Interview with Yuri Machkasov

I finished reading The Gray House, but I am not closing the book.

From the day when Yuri Mackasov surprised us, readers, here, I knew I wanted to interview him about the book. As time passed, his presence, his help, proved indispensable, and the pangs to continue the conversation with him more acute.

When I asked him to please answer a few questions, I was glad to hear he’d oblige.

I was self-conscious about my questions, -we cannot ask about that which we don’t know. But Yuri’s answers blew my mind, – they are such a great essay and commentary on The Gray House, on translation, and life. I know you want to hear him talk. This is the interview:

1. How would you describe the process of translating the House?
Probably the same way Mariam herself describes her relationship with the book: it was a world I knew and could visit – at night or on weekends. I’ve had periods when the next page was the only thing I could think of during the day; I’ve also had some when I was just rereading and tweaking (at first I tried to make myself go further during those, but then realized that this is how it should be).

I was really down when I’ve uploaded the finished manuscript to Amazon’s editors – I know I shouldn’t say that, but it felt almost like seeing my oldest son off to college, so anything that reconnects me with the House I eagerly welcome – thank you so much for your work that gave me the opportunity.

2.Can you talk to us about your ‘philosophy of translation’?
Anna Akhmatova, one or the Russian “Silver Age” poets, used to ask her guests before relating a remembrance or an anecdote to them: “Have I played this record for you yet?” I too have a favorite “record” I like to play when it comes to translation, and it is about an essay by Hermann Hesse, a German-Swiss writer (and Nobel laureate). It’s very short, all of three pages, and in it, he outlines a classification of readers, consisting of three levels (a short discourse on it is here.)

The first type reads the book for what’s inside: the plot, the characters, the moral, the turn of phrase. The second is using all of those as devices to sneak a peek into the personality of the author. Finally, readers of the third type see any book as just a starting point for insights into their own experiences.

Now, this is not a hierarchy, as neither is better or worse than the others; indeed, Hesse admits that the supposedly superior third type are not readers at all, in a sense – they don’t care about the book itself, a page with the letters of alphabet typed up in order would work just as well. Also, no person remains at one level over time and, what’s most important for me, over the time of reading one book. We oscillate between all three, consecutively and in parallel, and therefore good books can be said to be perceived as a kind of “cloud” that they generate in our minds, composed of the intertwined elements of those three kinds of reading.

So, my task (and, I think, the only worthy goal of any translation) would be to recreate this cloud in another language; tell the same story in the same words, yes, but also make English readers feel the same about what the text stirred inside them.

Of course, this necessitates that I go hunting for every allusion I can find in the text (and then transfer the cultural reference), so the translator is first and foremost the best reader. Translation is already a process that has inevitable losses built into it; it would be foolish to not at least begin with the full deck, having transferred every last drop from the original into the cup of my future text before starting on my journey with it balanced on top of my head. On the other hand, it frees me (in a sense) to insert at least some part of myself and of my life experience into the book (for the future third-level readers).

Paradoxically (or not), it’s precisely the knowledge of every word in the House being exactly in the place it’s supposed to be (and it would, in a book that was being actively written and rewritten over close to 20 years) that had enabled this from the technical point of view. I didn’t have to choose between the myriad possible ways to relate the same thought – instead, I needed just to find the exact replacement. My translation is true to the original at the level of sentence; I don’t think the number of sentences in both versions would diverge by more than a dozen.

3. What is that you love the most about this book and why? Conversely, is there anything that leaves you frustrated, or wanting for more?
Apart from the fact that I consider the House to be a very important book in any language, in that it is one of the best that I know that explains what love (and friendship) actually is and how it works, at the day-to-day level – when we have to live with our friends and loved ones side by side, – it is, of course, the thing that strikes most, if not all careful readers: how Mariam managed to leave the text in that precarious superposition of realistic and magical (again, to quote Marquez, “destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic”), and then letting us choose our own level of engagement with the fantastical elements – while remaining internally consistent. I’m sorry if this is “talking shop”, but I was a nuclear physicist before I became a software engineer (and only then a translator), and this is exactly how our world works – at the quantum level, that is, where the Schrödinger’s cat is at the same time dead and alive. In addition to the Hesse’s three levels, while reading the House we can be Black, or Smoker, or Ralph, or even Tabaqui, and it’ll work just fine, until we would want to switch and after we do.

