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Lourie, Richard 1940–

Lourie, Richard 1940–

PERSONAL:

Born 1940, in Cambridge, MA; married; wife's name Jod (a sculptor); children: Gavril. Education: University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D. (Russian language and literature), 1969.

ADDRESSES:

Home—New York, NY.

CAREER:

Translator from Russian and Polish, literary critic, novelist. Served as Mikhail Gorbachev's translator for the New York Times.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Joseph Henry Jackson Prize for fiction, 1971, for Sagittarius in Warsaw.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Sagittarius in Warsaw, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1973.

First Loyalty, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1985.

Zero Gravity: A Novel, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1987.

The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 1999.

A Hatred for Tulips, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2007.

TRANSLATOR FROM THE RUSSIAN

Uri Shulevitz, Soldier and Tsar in the Forest: A Russian Tale (for children), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1972.

Vladimir Voinovich, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, North-western University Press (Evanston, IL), 1995.

Vladimir Voinovich, In Plain Russian: Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979.

Vladimir Voinovich, Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981, reprinted, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1995.

Ephraim Sevela, Why There Is No Heaven on Earth, Harper (New York, NY), 1982.

Albert Likhanov, Shadows across the Sun, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.

(With Donald Arthur and Benjamin Barrett) Efraim Sevela, The Standard Bearer, Icarus Press (South Bend, IN), 1983.

Vladimir Voinovich, The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1986.

Vladimir Voinovich, Moscow 2042, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1987.

Arkady Lvov, The Courtyard, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1988.

(And author of introduction) Abram Tertz, Goodnight, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

TRANSLATOR FROM THE POLISH

Czeslaw Milosz, Visions from San Francisco Bay, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982.

Tadeusz Konwicki, The Polish Complex, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1998.

Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1983, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1999.

Kazimierz Brandys, A Warsaw Diary: Nineteen Seventy-eight to Nineteen Eighty-one, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

Janusz Korczak, King Matt the First (for children), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1986.

Romuald Spasowski, The Liberation of One: The Autobiography of Romuald Spasowski, Polish Ambassador to the United States, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1986.

Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut, Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1987.

(With Joachim Neugroschel) Lucjan Dobroszycki, editor, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944, Yale University (New Haven, CT), 1987.

Tadeusz Konwicki, Moonrise, Moonset, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.

(And editor) Aleksander Wat, My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1988.

Aleksander Hertz, The Jews in Polish Culture, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1988.

Tadeusz Konwicki, Bohin Manor, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.

Andrzej Szczypiorski, A Mass for the Town of Arras, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1993.

Henryk Grynberg, The Jewish War and the Victory, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 2001.

NONFICTION

Letters to the Future: An Approach to Sinyavsky-Tertz, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1975.

Russia Speaks: An Oral History from the Revolution to the Present, Burlingame Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Predicting Russia's Future, Whittle (Knoxville, TN), 1991.

Hunting the Devil: The Pursuit, Capture and Confession of the Most Savage Serial Killer in History, Harper/Collins (New York, NY), 1993.

Sakharov: A Biography, Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2002.

OTHER

Author of column "Russian Journal" for the Boston Phoenix; author of screenplays, including one for the television series Miami Vice.

SIDELIGHTS:

Although Richard Lourie is a prolific translator of Russian and Polish works by such authors as Vladimir Voinovich, Czeslaw Milosz, and Tadeusz Konwicki, he has also achieved prominence as a fiction writer. His novels, Sagittarius in Warsaw—winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Prize in 1971—First Loyalty, Zero Gravity: A Novel, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel, and A Hatred for Tulips, reflect his knowledge of Eastern Europe and the Russian emigré literary scene in New York, as well as his experiences smuggling Russian manuscripts into the United States. Lourie was first introduced to Eastern European culture by his father, a Russian immigrant, but he did not begin learning Slavic languages until his college years. Thereafter he spent a number of years residing in Newton, Massachusetts, a town he has called "something of a nerve center" for Russian dissident writers. In the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Buckley called Lourie "a polymath whose erudition ranges widely and whose insights come filtered through a risibility at once playful and profound."

