Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk will read from their recently published translation of Lev Ozerov’s Portraits without Frames. The original, first published in 1999, three years after Ozerov’s death, is one of the most remarkable books of Russian poetry to have been published since the collapse of the Soviet Union - both a moving, intensely personal document and a mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture.
Born in Kiev, Lev Ozerov studied in Moscow, then worked as a front-line journalist after the German invasion.
From 1943 he taught poetry and translation at the Gorky Literary Institute. Ozerov himself translated poems from Yiddish, Hebrew and Ukrainian (languages he knew well), Lithuanian (which he could read) and other languages of the Soviet Union with the help of a crib. He also wrote many books of literary criticism and did much to enable the publication of writers who had suffered or perished under Stalin. He was the first editor to publish Zabolotsky (his translation of The Lay of Igor’s Campaign) on his return from the Gulag in 1946. That same year saw the publication of Ozerov’s long poem about the massacre of Kievan Jews at Babi Yar, one of the first works to address the subject in Russian.
Ozerov has yet to win due recognition. His finest book, Portraits without Frames, published after his death, comprises fifty accounts, told in a variety of tones and with deceptive simplicity, of meetings with important figures, many – though not all – from the literary world. One poem tells how Yevgenia Taratuta, an editor of children’s literature, kept her sanity during brutal interrogations by reciting Pushkin and Mayakovsky to herself. A second describes Ozerov’s first meeting with Zabolotsky on his return from the Gulag. The poem ends with Zabolotsky’s daughter telling Ozerov, decades afterwards, how later that day her father had said to her: ‘I had thought I was forgotten, but people still seem to remember me.’ Ozerov writes with compassion not only about such great and courageous writers as Shalamov but also about such writers as Fadeyev, a Soviet literary boss who shot himself when Stalin’s crimes, and his own complicity, began to be exposed under Khrushchev.
Among the subjects of other ‘portraits’ are Babel, Platonov, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Kovpak (a Ukrainian partisan leader) and the ballet dancer Galina Ulanova. One poem tells of Slutsky’s generosity in making his room available to couples who had nowhere to sleep together; one evening he returns home to find a note: ‘Boris, / you are a great humanist, / and the heavenly powers / will reward you. The sins of others, / sins that are not yours, / will bring you blessings.’
Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include a number of works by Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov. He has also compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales and, with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. He is a co-translator of three volumes of memoirs and stories by Teffi and the author of a short biography of Alexander Pushkin. His translation of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad will be published in summer 2019. Teaching is increasingly important to him, and he runs a monthly translation workshop at Pushkin House (London).
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His recent translations include Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press). He is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press).