Sally Laird: A TRIBUTE

©Mark Le Fanu, 02.08. 2010

The translator and Prospect contributor Sally Laird (2.5.1956 - 15.7.2010) died of cancer in Aarhus aged 54. She had been living in Denmark for many years, where her husband Mark Le Fanu (the author of this tribute) held a post at the European Film College. Two of her recent articles treated of her adopted country: the first, in July 2003, an account of the Danish hospital system, written with an insider’s knowledge (over the years recurring bouts of erysipelas had made her a frequent patient); the second, in August 2008, a delightfully nuanced essay on why the Danes have continuously come top of the charts as the world’s happiest nation - a somewhat surprising finding on the face of it, in view of their gloomy reputation. Sally was a beautiful writer, and both articles display her customary kindliness and wisdom; she had little time for sociological platitudes. What she appreciated about the Danes was their ceremoniousness, their civilized restraint, and, crucially in the happiness stakes, their wry and witty refusal to expect too much out of life.

A gifted musician, Sally spoke and read a number of languages. Her main expertise was in Russian, which she studied at Oxford following an excellent grounding in the subject at Camden School for Girls. In those pre-glasnost days (and possibly still today) Oxford students were sent off in their third year to Voronezh, a vast and undistinguished city some 300 miles south of Moscow, in order to perfect their language skills and generally be kept out of harm’s way. Twenty-one years later, long after the Soviet epoch was over, Sally revisited this melancholy metropolis, home of the Soviet writer Platonov, along with a number of her contemporaries on the course, in order to ascertain whether and how much the place had changed. An engaging and somewhat Rip van Winkle-ish account of the trip’s pleasures can be found in the June 2000 issue of Prospect—one of her best articles, written (it seems to me) with a truly Chekhovian wistfulness.

Sally belonged, through temperament and family background, to a leftist political position that never had any time for communism or its illusions. In this sense, she was a pure-bred liberal, for whom the rights and freedoms of the individual were always the overriding moral imperative. This humanist predilection took her, during the 1980s, to work at Amnesty International, and then to the journal Index on Censorship were in due course (during a somewhat bumpy ride) she became an editor. Meanwhile, The Observer, under the benign literary editorship of Michael Ratcliffe, offered her opportunities for reviewing the torrent of books about Russia that was such a feature of the late eighties and early nineties.

In the meantime, Sally had become an excellent literary translator. Two emerging writers, in particular, Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, came to appreciate her deep knowledge of the language and ear for nuance. I myself have always felt—but then I am biased, I suppose—that her book about contemporary Russian writing, Voices of Russian Literature, brought out by Oxford University Press in 1999, was tremendously under-appreciated at the time, mistakenly marketed by the press as a specialized academic study rather than what it really was and is: a beautiful introduction for the general reader to the fascinating complexity of the epoch.

Sally kept up her contacts with Russia during her Danish years: her on-campus house in Ebeltoft was a magnet for writers and film-makers who appreciated its splendid isolation, and the almost monastic concentration of the students, in the midst of the beautiful Danish countryside. All this testifies to her rare gift for friendship. Sally had a fizzling personality and a keen and satirical take on the world. Many people relied on her for all sorts of reasons; she radiated the art of life, and I know will be much missed.


Hide behind a fir tree
stubbly cheek to bark
out of pounce
as the devil's scuttles past
But no! The gluey resin's
stuck my finger past...
Scrunch goes the knife
and the deed is done.
But who'll wed me now
with my ring-finger gone?
Grieve not
fair youth
we'll find you a bride:
teeth on the stove and
titties on the hook
snot across the hedgerow
and a muscly rump
a comely cunt
a comely, soapy cunt.

Igor Pomerantsev translated by Sally Laird


Further contributions from Sally Laird/Igor Pomerantsev on Zeitzug:

Out of step, Index on Censorship
Goodbye Linda, Poems
Raw meat: we've had enough, Index on Censorship
Voices of Russian Literature, Oxford University Press


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