city-pick heads to Russia
We talked to Heather Reyes, editor of the new city-pick: St Petersburg, about the fascination of Russia and the joy of unearthing the unexpected.
We've just reviewed city-pick: St Petersburg, and it's a corker -- what made you decide to tackle such a forbidding subject?
We try to pick the most rich and complex cities. When I was young, I was obsessed with Russian ballet, music and literature so St Petersburg was always a 'presence' in my mind. But I didn't realise how little I knew until about the place until I started researching for this book. It was overwhelming to start with, and I did wonder if we'd taken on too much - but then I got hooked and couldn't leave it alone. I just had to do it!
More than many cities, St Petersburg seems defined by its writers -- Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin. Did you ever feel, putting this book together, that you were wrestling with giants?
Inevitably. But in the end I decided not to flood the anthology with the classics: they're available in good translations and most people interested in Russia will probably have read them already. We have 'reminders' of those amazing writers - for example, from War and Peace we have Natasha going to her first St Petersburg ball - but the city is very different now and there is so much other good writing about it that we felt we would be doing our readers a disservice if we didn't present new material.
Some of the new translations in here are remarkable -- what was involved in making this happen, and is it something we can expect more of from future city-picks?
Actually, most of our books include material that has been specially translated, our Amsterdam book in particular. And the translations aren't always from the language of the featured city. In city-pick St Petersburg, for example,there are extracts from a book by French writer Olivier Roland which we have translated. But most of them are from Russian. We appointed a Russian co-editor in St Petersburg, Marina Samsonova, who did a great job in finding lots of suitable material for us. This was then read by our Russian expert in London, James Rann, who summarised their content for me. We decided which extracts would be most illuminating for our readers and James recommended translators. Once the translations were sent in, he and Marina looked them over and made small adjustments - then I considered them from the 'does this read well?' point of view and made one or two more. And finally we had this, yes, I think I agree, it's quite a remarkable collection of new material to offer alongside the familiar names. It was worth it!
We were also really impressed by the material in English, often from surprising sources -- Truman Capote and Malcolm Bradbury certainly aren't writers that most people would associate with St Petersburg, and yet their writing about the city is brilliant. How did you find this stuff?
Lots and lots of research - but also some 'serendipitous' finds. The marvellous little Truman Capote book, The Muses Are Heard, we came across by chance in a library while looking for something else. It was a very old copy and it was a miracle that it hadn't been sold off or binned. In 1957 the New Yorker sent Capote to Russia with an American opera company taking Gershwin's Porgy and Bess to the Soviets on a sort of 'cultural exchange'. He wrote up the whole hilarious, touching, and revelatory experience in classic Capote style. It's now in Penguin as part of an anthology of his work. Malcolm Bradbury's To the Hermitage is a terrific read, portraying modern St Petersburg but with sections set in the time of Catherine the Great. You learn a lot, as well as having tremendous fun.
Last time we talked, you expressed a certain regret that you weren't able to include James Joyce in your selections. Now that Joyce is out of copyright, are you hoping to make any emendations?
If we were to publish a second edition of the Dublin anthology we would include some Joyce. But I don't think the current edition suffers much by his not being there. As I was saying regarding the great Russian classics and St Petersburg, if readers are seriously interested in Dublin, the likelihood is they would already be familiar with at least some Joyce. Our books are not just anthologies of 'great literature': they feature what we consider to be the most useful and enjoyable writing for visitors (actual or 'armchair').
Finally, what can we expect in future from city-pick?
There's already some excitement about our Istanbul book - out in April, when Turkey is Market Focus at the London Book Fair. A long job, but huge fun. Again, lots of new material, great translations, and many, many different voices. Beyond that, my lips are sealed...