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Letter From Dana Point

June 23, 2002|CYNTHIA HAVEN | Cynthia Haven writes for a number of publications, including The Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News. A somewhat different version of her essay appeared in the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

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.

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