My favorite book this year is Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria, which is new in English thanks to NYRB and translator Max Lawton. I was deeply impressed with Lawton’s translation—lively, humorous, polyglossic, and lots of fucking fun. I was thrilled that Lawton agreed to an interview. We spent the last few weeks trading emails and also chatting via Twitter in what ended up being a very fun conversation for me.
While our interview takes Telluria as its starting point, Lawton talks at length about his other Sorokin translations, as well as forthcoming translations by Jonathan Littell, as well as his own fiction.
Biblioklept: Please: describe Telluria.
Max Lawton: TELLURIA is “Oxen of the Sun” as sci-fi novel, without any notion of a language’s generation—without any notion of “progress.” It is fractal and rhizome, scattered out over 50 chapters, with the only hint of redemption coming in a narcotic vision of Christ. TELLURIA is about pushing one’s mastery of style to the point where it begins to break down—in the mode of late Miles. It is at these moments of breaking down that something new begins to come into being. On the level of content, TELLURIA suggests that the small is always more charming—more desirable—than the master narrative. Nationalism, he suggests, can only be cute if it’s a doll-sized state that’s doing the nationalizing. Anything bigger is monstrous. The book, then, is an ode to difference. And a challenge to land-grabbing, logos-hijacking imperialists who believe in a single story. For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.
Biblioklept: I want to come back to notions of triumph and redemption later, particularly with the final chapter of Telluria in mind. But before we get in the weeds (a favorite place of mine), tell us a little bit about how you came to translate Sorokin. When did you first read him?
ML: I first read Sorokin after encountering a comparison made between him and Houellebecq in a review of ICE (probably in The New York Times). Angsty teen that I was, there could have been no higher praise. As it turned out, however, this was a red herring. Sorokin neither bore nor bears any resemblance to Houellebecq. Given that introduction, ICE was mostly confusing.
A few years after that, I dug into BLUE LARD in French, which was a truly formative reading experience. To read something so chilly, brutal, beautiful, and, most importantly, incomprehensible––it changed me entirely. I read it while teaching at a French immersion camp for children and a fellow counselor and I took to using neologisms from the book as slang between ourselves (“mais, c’est top-direct, mon brave!”). Embarrassing to think about now, but perhaps important.
During my four years of Russian study, then, at constant war with the thorniness of the language, Sorokin was the carrot on the stick that kept me going. All I wanted was to read him in the original. To read what hadn’t been translated. To translate him, perhaps. I bought BLUE LARD in Brighton Beach during a class field trip after one year of study and nearly wept when I tried to read it. It would take a great deal more work than I’d already done.
Immediately after college, my Russian good enough (I thought), I translated a big chunk of BLUE LARD and sent it to Sorokin. He liked it, impressed by whatever promise he saw in first swing, and we began to work together. It was then that I realized how ill-prepared I was for the job and, during the next few years at Oxford, Middlebury, and Columbia, I worked very hard to get my Russian up to snuff––to deserve the work I’d somehow lucked into.
Sorokin and I also began to become friends––a process that was crystallized by my first night in Russia: supper with Vladimir at Café Pushkin and a long stroll through the city.
For the next four years, we worked together relentlessly with no prospect of publication, emailing almost every day. I drafted four books before we eventually broke through with NYRB and Deep Vellum (which acquired Dalkey soon after we got in touch). While I would never recommend this approach to any other young translator, the drafts (fairly polished) helped get editors interested––no one really trusts the readers they hire to write reports about books in languages they can’t read…
Biblioklept: What I’ve read so far of Blue Lard has made my head spin. The idea of attempting it in a whole other alphabet seems unreal to me, so I could imagine going about translating it might be daunting at times–but also very rewarding.
When I was reading Telluria, I would often think, This seems like it would be really fun to translate! There’s all these different voices, registers, dialects, grammars, and so on bubbling along (I loved the centaur’s voice in particular).
