Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Lawrence Durrell in Russia

These beautifully designed Russian-language volumes of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, translated by Vadim Mikhailin, were published as a set by Symposium in Saint Petersburg in 2007.

Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea first made their appearance in Russia only a few years earlier, after Mikhailin did the translations - of Justine and Balthazar in 2001, and of Mountolive and Clea in 2003.

Remarkably, these were the first translations of the Alexandria Quartet into Russian.  Justine had been published in Britain in 1957, both Balthazar and Mountolive in 1958, and Clea in 1960. English-language editions and foreign translations quickly followed throughout the world.  But over forty years passed before they were published in Russia.

The explanation is that Lawrence Durrell was banned in the Soviet Union.  Diplomats and tourists sometimes possessed copies of his books which they left behind; these found their way into a particular bookshop in Moscow where with luck they could occasionally be obtained by discreet enquiry.

Vadim Mikhailin first came upon Durrell in this way, when the bookshop offered him a copy of Balthazar.  For Mikhailin, Durrell was a revolutionary writer, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union he began translating Durrell's work, first for private academic purposes, then for commercial publication.

Why was Durrell banned in the Soviet Union?  Because of his well-known dislike for communism, says Mikhailin, in particular his experience of Yugoslavia where Durrell was press officer at the British Embassy in Belgrade from 1949 to 1952.

'Communism is something so much more horrible than you can imagine', Durrell wrote to Henry Miller soon after arriving in Belgrade: 'systematic moral and spiritual corruption by every means at hand. ... And the smug cooperation of the intellectuals is also terrifying! They are paid to shut up - and they have.  The terrible deadness of everything is fantastic!  It really is a menace, an intellectual disease.'

The Alexandria Quartet would certainly prove an antidote to intellectual deadness and conformity, and not only of the communist kind.