Conversation with Olga Mäoets, the Russian Translator of P.L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion

Moscow Excursion Pamela L. Travers

Do you know Mary Poppins? Not the Disney character, but the magical nanny originally created by the Australian born author Pamela L. Travers? Probably not. And, most of you probably don’t know much about the life of Pamela L. Travers and her literary work unless, of course, you have seen Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks; and in that case, your perception of Pamela L. Travers has been, for entertaining purposes, distorted.

The publication of Pamela L. Travers’s first biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson (first published in Australia in 1999) rekindled the interest in both Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers. It inspired the screen writers of Saving Mr. Banks, and the making of two documentaries: The Secret Life of Mary Poppins and The Shadow of Mary Poppins. And, Mary Poppins, She Wrote still continues to make ripples in the awareness of its readers. One such recent ripple is the rediscovery of Pamela L. Travers’s first book, Moscow Excursion, by the Russian librarian and translator Olga Mäeots.

Moscow Excursion was first published in 1934, a few months prior to Pamela L. Travers’s first Mary Poppins book, and it consisted of a collection of letters recording the author’s visit to Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932. However, in her letters Pamela L. Travers obscured the identities of the people she met during her travel and only designated them by the letters A, M, T, Z, V. Olga Mäeots, a true fan of Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers succeeded, after many years of research, to identify some of these characters and to shed light on some important historical data. The translated and annotated Russian edition of Moscow Excursion was published in Russia in 2016 and was very well received by the public. 

Olga Mäeots agreed to answer a few questions about her experience of translating and commenting Moscow Excursion for the benefit of the English-speaking readership.  

LS: Not many people know about Pamela L. Travers’s first book Moscow Excursion. How did you discover it? 

OM: Many years ago, I was writing an article about Pamela L. Travers and saw this title in her bibliography. Of course, I got curious: it was PLT’s first book and she wrote about Moscow! I kept this fact in mind for some years and finally found the book, read it, and realized that it is full of enigmas.

LS: Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, Pamela L. Travers tells the reader that all the characters are “synthesized personages” and that she had given them fictitious initials for names throughout the book.” What made you doubt her statement?

OM: To translate a book, a translator needs to understand what the author has been writing about. Very often I had to stop and check myself to see whether I understand the text adequately or not. There are so many strange details and remarks that could be considered as exaggeration or a caricature, but finally it became obvious that PLT was very precise in her descriptions; one just has to find the facts that matched them. It was so with the description of a film British tourists were shown on their way to Russia. And with horseshoes in a palace, in the office of Tsar Nikolai, and with a cemetery in Leningrad. If these details were real, the people should be real, too. Historical facts I have learned helped me to check my translation and proved its adequacy.

LS: What motivated your decision to translate the book in Russian and did you decide to investigate these hidden identities right from the start?

OM: Moscow Excursion is an interesting well-written book and I wanted other people to read it  as historical evidence, and as talented fiction. I was not going to make any research at first. Research starts as a part of the translation process and the evidence I had found made me understand how little I knew – about PLT, about that period in history. (Cultural relations between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world in the 1930-ies still needs research. In Soviet Union, there are only friendly, positive memoirs, for example, G.B. Shaw’s or Romain Rolland’s which were published during Soviet times when books got official approval – critics were never mentioned.) 

LS: How much time did it take you to complete your investigations? And are they really completed? 

OM: The project is not completed as new data appears from time to time. It took me about 5-6 years to translate and make commentary. 

LS: I understand that your translation of Pamela L. Travers’s book was very well received by the Russian readers. To what do you attribute this success? 

OM: In the post-Soviet times, we have become aware that we know not all, we do not know enough about our history, and that new evidence is important. Also, a foreign view is always intriguing. I was afraid that PLT’s critical position would arise indignation of Russian readers but it never happened. First of all, she is protected by her popularity as a famous and beloved children’s author. Secondly, the book brings new interesting facts about our nearest past. And finally, what is more important for me, the reception of the book proves that Russian society is not any more unanimous in its opinions as it was in Soviet times. So, every reader could find something positive in PLT’s book to balance the blow on one’s patriotic feelings. Religious people approve of her remarks on the neglected state of churches; theater goers are interested in her theatrical impressions; anti-communists are happy with her critics of Bolshevism, and so on. Anyhow, my task in the commentary was to help readers realize that PLT was an interested traveler, though she was disappointed to a considerable extent. 

LS: What do you think is the value for the Western world of all the information you have uncovered? 