ML: TELLURIA was a work that offered me immense freedom as I translated it. Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices. I felt like a guitarist called up to play with Miles Davis on the DARK MAGUS tour. I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations––what a blessing that we have a commensurate American tradition of SOUTHERN SKAZ FICTION able to render the Leskovian oral narratives that Sorokin fucks with), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others. Sometimes, Sorokin’s deranged signifiers come forth from very specific literary and historical phenomena. At others, he plays freely. In the former case, I tread very carefully (and Sorokin also watches my step). You’re right to say that TELLURIA was fun to translate for precisely that reason. And, indeed, BLUE LARD was also very fun to translate at certain points––dealing with the futuristic neologisms in the epistolary section and the Earthfuckers’ world––, but I had to tread carefully when dealing with the arch deconstructions of Soviet speech and the parodies of famous Russian writers.
Maybe the common trajectory of both Miles’s and Coltrane’s careers would be valuable to think of here. Playing in their early bands, you would have been constantly (and neurotically) thinking of the impending changes as you played. Later on, not so much… But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something rather precise at stake within the chaos… I too sometimes think and worry about impending changes––in THE NORM, certain sections of BLUE LARD, certain sections of MARINA’S 30TH LOVE… ––, whereas, at others, I am more free, but still after something very precise.
Biblioklept: Is Blue Lard the next one NYRB will publish?
ML: Yes, BLUE LARD is coming out in 2023, along with a collection of Soviet-themed short stories entitled DISPATCHES FROM THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE from Dalkey (the latter of which will also be illustrated by Greg Klassen).
Then THE NORM is coming out in 2024, along with ROMAN from Dalkey.
Then RED PYRAMID (selected stories) is coming out in 2025, along with MARINA’s 30TH LOVE from Dalkey. All dates are subject to change.
We have yet to place DOCTOR GARIN, THE SUGAR KREMLIN, MANARAGA, some of the short stories, and the complete plays. Sorokin is, thank God, still writing an awful lot. So there is much to look forward to.
In lining up this release schedule, our goal was to marry the extremity of Sorokin’s early work to the evenness and warmth of his later work. Leaving out either side of the equation creates an image that is simultaneously distorted and uninteresting. Insane, aberrant violence is just as valuable as Chekhovian sentence-surface.
Biblioklept: Your use of the adjective “Chekhovian” in your last sentence prompts me to ask where you situate Sorokin within (or perhaps against) the Russian literary tradition. You were quoted in a recent New York Times profile as saying, “Sorokin has earned his place in the canon.” Can you expand on that? How do you believe Sorokin sees himself with respect to the history of Russian literature?
ML: Canon-formation doesn’t depend so much on author as on reception––and, since BLUE LARD, Sorokin has been very lucky in that regard. So, whereas many people once treated Sorokin’s work with a high degree of suspicion, they no longer have that luxury. His influence on younger writers, on philosophers, on philologists, on cinema, on popular thought… his unbelievable ability in having predicted what Russia’s become… beyond the question of quality, Sorokin is simply too important not to be read.
He also happens to be the best writer writing in Russian since Nabokov, but I digress…
In a certain respect, one might think of him as a Sadean trickster who, in the second half of his career, developed a Chekhovian or Zhivago-esque soul… I’m not sure how Sorokin himself would respond to such a characterization. He’s been a very religious dude since he started writing, but I know he’s also highly cognizant of the difference between DOCTOR GARIN (which I’m very excited to translate) and THEIR FOUR HEARTS. His early work has a highly destructive relationship to the canon. For example, here’s the back-cover text of DISPATCHES FROM THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE as I wrote it (which means this will double as a record of the censorship imposed upon me by Dalkey (just kidding Will and Chad!):
For the new to come into being, the old must be destroyed: burnt to the ground. Cultural stagnation and unreflective canon-worship are a sure recipe for aesthetic decay. In the career-spanning Soviet-themed stories that make up DISPATCHES FROM THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE (many of which are drawn from his legendary collection MY FIRST WORKING SATURDAY), Sorokin eviscerates the old, the dull, and the calcified with a feces-dipped dagger. Once upon a time, it seemed that the coprophagia, necrophilia, grievous bodily harm, Joycean gibberish, transgressive sexuality, and aberrant Bataillean metaphysics that make up these stories might be a satanic incantation uttered to bring a New Russia into being. Alas, they’ve now become a monument to that which never was: a rune etched in PUS, SHIT, CUM, and LARD.
