Translator Interview: Anna Kurkina Rush, Peter France, & Christopher Rush, translators of Küchlya: Decembrist Poet. A Novel

Küchlya: Decembrist Poet. A Novel by Yuri Tynianov and translated into English by Anna Kurkina Rush, Peter France, & Christopher Rush, is available now. We are pleased to present this interview with the translators.

About the Book:

The poet Wilhelm Küchelbecker, Pushkin’s school-friend, suffered twenty years of imprisonment and Siberian exile for his part in the ill-fated Decembrist rising of 1825 against the Russian autocracy. His largely forgotten life and work are vividly recreated in Küchlya (1925), a pioneering historical novel by the eminent literary scholar and Formalist theorist Yuri Tynianov. Writing at a time when Stalin was tightening his grip on Soviet culture and society, Tynyanov implicitly brings together the disquieting experiences of the 1820s and the 1920s. In a lively, innovative style, his gripping and moving narrative, here translated for the first time, evokes the childhood, youth, beliefs and often absurd adventures of a Quixotic, idealistic protagonist against the richly complex backdrop of post-Napoleonic Russian society.

Yuri Tynianov (1894-1943) was a Russian writer and literary theorist, and a central figure among the revolutionary-era scholars who came to be known as the Russian Formalists.

Academic Studies Press: What drew you as translators to this work in particular?

Christopher Rush: The quality of the writing, mainly. And the fact that in spite of that quality, the book remained unknown to English readership except for those in an extremely narrow niche of academia. Ironic that such an impressive novel, so famous in Russia for almost a hundred years, should be unknown outside that country.

Peter France: I knew Tynianov first as a Formalist, a brilliant theorist of literature. Given the Formalists’ well-known hostility to the biographical approach to literature, I was fascinated to find that Tynianov had written three novels about writers – and what’s more that these enabled Mayakovsky to say to him that he and Tynianov could now speak as equals! Küchlya was the first of the three I read, and I was amazed that such a brilliant and original piece of writing should never have been translated into English. So I was only too glad to join Anna and Chris in this labour of love.

Anna Rush: We have previously translated Tynianov’s other two novels Young Pushkin (1936-1943) and The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar (1928). It made perfect sense to complete the loosely termed ‘trilogy’ of Tynianov’s novels on the literary figures of the Pushkin’s time by translating his earliest, Küchlya (1925). Back to where Tynianov started, so to speak! The true revelation for us, as translators was, how unquestionably ‘not simple at all’ his first novel is.


ASP: Could you go into more detail on why Küchlya was an instant success after its initial publication? What did the novel speak about to Russian readers at the time?

AR: I suppose, the unprecedented nature of the novel, its wonderful and innovative generic indeterminacy: is it a biography? an adventure story? a historical novel about the period in Russian history at a pivotal moment – its first attempted and abortive revolution, the Decembrist uprising of 1825? Or is after all the mainspring of the novel Russian literature played out by characters conjured up by the author’s imagination? Characters familiar by name to every Russian schoolchild (Pushkin, Krylov, Zhukovsky) leap off the page as live people, fascinating, memorable. And of course, the protagonist of the novel, Wilhelm Küchelbecker, hardly known to Tynianov’s contemporaries, a long-forgotten poet and Pushkin’s lycée friend, is in particular, Tynianov’s tour de force.


ASP: How do you think the figure of Küchelbecker in the novel might resonate differently with readers now than it did with Russian readers back in the 1920s, if at all, and why?

PF: The October Revolution, which defined Soviet society in the 1920s, has now receded into history and we are more aware of its failings, the mixture of idealism, cynicism, order and chaos that marks so many revolutionary uprisings (though of course the consequences of October 1917 were infinitely more serious than those of December 1825). But even in the 1820s, I guess that Küchelbecker and his comrades would have reminded readers of some of the actions, dreams and nightmares of the Revolutionary years.

AR: Actually, Küchelbecker is an eternal character in world literature, like Cervantes’ errant knight of the failed dream, Don Quixote, or Swift’s Gulliver on his travels, or Jules Verne’s Jacques Paganel from Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant. He is a selfless and somewhat deluded knight intending to right wrongs and restore chivalry, an absent-minded scholar whose head is full of seemingly useless but, as it turns out, very important knowledge, an outsider unable to fit in, a talented freak, an ultimate underdog. This is an intriguing and fascinating type irrespective of what age he lives in. Our hearts as readers go out to him, we invest our sympathy and attention in him and he doesn’t disappoint. In Tynianov’s novel, his consciousness is the prism through which we see various famous characters in interaction with him – Pushkin in particular – and in a new and unexpected light.

ASP: Given its success, why do you think it’s taken so long for the novel to be translated into English? What are you hoping that English readers will take away from your translation, and how did the decisions you made while translating the novel attempt to capture that?

PF: Maybe Tynianov’s modernist style didn’t fit with the norm of Soviet fiction – like Andrey Bely’s Petersburg, which took some time to be translated. Also, of course, the hero was (and still is) pretty well unknown in the West – so our aim was to give their proper place both to the author and hero and to their language, whether it’s Tynianov’s filmic rapidity or Küchelbecker’s rather archaic eloquence. I hope that readers will find in it something strange and new.

AR: We tried to translate as accurately as possible and to bring a period and a character of that period to rich and vibrant life. Particular effort was made to translate in rhymed verse numerous snippets of poetry quoted in the novel (Küchelbecker’s own poetry, as well as that of Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Ryleev, lycée and folk songs and many others) so that not to impede the flow of the novel with prose translations.

