- The Translator
When the applause had died down a woman’s voice shouted, “Bravo! Author!” Laughter sounded from the other end of the theater. It wasn’t difficult to understand why people were laughing: the production was a dress rehearsal of Byron’s Don Juan. But others in the audience had understood the request and joined in, “Author! Author!” The director, Nikolay Akimov, walked out onstage with his actors, shook Varapaev’s hand—he was playing the lead role — and proceeded to the edge of the stage. A woman wearing a long black dress that resembled a nun’s habit rose from her seat in the front row. Akimov motioned for her and she joined him onstage. The woman had rounded shoulders and seemed hopelessly tired, she stood next to Akimov gazing self-consciously off to the side. The applause grew, a few of the audience began to stand, and then the entire parterre rose to a standing ovation. Suddenly, the room fell silent. The woman in black had teetered, she almost collapsed—if Akimov had not caught her, she would have fallen to the ground. She was carried offstage. A heart attack.
Could the audience have ever imagined the origins of this production? Was the call for the “author” simply a spontaneous cheer of appreciation, or did the woman who first voiced these meaningful words somehow know the story I am about to tell?
Tatiana Grigorievna Gnedich’s great-great-great uncle translated the Iliad into Russian. In the early 1930s she was a graduate student at the University of Leningrad studying seventeenth-century English literature. Times were hard: Stalin’s political purges were beginning. The university was ridding itself of “enemies”—today it was “formalists,” tomorrow “vulgar sociologists,” and always the nobility, bourgeois intellectuals, deviationalists, and supposed Trotskyists. Tatiana, however, remained completely buried in the works of Elizabethan poets, hardly noticing anything around her.
Nevertheless, she was brought back to reality when she was accused, at some meeting or other, of hiding her noble ancestry. It goes without saying [End Page 139] she was not present at this meeting, but when she learned of the accusation Tatiana was fiercely indignant. How could she have been hiding her origins? The Gnedichs, after all, were a part of the old nobility from before the time of Pushkin. So instead, she was thrown out of the university for “boasting about her noble ancestry.” Life had become openly absurd. Its helpless victims had but one way to cope: they used this very absurdity to their advantage. It could be the end of someone, but if luck was on their side, it just might save them. Somehow Tatiana was able to prove that these two accusations canceled one another, and that she neither hid her noble ancestry nor boasted about it. She was reinstated. She taught, wrote poetry in the Acmeist manner, translated English poetry, and even began translating Russian poetry into English.
Tatiana and I lived in the same building, number 73–75 on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt. Before the Bolshevik Revolution this giant building, whose granite façade towered over Kamenny Island, consisted of privately owned apartments. It was well known in St. Petersburg and continued its prominence when the city became Petrograd, and later, Leningrad. By the time we lived there it housed prominent cultural figures like the historian Nikolay Platonov, the literary theorist Vasily Desnitsky, and the poet and translator Mikhail Lozinsky. I was born in this building—at the time my father owned apartment number 2. Later, I found myself living there again by chance. My wife and I had just married and her stepfather temporarily offered us a room in a big communal apartment. Tatiana lived with her mother in a communal apartment off a different staircase — an apartment shared among many more families than ours. Their room was saturated with the smell of mothballs and, if memory serves, lavender. It was crammed with books, old photographs, and shabby furniture draped over with hand-knitted throws. I would go there to take English lessons with Tatiana. In exchange, we would read French poetry together, which, in all...