Sorokin’s later work still has this pus-, shit-, and cum-drenched side to it, but paired with a deep sort of Christian warmth––as in the chapter in TELLURIA that describes the man who spent a great deal of time with the apostles by way of tellurium-wedges. I can’t help but see Sorokin himself in that man. The latter mode of Christian mysticism is, of course, more in line with the Russian canon as a whole, but what happens when you combine it with the former impulse I describe in the back-cover text?
Biblioklept: So, you’ve now brought up that particular late chapter of Telluria twice, where an exhausted man returns to his family after a long philosophical quest for meaning—the chapter ends in an affirmation, one delivered via a tellurium nail trip.
Many of the characters seek similar confirmations or comforts when they have tellurium nails hammered into their heads by the professional “carpenters” who are almost something like a class of monks. Other voices in the book search for escape or novelty via tellurium—not necessarily transcendence.
Do you think that the returning father in the particular chapter you’ve mentioned embodies a moral vision in Sorokin’s work?
And what do you make of the final chapter, where the driver — the same one we’ve seen earlier in the novel, if I’m not mistaken? — goes alone into the woods to make a new and solitary life for himself: “Seemed like my hands’d been longin’ for carpenters’ work,” he declares, before hewing logs and building a cabin.
ML: As for Sorokin’s moral compass, it’s hard to say. It seems to me that Sorokin mostly portrays God by way of His absence. THEIR FOUR HEARTS is a particularly striking example of this. But there’s also a strain of more old-fashioned Russian mysticism (which I’ve alluded to above) sometimes at play. The religious chapter is a good example of this (the Jesus trip), as is the hankering for a more simple rural life—the plagal cadence with which the novel comes to an end. That ending is a near-perfect rhyme with another Sorokin story called “The Governor,” which I’d be happy to send you. This longing for rural Russian Orthodoxy is often submitted to the same brutal criticism as everything else in his work is (like in ROMAN and THE NORM, in which Sorokin destroys his own personal ideal, just as the Bolsheviks destroyed the great cathedrals of Moscow).
At what point does violence intersect with God? If one were to strip out the explicitly religious and moral moments, what would it look like for a kind religious man to submit what he considers his highest impulses to a brutal species of live surgery—sort of like in the underwhelming [David Cronenberg film] CRIMES OF THE FUTURE? I don’t have the answer to this question. But it’s the same ambiguity that exists between Sorokin’s dissidence and his apolitical aestheticism: the driving enigma of his work.
Biblioklept: Telluria might be many English-language readers’ first introduction to Sorokin. How representative do you think it is of his work as a whole—thematically, formally, linguistically…?
ML: As I suggest above, TELLURIA is the work of a kinder and more gentle Sorokin—a Sorokin whose masterpiece is DOCTOR GARIN. His early work is far more likely to call forth an affective bodily rejection to the content that’s been read (a good, honest response to any work of literature: vomiting).
More than anything else, the early Sorokin responds to a single dictate: in an interview he gave when he was younger, he complains that Tolstoy was such a consummate God of his own creation in WAR AND PEACE that he should also have included descriptions of how Natasha Rostova shits and fucks—of how her sweaty underarms smell at the end of long balls. This is the mission of much of Sorokin’s early work: to become the God of every level of his literary creation.
The later Sorokin operates in a more logocentric world—one in which the body is not quite so overwhelmingly present (though it’s certainly still there…).
I recommend any new reader of Sorokin to immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.
Biblioklept: In Telluria and Blue Lard, certain words and phrases are italicized, quoted, or capitalized—and particular voices tend to showcase this kind of emphasized phrasing more than others. Is this part of your translation technique? Something original to Sorokin’s typographic style?
