LETTER FROM DANA POINT
Casa Dana, a 1920s Spanish-style dwelling surrounded by a stucco-and-wrought-iron wall, overlooks a hundred-foot cliff, a white-sand beach and the limitless Pacific. Nothing could be less evocative of Moscow’s grimy brick apartment blocks or St. Petersburg’s gray crumbling facades.
Yet the connection is an intimate one. Casa Dana has long been the home of Ardis Publishers. Prior to glasnost, the preeminent publisher of modern Russian literature was based not in Leningrad or Moscow, but here, in suburban America. Ardis was the largest publishing house anywhere devoted exclusively to Russian literature.
The competition was admittedly limited: Soviet publishers were hamstrung in what they could print; they weren’t publishing much that was new, let alone groundbreaking. The emigre YMCA press in Paris (which published Solzhenitsyn, among others) and Possev in Germany had a religious or political bent, a bias that often alienated younger writers. Samizdat was one alternative: haphazard, handwritten or mimeographed, and highly perishable.
Then there was Ardis. With its related venture, the innovative Russian Literature Triquarterly, Ardis brought Western readers to Russian writers. Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Klebnikov, Mikahil Bulgakov, even Anna Akhmatova were relatively little known in the era before Ardis set up shop; their works were suppressed, their names and reputations were inevitably jumbled with a plethora of lesser, officially approved writers. Ardis provided quality translations.
Originally founded in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ardis moved to Dana Point, the land of lush palm trees, oleander, birds of paradise and ubiquitous jasmine--at the end of El Camino Capistrano--in 1994, and its acquisition in April by New York’s Overlook Press provides a literary Cold War coda. Overlook hopes to reissue a number of out-of-print Ardis titles, and perhaps add new ones to address the emerging sensibility of 21st century Russia. Whatever the future, the change of ownership marks the end of an era for the publishing venture that, according to the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, had an impact on Russian literature second only to the advent of the printing press.
Ardis’ story has been inextricably bound up with the energy and enthusiasm of its founders. Carl Proffer, then a 32-year-old professor at the University of Michigan, a specialist in the works of Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov, and his 26-year-old wife, Ellendea, an assistant professor in Russian and a Mikhail Bulgakov scholar, began the venture almost as a lark.
The Proffers had visited Russia in 1969 on a Fulbright fellowship, with a letter of introduction to Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet Osip. After that enviable entree, the Proffers hobnobbed with the Russian intelligentsia. When they received a rare, pre-revolution edition of Mandelstam’s early collection, “Stone"--one of only 50 left, according to collectors--they had their first book. When Elena Sergeevna Bulgakova gave them an unpublished 1935 version of Bulgakov’s “Zoya’s Apartment,” they had their second.
The Proffers launched Ardis and the journal Russian Literature Triquarterly in 1971 with $3,000 borrowed from Carl’s bewildered parents. Ardis’ first office was the bedroom of their cramped Ann Arbor townhouse. Not supported by academic or government subsidies, they quickly piled up a sizable debt and a stack of news clippings. International fame came within a year.
The Proffers, friends of Brodsky since 1969, were visiting Leningrad in 1972 when the authorities ordered the 32-year-old poet out of the USSR. Carl offered Brodsky a poet-in-residence position at the University of Michigan. Brodsky had never taught a class in his life; his poetry was largely unknown, and his English was garbled and virtually incomprehensible. Proffer pulled it off.
By 1976, Ardis had achieved a measure of success, enough to relocate the Proffers to the erstwhile Huron Hills Country Club, a rambling, ramshackle, 24-room residence, also from the 1920s, which in the winter was whimsically reminiscent of a dacha. The cream-colored living room with its large picture windows, a former ballroom, was the scene of all-night Ardis mailings where translators, friends and graduate students stuffed envelopes on the beige carpet, paid only with pizza and Coca-Cola.
The basement, however, was the heart of the Ardis operation, heralded by a memorable poster, “Russian Literature Is Better Than Sex,” and dominated by a Cyrillic cold-type composing machine. Outspoken, savvy Ellendea was the perfect foil for the tall, genial, soft-spoken Carl, a former basketball player. She is Irish American; he was a son of the American prairies. Their motive was not ethnicity but an exuberant love of Russian literature.
