Avdot’ia Panaeva’s Feminist Metafiction: An Excerpt from Margarita Vaysman’s Self-Conscious Realism

We’re proud to present an excerpt from Margarita Vaysman’s book-length study Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel. Published by Legenda, an imprint of the Modern Humanities Research Association (where it is available to order), this book focuses on the role of metafiction in the Russian novelistic tradition. The excerpt below is but a small taste of the depth and breadth of this project and highlights the work of one important practitioner of this technique, Avdot’ia Panaeva.

Avdot’ia Panaeva (1819-1893) was a successful novelist and short story writer, who made significant contributions to the development of ideas on education equality, marriage, women’s financial and property rights, and the problem of domestic violence. She was also a common-law wife of poet Nikolai Nekrasov, who was valorized in Soviet literary criticism and the popular canon. We are deeply grateful to Vaysman that, as a part of her research, she illuminates the process through which Panaeva’s legacy as a novelist and short story author has been excised from the canon of nineteenth-century Russian literature and begins the work of restoring it to its rightful place.   

This edited excerpt is from Chapter Three, “A Woman’s Answer.”

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s literary fate—a successful and popular female writer demoted to the status of the “muse” of her more successful male partner—is hardly unique. It could even be considered perversely fortunate: many key female players of the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene such as Evgeniia Tur, the Khvoschchinskaia sisters, or Maria Zhukova, are only now being re-introduced to Russian literary history and contemporary readers. However, Panaeva’s fall from literary grace also offers an insight into the history of the reception of Russian nineteenth-century metafiction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The heightened self-reflexivity of her texts, notably Zhenskaia dolia [A Woman’s Lot], did not conform to the generally held perceptions of how a realist novel should function discursively and had therefore sped up her disappearance from the canon.

Zhenskaia dolia was written, much like Panaeva’s earlier prose pieces, to be published in Sovremennik [The Contemporary, a “thick” journal run by Nekrasov — PL] both as a gap-filler and a crowd-pleaser. Addressing the burning question of female emancipation, the novel would have already attracted the readers’ attention on account of its topic, but Panaeva’s style was a distinct advantage. Although ridiculed by contemporary critics as “heart-rending” [razdiratel’nyi], it was very popular with the readers. Most of Panaeva’s texts were favored enough to be re-issued as stand-alone editions soon after they appeared in Sovremennik in serialized form.

Vissarion Belinskii, Nikolai Nekrasov, Ivan Panaev, Avdot’ia Panaeva, a painting by Anatolii Lepilin, 1950

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s career at Sovremennik officially began in 1848 with the publication of a short story “Neostorozhnoe slovo” [Careless Word] already under her chosen pen name “N. Stanitskii.” Unofficially, she had been contributing to the journal ever since its new editorial team had taken over: the January 1847 volume featured a fashion column that Panaeva wrote together with her husband, Ivan Panaev. Mody [Fashions] remained a standing co-authored column in Sovremennik until 1857, except for the summer months when Panaev took sole responsibility for it while his wife was away in the country. As recent research shows, Panaeva also assisted the editors with the daily business of running the journal by reviewing and proofreading submitted manuscripts, as well as dealing with financial matters. From 1847 to 1864, Panaeva became an in-house writer and in practice an editorial assistant at Sovremennik. In the course of her career she published short stories, novellas and novels (two of which, Tri strany sveta [Three Countries of the World] (1848) and Mertvoe ozero [Dead Lake] (1851), were co-authored with Nekrasov), and a few anonymous literary reviews in Sovremennik.

Panaeva’s texts were first examined as facts of Russian literary history in the 1920s. In 1927-28, two of her most popular works, Vospominaniia [Memoirs] (1889) and Semeistvo Tal’nikovykh [The Talnikov Family] (1848), were reissued by Academia, an early Soviet publishing house famous for its historical fiction series. Kornei Chukovskii, the literary critic and a popular children’s writer, produced a scholarly edition of Vospominaniia for Academia, and it was so popular with the readers that Academia re-issued it four times in the period 1927-33. Even though Chukovskii later claimed he had only spent an hour editing Panaeva’s manuscript, he must have undertaken a considerable amount of archival research to make these edits. Not only did he identify the real historical personalities behind the initials Panaeva used (made more confusing by the fact that she attached same initials to different people), he also verified and corrected her multiple chronological errors. Chukovskii first wrote a short essay accompanying the reissued text and then revised it into a larger piece on Panaeva’s relationship with Nekrasov for his book on the poet that came out the same year. In 1922, Chukovskii wrote an essay specifically on Panaeva as Nekrasov’s common-law wife, titled “Zhena poeta” [The Poet’s Wife], and published it as part of his series Nekrasovskaia biblioteka [Nekrasov’s library].