ML: For the most part, I adhere quite rigidly to Sorokin’s own typographical choices. This is true without exception when it comes to boldface, quotes, and capital letters. However, the italics seem to play a more complex role in Sorokin’s voice. Sometimes, they’re merely used to indicate a sort of fantastical technology or a new concept. In those cases, I don’t fiddle. At other moments, they represent a kind of ironical intonation. Or… maybe not ironical. Let’s say: a very Sorokinian tone. As such, when this tone appears in the translation in a way that it didn’t in the original, I think the italics can be used as a powerful tool to smooth out some of the weirdnesses that might otherwise have been bothersome in the new text.
However, I use this technique sparingly. It’s something of an emergency fix––mimicking Sorokin’s sometimes overripe and ironical tone when normal language disappears in the interstitial moment between the two languages…
I’m generally very devoted to Sorokin’s original, but in spirit rather than letter. The experience of reading my translations should be much like that of reading Sorokin in the original; this goal necessitates creative solutions that are not––though fools may call them––mistranslations.
As a footnote: though my own fiction generally couldn’t be more different from Sorokin’s, I did take the italics and run with ’em––a feature of my style for which I’m also indebted to Will Self’s style in the Technology Trilogy––UMBRELLA, SHARK, and PHONE (three of my all-time favorites).
Biblioklept: I’m also curious about the footnotes in Telluria, which give a gloss for certain non-English words and phrases (usually Chinese). Are those Sorokin’s or yours?
ML: All of the footnotes dealing with other languages are Sorokin’s, all of the ones dealing with Russian are mine (I think there are two of the latter).
Biblioklept: There’s no introduction composed for Telluria, which is unusual for NYRB classics. Do you have any insight on that editorial choice?
ML: For a little while, I was rather taken up by the notion (one held very dearly by Vladimir) that the book should speak for itself entirely––without the intercession of any scholar or critic. Part of this has to do with the weird stranglehold held by Slavic scholars over the words of the writers they purport to explain to the world. In no other comparable world literature do scholars demand such a high degree of compliance from their authors. Sorokin has often complained to me that “Slavicists always want the forewords and never the afterwords.” And is it so insane that he should want the first word of the book to be… the first word of the book?
In this context, Sorokin and I love to bring up the anecdote of Pound showing Mussolini the Cantos and being so utterly delighted when il Duce exclaimed, “ma questo è divertente!”
This, then, is what the ideal reader of Sorokin’s work should immediately exclaim upon reading the first few lines of his texts. And his reader will surely not have such an unmediated reaction if, on the first page, he meets, not with the words of the author, but with a tangled gristle-bit of academic jargon:
TELLURIA exists in the interstitial space between the ultra-left Hegelian notion of the state’s disintegration as reinterpreted by Marx, but without reference to the monetary policy predominantly worked out in the initial chapters of DAS KAPTIAL, whereas the aberrant references to rightist dogma serve to underpin the fundamentally ambiguous approach to polyphony-as-palimpsest in the context of a global carnival utterly distinct from Dostoevskian scandal.
However, I’ve since softened.
Sorokin’s stuff could use a little explanation and, especially if we get interesting writers to engage with and write on Sorokin, the benefits of such critical apparati far outweigh the downsides. As such, Will Self will be introducing two of the coming short-story collections, Blake Butler will be introducing another, and I can’t yet reveal the other INCREDIBLE writers we have lined up.
Introductions dope enough to make the ideal reader also exclaim “ma questo è divertente!”
Biblioklept: I totally get Sorokin’s point. When I set out to read a book by an author I love or watch a film by filmmakers I love, I like to go in cold—no summaries or trailers. But the key there is that I already love (or pick your verb) the creator in question, which means at some point there’s already been an introduction. For a lot of us that’s as simple as a friend whose taste we trust (like my friend who insisted we see Fargo in the theater), or maybe a teacher who can present a frame for us to better understand the work (I can’t imagine reading The Sound and The Fury without at least a fuzzy precis). For the record, I think Telluria works great without an introduction, because the book’s shape (or “plot,” such as it is), reveals itself in the reading. And the reading is delicious. I do think though that Blue Lard might benefit from a brief introduction, so I’ll offer my unasked-for services: “This shit is wild. Just go for it. Don’t try to make it do what you think a novel should be doing. Just go with it.”