The other thing that appeals to me is the depth of the cultural layer that the House grows on. It was a special delight to go searching for, and finding, references, mentions,allusions, all the threads and markers leading deep into that layer – and then, lucky me, solve the little riddle of the intercultural transfer, just like Ralph “at night in his room, at his leisure over a cup of tea, the way others spent their time on a crossword puzzle”; I hope that the sense of this depth is still there in my text, as much as I could keep it there.

The “wanting for more” part is straightforward – it seemed particularly unfair to me that neither Noble, nor Humpback, nor Black got to talk in their own voice (it is only later that I found they had – just to be left on the cutting room floor when the book was being assembled for the first publication, because it was deemed too much of a “jigsaw puzzle”, imagine that; some of these have been restored in the new Russian edition). I am sure that even those of whom we know only a nick and not much else have fascinating stories to tell (and I so love Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” that I even sneaked a quote in where it didn’t exist in the original, in a quiet homage to the unsung glory of the secondary character).

4. Who is your favorite person in the House and why?
I would actually disagree with Mariam when she says that Smoker is her most “normal” character. For me the ideal approach to the House is embodied in Ralph, and it’s him that I find the most relatable. His analytic streak and disdain for theatrics, his concentration on the task in front of him, his unflinching honesty with himself, his stubbornness and at the same time agility in the changing circumstances – all marks of a “solid character”, as Humpback would say. In a sense, he lives more in according with The Law than any of the kids – as he would have to, being the outsider’s outsider, someone who needs to devote a large amount of time and energy just to be able to enter this world (this also appeals to me as an immigrant who once found himself trying to create a life in a country that, for all intents as purposes, might as well have been the Moon, the way it’s been presented to me through the first 20 years of my life spent in the now non-existent Soviet Union).

5. Do you have many unanswered questions? Does that bother you? Do you have different explanations or theories about the House’s questions and riddles?
I think that from the very start I have accepted the House’s dual nature, and never really thought to explain it within either strictly realistic or strictly magical framework. The notion of a “crack between the worlds”, a place in our world where the boundary separating it from the mysterious is weakened as compared to the rest of it seems natural; as Icelanders respect their “hidden folk”, as Japanese and Mexicans celebrate “days of the dead”, so is the House a gateway to a different place (two places, if you count the Forest). I had to form a coherent schema of all that, of course, before I could begin translating (or the muddle in my head would have inevitably spilled onto the pages), so that I would be able to install all those arrows, clues and false signs so beloved by Tabaqui, and by that time the questions I had were more of an “I wonder” nature: out of the things Mermaid collects from the Fourth to do her magic, is the button Alexander’s and the coin Black’s (it is), or the other way around? who ate the rabbit (Beauty did)? when on the country trips in the Bug, did Blind sit next to Elk (no; he was behind him in the back seat)? was the candlestick presented to Ralph the same one that Blind unearthed on one of those trips (what? I don’t know, but maybe it was)? Of these I have an inexhaustible supply, but they are, again, mostly my greed for “anything that is the House”, not crucial elements without which it is impossible to understand what had happened –half a dozen readings of the book took care of those.

The correspondence between the “old” and the “new” nicks (except for the connection between the newbie Spot and the artist Leopard, obvious in hindsight) and the meaning of the gear and the feather I have also figured out by myself (I think).

6. What was the hardest part, chapter, or concept to translate?
One of the amazing things about the House is that all of them really do talk in different voices. “So” and “And” at the beginning of sentences in Alexander’s chapter, officious speech structure for Godmother, Tabaqui’s elaborate periods, tedious grammar of the Pheasants – even as I deconstruct these tools, I am still taken by their flawless use, resulting in completely natural individual styles and inflections. From the technical point of view, this was both the hardest and the most important part: to retain this pointillist effect of the multihued whole being assembled from daubs of pure color.