Panaeva’s Memoirs, 1972 edition

Chukovskii’s treatment of Panaeva is suggestive in many ways. Employing the early Soviet strategy of rehabilitating ideologically unsound texts by ascribing “progressive” tendencies to their authors, Chukovskii did an admirable job of whitewashing Panaeva’s questionable class credentials (coming from a family of successful actors, she was hardly a member of the proletariat). The critic praised “her democratic way of thinking” and argued that her texts, accessible even for the most unprepared reader, could function as an introduction to the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene. Chukovskii’s article, despite its scholarly expertise and lively style, was a typical response to nineteenth-century women’s writing in early twentieth-century literary criticism: he saw Panaeva as a secondary historical and literary figure, only as interesting as the men she knew and too concerned with the trivialities of life to have produced anything of value. Even though Panaeva was a published and popular writer, according to the critic, Panaeva’s major claim to fame rested on her status as Nekrasov’s lover and muse: Chukovskii calls the poems Nekrasov had dedicated to Panaeva “the best monument to her life” and notes that “her place on the pages of Nekrasov’s works earns her the memory of posterity.” Finally, in the critic’s opinion, Panaeva was first a woman and only then—coincidentally—a writer: “Charming, universally admired, she was also a novelist, a writer!” Chukovskii suggested, erroneously, that Nekrasov did most of the writing of their co-authored texts and argued that Panaeva became an established writer almost by chance and would have preferred a more traditional womanly occupation.

Chukovskii’s patronizing assessment of Panaeva’s career had a great influence on how Soviet literary studies approached her work. From the 1920s onwards, scholars have mostly treated Panaeva as a writer whose main contribution to Russian literature consisted of providing invaluable information about her male contemporaries. Chukovskii’s dismissive attitude and his scathing remarks (he called Panaeva “simple-minded” [prostodushnaia] as well as “trivial and shallow” [obyvatel’ski-poverkhnostna], among other things) stuck, and the image of her primarily as a hostess of Sovremennik’s salon and Nekrasov’s “angry muse” rather than a novelist in her own right were perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Panaeva’s text serves as a third case study in my exploration of metafictional narrative strategies in a contained but representative sample of Russian novels of 1862-1863. Offering a reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction that aimed to “undermine established discourse within the novel’s narrative text” (in the words of the scholar Joan Douglas Peter),  I explore the similarities in the universal strategies of metanarrative that featured in the works of writers of varying ideological persuasion and literary skill. This chapter offers a brief discussion of Panaeva’s position in the Russian literary canon and some notes on the contemporary reception of her work in Russia and abroad. Following that, it reconstructs the historical and political context of the novel’s publication in 1862 and provides a close reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction with a narrative voice that transgresses the boundaries of gender.

Abstract:

Does metafiction—the literary technique that forces readers to acknowledge they are reading a work of fiction—have a hidden past? Margarita Vaysman’s insightful study establishes metafiction as an inherent part of the entire Russian novelistic tradition, not merely existing but thriving in the nineteenth century. Practiced by writers of often disparate ideological persuasions, metafiction was a creative answer to the period’s twin preoccupations with politics and aesthetics.

In Self-Conscious Realism, Vaysman examines metafiction’s complex correlation with Russian realism in three novels from across the ideological spectrum of the 1860s: What Is To Be Done? (1863) by the famous political radical Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Troubled Seas (1863) by the forgotten reactionary conservative Alexei Pisemskii, and Woman’s Lot (1862) by Avdot’ia  Panaeva, a female writer struggling for professional recognition. These case studies are richly contextualized by the writers’ diaries, letters, and memoirs, as well as official legal and financial sources.

Please order the book from Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association.

NB: As most academic publications, this book is priced for university library purchases, but a much more accessibly priced paperback will be published in late 2022.

Margarita Vaysman is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) and Head of Department at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where she teaches Russian and comparative literature.  She is the author of Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel (2021) and co-editor of Nineteenth-Century Russian Realism: Society, Knowledge, Narrative (2020).  She specializes in Russian and Ukrainian literature, culture, and history of ideas, and is currently working on a cultural history of cross-dressing in Eastern Europe, exploring historical intersections between literature, culture, sexuality, fame, and fashion and their conflicted legacy in contemporary culture.

