Marusya Kilmova. Interview for Underpass

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Translated from Russian by Daria Smirnova


Marusya Kilmova is a pen name of a St. Petersburg writer Tatiana Kondratovich. Her reputation is that of a fringe writer, a Nietzschean and a decadent. A reader’s reaction to her books is always unexpected and ranges from bafflement and indignation to utter admiration and worship, but hardly anyone stays indifferent. She is also quite known for her brilliant translations from French of works by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Genet, and other French modernists. In 2006 she was awarded The Order of Arts and Letters of France (L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres). Tatiana still lives in St. Petersburg, Russia and writes novels, short stories and mock essays of literary criticism. You can find her online in Russian at http://femme-terrible.com/.


How has reading translations affected your life and view of the world outside of Russia? 

Of course it had its influence. It has to be remembered that I spent my childhood and youth in the Soviet Union, that is, in a completely isolated space, cut off from the rest of the world by the “Iron Curtain.” This made literature not only the main, but basically the only means of learning about the countries abroad. Indeed, I read most books in translation since the originals were simply unavailable. Besides, the scope of translated literature was far from comprehensive; many of the most interesting and influential works were just banned and their authors’ names were not even mentioned in public. However, some information would inevitably leak through, some things would get published by samizdat (underground, self-publishing), some — were smuggled through borders, and others would just somehow show up according to the laws of absurdity. Like it happened to Céline and my acquaintance with his works; I accidentally came across his name in an encyclopedia, where he was blamed for all evil, called a “misanthrope” and a “fascist,” followed by a sudden discovery of a French edition of his novel Death on Credit at a Leningrad book store. At that time, his works were kept in the “special storage” sections of the libraries where common readers were not allowed. It was then that I conceived of translating this novel into Russian and even started working on it, having a very vague idea what I was going to do with the translation later.

However, despite all the inconvenience of the situation, having been born behind the Iron Curtain was the reason why, for a long time, I thought of Japan solely as a land of Akutagawa and imagined Sweden as a country of Strindberg. And I think that if my acquaintance with China, for example, had started not with Confucius, but with the crowds of tourists that are flooding the streets of Petersburg today, some very important things about this culture would have been left behind and forever lost for me. Learning about each culture exclusively from books, I had a chance to access the ideal side of their being, untainted by any physical contact with reality. And this experience was unique and valuable in its own way. I understand it now. Later, a closer look at foreign countries and real contact with them brought, among other things, inevitable disappointment, which became one of the main themes in my own books. Particularly, in The Little House at Bois-Colombes in which I write about living in France in the early 1990s.

What do you think literature can show us that other mediums (art, photography, video, etc.) do not?

I believe that literature, in comparison with other artistic forms, is central to human life. A writer deals with words that all of us use to some extent. Even The Bible starts with saying that “In the beginning there was the Word.” From this point of view it would be right to argue that painting or music, by expressing certain nuances that are hard to express verbally, complement literature and not the other way around. Literature is practically universal, it can talk about everything and in language that can be understood and accessed by any person. It does not have this complementing function, but without literature other forms of art, and perhaps even human existence itself, would have lost their meaning. Perhaps, for this reason, it is often musicians, artists, and film directors who at some point demonstrate a certain dissatisfaction with the medium they have chosen and turn to writing memoirs and even novels. It is much rarer that poets and writers dream of composing music or painting pictures.

However, if we listen carefully to the word “literature” we can quite clearly discern a certain negative and even diminishing sense in it. Hardly any film director or painter would be happy to hear that the content of their creations can be fully expressed in words that is basically reduced to “literature.” They would probably find much more flattering an exclamation like “This has to be seen!” And the whole history of art, if we look at it from this angle, can be seen as an endless competition with literature. What’s most amusing about it is that the same can be said about the art of writing poetry and novels. As soon as they turn into “literature” one’s books become the property of literary critics, they become the objects of their research and lose their connection to immediate reality along with the ability to truly excite those who read them. That’s why literature is somewhat of a death or a dangerous disease that one has to keep overcoming. So, however much of a paradox it is, a writer’s task is to never become a writer. At least, that is my understanding of it. 

What modern Russian writers would you like to see translated into English? 

It surprises me that the works of such writer as Masodov, for example, still have not been translated into English. His Russian publications made quite a lot of noise. Perhaps, I’m just not aware of it, but I haven’t heard that his books were translated. Translators from Russian might also look at the journal Opustoshitel (Опустошитель – The Devastator). It’s unlikely that the English-speaking world knows about it since it exists aside from Russian literary mainstream. However, it’s this journal that attracted quite a group of the most fascinating and unusual, in my opinion, Russian writers of the new generation.

