Friday, June 25, 2021

Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse, translated and edited by Paul Selver

Eastern European stories and poems in English translation
Wladyslaw Reymont
As the title suggests,
Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse is a collection of short literary works from Eastern Europe. In this context, “Slavonic” means the same as “Slavic.” The book includes selections from Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian authors. This volume was edited by British writer Paul Selver, who also translated all of the works into English. In addition to writing his own novels and poetry, Selver was a multilinguist who also translated German, French, and Norwegian works. He was primarily known for his Czech translations, in particular the works of Karel Capek (who does not appear in this book). This anthology was published in 1919, but the works included date as far back as 1845.

The prose section of this volume includes short stories, brief essays, and a couple of one-act plays. A few recognizable names appear in this volume. The great Russian master of short stories Anton Chekhov provides a finely drawn comical tale, “In a Foreign Land.” Polish Nobel Prize-winner Wladyslaw Reymont is represented by a scene excerpted from his novel Promised Land. Polish author Boleslaw Prus’s story “From the Legends of Ancient Egypt” calls to mind his novel Pharaoh, set in the same era. The rest of the names on the table of contents will likely be new to the vast majority of English-language readers. The better entries include Czech author Jan Neruda’s “The Vampire,” which is not the horror story its title implies, but it does deliver a surprisingly morbid ending. Polish writer Wiktor Gomulicki’s portrait of an aged farmer is the literary equivalent of a gritty Gustave Courbet painting. Ukraine’s foremost poet of the 19th century, Taras Shevtchenko, tells his own story in an autobiographical essay written for a literary journal. Reymont’s selection is the best in the book, but if this were a short-story Olympics, the Russians would take the gold with strong showings by Chekhov, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Fyodor Sologub.

The latter half of the book is devoted to poetry, about 130 pages worth from the authors of seven nations. Almost all are written in rhyming verse, with Selver doing his best to preserve the rhyme schemes in his English translations. Many are romantic evocations of nature typical of the late 19th century. The more interesting selections deal with subject matter unique to the authors’ nationalities and ethnicity, the most obvious example being Czech poet Petar Preradovic’s anthemic “To Slavdom.” Shevtchenko’s poem “If Lordlings, Ye Could Only Know . . .” depicts a hellish view of serfdom. Petr Bezruc, in his series of poems, laments the plight of the oppressed Silesian Czechs. One surprising entry is Czech poet Antonin Sova’s “To Theodor Mommsen.” Rather than a tribute to the German Nobel laureate and classical historian, Sova’s poem is an extended insult that attacks Mommsen as the “arrogant spokesman of slavery.”

Classic Slavic literature is hard to come by in English translation. Selver’s welcome anthology does the valuable service of introducing the British or American reader to many hitherto unfamiliar authors. He even includes helpful mini-biographies of each writer. If you discover authors you like here, however, it may be impossible to find further samples of their work in English. Overall, the good and bad entries in this volume average out to a middling collection. Those with an interest in Eastern European culture, however, will appreciate the bits of history, artistic heritage, and national customs revealed in these stories and poems. Because of the large quantity of verse, it will especially appeal to readers who enjoy poetry.

Stories in this collection
(Also 130 pages of poems, not listed below)

In a Foreign Land by Anton Chekhov
My Life by Dimitri Merezhkovsky
The Tiny Man by Fyodor Sologub
The Demigod by S. N. Sergeyev-Tsensky
Autobiography by Taras Shevtchenko
The Ploughman by Wiktor Gomulicki
From the Legends of Ancient Egypt by Boleslaw Prus
Chopin by Stanislaw Przybyszewski
In the Old Town at Lodz by Wladyslaw Reymont
Sonia by Jan Svatopluk Machar
The Vampire by Jan Neruda
The Advent of Spring in the South by Arne Novák
June (play in one act) by Frána Srámek
The Latin Boy by Simo Matavulj

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