& Company


Journal Entries on American Literature in Russia

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

"I'm stuck in Baltimore," he sighed.

"Yeah, but how can I help? I'm over here in Russia. Yekaterinburg. The Urals!"

SOME DREAMS don't just shake off. And you wonder what was it that generated the dream. For me it was pretty easy to figure out why Edgar Allan Poe broke into my sleep the other night.

It's Poe's birthday today, 19 January. That's also the old-calendar date for the great holyday named in church books "Bogoyavlenie," rendered in not-very-English English as "Theophany," which you designate "Epiphany." My Carpathian mountain ancestors called it "Yordan." In this part of the world Russians reference it simply as "Kreshchenie (i.e. Baptism [day])" and most locals — even Muslims, Jews and unrepentant Bolsheviki — know well Whose Baptism is being commemorated. "Kreshchenskiy moroz" is the winter freeze everyone expects right about now.

Surrounded as I am by Orthodox Christianity, I might wonder why my January dreams didn't feature Jesus wading into the Jordan. Surely my dream was a sign. A sign that a meeting with English teachers scheduled for today occupied more wards and precincts of my soul than did this holyday of a vintage older than Christmas.

I can still see the breaking-and-entering Poe (or "Po," as Russians spell it) looking morose as an ikon except his eyes don't hold me in his direct vision. Of the half-dozen classic Poe faces that've come down to us, in this dream it's the one where he's looking out at something just over my left shoulder; his mouth closed and slanting to his left, which I can't fail to notice because his mustache follows the slope. In my dream "Edgar Po" barely moves his lips but I hear: "Stroke my ego. Tell me how you all will mark my birthday."

"Mr. Poe," I react, "an American househusband meeting with local teachers, I mean — come on — surely more important to you is how, say, staffers at The New Yorker celebrate your memory. Or guys with PhDs and julep breath in the English Department down at the University of Virginia."

"New York? Virginia? I'm stuck in Baltimore. In a cramped lot forsaken by the Presbyterian congregation whose graveyard this once was."

"Yeah, but how can I help? I'm over here in Russia. Yekaterinburg. The Urals!"

"I know, I know. But Baltimore is your home," he says. "I take what I can get from this city. This year I get you, and lo, it's a local link to the outside world. How piquant 'twould be t' hear of honors from fans in Russia."

And — thump-THUMP-POUNCE!!! —

  • Wakes me up, it does, it does.
  • Cat lands on sill
  • Charging Sparrows
  • That're perched in the security-grill.
  • A screen of Russian Sparrows
  • Just beyond our double windows.
  • They don't stir, they don't.
  • Just go on roosting,
  • Their dawn-vigil.

THE OTHER DAY, Masha, a properties inventory staffer, said she remembered very well having read Poe in school. "What titles?" I wanted to know. "My memory's not good with titles," she said. "Well, how about content?" "Not good with content either," she laughed. Yelena, a bit older, an executive secretary, remembered about as much. Natasha, a waitress, much younger — in fact looks like a lass from last year's senior class — also couldn't recall just what exactly. When I asked Radik, a taxi driver, about Poe, he laughed and said, "My training is in hockey!" and began naming Russians from the region now playing for North American teams. Good that none of this entered my dream — could've been a nightmare for Poe.

Generations back, commissars of the education ministry favored certain American writers whom they installed into the Soviet pantheon of world-literature heavies. Mark Twain ("Tven") was a natural choice. What Russian, now, doesn't know about Tom Sawyer gulling his pals into painting that fence? Besides, the KGB censors had no problems with it. Then there were Jack London and O. Henry ("O. Genri"), both of whom, to hear some ex-Sovs talk, must be right up there muscling Twain for first place. And most educated Russians are quite familiar with Ernest Hemingway ("Khemingvey"). And there are a number who have fond memories of reading Theodore Dreiser ("Drayzer").

In one of the two biggest bookstores in town, One-Hundred Thousand Books by name, "Khemingvey" continues to hold his own. So, too, Jack London and "O. Genri." And there are the usual "Tven" titles. Why, they managed to translate Huckleberry Finn!

And, lord, will you look at this! J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye! How does Holden Caulfield sound in Russian? (Sorry, my Russian's just not good enough to judge their success-level.) Salinger's title clearly couldn't cross over into Russian, becoming "Over an abyss in the rye." (What in the world did "Catcher..." mean in English?) I can't find what year this was first translated, but I've been assured the book was on the market back in the Soviet era.

Also finding their way into Russian: Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Kerouac's On The Road, Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes. And select works of all our big Johns: Barth, Irving, O'Hara, Updike ("Apdayk").

