Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).

The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.

After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened. Oleg the translator died.

Ray Garraty, via private email. 

I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask.  But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.

I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.  Not even close.  I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite.  It is not at all the same thing.  Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.

That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this.  Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)

Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will  never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him.  In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers.  Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you.  That is an experience I am well familiar with.  Requires no translation.

The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction.  (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.)  He imagined something better.  Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own.  And for a heist, you need a string.

His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked his chum on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture.  I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.

A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats.  They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try.  Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit.  It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain.  You see the difference?  I bet Jimmy Harrington would.

Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced.  Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)

The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors.  The small print runs sold out quickly.  When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow.  But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies.  Dortmunder spoke to them too. They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.

And then Oleg died, very suddenly.  Before the task was completed.  Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could.  Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time.  And that’ll be it.  He won’t be doing any more Westlakes.  It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.

And that’s the story.  By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat.  Anywhere.  Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing.  Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there.  So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse.  Just a strange coincidence.  The world is not simple enough to understand.

When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands.  Never mind that I can’t read them.  I wanted to have them.  Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.

While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake.  To get it right.  What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?

So.  Want to see the books?  I ran some scans.  I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece.  Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.

Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.)  I could just tell you which books they are.  I’m not going to.  If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork.  If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake.  Start reading him now.

Without further ado.

Vol 3.


KIC Image 0009(1)

KIC Image 0001(3)

KIC Image 0002(3)

(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

KIC Image 0007(1)

(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

KIC Image 0009

KIC Image 0010

(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

KIC Image 0022

(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book.  I’ll have to stitch those together. )

(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)

KIC Image 0003(1)

(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes,  not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture.  Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)

KIC Image 0002(2)

KIC Image 0001(4)

KIC Image 0001(2)

(If at first you don’t succeed….)

KIC Image 0002(4)

KIC Image 0003(3)

(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

KIC Image 0006(2)

(The best-laid schemes…..)

KIC Image 0007(2)

(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)

KIC Image 0008(1)

(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

KIC Image 0009(2)

KIC Image 0011(1)

(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

KIC Image 0012(1)

(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)

Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come.  On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume.  So a three-parter.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Aw shucks, another spoiler.  Can’t seem to help myself.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

11 responses to “Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

  1. J. Goodman

    I love that kind of obsession. While not Westlake, I recently discovered a homegrown book binding pirate who creates extremely limited editions of copyrighted material, to die for.

    As a longtime Thomas Pynchon fan I occasionally scroll through the web looking for interesting tidbits. I came upon a video on Youtube that a binder/printer posted a few years ago showing a collection he had created reprinting bootleg ‘pamphlets’ of TP’s short pieces. It was amazing and sadly sold out.

    However, to my delight I was in time for his 10 copy limited printing, binding and clamshell case constructing of the complete Raw (volume one), which includes a separate volume collecting the inserts and a set of trading cards and a cd that fit into clamshell. It’s the kind of collection and package that seriously brought tears to my eyes and gave me hope that book beauty is not dead!

    Long live Oleg and projects like his, created by and for the hardcore!!

  2. Amen. However, I am perturbed to note that the magnificence of Oleg’s edition seems to have driven all else from the main page of my blog. I’m not sure why this happened. Let me try a quick fix.

    • Okay, just needed to get rid of one scan–must be an upward-limit regarding how much digital data can fit into one post before other stuff gets crowded out. Good thing I didn’t try to do all six books in one post.

      So getting back to the topic at hand, I wonder how much of this kind of thing goes on? Are there other bootleg Westlake’s out there?

      Russia is ideal for this kind of thing, since there are a lot of Westlake readers there (they can relate), there’s a long tradition from the Soviet era and before of duplicating banned western books without permission (samizdat), and there are lots of good artists looking for work. If you have the needed equipment and materials, it’s just a matter of interest.

      Ray has indicated that translations from the mainstream Russian publishers are not always what they should be (this was also often a problem with the famed Serie Noire French editions of great American crime novels).

      So at least part of Oleg’s determination to do this was founded on his belief that he could do a better job rendering Westlake’s prose into his mother tongue.

      But people aren’t going to buy some limited edition bootleg of a book they can easily buy (or download–ebooks are easy to pirate, and you can get all kinds of things under copyright on your device without paying a single kopeck.)

      Therefore, make it special–artisan covers and illustrations, good paper, and that, combined with better translations, is something people will shell out for. Not a whole lot of people, but enough to make it viable. Not enough to cut into the estate revenues in any noticeable way.