In First Loyalty, the first of Lourie's novels to attract considerable critical attention, protagonist David Aronow resembles the author in that he, too, translates the works of Soviet dissident writers. Aronow becomes involved in espionage after a Russian scientist, fearing the possible consequences of his country's control over a new drug that increases intelligence and longevity, leaks information about the drug to America. Meanwhile, the Russians have placed an agent, Evgeny Shar, in New York. They plan to boost Soviet morale by having Shar pose as a poet dissident, defect to the United States, and later freely choose to return to the Soviet Union. Both Aronow and Shar, in trying to obtain the formula to the Soviet drug, are tempted to use it for their own benefit and profit. Though the plot twists failed to impress many reviewers, critics applauded the book's believable characters and faithful depiction of the Russian emigré community in New York. The book "becom[es] more than what it most obviously is, a powerful, superbly crafted, and very timely suspense novel," wrote Tom D'Evelyn in the Christian Science Monitor. Joseph Hone, who in the New York Times Book Review deemed Lourie "thoroughly versed in Soviet dissident authors," enjoyed the author's "expert as well as entertaining insights into the follies and foibles of these emigre writers. The result is that the thriller element is downplayed and the Russian ‘soul,’ with its mix of paranoia and grandeur, leaps off the page." Washington Post Book World contributor Dennis Drabelle found the foreigners' observations on Americans equally interesting. "What matters most of all," asserted Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, "is the texture of Mr. Lourie's thriller—its convincing psychology, its abundant ironies …, its amusing emigre-eye views of America, and the fun it persistently has with language."

Lourie continues his zany wordplay and again includes poets as characters in Zero Gravity, "a gloriously funny book," according to Buckley. The story involves a scholar of Russian language and history who correctly predicts that the Soviet Union will send a poet to the moon. The Soviets are shocked when the scheme is revealed and the United States, not to be outdone, determines to put an American poet on the moon also. Buckley decided that Zero Gravity is "a meditation on poetry. In Russia, a man can be sent to the Gulag for a poem; in the United States, such a notion would be preposterous. And that, Mr. Lourie seems to be saying, is, in a strange way, sad, because it means poetry here is powerless."

In an interview with CA, Lourie commented upon wordplay and how it relates to his translation. "Playing with words is one of my major pleasures," he said. "I like the feel of language as I imagine a carpenter likes the feel of wood or a painter likes to dip a brush into paint and smoosh it around and move it across a canvas. One of the seductions of translation is that it allows you nearly all the same pleasures that you get from your own writing, but without the ultimate vision and responsibility. But ‘playing with words’ can have two meanings. There's the straight meaning of just playing with them, and there's word play, the kind that's in Zero Gravity, where you pun and you play off words. That's different. I like to do some of that, but not too much, because that can get too clever for its own good."

Blunt language and gruesome subject matter characterize Lourie's 1999 novel The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin. In the work, Russia's most brutal dictator reveals through his "memoirs" his disregard for humanity, lust for power, and paranoia—here especially reserved for political rival Leon Trotsky. A Publishers Weekly correspondent declared that the work "plausibly speculates on key events in Stalin's life, combining known history with well-researched probabilities, grounding the book in the actualities of this terrifying era while illuminating the unfathomable darkness of the mind that created it." The novel includes two versions of Stalin's life: the biography that Trotsky was writing about the dictator and Stalin's rebuttal of his nemesis's views. "The dramatic focus of this often engaging, sometimes awkward novel lies in Stalin's obsession with Trotsky," noted Ken Kalfus in the New York Times Book Review. "[Lourie] creates two antagonists who not only oppose each other but exist in each other's reflection—maneuvering, backbiting and aspiring always for Lenin's blessing." Library Journal contributor Barbara Hoffert commented: "Sometimes the facts are so horrifying that only great literature can really portray them effectively. Lourie … is a very, very fine writer who knows his stuff and has done a splendid job of portraying an evil genius far too cool and calculating to be described as a madman."

The novel A Hatred for Tulips also explores the theme of evil, but its focus is on ordinary individuals. The narrative begins with the reunion of elderly Dutch brothers who had grown up in Amsterdam during World War II. Joop, the elder brother, has a confession to make: he tells Willem that he betrayed Anne Frank's hiding place to the Nazi occupiers of the city. Joop's family was desperate; his father could not make enough money to feed the family, and they often had to resort to eating boiled tulip bulbs when nothing else could be had. Joop took whatever work he could find to try to help his family survive; when the opportunity arose to inform on the Franks, he took it. Though he has rationalized the betrayal as a necessary act to save his own family, he has lived for sixty years with such terrible guilt that he has not been able to have a happy, productive life.

