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Canonizing Russian Literature for the World…in English

At 125 volumes, “The Russian Library” seeks to establish a Russian literary canon by offering the books in English to be read by the world.

By Daniel Kalder

Peter Mayer developed a love of Russian literature simply by "reading it."

Former Penguin CEO and current Overlook publisher Peter Mayer has loved Russian literature for decades. Last June, following Russia’s turn as Country Focus at BookExpo America, he announced what is the culmination of this career-long fascination, The Russian Library, a colossal 125 volume series of translated fiction, poetry and drama to be published over the next ten years.

On first hearing the phrase, The Russian Library brings to mind the epic, multi-volume series dedicated to specific authors that were published in the Soviet Union. No educated person’s home was complete without shelves that groaned under the collected works of Lenin, Tolstoy or Dickens. With this tradition of Russian mega-sets, the casual reader might think that Overlook’s series is an adaptation of something that exists in the motherland. Not at all, says Peter Mayer, The Russian Library is something completely new and unheralded.

Peter Mayer: “I hope that, via literature, The Russian Library will bring people together.”

“It’s not going to be based on anything other than the recommendations of our board,” says Mayer. “If anything, the project resembles The Library of America, in that it is dedicated to the literature of one nation. This however is the first time anywhere that a series dedicated to the national literature of another country will be published in translation. It’s never been done before. Certainly there are series in France and Germany, or here, dedicated to their own literature. But those are in the national language — this is completely different.”

Mayer stresses however that although The Russian Library will appear in English translation, it is aimed not only at the American and British markets, but rather the entire world:

“Many of these books are unknown, but they deserve translation. And this is key — because they will be in English, which is basically the world’s second language, then people everywhere will be able to enjoy them. You know- Bulgarians, Mongolians, Spaniards — it’s an international project! This will be enormously expensive, very work intensive, and it will take years, and there is no clear economic objective. But it has humanistic aims: I hope that, via literature, The Russian Library will bring people together.”

When asked which unknown books he intends to publish, Mayer replies:

“But you won’t have heard of them! Oh, alright then…Well, it’s not going to be anyone’s top 40 list of greatest hits, I can tell you that. Well there’ll be The Living and the Dead by Konstantin Simonov…Who’s to Blame? by Alexander Herzen, The Power of the Soil by Gleb Uspensky, Ilf and Petrovand lots of unattributed works, such as The Primary Chronicle from 1113. We’re talking about 1,000 years of literature here!”

There will, however, be a few gaps. For instance, Mayer doubts that the classic autobiography of the Archpriest Avvakum will be included since the library is dedicated to fiction, theater and poetry. On the other hand, “we’re not deciding who gets in according to which political regime they supported!”

As a result, major soviet-era authors will be included: “Ilya Ehrenburg, for example. He had a peculiar relationship with Stalin, he was in and out of the regime at different times. Then there’ll be Bulgakov, though I don’t know if you’d consider him a Soviet writer, I don’t…and Andrei Platonov, he’ll be in there.”

Then there are the greats, which leads to another question. The titans of Russian literature such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov have been translated many times. The venerable Constance Garnett translations still have ardent defenders today, while even Vladimir Nabokov tried his hand at rendering The Lay of Igor’s Campaign and Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin into is second language. With so much choice on offer, which versions will The Russian Library use?

“Of the 125 books we are going to publish, let’s say 10 or 12 of them will be dedicated to the “great and obvious;” they have been translated many times and they have been translated well. Let’s say there is a great translation of Anna Kareninaout there that we can use, it would be completely absurd to go about commissioning a new one! So it will be a mixture. We will licence some existing translations, and commission new ones. But for many of the other authors in the series, translations either don’t exist, or the books have been translated badly, so we will commission new ones. However for all the books we will commission scholars to provide introductions and annotations. This will be THE great library of Russian literature.”

And the plan is, Mayer adds, to ensure the best scholars and editors are involved. “They will be scholars from Britain and America — the best people from the best universities.”

Overlook's "flying elephant" logo says all it needs to about the company's ambitions.

The plan is to release 10 volumes a year starting in the fall of this year. Most likely the books will not be ordered chronologically. “I think we’ll repair the gaps first.”