And as I was struggling to do this, I found that Sphinx’s and especially Ralph’s pages flow almost effortlessly, while I stumble over Tabaqui’s and Blind’s, and Alexander’s monologue alone took me about a month, I’m not joking. I felt like I was an icebreaker attacking a floe; there were days when I could not move forward more than a couple of sentences, so I had to roll back, reread what I’ve already put down and come back next time.

I can’t wait to keep the conversation alive. I have lots of other questions, but now I’d leave some room for you to talk to Yuri.

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20 thoughts on “Interview with Yuri Machkasov

  1. Silvia says:

    I read the Herman Hesse’s article.

    Yeap.

    Doing that 3rd type of reading (the non reading, -grin), leaves you exhausted, desolate. It left me unable to focus on any other books that I was reading (or have to read) at levels 1 or even 2. For a while, all I want it’s to think about TGH, ‘feed my obsession’.

    I wonder, though, how is it that some books (like this) enable us to travel to the 3rd level of reading? It’s like Mariam’s book, and your translation, had three dimensions while other books have only two, -or even one.

    It was great to read this post. I’m always asking myself why I read, and I love knowing how others answer that question themselves.

    If this third type of reading is as you say, “just a starting point for insights into their own experiences, for ourselves”, there’s something that makes me a bit sad. I did not see the gear/feather elements in the book. I resisted your view of reality, the one you wisely explained to us from your physicist understanding. It makes me sad because I believe that embracing both worlds, the magical and the real, -as you did, as Katie did also, is a more wholesome, organic, synthetic, or poetic way of seeing life, a better paradigm. To desire to choose -as I did-, it’s more violent, severing, ouch. But I can redeem myself, I can listen and learn. (Maybe there’s also a bit of pride in not having been able to discover that by myself. I could, at my third or fourth reading. But curiosity won, and I had to ask. And now I know, -grin.

    I don’t know what you’d make out of this, Yuri, but I found peace when I read Ralph chapters. They gave me much needed balance. Sphinx chapters were also easier -as in fluid. But Ralph chapters, first when he comes back to the House, and next when he talks to Godmother, felt like home for some reason. The more poetic the chapter, the more that my soul was torn apart by that mix intrinsic to the awful, -the beautiful and the scary-, and though I loved those other chapters (say Tabaqui’s favorite things, Humpback, Alexander), they left me in a state of unrest, in territory unknown -outside of my ‘control’.

    Smoker can be more ‘normal’, but there’s something castrating in him that at times repelled me, but I’m not turning against him, I’m better because he was there.

    Last. Marquez’s quote. Yes, he destroyed that line, but differently. What I remember (and time is always against the reader), when reading Marquez, is that he commanded me to jump into the fantastic. After a while of being in that fantastic world, it starts feeling pretty normal and real. Mariam mantains all the worlds at once. She doesn’t place more weight on one than the other. That’s a balance I have never ever seen before. Amy wrote that she doesn’t think she’s ever read a book in the genre this book stays. I agree. Do you know what you said about Victor Pelevin, that he claims the Russians write like no one else? -lol, I don’t know about him, but I feel that Mariam did what Flaubert says great writers do, they invent new paradigms. I’ve been hunting for a definition of what post-modern literature may be, or is, or how it looks like. There’s a lot of authors claiming they do this, fussing about it, and there’s Mariam, quietly planting a bomb in the world of literature, and not only, but taking 20 years to rebuild what she leveled.

    I also love that readers are still helpers of great authors. I’m glad we are open to trust in them to keep this flame alive.

    Like

  2. Yuri says:

    Just as we’re mentioning my Amazon director, she’s suddenly turned up in my mailbox (for the first time in a couple of months) with this:

    “I’m very pleased with how things are developing for The Gray House. Now that it’s been out long enough to be read, I’m hearing many wonderful things around the office, some of which may go on to help us continue spreading the word with the public. Two things to carry you happily into the weekend:
    1. is working on a story about Amazon Publishing because a reporter found a copy of The Gray House in their book room and immediately called our publicist to say: “Amazon published THIS book!? It’s such a strange wonderful book! I had no idea that’s what you were doing over there.” So we’ll see what that leads to, but in short it’s fantastic for me internally because all the leadership of our business knows we’re getting special media attention because of one particularly special book.
    2. My friend and colleague , a specialist on promotional text who is working on “the future of the book,” came by my desk to say that The Gray House is in top 4 best books of her life. She’s obsessed, relates most closely to Tabaqui, and has already started her second read, and resisted sharing her copy with friends because she needs it and also wrote spoilers in the margins so instead purchased extra copies as gifts.

