By Anna Aslanyan.
Two Days in the Life of the Terrestrial Globe and Other Stories, Vladimir Odoevsky, translated by Neil Cornwell, Alma Classics 2012
This collection of short stories by Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-1869), most of them never translated into English before, is a reminder that progress in literature is not directly related to the passage of time. A particular genre may well reach impressive heights at its dawn, while its practitioners’ enthusiasm is still fresh. We find an example of this in Prince Odoevsky, a civil servant, a friend of participants in the Decembrist revolt of 1825, a philanthropist, an educator, a polyglot and a man whose passion for writing rivalled his deep interest in music.
The title story of the collection is often quoted as proof that Odoevsky founded the genre of science fiction in Russia. In fact, it is better described as fantasy combined with social comedy, which does not make the author’s design less bold. Odoevsky was interested in all things mystical, as some of his stories manifest, but his fiction also contains a consistent grain of rationalism. In ‘The Black Glove’ we are faced with a mystery, yet the denouement is utterly prosaic and sober observations abound. A couple argue “simply because they had to quarrel, each to vent their spleen on someone’s heart – this being one of the advantages of the matrimonial condition”.
An element of fantasy runs through several other stories as well. The protagonist of ‘Opere del Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi’, a self-proclaimed Wandering Jew, asks a stranger for ten million gold coins, which he needs to realize his utopian projects, but has to settle for just one. ‘Beethoven’s Last Quartet’ shows the composer whose deaf ears can hear music, much as he can taste fine wine in the glass of water he is served by his loyal pupil Louisa. The narrator of ‘Imbroglio’, an Italophile visiting Naples, becomes involved in a dangerous adventure which nearly ruins his love for the country. An officer in ‘The Witness’ defies social conventions, breaking the rules of a duel: “I remembered just one thing: that they were killing my brother right in front of me…”
As the familiarity of many of these themes might imply, Odoevsky was either ahead of his time or, more probably, times and mores have not changed all that much in the last 150 years. Such an ability to age well is as remarkable in fiction as it is unpredictable. Far from sounding quaint or old-fashioned, these stories, skilfully rendered by their translator, read like the writings of a contemporary gentleman, learned, imaginative and refreshingly open-minded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 27th, 2012.