Who does he think will be the audience? Though it may seem manna from heaven for lazy Russian undergraduates seeking to avoid reading difficult works in the original, Mayer doubts it will be of much use to them:

“Undergraduates? They won’t read it! They only read the most popular Russian books, you know, nine or ten books by the same authors. I think it will appeal to scholars, but also just people who want to own the library. We’re not looking at sales in the millions here. But they will be beautiful volumes that people will want to own. Later we’ll move into doing it digitally.”

Mayer had the idea “about a year and a half ago” and then started reaching out to the relevant Russian organizations. “There’s a lot of interest in Russia right now in promoting their culture abroad. There was the big presence at the BEA in New York in London the year before last. I think there’s an underlying desire there for them to escape from the shadow of the cold war.”

Yet while this support is invaluable for so expensive and gleefully un-commercial a project, Mayer has plenty of contacts of his own to draw upon: “For 20 years I was the CEO of Penguin all over the world. We published a lot of Russian books, and so during that time I made contacts with lots of scholars, translators and writers. That has been very helpful for the project also.”

Asked how he discovered his passion for Russian literature, Mayer replies: “By reading it! That was it — there was nothing magical or mystical.” Later however he adds: “It’s an interest I’ve had ever since I was a student, and then it continued all throughout my publishing career. When I was at Penguin, we published all the best-known classics, not everything, but a great many books. I did all of those…and now in my post-Penguin career, well, you know, I’m a certain age, I can’t go on forever, and I’d like to leave the publishing and literary world with this.”

SURVEY: Which Language Do You Want More Broadly Translated into English?

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  1. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    This is a stupendous project. Kudos to Peter Mayer for launching it.

  2. P. Cook
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    The very idea of Mr. Mayer’s 125-volume English language Russian canon hits the artistic trifecta: bold, brilliant and beautiful. Does cross-pollinating, acculturating and just plain gettin’-to-know-ya lead to…peace?

    Thanks to Overlook, today’s young will be able to argue the case in some not-too-far-off tomorrow. Certainly if these 125 books had been on a shelf somewhere in the White House when Sputnik went flying overhead, it might possibly have been just a little bit harder for the Dulles brothers to conjure up Russian bogeymen under every American bed. Perhaps a sizable chunk of the $6 trillion Dr. Strangelove Era might have never been—

    File this marvelous project under better-late-than-never.

    In his quite earthbound Cosmos, Sagan points out how these book things go:

    “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person—perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic…For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline of the Roman Empire, the origin of the species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things. Books are like seeds. They can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil…The trick is to know which books to read.”

    Thus, the worth of the publisher with an idea whose time has come.

  3. Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I waaaaaaaaaaaant this!

  4. Rochelle Greco
    Posted January 26, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Happened upon this site while “googling” this afternoon and could not be more delighted. Like Peter I became a fan of Russian literature by reading it. When studying Russian over thirty years ago I read some in the language and later much more in English — both pre-Soviet and Soviet — did read some Bulgakov. I can’t really explain why I love it so much, but if given a choice I will always reach for Russian literature and have many Penquin editions in my possession. My favorite has always been Gogol — not sure why except that I have always prefered short stories. I’m no scholar, but no longer meerly a student and I hope to be able to own some of these new publications when they start to become available. A big thank you to Peter for undertaking a wonderful project.

    Rochelle Greco, TA Ashford University

  5. David Powelstock
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    As a teacher of Russian literature, I enthusiastically welcome this ambitious and exciting series. I can’t wait to see the list of titles! This is going to make for a lot of happiness over on GoodReads. I’m puzzled, however, by Mr. Mayer’s statement that undergraduates won’t read these books: “They only read the most popular Russian books, you know, nine or ten books by the same authors.” For one thing, this is an exaggeration. For another, the vast majority of Russian literature taught in US institutions at the undergraduate level is taught in English, and instructors can only assign books that have been translated. There are many titles I would love to teach but cannot because they are not available in translation. I have many colleagues who lament the same limitation. I think Mr. Mayer would do well to reconsider the potential of this segment of the market!

    David Powelstock
    Russian and Comparative Literature
    Brandeis University

  6. Mike
    Posted December 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I hope a volume or two would be devoted to “Soviet” or post-Soviet Science Fiction and Fantasy.
    There a lots of quality books to choose from. For example, Strugatski Brothers ( some of their works been translated to English already) and Lukjanenko.


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