ML: BLUE LARD is about that state of confusion—ontological and linguistic—as it unfurls. To introduce the text beyond something like your pithy statement above might be a disservice to the book. The reader should be confused and it should hurt—then feel fucking good. This isn’t gloppy OLDOSEX; when reading Sorokin, we’re fucking nostrils with forked dicks (or—getting our nostrils fucked by the same).
The book’s real introduction is the Nietzsche quote at the beginning.
Does FINNEGANS WAKE need an introduction? Is one even possible?
I loved BLUE LARD when I first read it precisely because I had no point of reference for understanding it. Much like SCHATTENFROH (another text I’m working on).
Biblioklept: The Michael Lentz novel, right? Tell us about that one.
ML: Oh man… where to start. The book is a brick. The densest thing I’ve translated and among the densest things I’ve ever read. It’s a story about a Father. And Nazi Germany. And the Baroque (as such). And a chair. And online torture vids. It’s written in a very alienating mode. Like chewing on the blackest of black bread. And yet there’s something so enticing about the damn thing. As with BLUE LARD, a cliff face made of only black ice. I want to climb it, want not to slip, but the sliding down once I’ve lost hold is part of the pleasure. I’m honored to be working with the mighty Matthias Friedrich on this. Without him, I fear my German wouldn’t be quite up to the task.
I’m close online pals with Andrei of THE UNTRANSLATED and SCHATTENFROH is one of a few books he’s proselytized that I’m sampling. I’ll do the first that gets picked up. The others are: Moresco’s GAMES OF ETERNITY trilogy (with the great Francesco Pacifico on board as editor), Laiseca’s LOS SORIAS (would like an editor for this as well––ideally a Hispanophone translator from English into Spanish), and Goldshtein’s REMEMBER FAMAGUSTA. These books are not the easiest of reading (and they’re long––hence: expensive for me (us) to translate). If you’d like to see one of these samples, just ask! Especially if you work at a publishing house!
And there are more possible future plans in the works as well…
Biblioklept: You’re also translating titles by Jonathan Littell. Can you tell us a little about those?
ML: So I’ve just finished his short book on a Belgian Nazi entitled THE DAMP AND THE DRY (turned it in today). Despite all my little polemics with the notion of a Skeleton Key, one might be forgiven for reading THE DAMP AND THE DRY as a Skeleton Key for THE KINDLY ONES (one of my 30 fave books, for sure).
AN OLD STORY is the real juicy bit: a novel, 300-some pages of metaphysics in superposition—war, sex, death, solitude, orgy, pegging, self-dissection… as if Sade had happened to write the best nouveau roman ever put to page. The book absolutely rules. My first time through, I read it in a day. Vomiting, weeping, and throbbingly erect for ten hours straight.
It’s a great experience to work with Jonathan who edits my work a lot, as compared to Vladimir who just hands me the wheel. Two different styles, both with downsides and benefits.
I also want to translate a few old Russian novels: PETER THE FIRST by Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy, IT’S ME, EDDIE by Eduard Limonov, THE SILVER PRINCE by Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, THE LESSER DEMON by Fyodor Sologub, and A HUNTER’S SKETCHES by Ivan Turgenev. And am determined to do two novels by the great Turkish novelist Oğuz Atay, working with the formidable Ralph Hubbell (whose translation of Atay’s stories coming out next year from NYRB is a must-read––WAITING FOR THE FEAR). And… and… maybe a few things by Céline, working with Iain Sinclair, one of my favorite novelists. And the three insanely fucked volumes of MICROFICTIONS––the most contemporary of abjectness in 10 frames or less, but 500 times––1000 pages per book. And Guyotat’s late novels––would kill to do those. And be killed by doing them. And… and…
Enough for now. Enough to keep me busy for decades. But also some things I’m not allowed to talk about.