Elena Lappin, writing in New York Times Book Review, observed that Lourie's "portrait of a starving city under Nazi occupation … has all the plausibility and cool detachment of a well-researched and carefully edited documentary." In Lappin's view, the novel explains what happens in such a way that Joop's action can be understood as almost inevitable. "The ‘why,’" she added, "is more complicated." Raising the possibility that Joop's confession may not be true, the critic pointed out that this ambiguity "presents readers with an interesting puzzle": if Joop's story is true, "Anne Frank is being used as the novelist's bait to lure us into a story that would have had more literary substance and originality without her presence." But if Joop is telling a lie and is therefore using Anne Frank's story to "justify his failed life, then A Hatred for Tulips is something else: a psychologically astute novel about moral responsibility and the illusion of truth."

Though a writer for Kirkus Reviews felt that the novel "doesn't fully realize the tensions it dramatizes," Library Journal contributor Marika Zemke found its story "compelling." A Hatred for Tulips, the critic concluded, "is destined to be a best seller."

Lourie described how he goes about his translation work in his interview with CA. "I read the work through so that I know what it is and where it goes and how it feels," he said. "Then there's a little incubation period; I wait around until I have the sense that it's somehow in me like any other memory I have stored away. Then I start at the top and put an envelope, usually, under the first line—one of the things you worry about is skipping lines. And I just go down the text and do it straight through. But then, of course, as you go, you see that you shouldn't have done a certain thing at the beginning because now you can see more clearly what it meant. So you go back in the next draft and deal with what you learned by going through the first time. But I do like to go straight through, and then I have a finished English version to start playing with. Sometimes I even leave the original behind and look at the text just as an English text, and start changing it to make it a better English text in the terms that already exist on the page. If I have any doubts or any suspicions about what I've done, then at some point later on I'll go back to the original and see if I've taken something farther than would be just and intelligent."

Lourie added: "The experience of Eastern Europe is different from the experience of Western Europe and especially from the experience of America. The basic difference, I would say, is that in Eastern Europe, history and life are almost entirely identical. In America, at the other extreme, history and life are almost entirely separate. It's perfectly possible here to live a life without being conscious of history. We're all touched by history, but we don't necessarily know it or feel it. There they know it and feel it. There, the Second World War is something that happened in your neighborhood, not something that happened in a history book or in a black-and-white movie or in some other country. So there's a historical awareness that permeates consciousness and language and literature there, and the trick is somehow to get as much of that across as you can."

This historical awareness is apparent in Lourie's Sakharov: A Biography, the first full biography in English of the Russian nuclear physicist and political dissident. Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) worked on the Soviet atomic bomb projects and played a central role in the development of that country's hydrogen bomb. He also worked on plans for a controlled nuclear fusion reactor. Sakharov opposed any use of such bombs on actual cities, however, and was against nuclear proliferation. In 1967, he spoke out urging the Soviet government to accept a proposal from the United States by which both countries would agree not to develop anti-ballistic missile defense systems. Though the government ignored his message, he continued to write and publish materials that criticized the Soviet system and its abuses of human rights. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, but the Soviet government forced him into internal exile in 1980. He died shortly after being released from exile six years later, becoming admired throughout the world as an icon of resistance to political oppression.

Critics welcomed Sakharov as a thorough, sensitive portrait of the man and his era. Lourie explains the context in which Sakharov developed his thinking, at first supporting the socialist system but later coming to reject it. New York Times Book Review contributor Loren Graham found that "Lourie … gives a fascinating account of Sakharov…. While his treatment of Sakharov's work in science is a bit weak, his analysis of the man's complicated political journey seems authentic and immensely revealing. Sakharov emerges not as a saint but as a powerful and inspiring human being who came to understand belatedly the society in which he lived." A writer for Kirkus Reviews expressed similar admiration for the biography, noting that Lourie expertly portrays not only "the peculiar texture of ardent, intelligent socialism under Stalin, but also the ease with which one could recognize the monstrosity of the regime and yet believe in the perfectibility of the system." As Lourie observes in the book, "Perhaps Sakharov's best legacy is any given Russian's reflexive assumption of freedom, with no more thought of him than Rosa Parks is remembered by a black child boarding a bus."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Spectator, June 1, 1993, M.D. Carnegie, review of Hunting the Devil: The Pursuit, Capture and Confession of the Most Savage Serial Killer in History, p. 67.