  3. Ray Garraty

    I have never seen editions like this for so called mainstream fiction. SFF community, though, are obsessed with limited editions: deluxe, illustrations, maps, signatures. So every few weeks I see a new limited edition of a fantasy novel comes up. Sometimes it’s legit, with the copyright and all, sometimes it’s strictly for a small fan club, no rights licensed.
    These Westlake editions are kinda an exception, because they are made by outsiders, not really tied to any community. What I would like to see in them are beautiful dust covers. But that would mean even higher price.

    I also wonder how the illustrations would have been different were they done in the time the novels had been written. With a very limited access to American pop culture and American reality, the illustrator would have to imagine much more. Now he at least knows how the things look.

    • It is unusual, I’d think, to have mystery novels done up this way. Westlake is not a typical mystery author, though. He has that SFF aspect to him, having started there, and periodically written novels that had a science fiction feel to them. He has a lot of fans in that community (Harlan Ellison comes to mind). So there’s a lot of crossover. But I think we’d agree it was Oleg who made this happen. He just assumed there were people out there waiting for something like this, and he was right.

      Dust jackets might be gilding the lily some. With covers this beautifully decorated, they’d get in the way. Also, they don’t tend to age well. These are books printed to last a very long time. Collector’s editions, and those usually don’t have jackets–Westlake’s had a few limited special printings here, and I never see jackets on them.

      Turbin got it mostly right. I think maybe he doesn’t know what the meatpacking district in Manhattan looks like, and these days, most New Yorkers have no idea how it used to look. It was already in a state of flux at the time the book came out, like basically all of Manhattan is now. I still love the image he came up with. His approach isn’t literal, in the main, so complete accuracy isn’t the point. And some things require no translation, which is why Westlake is read all over the planet (in translation.)

      There are, as I indicated, a lot of footnotes in these editions, that were not part of the original text (though Westlake does employ them sometimes, usually in a more or less ironic fashion). Even with the internet, there’s a lot to explain, and of course you have to assume that many people who have these books don’t have much English, or they’d just get English language editions. A big part of the demand would come from people fed up with lousy translations, and nobody cares about that if they can just read the book in its original form.

      Oooh, funny story–tell me if you’ve heard this one before–a French courtier in the time of Louis XIV wanted to be ambassador to Spain. He was thrilled when one day the Sun King summoned him, and told him he should learn Spanish. He hired tutors, studied intensively, and in due course reported to his sovereign that he was now fluent in the Iberian tongue.

      “Excellent,” said Louis. “Now you can read Don Quixote in the original.” And walked away.

      Top that, Trump.

      • I am a bit peeved at Mr. Turbin, regarding his rendition of Wally Knurr’s imagination. No Spaceship from Zog? No Lizard Men? No Princess Labia? (Hey, we don’t even see Princess Myrtle.)

        Love the art, but there are some serious omissions here.

        • Also, even though it’s not in the book, a picture of J.C. and Tiny in flagrante delicto would have been appreciated.

          Or hell, just her doing that little balletic gesture with her arm that humiliates Tiny into agreeing to rescue Dortmunder.

          Nobody’s perfect.

          (Except for J.C. Taylor.)

          • Ray Garraty

            Turbin is also a writer. Here are all the books he’s participated in as an illustrator:

            Some illustrations for his own book:

            Footnotes are a long Russian tradition (opposed to American tradition), as you need to provide all the background info for a reader who’s not familiar with the details of life in a foreign country.

            In this particular segment dust jackets are not a sign of prestige and exclusivety. Yet in BigLit they are.

            • Hmm–the illustrations for the early Dortmunders, in some cases, would have confused me. I don’t recognize some of these scenes at all. It is interesting that he seems to be trying to do them specific to the era they were published in, which leads to a lot of archaisms when you’re doing art for a decade you have at best fuzzy memories of, largely influenced by movies and such. Bit more like a graphic novel (or perhaps ‘Underground Comix’ as they were then called), but technically speaking, excellent work.

              My own feeling would be that people are either going to get it or not–a good writer will give you enough to pick things up from context. Anyway, we shall call this ‘The Annotated John Dortmunder’ and leave it at that.

              The original Dortmunder editions were all hardcovers with jackets. All kinds of crap gets published that way. And you already know about book club editions. 😉

  4. Wow. What an incredible project. These illustrations are wonderful.

    • It was an honor to showcase them here. Maybe I’ll do more later (once I have them).

      I kind of feel like they belong in Westlake’s personal library, upstate, and just FYI (if any extant Westlakes should read this) I’d be open to a straight-up trade. My end of the swap would be a copy of a certain film script. My people will call your people. Well, I have no people. 😉

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