CR: Sad, to say, English-language readers are rather unadventurous, accepting the mainstream authors that have been dished up to them habitually, the Russian literary greats. We would hope that we shall leave our readers better educated that they were previously in terms of the characters who were so much a part of that period of Russian history; and that they will come from this book with an enriched perception of Tynianov’s originality, creative power and expertise as a writer.


ASP: Angela Brintlinger, who provided an endorsement of your translation of Küchlya, noted that “[n]either Tynianov nor Küchelbecker is easy to translate.” How did you go about the challenge of translating Küchelbecker’s poetry, for example—what challenges did it pose?

PF: I thought it important to reflect something of Küchelbecker’s characteristic eloquence. I have stuck pretty close to his shapes and rhythms, which seem to me essential – e.g. the long lines of ‘Life’ as against the chirpy brevity of ‘Wine’, or the alternation of stressed and unstressed line endings in the final poem. But of course I couldn’t attempt to be as exact in rhyming as the original generally is. And in one case, the moving fragment ‘Before death…’, following my instinct, I finished up with a text several lines shorter [than the original.]


ASP: You mention in your introduction that Tynianov’s original subtitle for the novel was Tale of a Decembrist, but that the subtitle was later removed from subsequent editions, possibly because Tynianov realized that he had not actually produced a celebratory piece commemorating the Decembrist uprising. Could you go into more detail as to why, in your translation, you decided to include the subtitle A Decembrist Poet?

AR: The subtitle that we chose captures the idea of two revolutions that Küchelbecker was engaged in: one in literature and one in the social realm. They are intrinsically linked. He was considered a failure in both but the emphasis on the ‘poet’ highlights the supremacy in Russian culture of his significance as a poet. Peter’s translations of Küchelbecker’s poetry at the end of the book is the first representative selection and the poems illuminate the quality of Küchelbecker’s writing.


ASP: In your introduction, you touch on how one of Tynianov’s strengths was staying true to the essence of the story without necessarily being true to the facts, making it seem as though Küchelbecker’s life as portrayed in the novel was “how it was” despite being fictionalized. Is that something you still see being done successfully today? What do you think writers who are looking to write a “historical novel” can take away from Tynianov’s Küchlya in this regard? Similarly, there are often debates in current times about popular representations of historical figures and events that take historical liberties for the sake of the story. What’s important about what Tynianov did that can inform those engaged in such debates now?

PF:  Tynianov doesn’t take anything like the liberties that many so-called historical novelists take. The novel is based on an extraordinarily rich body of research, but what T. has done is find a way of making it live, echoing the Formalist notions of the resurrection of the Word, and ‘making it strange’. Compared with this, your average historical novel will seem a bit plodding (but not, e.g. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel about the German poet Novalis, The Blue Flower, which has a striking poetic power).

AR: The Formalists’ new vision was neo-Aristotelian in essence. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that literature is more philosophical than history and gives a better vision of the ‘truth’. In history the facts are fixed. The writer can alter/treat history in such a way as to create that more truthful vision.  ‘Vision’ is more important than historical accuracy, and vision is what Tynianov’s writing turns on, not a dry amassment of facts.

CR: You could quote scripture here: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. Any writer looking to write historical novels can draw inspiration from Tynianov in this respect and, of course in respect of his astonishing knowledge of his subject. It is the vision, arising from that unprecedented knowledge, which gives Tynianov’s work the authority of a master.


ASP: Also in the introduction, you discuss how novel-writing was Tynianov’s way of discussing contemporary issues, especially when it came to analyzing and commenting on “his own ever grimmer times.” Were there any parallels that you noticed?

AR: I guess the novel expressed the anxiety of Tynianov’s circle’s collective unconscious of being ousted from history, devoid of biography, cast into oblivion. The main parallel with contemporaneity was possibly the pertinence of a question: how a revolutionary-minded man can survive in post-revolutionary times when reaction sets in. Stalinist Russia in Tynianov’s mind clearly rhymes with the Nicolaevan Russia of post-1825. Tynianov indicates Russian history’s cyclical and often catastrophic character and brings into focus the periods marked by fracture, interregna or transition from political reaction to revolutionary ardour – and back. Terrifying and tragic though they might appear to be they are no dead ends of history: ‘History,’ according to Tynianov, ‘bears no dead ends.’ On the contrary, the ‘interims’, the periods ‘of the highest aesthetic tension of two orders which are in the position of antagonistic opposition’ are of interest for their fruitful potentialities. And Küchelbecker’s failures too were significant for the literature of the 1820s and Pushkin’s own development as a poet. In this sense, this tragic novel is, curiously, not a pessimistic one.

Anna Kurkina Rush taught Russian at George Watson’s College (Edinburgh) and the University of St Andrews of which she holds a doctorate. Together with Christopher Rush she translated Tynyanov’s novel Pushkin (2007) and The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar (Columbia UP, 2021). She is currently working on a monograph about representation of Pushkin in Tynyanov’s historical novels.

Peter France, who lives in Edinburgh, is the author and editor of many books on Russian, French and comparative literature, including Poets of Modern Russia (1982) and the Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation (2000). He has translated numerous volumes of Russian poetry, from Baratynsky and Batyushkov to Mandelstam and Aygi.

Christopher Rush is the author of 25 critically acclaimed books in various genres: poetry, prose fiction, biography, besides his work as editor, memoirist, screenplay writer and writer of academic and literary essays.


Küchlya: Decembrist Poet. A Novel is available now from Cherry Orchard Books, an imprint of Academic Studies Press. Buy your copy here, or wherever you get your books.