    Congratulations on being wonderful and relevant, and getting so deep under readers’ skins. Here’s to many more similar reactions.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Silvia says:

      What great news, Yuri. I’m rejoicing with you, and very excited to hear the book in English is doing great.

      Please, keep sharing any news, article, or anything about the book with us, Yuri, lol, you know how much we love to hear about it.

      Like

  3. mslancast says:

    I’m trying to synthesize my thoughts about this book into something coherent. I can’t shut up about it when I talk to readers, so naturally people ask me what it’s about, and then just sort of splutter to a halt. About? Well… uh… it’s not really about what it’s about. I mean… ummmm…

    Like Silvia says, this book feels completely unique to me, even though I see SO MANY connections to literature and pop culture. It doesn’t solve the question “magical or realistic,” because that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t offer an escape into an idealized fantastical world. It swirls magic and realism, darkness and light, beauty and grit. Ultimately it is bound in on all sides by friendship and loyalty, tempered by the power, not just of simple friendship, but of a tribe.

    I don’t know if y’all remember, but way back at the beginning, we were wondering what the ending of the book was going to say about life. Was this going to end in a babble of confusion, burn the world in a funeral pyre of despair, or wrap up with rational neatness? I have my own thoughts, but what do y’all think about it now? Do you think the story reveals truth? Was the end satisfying?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Silvia says:

      I remember how ‘anxious’ I was initially to know what direction (from the ones known to me), the author would take.

      One thing I did not see was that the book it’s also a ‘coming of age’ book. I can’t say it ‘burned the world in a funeral pyre of despair’, nor that it was all ‘wrapped up with rational neatness either’.

      I’d say I love the words Yuri uses to describe its structure and its integrity, ‘pointillism, ‘the multihued whole being assembled from daubs of pure color’.

      The story revealing truth? I’d say YES.

      The end being satisfying? I’d say that all the book, beginning through end, was very satisfying inasmuch as I could discuss it with all of you, and keep discussing it. It left me wanting more, but that’s not Mariam’s fault, (she gave us so much already), that’s my ‘satiable curiosity!

      Your turn! 🙂

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      1. katieosborne says:

        ‘Satiable curiosity! Nice one! LOL

        And yes, what a great way to describe this book – pointillism.

        Like

    2. katieosborne says:

      I was thinking back to that worldview conversation too. I find this book so life affirming. Much of modernity views humanity in a rather utilitarian manner. Success based on looks, smarts, money, etc. And here we have a group of misfits, some cast off completely by their families, and their value is based on none of these things. They are fascinating, beautiful human beings, each so unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and their disabilities are really in the background. It is not about their limitations – or if it is, it is about how being in community allows us to depend on others and be depended on – how we become better by doing so. This is the tragedy of Smoker. Mariam has written each character so lovingly with such depth of character – so real. Now that I’ve come to the end of the book and I understand these characters more clearly, I am amazed at the depth of loyalty, friendship, camaraderie and acceptance that runs through this story. There is so much tenderness in these pages. In my opinion, the book says more true things than I can name. That’s my lazy cop out answer because I don’t have time to go into more detail at the moment. 😁 But yes, lots of truth about friendship, community, trust, how we see ourselves and others, the fears and wonders inherent in growing up, belief in what can’t always be understood and reduced to the purely logical and tangible…..

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Silvia says:

        And yet the book is very ‘post-modern’, or innovative in its style, isn’t it?

        What amazes me it’s that it was written in the course of 20 years, and that long, in the hands of a talented and persistent person, renders a product where there’s no waste of words, nor loose threads.

        As much as it pained me at first to hear Mariam doesn’t have another book, as I kept reading TGH I thought to myself, how could she?