Dreiser? I saw stacks of fresh editions of Sister Carrie, The Titan, An American Tragedy. If our fellow-Baltimorean Mencken were to meet Poe in the next world, he would probably say Russian could only improve Dreiser's miserable style.

Among our poets, Emily Dickinson has a nice Russian volume all to herself. I scoured the poetry shelves for Poe, not having found him in the prose sections. A clerk told me she hadn't seen anything about Poe or his work "uzhe davno" — for a long time. Yelena the secretary wasn't surprised by this. "Most folks already own a Soviet edition of Poe," she said, "or they go to the public library." Masha's grandmother keeps a 1980 edition of Poe's stories next to Mamin-Sibiryak with Pushkin not far away. Masha says grandma's shelves need some attention.

The big bookstore also didn't show any Whitman, Hawthorne, or Melville. Nor did I see those three writers over at the other major outlet, The House of Books, but there I did indeed find a handsome jacketed 4" by 6" five-hundred-page collection of Poe's poetry, bi-lingual, published in Minsk of all places, 2002. "The Raven" appears in four different Russian versions, three of which were done back in the late 19th century. All that translating tells you something, dating Poe's reputation here to pre-Soviet times.

TODAY'S SEMINAR was crowded with over two-dozen teachers of English, only one of whom was male. This was not my first gig at this institute. That I'm a native-speaker who's not stage-shy sometimes seems to be enough of a credential to be invited to do a program. Storytellers in North America, idled by the recession in audiences, would do well to consider a year or so in this part of the world.

Storyteller Matthew Stremba leading workshop

There were a few teachers who declined to rank O. Henry and Jack London right next to Twain, rather assigning those heights to Hemingway or Dreiser. More than a few insisted Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck are indeed somewhere high up in their canon of American writers. But as for Poe, only Irina held out for listing him close to Twain.

Only four of the seminar participants reported strong interest in doing Poe in their classrooms. But all were well aware of him (mainly the stock gossip about "mental disorders") and his work. "Annabel Lee," Irina pointed out, was the subject of "an analysis" by the Soviet poet Voznesensky, which was published in the once prestigious publication, Inostranaya literatura, back in the Gorbachev era. And they know "The Raven" both by its original name and "Voron" as their anthologies title it.

I allowed as how I'm not particularly crazy about Poe's work, my real interest pretty much tied up with his mysterious death in Baltimore. "If Bolsheviks overthrew the US government and sentenced ruthless capitalists like me to a labor camp," I remarked, "Poe would not be one of the three books I'd choose to take with me" — something I'd be cautious about saying in Baltimore, especially anywhere near Westminster churchyard.

One Olga (there were three; plus two Natalyas, three Lyudmilas, two Valentinas, three Yelenas, two Irinas) asked me which three books I'd choose to take with me in such an event. I told her I'd spend the next four weeks thinking about that. Any titles to suggest, dear readers?

Afterwards, Irina, the vocal one, sitting next to me on the trolley-bus, said: "Those labor camps you imagined going off to with a few select books — do you know you are at this very moment sitting next to a communist?" She was not KGB, she hastened to add. She was surprised when I said I sometimes think I would have made a good communist.

One participant, eager to give Poe greater standing in Russia, mentioned she'd heard Poe was the inventor of the detective story. Well, that's a point considering here. If you survey both major bookstores in town, you find large sections devoted to what they call "detektivy". Even sub-genres: "ironicheskie detektivy". Besides their own native crop of detective fiction, a lot also appears in translation. Dashiell Hammett. Even old Mickey Spillane. Like Russians can't get enough detective stories! Can we credit Poe, she seemed to wonder, for this detective mania? Would Poe's sleuth, Monsieur Dupin, be the sire of this Russian genre-addiction? I'll bet there's an academic somewhere with a clue.

Those books are often subsumed under the slang "chteevo," which I'm told means "easy reading." Well, I've tried one Russian detektiv (Boris Akunin's Altyn tolobash) and it ain't easy. Which reminds me of an American experience — ninth grade — assigned to read "The Purloined Letter" — the torture of Poe's vocabulary and syntax: far from "chteevo" in English, I have to wonder what Russian stylists have done with it.


  • Cat suddenly flees post on sill.
  • With great effort Cat pulls her corpulence
  • Underneath sofa.
  • At window, a tapping, a rapping.
  • Sparrows gone.
  • Instead, gripping the grill
  • And aiming two burning eyes,
  • And a-rapping, a-tapping,
  • Bird — Big and Black as
  • The Gestapo's Mercedes.
  • That it is or something more.
  • Crow'th the Raven: "Pora v Baltimor!"

The Cat, from under the sofa, cries out: "Are we serious? A Russian-speaking bird!"

Yours truly, on my last Epiphany in Russia,
Matthew-Daniel Stremba
19 January 2004

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