T. F. Powys in Russia
In East Chaldon on 3rd May 1927, T.F. Powys received
an unexpected parcel from Leningrad, forwarded from Chatto and
Windus, containing a Russian translation of Mr Tasker’s
Gods. “I have heard nothing whatever about this
translation”, he wrote to Charles Prentice. "I am very pleased
that it has appeared. I think it would be well worth our while
to send to this lady at once, to the address she gives, a set of
the remaining novels.”
It comes as a jolt to learn that T.F. Powys’s subversive satire
on human vanities was successful in Soviet Russia. The
correspondence with Lydia Slonimskaya, Powys’s Russian
translator, now in the Powys Collection at the Dorset County
Museum, describes how the editions of Mr Tasker, and
later Mockery Gap, in print runs of 4,000 in each case,
were entirely sold out . Paper shortages prevented reprints.
Slonimskaya also refers to an edition of The Left Leg, by
another translator, but I have found no trace of this. Yet it
is perhaps a sign of a more restrictive cultural climate in 1929
that the State Publishing House balked at the darker mysticism
of Mr. Weston’s Good Wine.
Lydia Slonimskaya, née Kun (1900-1965) was a direct
descendent of Pushkin’s sister Olga, a fact of which she was
extremely proud. She married the Pushkin scholar Aleksandr
Slonimsky, a member of an extremely talented Petersburg family.
One Slonimsky brother, Mikhail, became a well-known Soviet
novelist, and another, Nicolas, emigrated to the United States
and became an eminent composer and musicologist. Nicolas
Slonimsky gives a spirited account of his early family life in
his autobiography, Perfect Pitch (Oxford University
Press, 1988), and is commemorated in an orchestral piece by John
Adams, “Slonimsky’s Earbox”.
Lydia also translated Jack London and Theodore Dreiser (official
Soviet favourites) and, from the French, Jules Verne and Guy de
Maupassant. But her chief delight appears to have been her
family history. Nicolas quotes a letter from his brother
Aleksandr in 1939, “Lida is immersed in the history of her
ancestors in the Pushkin family, and she fell in love with her
great-great-grandfather, Sergei Pushkin. She copies all of
Sergei Pushkin’s correspondence with Olga Pushkina, his
daughter, a sister of the poet.” Lydia’s edition of Pushkin
family correspondence, translated from the French, was
eventually published by the Pushkin House Museum in St.
Petersburg in 1993, nearly thirty years after Lydia’s death. It
is dedicated to the memory of her son Vladimir, who died in the
siege of Leningrad.
The crowned pig that adorns the title page of Mr. Tasker’s
Gods is uncannily prophetic of a later satire. The
authorship of the introductions is not stated. My thanks go to
Rob Mackenzie for translating the introductions, and to Elaine
Mencher for showing me T.F. Powys’s letter to Charles Prentice.
Letters from Lydia Slonimsky to T.F. Powys
26/IV – 27
I send you a copy of my translation of Mr Tasker’s
Gods – in Russian “Kumiri Mistera Taskera”. Please let me
know if you have got my letter and the book.
I shall be also very glad to obtain your other novels.
Yours very sincerely,
Petrovskii pr. d.2 kv. 8
Lidia Leonidovna Slonimskaya
20/V – 27
Thank you very much for your kind letter and the
sending of your other novels, which reached me quite safely
I hope that the Gosudarstvennoye Izdatelstvo
[State Publishing House, Gosizdat] will not have any
objections to the translation of them. In a fortnight I will
let you know the results.
Yours very sincerely,
30/VII – 27
I am very sorry that I could not let you know any news
about your novels earlier, but I have got the answer from Moscow
only now. I shall translate the Mockery Gap.
The Left Leg is already translated and I shall try to get
you a copy. For some reasons Gosizdat had found the
other three novels not quite suitable for translation.
I should feel very obliged if you kindly let me know
the meaning of the words “thik” and "wold”. I must also know
what is that “b… fisherman”. I think that during the work I
shall have other questions and I hope that you will be so kind
as to answer them. The translation will be ready in the end of
The first edition of Mr. Tasker’s Gods is
already out of print and in autumn will probably come out the
second. I like your novels very much and it is a great pleasure
for me to translate them. I should be very very glad to obtain
the photograph of the author. I am very sorry that I write in
English so badly and that I cannot tell you all what I feel and
think about your novels.