        I also felt the tenderness, the realism of the characters, how all of them together built something bigger than just the sum of them. Though harsh, the more realistic elements are always weaved in that wider view of life that, as you say, Katie, escapes the scientific or utilitarian model. It’s the vulnerability of the children, the qualities they show when left pretty much to themselves, what reminded me that we don’t come with that societal hypocrisy we learn, that when we are little, and young, and finding who we are, we don’t do it at the expense of someone else, but in the context of a ‘tribe’, that we want to be unique, but we first want to belong.

        Many books have explored the magical world of childhood, but I have not seen any other explore the magic of the young years, teenagehood, and even adulthood too, as TGH. They compare the book to Lord of the Flies, but the latter is just focused on the moral choices of a group of children who were by accident isolated as a group. I think about books like the Giver’s Quartet, but that again explores more the themes dystopias usually address -in a great way, so it’s no match. And the comparison of Mariam with Tartt’s Secret History, I don’t think these two authors share worldviews, nor their works point to the same preoccupations.

        Like

      2. mslancast says:

        Perfect, Katie. Absolutely beautifully said.

        I’ve called it a little Lord if the Flies-y myself, but I think the soul of the book couldn’t be more opposite. TGH acknowledges the darkness that lurks in humanity and its potential to destroy, but it chooses to focus on the hope, the camaraderie, the ways we make each other stronger.

        I do think it fits firmly into postmodern literature in its nuance, the way a single path isn’t spelled out, and mostly in the way each character’s (and each reader’s!) interpretation determines what he sees.

        Like

      3. mslancast says:

        “It is not about their limitations – or if it is, it is about how being in community allows us to depend on others and be depended on – how we become better by doing so. This is the tragedy of Smoker.”

        This is so great that I just had to highlight it! I’m going to add this to my Gray House elevator speech. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      4. katieosborne says:

        Yes. It is very post-modern in style, and yet it has a lot of timeless, rather traditional things to say. I love the tension that is produced there.

        I do understand the connection to Lord Of The Flies in so far as we are watching children create and navigate a world where the rules are largely there’s – and yes, there is violence born out of their freedom, but beyond that, they are night and day, really. Lord of The Flies shows us that the heart of man is ultimately evil and constrained only by society – that even innocent school children can become savage given the opportunity is rather shocking, but I think it also says something very true. The Gray House, as you’ve both said, acknowledges the darkness – in the world and within our souls – but it chooses to believe that there is grace in relationship that has the potential to bring light and hope and wholeness. The similarities are largely surface, I think.

        This is totally off the cuff and maybe I will think about it more and decide it’s a silly connection, but I can’t help thinking of the underlying vibe of Les Miserables. I think the tone of Hugo’s Christian Humanism that runs through that book in the midst of all the badness of the world is comparable to the hopefulness of The Gray House. Perhaps I thought of it because Hugo uses so much light/darkness imagery. I’m not saying that the two books are similar – I really don’t think they are, and yet, there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on……

        “When we are little, and young, and finding who we are, we don’t do it at the expense of someone else, but in the context of a ‘tribe’, that we want to be unique, but we first want to belong.” – This is a very true thing, Silvia. It’s a lovely thought.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Yuri says:

      About 2 years for the manuscript (as I said, nights and weekends), and then the editing process dragged out for another 9 months (but that was not continuous work, though I continued to reread again and again even when the editors were working on the next portion and I’ve already approved the previous installment).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yuri says:

      They were really fussy about it, with 4 editing passes – “development”, copyedit, proofedit and cold reader. I would actually question the need for a development editor for a translation – there’s nothing to develop, the book is already the way it is; the first thing mine did was to break up Tabaqui’s full-page Pompey monologue into several sentences, “for clarity”, and the whole conversation with Blind ordering him to say only one sentence he just cut as extraneous. I put it all back, of course, and he mostly quieted down after that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Silvia says:

        Ha!, I am so glad you were kind but assertive!
        It’s hilarious, to break Tabaqui’s monologue for ‘clarity’, (I can hear Tabaqui protesting at that!)

        Liked by 2 people

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