OM: First of all, the facts I have found contribute a lot to the portrait of the famous writer and present an almost unknown period in her biography; a period that was crucial for the shaping of her views, and her attitude to the contemporary world. But what is more important, PLT’s book proves to be an important evidence about the state of minds in the1930s. The book returns us (to a considerable extent due to my research and commentary) to many forgotten names (or supply new evidence about them) such as Hubert Butler or Herbert Marshall and cultural events which are important for our understanding of the epoch. The Russian-Soviet theme seems to be very inspiring at that time.

I hope that the book, with my commentary, will be published some day in some English-speaking countries. I don’t cherish any vanity hopes but am sure that it will be an interesting and important reading. 

Hopefully, Olga Mäoets’s dream will soon come true.

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Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

Hamlet 2

During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

Hamlet 3

I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

Hamlet 4

So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part II)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers Moscow

Lenin discovered that bears dance naturally and Stalin knew well how to put rings in their noses and lead them through the streets. But somewhere behind all the cunning exploitation, is there not the bear’s own desire to be so led? Haven’t the people themselves chosen the tyranny that flatters their deepest instincts and relives them of the necessity of thinking for themselves?” 

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion 

Pamela L. Travers’s travelogue, Moscow Excursion, is a written record of the author’s astute observational insights into the soul of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Pamela L. Travers’s observations, despite their accuracy, might not have been well received by the critics of her time. Here is one extremely negative review of her book which appeared in The Saturday Review on August 17, 1935. 

Pamela L. Travers Book Reveiw

Not long after its publication, the book fell into the abyss of collective oblivion.  It was briefly mentioned by Valerie Lawson in her biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote, but its importance was, regrettably, downplayed.   

Anyhow, a Russian librarian and translator, Olga Maeots, resuscitated Pamela L. Travers’s book for the Russian readership in 2016. Not only did Olga Maeots translate Pamela L. Travers’s book but she truly infused it with a fresh breath of life by uncovering the undisclosed identities of the people Pamela L. Travers met during her visit.   

During the Holidays I read this Russian edition of Moscow Excursion and learned some fascinating facts. I truly hope that one day soon Maeots’s discoveries will be translated in English for the benefit of a larger audience. 

Now back to Pamela L. Travers and her Moscow Excursion. The book reveals Pamela L. Travers’s depth of perception and her capacity to think for herself. This is not surprising though, for Pamela L. Travers was an authentic rebel, never allowing the opinions of the majority to influence her own take on things.  

The trip to Russia was organized by Intourist, an organization created by the Soviet State in 1929 for the purpose of hosting organized and controlled visits by foreign tourists. I don’t know if Pamela L. Travers was aware of that fact, but it is obvious that she sensed the controlling grip of this organization right from the start: 

It seems that everybody goes to Russia in a Tour – it is against Soviet principles, if not Soviet laws, to travel about alone. (…) A sheaf of questionnaires, all identical, were handed to me. (…) I am no longer the cheerful tourist but somebody who has asked for a job and is waiting for his references to be taken up. Not a human being, as I had mistakenly thought until now, but an entry in a “T” file. 

It did not take long either for Pamela L. Travers to realize that what the tourist guides were showing her had nothing to do with the real life in Russia.  

“Properly to see Russia one must not be a tourist. One must know the language, move about alone and dispense with the questionable blessing of the State guides. With these the traveler with any sense of history finds himself often at variance, for few historical events are recognizable once they have been doctored with Marxism and Expediency.” 

During her trip Pamela L. Travers visited Leningrad, Moscow and almost Nizhny-Novgorod, but the visit to the latter was cancelled at the last minute. Intourist explained that all the boats were broken down. The real reason was probably the desire of the authorities to hide the rampant famine in the city from the tourists’ eyes.  The cancelled trip to Nizhny-Novgorod was replaced by a visit to a Collective Farm and a ballet: The Swan Lake. 

In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers visited the House of Culture, the Winter Palace, the Smolny Institute, the Summer Palace, Alexander Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul Forteresse and the Hermitage. And in Moscow, the Kremlin Tomb, a Creche, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow Prison, a Courthouse, the House of Prostitutes (a rehabilitation center of a sort to which Pamela L. Travers resolutely refused to go), the National Gallery, the Moscow Aerodrome, the Stadium and a theater.   

Although under surveillance (all foreigners were closely watched) Pamela L. Travers managed to escape the tourist guides and to make a few independent visits. (In England, prior to her trip, a friend provided her with letters of introduction).  In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers spent an evening in the company of T, Z and a Young Poet, on another day she visited the Nevsky Cemetery with T, the Young Poet and a man from the Cheka (the first secret police of the Soviet State). She even succeeded in having brief conversations with two local women, one in a store and another one during a secret church service. She also met a movie director in a cinema studio and went to see a member of the communist party and his wife at their apartment. 