Mary Poppins in Russia: an excerpt from Elena Goodwin’s book Translating England into Russian, available from Bloomsbury

As a part of our investment into cultural, linguistic, and geographical hybridity of stories told about the Soviet Union, we at Punctured Lines are delighted to present an excerpt from a recent book by Elena Goodwin, Translating England into Russian: The Politics of Children’s Literature in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia, published by Bloomsbury.

In eight chapters covering both the Soviet period and post-Soviet Russia, Elena Goodwin explores translations of English children’s literature. She looks closely at the work of leading translators working from English to Russian, including Samuil Marshak, Korney Chukovsky, Boris Zakhoder, Irina Tokmakova, and Nina Demurova, among others, and considers how representations of Englishness depended on USSR’s ideology and reflected the shifts in post-Soviet Russia’s political and cultural climate.

Though this book is aimed primarily at academic historians and translation scholars, we believe it has much to offer to translators, bilingual readers, creative writers, and all others interested in the way one culture might be translated–or not–into another. Its focus on popular children’s and young adult literature makes the reading particularly enjoyable because so many of us are familiar with at least one version of the primary texts.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7: Framing P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in Ideological and Cultural Contexts: Translating Features of English National Character. This is only a brief section of what is a fascinating story about how Mary Poppins became Russified, and how the portrait of England itself has been transformed in translation.

Our deep gratitude to the author, Elena Goodwin, and to Bloomsbury for giving us their permission and assistance with publishing this excerpt. Please enjoy–and buy the book, and ask your library to purchase it.

[Excerpt begins]

Soviet readers were first introduced to the Mary Poppins books in 1968. The Soviet version was called Meri Poppins [Mary Poppins] and consisted of two parts (House № 17 and Mary Poppins Comes Back) with a mention on the title page that the translation was abridged. Boris Zakhoder, the first translator of the Mary Poppins books, did not have the originals and had to borrow them from the library. He mentioned in his letter to Pamela Travers in 1969 that, strange as it may seem, he did not own any of her books and that he had used library copies in order to produce his translation. P. L. Travers sent all her Mary Poppins books to Boris Zakhoder by the end of 1969 (the first four books of the series), as he mentioned in his reply to her. This correspondence points to my supposition that the original books were not freely accessible to the general public and might have been on a censor’s list as titles not allowed for circulation.

The reason why Mary Poppins was not translated into Russian for so long was perhaps revealed by Travers herself when she suggested in an interview given to The New Yorker in 1962 that the Soviet authorities might consider Mary Poppins ‘a bourgeois institution’:

My great hope is to have her translated into Russian …. I know we don’t have any copyright agreement with Russia, but I say to my agent, ‘Never mind. Leave her around where the Russians can steal her.’ We haven’t left her around enough yet. I suppose the authorities would take her au pied de la lettre – they’d say a nursemaid was a bourgeois institution – but the children would understand her.

A narrow circle of people might have known about the existence of Mary Poppins as a literary character after the Disney film Mary Poppins was shown at the Fourth Moscow International Film Festival in July 1965. The title of the book and the name of the author appeared in the opening credits and an attentive viewer could have spotted that the movie was based on the books about Mary Poppins. Although the Disney film was screened as an out-of-competition film, it was a hit with the festival audience. However, it was not shown in Soviet cinemas afterwards. In the 1980s people could find it only on pirated videotapes and only after the demise of the Soviet Union did the Disney Mary Poppins become available to the general public.

Another reason for failing to introduce books about Mary Poppins to Soviet readers might be explained by Travers’s negative views about the Soviet Union. In 1932 Travers went to the Soviet Union to see Leningrad and Moscow and published a book about her journey in 1934 (before she wrote Mary Poppins), which was called Moscow Excursion. This book was immediately reviewed in the New York Times and called ‘impertinent and gay’; it was mentioned that Travers found the way the Soviet Union presented itself appalling and that the Soviets would probably denounce her as a ‘class enemy’. Travers depicted the Soviet Union as a depressing society and noted ‘the drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people’. According to Sheila Fitzpatrick, Travers toured the Soviet Union to understand its politics but had little sympathy beforehand or on her return to England. Travers’s lack of sympathy towards Soviet society is explicitly demonstrated in the book’s introduction: ‘In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made.’ As discussed in Chapter 3 of this book, the 1930s saw severe restrictions on the circulation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union. Censorship control was strengthened amid fears of intervention by international capitalism in the USSR; and foreign mass media, as well as literature were considered a great force for the promotion of ill feeling towards the Soviet Union. This is the most logical explanation why the foreign publication of Travers’s Moscow Excursion might have affected the possibility of her Mary Poppins books being translated in the Soviet Union.