Biography, summer, 2003, Stephen Kotkin, review of Sakharov: A Biography.

Booklist, March 1, 2002, Jay Freeman, review of Sakharov, p. 1070; June 1, 2007, Hazel Rochman, review of A Hatred for Tulips, p. 36.

Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 1985, Thomas D'Evelyn, review of First Loyalty; April 4, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 21.

Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1, 2002, review of Sakharov.

Commentary, April 1, 1990, Fernando Eberstadt, review of Goodnight, p. 63.

Foreign Affairs, winter, 1990, John C. Campbell, review of Memoirs; September 1, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 213.

Isis, June 1, 2003, review of Sakharov, p. 408.

Journal of Modern Literature, September 22, 1988, "Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz," p. 384.

Journal of Peace Research, May 1, 1995, review of Hunting the Devil, p. 247.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 162; June 1, 2007, review of A Hatred for Tulips.

Library Journal, May 15, 1999, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel, p. 127; January, 2002, Robert H. Johnston, review of Sakharov, p. 116; June 15, 2007, Marika Zemke, review of A Hatred for Tulips, p. 57.

Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 12.

Nation, September 27, 1993, Miklos Vamos, review of A Mass for the Town of Arras, p. 325; July 1, 2002, "A Bombmaker of Conscience," p. 39; March 22, 2004, "My Dinner with Aleksander," p. 34.

National Review, August 12, 2002, "The Good Russian," p. 48.

New Leader, May 14, 1990, Anatole Shub, review of Memoirs, p. 18; January 1, 2002, Robert V. Daniels, review of Sakharov, p. 21.

New Scientist, April 20, 2002, "An Unlikely Hero," p. 49.

New York Times, July 25, 1985, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of First Loyalty.

New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1985, Joseph Hone, review of First Loyalty, p. 7; October 18, 1987, Christopher Buckley, review of Zero Gravity: A Novel, p. 12; October 10, 1993, David Sacks, review of A Mass for the Town of Arras, p. 28; August 8, 1999, Ken Kalfus, review of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, p. 13; April 7, 2002, Loren Graham, "From the H-Bomb to Human Rights: A Biography of the Soviet Scientist Who Went from a Model Communist to the Conscience of a Nation," p. 9; June 2, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 28; December 8, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 70; August 12, 2007, Elena Lappin, "Wartime Lies."

Oral History Review, spring, 1990, Thaddeus Radzilowski, review of My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual.

Orbis, fall, 1993, Mary Sladek, review of Hunting the Devil.

Partisan Review, fall, 1991, Jan Zielinski, review of My Century; fall, 1994, Susan Miron, review of A Mass for the Town of Arras.

Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1993, review of A Mass for the Town of Arras, p. 292; November 15, 1993, "The Victory," p. 74; April 26, 1999, review of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, p. 52; January 21, 2002, review of Sakharov, p. 73; May 21, 2007, review of A Hatred for Tulips, p. 31.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1990, Brooke K. Horvath, review of Bohin Manor.

School Science Review, March, 2003, John Miller, review of Sakharov, p. 135.

Science, August 23, 2002, "The Ascetic and the Vixen," p. 1281.

Slavonic and East European Review, October 1, 1991, Geoffrey Hosking, review of Memoirs, p. 791.

Time International, Maryann Bird, June 17, 2002, "Physics and Freedom: A New Biography of Andrei Sakharov Takes Readers on a Unique Scientific, Political and Moral Journey," p. 71.

Times Literary Supplement, April 22, 1988, Sally Laird, review of Moscow 2042, p. 453; July 22, 1988, D.J. Enright, review of Moonrise, Moonset, p. 802; May 4, 1990, Ronald Hingley, review of Goodnight, p. 479; August 17, 1990, Ernest Gellner, review of Memoirs, p. 863; September 20, 1991, George Hyde, review of My Century, p. 6; June 28, 2002, "The Price of Protest," p. 29.

Washington Post Book World, August 4, 1985, Dennis Drabelle, review of First Loyalty, June 24, 1990.

World Literature Today, summer, 1991, Reuel K. Wilson, review of Bohin Manor.

ONLINE

Book Reporter,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (February 8, 2008), Robert Finn, review of Sakharov.

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