dates from right at the end of Chekhov’s career. Click here to hear how Rosamund Bartlett made her selection from over 600 stories. [3:49]

Sampling the stories

  • “Lady with a Little Dog” is probably Chekhov’s most famous story. Click here for an introduction to it and to hear an extract. [4:25]
  • “Gooseberries” forms part of a trilogy of stories that Chekhov wrote in the late 1890s. Click here to listen to an extract. [3:24]

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

crime and punishment cover oliver ready translation

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 – did he write his version out longhand rather than work on a computer? Below, there is a short extract from our conversation:

Oliver Ready: Something Russians talk a lot about in translation is the idea of a tuning fork when you’re setting out on a translation – ‘kamerton’ in Russian – and like an actor trying to get into the role you read something which isn’t a precise model, but which moves your linguistic resources in a particular direction and starts you thinking in particular rhythms.

[Translating Crime and Punishment] was experimental for me because I’d never translated a classic before and the first question people ask is ‘What are you doing? Are you going to write in the archaic language of the nineteenth century or are you going to write in twenty-first-century English?’, which is a false choice, because I think nearly all translators go for a compromise and it’s quite right that they should do, because it would be very fussy to try to write in 1860s English…

George Miller: …And it would be a construct in any case; it would be an imaginary language…

Oliver Ready: Yes, it would be an imaginary language, and it would expose the illusion that translators are ventriloquists, which they’re not. We’re not translators because we’re able to slip into any register of speech, any dialect. Most translators are much more limited than that in what they can do, and I don’t think that’s really the key to good translations. So in terms of what period of English I was aiming at, it would be OK, I think, if I moved from the language of the 1920s to the language of the 1950s in places. It’s very important when translating the novel to leave space for archaism, because there are some characters who very deliberately use Old Church Slavonicism or a certain very courteous, excessively polite way of speaking because they’re identifying themselves with the old class system that at the time Dostoevsky’s writing this novel is beginning to crumble. […]

I think as a translator you need to exploit all of the resources you have; you don’t want to limit yourself too much. Obviously I didn’t use locutions which are specifically of today, which in a few years time would be dated, but I did allow myself at times to use types of humour which are much more modern than Dostoevsky’s time and therefore have a bit more force for the contemporary reader. On the whole, in terms of word choice, I did use the Oxford English Dictionary a lot, and tried to avoid words – without a fixed rule – that came into English after, say, 1960…

(Oliver Ready is Research Fellow in Russian Society and Culture at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is general editor of the anthology, The Ties of Blood: Russian Literature from the 21st Century (2008), and Consultant Editor for Russia, Central and Eastern Europe at the Times Literary Supplement. He has also recently translated the novel Before and During by the contemporary author Vladimir Sharov (Dedalus, 2014))

Oliver Ready St Antony's College Oxford