Ellendea’s keen intelligence and keener tongue have not diminished with the passage of a quarter-century. Her conversation is peppered with gossip, anecdotes and snippets of Ardis history. In one moment she recalls smuggling the Hite Report, Bibles and issues of Cosmopolitan to the 80-year-old Madame Mandelstam, at the widow’s request; in another, how she and Carl competed with each other to read the advance galleys of Nabokov’s “Ada,” forwarded from Playboy magazine, via the diplomatic pouch, to the hotel they were staying at in Leningrad.
While in the Soviet Union, the Proffers were subjected to surveillance, body searches and press attacks. Their Russian friends were interrogated. Carl was finally banned from the USSR in 1979; Ellendea in 1980. Carl never returned; he died of cancer in 1984, at 46. Brodsky said Carl Proffer “was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.”
Insiders questioned whether Ellendea, a devastated widow with four children, would be able to carry on; the business acumen, after all, had been Carl’s. Within a few years, however, Ellendea received a stunning vote of confidence: She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, Ardis’ first external funding. A few months later, she made a triumphant return to Russia and the Moscow Book Fair. The Soviet government again tried to deny her a visa until other publishers at the fair threatened to boycott.
She remarried and moved to Dana Point. During the glasnost years, Ardis emphasized Russian literature in translation. Ardis’ last book in Russian was Brodsky’s final collection of poems, “Landscape With Flood.” Glasnost changed Ardis, but some claim Ardis had a role in triggering glasnost, by forcing the hand of the Soviet literary powers, who were put in the humiliating position of watching a couple of eager Yanks shape and preserve its literary heritage.
Some also claim that Ardis, directly or indirectly, established the relative reputations of prominent Russian writers for Western readers. It is hard to recall how few and far between even unreliable translations were in the early 1970s; Western publishers simply didn’t think such translations were commercially viable. Moreover, scholars and the public knew only the portion of Russian literature that Soviet officials chose to dole out, and Ardis served as a sorting table for determining the relative importance of various names. In many instances, Ardis may have created the Western audience that mainstream publishers were certain did not exist.
The scale of the Ardis endeavor demonstrated the density and richness of Russian culture in the last century. Publishing 40 to 50 titles a year, it took on tasks that were cumbersome and unprofitable: Ardis was first to publish the five-volume complete letters of Dostoevsky; it republished Nabokov’s early Russian novels, long out of print, then published the first Russian translations of his English novels. How much Ardis was ahead of a wave, and how much it created the wave, will be a subject for future scholars.
Meanwhile, Ellendea is casting her lot in a different direction. Her new publishing venture, Casa Dana, will focus on books about the West Coast: “for my culture about my culture,” she says. And as for Russian publishing: “Now everyone has everything to read, and they read trash. Just like us. Real national culture included writers until recently. I’m not sure they’re going to withstand the onslaught of TV and movies. Like us. But there are signs of high culture returning. It’s still too early to say.... My conviction is that it is a great and rich culture, a deep culture, and it will come back again.”
As we walk along Dana Point’s Cliff Walk, to the high pergola that overlooks the Pacific, the height and the ocean breeze provide a sun-bleached counterpoint to the day, 30 years ago, when the Proffers conferred with Brodsky on the windy roof of Leningrad’s grim Peter and Paul Fortress, famous as a prison for Russian writers (Dostoevsky and Gorky among them). That Leningrad is far away, in time, distance and spirit. Leningrad has already entered the world of myth; the Pacific Coast lives in another.
We are within a few miles of the legendary old mission of San Juan Capistrano, where the swallows return, miraculously, on St. Joseph’s Day every spring. Perhaps, in light of Ellendea’s cautious hopes and the proximity of Ardis for nearly a decade, it might not be too frivolous to construe it as a very un-Russian omen of regeneration, a harbinger of better times to come, always bearing in mind that optimism comes perhaps too breezily here, on the other side of the world.