Sarah Vitali is an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Her translations from Russian include Vladislav Khodasevich’s memoir Necropolis (Columbia University Press, 2019), Linor Goralik’s short story “Agata Comes Home” (included in Found Life, Columbia University Press, 2018), and poems by contemporary Russian poets Aleksey Porvin and Maria Malinovskaya. She is translation editor of the literary magazine American Chordata.
Read her laugh-out-loud extract from You Love These Films So Much here.
A Film by Any Other Name
Figgle-Miggle’s Ty tak lyubish’ eti fil’my (literally, You Love These Films So Much) is an unconventional crime novel loosely structured around a series of murders that take place among the Saint Petersburg intelligentsia. It is comprised of short sections told from the viewpoints of five different characters: a dachshund, a drug addict, a double agent, a film critic, and a schizophrenic.
In our first conversation, the author gave me two instructions for translating her work. First, “Don’t dumb down the dog too much. Let him use a big word every once in a while.” The second was that I find a place to include the word “prudish,” an English adjective she is particularly fond of.
These instructions are telling. The first speaks to the importance of voice in Figgle-Miggle’s work, the irreducibility of the characters she creates. The dog in question is Korney, a comically macho, self-important dachshund and the constant companion to Princess, a glamorous and acid-tongued academic. But just because he provides the novel with much of its comic relief doesn’t mean that his voice shouldn’t be complex. His vocabulary is a reflection of his personality, but it also offers a funhouse mirror insight into the world that surrounds him, the world in which the action of the novel takes place.
The author’s second request is a reminder of why many people start writing in the first place: the sense that words are there to be enjoyed. Figgle-Miggle is interested in the texture of a text, in using language to create worlds with a flexible and insidious internal logic. Her pseudonym comes from the delightful word figli-migli (“shenanigans”), and she is nothing if not a trickster. For years, her true identity remained a secret. Though she frequently appears on the long- and short-lists of major Russian literary prizes, winning the prestigious National Bestseller Prize in 2013, she is still known for her reclusiveness. Her sharp, yet supple satire has led critics to liken her to Nikolay Gogol and Jonathan Swift. Perhaps the defining sensation of reading Figgle-Miggle is feeling the ground shifting under your feet.
Because the narrative perspective is constantly changing, the novel has a mosaic structure. However, the pieces don’t fit together neatly. And, as you may have noticed, the narrators are meant to seem unreliable in one way or another: either by profession (the double agent), by mental illness (the drug addict and the schizophrenic), or by species (the dachshund). The film critic doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. Strikingly, all of these perspectives are male – even the dog’s. However, over the course of the book, we learn that the central node connecting all of these characters is the highly-strung, highly-educated Princess. The dog is her dog, the double-agent is her husband, the drug addict is her brother-in-law, the schizophrenic is her neighbor, and the film critic is her lover. Princess’s mother, a powerful woman with mysterious business ties, also flickers ominously at the edge of our vision. The reader constantly finds herself trying to catch a clear glimpse of the women in this world – the author included. This, too, is part of Figgle-Miggle’s mischief: the most important things seem to lie just beyond our grasp.
Oftentimes, a book’s title will provide some kind of framework for understanding and interpreting the work. When dealing with such elusive material, finding a title for the English text becomes particularly complicated. The original title of this book, You Love These Films So Much, comes from a song by the legendary Russian rock band Kino. In it, the band’s frontman, Viktor Tsoi, declares that he no longer wants to be a part of the movies playing in his partner’s mind. The song’s tone is measured, embodying the matter-of-fact diagnosis the singer issues for his failed relationship: “I knew things would go bad, but I didn’t know it would be so soon.” Because this song is so well known, the book’s title will evoke a particular atmosphere for Russophone readers, and might even set the tempo for their reading. Of course, an Anglophone reader couldn’t be expected to have the same kinds of associations.
As I consider potential English-language titles, I have been thinking about the aspects of the original I most want to capture. First and foremost, I want to maintain the emphasis on narrative and the way that the stories we consume can affect how we perceive and re-present the world around us. At the moment, my favorite option is Screen Time. On the one hand, this phrase makes us think of the amount of time we spend looking at our screens and the narratives we engage with as we do so. It also suggests the seductive pull of our devices and our (often futile) attempts to limit their power over our lives. On the other hand, this proposed title raises the question of whose stories and perspectives are featured in the novel, how much ‘screen time’ is devoted to each, and, last but not least, what the other characters get up to when the camera’s not on them…
Read an extract from You Love These Films So Much here.