Biblioklept: An Old Story sounds to be cut from the same cloth as The Kindly Ones, which I loved too. You mentioned your own fiction—can you touch on that some?
ML: The cool thing is how different UVH [Une vielle histoire; An Old Story] is from THE KINDLY ONES. It shows the extent to which Jonathan has legs as a writer. To do something that doesn’t deal in history or linear narrative AT ALL, then to succeed no less spectacularly than in THE KINDLY ONES… well, it rocks to have done something that dope.
My own fiction is difficult to talk about. Until it’s published, it really is unbecomingly vain to wax eloquent on the subject. I can say that I have two collections of intertwined stories (THE WORLD vols. 1+2)––tangled up in the same way A HUNTER’S SKETCHES and THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION are––and a novel (PROGRESS). In the interests of being as objective and unannoying as possible, here’s the synopsis of PROGRESS agents and publishers get:
It’s October, 2020. On a Saturday night, a college sophomore and his best friend engage in a radical act of sexual experimentation with their female acquaintance. The next day, a prolonged series of crashes heard through a dormitory window heralds the end of something. In simple terms: all wheels stop spinning and all screens stop shining. Afraid of this new world and the people they share a city with, the two boys make the precipitous decision to begin walking from their place of study in NYC to the narrator’s home in Ohio. As they walk, the formerly platonic contours of their relationship give way to something else. Maneuvering across the concrete skin of America, the boys slumber in the empty belly of a dead country in blissful ignorance of the threat hanging over them.
Opening as a campus novel, morphing into a melancholy psychogeographic exploration of a country-carcass, and ending as a psychedelic vision of the end of history, Progress is about what happens when rules change. Conceived of and started before the pandemic, this novel is a particularly relevant read in our current historical moment. Written with the chilly object-fixation of Peter Handke and the wry humor of Will Self, Progress is also deeply indebted to Vladimir Sorokin’s shamanistic and scatological engagements with Russian history. To put it another way: Progress is The Road meets Call Me By Your Name with a dash of Dhalgren. It is a transmission both awful and enormous from the heart of our new American age.
It’s not for me to say if it’s good or not. Hopefully it sees the light of day soon, then the Owl of Minerva shall get to flying… Greg Klassen will be illustrating both volumes of stories and I hope my friend Zoe Guttenplan, an amazing book designer who will be doing hyper-Soviet designs for four (or more) of the coming Sorokin books, will be doing abstract, pornographic photo-art to accompany them as well. PROGRESS will be simple in its publication: a normal book with only text. I want both volumes of THE WORLD to be hyper-decadent editions. Coming soon. I hope.
As it happens, Zoe might also be snapping pics for an article Will Self and I will hopefully be co-writing next year around Bloomsday… a throwback to a more Gonzo style of journalism… all I can say…
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
ML: For my translation process, digital texts are a necessity. They really do save me a lot of time. As such, the ready availability of Russian novels in PDF form on the internet has been an occasional boon to my work. However, I always then buy the physical copy too (if I don’t have it already).
Digital without physical is like body without soul. Feeling the translated pages tick up from 0 is also something I can’t do without (their almost furred texture on my right thumb as I flip through ‘em).
But I’ve never stolen a physical book. Never even lost a library book. A boring dude who saves his wildest transgressions for the printed page.
Max Lawton is not a boring dude. (Stealing books does not make you interesting, kids. Unless it does.)
Max Lawton is a translator, novelist, and musician. He received his BA in Russian Literature and Culture from Columbia University and his MPhil from Queen’s College, Oxford, where he wrote a dissertation comparing Céline and Dostoevsky. He has translated many books by Vladimir Sorokin and is currently translating works by Jonathan Littell. Max is also the author of a novel and two collections of stories currently awaiting publication. He is writing his doctoral dissertation on phenomenology and the twentieth-century novel at Columbia University, where he also teaches Russian. He is a member of four heavy-music groups.
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