Moscow Excursion reveals young Pamela L. Travers as a free thinker, a rebellious and independent spirit with a great sense of humor and a taste for Vodka. Bored by the visit at the Collective Farm and of all the insipid statistics about lettuce production, she decides to go back to the coach and wait until the rest of the group returns. This is what happened next:  

As I got in he (the driver of the coach) coughed gently, struck his chest and flung out his hand questioningly. I took this to mean that he saw I had a cough and wanted to know was it very bad. (Pamela L. Travers was recuperating from TB right before she left for Russia.) I nodded, smiling. With that he dived into some recess under his seat and brought out a grimy bottle and a cup. Beaming he held them up before me. ‘Vodka?’ he enquired. I became a mandarin. I could hardly stop nodding and smiling and bowing my appreciation and acceptance. (…) We sat there gleaming at each other, utterly happy, the horizon gradually becoming blurred, the trees doubling themselves and dancing, and somehow there seemed to be four mules instead of one on the green, moving rather unevenly in a row. The cottages were going up and down the sky like swings at a fair. It was lovely.” 

It surely does sound lovely. Pamela L. Travers was really talented for descriptions. All the descriptions in all her writings are simply exquisite. Never too long and always giving rise to vivid images in the reader’s mind’s eye. Here is Pamela L. Travers’s elegant description of Leningrad: 

Leningrad came towards us, swimming like a faintly colored water-bird over the flat swampy sea. It was a solemn moment when we drew into the quayside flanked by beautiful eighteenth-century chrome-colored buildings.” 

(In this post I am using more quotes from Pamela L. Travers than usual because I really want you to hear her voice!) 

Pamela L. Travers saw the communist regime for what it was, a new (for the time) fanatical religion. 

One sees at once that the Soviet is not concerned with atheism, but with throwing over one god to deify another –  Man perhaps with the ultimate ideal Paradise, here and now, Heaven on Earth, the symbol Lenin, and the choir of angels the Communist Party. ” 

The rebel in her immediately realized that the State did not encourage individualism but aimed to control people; and that control was achieved by the use of brainwashing propaganda and the exercise of tight surveillance. 

We are beginning to merge. The drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people is having its effect on us.” 

Grey, grey, grey – nothing but grey on the faces of the people and in the whole width of the sky.  

I met a woman in the Torgsin stores yesterday. She was gray and pinched, but there shone in her eyes that curious fanatical gleam I am beginning to know so well. She had been to America, she told me, and had returned to Russia after the Revolution. Her faith in the Soviet Regime was supreme. ‘We can endure the present’, she said proudly, ‘for the time that is to come’ (…) She talked gently, in a series of slogans.” 

That’s what one misses in Russia-the person in the eyes. The faces are so still and blank and the eyes glazed and empty. And dangerous, too, for one feels that any mood, cruel or fanatical, might blow in upon them and take up residence. One wants persons, not reiterated Soviet States.” 

And what did Pamela L. Travers think of Lenin, the great revolutionary? The visit to Smolny Institue, Lenin’s residence during the October Revolution of 1917, gave rise to this intuitive observation: 

Such an emptiness was there, an emptiness that was not merely the lack of the room’s inhabitant.  Could it be that even when he lived something was missing, some warmth, some central sun? Genius is light and heat. Had Lenin really that rare and twofold fire? Was it not rather a fierce and single light in which he burned? Consumed by mind – that is the impression one has when one looks at portraits and photographs of him. The only purely human quality in them seems to be a certain self-satisfaction, and amid such inhuman intensity one welcomes that with relief.”  

And then, at the Kremlin Tomb, where Lenin’s preserved body was (and still is apparently) exposed for public display 

But the nothingness of that figure was pitiful, a statue of pure flesh, preserved against its own will and against all law. It wasn’t death, which is dynamic and immediate. It was nothing. The resolute materialism of the Soviet State finds its end in this. This emptiness could not move one except to anger, perhaps, against those who defrauded a great man of his body’s disintegration and made it a thing for tourists to gape at and peasants to pray to.” 

In Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers called things by their names, told it as she saw it, for those who wanted to see and hear. 

My favorite book from Pamela L. Travers is truly Moscow Excursion (along of course with the Mary Poppins books.)  Her voice sounds so authentic and young and rebellious and feisty. In her later writings that voice morphs into one of resilience and endurance in the face of life. And that makes me sad…