According to the correspondence between Travers and Zakhoder, it was the famous Soviet children’s poet Sergey Mikhalkov who met Travers in Switzerland at the end of the 1960s and told her that her books had been translated into Russian. The Soviet Mary Poppins immediately became very popular among Soviet adult and child readers, as Zakhoder’s letters to Travers show. Zakhoder wrote in his letter to Travers in 1969 that the print-run of ten thousand copies was instantly sold out in Moscow and that there were favourable reviews, including one in the literary journal Novyi mir. In the 1970s the translation was adapted for a radio show and for the stage, the script of which was also written by Zakhoder. Moreover, updated versions of the play have been performed in theatres around the country since 1991. In 1983 Mary Poppins appeared on Soviet TV screens in the film Meri Poppins, do svidania. It immediately became a hit and has been very popular since its first broadcast. At the same time, Mary Poppins was turned into a household name in modern Russia – babysitter agencies, cafés, family fun centres and even a fashion label are all called after the famous nanny.

Zakhoder regretted in his letter to Travers that his translation was abridged – fifteen chapters only from the first, the second and the third books – and mentioned that he was not able to obtain the fourth book. In the preface to the first edition Zakhoder promised Soviet children that they would meet with Mary Poppins again and that the story would be continued. Unfortunately, he did not keep his promise and the omitted chapters have never been recovered in the subsequent reprints of Zakhoder’s translation. Although two retranslations appeared in the 1990s (by Marina Litvinova and Igor Rodin), Zakhoder’s translation is considered a canonical text in Russian culture and is well positioned in the Russian children’s literature market.

In a letter to Travers in July 1969 the director of the Detskaia Literatura publishing house K. Piskunov explained why the Russian translation was abridged (quoted from the Russian original and its English translation, which was enclosed with the official letter sent to P. L. Travers):

Сокращение отдельных глав было обусловлено не только трудностями их перевода, но и большим желанием издать одновременно обе части, а детям младшего возраста, на кого рассчитана эта книга, мы избегаем давать книги большого объема.
[Abridgement of separate chapters was necessary partly owing to difficulties of translating and the desire to publish both parts at the same time and because for the younger children for whom this book is intended we do not like and avoid giving bulky books.]

He also said that it was uncertain whether B. Zakhoder would continue the translation of the next books about Mary Poppins and whether Detskaia Literatura would be able to revise the current translation. This letter points to the prevailing ideological conventions in Soviet literature written for children. At the same time, it signals the presence of censorship, although this matter is not clearly expressed in the correspondence. It is possible that self-censorship and editorial decisions could have somehow influenced Zakhoder’s opinion, to a certain extent, on how to construct the image of the English nanny in a way that Soviet child and adult readers of the late 1960s would accept, understand and like; and why certain chapters should not be included into his version, thus modifying the original structure of Travers’s books and the hidden message contained in them.

The first three books, Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935) and Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), have elements of myth and are structured as myth – the interconnected chapters are repeated and everything returns, but in a modified manner. In Zakhoder’s translation the books’ original structure is modified, thereby distorting Travers’s intention to create the books in the form of myth. Travers was not happy about the new structure of the stories in Zakhoder’s translation and pointed out in a letter to Zakhoder that ‘the books are written in a definite rhythm and the stories should be read in their proper sequence’. She also added that she had ‘always thought that Russian readers would like it as they have a great sense of humour and poetry’, as she discovered when she went to Russia in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the Soviet readers who could not obtain the original texts (as well as the Russian readers nowadays who prefer Zakhoder’s translation) were not aware of the original narrative and Travers’s intention to create the original in the mythic form.

Zakhoder omitted one of every pair of repetitive chapters. It is difficult to know whether there was too much of the untranslatable in these chapters from the point of view of Zakhoder and the editor of Detskaia literatura publishing house, or whether there were ideological reasons for the omissions. In the first book, Mary Poppins, Zakhoder excluded the chapters ‘The Day Out’, ‘Bad Tuesday’, ‘The Bird Woman’ and ‘Christmas Shopping’. It is possible that the chapters ‘The Day Out’ and ‘Christmas Shopping’ were omitted because they contain lengthy descriptions of Mary Poppins’s clothes and of what the characters bought as their Christmas presents in, as Travers says, ‘the Largest Shop in the World’. Also the chapter ‘Christmas Shopping’ refers to Christmas as a religious celebration. From the point of view of Soviet ideology, both chapters might have looked like propaganda for religion and consumerism in the West, which might have been thought unsuitable for Soviet children.