Yours very sincerely,
21/I – 29
I learned about the apparition of your new novels.
Perhaps you will be so kind as to send me a copy of them. I
will be so much obliged to you for them. A year ago I had sent
you by post my translation of Mockery Gap but I had no
answer, though I expected that it had reached you safely. I
hope that your new novels thanks to their subject would also
suit for translation into Russian.
With kind regards and best wishes,
Yours very sincerely,
12/IV – 29
Please excuse the delay in answering your letter, but
my child had been very ill and I had no time and no powers to
write any letters.
The copy of Mr. Weston’s Good Wine I had got
very long ago and sent you my thanks for it. But it could not
be accepted to translation into Russian not of my fault. The
first editions of Mr. Tasker’s Gods and of Mr Caddy’s
Ducks [Mockery Gap] were entirely sold, but the lack
of paper stopped the second. Your books are read here by
advanced workers and by representatives of the intellectual
I hope that you will send me the fables as soon as
possible and that they will suit for translation into Russian.
Please excuse my English. I know I write awfully. If
you did a little understand Russian, I would write you many,
With kind regards and best wishes,
Yours very sincerely,
Please write to tell me if this reaches you.
Introduction to the Russian edition of Mr Tasker’s Gods,
translated by L.L.Slonimskaya
Gosudarstvennoye Izdatelstvo [State Publishing House], Moscow
and Leningrad. 1927
The famous English individualist Carlyle, discussing the concept
of the "symbolic pig" in one of his books, defines the sense of
ownership as follows: "Everything that you can take without risk
of being hanged is yours".
This pitiless and brutal moral principle, so characteristic of
the upper and petty bourgeoisie during the early period of their
enrichment – which is known as primary accumulation -- forms an
inseparable part of this book, which might be called a "book of
In this book, everything is forbidden and everything
permitted. Everything is forbidden to the poor, for poverty is
a vice and a crime, and even the church itself thinks nothing of
setting the poor man outside the law. On the other hand,
everything is permitted for the rich and those who are amassing
wealth, since social hypocrisy always manages to cast a veil
over crimes committed for money or justified by money.
The growth of the English petty bourgeoisie in its historical
development was associated with a fierce religious struggle.
The principle of free competition required freedom of religious
conscience and, at its very start, this simultaneously overthrew
both the spiritual power of the old dogmatic Anglican Church and
the power of monarchic absolutism. Thus, the English bourgeois
revolution of the 17th century was religious in nature, and the
English bourgeoisie has retained to this day strong, deep
This "Christianity", which is extremely artificial in
construction and historical in its organization, in fact boils
down to Carlyle's "cult of the pig". And, in actual fact, "Mr.
Tasker's Gods" typifies its moral code.
The present book may, with full justification, be
ascribed to a genre of literature that succeeds in both painful
castigation and courageous exposure. It depicts for us in
grim hues the provincial England of the present day, whose
"modernity" is reflected only in the fact that its priests and
doctors now use cars and motorcycles to travel about.
Provincial England is still shrouded in the impenetrable gloom
of class life and class contradictions. There, the cult of the
symbolic pig keeps man at the level of a self-satisfied animal,
differing from his four-footed fellows only in that he is
organised, recognises the need for hygiene, and loves life's
comforts. If "old" England had nothing besides this petty
bourgeoisie, one might say that its historical cycle was
completed, and that Mr. Tasker, who is as fat and rosy as his
beloved idols, might die in peace on his dung heap -- the pile
of money that he has accumulated.
England (and, all the more, humanity) has nothing to
expect from this class. Fortunately, it is not this class --
and the awareness of this should help the reader overcome the
feelings of melancholy and pessimism that this book may generate
in him -- it is not this class that will decide the fate of its
country and of the world as a whole. In England, millions of
other people also live, belonging to a different race, and
belonging to a different class that does not pay homage to the
symbolic pig. Two or three hours' journey from Mr. Tasker's
farm, one will find coalmines. There, luckily for the future of
mankind, live and work the mighty tribe of the English
Introduction to the Russian edition of T.F. Powys’s Mr
Caddy’s Ducks [Mockery Gap], translated by L.L.
