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Subliterary Modes of Earning the Odd Pound

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Anthony Burgess went to Leningrad in 1961. Reading his stories about the trip, it’s hard to tell how good his Russian was. Sometimes he portrays himself as fluent: ‘In my best Russian I said to various Dostoevsky characters: “Where, comrade, is the nearest aptyeka?” They were all evidently healthy people, well-fed on Soviet food, for they did not know.’ At other times he admits that his ‘tiny bit of Russian had burst at the seams’. He gets names wrong, referring to a friend as ‘Sasha Ivanovich Kornilov’ (an unlikely combination) and later calling him ‘Alexei’. His wife’s name, Llewela, is a challenge to transliterate into Cyrillic, unlike their surname, which he spells ‘Uilson’ (his full name was John Anthony Burgess Wilson). The title page of one of his Russian textbooks, kept in the archive of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF), is inscribed in an outdated orthography, not quite consistently: Иван Вiльсон.

Burgess had been learning Russian before the trip. As he recalls in his autobiography, he tried teaching his wife too, but the only word she mastered was horrorshow, a ‘folk-etymologising’ of khorosho (‘good’ or ‘well’). The word played an important part in Burgess’s career. Working on A Clockwork Orange (1962), he wasn’t sure what language his delinquent characters should speak, until he fixed on ‘a mixture of Russian and demotic English, seasoned with rhyming slang and the gypsy’s bolo’. Russian loanwords, he thought – not cumbersome polysyllables but snappy ones, like brat for ‘brother’ – would suit English better than anything borrowed from German, French or Italian. He called it ‘nadsat’ (the Russian suffix for ‘-teen’, simplified in transliteration).

Reading the book for the first time, in Vladimir Boshnyak’s 1991 Russian translation, I liked it but didn’t notice anything special about the style, except that some words – perfectly ordinary Russian words, such as glaz (‘eye’) or ptitsa (‘bird’) – were Romanised in the Cyrillic text. Years later, on seeing the original, O my brothers, I felt cheated: Boshnyak had left the nadsat more or less unchanged – Burgess’s ‘horrorshow’ becomes ‘хорошо’, but ‘gloopy’ (‘stupid’) becomes ‘glupyi’ and ‘baboochka’ (‘old woman’), ‘babushka’ – though he had also transliterated some other Russian words to bolster the effect.

Yevgeny Sinelshchikov, whose version also came out in 1991, replaced nadsat with a collage of youth slang spoken in the USSR between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, a composite argot dominated by English (words like men and gerl were still quite common in the 1990s), which helped to transplant the original. The earliest existing translation, by A. Gazov-Ginzberg, was published in Tel Aviv in 1977, with the author’s name transliterated, confusingly, as Бурджесс. The Russian doesn’t read smoothly, but it’s worth skimming for its nadsat, enlivened by Yiddish inflections and funky spelling: druger, grudel, razz-rezz and so on.

Bundling translation together with other ‘subliterary modes of earning the odd pound’, Burgess didn’t shun it. He translated three French novels into English in the 1960s; his adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac were staged in the 1970s; he even tried to translate Finnegans Wake into Italian. In the early 1990s, he returned to Russian to tackle Alexander Griboyedov’s 1825 comedy Gore ot uma (‘Woe from Wit’). He called his punning, jazzy, freewheeling version Chatsky, after its protagonist, which he conceded was ‘not perhaps helpful’. In the original, most of the characters’ names stand for something (the hero could be called ‘Hopeful’). Burgess left them as they were, but compensated with abundant word play of his own, starting with his subtitle: ‘The Importance of Being Stupid’. His version is also, like the original but unlike other English translations, rhymed.

In 1987, Burgess was approached for an interview by Literaturnaya Gazeta, the mouthpiece of the Union of Soviet Writers, which was planning an issue about the ‘problems of contemporary Western youth’. Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer and the director of the IABF, recently found the correspondence. ‘Dear Vladimir Abarinov,’ Burgess’s reply begins, ‘I understand that it is not in order to address you either as tovarishch or gospodin, so I hope you will forgive this directness of approach.’ Abarinov had read Burgess’s books in English (they could be found in Moscow, in the Library for Foreign Literature and second-hand bookshops), and got his address from Who’s Who. Two years into glasnost, ‘a lot was allowed,’ he told me. ‘However, nobody knew precisely how far we could go.’ The interview was printed with minor edits.

Burgess’s answers paint a picture some Soviet readers must have found encouraging: ‘Our Western young have nothing to believe in except the ability to prolong the present … chiefly through the use of drugs. They have no moral standards.’ Little wonder, since A Clockwork Orange ‘was meant to be prophetic’, though not a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘It is true that Stanley Kubrick’s film has been instrumental in promoting bad behaviour among the young, but I did not make the film.’ (The movie had been withdrawn from British release in 1973, at Kubrick’s request; Abarinov saw it at a Moscow film school in the 1970s: ‘It turned my mind upside down.’) If anything can reverse the moral decline, Burgess insists, it’s individual free will. ‘I do not trust the state, nor do the young,’ he says. ‘They’re probably right.’ Sometimes he plays along with what he evidently imagines to be the interviewer’s angle, writing that ‘Aggression, as the Russian Revolution showed, is sometimes necessary to clear old ground for new building’ and name-dropping ‘my grandfather’s old friend Karl Marx’ (LG cut that).

‘If I had a Cyrillic typewriter I’d endeavour to write to you in my bad Russian,’ Burgess says towards the end of his letter, before turning to business: ‘Do you pay me?’ (‘We probably did,’ Abarinov says. ‘We used to, but not always.’) ‘That sounds a very capitalistic question, but authors in the West are very much on their own and must earn what they can.’ Three years later, LG became an independent paper. Among its recent articles are a piece headlined ‘We are the most independent outlet in Russia today’ and an interview with a popular author grumbling about ‘the late Soviet dissident movement, full of buffoonery and mediocrity’. Like Pravda and Sovetskiy sport, LG has kept its name.

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