Wednesday, 26 October 2011
My winter task is to translate a book. I have metaphorically sharpened my pencils and literally sent off for a new dictionary. The patron saint of translators is St Jerome, and there used to be an annual lecture named after him, mysteriously renamed the W. G. Sebald lecture (mysterious because he wasn't the translator he was the translatee). The book I aim to translate is a collection of letters, and I have already spent three years messing around visiting the places where one of the correspondents - a painter - lived during a long life reminiscent of one of those fictional character in a novel by William Boyd. She was born in St Petersburg in 1898, and died in 1988. Her life intersected with many people I knew, in the Crimea (the Obolenskys),Paris (Evgeny Lampert and Metropolitan Antony of Surozh), London (the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, John and Irina Findlow) and Moscow (Ekaterina Genieva and Alexander Men). The settled upper middle class circumstances into which she was born were swept away by the Russian Revolution; her mother and a sister died of an epidemic in the chaos of civil war in the Crimea, her father disappeared, and thereafter she herself lived in poverty as a refugee, devoted to painting in the twenties and thirties, living in Paris as a willing skivvy having been created a 'nun in the world' in the household of Fr Sergei Bulgakov and as a student of the Nabis Maurice Denis; in London off and on, including to paint the wall panels of the chapel of St Alban and St Sergius in Ladbroke Grove; emerging in post- war Prague to paint the altarpiece of the Orthodox cathedral ruined during the Nazi revenge on the Czech assassins of Heyderich. After the denunciation of Stalin, she and her surviving sister returned to their homeland and were exiled to central Asia, a sentence mitigated towards the end of her long life to allow her to escape during the sweltering summers to the more moderate climate of Moscow, where she met Alexander Men who became her 'spiritual father' and with whom she began to correspond: it is their selected letters which are the substance of the book I am to translate. She sent him 'little stars', icons for his converts, concealed in boxes labelled as sweets from her tiny flat in Tashkent through the years when Christianity was strictly controlled and believers were regarded with suspicion by the authorities. He survived her by two short years, murdered at the age of 57 on the verge of achieving the international status that would have put him beyond reach.