Even for those well-versed in Russian literature, Nikolai Ivanovich Gnedich (1784-1833) is hardly a household name, but in his time he was a relatively well known translator, librarian, poet and even the author of a now largely forgotten Gothic novel. He is best remembered for his translation of the Iliad into Russian, a task that consumed most of his adult life. Maria Rybakova has been inspired by this unlikely figure to write a fictionalised biography and to do it in verse, a risky project that she has carried off with skill and aplomb.
This is a work that rewards some research – and at least a basic knowledge of the Iliad. But armed with the appropriate background knowledge, it’s an enjoyable read. In 12 chapters, or cantos, reflecting the Iliad itself, Rybakova recounts Gnedich’s life, in particular his friendship with the poet Konstantin Batyushkov (Patroclus to Gnedich as Achilles) and his unrequited love for the actress Ekaterina Semyonova. With great attention to detail, Rybakova gives the reader not only incidents from Gnedich’s life but also a lively and evocative portrait of Russian society and culture. The introduction of the peasant maid Elena (an unlikely Helen) adds some comic relief to an otherwise quite sad story, not least because she discovers the discarded manuscript of Gnedich’s attempt at a novel and takes it home where its reading aloud has quite an impact on the listeners.
This unusual biography is not an easy read for the uninitiated and I doubt it will appeal to a wide readership. I’m never very happy with books that take too much prior knowledge to be comprehensible, but I’m pleased to see Maria Rybakova translated into English for the first time and a forgotten Russian writer resurrected.