Biblioteka Vsemirnoy Literatury [Library of World Literature].
Powys’s book Mr. Caddy’s Ducks is a grotesque work that
ridicules the petty-bourgeois atmosphere of the English
village. It is not a novel in the generally accepted sense of
the word - it contains no heroes, but merely depicts the social
environment: petty people, trivial interests, primitive needs,
shallow passions. Naturally, for such a book the author did not
need accurately drawn characters, -- it was sufficient for him
to provide masks for the various deformities found in life,
highlighting one main feature of each such mask. For example,
Mrs Pink is described with emphasis on her tiny nose, which was
so small that she found it difficult to find when she wanted to
blow her nose, while the beard of the well-to-do farmer Mr.
Cheney is so long that “he would button it into his coat”.
Similarly, in the mental organisation of his characters Powys
sharply emphasizes one particular quality, required not so much
to define the character of the person in question, as to produce
a particular composed picture of English village life.
The most important event in the village of Mockery Gap is the
quarrel between the Prings and the Pottles. Each of the warring
parties has her own pedestal, from which she haughtily gazes
down on her opponent: In the case of Mrs Pottle, this is her
marble clock, while for Mrs Pring, it is her lame cow and black
The village aristocracy consists of the Pinks and the Pattimores.
The dim-witted Mr. Pink is a proponent of lofty ideas of
universal forgiveness, whereas Miss Pink is the personification
of superstitious terror. Vicar Pattimore is a man of ambition,
who by means of his sermons and by denying his wife conjugal
affections forges his way ahead towards a deanery. His wife is
faint with longing for “sinful love” and motherhood. In this
dismal society, each person is assessed not by his or her actual
qualities, but by their imagined capabilities. Mr. Pring gains
honour for himself as a trustworthy postman, Mr. Gulliver wins
renown as a famous traveller merely because of his surname,
while Mrs Topple is considered to be a good children's
governess, whereas in actual fact she is capable only of caring
for her bad leg. The lazy cynic Mr. Caddy, who blabs out the
village’s “secrets of the bedchamber” to his ducks, is held in
high regard by his neighbours as a wise man and an expert on the
sea, of which they are so afraid that they do not even venture
to take a stroll along its shore.
The rocky island of the Blind Cow serves as a symbol of this
dismal life. It is named after a real blind cow that drowned in
the sea because it could not distinguish seawater from fresh,
nor the deep sea from a shallow stream. The people of Mockery
Gap also live like the blind, until they meet senseless deaths
at sea, on the roads, or in their own beds. The “clever people”
are no better than them, and appear in this small corner of the
world to amuse themselves and satisfy their petty ambitions.
For example, the rich farmer Mr. Roddy, on finding some of the
small white shells that cover all the surrounding shores in such
profusion, calls them “Roddites,” and thereby makes a name for
himself. Using printed leaflets, he delivers lectures on
geology, while Mr. James Tarr regales his audiences with
scientific papers on the number of seats in the village church
and how many bells there are in its tower. In passing, he
manages to mystify the dim-witted inhabitants of Mockery Gap: He
inspires Miss Pink with the fear that some monster will appear
out of the sea; in Mrs Topple he arouses an overwhelming desire
to find a healing four-leafed clover; he persuades Mrs. Moggs of
the need to acquire a pair of white mice, and he orders the
crowd of children, who in the book perform the role of the
chorus of antiquity, to wait for the arrival of the mysterious
The absence of a main character also accounts for the novel’s
lack of a plot. Against the general background, individual
masks, conversations and feelings briefly appear and, having
momentarily held the reader’s attention, then disappear. Taken
together, all this creates a picture of dull, meaningless life
that is neither enlightened by a single communal idea, nor given
colour by any noble impulse. Small-minded love of self, sordid
curiosity, envy, primitive sexual instincts, stupid swagger and
self-conceit, and superstitious terrors—this is all that the
author found in the lives of the villagers of Mockery Gap.
It is useful for our reader to learn what kind of stagnant
swamp stench lingers in the "backwaters" of that country, in
which wealth and culture, powerful technology and world trade
are used not to serve the broad masses of the people, but to
increase the power of a small handful of capitalists bent on
From The Powys Society Newsletter, No 59