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The Voice Over

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Member Reviews

I happened to read this volume at the same time as my reading of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays. What I noticed from Stepanova’s essays is her unique interpretation of Russian literature which frequently interplays with other happenings such as Soviet history of the 20th century and the works of other Russian poets. As said in the introduction, Stepanova is keen to reestablish essay as an important form of creative discourse, both as a work of art and an intellectual statement, that gains momentum in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union that gives more freedom for writers to express their thoughts in many subjects, from political happenings, the works of previously inaccessible authors, and also to expand their vocabularies of knowledge to what their counterparts have been producing in the west.

This volume offers an introduction to Maria Stepanova’s body of works, mainly her poems and essays which were produced between 1996 and 2016. I could not comment positively about the structure of this volume, which was intended to introduce Anglophone readers to the works of Stepanova in the span of 20 years but ended up creating information gaps especially with regards to her poems. I feel like there are a lot of things missing to understand Stepanova’s poems, which I consider are complex and include a lot of literary references only understandable by Russian audiences, for instance, any reference to Pushkin or Mandelstam that might require longer footnotes.

This blunder is exacerbated by the nature of the translated works in this volume, as each poem and essay is translated by different translators who might approach the texts differently and have their own trademarks. This does not seem to be a barrier for translating Stepanova’s essays, as there are more ways to improvise with essays and Stepanova frequently takes references in her essays from English source’s texts as is the case in her essays about Susan Sontag and W.G. Sebald. However, this has made the poem feels to me a bit like “lost-in-translation”. In some poems, the translator includes a brief explanation about the nature of Stepanova’s poems in the original Russian and their methods of approaching the texts to make them accessible to English-speaking audiences. But it has not always been the case as some poems are left without Translator Notes to help the readers understand the contexts.

Stepanova’s essays are thought-provoking. They could range from criticizing the previous generation of Russian poets to leading the readers into metaphysical journeys. I have not yet read Stepanova’s critically-acclaimed In Memory of Memory, but her essays are pretty self-explanatory in describing the modern phenomenon of what she terms as the “new sensibility”, the kind of longing to the past age that is long gone. In one of her essays, she describes this “new sensibility” by taking the example of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, in which she argues that the keyword in that slogan is not great but again. She attempts to voice out that people are scared of what the future offers. After decades of achievements in the 20th century to send humans to space, people were finally wary of the development of technology. In short: The future is worse than the present.

It’s been a while since I read anything so mentally stimulating from a Russian author, and it seems undeniable that Stepanova is one of the most prominent writers in post-Soviet Russia with her “new sensibility” and her courage to touch upon many subjects, ranging from poems, essays, to her recently translated into English In Memory of Memory. I have been wondering if the only solution to the overproduction of information as Stepanova warns us in her essays is through going into atavism as suggested in Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog. But it seems too early to pass any judgment on that.
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Maria Stepanova has a particular style of writing her prose that is abstract and also abrupt, its liquid and volcanic in its structure with fluidity and the sheer power it exudes. However there is so much nuance stuffed in half a dozen lines that I probably have misinterpreted them. Within half a volume, a poet generally shows their hand but Stepanova remained and still remains elusive. 
This wasn't a particularly enjoyable collection or it is perhaps my limitation to the style and the obfuscation the prose binds itself with that I pretty much gave up after a while and ploughed through the volume. 

<i>Thank you to Netgalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with a free copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review. </i>
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DNF at ~27%

Got this ARC from Netgalley. 

The introduction of this book gives an exhaustive background about Stepanova, the significance of her work and the translators' efforts. I enjoyed it in parts — learning about Stepanova's stylistic evolution and her poetic constructions. 

However, when I got to the sections with the actual poems, I got lost several times and had trouble appreciating the imagery and symbolism. This book might be more suitable for an academic audience or for those with some knowledge of Russia's political history. But even so, I think some poems lost their charm or meaning in the English translation; they were awkward even when read out loud. 

