The reviews I have seen so far do not do the book justice. In its original form it was aimed squarely at the Russian speaking intelligentsia, considerable help for English readers is therefore essential. There are errors and missing explanations. To give an example, on page 152, the English language version has the quote the strongest of the intelligent, it is about three-quarters of the way down. On first reading, I thought it more likely that the strongest of the intelligentsia was intended. Turning to the Russian, there is самый сильный из интеллигентов. So probably intellectuals is better than intelligent. That is minor and, if my sole objection, unnecessarily pedantic. Nonetheless, there is a lot of pathos behind the remark.
The quotation is taken from the section about the poet Nikolay Glazkov (1919, Lyskovo – 1979, Moscow), the inventor of samizdat (the reproduction by hand of censored or restricted works). The remark apparently stems from a joshing conversation sometime in the 1950s between Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-1968), who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1962, and Glazkov. Glazkov did boast about being the strongest, in a literal sense. Note that Landau in 1938 was arrested because of a ridiculous denunciation. I was accused of being a German spy … I spent a year in prison and it was clear I wouldn't last another six months. I was simply dying. Kapitsa went to the Kremlin and declared that he was demanding my release. If it was not granted, he would be forced to leave the Institute [of Physical Problems]. I was freed. See page 549 of Medvedev: Let History Judge. ISBN: 0 19 215362 5. For further reading one has the Russian language pages http://www.rogdestvenskij.ru/lit230.html and http://www.chas-daily.com/win/1999/02/17/g_74.html. There should have been a note.
Yet the pathos does not end there. In the Russian edition Averbakh produces what he says is Glazkov's last poem:
|Желаю стать таким опять,
Каким я был лет в двадцать пять,
Когда сложил немного строк,
Но бегать мог и прыгать мог.
|I wish I could once more be as alive,
And what I was when agéd twenty-five,
When I laid out my meagre lines in verse,
When I could run and jump without reverse.
|Мечтаю, впрочем, я о чем?
Я не был лучшим силачом:
С простуд чихал, от стужи дрог,
Но драться мог, бороться мог.
|It's a dream, sadly, why bruit it about?
For I'm not the strongest of men about:
With colds and sneezes, just icy for the hearse,
But, if I could fight I would so coerce.
|Себя счастливым не считал.
Чего желал ? О чем мечтал ?
Мечтал, что буду я велик,
Желал издать десятки книг.
|But it seems I'm from an unlucky stream.|
What things did I want, of what did I dream?
My dream, to be of the great who traverse,
By writing dozens of books to disburse.
|О чем мечтал, того достиг,
И с опозданием постиг,
Что я неправильно мечтал,
И потому устал и стар.
|What I dreamed of drinking, what was my thirst,|
And belatedly grasped was too perverse,
Was that these desires must needs be cast out:
Now I'm too old and tired, wholly played out.
|Творю печатную строку,
Но бегать, прыгать не могу
И стать желаю, как балда,
Таким, каким я был тогда!
|I can express myself through the printed line,|
But I can't gambol, such is my decline,
And I want to be, just like a blockhead,
In this, as I then was, in super stead.
Translating the above and many of the other poems cost me a lot of time. It also taught me humility. I couldn't get the couplets about Averbakh's dog Byasha to work. I may revisit that.
Glazkov's lines, also in the book, appear pertinent:
|Что такое стихи хорошие?
Те, которые непохожие.
Что такое стихи плохие?
Те, которые никакие.
|What makes for a splendid poem?
One whose lines are distinct from all.
What makes for a hopeless poem?
One that isn't all there at all
This seems a good moment to thank my good friend Bernard Cafferty for his considerable fortitude and patience when checking my words and translations, and making observations (such as I prefer the Russian when asked for his comment about Byasha's poem!) that have proven invaluable. Needless to say, the mistakes are all mine.