Forty years ago Boris Pilnyak was recognized throughout Europe as “one of the giants of the modern novel,” in the words of the dust jacket on his now forgotten The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea. At this point in time the phrase seems more a publisher’s blurb than a just appraisal. I quote it that we may measure the distance traveled by Pilnyak between 1931, when Farrar & Rinehart published this work in Charles Malamuth’s translation (“His books sell in the millions, the present literary generation considers him its master”) , and 1938, when he was apparently shot in Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison as “a Japanese spy.” And in 1970, he remains—unlike his posthumously rehabilitated contemporary, Isaac Babel—practically an unperson, an unwriter in the land where he was once a literary star.
We do now have available in translation several volumes of Pilnyak’s short stories. But his early avant-garde The Bare Year (published in this country in 1921 as The Naked Year), is long since out of print; and for the ordinary reader The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea is almost as difficult to come by here, and as undiscussed, as in the Soviet Union. For this reason I am em...
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