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Russian Literature in Germany: An Outward Glance. Part 1

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Russian Literature in Germany: An Outward Glance. Part 1

11.10.2008

I live in the small suburb of Offenbach on the outskirts of Frankfurt am Main. The town suffered terribly during the bombings, with only a small center in the old town remaining. In this tiny historic center, there are two large bookstores and several other smaller stores.

These bookstores always have visitors. There are never crowds, but they are never empty like the stores selling cosmetics and textiles. Books in Germany are highly treasured. People love to buy them.

It’s obvious that publishers prefer mysteries, thrillers and, strangely enough, historical novels. Bookstores have sections devoted to African and Asian literature in German translation, although translations of authors from the English-speaking world make up the bulk of sections devoted to foreign literature.

Translations of Russian authors can be found, although I’ve only been successful a few times. In the last four years, I’ve purchased Snegov’s People Like Gods, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Nabokov’s Lolita. I’ve seen mysteries by Marinina and Dontsova only twice.

Why is this? Is it the lack of interest in Russian literature among readers? Is it lack of attention to classics on the part of publishers? Neglect of contemporary writers? Perhaps Russian authors are simply not translated and published in German?

In short, if you ask a sales associate in a bookstore, it turns out that these books are translated and published. You can buy them in the bookstores, provided you know the authors’ names. You can place an order that will be ready in a few days. But the key is you have to know beforehand which authors and books you want!

But if you’re an ordinary German who doesn’t know Russian literature all that well, the chance you’ll see it on the shelves is virtually nonexistent. There are no separate shelves for Russian literature. The only thing you might come across is a stand advertising new publications in Germany, for example, works by Varlam Shalamov.

Russian authors are regularly being published in Germany, and the list of names is quite large, although not nearly as large as the list of German authors published in Russia. Print runs are very small, however, which means that books don’t really catch the customer’s eye.

Readers get to know books first of all in schools, bookstores, libraries and, obviously, through advertising. Gradually passing all these steps, I finally understood that with very few exceptions, Russian writers didn’t figure into the recommended list for German readers. It’s no surprise that those authors readily available were Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol. These names are buzzwords, and if you ask ordinary citizens about Russian literature, they’ll confidently name Dostoevsky and Tolstoy without having read a single line from their books. In this situation, literature plays a very significant, even landmark role, dividing society into segments and unifying it as a nation.

What a person reads is a mark of his affiliation to a group. It doesn’t matter what kind of group – professional, religious or political. The main thing is that a person has something to discuss within this group and that the group shares a common cultural knowledge.

In this sense Slavists in Germany can endlessly discuss the style and spirituality of Russian literature. It is their mysterious language of “sacerdotal knowledge,” but it bears little relation to actual interest on the part of readers.

Germans’ general knowledge of three or four of Russian writers unites them into one large national group. They all know these few names. They bring up these names from the pages of newspapers, magazines and the television. It is common knowledge, consecrated by the common source of its realization. This knowledge unifies society into a nation.

In his article “What Awaits the Western Reader in Russian Literature?” Waldemar Weber confidently asserts that Russian literature is well known to the public at large in Germany and Austria. Everyone from mathematicians to educated housewives knows it well. This large number of educated Germans is constantly waiting for new Russian literature.

Unfortunately, I have not noticed these trends playing out around me, although I am aware of a narrow band of Slavists at a Frankfurt school who really do love and understand Russian literature.

In response to the question Weber poses in his article, I can say with confidence – nothing. The question itself is removed from real life and surrounded by a fog of romantic idealism.

The Western reader is not something monolithic or average. On the contrary, he is multifaceted. In general, though, the masses expect to be entertained from literature. Whether it’s Russian or their native German, it doesn’t matter.

This second very important function of literature – to entertain – is so strong that it can’t be undone by even video games or German soccer.

In all likelihood, the human psyche is strongly connected with the meaning of the word. It is precisely the word that most strongly stirs our imagination, and often it is totally unrelated to the quality of the text. The meaning of literature cannot be pulled from anywhere; it comes from one’s own imagination.
To this day, literature can entertain and stir the imagination, as literature is timeless.