What do you think literature tells the world about Russia, or even more specifically Petersburg?

Literally everything tells something to the world. If you look at buildings, for example, you realize that they, too, can say about the time of their construction, no less than the writers and the thinkers of that epoch. In this sense architecture even has an advantage over literature, since the latter uses words which can seam senseless to some readers or lead them away from the subject, while architecture is silent, if one can call it that. I know that Russia brought to many languages such phrase as proxy war, for example. It’s used to describe a situation when one state intrudes on the territory of the other and starts military actions there, for example, and everyone seems to know it but the war is not announced officially, as it used to be done, but everyone just acts as if nothing happened. Although this phrase came from articles on political science, still, a similar hybrid and amorphous state along with a complete absence of simple self-control, let alone acute self-accountability, is typical of Russian literature today, I believe. Writers discuss such categories as spiritual, traditional, God, refer to Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and lead lives of their own which have absolutely nothing to do with what they write. From this point of view, literature can reveal a lot about Russia today, but only if we leave aside what its creators write in their books. 

What role does Petersburg play in your novels? Do you feel the connection between your writing and the so called “Petersburg text” as it is defined by Toporov and other scholars of literature? Do you follow the tradition of Petersburg text to some extent and, if you do, is it deliberate or not? Which Petersburg motives are your favorite?

Petersburg is the city that is always present in the lives and writing of almost every prominent writer of Russian classics. Moscow, for example, does not have the same presence. That’s why a Petersburg writer by default enjoys more favorable environment, if one can say so, and gets a head start compared to writers living in other regions. I, for one, was born here (in Petersburg) but spent part of my childhood in Ukraine, at my grandmother’s. This fact in itself makes me relate to Nicolai Gogol who, as we know, came to Petersburg from Ukraine… However, it’s also not as simple as it could be, unfortunately. Since for almost seven decades of the last century this city had a name of Leningrad and was not only a complete opposite of Petersburg but its antithesis essentially. And if you think about it, I myself was born in Leningrad. Certainly, this circumstance determines a more conscious and responsible attitude not only to my own texts, but also to the context in which I have to exist. Petersburg – is a city of decadence and dandyism, of aristocratic boredom, of “fogs and waters.” It is these Petersburg motives that are most important for me. I really want to believe that this city will never return to being the city of war glory, populated by the veterans of war and labor.

You do translations from French just like your protagonist Maroussia. What is the connection between your own writing and literary translation? Is it helpful for your writing to be a translator?

I’m not sure, perhaps, I am too vain, but lately I tend to think that it’s best for a writer to go for an occupation that is much more distanced from literature than literary translation. I mean, in order to make a living, if there is such a need. One can be a doctor, a lawyer, or run some business, after all. When people, mentioning your name actually refer to somebody else’s books it stops being satisfying at some point. Even if it’s about personalities that appeal to you like Céline and Genet do to me… Who really benefits from it (translation) are the authors of the originals. Because a translation process is similar to repotting a plant into a new environment in which it might not root well. But translation is like a soil that is prepared for it: a translator prepares a context for the foreign text to be put in. It guarantees that readers’ approach to it will be more conscious, at least on part of those who are a constant audience of the translator’s own texts.

What would you like to add about your relationships to translation, writing and literature?

Well, probably, it is worth talking about what you feel when your own texts are translated into other languages. I’m not sure if anybody talked about it yet. I first experienced it when my novel Blue Blood was translated into Estonian. In Estonia it was a success and became a bestseller. I was then invited to visit Tallinn and was amazed at the amount of attention given to me and the scale of their hospitality. It was quite unexpected because this novel was written a quarter century ago and hasn’t been republished in Russia for many years. But this is not even the point. The point is that it allows you to realize clearly, that even if your own country somehow shares the destiny of ancient civilizations and, like Hellas, one day it just perishes from the Earth, you, hypothetically, can still live for centuries but in a completely different space, where people will read you in a language you never spoke. It is something akin to the feeling that the people of the future will have when our dreams of being teleported to other planets come true. A feeling of an individual that can be simultaneously in two opposite ends of a laser beam, many kilometers long, which has just transported her to the point of destination.

The point is that it allows you to realize clearly, that even if your own country somehow shares the destiny of ancient civilizations and, like Hellas, one day it just perishes from the Earth, you, hypothetically, can still live for centuries but in a completely different space, where people will read you in a language you never spoke.


Underpass, 2017


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