Happy 158th Uncle Gilya!

Happy 158th Uncle Gilya!

Moscow and Muscovites finally arrives in the English speaking world!

Russian writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky – everyone called him Uncle Gilya – would have been 158 years old today. While his work is cherished by average Russians, it is relatively unknown outside Russia and has seldom been translated – and never into English – until now. The first-ever English version of Uncle Gilya’s masterpiece, Moscow and Muscovites, translated by Brendan Kiernan and published by Russian Life Books, debuts today. It’s our way of saying “Happy Birthday” to Uncle Gilya! And English-language readers around the globe win as well – this translation is at least 90 years overdue.

{Inset photo, above: Gilyarovsky was the model for the
famous laughing Cossack in Ilya Repin's painting,
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan
Mehmed IV of Turkey (1880-1891)
 which has spawned
​many spinoffs, including the tobacco ad above.}

Uncle Gilya would have grabbed at the chance to have a birthday party and meet his new audience. With a bit of imagination, as he would say, we can conjure up a room full of enthusiastic celebrants. Taken straight from the book, the party’s setting and guests offer a sense of the exotic treat that’s in store for readers of Moscow and Muscovites. Uncle Gilya’s goal was to chronicle some of Moscow’s most misunderstood people and places before they vanished:

“If the inhabitants of a new [Moscow] are to understand the labor it cost their forefathers to build a new life in place of the old, they need to understand what old Moscow was like, and what kind of people lived there.” (p. 20)

Gilya succeeded brilliantly.

Our imaginary party’s setting: a side room in Hell. One of Moscow’s wildest taverns, Hell served a Siberia-sized spectrum of patrons: writers, workers, students, crooks of every description, artists, cops, actors, coachmen, prostitutes… all with Siberia-sized appetites. To feed his guests, Gilyarovsky, both a gourmet and a trencherman, would work with Yeliseyev the retailer and Golitsyn the vintner to ensure that the ingredients were special; Olivier, the French chef, and his team would plan and prepare the menu. Gilya’s many friends among waiters and restaurant managers would serve. At some point in the festivities, a musical tribute to Uncle Gilya would be offered by Anna Zakharovna and her popular (with men at least) Russian Girls’ Choir.

At the head table, eager to roast a friend, the world-famous writer Anton Chekhov would rise and offer a rambling toast to this man he called “an unaffected man with a pure heart”. Noting Gilyarovsky’s humble birth near Vologda in 1855, pointing out his lack of a formal education, and getting in a few laughs at the expense of Gilyarovsky’s aborted acting career, Chekhov would linger humorously on Gilya’s years as a Moscow journalist. He would get in some jibes about sensationalism (sewers, rats, murders, fraud, corruption), paunchy poetry (Gilya included much of his own in the book, uncredited but thinly veiled), and overstuffed prose (did he have an editor – or a conscience?), but then Chekhov would make a thrust at the comic jugular: name-dropping. This would bring down the house, because the famous Chekhov was himself the best example!

During the course of the evening, toasts – some barbed, some sentimental, would be offered from every table, filled by occupation or social station: firefighters and police; writers and publishers; painters and poets; actors and directors; crooks and thieves; convicts and guards; vagrants and alcoholics; barbers and bath attendants; gamblers and financiers; aristocrats and old-monied gentry; merchants and factory owners. Each group was the “beneficiary” of rich and timeless portraits at Uncle Gilya’s hands. Although English translation of the toasts would be complicated by vocabulary peculiar to the professions, regional and national accents, and an extremely liberal sprinkling of street and criminal slang, there is no doubt that the party would be a smashing success.

At the end of the night, Gilyarovsky would be among the last standing, probably drinking from a bottle and telling stories or performing card tricks. Uncle Gilya could and would talk about anything, but a good performer never reveals the secret behind his illusions. In this case, I will venture an educated guess: the secret to Gilyarovsky’s success as a journalist was taht he provided the voyeuristic thrill of tabloid journalism while shedding light on concerns central to Russia’s most compelling challenges.

Happy Birthday, Gilya!

Join the party, get the book here....

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