Or may be this book is for a niche group of poetry lovers? I also kind of did not get the random erotica bits, but I think that was inevitable given the cultural backdrop of the writer.
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Much of this volume of poems and essays from acclaimed Russian writer Maria Stepanova unfortunately went above my head. I really don’t think I’m equipped to rate and review it objectively. It’s a tough read, even with the excellent introduction. I understand that Stepanova is an important critical voice in Russia, and as a poet is considered as the conscience of the people, Russian literature’s moral authority. I read that somewhere, but can’t judge for myself. She is now beginning to receive more attention outside Russia, with recent translations of 3 of her works, and I look forward to reading more about and by her, but I can’t say I enjoyed this book very much, especially the poetry which I found opaque, and full of allusions and quotations which escaped me. I’m sorry I can’t rate it higher than I have, but all I can do is express my own personal response.
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The poetry of Maria Stepanova is an acquired taste. There’s no questioning the intellect behind the fire that leaps off the page, yet the truth holds that poetry in translation is hard. Even when it’s a strong translation, which this is. The cultural gap may be impassable for most westerners interested in an authentic Russian perspective of the late-Soviet period, still, the reward is worth the challenge. Poetry and some positively insane, rambling genius passed off as essays from a singular and fiercely defiant mind—one that reminds us on each page what a blast it is to be human and to be engaged in the fight.
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So much potential wasted with this book.

Maria Stepanova's ouvre is reflective, exciting and dynamic. But this collection's formatting and structure distracts from, rather than enhances the beauty of her words. As it stands, this book is hard to read because of the confused formatting, and the curatorial elements do little to properly contextualize the poems for the English language reader.
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The next collection I read is called The Voice Over: Poems and Essays by Maria Stepanova. I got this as an e-arc from Columbia University Press and Netgalley. The Voice Over contains translations of Stepanova’s poetry from the original Russian and while I enjoyed them, I can’t help but think of what was lost in translation. Some of the notes included regarding the translation contributed to this, althoughthe notes which explain the context of the references were very much appreciated. The poetry were about life, folklore, Russian history, and I found them interesting, but I enjoyed the essays more. The essays were about culture, literature, and politics and even in her essays, the author conveys a certain poetic sensibility which I liked.
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What can I say? I didn't like this one. It was hard to read and confusing and not at all what I thought it would be! Part of that is on me, but part of that is on the writing.
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This is a great poetry and essay collections that deals with topic such as abuse, ptsd, the circle of abuse, loneliness, the complexities of daily life, among others. It includes such a sincere and personal, hurt, representation of ptsd; how trauma affects not only the individual, but those who surround them. The author has a great literary voice that bleeds through translation, she's great at creating an image in your head without explaining every detail, like photographs of a fading memory, small pieces that are able to convey so much. A powerful piece of work, that is also very sad.
I'd also like to highlight the work of the translators, and how useful all their notes are to contextualize the author's writing, they are a little bit long, but very accessible and clear.
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The Voice Over is reflective, engaging, and culturally insightful prose and poetry. There is much to appreciate in the literary voice of Maria Stepanova, and this collection is both a demonstration and tribute to this talented voice.
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The fullest of admiration for the creators of this book, working with the author herself on building a definitive English-language sampler of her work, in the light of her first novel imminently getting translated too.  I have long known these publishers for providing quality works for the academic reader, and this is both way out of their remit and par for the course for them. I say it's par for the course for they always seem to have intelligent translators, considered essays and introductions, all provided by the right people for the job.  I say beyond their remit for this author is very much alive-alive-o, being born in the same year as me, and generally (beyond some contemporary theatrical pieces I remember) they deal with bringing us the works of Russians who are quite firmly dead.  Still, bringing Stepanova herself on board to vet translations and to help compile the piece marks this with all the prestige you would want.

… If that is, you like the idea of reading contemporary literary Russian poetry, and have that either as a peculiar hobby or as a job.  In marking this book from the only point of view I can offer – a Mr Average, dipping his toe into the more high-falutin' to try and be erudite for once – this book fails.  Yes, the author herself may well be a genius, or a rarity in Russia, but these works are not very readable.  We learn here that one of her early career stages was to reject the old Soviet Author system, where any half-legible, State-pleasing work meant a fixed, stipendiary career as an author, which was an idea soon to disappear in the immediate return to capitalism at the fall of the Soviet Union.  The introduction tells us she's a marvel at looking back as well as looking around herself and forward, which is why her works concern building and understanding family histories, and react to the Putin years (with its recapture of the Crimea and the criminal invasion of parts of Ukraine), and suchlike.  This is all well and good but this is not fodder for the general reader – far from it.

Scholars, if they've got through my verbiage this far, will need to click 'purchase'.  Nobody else should ever dare.
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