Friday, January 27, 2012

Rosamund Bartlett

Rosamund Bartlett's books include Wagner and Russia and the acclaimed Chekhov: Scenes from a Life. An authority on Russian cultural history, she has also achieved renown as a translator of Chekhov.

Her latest book is Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

A few weeks ago I asked Bartlett what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m particularly pleased to be asked this question now, as I’m currently abroad and having a bit of time off, so have been reading all kinds of things simultaneously. When I am at home in Oxford, I usually have my head in a book, but mostly with a view to writing about an aspect of Russian culture, so these last few weeks I have been enjoying getting away from my usual commitments and reading purely for pleasure, which for me is the best kind of holiday.

In November I was invited to lecture at the University of North Carolina, and was amazed and delighted to discover a second-hand book shop in the departure terminal at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I wonder if it’s unique? The literature usually on offer at airports makes one despair. Naturally I had to buy a book on principle, and to support the cause of reading, and was happy to find a book about the American Civil War dealing with the part of United States I had just been travelling in: Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic (Vintage/Random House, 1998). It’s an amusing read, and illuminating.

Another book I have been reading is by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, whose detective novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano have all been runaway best-sellers in Italy. I’ve been learning Italian for a while now, and a few years ago, after reading dual-language texts, made a decision to start reading without any props. It was a bit hard at first, but I started with a cult teen novel by Federico Moccia (Tre metri sopra il cielo) which is about a romance between a rebellious young biker and a girl from an upper-class family in Rome. I got so caught up in the story that I soon started absorbing new words almost without noticing, and have never looked back. When you have to read something slowly because you are not fluent, you can really savour the words themselves, and there are some wonderfully endearing expressions in Italian, which is as beautiful a language as Russian. I first read one of Camilleri’s Montalbano books in translation, and that helped me when I came to read them in Italian for the first time. They are set in a small Sicilian seaside town, and there is quite a bit of watered down local dialect, but it’s not too difficult to figure out. Camilleri is now in his eighties, and has produced about a dozen of his very witty novels featuring Inspector Montalbano, who has refined literary tastes, likes eating, preferably alone, and contrives to spend not too much time with his long-suffering girlfriend who lives up north. I’ve been reading one of the most recent, which is a rather ghoulish murder mystery: La caccia al tesoro (Sellerio editore Palermo, 2010).

Although I am a Russian literature specialist, and am currently translating Anna Karenina for Oxford World’s Classics, I don’t often get to sit down to read the masterpieces of Russian literature in Russian for pleasure, so I’m enjoying the chance to get to know better one of Dostoevsky’s most challenging works: The Devils (sometimes known as The Possessed or Demons). It was written just before Tolstoy embarked on Anna Karenina, and it’s been interesting comparing Tolstoy’s Russian to Dostoevsky’s, which is predictably very different. The Devils is a dark and uncannily prophetic novel which explores the world of the Russian radical underground at the beginning of the revolutionary movement.

Someone I admire a great deal is the American composer Elliott Carter, who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2008, and who is still writing exciting music. The Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland recently produced a beautiful book about his extraordinary life which I have been poring over: Elliott Carter, A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, ed. Felix Meyer and Anna C. Shreffler (publication of the Paul Sacher Foundation, Boydell Press, 2008)

A trip to Australia inevitably involves jet lag, but I have discovered a great way to pass the time on sleepless nights – reading books downloaded on to my iPod. I have been particularly impressed with the BeamItDown iFlow Reader which provided me with a free copy of Jane Eyre. It works like a teleprompter with automatic scrolling whose speed is adjusted intuitively, and the fact that there are only a few words on the screen at one time means you can engage with the language of the text really closely. I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre last when I was a teenager and have been totally engrossed in it this time. What a brilliant novel! And what intoxicatingly beautiful use of English. Unfortunately BeamItDown has shut down, having issued the following statement: “Apple is now requiring us, as well as all other ebook sellers, to give them 30% of the selling price of any ebook that we sell from our iOS app. Unfortunately, because of the "agency model" that has been adopted by the largest publishers, our gross margin on ebooks after paying the wholesaler is less than 30%, which means that we would have to take a loss on all ebooks sold. This is not a sustainable business model.” Seems a shame.
Visit Rosamund Bartlett's website and learn more about Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

--Marshal Zeringue