The book has become a product, ceasing to be a messianic sign of culture. European writers themselves in the postmodern era don’t lay claim to anything but the examination of the depths of their own subconscious beings.

Germany’s book market, however, takes into account not only the majority that craves entertainment, but it also seeks to satisfy the numerous desires of a very diverse minority. Because of this, it’s impossible to talk about what the average German reads and expects from literature.

Along with popular literature exists literature for the elite. This arguably includes Russian literature.

By this definition, I am not referring to “light reading” for our intellectual elite; rather, I am talking only about the specialists. For example, those who have dedicated themselves to studying Russian language, culture and history. A wide selection of Russian authors is available in translation for this very narrow segment of society. This literature is not always on the shelves of bookstores, but it is published and is available for those who are knowledgeable. In any bookstore, one can easily find out whether books by Makanin, Ulitskaya, Rubin, Aimatov, Pelevin, Aleshkovsky and Aleksievich are published. Of course, one can find these authors translated into German, and their books can be ordered and picked up the next day.

The prevailing notion in Russia is that Russian authors are published in Germany either through self-publication or through grants from Slavic studies departments. I can’t speak for the first allegation, but I can say that Slavists in Germany have such limited means that financing a publication is simply not within the realm of possibility.

I think the fact that they take the risk of bringing Russian authors to Germany is actually a credit to German publishers.

Lyudmila Ulitskaya reached an agreement with her German publisher, and her books are currently printed as much as Tolstoy’s. This is one of the biggest problems an author faces – finding a publisher who will promote the work on the German market. Book fairs and personal introductions in Germany help authors achieve these goals.

I don’t want to speculate on contemporary authors, but recalling the classics, I always encounter the notion that close European contacts based on family connections, endless trips to the resorts by Russian writers and their friendships in the casinos and salons were not the least important factors in making Europeans knowledgeable of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol.

I’ll bring up the example of painting in the 20th century. A great number of Russian symbolists are well known in Europe only because they lived there a long time, studied there, and held their exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. Petrov-Vodkin is known worldwide, but Borisov-Musatov is hardly known in Europe at all, although he too was a symbolist and a superb artist. But he traveled very little abroad and as a result, he wasn’t noticed.

And here we have the issue of any national culture being closed in “on itself,” taking into its bosom only those who speak its language. Knowledge of German helps a writer considerably in choosing a publisher or literary agent.

Let’s remember that during the entire Soviet period, German was forced into the rural and provincial schools, with English dominating in the big cities. The normal process of human connections was interrupted, even among narrow segments of society, but it is these segments that determine a nation’s interest in a foreign culture.

For more than 70 years, familial and cultural ties with West Germany were suspended. Only now are they being revived, at least in the form of tourism. Tourism, however, is mainly taking place in one direction – from Russia to Europe. Russia is not as popular among Germans, who would rather visit Africa than the Altai. As a result, many books are being published about Africa, and translations of authors from Kenya and Zimbabwe have begun to appear. The same thing is happening with Asian writers.

In a word, Germans like to read about the places they visit, and herein lies the third function of literature – the informative function.

With the increasing flow of information through the internet and television, this function has fallen off greatly, although it hasn’t disappeared entirely. Whereas one can learn about a country’s climate and beauty from the television, only books will bring a person to its “mysterious national soul.” Authors unwrap the peculiarities of their national character through their characters.

I think that people’s personal connections and the places where their paths and interests meet are occasionally unexpected and can restore popular interest in Russian literature.

Was this something that was ever really possible? Doesn’t mass popular interest in foreign literature signify its imposition from outside, the forceful importation of certain political or economic interests? Don’t we speak about the forceful introduction of American culture in Europe when we talk about the strength of English-language authors on Europe’s book markets and the endless broadcasting of blockbuster movies on any of Europe’s television channels?

After all, it is only natural that ordinary people are most interested in their own culture and literature – in what is actually happening in their own communities and countries. Only through the development of our own society are we ready to consider integrating foreign elements. This is actually the national idea in pure form – the prevailing interest in one’s own history and literature, in the individual as the carrier of culture and in the author as the observer of this individual.

To be continued...

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