The chapter ‘Day Out’ might have been left out because it echoed the chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’ from the second book that was translated. Both chapters show a slipping from reality into an imaginary world through a portal to the unreal: in the first book Mary Poppins goes into the coloured-chalk picture drawn on the pavement by her friend Bert the Match-man and goes on an outing with him; in the second book Jane finds herself in the past inside the antique Royal Doulton bowl after she accidentally cracks it. It is difficult to guess why the chapter ‘The Bird Woman’ was excluded because it does not contain any lexical difficulties for translation, nor does it have any ideologically sensitive allusions to religion, mysticism or the bourgeois style of life. The chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’ corresponds to the chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’ from the second book. Also the chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’ contained stereotyped representations of Africans, Chinese, Eskimos and American Indians, which was considered inoffensive when the book was first published (but accusations of racism appeared later, in the 1970s, and Travers was forced to replace the stereotyped ethnic characters, which caused offence in the United States, with exotic animals in the revised 1981 edition). It is highly likely that the Soviet censor would never allow a book with racial content for publication. Most probably these were the reasons for omitting the chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’.

In the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Zakhoder left out the chapters ‘Topsy- Turvy’, ‘The New One’, ‘Robertson Ay’s Story’, ‘The Evening Out’ and ‘Nellie-Rubina’. The chapters ‘Topsy-Turvy’ and ‘Laughing Gas’ (included in the first book) have the same pattern – the children and Mary Poppins go to see her relatives; therefore, the appearance of another surreal adventure might have been the reason for omitting the chapter ‘Topsy-Turvy’ from the translation. However, by neglecting this chapter the translator denied his readers the opportunity to find out that the Royal Doulton bowl (which got broken in the translated chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’) was mended by Mary Poppins’s cousin Mr Turvy. The other chapters from the second book not included in Zakhoder’s translation might not have been thought suitable for Soviet children because of their allusions to religion, existential and spiritual ideas widely incorporated by Travers throughout the whole series of books. (Travers was interested in fairy tales, mythological literature, mysticism and spiritualism.) The chapter ‘Nellie-Rubina’ might have been left out because it alludes to Noah’s Ark as a Biblical topos or because it echoes the chapter ‘Mrs Cory’ included in the translation. The chapter ‘The New One’ repeats the translated chapter ‘The Twins’ from the first book, but it also has the newborn Annabel saying that she came from ‘the Dark where all things have their beginning’: ‘I am earth and air and fire and water … I come from the sea and its tides … It was a long journey’. The chapter ‘The Evening Out’ has a similar pattern to the translated chapter ‘Full Moon’ from the first book but at the same time it questions the nature of existence and contemplates the universe in a spiritual way. Finally, in the chapter ‘Robertson Ay’s Story’ the silly king is mocked by all his subjects but his jester, the Dirty Rascal, teaches him to be true to himself and do what he wants. This chapter might have been deemed unsuitable because of its individualistic approach to life but it is also safe to say that Zakhoder might have decided to substitute this chapter with the translated chapter ‘The Cat That Looked at the King’ from the third book Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

It appears that ideological norms (in the form of self-censorship) played a partial role in the process of choosing which chapters to translate. At the same time, it is important to take into account the counterargument of Alexandra Borisenko, who proposes that in order to avoid repetitions and to make the Russian translation a more interesting read, Zakhoder chose his favourite chapter from two repetitive ones. A similar opinion is expressed by Galina Zakhoder (Zakhoder’s widow):

Pamela Travers often exploits the same [literary] devices. In one chapter [characters] are flying under the ceiling, in another chapter – they are flying in some other way. And the narration in these parts loses its pace. Boris omitted passages of such a kind. I think Travers got angry when she found out the truth. It appeared to me that she felt that Zakhoder was right, that is why she was angry.

This view is feasible and can be explained by Zakhoder’s possible misunderstanding of the peculiarities of the narrative structure of the Mary Poppins books. It also points to the presence of the translator’s co-authorial voice based on his own literary preferences.

[End of excerpt]

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